Sunday, July 15, 2007

Paris...highlights, lowlights, sidelights

Ok...I located a wifi network at our hotel so I'm baaaack...a post from Paris!

we found a cabbie at Gare Montparnasse who was able to put our bags, guitar, and us into a single cab...not legally perhaps, but it worked. Plus he was a great conversationalist.
Surprising: the Hotel Eldorado is a very cool place and cheap. Rooms are adorable, bathrooms down the hall are impeccable and a lovely little courtyard attached to the restaurant bar. Easy walking distance to take out Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, fruit market, boulangerie, metro. Plus, our room offers a view of the Eiffel Tower, all you have to do is stick your head out the window and crane your neck. We're on the fifth floor so it's a bracing experience...the kids like it better than tv.
Endearing (if you're the parent) annoying if you're not: the kids improvising entertainment for themselves in Parc Monceau which is about a twenty minute walk from our hotel. Parental advisory...this video contains evidence of parents delivering mixed message to children while trying to maintain the appearance of conscientious parenting.
Interesting (if you like this sort of thing): the July 14 military parade that began at the Arc de Triomphe and went down the Champs Elysee. This year for the first time France invited 20 other countries to contribute units to the parade. Reminded me a little of the Soviet displays in Red Square that I used to see in news clips when I was a boy. Huge crowds up and down. Military hardware as far as you could see, and the traditional flyover by French fighters trailing the tricolors across the sky.

I noticed everyone looking up and barely got out my camera in time to get this photo.
Exciting: riding the metro for the first time with the kids...Colm and Tess have since become expert at working the system, although Colm still gets whacked in the back by the turnstiles when he's not careful. You can see their little brains just whirring as we go through the metro scene. Tess counts stops. They crane their necks looking for trains. They gamely jump on and off. They make beelines for empty seats just like veteran commuters.

Suffocating and frightening
: the metro to Trocadero to see the July 14 fireworks. We knew we were heading into a maelstrom but we had no idea how intense it would be. Terrifying thing number one - we were in the first row of people waiting along the train platform. Behind us a crush of people whose numbers were steadily swelling into the very finite space. As we looked into the dark and empty tunnel waiting for the train to arrive it was hard to push back fears of being pushed into the void. Terrifying thing number two - clutching our kids and being borne along a human tide as we exited the train and began the incredibly slow, incredibly hot, incredibly claustrophobic progression from the underground to the air above...what is normally a five minute walk out of the large and labrynthine Trocadero metro to the streets above took us a half hour. And there were moments when I wondered if we'd ever get out of there. Colm began whimpering, "I want to go home." I held him up so that he could see and maybe get some air. People were holding cameras aloft conscious of recording a singular event. Beth and I became familiar with a small set of faces that seemed to float around us in more or less the same relationship to ours. A young couple from Brazil on holiday who struck up a walking dialogue with Beth, a black woman holding a little girl in front of her, a stout swarthy man shepherding two boys...all of us perspiring madly. And then we heard the explosions. It was a surreal moment...everyone fell silent for an instant and then there was a kind of collective moan. The fireworks had begun up there. It is what I imagine being in a bomb shelter during an air raid might have been like. Some young bangers tried rushing past along the walls, chanting what might have been soccer chants, dangerously tipping the energy of the crowd towards something restive, something volatile. They literall imposed themselves on the larger crowd and began to create a slipstream along the wall but the effects of their actions began to ripple into the middle of the crowd. A young man pushed up against Beth. She snapped at him and he balked. He tried again and Beth warned him to stop. I was surprised to se him look chastened a bit. He backed off and looked for another route. We could see the stairway ahead, finally there was a jetstream of cool air pouring in on us. We mounted the steps and as we did we got our first glimpse of the night sky through a canopy of tree tops. There was a thunderous explosion and the trees were suddenly backlit, spectral. We had arrived into the air but there seemed to be prospect of escaping the human tide which had brought us to this point. A metro employee stationed at the top of the steps was shouting at us to keep moving, it was a sensible message but the crowd was insensible to it, beguiled by its first impression of the fireworks. I felt sorry for all the people behind us and I also felt an urgent need to separate from this scene. Beth and I took a sharp turn away from the fireworks, going contre sens we began to find room to manouver. Amazingly in five short minutes we had found some curb space in a delivery lane where we could spread a blanket and set the kids down. Somehow our Brazilian friends found us there and remained by our sides for the duration. Beside us on one of the major treelined streets funelling into Trocadero there were thousands of people filling the street from curb to curb extending as far back as we could see, their faces all upturned and illuminated. Colm was newly invigorated and intrigued. He too looked up into the sky framed on one side by tall oak trees and on the other side by the walls of tall buildings. Tess did too but she had her hands clasped tightly over her ears.
Breathtaking: the fireworks themselves were like nothing I have ever seen. Just as this night has redefined my sense of the word "crowd" so too it has replaced whatever experiential correlative I had in place for "fireworks". It was spectacularly indulgent. Perhaps I've been in France too long...but I would even go so far as to say that it was coherent. Whatever it was it made everyone gasp and applaud numerous times.
Gratifying: When we struck off early to get away from the crowd and try to get home without descending once more into metro hell we began by simply walking away. Neither the Brazilians nor we had any real good idea of how to get home. We knew where home was but we didn't know what would work to get us there, so we walked. As we walked we noticed that it was now the cars in the streets that were hopelessly jammed up and immobile. We snaked past them, trying to stay ahead of what we imagined was a burgeoning movement behind us. We came to a large plaza and debated what to do. The Brazilians went off and we began a circuit of the plaza hoping to get a sign of where we should go. And then while we were paused by a group of parked scooters, our map unfolded. A kindly man, short and balding in a suit jacket and an unbuttoned shirt approached us and asked in English if he could help us. Patiently he listened to our notions about which metro stops to try from this point. Carefully he explained how to get to each one, how far away each one was. He brought perfect clarity to our situation and then he excused himself politely and receded back into the night. Twenty minutes later we were in the metro seated and on our way home.
Mortifying: Sunday morning I got my wallet picked by a guy in the metro. I lost my passport, my credit cards, my money....bleh. The guy was a pro and a brazen one too. I looked him right in the eye right after he had done it...I realized it all a fraction of a second too late. He skipped out of the car just as the doors closed. I tried to open them and could only watch him hot footing it away as the train gathered speed and took us toward the next stop. I stood there and began swearing, Fuck, fuck, fuck. Beth looked at me alarmed. He got my wallet, I said to her. He took my fucking wallet. Oh my god. What happened to your wallet, said Colm. Did a pickpocket take your wallet Daddy? Yes he did. Why? ....It just so happened that the subject of pickpockets had come up the night before. It had fascinated the kids then, the whole idea. Now life was obliging their desire to know more. Trying to respond to the kids insistent questions at the very moment when I was consumed with fury and embarrassment was not easy to say the least, but it helped by get control of myself and focused my for a bit on the kids, which was a good thing. They are so tuned in to what's going on. I got off at the next stop and went back to look in the trash cans for my luck. I also kept an eye out for my perp but no dice there either.
I spent the rest of the day mentally replaying the scene, auditioning my own personal version of Groundhog Day.
Sobering: Going to the US embassy in Paris and realizing that I've become a statistic. There were many other sad faces there trying to salvage a vacation gone to hell. In fact the place was overrun with people. I arrived fifteen minutes after the embassy opened, but after taking a number and wandering into the waiting room where there are no less than 18 windows operating on individual cases and the backlog is already enormous. One woman was so shook up by the enormity of having lost her entire family's passports, she could not remember how to spell her daughter's married name, not after trying two times. She gave up for the time being and bravely promised to try again later...if I hadn't heard that conversation myself I would have had trouble believing it. There were also lots of French nationals there who after having worked in the US for a year were obliged to return to France in order to apply for an extension or a renewal of their visas.
Mesmerizing: The Eiffel Tower managed to haunt our children's inner lives first from afar being Tess's first cultural reference point and then almost a year later from our hotel window. We drew ever nearer to it each day of our visit, seeing it from across the river, out of bus windows, from the top of a ferris wheel in the Tuilleries and even through the smoke of the fireworks on the 14th of July, and then on the morning of the 15th we left for the metro at 7:45 and began our assault on the sommet. The plan was to beat the lines and it worked. Beth and the kids went up while I went to the embassy get a new passport. The kids were gaga about the whole thing although honestly they had as much fun afterwards in the kids playground in the Champs de Mars. Sitting there watching the kids play on a swingset with the Eiffel Tower looming behind them set against the passing clouds you have to pinch yourself sometimes to remember where you are.
Calming: Sailing wooden sailboats on the pond at the Jardin du Luxembourg is a bit like eating quiche...if you can get over the fact that it is a bit of a cliche you can actually enjoy it for what it is - fun. You can rent boats for an hour or for thirty minutes. Luxembourg is a beautiful garden spot but the fun police are very much in evidence there. Don't try to sit on the grass or move a chair next to the pond. The latter rule is truly baffling to me. It was hot the day we were there and a pair of old ladies tried to move a couple of chairs from the perimeter designated as the chair zone about five meters into a spot of shade maybe one and a half yards square. The uniformed woman in charge of overseeing the pond needed only a couple of minutes to find them out, wag her finger at them, and say with a sardonic smile, "Your chairs don't have wheels on them, do they?"

The collections housed in the Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle which sits next to the Jardin des Plantes. First there is the stunning collection of skeletons in the Paleontologie et Anatomie Comparee in which the reconstructed skeletons of thousands of species are displayed in a manner that evokes a march of the dead through time and a dizzying range of species and variations on themes. The second floor houses dinosaur skeletons.
Then there is the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution which attempts to conjure animate life in its many forms. These are museums that sustain on both the casual and serious level, I think. Our kids could not have been happier in an ice cream parlor or a toy store. By chance we saw the paleontology exhibit first which visually hammered home in the kids' minds that these were dead things. Interesting however not even the beautifully rendered life like creatures (many in their real skins) could make a dent on our kids' perception of them as dead animals. Time and again Tess or Colm would point at some fierce but stuffed animal and say, "Look here is a dead wolf."


Anonymous erin said...

After all your mental preparation to go home- are you going to have to stay longer while you get a passport? I'm sorry you got picked, but by recording it here the kids will be able to look back and realize what an amazing adventure you've all had! Good luck and Much Love and Hugs~

5:25 PM  

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