Midday in Paris

30 Jul

We’d started our trip in England, culturally a country well within most Americans’ comfort zone.  It was time to move to the next country, and our first foray into having to deal with a language not our own.  Julia and I were up early in the morning to pack up and walk to St. Pancras station.  If I haven’t mentioned them before, I’m going to take a moment here to extol the virtues of our “Spinner” suitcases.

When we were planning our trip we tried very hard to balance the clothing and sundry items that we would want and need on a three-week trip against having to carry all of those things with us a great deal of the time.  When I had traveled to Europe in the late 80’s it was for an extended stay in a single location with weekend trips throughout the UK and the Continent.  I carried a large and a medium suitcase that were packed full.  I had a collapsible nylon bag inside to fill with souvenirs and bring home.  Once in the UK, I purchased a large backpack and this is what I carried on weekend trips.

This time however, we would have no base of operations.  We would be moving from city to city, unable to leave things behind as we would not be returning.  Julia was skeptical of the size of luggage I wanted us to carry, but after a few travel days (And particularly after trying to shove our luggage into the tiny car we rented in Ireland), it became apparent that I had made the right choice for once.  We each carried a single medium-sized hard side “Spinner” suitcase.  These cases have a handle on the side and can be carried like a traditional suitcase, however they also have an extendable handle and four wheels, allowing them to be pulled along behind like a rolling case as well as roll along in an upright position.  We had settled upon this model after reading an article by an anonymous baggage handler who indicated that these cases are the least likely to be damaged in transit from being tossed from one end of the hold to another as crews tried to make the most effective use of cargo space in the limited amount of time available to load the plane.  According to this baggage handler the cases are rolled upright from one end of the plane to the other, as this is the quickest way to get them there.  As an added bonus, they’re not prone to falling over like a traditional rolling case. In addition to our hard side cases we each carried a backpack as close to the official carry-on size as we could manage.  We made extensive use of Space Bags to maximize the available space inside our cases.

St. Pancras was about a five minute walk from our hotel. Inside the station we encountered long lines for security and passport control for international departures.  The lines moved steadily, but not quickly enough to avoid being irritating.  Security and passport control personnel were efficient, and had a pretty good system in place for moving people through quickly.  The problem was that no one was informed of this system until the instant you reached the security checkpoint, meaning that only those of us who had been paying very close attention were prepared.  Upon reaching a checkpoint we breezed through quickly and continued on through passport control in less than a minute.  Here we reached the first moving ramp I’ve ever encountered.  It is a cross between a moving sidewalk and an escalator and in combining these two devices it manages to completely negate the benefits of either.  On an escalator you can simply stand still with your luggage as the moving stair carries you to the second level.  On a moving sidewalk you can walk along the smooth conveyor with your luggage.  On a moving ramp walking with your luggage is more difficult since you’re trying to pull it up an incline and you cannot simply stand there, because you’re on an angle and your luggage will roll away.  Let’s make a point of not importing these to the States, ok?

Having summited St. Pancras station we stood looking about for our train.  We had located the correct platform and were searching for our car number when up from the depths of the station came a wail born of soul crushing despair.  A plaintive voice arose in protest from the direction of passport control. A child, a boy, who sounded no more than four or five years old cried out to the uncaring world “Nein!”

“Nein!”

“Nein, nein, nein! NEIN!”

Somewhere there was a little German who very much did not want to go to France, which is refreshing I suppose. Normally when I travel screaming children are the bane of my existence.  I catch a lot of grief for this from my friends with kids (Yes, we are childless), but it is a short list of things that will drive me into a homicidal rage faster than a parent calmly reading a magazine or conversing with their spouse while their child shrieks away next to them in an enclosed conveyance.

Child screaming “No” in a foreign language however?  Hilarious.  I don’t know if it was because my brain filled in a mental image of a toddler in lederhosen clinging to the turnstile while his mother pulled him by both legs (We never actually saw the child) or the idea that some deep Teutonic genetic memory predisposed this kid to be violently opposed to the notion of setting foot in Gaul, I have no idea, but for some reason this little episode made us laugh ourselves silly.

We pre-booked our tickets on the Eurostar before leaving the States.  The train through the Chunnel was the fastest, most economic, most sensible route to Paris.  I owe an undying debt of gratitude to the creator of the website The Man In Seat Sixty-One, one Mark Smith of Buckinghamshire.  The site is a detailed guide to traveling by train anywhere in the world and included a number of very handy helpful hints.  I cannot recommend this site highly enough if you’re going to do any traveling in Europe.  Particularly helpful was the bit about how many booking agent sites quote much higher prices to travelers making inquiries from the United States.  Sticking with the train companies and individual websites or telling the site that you’re located in Canada, the UK, or Afghanistan will most often result in a lower fare.  He has detailed information on seating options for different types of trains and detailed instructions on how to travel between stations in Paris, since connecting through the capital may mean travel across town to a different station.

We chose two seats in Standard Class for £39 each and found them quite roomy and comfortable.  Second-class travel by train in Europe is far and away more comfortable than any economy flight I have ever taken and our London – Paris trip cost 1/3 less than the cheapest airfare I could find.

I have to say that traveling through the Chunnel was somewhat anti-climactic.  Since the only view you have from a moving train is out the window perpendicular to your line of travel, you don’t see the tunnel coming.  You see nothing of its architecture or the area surrounding it and the Channel itself is further down the line.  You’re blasting along and everything simply goes dark.  About twenty minutes later you emerge from the tunnel and continue traveling through a landscape very similar in appearance to the one you just left.

We arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris.  I stopped at the ticket counter and purchased tickets for our train trip to Normandy a few days hence (Can’t use the automated kiosk because no chip and pin) and then we hopped on the Metro for the ride to our hotel. On the Eurostar the staff offered 10-packs of Paris Metro tickets for sale. Do take advantage of this as it will save you time once you reach Paris.  Since I was trying to make the trip with as few connections as possible I ended up getting us to Place de la Nation (A 5 minute walk from our hotel) instead of the Picpus station (A 2 minute walk from our hotel).

For reasons of economy I had chosen the Hotel du Printemps in the 12th Arrondissement. That isn’t to say the hotel was cheap, but it was far less expensive than a location in central Paris.  The hotel is situated in a mostly residential but still urban area.  Hotel du Printemps has been recently renovated and was easily the most modern room we stayed in during our entire trip.  Counter to the stereotype of the rude and aloof Parisien, Marc at the front desk was polite, helpful, and did us the favor of conversing with us in fluent English.  Checking in early was not a problem and he gave several recommendations for local eateries.  We took our key from Marc and stuffed ourselves into the smallest elevator I have ever encountered in my life.  There was just room for Julia, myself, and our suitcases with me holding my breath.  Getting off on the 4th floor (5th if you’re an American) we encountered a hallway little wider than my shoulders.

The room was quite small, maybe a foot and a half on either side of the double bed and less than 6 feet from the foot of the bed to the bathroom door but quite modern as I’ve mentioned.  There was a wardrobe with the safe inside just large enough for a wallet and a few passports.  The bathroom was thoroughly modern and there were very well sealed replacement windows in the bedroom and bathroom.  We had to stack our suitcases one atop another to have room to move about freely, but since we weren’t planning on spending much time in the room we didn’t really need an aircraft hangar.

And the room had a modern thermostat!

It would be a recurring theme throughout our trip that we were unable to control the temperature most of the places we stayed.  The Hotel du Printemps was the only hotel we encountered in Europe that used central forced air.  Everyplace else still used radiators just as they had when I visited over 20 years ago.  However, unlike during my previous visit, everyone has discovered the timer thermostat.  It was not at all uncommon, in fact it was the rule, that the radiators would completely shut themselves off during the midday hours and after about 10:30 p.m..  As we kept somewhat irregular hours while running all over the city and staying out as late as we could to see as much as possible, this was problematic.  The expectation is, of course, that you’re in bed asleep during the nighttime hours and should be under piles and piles of covers.  The Hotel du Printemps was a sole and shining beacon of thermal self-determinism.  We were able to make it as hot or as cool as we liked 24 hours a day!

We dropped our things in our room, freshened up, and headed off to a local restaurant.  It would be one of only two times that we ate out while in Paris.  We sat down to lunch at a small bistro just half a block away from the hotel.  I had tried and failed to get a coherent overview of dining out in Paris from several guidebooks and websites before leaving the states.  Everyone tells you something different.  No one prepares you for the bewildering list of itemized taxes, surcharges, and fees at the bottom of the receipt you’re handed at the end of your meal.  We had a fantastic lunch but were a little baffled by the check.  Our waiter did not speak a word of English and in any case had gone on a break.  We asked the English-speaking bartender if the line item marked “Service” was the gratuity for our meal.  She insisted that it was not.  We later learned that this was not the truth.  We left an additional gratuity for our waiter and went on our way.  When we did finally determine what was considered appropriate when tipping in Paris we were more than a little pissed off about this episode.

Back down into the Metro, which like the Underground in London ran quite frequently.  We made our way to the Trocadero and for a few bright moments the sun was shining as we exited the station.  I asked Julia to turn her head to the right as we exited the station so as not to catch a glimpse of our first destination before she was in a spot to experience it in all its glory.  Once we reached the center of the Plaza I told her to look to the left, where she got to see the EiffelTower for the first time.

1989             2012

We’ve all seen it in countless movies. If you’ve been to King’s Island in Ohio or the Paris in Las Vegas you’ve seen scaled down copies. But unless you’ve seen it in person you really have no idea how amazing La Tour Eiffel really is. At over 1,000 feet tall it is the height of an 80 story building, and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for 41 years after its completion in 1889.  As with many of the places I revisited during this trip, the tower was slightly different. In 1989 the word “100 Ans” was picked out in bright lights along the side for the tower’s 100th anniversary. The Trocadero is still the best place from which to observe the tower and was much cleaner than when I visited 20 years before.

Aaaaaand moments after we snapped some lovely pics it began to rain. This was most of our time in France… gorgeous blue sky with a scattering of fluffy impossibly white clouds and then torrential rains five minutes later.  Everyone noted that everything in our pictures looked so bright, shiny and crisp. Yes, because everything was wet. After admiring the tower for a bit we ducked into the French Maritime Museum to get out of the rain. While inside we purchased a 2-day museum pass.

The Paris Museum Pass is worth every penny. Buy one. At present a 2-day pass costs €39 (A 4-day pass is €54 and a 6-day pass is €69) . We worked out that visiting 4 museums would make the pass economically worthwhile. There is no way you’re going to make 4 museums in 2 days if one of those museums is the Louvre, but the value of the pass isn’t just economic. The pass allows you to skip the ticket queue and confers VIP status at the security line. Straight to the door with you when you’re carrying one of these bad boys.  The passes are for sale along with the Metro tickets on the Eurostar. I do believe they were offered at a slight discount but I can’t recall. If you come into the country that way you should definitely take advantage. You activate the pass by writing in the date on the back, so you don’t have to use it the day it’s purchased and it’s good at more than 60 locations around Paris.

The sun came out again and we made our way down the steps along the fountains to the Pont d’Iéna. If the carousel wasn’t the same one spinning away when I passed in 1989, I couldn’t tell. We crossed the bridge and walked down to the river. We sat by the Seine in the shadow of the tower and had a little snack.  If I’ve not mentioned it before, carry a bottle of water to refill. The tap water in every country we visited was just fine, and bottled water is not only a worldwide environmental tragedy but a ripoff on an unprecedented scale.

A houseboat resident even less impressed with the weather than us

We walked along the bank looking at the houseboats for about a mile as the sun and rain came and went at 10-minute intervals and then crossed over to the Ile aux Cygnes, the somewhat inappropriately named “Swan Island” to see the Statue of Liberty.  Well, not THE Statue of Liberty. Nor, as I thought at the time, a model used for its construction, but a ¼ scale replica given as a gift from the American Society to the people of France three years after the dedication of the original in New York harbor. It is also nowhere as near the Pont de Bir-Hakeim as we are lead to believe in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” although you can access the island from the bridge and walk to the sothern end. There is a dog park on the island. Follow the barking and you can’t go far wrong. We crossed the river again (In a steady rain) and caught the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe.

The Arc is truly massive. It is situated in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle at the west end of the Champs-Élysées. It was begun in 1806 and took 30 years to complete.  Since it sits in the center of one of the busiest roundabouts in Europe, access is via two underground walkways.  We made our way to the center of the Arc to have a look at the four giant reliefs that decorate it.  The French Tomb of the Unknown is situated directly under the arch and there is a museum exhibit space inside.

The skies cleared again and we made our way down the Champs-Élysées, the bright and storied avenue of Paris, high-end shops and cafes crowding every inch. You can buy a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, cross the street for a matching Louis Vuitton bag, then a few doors down pick up a new Mercedes. We stopped in at Swatch for the sake of nostalgia. Julia found a case of watches that looked very much like the ones she wore in high school. I told her to smile and I raised my phone to take a picture… and a clerk literally DOVE across the store to stop me.  Dude’s coat tails were in the air, body fully horizontal, DIVING across the store.  I apologized, telling him I hadn’t noticed any signage telling me I couldn’t photograph the watches.

“You can photo the watches.”

“I can?”

“Yes. Walls. The pictures on walls. Please no pictures.”

Ah. The store was decorated with pictures (That I could NOT photograph) of the watches (Which I could). Ok.

We continued down the avenue and stopped in Vinci Park to watch the sun go down, and to just sit and rest for a moment (We’d walked about 5 miles). It was a pleasant evening, the air was cool and fragrant with the scent of the flowers that filled the park, and we were in Paris. It is REALLY hard to improve on this.

We hopped on the Metro and rode back to our hotel. We stopped in a local shop and picked up some prosciutto, brie and hard cheese, fruit, a baguette, some little chocolate cookies and some wine. This became our standard meal in Paris. We sat in bed eating and looking at our pictures from the day and making our plan of action for….

The Louvre!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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