Friday, March 18, 2011

Chapter 6:How Do You Say "Exhausted" In French?

Apologies for how long it took to get this installment out. As you read on, you'll understand why.

Thursday we woke up at 4:30 a.m. (!) to get ready and over to the Underground. We opened up the Bayswater station so we could get to the international rail station and catch the Eurostar train to Paris. We were able to buy a day-pass for the Metro, the Paris subway, and get a map of the Metro at the Eurostar station. That turned out to be very helpful.

The train was a pretty slick way to travel, although getting on the international trip was a lot like boarding a plane in terms of the security. Going through the chunnel was kind of a non-event, as I fell asleep pretty quickly after sitting down in the coach.

Once we arrived in Paris, we had to make our way to the Metro, which meant finding our way through a train station without speaking the language. With some help from one of the security guards, we got at least to the platform.

The Metro, in some ways, is very different from the Underground, besides the obvious "everything's in French" bit. It's nowhere near as clean, and the trains as they arrive don't have any indication of what line they are or where they are going. Still, subways all have the same basic components -- colored lines, circles indicating stops, and final destinations. It didn't take us too long to get our bearings.

Our first stop was Notre Dame. The original one, not the one in Indiana, although the football stadium in South Bend is way cooler than the one in Paris. We got out of the Metro and had to take a bridge across the Siene River to get to the church, and it was walking across that bridge that the reality of being in Paris really struck me. Even more than in London, the feeling of being a foreign visitor really hit home.

We perused the grounds, including standing on the marker that signified the "center of Paris" before heading in. Notre Dame is really stunning, not only for the artwork inside (particularly the Rose Window and Michaelangelo's Pieta at the back of the sanctuary), but for the sheer age and presence of the building. Everything in the building is spectacular. We lit candles for the loved ones we've lost recently, and explored for a while.

It was back to the Metro and off to the Eiffel Tower next. We found the proper station (after one mis-step of getting on the wrong train and having to backtrack) and headed over, with a detour to utilize (or attempt to utilize) the somewhat space-age self-cleaning restroom on the streets. The grey sky didn't really do the tower justice, in terms of both its' size and its' beauty.

The natural inclination when you go to see a monument is to go TO the monument. That's not the way to handle the Eiffel Tower. We had to walk back almost two blocks, across the Siene, to really get an ability to see the Tower in its' glory.

We then walked a good distance along the Siene towards the next Metro station and for our next stop, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees. The Arc is really impressive, sitting in the middle of a huge roundabout in the middle of an incredibly busy street. Underneath the Arc, with all kinds of names and monuments facing it, is an eternal flame with flowers ringing it.

The French roundabouts are as crazy as you hear, five cars wide with no real lanes to speak of. There are six or seven different streets that spill into this roundabout, and people dart from one to the next with no real rhyme or reason that I could tell. All of a sudden, the Metro's problems didn't seem so bad.

We stopped for an incredible lunch at a sidewalk sandwich shop, did a little souvenir shopping, then headed back to the Metro to see the Louvre.

From the Metro, you come into the Louvre from underneath, which is a little surreal. But the sight of the inverted pyramid is really impressive (even if you hadn't seen "The DaVinci Code") and a great way to start the trip.

(As an aside, there's a number of shops underneath the Louvre we walked by. There's an Apple store right in the entrance, in which you can see the reflection of the inverted pyramid in the store's facade. Is it possible to make an Apple store MORE pretentious? Sure! Put it in the entryway of the Louvre!)

Getting into the main lobby, the Louvre presents some wonderful decisions to make in terms of what to see. We didn't have a lot of time or energy left, so we budgeted both with our plans. We did see Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, and the Mona Lisa, as well as hundreds of other masterpieces.

The Louvre is an overwhelming place. The building itself is so beautiful that you catch yourself marveling at the building rather than the artwork the building is intended to house. Nowhere is that distraction more stark than in the room holding the Mona Lisa. Of course, there is a huge crush of people trying to get close enough to get a picture of the famous smile. But the walls of the entire room (and it's not a small room) are jam-packed with stunning masterpieces as well. In some ways, I feel sorry for those pieces of art. They're reduced to the artistic version of background singers behind the spotlight-grabbing Mona Lisa.

We sent some postcards, bought some souveniers, and headed back to the train station for our return to London. During my trip to paris, I have to admit I was waiting to be treated by the famous Parisian contempt for foreigners. Nothing could have been further from the truth. During our entire trip to date, the two biggest acts of kindness we've received were from Parisians.

First, one of the shopkeepers on the Champs-Elysess put the credit card I left behind (winning!) under his desk and returned it to me without incident or snark when I returned, red-faced, for it. Second, an elderly woman walking with a cane could see that Mary Beth and I were struggling to find our way back to the train station. Even though she did not speak a word of English, she figured out where we were going and walked along with us, making sure that we took the right staircase to get to our train. Good thing she did, too, as we would have certainly taken the wrong train had she not shown us the way. She and Mary Beth hugged and kissed as we thanked her profusely as we parted. Sometimes angels walk slowly and speak French. I'm glad we had the presence of mind to slow down and let her help us.

We slept most of the way back to London, although I did break down and buy a cheeseburger. The travel back to the Phoenix Hotel was uneventful, although we had both forgotten it was St. Patrick's Day. There were some revelers out and about, and although I would ever hesitate to refer to the English as "amateurs" when it comes to drinking alcohol, it did appear that St. Patrick's Day is "Amateur Night" in the UK as well. It was amusing to see a Japanese tourist taking a picture of a man in a arge Guinnes St. Patrick's Day hat sitting on a bench in the train station, either drunk or otherwise affected such that he had no idea what was going on.

Today's a rest day, although we do have a few activites planned. I will tell you more later, but suffice it to say that any questions about my Alpha Geek status will be put to rest tonight.

Photos from Paris can be found here.

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