A WEEK IN PARIS == March - April 2010
Note: I originally wrote the synopsis after returning, but I didn't like the flow of my prose. Other distractions kept me from re-writing it immediately. With the passage of time I hope to find greater insight from the experience.
SATURDAY March 27 /SUNDAY March 28We flew overnight to get into Europe on KLM Airlines. It re-affirmed that the Dutch are sweet people and the airline was as friendly and efficient as any we ever traveled on. They offered us the last upgrade to something called comfort class, but as I was saying yes and she was typing the information in the seats were sold from under us in a different line. Our person felt so bad she put us in the emergency exit line for no charge, seats that had more legroom than the comfort upgrade. There are places to save money when traveling overseas, but I am a believer that paying for comfort when trying to sleep on an overnight flight is money well spent. Not sleeping enough can make you groggy and ruin a couple of valuable days when you do arrive.
I felt like an old hand walking through the Amsterdam airport. It was entirely different than in 2003 when the experience was dreamlike. The layover in Amsterdam was long, but not long enough to feel comfortable riding into the city for breakfast. Instead we sat at the typical airport cafe with CNN International on the television. Larry King was interviewing SnooopDogg. The sound was turned down so we had to rely on Info Graphics to give us the highlights.
Snoop on Susan Boyle “She is a great talent”
Snoop on Tiger Woods “Everyone makes mistakes”
Snoop on Obama “He's doing a great job”
Snoop on Weed “I only smoke it in a blue moon”
I went up the counter to purchase refreshments and when I returned a new friend was sitting next to Trish at our table drinking one of those strong thimble sized cups of coffee. Now it felt like Europe, the invasion of personal space.
Arriving in Paris: Taking the train from Charles DeGaulle Airport into the center part of the city showed the part of Paris they don't romanticize in Hollywood movies. There are some pretty rundown suburbs on the way in. It reminded me of the drive into New Orleans from Sliddell. The guidebooks cautioned against the train, citing pickpockets. But I hate taking buses anywhere and a cab ride would be ridiculously expensive. Had it been my first trip to Europe I would have heeded the warnings, but I've been enough times now that I'm confident that we aren't the most obvious target anymore. On this particular train another American lady was with two high school aged girls talking at twice the accepted volume begging to be targets of someone. Through good luck it only took one train transfer to be spit out 100 meters from our intended apartment. I still wonder if the loud lady found a predator.
The apartment was in the 6th Arrondissement, on the Left Bank about a 10 minute walk from Notre Dame. The place had a full kitchen, Satellite TV, Internet Connection, and a washer/dryer that allowed us to pack lightly for no more money than a hotel room would have cost.
We arrive at the place at dinnertime so we decided to explore the general area around the 6th Looking for a grocery store. It didn't occur to us that it was Palm Sunday until we saw a flock of worshipers leaving the church with tree branches. Palm fronds must be hard to get in France. We located a little corner market and a neighborhood bakery and enjoyed quiche and baguettes for dinner. Sleeping was easy.
MONDAY MARCH 29Our first stop the next morning was Notre Dame, a ten minute walk from the apartment. I read that the Gargoyles were installed after the Hunchback of Notre Dame book was written meaning that the Disney cartoon was anachronistic. They turn out to be so high off the ground that you can't get much of a look at them unless you want to climb the tower. We decided not to (Trish is pregnant with Emmy, although we hadn't made the public announcement yet). The inside of the church warned of pickpockets, much like the guidebooks, but we got in and out unscathed. One key is never carry a wallet. I stopped doing so anyway several years ago when Kevin said his chiropractor claimed it would put your back out of alignment.
We walked east across the bridge from Notre Dame to Ile Saint Louis, a small river island known for ice cream. We walked down the center street and there were easily 8 ice cream stands within 2 blocks.
Crossing over into the Left Bank we walked along the river heading toward the Louve. The area on both sides of the river house book sellers, and there are plenty of them, although not all of them were open on Monday. It was a shame to be such a bibliophile and not be able to enjoy the selection. A few of the vendors had art work. One guy had a picture of portly Jim Morrison with the caption “Last known of picture of Jim Morrison before his death.”
Morrison who fashioned himself a poet traveled to Paris as the right of passage of any serious American writer. The tradition began with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald etc. in the 1920s. They only reason they chose Paris is that it was a very cheap place to live after the war. Now Paris one of the most expensive places to live on earth, but the tradition isn't very easily broken. In our lifetime the poor young artists flocked to Prague after the Iron Curtain fell. The rich kids travel to Pairs.
When people praise the French healthcare system they do not talk about how this once inexpensive place has become one of the most expensive on the planet. I can buy Perrier water cheaper at Publix in Orlando than at the super market in Paris. It's obvious that French politicians are afraid to tax wine and beer though. Or maybe they figure that people are less likely to revolt with a steady buzz from cheap wine. At the supermarket I bought a 750ml bottle of Kronenberg Beer for 90 cents (Euro). The same size bottle of water was 1.40 (Euro).
Eating in restaurants is even crazier. The simplest meal for two is going to cost at least 30-35 Euro. A nicer meal would easily cost 80-100 Euro, and many a gourmet restaurant was charging 400-800 Euro for a meal. We ventured by the cheap cafes that Hemingway use to frequent and ordered an open face melted cheese sandwich with Chicken – 12 Euro.
The writer's of guidebooks are uniformly Left of center and it's entertaining the way they reconcile the great palaces and museums that are a spoil of war and imperialism with their love of European passivity. Not once does an author note that without the European blood lust of the past, few would much care to visit these places today. Rick Steves, the best of all European travel writers, seems painfully aware of this when he suggests in “Europe Through the Backdoor” that people should venture in the quaint villages to see how the locals really live. That idea allows progressive writers the idea that they are catering to open-minded multiculturalists when the average traveler would rather see the castle.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the Louve, and much too late to make the cost of admission worth it. And the line was wayyyyyyyyy too long? Steves gave us a good tip when he suggested the Museum Pass. It allows you into over 30 museums and the best feature is getting through the side door of busy museums. The pass saved multiple hours at the Louve and the D'Orsay.
We sat a while in the gardens around the Louve and eventually got the umbrella out for the first of the rain that we would see every day. The temperature was in the 60s on Monday and that was as warm as it ever got, falling into the 30s on some nights. Continuing West from the Louve we came to the Corcorde, a square with an Egyptian obelisk and roundabout traffic. There is a little fountain pond that we sat by before heading toward the Arc de Triomphe. It's not a bad walk although thousands of years of civilization still have not resulted in the paving of the first half of the path. On both sides of the road were little snack stands selling fresh crapes. Trish tried applesauce and I had fromage. It was a nice change of pace snack.
After the crepes the homogeneous global economy took over with McDonalds, Virgin Megastore, Hagen Daas, Gap etc. littering the street up and down. The sidewalks were nice and wide which was unusual for the city and The Aviators Club Casino was so unobtrusive that I didn't even notice when I passed it.
To get to the Arc you have to do so underground, but we had to walk to the other side of the arc to find the pathway down. Part of the arc was going through a rehab and it was our luck that a little military ceremony was taking place and the entire French Army showed up, pictured here.
Trish had enough walking by that time and we took the Metro back to the place. To our surprise the train elevated before crossing the river by the Eiffel Tower and stayed above ground for several stops before submerging into the 7th Arrondissement. The only negative to this way home is that our normal stop wasn't functioning on this line and we had to find an alternative in the dark.
For dinner we ventured to the American Breakfast, a diner joint opened by an American in 2004. At 9pm on a Monday night there was a line out the door with mostly French college kids waiting to get in for a stack of pancakes or a burger. The burger was much praised online, but it was pretty standard, no better than Orlando Ale House at three times the price. It was a fun place though, and our American waitress mistook us for French with our black garb and laughed when we spoke English back. That's the way it usually went. The French made us for Americans from 20 feet, but fellow Americans thought we were European. I did fool a German once, struggling with French and asking if I could speak English.
Tuesday March 30We had every intention of seeing the D'Orsay, but it was nearly noon when our Orlando-time bodies awoke and the line at the museum was 2 hours long. That's when we sought out the Museum Pass and planned to do everything on Wednesday and Thursday. We strolled the city again on Tuesday and wound up back at the Concorde.I made the mistake of looking at the Metro Map, and a kid spotted me and asked if I spoke English. I nodded and he produced a postcard with a story about how he was a refugee from Bosnia in Paris for the last two months and his sister has leukemia. Could I spare some change? This is something I rarely do, but he just looked too young to want booze and he didn't look like an addict so I gave him some change and then laughed at how I deserved to be taken by staring at a tourist map. About 10 minutes later I saw the same kid eating a bag of potato chips and as we walked further away I felt that I should have given him more money as he had obviously just wanted some food. Later I would read his note is typical of syndicates that hire kids to do begging.Raining again as we sought the Presidential Palace that revealed itself to be right on the pathway behind the crepe stands from the day before. We had to come at it from the back in order to realize where we were. Security was pretty tight and it seemed that Sarkozy must have been at home, although Drudge would reveal that night he was in Washington handshaking Obama. Trish told me of the rumors of Carla Bruni stepping out on the President.Next, we made our way up to the Sacre-Coeur, a 19th century cathedral on the tallest hill in Paris. When we were looking for an apartment, many options were available in the area, but Trish had been to Paris once before and knew the area well enough to steer clear. The litter everywhere in Paris is a bit disappointing. I certainly don't want to hear the French complain about global warming when they can't even pick up their trash. But up in the 16th it looks as bad as Boubon Street in New Orleans or the Red Light District in Amsterdam. The Sacre-Coeur itself is a great location to see the entire city. The only thing missing is the Eiffel Tower that is blocked by buildings in that direction. It took us a while to make the walk up the stairs though, because a strong rain came and pushed us to a cafe across the street. We ate and drank and watched the tour crowds bump umbrellas for 45 minutes before we tried it ourselves.The Sacre-Coeur was the first place where we saw the West Africans, who provide the same nuisance that Bangladeshis do in Rome. They have a dozen scams to get your money and the preferred one is a friendship band they tie to your hand and then ask for payment. We steered clear but they caught quite a few in their traps.After some rest back at the apartment we bought our museum tickets on the Champ Elysees and Trish then sought Ice Cream despite the cold weather. It did bring a heated seating area.
Wednesday March 31Back in 2005, we saw two General Strikes in Italy, with old Soviet flags waving and 1930s type speakers blaring. I half expected Mussolini to show up. The only strike we saw this time was on Wednesday morning. This strike was medical workers complaining about the low wages. I read an article before I left about how French Doctors are unhappy with the money and they argue that it's not a career for upwardly mobile people anymore. And that's kind of the problem with Europe in general. They try to split the pie in so many pieces that no one gets what they earn any longer. The last thing you want in a country is a feeling among your brightest children that medicine is no longer worth the pursuit. How long until we feel the same here?The D'Orsay was a great a museum to see. It was packed full of people and great impressionist and post impressionist works. Renoir, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezzane were all thoroughly represented. The Museum Pass allowed us to circumvent the two hour line for a 10 minute one. The downside is that I wasn't able to obtain an audio guide, a favorite accoutrement of mine. Later after we left the museum we realized that we never saw Whistler's Mother. I don't think we missed any rooms. I wonder if it is on loan somewhere.In the afternoon we crossed the bridge to the Louve and gladly bypassed that line as well. Here they had an audio guide, but they were all sold out. On the bottom floor is a sort of reconstructed medieval castle. The first major work we found was the Venus de Milo which was fun to see in person although nowhere near as impressive as Michaelangelo's David. The story goes that it was found on a Greek Island in the 1800s and bought cheaply by a French Ambassador who sent it back to the home country. Now it's priceless, someday to be sold by the French government for more social programs.The Mona Lisa was an experience all to itself. The painting is behind glass with a stanchion around it and then ten feet or so back another wooden barrier making a semi-circle. People were lined up to that barrier 5 deep and holding their cameras above their heads to snap photos. The effect made it seem like a Press Conference. If you were too short to see the painting above the crowd you would have thought that some French movie star was walking down the red carpet or some French President was announcing his resignation. I couldn't figure out why they all wanted their own photos. The glass made a flash picture useless and you can find the image in a thousand places on the net. The painting looked exactly as it was supposed to but the barriers kept you so far away that it could have been a copy from a color printer.Although I had wanted to see the Louve for most of my life we didn't spend more than 2 or 3 hours there. Like the Uffizi in Florence, it's full of old Medieval and Renaissance works that will quickly feel redundant if you stare too long. One thing nice about impressionist art is that each artist has their own look. The older stuff all seems to be a copy of other older stuff. Another thing getting us on our way was the immense crowd. But I probably would have spent twice as long at each place with just a simple audio tour. I wanted more history and the significance weaved into the experience.On the way back from the museum we walked the streets of St. Germain near the apartment and we came across the Supermarket that was closed on Sunday and Monday. The store sold Lays potato chips and Special K cereal like home, although this small store had a cheese selection bigger than any specialty market I've seen in America. I chose a good looking inexpensive bleu cheese that went great with Baguettes. The nearby bakery provided quiche and we had a better dinner than anywhere in the city thus far.
THURSDAY April 1Versailles. Palace to kings and the place where the ill-conceived treaty was signed that many believe led to World War II. It's an easy train ride from the city center and it took about 30 minutes. The suburbs on the way to the palace were nicer than the area from the airport, although the living quarters still looked pretty tight.The palace is quite striking from the outside, gilded at every possible location and expansive. The inside of the palace was much like the Doge's palace in Venice so I felt that I had been there before. Squeezing through some of the smaller rooms was difficult especially when a private tour guide would constipate a walkway to tell a punch line or two. The Hall of Mirrors is the real highlight although I had seen enough pictures to have felt that I had been there before.The landscaped grounds are just as impressive especially in their size. Even standing on the hill they looked like they went on for eternity. The gardens themselves probably look more lush in the summer but the fountains and statues and staircases were everywhere to make up for it. Again the Museum pass made it much easier to enter the grounds.After getting back to the city we saw Center Pompidou, the modern art museum. This was a chance for Tricia to see her favorite, Picasso, since the actual Picasso Museum in Paris is in the midst of a rehab that will keep it closed for several years. The museum building is as unique as anything inside the building. It also gives a pretty decent view of the city when you ride to the top. Like much of modern art, there were some striking pieces, some silly pieces, and many that were meant for shock value.Paris is full of cinemas. I read that Paris has more cinemas than any other city in the world and I can believe it. In the 6th near the apartment movies screens were up and down rue St. Germaine and the Latin Quarter. Many of the screens show American movies in English. The biggest shame is that French thrillers are one my favorite genres and yet you can't find a screen with English subtitles anywhere. It's an incentive to learn French and return some day. Due to Herzog's strong European following, Bad Lieutenant was playing all over the city and reviewed in the current Cahiers du Cinema magazine.That night we finally saw the Eiffel Tower. You can buy advance tickets online to go up in the tower but we waited too late and the line outside was two hours+ according to the experts so we skipped the climb and enjoyed it from the park. We found another market and got a snack and watched the sun go down and the lights go up.
FRIDAY April 2This was the day that we would have gone to Normandy to see the museum and landing beaches, but we instead decided to use the last day to soak up the city. We bought Abby a few dresses and ate at Les Deux Magots, one the Hemingway haunts.We also saw the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore that is right across the river from Notre Dame. It's an English language bookstore opened in the 1950s by an American who studied in Paris. The shop is now run by his daughter. There was a good selection of books, but I hadn't been reading as much as on earlier trips and I still had plenty of material. Like everything else in the city, the prices were steep. The atmosphere reminded me of the French quarter used book stores in New Orleans. The political books dealing with America were anti-American, which seems counter intuitive to why someone would come into an American book store in the first place. The political philosophy books were socialist. No Bill Buckley, no Thomas Sowell, no Milton Friedman. Finding a book by Noam Chomsky wouldn't have been an effort though. Outside of the shop was a short biographical sketch of the founder explaining how Dostoevsky wrote his life story before he was born, The Idiot. It was quite a charming little piece and it made me wish I had met the man.
SATURDAY April 3Friday night in Paris so close to the colleges was not a recipe for good sleep. Add that to my cellphone ringing twice and I was asleep at 11pm, awake by midnight and never to sleep again. Benjamin the apartment owner met us at 5am. He was a gentleman during the entire trip even printing out our boarding passes for the plane. I had luckily collected euro coins during the trip for the ticket machine on the way back to the airport, because the ticket office wasn't manned at 5:15am. We made it to the airport in time to get through inspection and make the plane. The Europeans let you keep your shoes on which is a nice thing. I'm convinced that American airport security has little to do with our safety and lot to do with political CYA.The long layover Amsterdam afforded us a short trip to the city Center where we ate at the Cafe Luxembourg, a place we visited in July of 2003. The weather was actually a bit warmer this time. The city was pretty quiet at 11am.The trip back to the states is the worst part of every European trip for me. It takes longer than the trip over and it's in full daylight making sleep very difficult. Like usual, it was full of kids on their way to Disney World. So what began as a normal flight generally morphs into kids running up and down the aisles. The good thing is that the ear plugs and the eye mask helped me sleep a little to make up for the lost night. I also finished reading a Travis McGee book on the flight.Security coming through Orlando just wouldn't quit. First was customs and only one line for U.S. Citizens. Then we took our bags to another area where they would have riffled through them had we bought any duty-free items. I'm so glad we didn't have time to buy any. After that we went through a line where we once again had to take off our shoes and send our liquids through a conveyor xray. I asked the lady why we had to do this all over again since we had already done so in Amsterdam. She said that we were not sterile entering a sterile environment. I should have scheduled surgery.
PARTING THOUGHTSWe didn't have any experiences with rude Parisians. Now it might have helped that we skipped the high end restaurants, but people were very friendly and everyone except one bakery clerk spoke English. I didn't get any hint of anti-Americanism or superior attitudes. It felt like Paris was a great city for Americans. I was expecting the worst what with their opposition to Iraq. But maybe since the French didn't send any troops to Iraq they weren't really invested in the war the way the English were. Their opposition was theoretical whereas the English are now angry for their involvement. What's one fewer Middle Eastern dictator to them?The most disappointing thing about the trip is that I've seen enough of Europe now that it feels repetitive in places. I've seen so many castles, palaces, and ancient art that I am no longer overwhelmed by the experience and instead feel the touristy element more. To see new unique things like the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower is still great, but the 14th Century painting looks the same in Florence or Paris. When we make it back to France I am looking forward to Normandy and wine country and the French Riviera. I look forward to more of those subdued experiencesThe French are still a great people, but burdened by a government that no longer seeks their greatness. I can only imagine how hard it is for Benjamin and his brother to try and operate a business renting out property. It would be a lot harder than trying to do the same thing in America. The current French system couldn't build a city like Paris, but they do inhabit the one created for them quite well. I can see how Americans with money come to live there and have a hard time leaving. People without money should just wave as they pass by.
I hope to bring the girls back to Paris when they are old enough to enjoy it. I liked it more than I had expected.