paris part deux

At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.

King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?

Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.

Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.

setting up shop

The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.

Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).

As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.

The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.

We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.

Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:

The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:

Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.

smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)

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transatlanticism

Transatlantic.

The word conjures up images of great steamships like the Queen Mary, men like Lindbergh, Alcock and Brown, and of famous aircraft like the Concorde, taking off from JFK in New York and landing gracefully at Heathrow two and a half hours later. While they may not possess the pomp and circumstance of the olden days, transatlantic flights are a special thing. No baggage fees, a hot meal (try getting that on US domestic service), and a glass of wine (or two) with dinner. And of course, we mustn’t forget what lay in wait for me on the other side of the ocean: London.

I started my journey in Chicago, Illinois, at the cathedral of transport that is O’Hare International Airport. I took an early morning Blue Line and dozed while the train made its way to O’Hare. My first leg was from Chicago to Montréal’s Dorval Airport, where I would spend a few hours sitting around and then, finally, board a plane that would carry me over the pond to England. I sat nervously watching the planes scurry around the ramp, baggage men flinging their charges into innumerable cargo bays. Finally, my flight was announced, and I joined the line at the gate, passport in hand. This was the dividing line: after I left the soil of Illinois, I wouldn’t see the US again until April. Adventure awaited just across the threshold to the jetway.

The clouds below formed an impenetrable wall of fuzz once we ascended above the Windy City, prohibiting me from seeing the country we flew over. I snoozed on and off, finally looking out the window through a break in the clouds 45 minutes later at the neatly squared off rural parts of Ontario. We came into Montréal, cold and nearly cloudless, and a man who (surprisingly) knew my name marshaled me through customs. Transit visa time. Another *thwack* of the rubber stamp, and I was legal for the time being.

My visa didn’t allow me to leave a certain part of the terminal (unfortunately the part lacking poutine), so I bummed around and tried to nap until finally they called my flight. Air Canada 864, with nonstop service to London Heathrow airport, was now boarding at gate 56.

Time to take that step, then. I walked once again onto hallowed ground, onto the jetway, the only thing separating me from adventure.

As we turned onto the runway, I looked out at the airport grounds and realized that this really was it – I was past the point of no return. Winter was already here in Montreal, and the snow flew down in the beams of the huge lights illuminating the tarmac as we taxied to the end of the runway. The pilot then pushed the throttles to the stops and I felt the acceleration of the half-empty Airbus push me back into my seat. We lifted off, and I managed to catch a final glimpse of Montréal before we punched into the cloud layer blanketing the continent. I was on my way.

As the plane turned out over the Atlantic, I eased into what was (so far) the longest flight of my life. Six and a half hours in a graciously empty plane. A woman sitting behind me offered advice; this was getting to be routine for her, based by family in Toronto but by trade in London. I was restless. A flight attendant picked up on this, and with a well practiced sleight-of-hand, slipped two little bottles of wine into my hoodie with a wink. Back in row 42, I stretched out into the empty seat next to me, finished my present, and headed off to an uneasy sleep.

I was roused by the same kindly flight attendant offering me coffee, which I gladly accepted. The sun began to rise, first lighting the sky enough that I could see the outline of the wing, then coming up above the horizon, above the cloud deck that had followed me to Britain. We descended through the clouds, the plane making all manner of noises as the flaps and landing gear did their thing, myself still unable to see beyond the window in the pea soup of the clouds. Finally, around 1000 feet, the ground came into view.

The cars on the streets below were going the wrong way. I had arrived.