Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Logbook: Paris I

Parisi1On Sunday morning, Kay and I got up and out of Aix, drove to the TGV train station, dropped off the car and were in position to board the train with plenty of time to get “Franced” as follows: A few minutes before the train was due to arrive, I heard a PA announcement that included the words “twenty minutes” which -- along with the mild groans from other passengers on the platform -- was enough for me to figure out that the train would be late. A few people made their way back to the terminal coffee shop for one more shot, but we stood our ground. A few minutes later, another PA included the words “forty minutes” and was accompanied by more groans and migration back to the cafe. Again, we stood our ground. A few minutes later, there was yet another PA that I couldn’t make anything out of, but the uproar and mass exodus from the platform made it clear something was very, very wrong. A nice lady obviously saw that I had no clue what was going on, so she explained in broken English that the train was cancelled and that we would all have to switch to the other side of the tracks, take another train down to Marseilles and board a train to Paris from there. I know this doesn’t sound so bad, but when you are one of several hundred people -- most of whom have luggage -- who have to converge on the single track-crossing overpass, climb three flights of stairs up and down then cram into the aisles and entryways of an already full train, it’s pretty ugly. Thankfully, the ride down to Marseilles was fairly brief, and our new train was waiting for us only three tracks away when we got there.

Now, I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that the train went back up through Aix on the way to Paris, so I’m not at all sure why we didn’t just wait for it there. Then again, this is France and one learns not to torture oneself with these kinds of questions. I can’t say that I’m as impressed with the TGV trains as I thought I would be -- especially considering the outrageous prices -- but what the train lacked in comfort and amenities it made up for in speed. In due course we made it to Paris’ Lyon station only a couple of hours late, grabbed a cab to our new hotel and drank some wine. I have to admit that I was pretty beat and the wine gave me all the incentive I needed to take a little nap before gearing up to get some dinner then going back to sleep, happy to be in Paris for the next phase of my France exploration.

On Monday morning we got going at a reasonable hour and decided to orient ourselves in this large, famous city by taking a walking tour of our own design. From our hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens, we walked out to the Eiffel Tower, crossed the Seine and continued out to the Av. Charles de Gaulle before turning to make our approach to the Arc de Triomphe then strolled the length of the Champs Elysees, through the Jardin to the Louvre and crossed the Pont Neuf back to the hotel. For those of you who don’t know Paris, this probably doesn’t mean much. For those of you who do, “Ugh!” is right! It was a respectable trek by any standard. Along the way we saw many of the sights for which Paris is famous, and while I’m not going to do a detailed recap I will make the following general observations:

1) This part of Paris is kinda like a big Disneyland. Long lines at every monument are mostly to blame. I did a quick calculation at the Eiffel Tower and concluded -- based on average number of people, hours of operation and average price -- that it is a huge, huge cash cow for the city. The Eiffel Tower alone probably supports a quarter of the socialist programs I have observed in France. The concentration of a varied international populace is another factor; I saw relatively few Parisians -- or French of any origin -- besides those who were working the rides... er, attractions... and those who were hawking souvenirs of every imaginable type, size and price point. Basically, tourist Paris is a dead zone except for tourists, and a bottle of water or a cup of coffee will cost you at least five bucks. I had little interest in “doing” the Tower or the Arc before I got there, and had no interest in doing so after I arrived.

Parisi22) Paris has a reputation -- at least in my mind -- of being a huge, unmanageable city. I really don’t find it to be that big or difficult to get around. Granted, we walked a long way, but it wasn’t more than a good day’s walk and the streets are well marked and easy to navigate. This is another aspect that makes it a bit like Disneyland; the scale just isn’t as big as it appears from a distance.

3) The very wide streets of Paris make it one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve ever wandered around. By the time you take 4-8 lanes of traffic, tree-lined medians and sidewalks with room for cafe tables before you reach the building fronts, you’ve got a very open feeling. My first impression of Paris by foot was very positive, and I have had no contradictions to that impression since. Bottom line: I like Paris, a lot!

Yesterday morning, Kay took off to do some museums and shopping while I did some web work and waited to hear from my niece Jennifer who was due to arrive from Chicago. A little before noon, my cell phone rang and Jennifer explained that she was at the hotel I had booked for her after landing at DeGaulle airport, working her way through the metro system -- including a typical twenty minute workers’ strike -- and navigating the rest of the way on foot. Way to go Jennifer! After she had time for a shower and a brief nap, we met for lunch and had a great time comparing notes and catching up. Later in the day, we all met for dinner and called it an early evening. This morning, Jennifer wanted to “immerse” herself in Paris on her own for a while and Kay wanted to do some more museums, so we all went our separate ways. As for me, I took the Metro -- also very easy -- to the North train station to arrange my travel to London next week. I stood in line for a long time amid folks who were in the process of missing their train because there were too few ticket agents. As their departure time approached, their level of anxiety and antagonism increased. At one point I thought a riot might erupt, but it turns out they were probably only blowing off steam, fully aware that they were simply being “Franced.” I happily spent the rest of they day wandering around, having coffee and doing chores. In a little while, the three of us will reconvene, compare notes for the day and make our plan of attack for tomorrow. So far, Paris is much better than I expected, and I am delighted to have company to share it with on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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