Friday, July 17, 2009

Paris Encore

London to Paris:

Off to St. Pancras early in the morning after a rerun of previous day's breakfast - I really don't like canned baked beans...I don't even like looking at them first thing! And I would have killed for a real coffee. Fortunately, they have lots of nice coffee establishments in St. Pancras Station so with a nice hefty cappuccino in hand, I went off to check in, where I was immediately headed off by the nice security men - no drinks in the lounge. I was ridiculously early as usual, so I found a nice bench along the beautiful open concourse and finished drinking my coffee in relative peace.

Passed through French customs without incident, into the overcrowded lounge (did they not know how many people fit on one of those trains when they built the place? And while St. Pancras is very old on the outside, it is brand spanking new inside!) then onto the train. A young Asian woman sat beside me with her parents sitting across the aisle and they conversed in their language for the first part of the trip...turned out they were Malaysian, she had been educated in the U.S. and was a physician and nowhere near as young as she appeared. They were visiting Paris for the first time and were using the French edition of "The Book of Steves" as we have taken to referring to Rick Steves guide books (more on that later) and were staying near Rue Cler near the Eiffel Tower as he recommends.

The Eurostar was nothing exceptional as European fast trains go...comfortable, fast, on time. As for the Chunnel, I had expected an extraordinary experience but after the requisite time speeding through the English countryside, it gets dark outside the train for a half hour or so then one is speeding through the French countryside. The greater pleasure is that the Eurostar takes less time than flying and it is pretty much downtown to downtown. When I arrived in Paris, I was able to walk downhill from Gare du Nord to my hotel near Les Halles without any trouble and without recourse to other transportation.

My room in the Hotel Tiquetonne for this stay was on the top floor, the 7th, reached by a teeny slow jerky little elevator or an interminable winding staircase. Over the rooftops, I could see the Eiffel Tower, hazy in the distance. The room was under the angle of the roof and set back from the eaves with casement windows that opened wide for air (no AC) and the sounds of the unseen street below wafted up to me. Rue Montorgueil with its shops and restaurants was just around the corner but sadly, the quartier has become very touristy since my last stay in 2004. The feel of a residential area has pretty much gone with some of the fine old restaurants replaced by fast food joints and tourist claptrap outlets. Bands of older teenagers roam the streets at night and the drunken clamour goes on until daybreak. That said, the Tiquetonne is ideally placed for walking the city and I went out every day with my deck of walking cards from City Walks Paris to discover parts of the city hitherto unknown to me. Best of the few I had time to undertake was the Butte aux Cailles area, with its neighbourhood feel and the charming Villa Daviel, a whole row of adorable rose-adorned single family cottages on a dead end lane. On a different expedition, the card for the Trocadéro directed me to the Allee des Cygnes, a walkway that runs the length of a very long narrow island in the Seine. James Joyce used to go there for strolls to clear his head and these days, young families and people walking dogs take the air. Near the Jardin des Plantes I visited a Roman arena, the Arènes de Lutèce, and beneath the stone tiers of seats in the centre ring where gladiators and chariot races once entertained the Roman occupiers, neighbourhood children now play informal soccer matches and men gossip over their petanque.

View from the Tiquetonne - can you find the Eiffel Tower? Hint: it's in the right third of the photo.

Les Arènes de Lutèce

Allee des Cygnes

Villa Daviel

Besides these more obscure pleasures, I window shopped along the very tony Rue du Passy, hung out for awhile by the Eiffel Tower, eyed the stratospherically priced designer offerings along the Boulevard Haussmann, walked by the Elysée Palace, home to France's presidents, like a fortress with the small army of security personnel choking the surrounding streets. I couldn't help but wonder if Carla Bruni is at all dismayed by the way she must live now, cloistered inside, in absolute luxury and comfort but always fenced in, enveloped, never able to slip out the back door for a quick walk up the Champs Elysée.

I browsed through the divinely presented food offerings at Fauchon on the Place de la Madeleine - these people have the tortured food thing down to a science. This is where I picked up a box of their miniature pastel meringues as a hostess gift for Françoise, knowing how much the French appreciate these little luxuries, and pretty certain I would have the opportunity to try a few myself. Sharing food is almost the main point of eating for the French - huge generalization, I realize, but it is something I have noted on many occasions in France. Rituals surrounding food and its preparation are of equal importance to food-as-nourishment to a much greater degree than in North America although that is something that is changing for the better in North America and unfortunately, for the worse in France.

And that's what was missing from my explorations of Paris - a bit of company, someone to break bread with. As much as I love the city and as happy as I am to follow none but my own agenda, I was lonely at times, a bit triste. Daytime was too full for much reflection but it would have been nice to have a companion for the evening meal. As it was, I took to buying a few supplies and picnicking in my room or in a park rather than sit alone at a table in a restaurant.

Carrousel in the Jardin du Ranelagh

to be continued...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

European Interlude

Back at last...what a busy few months it's been since I last posted. There have been some travels, most notably to England, France and Ireland for the month of June. The plans for this trip came together somewhat piecemeal. I had a large credit with Air Canada that had to be used by June 7th, left over from a trip to Quebec last August that had to be cancelled due to our dog Daisy's first big health crisis. Usually I go to France in April or May to have a French immersion experience with students and former students from the French Diploma Program at the University of Victoria, led by my teacher and friend Françoise. A group of us stay in a gîte in the French countryside, speak nothing but French to each other while shopping and participating in activities intended to put us in contact with local people and have the opportunity to practice French as it is really spoken (3 entries from the 2007 trip to Brittany at my Aventure En France blog). It is most effective in improving conversational skills as it is pretty much impossible to sustain that careful translation in your head before must listen hard then jump in if one is to have any kind of a conversation, even if it's just to buy the day's bread at the local boulangerie, and be prepared to be laughed at or not understood.

This year, there weren't enough people to make up a group and I had resigned myself to not going when Françoise, bless her heart, invited me to come and stay with her at her family's vacation home in Langeville on France's Atlantic coast. She goes to visit family in Angers every year and then winds down at the seashore from her busy teaching year. I happily accepted and went on to plan the rest of the trip since the roughly two weeks involved was, to my mind, not enough to justify the agony of jet lag...three weeks is my minimum. I had hoped that my partner, who was tied up with work until mid-June, would come and meet me in France but he suggested that we recoup the trip we had intended to make to Ireland in 2001, cancelled when the foot and mouth epidemic struck and the "ways" across Ireland were closed. We went to Greece instead, had a wonderful time but still dreamt of walking in Ireland.

On June 1st, I left for London having long ago given up on flying directly to Paris with Air Canada. They insist on routing west coast passengers through Toronto - a four or five hour flight from Victoria followed by a five hour wait in the unlovely and crowded Pearson International succeeded by a roughly nine hour flight, and a befuddled arrival into a foreign language and people not celebrated for their patience. My preference is to fly direct from Vancouver or Calgary to London, spend a couple of nights there to adjust the mental clock and gear up for speaking French, and maybe do a bit of tourism between naps.

This strategy puts me into Europe around midday and I try to stay awake until the sun goes down - quite a struggle as the days are very long in Europe in June - they're on the same parallel as Edmonton, hard as that is to believe and the sun sets around 10 PM! My hotel was near Kings Cross station, chosen because St. Pancras next door would be the departure point for the Eurostar a couple of days hence. I got quite turned around coming out of Kings Cross so I had an inadvertent tour of the Bloomsbury neighbourhood before I located the hotel not half a block from one of the many station exits. In my meanderings, I had seen the new British Library (well, new to me) and decided to go back there since it was only a block or two down the Euston Road. It was a splendidly sunny day so I got a bite to eat and sat in the sun in the peaceful courtyard (did I mention how crowded and intense the streets of London are?) before going inside to see what there was to see. And I saw actual pages of the Gutenburg Bible, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and the Magna Carta, quite astonishing in my sleep-deprived state.

Day 2:

This was my day to explore about London and I hadn't made any definite plans as I wasn't sure I'd be good for anything if my sleep pattern hadn't resolved. The day started with a "full English" breakfast...eggs, sausages, beans (the bland canned pork-and-beans type of my youth), toast, delivered in a subterranean breakfast room by a young woman with an impenetrable eastern European accent. When it came down to it, I didn't feel up to braving the teeming streets so I got on an open-topped boat headed up the Thames to Hampton Court. The trip lasted about 3 1/2 hours and was made more entertaining by our guide who delivered a rather smartass running commentary about the sights along the river. I had my knitting with me and between that and the surprisingly pastoral riverbanks once we got out of London proper and the lovely day, I was very happy.

Open tour boat on the Thames

The defunct Battersea power station - awaiting yet another developer to turn it into fashionable condos without changing the historic exterior

Beautifully painted narrow boat passing Kew Gardens

Once at Hampton Court, I confined my explorations to the gardens as I usually find palace interiors excruciatingly over-decorated and claustrophobic and besides, my time was limited. The rose garden announced itself with the most exquisite scent, long before I laid eyes on it. The timing was perfect as all the roses were at their height of bloom and the place was practically deserted. The rest of the gardens were the expected parterres, a greenhouse entirely filled by "the great vine", a grapevine that produces 500 to 700 pounds of fruit per year and is over 200 years old, an orangerie, a forest of huge pyramid shaped yew trees set out in lines in front of the Baroque wing, fountains and artificial lakes and streams with, best of all, swans with babies.

Rose garden with Tudor wing in background

The Great Vine - 230 years old

Foxgloves against the wall of the Tudor wing

I skipped the famous maze, seductive though it seemed from the outside as it was getting late and they wanted yet more money to go in...the UK seemed very pricey to me with extra this and supplemental that at every turn. Happily, the hotel had free WiFi so I was able to use my iPhone for e-mail.

The train zipped me back to London and I tumbled into bed in my decidedly spartan but quite adequate hotel room, ready to hop on the Eurostar the next morning. be continued...