FUCHS OLD WORLD DISPATCH #4 - CITY OF LIGHTSLaylah's alarm is set for a PM hour. The car is all but out of gas. Morning traffic exceeds expectations. Laylah's hurt her back, and isn't scrambling through the train station well (she sends me out in advance to find the track and get on the train, but shortly catches up with me standing befuddled before a sign board). How many ways are there to miss a train? Always one more: Laylah's forgotten her passport, resulting in a delicious harangue from a weary French official: "Only you Americans would try to travel without a passport. If I went to the U.S. without a passport, they would't let me in. But for some reason I'm letting you into my country." Not wanting to rub it in too much, but I do let slip to Laylah that "I think I have an edge over experienced travellersI don't take shit for granted."
We like the TGV (electric doors, comfy seats, cafe car), and we have the car to ourselves. There is a very high international babe factor on the train ("Hmm, wonder how big those bathrooms are...?"), and there's a whole carload of Japanese between me and the much-needed coffee at the end of the train, resulting in entertaining multicultural apologies during maneuvers down the aisle: "Pardon, excuse'moi. Sumimasen; shitsuree shimasu."
Laylah helps educate me about the extremely limited choices most folks in most places around the world have in life. In Russia, for example, where they don't really know what freedom is, and never really have. I want to know why they don't leave, and am told that it is all but impossible to get out of there (and a lot of places): You can't get papers to emigrate; you can't get U.S. employers to pay the up to $15,000 for working papers; the U.S. immigration situation is more difficult every yearmost get in through the lottery, or residents with foreign family members can sponsor one a year, and almost nobody can claim asylum anymore (you still can if you're a North Korean, but not if you're a Cuban). Even in France: you can't get a bank account without proof of a job, you almost can't get an apartment. The U.S. freedom of mobility is not common elsewhere; nobody goes anywhere. Laylah's Slovokan friend left his little village to move to Prague, and when he returns to visit, he is a towering figure because of his accomplishment in actually moving somewhere.
Me: "As one of those radical Jeffersonian libertarians, I just can't understand how entire countries full of people live everyday without basic freedoms."I don't know precisely what she means by her closing comment, but it seems very important to pay it the respect of letting it lie.
L: "It's like your fish joke. [Old Joke: A bunch of young fish are hanging out, and an old fish swims up and says, "Hi, kids, how's the water?" and swims off, and one of the young fish says, "What the fuck's 'water'?"] They've always lived like this, so don't think there is anything else."
Me: "I do understand that the U.S. is something of an historical abberation. If you look back, it's pretty much been tyrants and slaves all the way back. But one thing I almost don't understand is, given the remarkable confluence of prosperity and freedom that we enjoy, it seems kind of amazing that Americans ever want to set foot outside the borders (much less expatriate themselves)."
L (the expatriate): "America has its own kind of prisons."
At the next station, our empty car is flooded and exactly filled with a grammar school field trip, resulting in perfect misery. We flee to the next car.
Arrive Gare de Lyon (the Paris train stations are named mostly after the places where the line goes out to). Check in at our hotel in the 4th Arrondissement, and begin the Greatest Hits Tour: Notre Dame (outside, and inside, and up on top). The Pantheon, mausoleum to France's intellectual heavyweights, and current home to Foucoult's Pendulum. Across Pont Neuf (Paris' oldest bridge), to the Conciergerie (where France's nobility, up to the King, spent their last days in company with their heads), and all around the Ile de la Cite' (the original settlement, on an island in the Seine).
After getting that stuff out of the way ;^) the all-important leisurely cafe stop on Boulevard St. Germaine, where L makes friends with the dog de l'Maison, Willie, a female 5-month old boxer, with a face too homely and loveable for words. Down Boulevard St. Germaine and into the Latin Quarter (named for the language endeavors of students at the Sorbonne). Darkness, the need for beer, and a fortuitous Maison de la Biere, where they're extravagant enough to serve me a half meter of Hoegaarden White Ale. We try to get l'addition to pay and leave.
M: "Where's out waiter?"I follow her finger to behind the bar where the waiter is slumped away from us smoking a cigarette, and reach for my Score Card.
L: "He's being French."
Back on the street, difficulties with the damned CyberCafe, difficulties with the phone at the hotel, remorse as Laylah realizes she has misinformed me of Marie Antoinette's pejorative nickname amongst the French: it was actually "The Austrian"not "The German," as she had told me in Marie's prison chamber earlier, in the Conciergerie.
M: "Like I even know the difference between a German and an Austrian...."Difficulties and remorse fade with the sunlight, and I get my first of night time Paris, City of Light. Wow. Sleep.
L: "Pretty much just the accent. Hitler's invasion of Austria was like a Homecoming Parade."
Big creepy-looking gargoyles, according to L, "serve a handy dual purpose: scaring off evil spirits, and allowing you to pour hot oil on your invaders." All morning in the Louvre: I'm not a big Renaissance art fan (reclining women, swooping Cherubim, glowing Christ childs, yadda yadda), which puts me at a bit of a disadvantage as a Louvre-goer. Still, we hit some must-sees (Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Crown Jewels), and I'm highly diverted by the building itself. The Galerie D'Appollona huge dining room in the building's past life as the Royal Palaceis pretty much too ornate and elaborately done for words. At its far end, a security guy menaces us as we lean too close to Empress Josephine's crown, a diamond the size of a golf ball, and Louis XV's jewel-encrusted hat: "Man, that guy's kind of uptight. It's not like he's guarding the Crown Jewels, or something. Wait a minute...."
Champs Elysees, strip mall to the elite of the world, and we make L's much-anticipated stop at Sephora, which is a beauty store best-described as what heaven would be like with Coco Channel as God. I'd have some shots of this perfectly indescribeable establishment, but security shut me down (and seemed to want to confiscate my camera); you can take pictures in down-market places like the Louvre, but not here, please. I do a little girlie gift-shopping, which is actually fun. The Arc de Triomphe (enduring tribute to Napoleon's crowded list of victories) is one big ole hunk of stone. The juxtaposition of past and future is sharp as we descend to a giant Tomb Raider III (more commonly known, for obvious reasons, as "Huge Breast Raider") advertisement on the Metro. Nighttime:
M: "It's totally hackneyed, but I think I feel like one is supposed to feel in Paris: slightly in love with life."Two lovers on the Seine kiss, and I get the sweet triple word score because they're BOTH wearing berets. On top of that, I sweep the bonus round by actually saying aloud, "Ahh... l'amour."
M: "It's irrational; I don't know why I feel so light."
L: "Of course it's irrational; that's why Paris has a multi-billion dollar tourist industry. Exuberance is a major export."
M: "This is great, I'm getting to use virtually all of the kitchen French: 'C'est magnifique' for the wrapping job at Sephora, now this...."We pass Notre Dame again, colorfully lit from bateaux mouche (boats in the Seine), and it's knocking me out.
L: "Ooh la la."
M: "No, I haven't sunk quite that far yet."
L: "You will. If you're on 'Ah, l'amour', your next stop is definitely 'Ooh la la'. And there won't even be any shame in it."
M: "It's beautiful."That huge gorgeous beast (or "tough old bitch" as Laylah terms it), buttresses flying, has stood there since the 1200s, surviving both World Wars with just a few scratches, and it is just too imposing for words. I believe I thought that many items on my Greatest Hits Tour were famous for being famousthat I would see Notre Dame, or Le Louvre, or the Arc de Triomphe, because they are Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Arc. I see now that people come to see these things because they are genuinely pretty damned amazing.
L: "Paris is like going back in time hundreds of years."
M: "Particularly when trying to log in."
Dinner at Le Grenier de Notre Dame, most highly touted place in the Paris section of the World Guide to Vegetarianism. We have carrion-free versions of traditional French dishes (choucroute, cassoulet), in just a really great room. Our host (a thin late 30s Frenchman with jacket, van dyke beard, and deep dark eyes) is both gorgeous and solicitous, with a rich relaxed voice. We feel a little odd being served by such an imposing guy. Perhaps he's the owner. Sleep.
Our second full morning is all about our second petit dejeuner complet, the traditional and hugely civilized French breakfast of croissants, narrow baguettes, and cafe aulait. I'm getting used to all this pretty quickly; and I'm even really starting to like the French themselves. (They seem to be playing a bit against (stereo-)type: we've had several stellar waiters, hotel clerks, and friendly strangers. I credit, at least in part, Laylah's French and my deference.) Out on the street, two men buss eachother three times on the cheeks; my card is nearly full. We go to the train station to change our tickets to later in the day; we've got a couple of things left to do:
From there it's onward to the crowning pop-culture pilgrimage of the trip: Laylah is keen to visit the Diana Death Tunneland I am unexpectedly caught up in the dramatic immediacy of it, and Laylah's narrative. She points out Dodie's apartment building, and the direction of the hotel they were coming from. She also gives me a lot of background on the players and the event, which is pointless to relate here, but to which I had never before paid any attention. We arrive on top of the tunnel, where a monument, a replication of the Statue of Liberty's torch has been popularly repurposed as a Diana Memorial/Shrine; pictures, flowers, and grafiti cover the statue, and the railing of the bridge. I'm still feeling a bit flippant about the whole thing, so when I spot the one grafito (top-most one in the picture) which says "Nos estamos con saudades [We miss you]," and is signed "Brasil, 4 times champions," I can't help but feel that sums things up a bit. However, when we descend to a few feet from the actual spot, and Laylah, sounding for all the world like the New Orleans district attorney, solemnly intones "Dodi, who had been a race car driver, went into the turn, and moved to the outside lane to pass a white Fiat. The driver of the white Fiat has never been found...." I'm a little stirred. I'm definitely at a place that's famous for being famous, but it's disturbing to picture the crash before your eyes, as Laylah describes it in detail. I'm no more shaken by the Princess' death than I am by any of the 44,000 or so Americans who die on the highway each year; but no less so, either.
Ogling more women back on the Metro, I consider the prospect of coming back in the summer for a single-purpose "hunting expedition." L: "It wouldn't even be like hunting, more like a harvest." You don't need any French to read the covers, identical to their American counterparts, of the women's magazines: "Sexe: Petit ou grandequelle importance?" Back to the Louvre gift shop; I've got the energy to shop now, where I didn't after the museum morning, and seamlessly solve some of my most difficult holiday shopping problems. L: "Everyone likes stuff from Paris. 'What is it?' 'It's from Paris, that's what it is.'" Street musicians, a violinist and an accordianist, play Mozart in the Metro tunnel. There's no spot for this on my Score Card, but I can't resist writing it in.
We squeeze in a run through the legs the Eiffel Tower, which is bigger, browner, and in a less urban spot, than I had imagined. Like the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, I believe I agree with the traditionalists (or perhaps the term is "reactionaries") that neither of these two structures really work where they are. With a few exceptions, Paris is built to a uniform seven stories (which turns out to be very pleasing, like, to the point that I'm close to thinking that seven stories is the Platonically ideal height for a structure) and a substantial consistency of architectural style. The mutant radio tower seems to me about as out of place in the upscale and enticing 7th, as that translucent New Age monstrosity in the stately royal courtyard of the former Palace. (We can count our blessing that so far no one has planted anything unsightly outside of the Musee d'Orsee.)
Back by rail, much beer and food in celebration of a late-day expatriate Thanksgiving. A late lie-in the next day, followed by a quick run into Annamasse, where we're pretty sure we see Sam Elliot in the ski shop (or else someone who looks just like Sam Elliot anyway, and didn't consider that growing a big droopy gray moustache would create a lot of confusion). Tomorrow: A little snowboarding action at Chamonix, in the French Alps; pray for me. Happy late ThanksgivingMichael