For the Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods,
In whose hand are the depths of the earth,
The peaks of the mountains are His also.
The sea is His, for it was He who made it,
And His hands formed the dry land.
I suppose you voracious readers are all desperate to hear about my escapades in Paris. And I suppose you want to see some of the 150 pictures I took, too. Well: it all began at 2:30 the morning of the 16th, when the boys next door, talking loudly as usual, awoke me. Two and a half drowsy hours later I alighted clumsily from my top-bunk bed, performed my morning ablutions quickly and sleepily, and caught the almost-empty 5:35 bus to Sloane Square. Trains come by only every 8 – 12 minutes at that time of day, but to my great surprise and pleasure one appeared moments after I stepped onto the platform. That happened again at Westminster, where I changed for the Jubilee Line, so that I arrived at Waterloo International quite early for my 7:10 train.
I obtained my ticket easily, at a self-service machine that asked for a series of letters and for the purchasing credit card. How strange and unfamiliar the tickets looked compared to airline tickets! How stiff and colorful their paper, how different the information, how foreign the idea of passing through the gates by feeding the ticket into a machine. I had no baggage to check, as one night required only my camera and a small bag I fashioned from two straps and the removable top pocket of my backpacking backpack. I stuffed that bag full the night of the 15th: PJ pants, T-shirt, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, socks, apple, banana, large bag of raisins and assorted unidentified mixed fruit, tightly folded printouts of emailed advice from my Uncle Gerard, who loves Paris. The bag felt alarmingly heavy for its size. Once through the gates and with my passport inspected briefly by a bored official, I found a seat.
I waited. I blew my nose and obtained a large wad of toilet paper from the Lady’s for future nose-blowing. I read Emotionally Weird, which Suzanne loaned me. I waited. The doors remained closed, blocked with a fat blue velvet rope. I checked the time and place: yep, 7:10 Eurostar from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord. I read my book, blew my nose, and waited some more.
At 6:55 we boarded. My ticket specified a seat for me near the back of the train, at a window seat, facing the wrong dirction. The whole trip to Paris I remember as a video rewinding or an unfurling memory, flashing by too quickly and too backwards to catch details. Initially the seating queased my stomach, but I told it to settle down and stop complaining. As a peace offering I nibbled some unknown dried fruit I brought along. At Ashford a man came and sat next to me so I had to uncurl from my cozy position to sit like an adult. I rested my feet on the flip-down footrest but found it amazingly uncomfortable. The seats felt like big airline seats, designed for a wrong-sized person who likes wooden cane-backed chairs and no cushions. I slept. I read. I watched cows and sheep and fields and greenery along the tracks flash by. When we passed through the Chunnel I suffered quietly through the torture of congestion and changing air-pressure. Sometimes a man with a fantastically heavy Inspector Clouseau-esque accent spoke to us in English and French, but I couldn’t distinguish which language was which. Soon I started looking forward to the ridiculous attempts at communication and the challenge of interpreting his words. I failed most of the time.
We arrived at Gare du Nord through a sleazy, vandalized part of town. Crumbling tenements and gaudy facades made up my first view of Paris; I liked it from the start. Off the train I immediately noticed differences. Ads meant nothing to me, which refreshed me. The big lettering on signs said Sortie rather than Way Out. People did not stand on the right in a neat line on the escalators. Half an hour of confused wandering led me downstairs to the Métro/RER station, where I stood in line to purchase a ticket. The man behind me asked me something in French, but I told him I spoke only English. He asked if we were in the line to get Métro tickets. I replied that I hoped so. Sure enough, when my turn came I obtained a €1.40 ticket and felt happy that it didn’t cost $2.80 as it would have in pounds. Following signs and Uncle Gerard’s excellent instructions I took a RER train to the correct station, where I spend an hour and a half waiting for Vangie.
Twice in that time men approached me. They read my shirt, a Got Marriage? one I created myself, as an ad for an American dating agency. I told them I couldn’t help them in their search for American wives. When I escaped from one group of six or seven Frenchmen all with this misconception, I had to laugh. Later, still waiting, a man asked me the time and I showed him my watch. So four times in my first hours in Paris strange men talked to me, which is more than my whole time in London. After a while Vangie found me. We went to an ATM and I paid her €30, not the €17 I had expected, because the rate had been per person not per room. The FIAP, more a living complex for tourists than a hostel, provided us with a large four-bed, two-sink, two-shower room. I happily left my heavy red bag behind, taking my camera for our outing. We ate a tolerable lunch at the FIAP’s dining facilities. I felt disappointed at my first French food, but held out hope for later.
Our brief tour of Paris began when we got off the Métro at Cité. Their public transportation travels both above and below ground, so I got to begin seeing Paris from there. Cité plunked us out directly across from Notre-Dame Cathedral. We joined the horde of tourists who shuffled through its venerable halls and gawked a the enormous rose windows. Escaping back out into the heat and humidity, we made our way to the island in the middle of the Siene. There we purchased gelatto cones at a place recommended to Vangie, rather than at the place my Uncle suggested (which resided just across the street). We peeked into expensive shop windows and, having finished our melty cones, went into a favorite store of Vangie’s, Kazana, where I found a good gift for my mother. The island is very small, so we crossed onto the left bank of the Siene and walked along in the sun toward the Louve. I took a picture the back side of it but we never went around to see the front or the famous pyramid.
We walked up the Rue de Rivoli, a street just off the Siene, to visit a restaurant called Angélina for hot chocolate. I drank copious small glasses of water while Vangie savoured the thick, strong, creamy cups of famous hot chocolate, and we sat for two hours there. Nobody bothered us; they let us sit and drink and talk until the heat dissipated and we re-emerged onto the street. We talked about life and heartbreak and marriage and growing up. On that street I bought myself a small gift as well, and received a bag into which I put my gift and the one for my mother. So then I had my camera and a shopping bag.
We passed through the very French Jardin des Tuileries, with its perfectly square-cut trees, gravelly walkways, and straight view of L’Obélisque. We went and looked at that, then continued our straight shot walk onto the very famous Avenue des Champes Élysees. This carried us all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, where we made a 90° turn onto the Ave
nue Kléber. That took us to the Palais de Chaillot, where an anti-gay marriage protester shouted at a crowd and enthusiastic people held up two enormous banners (Marriage = ? + ?). The Palais afforded a fantastic view across the narrow Siene to the Eiffel Tower. A crowd leaned on the baulstrade with us and looked at the famous Tower. We watched red and yellow elevators ascend and descend. We took pictures. Vangie talked about God and organized religion and the Christian Right and I listened. Then we went back to the FIAP to freshen up. Finally at 9:00 we went to dinner at a pizza place Vangie loves, just nearby the FIAP. We split a green salad, a loaf of house bread, and a pizza. The bread alone made me want to weep at its deliciousness. Hot, fresh, crispy, perfect, and of a quality totally unobtainable in America, I think I ate 2/3 of the loaf.
After dinner we returned to the FIAP and Vangie read aloud three hilarious Dave Barry essays from a book. Then we slept. The matresses felt much softer than IES mattresses, but the pillow was long, thin, and flat. Instead of a pillow case they had folded the sheet over. I doubled the pillow up and fell asleep quite tired, but very happy. The first day.
The next day we arose, showered with shampoo for body wash, and ate FIAP chocolate croissants and applesauce. Then we walked to the Cimetière du Montparnasse and saw graves of Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre, and Sartre’s lover Simone de Beauvoir. We also saw many other graves, all with elaborate above-ground tombs. It looked like New Orleans. One, carved with a weeping woman, caught my heart particularly, as did a unique bird-statue marker. We walked the cool, shaded avenues between the dead and read names. Famille Hug… We used the W.C., which did not involve a toilet of any sort, and that alarmed me. I stole toilet paper from there for my nose, after dropping my stash in water running along the kerb. We saw French graves with Hebrew text. We read about the young man who had flown away too soon. We admired the well-tended, shining tombstones. Then we simply sat on a bench in the shade and waited until Vangie had to reclaim her luggage, call a taxi, and begin the flying-home process. We hugged good-bye and said words of blessing and well-wishing.
Alone, I caught the wrong Métro twice in a row. I ate a croissant I had smuggled from the FIAP breakfast room. I tied my coat around my red bag in an effort to reduce its ungainliness. I felt like a coatrack, with the two bags and my jacket and my gift bag, which also contained the big bag of raisins and shampoo and conditioner Vangie gave me. At Uncle Gerard’s behest I visited the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Apparently it houses the last remains of an enormous number of famous people, but I just walked around and looked at all the tombs and mausoleums the tourists ignored. Having just spent so much time at the previous cemetery, I soon had my fill of graves and betook myself, without mishap, to the Pigalle Métro station. That area occupied the whole rest of my time in France. Vangie had recommended I walk uphill from the Métro, so I did. I wound my way up flights of stairs. I saw cafés and people. I saw brightly-painted shops and a juggler. I walked up more stairs. A lost Australian tourist who thought I was Canadian because of my accent asked for directions and I (mis)directed him by accident. Eventually this all led to a large group of milling tourists at a place approximately called Montmartre.
In the shade of trees, painters painted French scenes for tourists. Creperies served crepes (I dearly wanted some but the prices were extravagant). Artists drew tourists in pencil and artists painted scenes in acrylic and watercolor. I walked around, looking at pictures and feeling the €50 left from the €60 I had withdrawn after paying Vangie for our room. I agonized and looked at prices. Some of the paintings were lovely, but too many were of the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower. I circled and looked and felt the weight of my bags dragging.
Evnetually I found the Basilique du Sacre-Cœur. Its towers look more Muslim than Christian, but its gargoyles and windows are pure French Gothic. I also saw the smaller St.-Pierre church. These happenings all churned their way at the top of an enormous tall hill from which you could catch glimpses out, out, out across a hazy, overcast, sweaty-hot Paris. Hundreds of tourists took pictures. Street artists approached and offered their sketching services in English. I looked at art galleries. I walked by many eateries offering deliciously tanalizing foods at tourist-high prices. I looked at the white-and-pollution stained church and I looked out across the city. My camera click-clicked away. I saw stores with brightly-colored fabric outside. I saw cheap clothes. I saw three policemen talking to a woman in her car. I saw tourists and natives trying to appeal to tourists. I saw many cheap brass copies of the Eiffel Tower. On my way back to the Pigalle station I saw a small pen store displaying the tinist, most lovely and delicate fountain pens ever. I went inside; the elegance and simplicity of display wowed me as much as the pen selection. The non-touristy atmosphere appealed to me, as did the uniqueness of the various pen designs. I had seen a fountain pen on our Siene walk that tempted me, but not for €35. And they seemed so touristy. Here the little gorgeous pen, just right for my camera bag/purse and fitting in my small hand, cost only €15 and at least felt removed from the tourism trade. I bought a blue one. The shopkeeper told me in halting English that fountain pens had become all the fashion among the young generation in France. They type their long correspondences and write short things with fountain pens. He said now many young people bought his merchandise, but before then the store had struggled. I am glad it has become the fashion, if only to support that store, although I cannot guess why it would suddenly become a fad. I personally have used a fountain pen for five years now, and would never go back to ballpoints.
Finally I followed the Boulevard de Clichy to the Boulevard de Rochechouart. This connected to the Boulevard de Magenta, which passed the Gare du Nord. People thronged these huge roads, construction chattered against cement, workmen and salesmen and other people flowed. I checked my map. I found the Gare du Nord. No water, though I desperately sought it. I had no cash, nobody took credit cards for a bottle of overpriced water. Finally I stood in line and checked in for my train and drank from the (free, as opposed to the 0.50€ public W.C.) restroom faucet. French officials stamped my passport as I checked in for my train, one more stamp that still cannot make up for Morocco not leaving its mark when I visited four years ago. The British official boredly swiped my passport through a reader. No alarms went off, so I sat down and waited. I read my book. I waited. I blew my nose, but less frequently because my cold kept getting better every day. I waited and watched two cute toddlers toddle. I watched a man who had lost something valuable dash around in a panic (I hope he found it). I enjoyed not carrying all those bags.
Finally we boarded. A full train this time. The French countryside flashed by, this time forwards. Vineyards and poles and houses and light shining through clouds like rays from heaven. Crops and lavender and cars. I slept. I woke. I read. We passed through the Chunnel uneventfully; there are no windows or lights and it could be a tube tunnel, not one passing under the English Channel. I changed my watch back to London time, an hour behind Paris time. I saw an English village perched on a hillside with a small river twining along the foot of the hill, the heaven-rays shining down and reflecting off the water. Idyllic. We entered London and I felt sad because Paris had been so short, so fleeting, and such a lovely city that my visit hardly scraped the surface. I wanted to see places witho
ut tourists, to see Paris and not the show put on for moneyed Americans, Japanese, English, and Australians. The architecture, the feel, the organization: it all stood out as so different from London. It simply was French, and I liked it very much. So now there is one more place I have to visit again.
No pictures. It took too long to write all this and the day is lovely, demanding my attention. Pictures will come on a rainy day.