Our passage to Paris was booked, but this day, Thursday, was still open-ended, we weren’t sure where we’d end up for the night – Reims, Metz or Strasbourg. For some reason that was okay for me, must have been the reassurance of the half-dozen waffles I had in my back pack. I could conquer the world or at least the two-kilometers-walk back to Gare du Midi to catch our early morning train.
We checked out and stepped out of our hotel in a direction yet explored and found Gare Central just steps away, port to Brussels Metro as well. Tiens. We coulda, shoulda, you know? But no. The sure thing was by foot and we didn’t have much time to make it to Midi anyway.
The walk uneventful, we made our connection in good time, got our boarding passes, zipped through security and mounted an empty queue. The train was there with its digital readout on the side of the car agreeing with the info on our tickets, but the train itself was dark and there were few folks to be found. We boarded our car and found our seats and rested from our burden of back packs. It struck me that this was probably the most significant change since I last worked in Europe, train travel.
Direct or non-stop travel was rare and expensive. The long trips included a dining car just like in French Kiss where Kate discovers her lactose intolerance. Trains were rarely full affording a choice of seats, leg room and space to stash your stuff. Now seats are reserved with little digital displays just above them indicating so. Gone are the clicking-ticking displays of departures and arrivals and in their stead digital readouts on the trains themselves, technically self-aware for their own status.
And trains are fast now. A dozen cars or so long, we’d pass opposite-traveling trains in less time than you can TGV at speeds I can only guess exceeded 150 mph. The TGV’s record was over 350 mph in 2007 and their average speed is 170. Finally, land-based transportation that exceeds the speed of the Blackbird. We were in Paris in two hours.
As urban cultural centers of the planet go, Paris is okay. I enjoy it there, but there’s so much more to France in so many ways. I’m not sure where the notion came from that Paris is indeed representative of all that there is Français; certainly we’ve all ascribed her with cultural significance in cuisine, art and romance, but that sets a pretty high bar. And there’s a popular notion that Parisians, or French in general are inherently rude.
Living in a tourist town I’ve seen the shoe switch. St. George is the gateway to national parks to the north and Las Vegas to the south drawing its share of tourists. The service industry here operates under the assumption that we’re all sharing a common code and that code is Western American English. When the code doesn’t connect there’s eye-rolling and slowed, amplified speech as if doing so would eradicate the language barrier. Then come the exaggerated nonverbals. We expect people to speak English here. In fact, we’ve made it a law.
So when overfed and underenlightened Americans go to Paris, guess what? They expect everyone to be speaking in their code. When the French don’t, when they may have an expectation of people who visit their country to make some effort to understand their language, they struggle in reaching shared meaning and may have a hard time reaching tolerant levels of patience. And their babbling visitors think they’re rude.
While visiting Notre Dame in Paris we happened to have dropped in during Mass of the Ascension. Rope dividers separated the tourists from the faithful and I crossed the line, Mindy in tow, to get a closer look and listen to the mass and have Mindy experience it. We were stopped abruptly by a man assisting others to their pews saying in French, “are you tourists?” Of course we were, clad in our backpacks and me with my camera around my neck. And then he asked, “Vous êtes Americains?” I nodded. “Get out! Get out!” I motioned for him to come closer to observe the reverence of the context, but he was insistent and pointed to the direction in which we were to leave. I stepped to him, drawing him close to me by his shoulder and whispered in his ear in French that we were there in earnest to experience the Mass. He stepped back and looked Mindy and I in our faces.” D’accord.” He pleasantly said, disposition turned, and escorted us to a place to sit.
I’ve worked in France not only as a missionary but as a filmmaker as well in a number of contexts ranging from covering professional cycling to digging deep into family histories, and in the logistics of production and the networking of integrating one’s self to reach communicative ends of shared meaning, I was always received, accepted, and then loved unconditionally. Parisians, Alsatians, even residents of the Riviera are among the most sympathetic, authentic, communicative people one could ever have the luck to come across in their travels.
We’ve worn Paris down, though. Like attendants of the rides at Disneyland, Parisian waiters and maitre d’s, tour operators and bus drivers, gendarmes and street sweepers would like to advise us to keep our hands and feet in the ride at all times and enjoy the attraction, being sure to collect our personal items before we leave with smiles on their lips and weariness in their eyes.
We arrived at Gare du Nord before ten, though the day felt much older, a combination of rapid travel and travel fatigue gaining on our frames and minds.
The last time I was here was during a transfer layover on my mission. I was breaking protocol for the first time, having been out a little over a year. The infraction was leaving established boundaries, not something I did by choice though. I was in Nancy, France and was transferred to a border town in Northern France, Tourcoing. The shortest route there via train was through Paris, another mission altogether.
I left the station and wandered that quartier of Paris down Boulevard de Denain looking for a spot to buy postcards to send with Parisian postmarks back to comrades in Nancy. I went into a patisserie to ask where I might find some.
It was a girl behind the displays, around my age and I asked her what must have been an inane question since the train station was just down the street, a tourist point of origin, but she didn’t take it that way. She came out from behind the counter, the two of us the only ones in the store, and she walked to the front door, closed and locked it and told me she had postcards upstairs while she took off her apron.
I was incognito having stashed my badge in my breast pocket and as French girls go for celibate twenty year-old males, she was beautiful. She grabbed my hand and began to lead me up stairs to what I can only now imagine and fantasize. “I think we have a misunderstanding,” I said, and I unlocked the door and went back out onto the boulevard.
We walked down Denain to find the shop on our way to Gare de l’Est, but it was under renovation, boarded up.
Gare de l’Est was a Metro point for us to grab a train to Saint Michel, the starting point of our tour en-pied of Paris. A sardine-like, standing room only trip put us face-to-face with a very nice French traveler returning from business in Iran. He works in transportation. He inquired about our travels while we batted around anyone behind us with our back packs. He wished us a happy visit to his home town and our train reached our stop.
Just before mounting the stairs that would take us top side, and figuring by our little maps that the Notre Dame Cathedral would be revealed in doing so, I stopped Mindy and asked, “Are you ready?” “For what?” she asked. “For this,” I said and we climbed up and out into a perfect Paris morning and there across the street, across the Seine to our right was the icon of the Mother of Jesus.
It was there we ran into an icon of Notre Dame, Quasi Moto.
There was a bread-baking exposition going on in a large tent established in the square in front of the cathedral. Every step was represented by bakers engaged in producing France’s most ubiquitous icon, the baguette.
We left the tent to enter the cathedral where we encountered our abrupt but later accommodating Catholic friend. After our visit we walked back to the Seine and descended to her bank to catch a river shuttle that would take us to various Parisian hot spots and loop back around to drop us where we began.
It’s a lovely way to see Paris. We could get off and on saving us the hike around the city of lights with our back packs.
Our first stop was the Louvre and while it may be disappointing to you to find out that we didn’t go in, remember this is the short attention-span scaffolding tour. We wouldn’t have done her justice.
The scam perpetrated on us was an art form in itself. We were walking along, pack heavy gazing at the magnificence of the museum when I noticed a woman picking something up from the ground in close proximity to us. “Someone is going to be upset,” she says when she shows us her find, a lost gold wedding band. She puts on her finger, too small to fit over her swelled knuckles, so she hands it to me. It’s hefty like gold and it’s too small for any of my digits. I hand it back to her and she says, “Oh, no. You keep it. I have no need for it. It’s your good fortune for the day.” Really.
I’m standing there thinking I should take it to the museum’s lost and found, you know, the responsible citizen and as I stood looking to see where that might be she’s back in my face. “How about good fortune for good fortune?” Excuse me? “You know, you give me good fortune for good fortune I give you.” My hand was in my pocket before that little voice inside my head says, “You’ve been had, Eric.” Fortunately I hadn’t withdrawn it yet, pulling out only a couple of euros. I put them in her hand. “There you go.” Apparently she thought the ring to be worth much more than that and insisted on more. “Desole.” I said shrugging my way away from her.
Gypsies. I should’ve known better. I wondered when she picked us up. From the time we left the boat? When we entered the courtyard of the Louvre? Was I really that predictable to an old gypsy woman? I still have the ring.
We boarded our water shuttle and went to the Champs Elysees, breading blisters along the way. Ouch. The notion was to walk down to the Etoile Charles de Gaulle, but the distance was daunting with our load and with the fluid building on the balls of our feet.
We walked around the Grand Palais passing the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit a the Petit Palais and on to the avenue of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
We circled back to the Seine at Pont des Invalides, feeling like a couple ourselves and got back on the boat. Next stop, le Tour Eiffel.
Thousands of more people and dozens more gypsies and to Mindy’s chagrin, none that looked like Johnny Depp. I must have a target on my back. “You speak English?” says the lovely little sad teenage girl. She shoves a letter before my eyes. “You read? Tell me?” The letter starts with something like, “I’m writing to tell you your husband is dead…” Oh this is good. I smiled at her, “Sorry, sweetheart, been there, done that.” Fool me once, shame on you, right?
The line for the Tour was longer than the day itself and we opted out of the elevator ride. We looked her over real good and sat down in fatigue of the day’s hike. No scaffolding here, by the way, just netting.
We both got hit simultaneously, almost exhausted, and decided to wrap up our tour of Paris, grab some lunch at a Bucherie and make our way back to Saint-Michel to catch first the wrong train then the correct one to Gare de l’Est, deciding along the way to make passage to Strasbourg that afternoon.
I was getting a little better with that uncertainty thing, that or I was just too tired to be bothered by the fact that as of the time we boarded the TGV we had no idea where we were spending the night in Strasbourg. It just felt good to get off our feet.