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You only get one guess as to what building this is...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005:

We woke up to a cloudless, sunny day, albeit a bit  brisk -- our nicest day in Paris.  Our first stop on the itinerary today was Notre Dame -- right by the hotel.  Hey, as an attraction, it’s free...  Having studied much Art History and history in general, we couldn’t pass up Notre Dame.  Gothic architecture is intended to stun and impress those looking at it, and Notre Dame certainly doesn’t fail (though my Art History professors always seemed to prefer the cathedral at Chartre  -- ah, that’s for another visit...), with its flying buttresses supporting the walls, the gargoyles, fancifully-carved rainspouts, general Gothic foo-foo decorating the outside like an overdone wedding cake, the high, vaulted ceilings, the rows of stained glass windows, the immense Rose windows at the transepts, the little well-decorated chapels tucked along the sides.  The cathedral is immense and gaudy and old and famous, and proud of every last bit of that.  I loved seeing it.  We arrived before 10:00, not long after it opened, and were able to walk right in.  But by the time we left, an hour and a half later or so, the cathedral was beginning to get crowded and there were long lines at the tower tour (so we didn’t bother), clots of people around the entrances, and gathering hordes of tour groups with their guides waving little flags at the front.  Getting there early seems to be good advice; I suspect that late in the day there would be entirely too many people going through the place for it to be a good experience.

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The roof of the cathedral

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Unhappy Gargoyle

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Rain spouts

Coming out, we walked north along the Rue de Souvenirs... umm,  that is, past the rows of souvenir shops, all of them selling the same thing.  We bought expressos at the Cafe de Quasimodo (yes, that’s really the name...) and walked to the other side of the island, crossing over onto the Right Bank for the first time.  We’d checked the subway map, and picked up the No. 1 train to take us out to the Arc de Triomphe.

Like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe is an icon of Paris.  This is where Paris specifically and France in general has always celebrated.  This is where the Tour de France ends every year.  This is where their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is placed.

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Yet another standard tourist shot...

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Arches of Arc

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Napoleon really, really liked himself...

The main boulevards of Paris all radiate out from the Arc like spokes, and what seems to be the world’s largest and least organized roundabout circles the edifice.  Crossing the roundabout on foot is not only illegal, it would be suicidal, as cars are racing about without lanes -- and these are French drivers, which means they all think this is Le Mans and they’re heading for the finish line...  Instead, you walk through one of the tunnels that cut under the roundabout and come up again at the Arc itself.

The Arc itself is stunning, but so are the views down the boulevards, especially the long, straight line of the Champs Elysee toward the Obelisk, the Tuileries, and the Louvre way off in the distance.  We took the requisite photos, went back under the roundabout, and started off down the Champs-Élysées...

...which is, I’ll tell you now, one long street.  Denise and I walked all the way from the Arc down to the Louvre, which is a bit of a tramp, but an interesting one.  The end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées near the Arc down to the Grand Palais is one long outdoor and upscale shopping mall.  We stopped a few times here and there -- for Denise to shop a bit, for lunch, for a walk through a baroque and monstrous Virgin Records store looking for CDs for Devon, and here and there as we gawked at the sights or just paused to rest our feet for a few minutes.  We also managed to marvel at the imposition of American culture here:  the Gap store, the McDonalds, the latter especially looking out of place with its red and yellow plastic décor.  Ugh.  We went over to the 3,000 year old obelisk, brought here from the Temple of Ramses.  There’s also a plaque in front of obelisk, commemorating the fact that it was here, in the 1790s when the Place de la Concorde was called the Place de la Revolution, that Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI, and far too many other people lost their heads to the guillotine.  

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Up the Champs-Élyseés from the Place de la Concorde

From Place de la Concorde, which by the way would be another fine test of your skills as a Parisian driver, by the way, we headed over to the Jardin des Tuileries.  It was here that it suddenly struck me why my grandmother loved about France when she visited here many decades ago.  Gigi (as we called her) was a devotee of gilt.  She gilded everything.  I she’d had a cat, the poor thing would have had gilt fur.  As we stood at the entrance to the gardens, I realized, looking around, that everything around looked like Gigi had been here with her brush:  the  lamp posts, the gates, the filigree around the fountains, even the lemonade booth:  everything was gilded.

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Why Gigi liked France...

The Tuileries were less a ‘garden’ in the American sense than a ‘park:’  wide avenues of dirt with a gravel; fine on a cloudless and dry day like ours, but we found ourselves wondering what it would be like in a good rain.  I wondered whether it had always been this way, and whether the royalty of Louis XIV’s time with their ornate dresses and fine clothing would have liked the dust that our feet were kicking up.  The Jardin desTuileries is laid out in a grid, with the avenues enclosing squares of grass and trees planted in firmly-ruled lines.

At the eastern end, the Tuileries is embraced by the arms of the Louvre.  There, as we moved between the long wings, that we saw the Birdman.  He was an old gentleman dressed in a jacket and tie, sitting on a chair, and holding his hands out with his fingers spread.  Bird -- sparrows mostly -- were flying all around him, landing in frantic clusters on his fingers for a few moments and then rising again.  He was smiling gently as the birds danced in the air all around him.  He had something he was feeding them, for every once in a while he dipped his fingers into a  bag, but all in all it was an impressive display.  I wondered whether this was something he did every day in the park...

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The Birdman of the Tuileries

We knew we weren’t going to visit the Louvre this trip, and looking at it from the outside, that decision made even more sense.  Hell, the place looked like it would be impossible to walk in one day, much less actually stop and look at the paintings and sculptures it held.  The Louvre is one of the older buildings in Paris -- the 12th century king Phillippe August built a lodge here and fortified it with walls against Viking invasions from up the Seine.  Those walls are still visible in the basement of the Sully wing of the Louvre.  Through the next four centuries, the royalty of France would build here, enlarging and improving on the palace...  

Next time, we said, we’ll see it.

But I have to say that I found the huge glass pyramid that is dominates the front of the Louvre to be really, really ugly.  I had much the same reaction to it that the Parisians had toward the Eiffel Tower.  The modernity of the pyramid, in my opinion, clashes with the classic lines of the Louvre.  Maybe, maybe when it was first erected and the glass was pristine and clean and unweathered and the metal that laced the pieces together were new and shining, it might have worked (though I doubt it).  Now it just looks shabby and somehow dumpy.  The Louvre herself has aged gracefully; this, I suspect, will only look worse in passing years.

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Ugly

We walked out of the Louvre onto the streets again.  By that time, I know I’d pretty much had it; I think Denise had as well.  My feet ached and I was ready to rest them.  The Metro station there at the Louvre was one of the two Art Nouveau stations left in Paris; it was interesting to see, with its curling lamposts over the stairs.  We went down to the station, took the train to the Hotel de Ville stop, then walked back over the Ile de la Cité to the hotel, where I immediately took off my shoes.  

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Art Nouceau -- look out for the death-ray lamps on the side!

We’d planned to go out that night to Sacré-Couer and Montmartre and we decided to stay with that plan.  I looked at the subway map and figured out a one-train-change route to get to the Abbesses station, which Denise wanted to see since it’s the other Art Nouveau station -- Denise is a Nouceau fan.  Dominique confirmed that we’d mapped out the best route, so we headed off.

We got on the right train.  We sat down, and the man across from us heard us speaking English and introduced himself.  He was a late-thirties, early-forties man from Denver, Colorado, who had been in Paris for a month doing rollerblading tournaments.   He seemed delighted to be able to talk to someone from back home.  He didn’t speak French well himself, he told us, “just enough to get by.”  We talked a bit with him until, just before we hit the station where we were supposed to change lines, there was an announcement in French over the PA.  “He’s saying to get on and off the train faster...” our rollerblader said, but I noticed that our train kept going and didn’t stop we’d passed the station, continuing on until the next station.  

A little puzzled and concerned (since you can’t change lines except in certain stations, we said goodbye to Mr. Denver Rollerblader and got off.  I wasn’t happy -- too tired, I think, to deal with this confusion well, and unfortunately I showed it.  We crossed over to the other side of the platform and got on the train going the other way.  Same thing:  just before our intended station, there was an announcement, and we kept going to the stop beyond.  I realized that what they must be saying was that the station was closed.  We got off (again), and sat down while I tried to figure out some kind of alternate route.  I wasn’t good company at that point... just ask Denise.  Finally, I figured out a way to get, not to Abbesses, but to another station on another line that would let us out about as far from Sacré-Couer  as Abbesses, only on the other side.  So we went there -- about a twenty minute subway ride, and finally came up out of the subway into what looking to be a working class section of Paris.  I consulted the map to try to find the local streets and figure out which way to head, but Denise was signs for the mount, which point to a street heading up at a fairly good incline.  Seemed to be a good bet, so we headed off that way.  In a few blocks, we’d figured out basically where we were, and in time came to a set of impressive steps, especially impressive to two people who had walked most of the day.  Our plan had been to come up at Abbesses and take the incline up to Sacré-Couer ; it appeared we were going to climb up to it.

So we did...

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Sacre-Couer at dusk

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Pan of view from Sacre-Couer

It was worth the effort.  We arrived at Sacré-Couer  right before sunset.  The lowering sun set off the buildings of Paris arrayed below us, displaying the immensity (and basic flatness) of this city.  Sacré-Couer  itself was impressive when we went inside.  A large cathedral built in greek Orthodox rather than Gothic style, its immense middle dome with stained glass windows all around let in the fading sun and broke its light into a array of color.  The columns of the church, I noticed, were marked with a list of what I assumed were supporting financial patrons of the church, mostly from the late 1890s through 1920s.

Outside, in dusk now, we walked down -- the only direction from Sacré-Couer  -- toward Montmartre.  Montmartre  was of special interest to Denise, as it was here that Toulouse-Latrec and other painted the women of the Moulin Rouge and the cabarets.  It’s still an area for artists, a literal maze of tiny, winding streets built along the hillside of the mount.  The square we first hit looked like Tourist Trap city:  souvenir shops, lots of cafes and restaurants, mimes, a whole stretch of pastel portrait artists and oil painters.  We were famished by this time and chose a restaurant at random.  The food was OK but undistinguished.  The French onion soup was fine, but the beef bourgenon was basically beef stew with huge chunks of meat.  The beer was served in cans.  Plenty of food but mediocre.  This was honestly the worst meal we ate in France.  

Afterward we strolled down (and down) through Montmartre  toward Abbesses.  At dinner, we’d sketched out yet another alternate route home through the subways, this time using Abbesses as the starting point.  So we did get to see Abbesses, but the Moulin Rouge was simply too far away to check out given that at midnight our two-day Paris Visite passes would expire and leave us as pumpkins in the eyes of the subway checkers (who we’d yet to see, but...)   Abbesses was different from every other Metro station we’d been in, beautifully tiled and interesting, but with a strange and poorly marked elevator system down to the tracks (far, far below since we were still well up on the mount.)  However, an elderly gentleman noticed our confusion and though he spoke about as much English as we spoke French, managed to direct us through the station and down to the platform, pointing out some of the sights of the station as he did so.

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Abbesses Station

We thanked him -- “Merci beaucoup” -- and headed back to the hotel.  Damn, yet another failure at finding the rude and arrogant French person.  In fact, we’d utterly failed at the task.

Tomorrow, it was time to head home.

Thursday, May 19, 2005:

We took a cab to the airport; it seemed far better than hauling heavy bags through the subway, and a lot more comfortable...

Everything went smoothly at the airport, except for our taxi driver dropping us off one terminal away from where we should have been.  Our passports were stamped, we passed security and found the gate without a problem.  We were bussed out to our plane, another of the giant and roomy Airbusses and found our seats... and proceeded to remain there on the ground for nearly two hours, as the plane needed to be repaired before flight.  However, once it was apparent we weren’t going to be taking off soon, the attendants bustled about serving snacks and drinks (including alcohol) and the time was spent somewhat pleasantly, at least.  

Denise and I were flying into Chicago O’Hare on this leg, with our connecting flight back to Cincinnati due to leave two hours from our original time of arrival.  We figured we didn’t have a prayer of making that flight, not with getting through Customs, having to retrieve and re-check the bags, then get to the terminal and gate for the connection.  We’d have to catch the next one, we were certain.  The plane landed in a rainy O’Hare about twenty minuted before our flight was due to leave.  We hit the re-check area, and they said, yep, we’ll put these on the next flight, and gave us a paper for the Delta desk.  But as we started to walk away, the attendant came running after us.  “Your flight’s been pushed back to 6:00 PM; you can still make it.”  She re-re-tagged our luggage and we headed for the Delta desk in Terminal Three.  By the time we got on the shuttle and moved to Terminal 3 where our flight was to leave, the Delta ticketing agent told us the plane was now scheduled for 6:45; by the time we got through Security and to the correct gate, the board at the gate said 7:10.  It was 7:30 before we boarded -- there were thunderstorms in Cincinnati, which is where our ‘equipment’ (as the announcer at the gate kept saying, as if it were something we were going to strap onto ourselves) was coming from, and it had been delayed there.  We got on the (totally full) plane and managed to cram into the seats -- after the Airbus, I’d forgotten how cramped and tight the cattle car section is on a 727.  We pushed away from the gate; the pilot told us we had to cross most of O’Hare to get to our runway... and after about fifteen minutes of taxiing here and there, we stopped.  We stayed stopped.  The jet wail failed and died.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re currently in a very long line of planes, and the tower has told us to shut down our engines to conserve fuel...”

We stayed parked there for another hour and a half.  On the tarmac.  Crammed into our seats.  With the jets off so that body heat began to make it increasingly stuffy and uncomfortable.  About the time I was about to go stark raving mad, the engines started up again, and we rolled around O’Hare some more before we finally managed to take off -- almost exactly two hours after we’d pushed away from the gate.

We got to Cincinnati around 11:30 local time -- at the last gate in the last terminal.  Our flight attendant announced that all flights in the airport except one to Orlando and one to Boston -- the ‘equipment’ we were on -- had departed and that if you weren’t on one of those flights, you weren’t going anywhere tonight.  One wonders why, in that case, they parked us as far away as physically possible from the terminal and baggage claim.  We walked, and walked, and escalated, and people-moved until we reached the airport shuttle train.  Megen was waiting for us up the escalator in baggage claim.  We hugged her, thanked her for coming to get us, and went to get our three checked bags.

We got two.  The other one never came.

After a bit, when it was obvious that the belt wasn’t going to spew out any more bags, we went to the baggage office and put in our claim.  The person there said the computer showed that the bag had gotten on the plane; we figured it was probably on its way to Boston by now.  She said they’d have it to us tomorrow.  

That was good enough.  By then it was 12:30; we still had a half hour drive ahead of us.  We’d already been up 26 hours at that point.  We went home with two bags and a claim check.  The dog bounded toward us in joy, the cat glanced once in our direction before going back to sleep, we could hear Devon upstairs snoring.  The bed never felt so good...

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Foggy Day with Cat in Road

Epilogue:

I already want to go back, just as I want to go back also to Ireland...

I also find that, as with Ireland, that the part to which I’d like to go back is not the urban areas, but to the countryside.  I’d rather be in Azay-le-Rideau than in Paris.  Mind you, there’s still lots I’d like to see in Paris, but hey, it’s an hour and a half from Azay, and we could do day trips...  If I were going to live in Ireland, I’d live in the village of Clifden rather than Dublin; if I were going to live in France, I’d much rather live in Azay-le-Rideau or someplace similar than in Paris.

I regret, though, not knowing French, because without knowing the language, I missed some of the ‘feel’ of the country.  In Ireland, I could (and did) talk to people and converse about what I was seeing and their impressions, and how things are different here, and whether or not my perceptions were correct or off-base.  I miss nuances, not being able to ask questions or to understand the answers even if I could.  I also tend to ‘eavesdrop’ a lot when I’m in new places, listening to the cadence of speech and its patterns, and picking up a lot of the sense of the place from the snatches of conversation I overhear.  Here, I couldn’t understand the words, only (sometimes) a vague sense of the emotional context based on the inflections.  If I do come back here, I want to know more French than the nine-month-old baby level I currently have.

And as for our futile search for the stereotypical rude French, well, I suspect that you get back what you give out.  Like most people, the French are friendly toward those who are friendly toward them.  Those lovely tourists who, upon getting a confused look when they say “Hey you, can you tell us where the train station is?” then repeat the same sentence slower and louder with an exasperated grimace on their face, as if they’re talking to a dimwitted and hard-of-hearing person, will get treated rudely.  If you’ve made some attempt to learn their language, if you apologize for not knowing French better, if you act as if you realize that you’re a visitor to their lovely country and don’t treat them as if they’re living in some quaint backwater of the USA, then you’ll be treated well.  We had more than one person, when we tried looking something up in our French-English dictionary, come over and look through the dictionary with us.  We had strangers act as temporary translators.  We managed to communicate with pidgin French on our part and pidgin English on the part of those who lived there -- and a lot more French people know English than the reverse.  We found the French to be generally friendly and warm.

I want to return some day soon.  That’s all that needs to be said.

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Bridges on Seine at night