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...

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