20/20 Hindsight: Memories of Paris

I keep meaning to finish telling stories about Europe 2006 here, and I keep putting it off — probably because the last entry took so long, and because I’ve been kinda busy since then. So I’m going to change things up a bit here, and not be wedded to the concept of chronological storytelling, and instead talk about some stuff that I’ve been thinking about recently.

Lately, it’s been Paris on my mind.

(Narrative and 20 some-odd pictures and a movie follows…)

The reason? This:

Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday. …

“Fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover it can provoke a crisis,” psychologist Herve Benhamou told the paper.

The phenomenon, which the newspaper dubbed “Paris Syndrome”, was first detailed in the psychiatric journal Nervure in 2004.

Colby Cosh once said that London was a psychological second home to everyone who thinks in English, and while that is unquestionably true, it works the same way if we’re talking about Paris and thinking in French. I spent 17 years of my life learning French, became extremely fluent in it, and still am to a functional degree. Through all those years, steeping in French culture and the language, it was impossible to not concoct some mental image of what Paris is like. Even approaching the subject with an open mind, how can you not have expectations?

What’s really funny is that I don’t really remember the conclusion of the train ride that took us out of Arles and into Paris. I remember boarding the TGV in Arles and being mildly impressed with the duplex configuration (top and bottom). I remember whipping through the various towns on the way to Paris, passing something like four nuclear power plants in the process, and staring out the window. K., as we discovered, gets disturbingly ill on high-speed rail, so I also remember fretting about that. I do not remember the view from outside the train as we pulled into the Gare de Lyon, but I do remember navigating through the station to the Metro, buying our tickets for the subway and boarding Ligne 14 towards Saint-Lazare. I remember closing my eyes for a moment and feeling like I was in Montreal again… and then I realized that I wasn’t in Montreal, I was in Montreal’s bigger, older, more glamorous sister.

Ligne 8 took us from Madeleine to Ecole Militaire, where we ascended from the Metro into the afternoon light in Paris. It was at this point that we met our first (and only) dickhead in France, the guy who runs this place. The lobby itself is very nice, and I have no doubt that the vastly-more-expensive rooms are nice, too. Ours, however, was not: Peeling wallpaper. Threadbare carpet. A toilet with exposed innards (no, really). Not air conditioned. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, and wouldn’t be normally, but we were hot and tired and wanted some way to sleep at night. So we decided that it wasn’t an acceptable option. While K. scoured the neighborhood for other choices, I got into a protracted argument with the aforementioned dickhead. I explained that we found the room unsatisfactory, that there were several problems with it, and we were not interested in staying. Dickhead suggested that perhaps I was letting my wife drive the decision-making, and that if I didn’t really have problems, maybe I should stand up to her. Then he told me I was paying for the room one way or the other.

What I wanted to say was, “Go fuck yourself.” What I said was that I thought we had a disagreement and there wouldn’t be a useful way to resolve this, short of “we’ll take our money and be on our way.” I really wanted to swear at him in French, I really did — it was the first language I learned how to swear in, and, almost without fail, if I get really really angry, I end up muttering at myself in French. But the problem is that while I can do a couple of French dialects, what I really speak, and what I really know, is Quebecois French, and swearing in Quebecois French is very strange, and I don’t encourage it if you want to be taken seriously outside of Quebec. (Briefly, “c’est toute fucké” is perfectly OK with your mom; “mon hostie de Christ en ciboire” is strong enough that you might provoke a riot under some circumstances.) So I couldn’t exactly say, for instance, “va t’en faire bapteme” or something along those lines, because it wouldn’t work; he wouldn’t get it. So I set K. upon him, and in the end we escaped with a $100 bottle of Evian water — our “free” gift upon registration, and one night’s worth of lodging poorer, but only after threatening to call the cops.

Thank gods for the Hotel Prince around the corner on Avenue Bousquet. The proprietess took us in, gave us a nice room, and told us that the guy we’d dealt with was a notorious jerk. That made me feel better. (I managed to confuse her frequently by switching between French and English randomly throughout our dealings over the next few days.)

Before actually going to Paris, the thing that most influenced the way I think about Paris was Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. The “Amelie effect” loomed large in my mind, and I was a little disappointed, arriving in the middle of the afternoon, that I was greeted with a relatively flat, boring light that well-matched the heat of the day. Silly photographer! You should know afternoon light is never very nice. Paris did not disappoint me, in the end.

Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

K. and I kissing underneath the Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.
(Note also the Vigipirate guys standing in the upper left.)

Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

We ate our first Paris meal in the Champs de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. You’ve seen it a thousand times in pictures; you could probably draw a representative sketch of it if you had to. In person, it is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I remember seeing the Tokyo Tower for the first time; it didn’t seem to be very impressive despite looming from the fog. The Eiffel Tower is different. Who knows why; it just is. We ate Chinese take-out in the Champs, unable to tear our eyes off of this giant metal thing.

The lineups were long but I was determined to be up in the tower for sunset, to see Paris by night for the first time from its finest vantage point. Paris did not disappoint me:

Looking east from the Eiffel Tower at dusk. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

Arc de Triomphe, shortly after being lit. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

All I could think of was U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” Look, I know it’s about New York but who cares? (Later, I would be dismayed to see the song used in precisely this context in The Devil Wears Prada, but I was in Paris before I saw the movie, so I claim inspirational rights.) The history and the sense of place was almost overwhelming, far more so than in Venice. I had loved Venice, had hated the idea of leaving Venice; this was something completely different. It wasn’t some tourist destination whose glory days were behind it — this was the living, beating heart of a culture and a country, one of the world’s great cities of history and of the present. How can you not fall in love with a place like that? At the top of the Eiffel Tower, watching the sun set on the city that looms so large in the minds of so many, how can you not love that on some level?

Some things in Paris can be familiar even if you’ve never seen them before:

Rue Cler. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

Galeries Lafayette. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

Napoleon’s Tomb. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

We blasted through Versailles and the Louvre in the space of a single day. Up early, out of the hotel, a quick stop at the neighborhood bakery for croissants and quiche, then the RER C line to Versailles and a six-hour romp through the palace grounds. Back into town, a shower, a snack, and a late evening at the Louvre. It’s open late on Wednesdays. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer size of both places — at the opulence of the palace, of the historical significance of the museum. (Sofia doesn’t really do Versailles justice in Marie Antoinette, though it is interesting to be in many of the same rooms.) K. and I were both pretty thoroughly museumed out by the time we made it to the Louvre, so we headed straight for the Italian wing.

Watching tourists in the Louvre can be quite funny. They all want to see La Gioconda, so they race like crazy past four other Leonardo paintings, all of them less famous than the mysterious woman. We had a Leonardo exhibit in Victoria a few years back and they brought a replica of La Gioconda to town, and I have to say that the real one is a little underwhelming. It’s tough to admire the painting; it was in temporary quarters when we were there, and behind its bulletproof glass and its layers of security personnel, and surrounded by people, it’s tough to give it the reflection that you think it deserves. Creepily, her eyes do follow you around the room, but that’s about the end of it for me. I much preferred The Virgin and Child with St. Anne if I had to pick a Leonardo painting.

Still, some fun things exist in the Louvre, including the non-Gummi Venus di Milo, and an homage to ancient Greek baseball:

Hercules Killing the Hydra. Louvre, Paris. 5 July 2006.

And there are some truly infuriating things, too:

Grrrr! Louvre, Paris. 5 July 2006.

That night, we walked through the Tuileries towards Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysses. We’d planned to stroll up the Champs and find dinner, but we were distracted by some strange happenings:

Paris Civil Protection units on Place de la Concorde. 5 July 2006.

Oh, yes, that’s right — it was Match Night. France was playing Portugal in the World Cup, and, if they won, they’d be heading to the finals. We found a small bar/cafe a few blocks up from the Champs and ate dinner while France held its breath.

Pandemonium ensues. The Champs-Elysses explodes with people celebrating.

Champs-Elysses, Paris, France. 5 July 2006.

The mood was ebullient. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. We walked down to the Seine and back towards the Pont de l’Alma, the bridge leading back to l’Avenue Bousquet and our beds. I was grabbed by ecstatic strangers and hugged; I had nonsensical shouting episodes with random football fans overcome by joy at this semi-final win. About six blocks from the Champs, I was approached by a young man in a leather jacket.

“Il y’a du monde sur le Champs?”
“Il y’a tout le monde sur le Champs!”

This is what I remember about Paris: A city that more than lived up to my expectations. A city that was suddenly simple to be in. A city like no other, and yet like all others; a place I’d never been before that was already familiar to me by the time I arrived. (London was like this, too.) A place to fall in love, and to fall in love with. It was, quite possibly, the highlight of the trip for me.

Weeks later, I was in Dublin, riding the bus from the airport into the center of town. K. and I were sharing the top deck of the bus with a pair of American girls from Washington, DC, who were talking about future destinations. They were idly trashing Paris and France, despite never having been there. One said she didn’t really understand why she’d ever want to go to Paris, given that it was so expensive and people were so rude — why, she could just go to New York if she wanted to put up with that, and New York had better shopping besides. I could have slugged her — both for the unfounded slur and the horribly incorrect perception. And then I relaxed. Paris has been slighted many times before, by people better than her, and if she can convince other idiots that it’s an expensive, rude place to be, so much the better.

Now, to be fair, I’m absolutely certain I had a much easier time of it in Paris, and in France generally, because I speak fluent French. I suspect that my opinion of the place would have been much different had I only spoken English; that’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. And yet, at the same time, I run into Anglophones all the time who went to Paris without speaking a word of French (my mom, for one), and who went on to have perfectly great times without any rude encounters, which makes me think that it’s an attitudinal thing. As it stands, I got one rude encounter with a guy who was basically a jerk to everyone, and that was it for obnoxious French stereotypes.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of Paris more and more. When I drift off at night, more often than not, I’m dreaming of somewhere different — the Big Island, Turkey, Wales, Italy, Japan. But I keep coming back to Paris, wanting to revisit the warm glow the city left in my mind. It takes a special place to do that.

Random Europe photo #1

Below the cut because it was screwing up my formatting…

Banks of the Rhone. Arles, France.

I really promise I’ll get around to (a) finished the Europe stories and (b) putting pictures from Europe and Japan on-line Real Soon Now. Of course, I’ve been promising that for a couple of years now, so…

11 hours of travel for 40 hours of bliss, part I

(The first in a series of tales relating to what I did on my European vacation after I stopped having reliable and/or cheap Internet access. Today’s adventures: Getting to Provence.)

We left our hideaway in Riomaggiore at 09:00 intent on catching a 09:50 train to La Spiezia. From there we would head to Genova, where we’d change trains and go to Nice, change trains again, and go to Avignon, where we’d get on a bus and go to Arles. Staring a very full day of travel in the face, it was with some consternation that Trenitalia chose that moment to announce our train would be delayed by 40 minutes. I looked at my watch, looked at the timetable posted next to the tracks, looked at our onward reservations. It was going to be close.

In true Italian style, 40 minutes became 50. 50 became 60. An hour became 1:15. I couldn’t fathom what the problem was, but by the time the train was announced as being 1:15 late I’d already formulated a plan. Our original trip from La Spiezia to Genova actually involved backtracking. Why not catch the train direct from Riomaggiore to Genova and get there ahead of the originally scheduled time? Works for me. Problem: Genova has two train stations. The train from Riomaggiore arrived at Genova Brignole. The train to Nice left from Genova Principe. The one Trenitalia guy I managed to pin down mumbled something about it being not-so-complex to get from Brignole to Principe and, in hindsight, he was right. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and I resolved to deal with the problem once we got to Genova rather than worry about it en route.

It’s a good thing, too, because the milk run train between La Spiezia and Genova gave me a lot of time to worry. Stopping at more or less every town on the route, I saw a lot more of the Italian countryside than I would have had we roared through on an express. Crammed into second class seats, I got a better sense of what travel in Italy is like for Italians — I didn’t, for a moment, think my first-class Eurostar Italia seats from Venice were representative. We chugged along the coastline, saw a lot of vineyards, a lot of farmland, and a few interesting towns that might be worth coming back to if the gorgeous beaches we saw were any indication. (Deserted at 10:30 in the morning on what would become a scorchingly hot day — who’d’ve thought?)

Arriving in Genova we hoisted our packs and made our way through the warrens of Brignole. I queued at the information office to get directions to Principe and was told to hop on a train at another platform. You know me, though — I’m not one to do something easy if I can do something hard, and, after consulting the schedule posted in the lobby, wasn’t fully convinced the Trenitalia guy had told me the right track number or the right train. It might well be one stop up the line (it was), but I’ve got all kinds of plans here, and I’d rather not see them screwed up by a language barrier. Anywhere but Italy I wouldn’t have cared. But transport in Italy had proven to be a very hit-or-miss affair, and I wasn’t terribly interested in pressing my luck.

So K. and I took a taxi across town. Brignole is out on the edge; Principe is closer to the old part of the city. I won’t pretend I saw anything interesting or terribly informative but it was nice to turn what would have otherwise been a layover stop into a short sightseeing adventure. Once at Principe we tried to get some lunch or at least provisions for the train, an effort that would end in failure. I queued at one of the cafes for a sandwich and was bumped by an older Italian who seemed to think I was standing with cash in my hand for the sheer fun of standing in lines, and got irate when I had the temerity to suggest that maybe it was my turn. I shrugged — it was something I’d gotten used to in Italy and I knew it wasn’t worth arguing further about.

Eventually our train to Nice pulled up to the platform. Although we had a first class railpass (mandatory) K. and I didn’t seem to get really good use out of it: We’d been shoved into second class on the trip to Venice, managed first class seats to Rome, and got first class seats into the Cinque Terre (but were surprised by the austerity of the accomodations). On the way to Nice we were to be stuck in second class too, owing to a lack of first class space, and I’m starting to see the wisdom of reserving trains well in advance because it prevents you from coming into contact with the kinds of people who have second class railpasses.

Before I get into that, a word about taking European trains. Kids, listen up. Do not carry big, hard-sided suitcases. Especially do not carry big hard-sided suitcases that are wider than the aisle of the train. It doesn’t work. Bad things happen. People behind you get cranky. Small children get trapped. Also, if you’re on the train, move your luggage out of the corridor and for god’s sake don’t sit on the little fold-out seats in the corridor when people are trying to get on! I ended up having to lift several bags over an intransigent fellow (no, not the same one) who absolutely refused to budge from his fold-down seat until we accidentally smacked him in the head with a small, soft-sided bag. I squeezed my way through the crush of humanity and found our assigned seats, then threw our bags up onto the overhead luggage racks.

All right, I thought. Maybe we’ll have the compartment to ourselves. Hah. Dream on. Two girls whose suitcases I had lifted soon joined us, followed by two guys of around the same age. And herein is the thing about second class railpass holders:

They’re kids.

Specifically, they’re non-European kids. More specifically, they’re American kids, either college students or kids fresh out of college. And so I spent six hours on the way to Nice in a compartment on a train with two sorority girls and two frat boys who were intent on doing everything they could to confirm every stereotype you ever had about southern California frat kids.

This gave rise to several funny comments:

  • They complained about the inability to get a “good” breakfast in Italy. This struck me as odd; I’d had perfectly fine breakfasts for the entire time I’d been there. Then I realized they were talking about American breakfasts and the grease content they wanted. I didn’t understand why that was important until…
  • … they began recounting their myriad drinking adventures. I guess the modern thing to do if you’re a college student is to come to Europe and drink your way across the continent — a kind of EU version of Spirit of the West’s “Home For A Rest,” as narrated by people not nearly as charming as John Mann. I don’t understand this. I’m not much of a drinker anymore, and I certainly drank more on this trip than I have in recent months (or years, for that matter), but I’d think you’d come to Europe to, you know, see Europe — not Europe’s bars. But I’m weird that way.
  • One of the girls then began to complain about — yeah, get this — Italy’s (I can barely type the words) lousy food. “All I’ve had since I’ve been here is pizza and pasta!” she moaned. “It’s soooo boring!” I wanted to reach over and smack her. She was craving burgers and eggs and fries. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Later she mentioned she’d spent something like a month in Tuscany and I became even more disbelieving — how on earth can you spend a month in Tuscany and eat nothing but pizza and pasta? Are you trying to be an idiot? Are you working overtime at not finding other food? Other than the foccacia bread in Riomaggiore I don’t think I ate the same thing twice my entire time in Italy, and I’m including the time I made pasta twice in Rome. How can you complain about lousy food in Italy? The mind boggles.
  • K. then asked the kids about the Greek system. I played along under the guise that I was a stupid Canadian with no knowledge of fraternities and sororities. The kids started talking about the advantages of joining one, about how it had never occurred to them to not join one, blah blah blah, and then they got kind of defensive about it. “It’s not elitist,” one of them said. “It just lets you pick your friends. We have to let you in to the sorority, and if my friends don’t want to hang out with you, I probably don’t want to hang out with you, either.” (I paraphrase, but K. will back me up that this is a reasonably accurate transcription of the conversation.) There was a pregnant pause while the kid considered what she’d just said. “Well, I guess it could be kind of elitist.” K. shot me a smug look. I rolled my eyes, plugged my headphones in, and buried my face in A Brief History of Nearly Everything.

All in all, it was a sensorily taxing trip. The kids wouldn’t shut up about anything. I heard about “donor” stands (I swear, this is how they pronounced it) in Prague and stupid hostel stunts. I learned about the different kinds of clubs in various parts of Europe. Every few minutes one of them would point out the window and ask whether we were in France yet. (We weren’t.) This got really trying after about the third attempt:

Them: “We’re in France now, see? Pizze! That’s not Italian!”
Me: “We’re still in Italy.”
Them: “How do you know?”
Me: “Pizze is the plural of pizza.”

I had no idea whether this was true, and still don’t, but I’m betting they didn’t, either. What I was really going on was the fact there was a big sign on the rail right-of-way that said “Ferrovie dello Stato.” I didn’t tell them that.

Somewhere along the line we spent an inordinate amount of time in Ventimiglia. (“Are we in France now?” “NO.” “How do you know?” ““Ventimiglia” isn’t a French word.” “How do you know?” “Um.. I speak French?” “[blank stare]”) What we were doing there, I couldn’t tell you. But the air conditioning powered off (this was a common theme during the trip, actually) and we didn’t go anywhere, so we sat and baked in the train yard. I’m guessing we were waiting for an engine or something, but maybe it was the Trenitalia mandated delay so that everyone could miss any connections they had in Nice. The announcements didn’t explain much, though for a change they were in a language I could actually understand rather than just guess at. (The fact that they were in French did not do much to help me convince my travelmates that we were not, in fact, in France.)

Eventually we started moving again, and the kids turned to talk about their future travel plans. They discussed night trains. K. and I sighed, thinking about our Austrian adventure. “I heard,” one of the girls said, “that there are gassings in Eastern Europe so they can rob you.” Her friend nodded sagely. “We met someone who had it happen to them.” The guys nodded too. “Yup.” I couldn’t bring myself to argue, but maybe I should have.

This is one of those urban legends that seems kind of scary and a little too precise but falls apart when you think about it rationally. And maybe the reason it falls apart for me is because of what I do — I don’t know. But let’s break this down for a minute. The legend says that in some parts of Europe, sleeper trains are gassed with some kind of knock-out agent so that occupants can be robbed with greater ease. Inevitably there’s advice offered, like making sure your window stays open, to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

There’s one problem with this legend: There ain’t no such thing as knockout gas. Oh, sure, there are inhaled anesthetics — simple things like diethyl ether, and complex things like sevoflurane or desflurane — and the Russians seem to have used some kind of aerosolized fentanyl derivative during the Moscow theatre hostage crisis to knock the terrorists out. But here’s the thing about those gases: They’re all heavier than air. It’s impossible to get a constant concentration across an entire compartment, vertically, without pressurizing the thing. And here’s the other thing about anesthetic agents or high-dose narcotics — they all cause respiratory depression. (Ether also has the benefit of igniting, as I’m sure you all know.) Roughly 120 people died of respiratory depression during the hostage rescue in Moscow, and that was with people who presumably knew what they were doing.

So in order for the legend to hold up, we have to have criminals with an agent that’s great at knocking people out at low doses, does not cause respiratory depression or airway compromise, mixes equally with air, isn’t flammable, and is easily transportable. (Most inhalational anesthetics need to be vaporized by heating before you can inhale them.) With me so far? I would submit that, if such an agent did exist, the robbery teams would get richer selling it to Sandoz, Merck, or Hoffman-La Roche than they would robbing people, because it would be the world’s greatest anesthetic agent and anesthetists everywhere would be lining up to use it.

The legend is bunk from its very premise but it took me an embarassingly long time to realize that. Once I did I started thinking about how it was that people might believe it was true, and it dawned on me that it’s just not that hard to rob a person who’s asleep.

Anyway, after disgorging the girls in Monaco, we made it to Nice. Late. Duh. It was oppressively hot. (Shocking, I know.) K. and I had toyed with the idea of staying in Nice if we would get to Arles too late, but she decided on the ride in that perhaps we weren’t physically attractive enough to spend the night on the French Riviera. We made our way to the (air conditioned!) SNCF office where I made arrangements for us to take another regional train to Arles; we’d get in around 21:45, and that seemed OK.

The first class accomodations on the SNCF train to Arles were — how to put this — heavenly. We had a six-person compartment to ourselves. The air conditioning, while not nuclear powered, was excellent. We could stretch out, relax, put our feet up, read.. well, maybe not read, because the lighting in the car was sporadic and we seemed to go through a lot of tunnels. I never understood how it came to pass that the A/C would stay on, but the compartment lights wouldn’t. Eventually, after a nearly four hour trip through the Bouches-du-Rhone (including a trip past the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion), we arrived in Arles as the sun was going down.

Now, bear in mind that I had made our reservations in Arles over the net. Normally this isn’t a problem, but I’d used a consolidation Web site and booked at a hotel I couldn’t actually find in Google. I had directions, but they were vague. I had planned on taking a taxi from the station to the hotel, but couldn’t find one around the station. A phone number was displayed, but I had no phone card, and payphones in France apparently don’t take coins anymore. The bar down the street tried their best to help, but couldn’t find any taxis anywhere. “It’s match night,” the guy said to me, and I realized that in fact it was match night — France was playing Brazil, and everybody was watching. So, having found no taxis, and no buses, and having convinced myself the best way to get to the hotel was to follow the Rhone until I came to the Trinquetaille bridge, cross it, and then find the Rue Noguier, K. and I set out amongst the bugs along the stinky banks of the Rhone.

Along the way we passed through Arles’ deserted streets — everyone was inside. I stopped, briefly, at what I was pretty sure was the place where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” but wouldn’t commit to saying so. Eventually, after what turned out to be an easy fifteen minute walk (even with the packs), we walked up to the front door of the Hotel Porte de Camargue, where we met Patricia who was startled at our appearance.

“Who are you?” she wanted to know. I told her. She got a panicked look on her face. “But I thought you already came!” It turned out that there was another Asian guy staying at the hotel that night, and he’d come late as well, and she’d never bothered to ask him for identification.. oh, hilarity ensued. We had a good laugh over the whole thing. K., meanwhile, was standing in the corner agog — although she’d known for some time that I spoke fluent French, she’d never actually seen me do it, seen me make jokes, and so the disconnect was highly, uh, disconnecting.

The hotel, by the way, is fabulous. It’s this tiny place on the other side of the river from all the tourist stuff, and that means it’s incredibly quiet. Yes, it’s a ten minute walk to the major sights, but who cares? It’s well-appointed, and the rooms are air conditioned, and it’s reasonably cheap. We cranked on the A/C and fell almost instantly asleep.

My last conscious thought was, “I’m glad to be in France.” And I was.