Sunday, April 27, 2014

Back in Paris

It was just after 6 o’clock in the morning and the airport’s arrival hall was crowded as always. Passing through passport control and customs was a breeze, so much different and easier than entering the US. M is looking at me with expecting eyes, weary and bloodshot from no sleep during the overnight flight. She has never been a good sleeper on airplanes. I tried to sleep, but slept came only in fits and starts, in between watching the movie Thor, reading My Grape Escape by Laura Bradbury, and moving my sleeping legs to allow for blood flow.  

Initially, when I slipped out the airport building for a much needed cigarette, the morning was breezy, pinkish from the rising sun with only a few patches of blue sky. Partly cloudy with a 20 percent chance of rain according to the weather channel on my Blackberry. I found an ATM, slipped my card into the slot and it spitted out enough euros for the next few days. Next we headed to the train station below the airport.  Thank goodness, this time the line at the ticketing window was just 4 to 5 deep. Last time it took a half an hour or more, or so it felt on swollen feet and stiff legs, to get to the ticketing window. The laissez-faire attitude of the ticketing agent drove me nuts then. To him it is just a job. I kind of understand that, but I don’t want to understand. To me it was half an hour of my life lost, a half an hour of missing out on drinking in the sights and sounds of my favorite city. This time it went quickly. I bought two tickets on the RER train to the center of the city. The train platform was barely a minute’s walk away. It would take less than 30 minutes to the city.

We gathered our luggage, each only a travel bag large enough to fit the airline’s restriction for take-on luggage and a small backpack. This time we were traveling light. Last time our cases were too large and a real schlep to drag up and down the stairs of the metro. As Bob Dylan alleged; we were so much older then, we are so much younger (and wiser) now.

The train was already waiting at the platform and we sat ourselves down in an open booth. Five minutes later the train slowly pulled away. After one more stop under the airport and a short while of traveling underground we exited the airport into the open air. By then the swollen skies had turned grey and it was drizzling lightly. The train sped up and left the airport and its surroundings and shortly thereafter we flew passed distressed looking houses with dirty greyish walls, overgrown backyards, and graffiti against viaduct pillars. Some graffiti screamed illegible French phrases, and another, written with words entwined like lover’s arms “l'amour et la paix.” Along the way we stopped at exotic sounding stations that I allowed to roll off my mind’s tongue: Sevran-Livry, Aulnay-sous-Bois and Le Blanc-Mesnil. At Le Bourget scrapped cars were stacked two high and trash were scattered all along the railway line behind makeshift shacks that serves as homes. This is the backside of the city. This is the city that one never sees in travel brochures.

Spring has already arrived in the land of the tricolor. Shrubs with yellow blossoms, probably forsythias, and spireas with their white blossoms on weeping branches, and trees with light purple flowers were interspersed among patches of green grass and still slumbering, leafless trees to brighten the grey morning and dirty buildings. In Kentucky the winter was still in full force and we would get news from home later in the week that it snowed again while we were away. Will this year’s winter ever end?

Luxumbourg Gardens
Near La Courneuve-Aubervilliers station the scenery became decidedly more industrial. Free standing houses gave way to apartment heaven, factories and distribution warehouses. Block after block after block. At every station more and more passengers boarded the train. And then the train dipped underground again. At Gare Du Nord many passengers spilled out of the train like chickens from a coop just to be replaced by more coated and scarfed bodies, civilly packed in like sardines in a tin tube. It is from here that we will depart again in 10 days for the return journey to the airport.

Statues at the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House

At the next station, Châtalet-Les Halles, the train nearly emptied. It was only 18 months ago that we nearly got miserably lost in this monstrosity of an underground train station, the biggest in Western Europe, as we tried to find a way out of the labyrinth of underground tunnels that serve as walkways. But this time we stayed put. One more stop. We had to still sink deeper into the bowels of the city. We had to still go underneath the Seine River to get to Saint-Michel station, which is actually located directly underneath the river. After our arrival there we exited the train and maneuvered ourselves along the very narrow platform, much like London’s Underground stations, up a zillion stairs with wheeled luggage dragged behind, and exited onto the sidewalk of Quai Saint-Michel on the left bank of the Seine.

We’re back in Paris again!

I was hoping for a crevice to open in the clouds, for bright yellow morning sunshine to pour out like a waterfall over an escarpment, to welcome us back “home”, but none such luck. The only opening that took place was us opening our umbrellas. It was raining.   

Vive la Paris au printemps!

Notre-Dame, late in the afternoon, catching the last rays of the sun under dark clouds

M and I took a breather on the sidewalk. Drinking in the views. Right next to us were the Seine River, and across the river on the Ile de la Cite one could see the tall spire of Sainte Chapelle emerging from the huge Justice complex. Turning to our right the twin towers of the western facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral stood tall and majestic as it has since 1250 AD. Turning around, across the street from the train station’s exit, the Le Depart Saint-Michel restaurant and next to it the Café Saint Severin, where, on a previous occasion we enjoyed a favorite past time of people-watching and of course a few glasses of Chablis.  At the end of the square the nineteenth century Saint-Michel Fountain, the last Renaissance wall fountain built in Paris in 1860, with its red marble columns, the archangel Michael wrestling with the devil, all being overlooked by the four statues of cardinal virtues - Prudence, Power, Justice and Temperance.

We turned and walked away from the river, crossed rue Danton and then turned right onto rue Saint-André des Arts to go and find rue Jacob and our hotel.

In front of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. The place was so crowed on a Saturday afternoon a line has formed to enter the store. They were only allowing more people in when someone leaves.
We decided early in the year that it would be another travel year. The date was set for end of March-early April, because we wanted to be on the farm during spring and summer. Where to go? The bucket list is long, the cost of travel is high, my pockets are deep and my arms are short.

A wall of Rembrandts at the Musée du Louvre

China was cross off the shortlist quickly; still too cold that time of the year. Machu Pichu followed, didn’t feel right yet. Amsterdam to Vienna via Munich and Salzburg; same as China, still too cold. Spain was the next consideration, and my personal preference, and fitted the bill perfectly. This time of year Madrid and Barcelona was getting warm and down south the temperatures would be in the eighties. But, at the same time South Africa was calling because we had some unfinished business there to attend to. It was not must-do business, but it is always nice to see friends and family again. We thought of a quick stop in Gauteng to see family, a short trip to the Kruger National Park, and a swing through inland Kwazulu-Natal before heading down south to Cape Town, which would have included a circular road trip through the Karoo, especially a visit to Calvinia to do some genealogy research on my family. Probably too much to fit in a short visit.

Not only do the French know how to present pastry, but the taste is outworld-ish too.

Eventually we decided on South Africa and we were ready to buy the airline tickets on that Tuesday evening. Research has shown that Tuesdays are the best day to buy airline tickets or to buy travel packages because all the specials are usually released on Tuesdays.   When I got home from work M ask if I had time to check my email. Unbeknown to me fate must have entered the house with me.

“Which one” I asked. “Anything in particular?”
“Travelzoo” she said.
“What’s up” I asked.
“Well, I don’t want to throw a wrench in the works, but there is a great package to France.”
“Uhmm, been there recently” I said, but looked any way.

And sure there it was. The package included a plane ticket from New York to Paris, 9 days in France: Paris, Burgundy and the Paris countryside. It included a hotel in the Latin Quarter, a stay in a 14th century chateau halfway between Dijon and Beaune, and a stay in a top class 18th century chateau near Chartres with car rental and breakfast every day thrown in for a very attractive price. Too attractive to not consider such an opportunity. We decided to sleep on it.

But when opportunity knocks…and when fate comes around…I told this story before but we have this travel ritual to buy a book as the last event before leaving a country and boarding the return flight home. So far that book has always pointed us in the direction of our next destination. From London to Italy to France. And the last time we were in Charles de Gaulle Airport I bought not a travel book, but a cookbook of traditional regional French recipes. I will say no more. It is rather eerie…or elementary my dear Watson.

I was not as detailed prepared for this trip as I usually am. No timetable to catch trains at a certain hour, no pre-booking to museums, not even what we will do and where we will go every day. All we had was a list of places we would like to discover, things we would like to lay our eyes upon, but beyond that not much more. We had a roof over our heads, wheels to go from roundabout to roundabout, a GPS, backup Michelin maps and two guidebooks. We had an alacrity to explore and for the rest we glided by the soles of our shoes. What more do you want?

One of the entrances to the Louvre

After all, you’re in France. Shift down a gear. Travel slowly and eat even slower. Savor the food, breath in the wine, relish the moments, admire the scenery and above all treasure the fortuity to be able to travel.

One day we will sit in our rocking chairs on a rickety porch in thin sweaters, seeking a little sunshine to warm our skinny bones and wrinkled complexions, poor as church mice, but hopefully rich in memories. That is if we retain our senses and can actually remember what we did when we were young and willing. But in the meantime…have spirit, will travel.    

Being serenated in typical French accordion style on Edith Piaf’s Milord and La Vie En Rose while having a late night, street side dinner at L’Atlas Brasserie in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.


Anonymous said...

Ai, man! Ek geniet hierdie inskrywings oor Frankryk geweldig baie. Asof ek self daar is. Ek beny julle vir hierdie goeie geleentheid. Ek kan dink dat jy elke oombliuk geniet. Wat 'n wonderlike stad is Parys nie!

Anonymous said...

Wat n wonderlike tyd het ons nie gehad nie. Frankryk is regtig n pragtige plek, sal dit defniteif aanbeveel vir almal. My man is n fantastiese storie verteller, deur hom sal ek altyd ons ondervindinge vir ewig en altyd onthou.

BluegrassBaobab said...

BiB, ek geniet dit om dit te skryf. Bly jy geniet dit.

BluegrassBaobab said...

Dankie my Skattebol. Hierdie trippie was nogal spesiaal.