Saturday, October 14, 2023

France 2023: Arrival in Paris

"What is that white thing hanging off the top of the suitcase?" I ask Ana as we walk up to the check-in counter.

"What do you think it is?" she says.

"Looks like your garter belt from our wedding."

"You're right! It'll help us spot our generic black bag when it rolls down the luggage carousel with all the other ones in Paris."

I eye her suspiciously as I have my doubts. I sniff it and it does not smell anything like her leg. Then, it hits me.

"That's a doily off your mom's coffee table! Brilliant!"

We arrive to security and put our stuff into the white baskets and wait. They're not moving. There must be a log jam in the scanner. The security staff start yelling at the guy working the machine. Meantime, Ana and I go through the metal detector and pass through, then I see the problem. The dude at the machine has his eyes closed and is smiling as he hammers buttons, spins dials, and pushes levers on the scanning machine. I think he's practicing for his Saturday DJ gig at the club. A passenger yells at him and tells him to wake up.

"Yo man, show some respect," he says as he snaps back to life and advances a few bags without looking at the screen. "You should be thanking me for keeping you all safe."

Um hmm.

It feels like night within the airplane. The window shades are all closed and most passengers are sleeping. Time on an airplane takes on strange qualities during an overnight run. Economy class plebs sleep sitting up, fitfully, but it usually feels like you haven't slept at all and have instead spent all night with your eyes glued to the entertainment system in the seatback in front of you, and occasionally that of your neighbours when some nudity or excessive violence pops up on whatever they are watching. The concept of night itself collapses, especially flying east as the earth's rotation seems to double, thereby halving the hours of darkness.

On this flight from Paris (well, actually Toronto) to Paris, our sleep is indeed shallow and uncertain. But the hours pass and when Ana opens the shade I am blinded by the light and shield my eyes and skin like an unearthed vampire as I hiss and curse.

The airplane lands and parks. We walk down the stairs, smelling jet fuel exhaust, and plant our feet onto French asphalt.

"We're here!" I say.

"Viva la France!" Ana responds. I kiss her right on the lips and realize we have come full circle. Last time we were here in around 2002 was as a couple with no kids. After nearly 20 years of child rearing and taking those little suckers everywhere we went, we now find ourselves alone again. It's a good feeling.

After collecting our bags at the surprisingly small and quiet Terminal 3 of Charles De Gaulle airport, we buy train tickets and spend a very long time riding trains, transferring trains, walking up and down station stairs and escalators, and finally arrive at Voltaire station then walk a short ways to our apartment, a modest studio at the end of a narrow courtyard filled with potted trees and bicycles chained to iron piping. The studio apartment has exactly what we need; no more, no less -  two plates, two forks, two cups, kettle, corkscrew, tiny fridge, one serrated knife,  one bed, and a classic European WC with no sink and a toilet that has no immediately obvious way to flush it. Perfect.

After unpacking we contemplate our situation. It is 1pm and we are exhausted, but there is no time to waste. We step out from the courtyard and find at least four eateries within one block of our studio. We check the menu of the first one, pass on that and go to the second. Looks okay, but maybe the third is better. We go there and have our doubts. Then we go back to the second, which is a Lebanese fusion place. That's when I feel the h'anger taking over so I tell Ana we have to sit down before I grow muscles, turn green, and start clobbering people. The cold beer,  delicious food, and bill that does not add 13% tax and 20% gratuity fix us up completely so we can now begin exploring. We start walking down the first street that points towards the centre.

We reach the Bastille neighbourhood, which has a long and wide meridian lined up with metal frames for the huge market held here twice weekly. There is an outdoor art exhibition with huge, vibrant paintings that challenge your social conscience. From here we see a wide canal with boats, so naturally our feet lead us that way. Most of the boats are large, live aboard canal vessels, very long and somewhat narrow, and most have outdoor patio furniture, potted plants, and bicycles amongst the ropes, chains, dinghies, and life rings.

We follow the channel out to the mighty Seine and walk the concrete shoreline until we reach a bridge, which we cross. From here we see the scaffolded profile of Notre Dame, under reconstruction since the huge fire that consumed half of her. All around us are mighty and ancient buildings, typical of European power capitals, but perhaps none quite so majestic as those in Paris.

Along the left bank of the Seine are kilometers of green wooden cabinets, tended by the Bouqinistes of Paris - the  book sellers, who have been at it since the 16th century. Books, comics, photographs, and tourist kitsch are amongst the items for sale. I could have filled a bag with purchases here. I could have filled a second bag with gear from a record shop I found that sold exclusively heavy metal products - cd's, DVD's, albums, comics, posters, figurines. Rock on.

After cutting back across the river and passing through Notre Dame (and masses of tourists) we walk along the Rivoli, a beautifully wide street that demonstrates everything wrong with urban planning in Canada. Going from left to right we find a wide pedestrian strip with many cafĂ© and restaurant patios, then a series of classy black lane separator poles, then a bike lane wide enough for two streams of bicycles, then a single lane for traffic (which bikers also use), then a meridian space for pedestrians to stop as they are crossing the street, then another car lane, bike lane, and pedestrian space mirroring that on the other side of the street. The total space dedicated to vehicles is less than one third of the width. What does this result in? People. Lots of people. And all manner of human powered vehicles zipping around - bicycles, bicycles towing trailers, skateboards,  in-line skates, scooters, but also electrically powered ones like ebikes, mono-wheels, and electric scooters.  On the side streets where parking is available we see electric chargers everywhere, which results in - guess what? Thousands of electric cars and electric motorcycles. As I stand on the street admiring this beautiful scene before me I realize something else. I am not overpowered by the stink of car exhaust. The fuel powered vehicles that remain are ultra efficient and many use alternative fuels like propane and maybe natural gas. It is truly inspiring and this is by far the most profound change I see in Paris since we last visited more than twenty years ago.

We visit an incredible church. I feel like I've been here before, but we've visited a lot of medieval churches. The stations of the cross adorn the interior walls, but what's this? One of the stations seems to have fallen off and there is only broken plaster hanging off the wall, perhaps now devoted to Jean Tabernac, Patron Saint of Concrete?

After a glass of champagne and pint of beer at one of the many cafes on the Rivoli, we walk back to our neighbourhood on exhausted legs navigated by overtired brains. At the Carrefour we find a huge block of brie and bottle of red then visit the bakery for a baguette and focaccia and enjoy a lovely backpacker dinner in our room. We are exhausted beyond belief but I talk Ana into one last evening walk around the neighbourhood then we return to the room and collapse. Day 1 complete.

1 comment:

  1. Great entry as usual. Threw me for a loop at the beginning- I thought you were pointing out an AirTag. I love Paris and can’t wait to take Lydia there someday. Eat some steak frites for me. Enjoy!