Paris Trip: 5/21 – 5/30/2004 

 

[See also these travel tales about China.]

 

First Meal in Paris  [POSTED 6/23/2004]

Deciding on the café for our first Parisian meal involved a couple of trips across the Rue Monge and back.  The first place we saw looked promising but was kind of empty.  We tried the more colorful place across the street: it had a maroon awning and signs with yellow lettering.  The inside was almost lush.  It didn’t seem like a classic French café.  It could have been English or Irish or Eastern European.  Local people were sitting inside smoking and watching a horse race on TV.  So, we headed back across the Rue Monge looking at other possibilities as we did so.  There was one place called the Café Mirbel (the Rue de Mirbel was the cross street).  But, the one we chose was the first one we had been drawn to, the Café Royal Mirbel. 

 

The waiter was a young man with close cropped hair who spoke English with a thick and, I suspect, Parisian accent.  He led us to a table that looked out on a side street – the street with the Irish pub, Connolly’s Corner, at the end of the block. 

 

I tried to speak some French but, ironically, I was a little out of practice after about 48 hours without my French book.  Plus, Daisy did not speak any French.  So, the waiter struggled away in English. 

 

For the first of many times, we were faced with a problem I hadn’t really expected: having difficulty understanding the French menu.  It was a prix fixe menu but I was unfamiliar with many of the words. 

 

I ordered a pichet de vin rouge (carafe of red wine) and the waiter asked me if I would prefer one of two kinds.  I had trouble understanding him because of the way he rolled his "R"s but the second time he said it I recognized the word, “Bordeaux.”  This threw light on the rest of the phrase “Bordeaux ou Cotes de Rhone?”  I believe I chose the former. 

 

This sudden illumination of phrases and sentences in a foreign language is an interesting and relatively common experience.  You can listen along to a conversation or monologue in French or Chinese and for a long time catch only a word here and a word there.  It is like groping through a dark room and touching a familiar object now and then, while still remaining lost.  Then, without warning, you recognize a string of words and you understand immediately – without translating into English.  You just know what it means,  In China, I compared it to struggling to read pages of dense, dark text and suddenly having a flashlight shine on a single sentence.  Unfortunately, the page can often fall back into darkness again after that.  When this happens you are lucky if that one sentence provides you with the topic.  Then you have a chance of following the general trend of the discussion or talk while waiting for the next phrase or sentence to be illuminated. 

 

I had a similar experience at Notre Dame the next morning.  Throughout the first half of the mass, I struggled to understand what people were saying, though, of course, I was familiar with the prayers and responses in English.  However I had to strain to make out more than a word or two at a time.  I made out only a general idea of what the gospel reading was about.  During the homily I worked and worked to comprehend what the bishop (I think) was saying.  Then, suddenly, without realizing it right away, the haphazard understood word started to become haphazard understood phrases.  Then the phrases became a sentence or two and I had a general topic to hold onto when I got lost again.  I knew without translating or consciously thinking “Hey, I understood that part!” that he was talking about a history of conflict among Christians and conflict in the history of Paris and that what was needed was greater unity.  Then he mentioned something about the Gospel or the Book of Revelations by St. John.  I had been following along for a while without being conscious of it.  When a visiting priest said a few words in Spanish, I understood the gist of his short speech without realizing at first that he had been speaking in a third tongue.  Anyway, all of this took place on the second day in Paris.  Let’s get back to that first lunch. 

  

 I had a duck tartine of some sort that tasted somewhat like a spicy sausage.  For our main courses, or plats (not entrées – those are appetizers), we both had different cuts of beef.  Mine was called a bavette, I believe. 

 

One odd moment occurred when the waiter wanted to know how Daisy wanted her steak cooked.  He asked in English that was evidently translated literally from the French (sanglais), “Do you want it with blood or without blood?” 

 

She likes her steak rare and so ordered it with blood.  It wasn’t until later in the week that we learned the word for the rarest-cooked steak, “Bleu.”  That was at Le Coupole in Montparnasse, home of the plat which Daisy pronounced the best steak she had ever had. 

 

I had another linguistic epiphany when I heard the waiter ask about, “Haricots vert,” a phrase I had learned from the guidebook.  Again, I was thrown by his French-rolled “R.”  Anyway, it dawned on me that he meant green beans!  Daisy had beans and I had fries.  

 

For dessert, I think I had the chocolate mousse and Daisy had crème caramel, which she didn’t really like and traded with me.  The explanation of crème caramel required the assistance of a middle-aged woman who spoke some English and seemed to be a regular customer.  I remember her being casually dressed, possibly wearing shorts – a rare sight in Paris. 

 

When Daisy went to the bathroom, somehow she made friends with a man in his 30s who is an actor and math teacher.  I met him on the way out and he said he wanted to come to New York and meet Woody Allen.  He was preparing his Math lessons for the coming week.  Daisy told him that I am a playwright and he shook my hand.  He even waved the smoke from his cigarette away from me as we chatted. 

 

All in all the Café Royal Mirbel was a surprisingly friendly experience.  Everyone was helpful and they seemed genuinely nappy to have us there.  Now that I think of it, it seems to have been more of a local hangout than other places we visited during our stay.  I wanted to go back there, especially to see what it was like at night, but we never did.  There were far too many other places to visit in the beautiful city of Paris!

 

Introduction: [POSTED 6/05/2004]

 

To me Paris seemed as close to heaven as an earthly city could be.  Paris places a stronger emphasis on art, literature, and ideas than any city I have seen.  There are streets named after Descartes, Hugo, Dante Picasso, ...  The bridge that leads from the Left Bank to the Louvre is the Pont des Arts.  The Pantheon honors the great people of French history, with a surprising emphasis on writers: Hugo, Zola, and Dumas are buried there in the same crypt.  The tombs of Voltaire and Rosseau are the first you come across.  You can casually walk by the university where Aquinas taught and take a rest at the café where Sartre wrote.

 

Paris emphasizes beauty more than any place I’ve visited.  And, I say this without considering the museums and their centuries of great art.  There is block after beautiful block with Beaux Arts architecture, palaces, elegant bridges, statues, gardens, and churches.  Even many of the cafes are beautiful, such as the Cafe de la Paix where Oscar Wilde once saw an angel floating on the sidewalk.  A couple of cab rides through the center of Paris provided such gorgeous sights that they left me weak at the knees.  In Paris, you could drown in beauty!

 

Paris also seems to place a great deal of importance on quality of life.  They describe living as “Art de vivre.”  It does not seem as cutthroat or as focused on the maximum possible profit as NYC is.  The café culture is an obvious example of this.  You can have a cup of coffee, glass of water, some wine, or a whole meal and still hold onto the table.  No matter what you order, you can sit as long as you want.  They don’t try to cram as many people in as possible and force them to order a meal. 

 

Finally, everything – the weather, our plans, the places and events we came upon by accident – went just about perfectly while we were there.

 

Flight

 

On Friday I left work and headed over to Penn Station to meet Daisy.  We took the NJ transit train and the monorail out to Newark Airport.  Air India was easily recognizable by the lines of women in Saris waiting to check in their bags.  We got thought he line fairly quickly and headed toward our gate.  I had a little trouble with the metal detector and the slight blonde guy who was checking me with the metal detector wand was a very serious fellow indeed.  It turned out it was my work ID that was causing the trouble. 

 

Finally through all that with very little trouble, all in all, we moved through the relatively quiet airport to the Sam Adams bar near our gate.  We ordered d a couple of large glasses of Sam Adams.  We took some pictures, and called Bud to let him know we were having a beer and about to get on the plane to Paris

 

We chatted with a nice man from London for a while.  Then a silly guy from Belfast came along.  He had two memorable bon mots:

 

He gave the bartender back some money that had been incorrectly given to him. 

 

A guy in a fire department t-shirt said:

 

“An honest man, an honest Irishman!”

 

“There are only three of us.” 

 

When talking about his visit to China:

 

“And the food in China has such variety, too. Where I come from, we have a little bit of meat on the plate and next to it some potatoes and some vegetables.  The only variety we get is by moving the things around on the plate.” 

 

The flight itself was relatively painless.  An older Indian stewardess ran around offering water to everyone while we waited to take off.  I read Henry James’s The American, had three beers, slept an hour or two, and before long found that we were descending toward Charles de Gaulle airport. 

 

 Saturday, 5/22:  Explore Rue Mouffetard, Pantheon,

 

We struggled through the crowded airport filled with people pushing their luggage on carts and saying “pardon” as they passed by.  Daisy had asked me to ask the woman at a counter how to find the baggage carousel for our flight and I froze up, tired and a little intimidated about using the French I had studied -- especially as I was not quite sure how to ask.  Daisy asked in English.  We found the bags and then changed some money.  Since we were in Terminal 2, which was where the train station is and we didn’t have any kind of shuttle bus or hope of finding one, I suggested we follow what the guidebook said and take the train south and into Paris

 

We walked from 2A to 2C not finding a sign for the Gare until we had almost gotten to it.  (The maps of the airport were confusing – especially so in the crowd right around where we had gotten off.)  But, we persevered and eventually found where we were going.  We followed a sign pointing us downstairs and saw that there was a big line waiting for tickets.  However, there was a machine.  So, using my limited French and trying different cards, which seemed acceptable and unacceptable on almost a random basis, we got two RER (commuter train) tickets to Saint Michel.  The Boulevard Saint Michel was close to our hotel but with all the bags, we would probably get a cab from there.

 

The girl with the walkie talkie (controlleur) told us were going the right way and so we got on board the train and sat in the corner with all of our bags.  A thin, pretty, young Asian woman got on and sat across from us.  She started talking on her cell phone in Mandarin.  This was pretty funny – all the way to Paris to hear more Chinese. 

 

The train rolled through some suburban areas.  There were some tall corporate buildings and some empty fields.  The fields seemed pretty and well kept and it was a nice day, though somewhat cloudy and chilly: especially compared to what were going to experience later in the week.  As we got to more populated areas, we saw some graffiti in the walls that was exactly like the graffiti in American cities.  I remember seeing what looked like a beaten up little town with a red building with round beer signs : our first Paris pub or café. 

 

There seemed to be a number of black people, Africans, I suppose, on the train and in the neighborhoods through which we were passing.  There were what appeared to be housing projects -- tall buildings with balconies with laundry hanging from them.  There were twin project towers with rectangular open spaces in the center of them.  Strange and yet cool at the same time. 

 

The train ride was a little bit confusing because the train kept skipping stations and there were no announcements of any kind.  At one station where we did stop, a young guy got on with an according and stood by the center door of our car and played.  We rolled past the increasingly urban neighborhoods and listened to his music.  It seemed that suddenly we were in a French movie.  He played song after song and most of them sounded traditionally French.  I remember recognizing one Latin-sounding song, “Besame Mucho,” which I had first heard, d’accord, on a bootleg tape of the Beatles playing in Hamburg.  We were impressed that he played for so long and when he moved thorough the car asking for money we gave him a coin worth a Euro or two. 

 

Eventually, we got into Paris itself.  A smelly black guy who seemed like a homeless man sat next to our Chinese friend.  Daisy asked her in Chinese if she would like to come and sit across from us.  But she said it was no problem.  She was getting off at the next stop.  

 

We stopped at Chatelet - Les Halles, which seemed like major urban train station – with all  kinds of people, white, black, and Asian.  There were people in various ethnic garb as well.  The next stop was ours, Saint Michel, the Latin Quarter.  When we got off and followed the Sortie signs to make our way up to the street, I had the strange sensation that it had not been very long since I had been struggling through subway turnstiles and up flights of cement stairs in the subway of New York.  We reached the street and for the first time, we stood on a Paris sidewalk.  It was a cool and sunny out and the street was colorful with awnings and posters and neon signs.  We needed to get a cab but it seemed that traffic in the street we were on was flowing in the wrong direction. 

 

We started to walk down the street a little bit to try to find a cab.  I had read that it is better to find a taxi stand than to flag a cab on the street and searched the area around me for one.  I found nothing.  Daisy saw someone hail a cab from the street and so we thought we would do the same.  From where we stood we saw a University of Paris building and a statue of a robed medieval or renaissance man who resembled Dante.  We got a taxi.  The driver was a black guy who helped with our bags.  We said “Bon jour” and I think he mumbled “Bon après- midi” – it was after noon after all.  He had a little trouble understanding whether I meant Rue Censier or Rue Sentier – but I got him to understand we needed the former. 

 

We got to the hotel, which was steps from the Rue Mouffetard, a medieval marketplace that once was a Roman road, a couple of minutes' walk from the Place de la Contrescarpe and two of Hemingway's old rooms: one for living with his first wife, Hadley, and one for writing. 

 

Our hotel room was comically tiny.  There was room for the double bed and a little desk and that was about it.  However, while Daisy took a shower I opened the curtain and the window and looked out into the little courtyard area surrounded on four sides by buildings of the same height.  We were on the 4th floor (which would be 5th in America.  In France, the first floor is called the rez de chausee and the second floor is called the premier etage, the first floor.)

 

Soon we were on our way out again for our first Parisian meal, lunch, as it turned out at the Café Mirbel Royal on the Rue Monge. 

 

 

 

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