Barb went to Paris on a short weekend a couple months back, and wouldn't stop talking about what a wonderful time she had there until we all agreed to go there with her. It's hard to say no to her, and it was even harder than usual this time, although I couldn't say why at first. I'd been to Paris years ago and it struck me then as just another big, dirty city but, because of Barb's persuasive powers, and because we weren't likely to get another chance to vacation on the continent before we leave the European Theater of Operations altogether, we packed up for a long weekend and headed out.
There are just about a thousand million trillion things to see in Paris, give or take, and we had just three nights and two days to see as many of them as we could. I think we saw seven. No, eight. Okay, we saw a whole lot more than eight, and we did it by ditching our tour group. Yes, we went on one of those package trips. When you're talking pure value for money, it's impossible to beat these, and we've tried. Well, not real hard; Barb mentioned to me the other day how much we've already spent on travel, and I had to laugh. Last time we were stationed in Europe we didn't have much money at all. We saw as much of Berlin as possible, but the one vacation we could afford was a disaster in a pup tent. After we were transfered back to the States, we spent years rolling in regret; 'We should've done that,' or, 'We should've gone there.' As a result, we promised each other never to let an opportunity to see the world pass by us again. That's why all the travel, and we're frantically trying to cram whatever we can into these last weeks. The package holiday was great for that; any money we could save on the trip was money we could spend on food and trinkets. We paid the tour guides, and they stuffed us into a bus and drove us to Paris. I hate riding a bus, but so long as I can snuggle up next to Barb, they can't build a bus uncomfortable enough for me.
But they can almost make it too early to get out of bed. We had to be at Alconbury at six in the morning, which meant we had to get out of bed around four. Ick. This maneuver took place in the middle of June, the longest days of the year, so we went to bed in broad daylight at nine the night before, and we left the house in broad daylight. I think it made us all a little loopy. The tour guides are very good at what they do, but I get the idea that their business is still new and they're working out some kinks. The big busses that would take us to Paris left from Mildenhall, which is a long ways from Alconbury, so a couple of waiting vans transfered us from Alconbury to drop us, at seven in the morning, at a roundabout next to the motorway, far from any human habitation. No bus stop, nothing special marking the pickup point, not even any pavement. We just stood there in the grass by the side of the road. Remember Cary Grant in North By North West, out in the corn fields right before the crop duster tried to chop him into cole slaw? That was us.
The drive over was uneventful. Crossing the channel takes just an hour and a half on a ferry. Back in my neck of the woods there used to be a regular ferry across Lake Superior to Michigan, but none of those ferries were anything like this. Channel ferries are the size of small islands, and in addition to several car decks that can swallow dozens of trucks, busses and cars, they have several restaurants and pubs on board. I sat in a lounge up front and sucked on a beer while the kids released their pent-up energy by tearing around like maniacs through passageways and hatches and lots of other nautical things. Every so often, the ferry would lurch against a really big wave and one of the kids would fall over as though they'd forgotten how to walk. People walking from the bar to their tables would stagger sideways and slop beer all over themselves, as if they were buying their tenth pint rather than their first. It's hard to find free entertainment this amusing.
It takes about three hours for the bus to drive from Calais to Paris; just about everybody dozed all the way. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the toilet that was on the bus; potty jokes are such a cheap laugh, aren't they? I'm grateful that somebody figured out it's a good idea to put toilets on busses that go hundreds of miles without stopping, but really, couldn't they have figured out how to make them easier to use? I think, and here's the cynic in me coming out, the designers have worked out equations that'll get us to bend into the most comical postures trying to use that tiny little toilet wedged way back into the most hard-to-get-at corner of the bus. And just to make sure we all know how silly we look, they put those huge stainless-steel mirrors on all the walls. I mean, those guys must be sickos, right?
My careful observations revealed that you can park any vehicle just about anywhere you want in the Paris metro area - in the middle of a street, on the sidewalk, in front of the garage doors that are signed 'Don't Park Here Day Or Night,' it doesn't matter. Our driver ran the bus right up the curb and onto the pavement at the front door of our hotel, and it was parked there most of the weekend. After we grabbed our bags and had a long, soapy shower, we bolted from the hotel to catch an underground train straight into the center of the city from the station that was right across the street. How's that for convenience? The ladies at the ticket window were probably the most helpful people we met in Paris, which I certainly didn't expect in a train station, the kind of place that needs plenty of helpful, smiling people to do things like sell tickets to the public but which usually hires chain smoking sociopaths who look like they haven't slept in weeks and act as though you're interrupting their nastiest lacivious thought. These ladies, though, were a joy to buy tickets from, even though they spoke just about no English at all; we communicated with each other by pointing at pictures, making hand signs, and laughing a lot. They liked to laugh. You'd have thought they looked forward to nothing more than trying to sell tickets to yet another bunch of tourists who couldn't speak a word of French. You might have even thought they loved their jobs so much that they never wanted to leave, but in fact there was a sleepless grump-butt on duty late at night. Still, I think it's worth noting that we almost never ran into the kind of snotty attitude that most visitors to France claim they always run up against. We didn't enjoy just Paris, we enjoyed the French, and I especially enjoyed the waiters at the street cafes, particularly the guy who opened Coke bottles by hooking them over his shoulder. That guy has style. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So we flashed into Paris quick as lightning on the subway, which, as you may know, is called the metro, which you must pronounce as 'le Metro' in your most outrageous Frrronch accent, and as often as possible, or at least I have to. Sean was mortified by my bourgeois behavior, but I figure it this way: Every single French person I spoke to spotted me for an American from a hundred yards off, so I might as well relish the part. Don't get me wrong; I still said 'please' and 'thank you,' - I even did it een Fronch! - but I also got in touch with my inner Clouseau at every opportunity. The subway is apparently made for this kind of behavior; I've never seen people so richly eccentric as I have on any subway anywhere, and neither has anybody else. They never blinked when any of us clowned around, because none of us could ever be as outrageous or priggish or lunatic as anything that people from the city see a thousand times a day anyway. And besides, my most composed, polite request is just clowning to them, when it comes down to it. I never felt so humble as when I asked the nine-year-old behind the counter at the deli where the toilet was. It's a simple request. I just asked, 'toilet, please?' as nicely as I could. She managed to smirk and frown at the same time. 'Pardon?' she asked. 'Twah-lay,' I repeated, making her eyes light up before she put on a polite face. 'Premier etage,' she said primly, pointing up the stairs, but kids never lie, especially their eyes. She thought I was a scream. Maybe someday she'll get a job selling tickets at the train station.
The very first picture-postcard thing we saw in Paris was the Arc de Triomphe, which is French for 'Arch of Sports Cars', and believe me, the place is swarming with them, and busses, and trucks, and bikes. Something like ninety-seven streets empty into the square, and the arch is ringed by a road that connects them all. You can't just cross the street to get to the arch, though, because the roundabout is something like twenty lanes wide, and at any one second there are at least half a million cars tearing around it as fast as they can, competing in the 'Convert Tourists to Road Kill' contest. That contest is going on all over Paris, by the way, not just at the arch, so watch yourself. We had to find the tunnel to the center by following a helpful set of signs that pointed us all the way around the circle to a point about twenty yards from where we'd started; if we'd backed up, we'd have fallen into it. But we didn't get to spit off the top that day; some vetrans were conducting a memorial ceremony, so the arch was closed. Bummed, we headed down the road towards the Eiffel Tower.
Remember that we'd been up since four o'clock in the morning, with some light dozing on the bus ride, and this was the first of many days that we walked until our feet throbbed. By the time we got to 'the Troc', as we hip American tourists call the area around the Trocadero gardens, we felt a need to recharge our batteries, so we scored a bite to eat from a street vendor. Avoid these guys. I guess it's not bad food, but it's not all that good, either. I'm pretty sure my tuna sandwich should have been pitched in the bin at least an hour before I bought it, but at that point I was hungry enough to eat the pigeon that was begging me for a crust, and we all really, really needed to sit down on a bench by the fountains and rest a while under the gaze of the most well-known sight in Paris.
Here's a typically tourist-like thing to say: The Eiffel Tower sure is big! I mean, I knew it was big, but wowzers! It's REALLY BIG! Just HUGE! Lots bigger than I expected it to be, is what I guess I'm trying to say. Even when I could see it - and you can't always see it from whereever you are in Paris, unless you're in a made-for-TV movie - it usually registered on my brain this way: Oh, there's that Eiffel Tower thingy. Gosh, that's quaint. And 'quaint' is about as big as I could make it in my head, until we went right up to it. Even from our bench in the Trocadero, which is a couple hundred yards across the river, it already starts to impose on you, and when you walk up to it - well, yeh. Big. And somehow it manages to be both delicate and monstrous at the same time. The lace-like structure gives it an open-air feeling from just about any point of view, but you never forget - and this goes double when you're standing underneath it, or when you bonk your head against a spar - that it's about a zillion tons of cold forged steel.
The best testiment to its size, probably, is that we spent at least an hour wandering around on it. First, we went straight to the top, because you gotta go to the top if you visit the Eiffel Tower. Can't really spit off it, though, unless there's a strong wind to carry it, and the view isn't as good from the top as it is from the second floor, where you get under the smog. The second floor is fairly large and, if I remember correctly, has two levels, so you can spit off the top and get the tourists below. Great fun. The first floor is nearly as vast as the wide-open plains of Iowa, but there's a big hole in the middle, so not only can you spit off the side, you can spit on the people underneath as well; there's absolutely no place for them to hide. There's a restaurant on the first and second floors, but they're always booked solid and a meal there costs about eighty bucks, so we settled for sucking on some suds from a cafe next to the post office. The post office was closed, or I would've sent you a post card from the Eiffel Tower.
If there's anything the O-Folk do especially well as tourists, we do too much in a day. We probably should've finished with the Eiffel Tower, then hit the hay, because we were as wrung out as used dish rags by that time, but as I said, we had only so much time to see all of Paris, so we tried to squeeze in just one more sight. Up the river Seine to the east of the tower there's a ferris wheel in the Place de la Concorde that Barb was itching to ride at night. It doesn't look so far away, unless you've been tromping around since four in the morning; we were feeling just a bit more than numb by the time we got there. We got a terrific view of the Champs-Elysees, but just missed the lights on the Eiffel Tower, which flash like fireworks at the top of the hour.
As I said, it was dark, and darkness doesn't come to this part of the world until after ten at night; by the time we started working on getting back to the hotel it was around midnight, and if you can meet some interesting people on the metro in the middle of the day, by midnight you can find people who are positively extra-terrestrial. I think I saw Elvis in the Les Halles subway station, which is supposed to be the busiest in the world.
I'd be a real killjoy if I didn't tell you that we got lost on the way back to the hotel. We had to change trains at Gare de Lyon and, because we were all tired and punchy, and I had to pee like a race horse, I led a charge through the tunnels out onto the platform and into the train that was just about to leave the station. Barb followed us through the doors as they snapped shut, shaking her head and mumbling something about being on the wrong train. In my tiny little mind, each subway line runs its own trains and they don't go anywhere except from one end of the line to another; I should have known better than that. Barb did. At half past twelve in the morning, we ended up at the wrong deserted metro station on the outskirts of Paris, waiting fifteen or twenty minutes for the next train back up the line. Barb and the boys were slumped on the benches; I danced up and down the platform with my knees clapped together. There were no toilets in the metro stations we were using. I guess I won't forget that lesson soon.
Subway trains are pretty cool when they're underground, but they're really cool if they pop out from their tunnels and run above ground from time to time. The B line crosses the Seine on a bright blue, rivetted iron bridge before it disappears into the ornate iron and glass sides of Gare d'Austerlitz, where we started from on our second day in Paris. Right around the corner from the train station we turned into the Jardin des Plantes, which looks like an open garden on the map but which is filled with ranks of shade trees and is very popular with the morning joggers pounding the paths and getting in the way of tourists trying to take pictures. The urge to trip those panting, narrow-butt guys in their lycra shorts is just about irresistable, isn't it? I'm pretty sure I could've outrun the ones that were dripping sweat and dragging every breath they took. Good thing Barb was with me to keep me in line.
We strolled under the welcome cool of the leafy chesnut trees; the day was already hot, busting twenty in the sunshine. That still sounds a little weird to me, but I'm starting to get used to twenty being uncomfortably hot. Sean had picked our first destination that morning, the Institut Musulman et Mosquee, but it was just around the corner and the park begged us to stay, so we wasted a little time in the shade. The mosque is in a quiet side street where the shops were only just beginning to open for the day; I wandered around to look at them while Sean, Barb and Tim checked out the institute. There was a cozy little park right across the street with more shady chesnuts, but they seemed to be infested by a plague of pigeons, and none of the benches below them were fit for human habitation, so I kept moving. A moving target is hard for even the experienced pigeon to hit.
Keeping with the Islamic theme for the morning, Sean's next pick was the Institut du Monde Arabe, a huge steel and glass building that Tim and I decided looked like a Borg cube. Each pane in the south wall's windows was shaded by delicate stainless steel irised panels that automatically opened or closed to control the temperature inside, and not incidentally kept with the motif of an Arabic carved wooden panel. From inside, the effect was almost enchanting, and at the same time I felt as though I was swallowed by technology, deep in a huge mechanism. The interior walls of the Institute are glass, framed in iron and steel; elevators run exposed up and down rails in the atrium, and open stairs weave back and forth past the irised panels. The effect was marvelous and frightening at the same time. The Institute's beauty, or its menace, is heightened by its location right next to what has to be the ugliest University complex in the Western world. I've seen warehouses and prison blocks with more charm.
While Barb and Sean plumbed the depths of the Borg cube, Tim and I wandered across the street to check out the book sellers. They have huge lockers filled with old books all up and down the walls along the Seine. This would normally mean that I'd spend way too much money and have to lug around a lot of books the rest of the day, but lucky for my wallet and my credit limit, nearly all the books were in French. The few that were in English were mostly used school books on calculus and similar wild excitements.
If anybody ever needs to prove that tourists are a pestilence, they don't have to look any farther than Notre Dame. About the most crowded cathedral I've ever visited before Notre Dame must have been St. Paul's in London. The steps up from the churchyard were lousy with tour groups clustered together, people posing for photographs, children tearing back and forth, and I thought, 'Do I really want to go in there?' It wasn't so bad inside, though, where a crowd of twenty thousand could probably stand comfortably shoulder to sholder; might get kind of stuffy after a while. That crowd was nothing compared to Notre Dame, though, where a crowd of thousands waits in line eveyr day from the wee hours of the morning until the twilight hours of evening to press their way into what might be the most famous cathedral in Europe. Factually, they wait in two lines: one snakes into the church, one climbs straight up the towers, the rails of which are lined with boys from five to fifty looking for the fame that only a guy who's spit off the side of all kinds of famous buildings could understand. Beneath them, and much to the annoyance of those in line who have to constantly part to let them get by, are hundreds and hundreds of tourists walking across the church yard to get from the cafes to the toilets, or from the toilets to the souvenir stands, or just to get the heck out of there. If there's such a thing as a riot without the violence, that's what's going on all day long in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame.
We didn't realize all that was going on when we got there. We snuck up on Notre Dame from behind, where all the the tour busses in Paris stop to vomit foreigners into dozens of park benches. The yard is actually very pretty, shaded by dozens of thickly leaved trees, something I genuinely appreciated as the day was pretty hot by then. The sole attendant of the guarden was sorely overworked, though. She sure didn't want to deal with Sean, who stopped her to point out the lost bag we spotted under a bench. 'Please bring it here,' she told him, which is exactly what he wanted to do in the first place, and exactly what I told him you should never to if you find an unattended bag in a public place. Oh, well.
We lingered a while in the shade before Barb suggested I go into the church ahead of them. I'm a big fan of cathedrals, which is not to say she isn't; it's just that I'm the kind of guy who can wander all afternoon in only the nave, then come back to spend the next day in the choir. She'll take in the whole cathedral from the end of the nave and be happy with that. So I went on ahead of them, strolling slowly up the north side to get a good look at the stained glass and the vaulted, buttressed walls, and I never noticed what was going on in the church yard until I finally turned the corner and ran smack into an ice cream vendor. Streaming past, and filling the square, were what looked like every tourist who ever carried a Nikon camera. Bees climbing over each other in a hive don't look as crazy. Our tour guide warned us that Paris gets more tourists in June than at any other time of year, but I didn't think he meant in one place. After I scooped my jaw up off the pavement and clapped it back into place, I wandered through the throng, trying to sort out what was going on, which was how I accidentally found the toilets.
Now, here's a thing that tourists talk about for a lot longer than you'd think, and when it comes a topic like toilets, I'm not going to buck a trend. In many places in Europe, public toilets have attendants to keep them clean, and you're expected to pay for this convenience. This surprised me, too, the first time I saw it, but after I thought about it for half a second, I had to admit to myself that I'll happily pay two bits for the pleasure of using freshly cleaned urinals, instead of holding my breath to use the kind of public facilities I'm accustomed to. Heck, some of the scariest experiences I've had in public lavatories would make me happy to pay five bucks or more for a clean toilet stall. But many tourists seem outraged to have to pay to go, and some are actually so embarrassed by the whole process that they'll stand there fiddling with themselves for several minutes before they give up and head out the door. (I may be wrong, but I think that a significant number of the guys are so upset about the idea of peeing in eyeshot of a cleaning woman that they immediately go into Full-Bozo Bladder Lockup.) Helpful travel tip: All you gotta do is walk up to the attendant and slap the smallest coin you have on the table. She's not embarrassed to tell you if it's not enough; she's not embarrassed about anything, she works in a toilet.
In case you hadn't guessed by now, I gave up on the idea of seeing the inside of Notre Dame almost immediately after turning the corner, and started looking for my family. I found Barb and Sean sitting on a bench next to a sandbox where Tim was throwing dirt into the air over his head. Just you wait; that'll be the memory of Notre Dame that sticks in his mind. With Mount Rushmore it was ants, and with the Grand Canyon it was the donkeys; with Notre Dame it'll be the sandbox.
We were in a garden mood, so we figured that our next stop would be the gardens at the Luxembourg, which we imagined would be grassy and cool under ranks and files of shade trees. We were mistaken in such a big way, but you can't tell from the map. To get there, we crossed the Petit Pont over the Seine to St Michel metro station. It's sooo cool that all the bridges in Paris have names, so that I can stick them into travelogues like this and sound like the hippest of world travellers. Why else would I call them by name, like you know where each and every one is, unless it was to sound like a pompous prat? It's a reputation I have to constantly cultivate. I thought I'd mention the St Michel metro by name, though, because if there's a contest for dirtiest subway station, it'll win hands down. I've been in some dirty ones, but this is the first time I've had to wade ankle-deep through paper burger wrappers and empty cups, and it looked like that every time we went down there, as if it were decorated that way. It would take an army of ten-year-olds with flamethrowers at least a week to clean that place out, but they'd be happy for every minute of it.
The Jardin du Luxembourg is indeed a beautiful park, and Parisians large and small were sprawled everywhere on the lawns, soaking up the weekend sunshine. After our long morning march, though, what we all wanted most was to sit in the shade, and the Luxembourg garden isn't a shady place. Well, that wasn't entirely true. If we'd bothered to go listen to the brass band at the bandstand we would have found lots of benches in the shade, but Barb offered to get a sailboat for Tim, a little two-foot model that he pushed back and forth across the wading pool for an hour. The wading pool is out in the harshest sunlight, with only one or two palm trees providing the barest patch of shade that the roaming police man was doing his level best to keep people out of, although he was nice enough about it. I retreated to a small patch of shade beside a potted bush, where I slowly went insane from the heat. Sean joined me after he chatted with a passer-by who took him for an Australian, and Barb joined us after she couldn't stand to follow Tim around in the sun any longer. She slumped down, exhausted, onto one of the iron chairs that were scattered around us. Unfortunately for her, the one she picked had been sitting in the sun for hours, and the hot iron suddenly inspired her to do a song and dance for us. Tim, happily playing with his sailboat, didn't notice the heat until his hour was up, when he asked straightaway for an ice cream. We bought him and Sean some on the boulevard, but before we left I had to bolt back into the park to pick my camera up from the ground under the chair where my heat-addled brain had forgotten it.
Up the Boulevard St Michel we stopped at a streetside cafe, where we learned an important thing about the French waiters: They're not ignoring you; you're ignoring them. There's nothing rude about getting right in their way, or waving your arms in their face while they're talking to somebody else. They seem to expect that, or at least that's the way I noticed everybody else carrying on. We sat at our table for about fifteen minutes as the waiter buzzed past us at least half a dozen times, and as I watched him it gradually dawned on me that he was waiting for us to give him a sign that was more obvious than just waiting patiently, or glancing meaningfully in his direction. As he came to a neighboring table to collect the bill, I did what everybody else did to signal him: Namely, everything short of jumping up on the table and waving flags. He came to take our order right away, was very friendly and helped us interpret the names of all the dishes; we speak food pretty fluently, but it never hurts to be sure.
These sidewalk cafes are all over Paris, and ever since I've seen the likes of Gregory Peck and Audry Hepburn lunching at them in old movies, I've wanted to give one a try. I'm sure they're not for everybody; I don't think Barb was especially fond of eating her lunch on the pavement as crowds of people and all the trucks in town buzzed past, but for me there's something especially luxurious about leisurely enjoying a generously large sandwich and salad while casually reclined, beer in hand, as busy people scamper past my very toes. I imagine every one of them is thinking, 'Lucky sod, I could use a cold drink.' It's a self-centered sort of satisfaction, I admit, but I don't stick my thumb in my ear and go 'neener-neener' or anything like that.
You'll think I'm crazy when I tell you that we returned to Notre Dame after that. Barb wanted to go inside, and she figured that the crowds might thin out around meal time; boy, was she wrong; the same endless lines were still trying to shuffle in through the front door, so we turned to our backup plan and headed for Pont Neuf. That means 'new bridge,' even though it's the oldest bridge in Paris. Go figure. Under the bridge, we bought tickets to ride a boat up and down the Seine, sort of the equivalent to riding one of those open-top busses, except that you only get to see what's right next to the river. Barb says it's much more fun at night than in daylight, but after stamping around town until midnight the day before, none of us was going to last until dark. In fact, Sean slept through most of the cruise, and I have to admit that I dozed off more than once or twice. I can't remember the last time I was on a guided tour that didn't bore the socks off me. Yes, I can; we rode the open-top bus in Cardiff, which should be called The Shirley Bassey Tour. We found out all about her; where she lived, where she ate, where she picked her nose. Shirley's a theater singer who's claim to pop fame is that she sang the theme song to the James Bond film 'Goldfinger.' I always thought it was sung by Ethyl Merman, and I still think it should've been.
To get back to the hotel we walked to the Forum, a super-dooper shopping center built in, around, and under a park. The Chatelet - Les Halles metro station, where we could catch a train straight to our hotel, was also deep beneath the park, but to get to it we had to make our way through a crowd of idle young men slouched against lampposts and chain-smoking cheap cigarettes, who all examined us so closely as we went by that I felt they were trying to decide how many pieces they'd have to break us into so the authorities wouldn't be able to identify us. It was the only time in Paris that I felt my family was unsafe. Lucky for us Tim didn't want to stop to play in a tree, or run up and down the escalators; we just kept moving until we were on the station platform, where nobody wants to look at anybody except the naked women in the advertisements pasted on the walls. This weekend, the poster that seemed to be everywhere featured a naked woman sitting on a block of ice. In the time we spent waiting for trains, I caught myself trying to figure out if it was fake ice, or if they'd somehow convinced her to sit naked on real ice, and was looking for clues like goosebumps. That shows you how far from adolescence I am.
Back at the hotel, we celebrated our first full day in Paris, and our successful, fairly early return from the city, by meeting in the hotel lounge for cold drinks. We were all in an expansive mood, by which I mean that I hardly noticed that the drinks cost an extortionate amount. I won't buy a beer on an airplane for five bucks a pop, but there I was picking up a round of drinks for a price that should've included a three-course meal, sweets and service. What a swell I am.
We got up on Saturday at around seven and filed into the hotel restaurant by eight, really bad timing on our part. Everybody from the tour bus was in there; it was a feeding frenzy that made sharks look polite and reserved. After a while, it seemed like the staff didn't even want to come out of the kitchen, and I couldn't blame them; when they did, with a tray of food on each shoulder, a grumpy, noisy tourist would latch onto them like a mosquito on warm flesh and begin to beg. 'OH RANGE JUICE?' he'd bray very slowly, shoving aside another tourist whining, 'KAW FEE?' The staff member would nod constantly as he made his way to the table to set down the food he was carrying, dislodge them with a cattle prod, and disappear in a flash of light and a puff of smoke through a secret doorway. To avoid that scene, today we rolled out of bed at half six, threw on any old clothes before we even showered, and were seated with our toast and jam by seven. I think there were maybe four other people in the restaurant. Much better.
We trained back to the very spot we left the city the day before, emerging in the park behind the Forum and St. Eustache church. There's a giant human head carved from stone in the courtyard beside St Eustache; we had to go there so Tim could pick its nose. We tell ourselves that travel will broaden our children's minds, but sometimes I wonder.
Picking the giant's nose put us in the eastern corner of the First District, and here's a wonderful thing about that part of town: It's all pedestrianized, which is not to say that traffic doesn't move through it. There are lots of cars and trucks buzzing around this part of the city, but they were all underground. I can't think of a more delightful imposition to put on motorized traffic, except maybe to make them stop every hundred yards to pay a ten-cent toll. While we were casually strolling through the early morning quiet of the leafy park behind the Forum, drivers of every stripe were crawling through dimly-lit tunnels beneath us. If only all the major roads with their noisy, smelly traffic could be disposed of so neatly, cities would certainly be more attractive places.
We intended to make our way directly to the Pompidou center from the Forum but, as we headed east, we happened to glance up the Rue Montorgueil, a narrow side street lined with shops selling produce, meats, and household sundries. The shops were just opening up for the morning - it was about nine or ten a.m. - and the peaceful mood of our walk through the park carried over to a stroll up the street as we had a good look at all the cheeses and sweets in the display cases pushed out onto the cobblestones in front of each shop. The street was festooned with banners and flags hung from the bright-colored buildings; merchants were hosing down the patch of pavement out front of their shops and sweeping them clean, lending a fresh smell to the air. To get back to the Pompidou we turned right and right again to walk down the Boulevard de Sebastopol, a wide, tree-lined street with almost no traffic at all on it at this hour of the morning, making for another pleasant stroll.
The Pompidou is another Borg cube, the building in Paris famous for being built inside-out. All the air and water pipes, the electrical services, and most of the elevators and escalators run up and down the exterior of the building. Each different kind of pipe is painted a different bright color, in an attempt to make the building more attractive, but if you ask me it looks like the Headquarters of Captain Napalm's Thermonuclear League of Justice; it'd look terrific in a comic book, but in Paris, it's looks just okay.
Right next to the Pompidou there's a quiet courtyard of cafes surrounding a fountain where we stopped for a drink. I ordered iced tea, which turned out to be a badly translated iced coffee, a concoction so sour and chock full of caffeine that one sip made me feel as if I were filling my tanks with jet fuel when I should have had regular unleaded. Barb's a coffee drinker, so she tried to drink it, but it made her face twist and shout. Tim had a sip, just to see what it was like; he couldn't speak for several minutes, only grunt and cough. Sean thought it was delicious, and sucked it down in minutes.
In an attempt to sort of whimsify the neighborhood, I guess so the Pompidou didn't seem so out of place, the fountain in the courtyard had a number of goofy-looking sculptures that sprayed water. The sprayers or the sculpture were supposed to move, powered by the force of the water, but nearly every one of them was jammed; the only ones that did what they were supposed to were what looked like a hallucination of a mermaid that shot streams of water from her breasts, and an off-center water wheel that lolloped up and down out of the water, making waves. Everything else hung there, frozen, giving you a good, long chance to see just how dumb they looked.
Since the Pompidou wasn't open yet, and I couldn't order a refreshment without poisoning myself, we set off down Rue du Renard toward Notre Dame. That's right, Notre Dame. As we moved through the nearly-deserted streets of Paris in these early hours, we felt the warmth of the faint glimmer of hope that perhaps the tour busses hadn't yet disgorged an impossible throng at the cathedral, and we might have some chance of getting in to see it. Wrong. We never checked in the dead of night, of course, but I don't think the lines ever go away; I think at least a hard core of a couple thousand people camp out in the church yard, waiting for the first rays of daylight to rise again and feast from the first junk food vendor who pushes his way into the square. Or feast on him. They were that weird.
Pushing south, we crossed into the Latin Quarter and began our second casual stroll of the day down the Rue de la Huchette. I wish I knew what that meant, because we referred to it all day as the Hoochie Koochie, and it deserves a better name than that. When we first caught sight of it, it resembled the Rue Montorgueil, which had been such a pleasant experience that we were drawn into the Huchette like flies to honey. It turned out to be so much more than the Montorgueil, with not only shops selling food and sundries, but gifts, and not the cheesy souvenir crap, either. And the street was lousy with restaurants, almost every one of them selling finger food from a front window at this hour. An American was buying a doner at one of them, and I was suddenly very hungry.
The doner was served open-faced, the fixings heaped on a six-inch length of french bread sliced open down the middle. It looked wonderful. I had my first doner in Berlin, where the Turks serve them in delicately baked pita bread, with lamb, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sauce in just the right proportions. There isn't a better take-home dinner that I know of anywhere on the planet, and I've missed them ever since we left Germany. When we came to England we had to stay in a hotel in Sleaford for a week, and in town there was a restaurant that advertised itself as a doner shop; we bolted for it the first chance we got, drooling at the richly greasy odor of roast lamb wafting from the open windows. Inside, an enormous, sweaty Englishman, who acted as though he'd rather be pulling his own toenails out than working in this shop, served up the doners on a slab of bread, piling an enormous clod of fatty lamb on it with just a bit of salad and tomato. I think there was a bottomless pool of sauce in there somewhere, too. He rolled it into a wad in a sheet of butcher paper and dropped it, dripping grease, on the counter before my disbelieving eyes, which were by then running with tears of disappointment. I tried to eat it, but couldn't; there was just no way to compare it, not even unfavorably, with the delicate treats from Berlin. I promised never to eat a doner in England again, but in fact I had a chicken doner while I was out on a pub crawl and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. That could be the beer talking, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of a doubt. Just make sure you say 'hold the sauce.'
This fellow in the Hoochie Koochie - I couldn't tell if he was a Turk or not - looked as though he knew how to make a doner. My eyes were glued to his carving knife as he sliced thin bits of meat off the rotissere, where a huge stack of tender lamb had been slowly roasting all morning; it sounds nasty, but I can't argue with the results. He put a modest dollop of sauce on the bread, added a not overly generous helping of lamb, nicely garnished it with salad, onions and tomato, and then added a new wrinkle: a scoop of french fries. That almost put me off, but they looked hot and crunchy, and I'm willing to try almost anything once, except raw fish or cooked bollocks. Wiping slobber from my chin I stepped to the window and made ready to give him my order, but he had already spotted the gleam in my eye and had started on mine before I could speak. It was heavenly. He balanced the tender meat with just enough crackling, the veggies were crisp, and the fries were a perfect touch - why hadn't anybody thought of that before? Barb had to have some, and Sean and Tim kept buzzing around me like flies, snatching bits of it before running off, but I didn't care; it was huge, plenty big for all of us to nibble, and the street was lined with more shops in case we had to buy another, but we didn't. It was just enough - a perfect doner. Like the perfect egg roll, you don't find them very often.
The streets of Paris, like the streets of most European cities, towns and villages, turn and weave between the buildings; you're never headed in one direction for very long before you have to pick from at least two apparently different streets. It sounds like a foolproof way to get lost, but the Huchette lead us straight to the Rue St. Andre des Arts, which lead us straight to the Rue de Seine, where Barb was looking for a certain restaurant, the Cosi, that was supposed to serve the best sandwiches in Paris. We once went to a restaurant in London that was reputed to serve the most delicious fish and chips in the whole of England; after nearly an hour on the subway and a long walk down wandering side streets in a grubbier side of town, we finally found what looked like an average fish and chip shop which, in fact, served a pretty shabby plate of whitefish and soggy french fries. When we finally found the Cosi, we were faced with much the same prospect; Barb gave it hardly a minute's inspection before we turned up the road and headed for a streetside cafe on St Germain Boulevard. That's where we saw the waiter who had a flashy way of opening pop bottles. He brought our drinks out on a tray he held with one hand, got a bottle opener out of his pocket with his other hand, caught the lid of a Coke bottle on the opener, hooked the bottle over his shoulder, and set the bottle, opened, on the table. We were going to applaud or throw coins at him or something, but he maintained a cool, shucks-it-weren't-nothin' expression all through the performance, so we didn't spoil it for him.
We got our dose of culture for the day at the Musee Rodin, a French sculptor I'd actually heard of. The museum is a quiet little place, not too many tourists, and has some lovely shady grounds surrounding a stately house, but the best thing about they ran it, and this goes for most of the attractions in Paris that charge admission, was that we paid practically nothing to get it. Unlike the larger cities in Britain, where even the churches charge some pretty steep entrance fees, Paris is delightfully affordable. The most expensive thing we did that weekend was order beer, but when we indulged in a ride on the carousel or a climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, it was surprisingly easy on the pocketbook. A cathedral in England would ask a little more than three bucks a head, but Notre Dame would've been free, if we'd ever managed to get in. The Rodin museum admitted the boys free, and charged me and Barb a couple francs, less than five bucks.
Rodin is the guy who sculpted The Thinker and The Kiss. The Thinker is on a pedestal out in the garden, far out of reach, but The Kiss has a room to itself in the museum where you can walk right up to it and examine it from all angles or, if you're a whacko, scribble grafitti on it. There's nothing stopping you. If it were displayed like this in any museum back in the States, where school children filed past it every day, I feel pretty sure it'd have at least one wad of gum stuck to it somewhere, but it is spotless. I couldn't even make out that anybody had touched the girl's boobies, which are usually rubbed shiny on any other nude statue I've seen on public display.
By this time it was hot, way too hot to wander the streets in the sun; Barb suggested we find a shady spot on the grass to have a nap. The Hotel des Invalides, a hospital across the street, was surrounded by public gardens, and we eventually found what looked like the perfect place in the Square d'Ajaccio with a lush, green lawn, but nobody was lying on it, which was unusual. Most any public place with an inviting patch of grass had at least a dozen people sprawled on it in various states of undress. This one, though, had signs all around that I couldn't read but which I'm pretty sure said, 'Don't even THINK of lying on the grass.' We settled for a light doze on a middling comfortable park bench in the shade, while Tim built and destroyed sand castles nearby. Eventually a laser-hot ray of sunlight invaded our shade and threatened to cook us to briskets, forcing us onto our feet again, around the corner, and drove us down into the darkness of the Latour Maubourg metro station. We didn't surface again until we got to the Bastille.
The Bastille's gone now, of course; the French tore it down after they executed all the smart people back in 1789. As a nod to the tourists, though, you can make out where the prison stood from paving stones set into the roadways. We got only a quick look, though, because Tim had sand down his pants and urgently needed a Supertoilet. I don't know that they're actually called 'Supertoilets,' that's how I refered to the coin-operated, self-cleaning public loos that you can find on the street. Plug two francs into one and the door slides open. There's a sink and a pot at the back of the booth that gets hosed down and disinfected after each use, so the compartment is usually wet all over when you step in, but at least you know where it came from. Tim though they were the coolest thing since Will Smith. If he saw one and had two francs on him, he used it whether he had to or not. They're just about everywhere, except apparently along the Rue St Antoine, where we were now. Eventually Tim gave up looking and barged into a cafe to beg the owner. You'd think that people in cafes would be hardened to this kind of thing, what with the city being so full of tourists, but apparently this guy couldn't stand up to Timmy's damp puppy-dog eyes.
We were in the Jewish Quarter of the city, and wanted to find a back street to get a closer look. For the third time that day, we happened across a busy pedestrian street that was full of shops selling everything from religious trinkets to yummy take-away food. And when I say busy, it was almost out of control, nearly as crowded as the church yard at Notre Dame, but instead of hundreds of tourists waiting drearily in lines, this was a party, filling every side street within eyeshot. Most of the people were kids and teenagers - Sean got plenty of eye liberty there, lots of girls out and about - with a few groups of adults, but there was no trouble anywhere, just lots of people having a good time. We made our way up the street as the crowd allowed, a pleasantly slow stroll, as we passed through and out of the quarter. Up the back roads out of the Jewish Quarter we came very quickly to the Pompidou again, open for the day this time, although a quick look around the entrance hall didn't reveal anything we were especially interested in seeing. The street performers in the courtyard around the Pompidou weren't doing anything all that unusual, either - swallowing swords, lying on a bed of nails, that kind of thing. We bought ice cream and moved on.
Since we were right across the river, we checked one more time to see if there was any chance at getting into Notre Dame. Not without an airstrike. We crossed back into the Latin Quarter for an evening bite to eat before heading home, and there the story got goofy, but then it had to sooner or later, didn't it? Barb wanted a bite of pizza, which sounded good to everybody. You can buy it by the slice from the street vendors, but we wanted to take the weight off our feet for a little while, sit the shade of a cool cafe and relax. We gave it no thought when we sat down at a cafe and ordered two liters of water and a cheeze pizza; after all, we'd been nibbling all day, and didn't want to fill up, just wanted a quick bite. Back where Barb and I come from it's not at all unusual to sit down and order a single pizza to share amongst everybody. Not here. The waiter made us feel like a bunch of cheap, ignorant hillbillies, rolling his eyes when he understood that we wanted just one pie. We were obviously meant to order a pizza each, if we all wanted to eat pizza. When the waiter brought it, he pointedly put it in front of Barb, who'd placed the order, and didn't bring any plates for the rest of us. I wanted to stiff this priggish little twerp, but unfortunately service was included in the bill. Barb gulped a slice or two of pizza, we bugged Mr. Nasty for a doggy bag, paid and left. The rest of us had our pizza in the street.
There are lots of beautiful church buildings in Paris, but Sacre Coeur has the singular advantage of being posed at the top of the highest hill in the city, Montmartre, the Hill of Martyrs. St. Dennis was said to have been beheaded there, and walked from the hill to Paris with his head under his arm. From its perch at the top of the hill, with its dramatic white, bullet-shaped domes, Sacre Coeur appears to reach to the sky, but from inside it seems very compact. Cathedrals tend to sprawl every which way, like napping dogs, and are filled with all sorts of monuments and religious totems, but this one gives the impression of being purposely kept very simple. It's also much newer than other churches, so its stone still looks almost white; it's very nearly radiant when the sun hits it.
We didn't have long to look around. We had to return to England that day, and the tour bus stopped in Montmartre only because it was on the way out of Paris. We had a little more than an hour to get a look at Sacre Coeur, and Barb guided us over to Artist's Square with the time we had left. The Place du Tertre is usually crawling with street artists who'll do everything short of wrestle you to the ground to win your custom, barging right up into your face with a drawing or silhouette of you they've already started. 'Ah, you are so beautiful,' one of them told Barb, 'I paint you for my own pleasure.' Another one begged us to show how he made silhouettes. 'Demonstration?' he said as he began cutting. We said no, thanks, and kept walking. 'Hey! Demonstration!' he kept calling. 'Hey, Momma! Mom!' Mom?
And then, sadly, we were headed out of Paris, trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible in anticipation of another eight hours in painfully small bus seats. Our nerves were jangled just a bit from the moment we first boarded. We'd been separated on the drive over, so we got aboard early and grabbed a row of seats together at the front of the bus. Apparently the boys were sitting in seats that an enormous, grumpy woman had grown to feel a bit posessive towards in the last few days. With the attitude of a spoiled poodle, she pouted that she was sick as a dog from all the walking and the heat, and she whined to the boys that she wanted 'her' two seats all to herself. Not that we cared, but she was upsetting the boys and got the driver involved, who was trying to find seats up front for a kid who got carsick at the back of the bus. I could sympathize with him not wanting to deal with a carsick kid, but he was trying to reseat every passenger for the benefit of one grouch who wasn't going to be satisfied until all of us, starting with my boys, delivered her every desire to her at the very point of her tired little tootsies. Once again, though, my darling wife, normally delicate as wildflowers but hard a battleship's armor and with firepower as fearsome when the situation calls for it, turned the situation around the right way. She made it clear to the driver, without raising her voice but making sure it carried throughout the bus, that we took those seats not to inconvenience anybody, if only anybody had asked us - and here she glanced meaningfully at a certain passenger - but because we didn't realize there were assigned seats. Then she got up and offered our seats to the carsick boy and his mother, volunteering to stand in the aisle for the trip back. There weren't any open seats, you see, because the Grumpy Whining Witch was occupying two, instead of sitting with her equally large, but not quite as whiny friend, who was also occupying two. With Barb and I standing in the aisle where everybody could see us, though, she backed down and shuffled off to share a pair of seats. Barb and I sat down again next to Tim and Sean, and I spent the next hour or so patting her hand and cooing calm words and endearments into her shell-like ear. I love this woman.