Saturday, May 30, 2015

Comedy of Errors on the Westbound Train

This morning, Pope and I met Sally T. on the street in front of her Paris apartment to go on a trip together. We didn’t climb up to her tiny room, because it is on the seventh floor with no elevator (and a shared toilet in the hallway), and we had heavy luggage with us.

Since we were early, we all sat down in a boulangerie for cafe au lait and croissants. We watched several #94 buses go by, about every 5 minutes, headed for Gare Montparnasse (railway station), our destination. No problem. We had plenty of time, and there were plenty of buses. Naturally, when we finished our calorie-laden breakfast and waddled over to the bus stop, there weren't any buses. Not another bus due for 15 minutes. We sat down to wait.

A harbinger of things to come?

In France—and possibly all of Europe—the trains tend to be loooooooonnnng.  Our train location was announced only 15 minutes before departure, and we briskly headed for Track 4.

It was then that I discovered that our seats were not together. Sally was in first class. One of our two second-class tickets was in Car 6, and the other one was a half mile down the track in Car 6. Oops. I hadn’t noticed that when I bought the tickets. Pope glared at me.  How could I have been so careless? It was a really long train!
We dropped off Sally at Car 1. By the time Pope and I arrived at Car 6, time was getting short. I grabbed one of the tickets, threw my backpack (with all the lunch food) onto my seat, hauled up the suitcase, and dispatched Pope to his end of the train, saying I would bring food to him later. He gave me a withering look that could have soured milk. By then, the train was ready to leave the station.

Suddenly, Sally came running to my seat—all the way from Car 1 to Car 6!!  Just a few minutes before departure!! “Compost your ticket! Compost your ticket!” she yelled. “Where?” I replied. “In the station!”  Oops.  She grabbed my ticket, ran to the terminal, and in 47-1/2 seconds—a record worthy of Olympians--she raced back to meet me with the stamped ticket, sweating and graciously not  swearing. I had neglected to validate our tickets in the machine! Pope would have to fend for himself. There was no way to reach him; he was way down in Car 16, somewhere just north of Timbuktu. Good thing he has a knack for getting out of sticky situations.

All aboard! The train left the station.

I got out the bread and made cheese sandwiches. I started swaying my way through the cars to reach the back end of the train. Car 7. Car 8. Car 9. Car 10—and I was brought up short by a blank wall! No passage through. Was Pope really over there beyond this dead end, relegated to some third-class section with the chickens and sheep??? Or was he on a different train altogether? 
Fortunately Sally had loaned me an old-fashioned cell phone with a French SIM card. I texted Pope. He said (despondently, I think; or was I just reading that into his words???) that he knew about the problem; there were two engines in between our respective sections of the train. After two months of 24/7 togetherness, we were separated by the SNCF rail system.

Hmmm. I felt really, really bad that Pope was all alone with no access to brilliant conversation and, even worse, nothing to eat. Most of all, I knew his no-doubt-mounting hunger would not bode well for pleasant conversation when we arrived at 3:45 in the afternoon.

Then the conductor came by. I smiled pleasantly and handed him a train ticket. “Where is your senior ID card?” he asked in French.

Oops. I had grabbed the ticket we bought for Pope at a substantial discount because he is over 60. I am only 59 1/2. I tried to explain in my limited French that the train was broken in half, I had accidentally grabbed a senior citizen's ticket, and all the cheese was in my backpack.

I must have looked like I was about to cry. Or maybe he misinterpreted my explanation and thought I was a lunatic. At any rate, he responded like a true Frenchman: he laughed and moved on to the next passenger.


Music as the Universal Language: Song and Dance in Paris

Despite his complaints, I think Pope is having an okay time. At least on the music front. On Wednesday, we enjoyed dinner to the tunes of a lively jazz quartet, in a brasserie a few blocks from our apartment. Interestingly, they played mostly American songs; I had to request “something in French.”
And last night (Friday), I “forced” Pope to take a long ride across town on public transportation, and stay up late into the night, just so I could go to a cajun/zydeco dance in the Paris suburbs. Well, guess what? Once he got out on that dance floor, he had a blast! 
So did I. In our constant struggle to communicate, let alone connect, with the French people, the dance provided an avenue to enter their world on an equal basis. They could parler Francais better than me, but we had the upper hand on dance moves! The women wanted to dance with Pope, and I got a few invitations too.
The small crowd was enthusiastic, fun, and friendly. Half were accomplished dancers, and half were taking their first lesson that night.
The local band was very good; they really made the fiddles whine on the cajun tunes.
The Paris cajun/zydeco enthusiasts suffer from maladies similar to those of Washington, DC: an aging crowd, difficulty getting enough attendance to pay the rent and the band, and a surplus of women.
To solve the gender problem, women dance with women—in both venues. In Paris, they’ve gone a step further: they fit in a lot of line dancing (which I love and Pope avoids like the plague!).
Obviously the Parisians, with a couple dozen people at each dance, rarely can afford live bands from Louisiana. At least in DC we still get them every few months.
We had to leave before the last set; we took the Paris subway and a suburban tram, both of which closed shortly after midnight. And the band played on!
P.S. Finding a dance in France was not easy. Nothing popped up on the web, and it took some convoluted communications to dig up this small event way out in the Paris ‘burbs. Many thanks to Leslie (New York and DC), her friend Maggie in London, Claude (the Paris organizer), and Sally (our friend in Paris), all of whom played a part in the email chain that helped us find out about the dance and how to get to the tiny restaurant on a back street in Chatillon.



Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Je Suis Ici! Ὰ Gay Paris!

Those of you who speak French will know that the two phrases in the title rhyme. I have been having lots of fun practicing my limited French (with my dismally limited vocabulary and horrendous accent) with shopkeepers, restaurant proprietors, and friends of friends here in the City of Light. A fair amount of snickers and snide remarks have been directed my way.
Things have changed here--for me. It has been almost 20 years since I walked the streets of Île de la Cité, climbed the Eiffel Tower, and sighed over “The Hand of God” and “The Kiss” (by Rodin).  My annual visits dried up when my job got busy, I met Pope, and my old friends moved out of Paris. This time, I am revisiting a couple of the same old tourist haunts—Musées d’Orsay and de l’Orangerie. But mostly Pope and I are doing something different--studying the culture and different walks of life, from our base in an apartment with window boxes in up-and-coming Batignolles.
We are trying really, really hard to fit in and not stick out like "ugly Americans." We want to adopt the local culture. Pope even bought a French beret to replace his American baseball cap. Big change, huh?

Tea, anyone? Our friend Sally, who lives in Paris part-time, risked extreme embarassment by letting us go with her to Le Zimmer, a traditional grand salon from 1896 with elegant painted ceiling and lavish velvet furnishings. The salon once served writers and artists such as Jules Verne, Sarah Bernhardt, Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, Richard Strauss, Marcl Proust, and Pablo Picasso.

But that was waaaay too old-fashioned for our modern sensibilities! We wanted something new and surprising. So we moved on to another facet of the local social scene, in which we attempted to build rapport over a relaxing dinner in a Paris flat, with two full-time residents, Sally (part-time), and Pope and me, who couldn’t even speak the language, let alone know how to properly eat the white asparagus. Let the laughter ensue—even if sometimes it was directed at us!
The formal sitting
The actuality of how the evening ensued after all that champagne and wine and sauteed figs and attempts to pronounce the French "r"

The Latin Quarter? Sooooo passé--and oh, so touristy. Instead, we learned that what’s “in” are the up-and-coming hipster hangouts along Canal St. Martin (gays and marijuana) and the Belleville working-class neighborhood (“the poorer quarters where ragged people go,” where we came across a vibrant Chinatown and at least one hood brandishing a gun). There are local parks where strolling among the trees and shrubs can be a sigh of contentment, and local parks where I wouldn’t tread after 6 pm.
Canal St. Martin, lined with hipsters hanging out on the banks
Chinese section of Belleville
What's "out" are the botanical gardens that are being razed in favor of expanding the extensive sports complex where, on the day of our visit, hundreds of people were lining up for the French Open tennis tournament. 

On our tour of urban monuments, we eschewed Pompidou-style modernism and Rococo statues in favor of finding out more about Parisian-style graffiti and the mini parks where homeless people make sure the flowers are well-fertilized. Well, OK, we did make one obligatory stop at the traditional monument at Place de la Republique. But I won’t bore you with photos of THAT!

The 60-metric-tons of lock locks that are destroying the Pont des Arts (bridge over the Seine) with their weight 
"Oh come on, Amber, we have to go to at least ONE tourist trap!"

Who knew there were so many people living in houseboats along the Seine? These are not the poor and disadvantaged who cannot afford rent or a car. These are millionaires with 60- to 70-foot monstrosities, any of which look like submarines. Well, a few of them are tastefully decorated. Most have motorcycles, bicycles, and barbeque grills. One had firewood on the deck!

Entranceway to a typical Seine "mansion"

Continuing our effort to "fit in," I carefully studied the proper behavior and procedure at the local laundromat, and then went to sit in a street-side café, drinking $11 beers while people rushed to and from work. I also explored the intricacies of the postal service by trying to send gifts home to all my friends--only to find out that $26 was the minimum overseas postage for the smallest package. (So I'm sorry to tell you, my friends, we are being forced to eat your fine French caramels and truffles because they are too heavy to carry.) 
On the plus side, we learned that not all hospitals are stuffy, sterilized germ-warfare factories. In Paris, the public hospital encourages patients to get lots of fresh air and sunshine! They were enjoying their stay so much that Pope tried to get himself admitted, moaning about fatigue and a stomach ache.

Instead, should be the one admitted to the hospital, after all the stress I've endured from traveling with Pope.  He's always trying to get us in trouble. One day, he went in search of the reportedly numerous prostitutes, because he wanted to take a picture to show his friends. He found one! While he was running away from the pimp (left), I surreptiously snapped the photo. (In the end, the photo wasn't very revealing, so Pope had to make do with the nude paintings in the museum.)

What's on offer in the Bois de Boulogne (right), in broad daylight

What's on offer in the Musee de l'Orangerie, behind glass

We haven't finished with Paris yet--we haven't even expereinced the night life! However, I want to take this opportunity to thank part-time Paris resident Sally T., Pope's old friend who is serving as tour guide, mentor, and cultural services counselor, and who also knows where to find delicious melt-in-your-mouth pastries!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Water Meets Rock in Brittany

Brittany: a rocky, sea-swept landscape of villages large and small with a rich maritime culture, fortifications of impenetrable granite, and centuries of extreme weather and tides.
Fishing is a primary occupation, from lone fishing boats to the mass production of oyster farms. Cod, shrimp, lobster, oysters, scallops are usually on the dinner menu.
Tourism runs a close second, especially from late spring to early fall, drawing thousands of French, a scattering of Germans and British, and the occasional American. Hiking trails are abundant along the coasts and across the headlands; bike rentals, too.
In spring, when we visited Brittany, crowds were thinner than in summer (though still shoulder-to-shoulder at St. Malo and Mont St. Michel) and temperatures much cooler, Along the coast, the wind could blow you over!
The best part about spring: wildflowers bloomed along every pathway and in every crack in the rocks.
Despite the astounding natural beauty of the surroundings, the rocky shores combined with extreme weather have accounted for thousands of shipwrecks and tragedies at sea.
Homes of pink granite blocks are built to withstand centuries of violent winds and storms--and many of them date from the 17th to 19th centuries. (Later retrofitted with water and electricity, of course.)
The same rock, on the backs of slaves, was shaped into ramparts and towers that have protected shores from invaders and endured centuries of cannonballs and weather.
Equally important was the right to worship in the chapels and cathedrals protected by those fortifications; and the compulsion to hide behind those same walls when other religions came knocking.
The French love to hide behind their walls; or, if rock is not readily available, tall (just above eye level) yet attractive hedges. They surround almost every house, estate, field, walkway, lane.
Extreme tides, second only to those of Canada's east coast, require innovative engineering to keep maritime systems operating--supports bolted to the sides of boats to keep them upright during low tide, and long docks extending way out into deep water.
The towns close up tight early in the evening--quiet and deserted. Act fast to get into a restaurant (reservations help too; they are often full). Oysters and other seafood are on every menu--Pope enjoyed quite a few huitres. I also relied largely on fish, though I occasionally scored a salad or vegetables. At the many creperies, I enjoyed mushrooms and cream or egg and cheese wrapped in galettes (buckwheat savory crepes), and--on a delicious final note--chocolate, chestnut, or caramel dessert crepes.