I arrived on Sunday, September 4th for another three weeks in Paris for work. I arrived just after noon on Sunday, and made my way via my beloved metro network to my hotel. The sun was shining in Paris and the day was hot, over 25 degrees, what we might call an Indian summer back in the new world. Tired from a long flight and the change of three time zones in less than 40 hours, I felt like doing little. Luckily Paris is made for doing little. I grabbed myself a seat at one of the nearby cafes, and nursed a beer and dabbled at eating while the Sunday strollers of Paris passed me by. Even though I was taking up a table and really nursing my beer, the waitress left me alone. Such is one of the joys of Paris, that sitting around in a restaurant and nursing a beer while munching on snack food is not seen as a direct threat to the livelihood of the wait staff. I watched the sun disappear behind the nearby apartment buildings and occasionally read (as my jet-lagged addled brain would allow) from a book I had brought.
Relaxing in the sun at a Cafe, Paris, France
Upon finishing my beer, I headed off to my hotel for a deep sleep.
September the 5th it was back to work (my Labour day spent in actual labour). The first 3 days of my three weeks in Paris would be a training session where I was to be a training assistant. For those of you who have attended a corporate training class before, I am the goon that wanders around the room making sure that you aren't spending too much time surfing the web and that you are bothering to do the exercises.
Me, hard at work. Seriously...
A computer was provided for me in the training room so that I could stay in touch with the folks in Canada and the United States via email. But when I sat down to compose my first email, things didn't look right at all. I never really thought orf it, but the French have a different keyboard layout then the English. Letters are switched around (the A and the Q have swapped places, along with the Z and the W), punctuation is in different spots (the M and the : have swapped places, and the period "." is only accessible by hitting the shift key) and while the numbers are in the right place, but you need to hit the shift key to get at them. On top of all that, they have a second shift key (ALT-GR) that allows you to access a whole new row of symbols, so that certain keys have 3 different values associated with them, depending on which of the shift keys you might (or might not) hit.
I am a touch typist, and thus not used to looking down at my keyboard when typing. I believe they call this sense memory. I don't think about where the "q" is, I just think "q" and my fingers move there automatically. But because the different configuration and my sense memory of typing, my first email looked a garbled mess.
As an example, take your typing teachers favorite phrase, "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." Without looking at my French keyboard, the sentance comes out as "The auick brozn fox ju,ped over the lawy dog :" Even address the email is impossible. Due to the fact that the "@", the ".", the "_" and the "m" are all in differnt places, email addresses look like Russian, coming out as something like "gregztrqvels2g,qil :co,"
I didn't spend too much time at my keyboard though, as most of my time was spent walking the training room, answering questions, helping with problems and giving people the evil eye when they had their hotmail accounts open. Even just acting the teacher's assistant was tiring work. Actually standing up and presenting material is even harder, as I myself have had to do in the past. Teaching people is exhausting work. Training adults, who are actually willing to learn, can't help but bring about a certain respect for those who choose teaching children as a profession.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night I pulled my mentally and physically tired body back to the hotel. Luckily this time I was staying at the much nicer Hotel Michelet Odeon on Place D'Odeon than the dump I was in on my last trip to Paris. The room is regularly shaped and includes a TV and fan. The bathroom is spacious, in that you can sit on the toilet and close the door, and the shower does not demand that you press your body against the opposite wall for fear of turning off the water. The room has two French doors that open to allow in the cool night air and allow me a view of Paris. I can see the Senate building to the south of me, and directly across the street, a beautiful Parisian woman who bathes nightly and then wanders around her flat wearing nothing but a towel on her head. As she, in a typically European fashion, does not feel shame in the fact that the hotel across the street can see her naked form, I have decided not to feel shame in enjoying the view. Vive la France!
After the three days of training, I moved from the training room to my very own desk. I can now say that I have an office in Paris. If someone asks where I work, I can reply, "I have offices in Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco and Paris."
As the people in Paris knew I was a North American with a poor grasp of French, they set up my computer with an English version of Windows and a keyboard configured with the English keyboard layout.
(An aside - I know, I know... all this talk of keyboards. Seriously, is this supposed to be interesting? Stick with me, I promise you upcoming a story of a night of drunken debauchery in Paris that had me cursing the entire country and a confrontation with an overzealous strip club hawker.)
While an English keyboard was certainly nice, the problem was that the office didn't actually have a physical English keyboard. So the keyboard attached to the computer is a French one. So while the key beside the tab key is configured to produce the letter Q, the key is labeled with the letter A. As I stated above, I am a touch typist, so this generally doesn't bother me as I am seldom looking at the keys. Occasionally I do peek down at my hands and that's when my brain starts doing circles.
Say I am typing the word "quiet." I will think the letter Q, and my finger will start to move to the Q spot and hit the key. However, if I am looking down my eyes will see that my finger is actually hitting the A key, and demand that the mistake be corrected. So my finger will start to move to the backspace key. But then my eyes will glance at the screen and see the letter Q, which is what we wanted in the first place. Suddenly, like a submarine trying to dive to avoid depth charges, my brain is sending out crazy abort signals on the backspace.
It's probably a very interesting study in the differences between touch memory and visual stimulus, but I'm no bio-psychologist and this is even boring me now, so let's move on.
After a long week of work, I was ready Friday night for a night on the town. I started out with a nice dinner at a cafe with a pint of beer, reading a book as the night-time breeze rippled the pages. I returned to my hotel, watched the nightly "walk around the flat with nothing but a towel on my head" show, and then showered myself, got dressed (with the drapes firmly closed - I am no tender and young Paris beauty) and headed out on the town.
I didn't stay at one place, but rather hopped from bar to bar, having a pint in each. Each bar was very different. At one cafe, I think I stumbled into a wedding's Friday night reception party, so I took my pint and quietly moved to the patio and let them alone. Another bar seemed nice, with a DJ spinning house music in an Irish pub atmosphere, but the only one who seemed interested in even making eye contact with me was a lap-dog that one of the patrons had lying at his feet. I had a pint in another Irish pub called "The Quiet Man" that featured a bartender that looked suspiciously like Emo Phillips. I haven't seen Emo Phillips on the stand-up circuit recently, perhaps now he is bartending in Paris.
I ended the night in a British pub. I leafed through the British tabloids left on the bar. Apparently some famous actress I've never heard of is stepping out on her famous boyfriend actor who I've never heard of with some famous soccer player who I've never heard of, at least according to page six. Oh, the scandal.
I finished my pint, and given that it was after two in the morning, decided to head back to the hotel. Paris is set up in neighbourhoods called "arrondissements." Each arrondissement is given a number, from 1 to 20. The first 6 arrondissements circle the Ile De La Cite and Ile St. Louis, the islands in the Seine where Paris was founded. The rest of the arrondissements spiral outwards from there. My hotel was in the 6th, and the bar I was at was in the 5th. Therefore, all I had to do was walk from the 5th to the 6th and I would soon be in bed.
However, Paris is not laid out in a grid pattern like North American cities. Streets curve and wind and angle off in strange directions. And major streets change names as they cross bridges or come to major traffic circles. Therefore, you can be walking along and not run into any streets you know, even when you are close to where you want to be. Add to that that I had consumed 7 or more pints of beer by this point, and I wandered off in the wrong direction. Instead of heading East, I headed due South.
Winding, narrow streets in Paris
I walked for a bit, oblivious to the fact that it should have only taken 10 or 15 minutes to get to my hotel. I started to figure something was wrong when I noticed that the street signs started indicating I was in the 13th instead of the 5th or the 6th. My mood darkened when I crossed into the 14th, hopping that the direction I was heading would take me back to the 6th. I looked at the street signs, but they provided no help. The names were unfamiliar, and I had left my map in the hotel, thinking that as I was sticking to the neighbourhoods I knew in Paris, I could not possibly get lost. I could not possibly have been more wrong.
I decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. I tried flagging a number of cabs, but they refused to stop. They were empty and their lights were on indicating they were available, but they just looked at me and kept driving. It was surreal as I could see no reason why not to stop for me. Two cabs, in fact, stopped to let off passengers just a half a block from me. In each case, I ran towards the cab, waving and indicating that I wanted a ride. In both cases, as soon as the passengers had disembarked, the taxi peeled away, leaving me dejected on the street.
If the reasoning for this ignoring me was surreal, the effect on my mood was real. I was angry and cranky and tired. I shouted to no-one, "I HATE PARIS!" I wandered aimlessly, trying to determine what to do.
I stumbled across a metro station - so at least I could figure out where I was. Far from where I wanted to be. The walk back to my hotel would take a good 40 minutes probably, and it was already 3 in the morning. I just wanted to go to sleep.
Walking some more, nearly on the verge of breaking down into tears, I came across a taxi stand. I ran to the first cab and pulled on the door handles. The car was locked. The driver rolled down his window just a touch, and asked where I was going. What kind of neighbourhood had I wandered in to?
"6 Place De l'Odeon," I replied. He looked at me like I had said, "adf rewhuhof fdas trw." This was a common occurrence, actually. Apparently my French is completely and totally unintelligible to the French. "Odeon," I repeated, hoping that the name Odeon, which is the name of a famous theatre (10 steps from my hotel), the name of the street my hotel is on, the name of a street leading up to the street my hotel is on and the name of a metro stop 10 minutes walk from my hotel would register. The taxi driver snorted, and drove away empty.
If I had a brick, I would have thrown it through his window.
The next cab driver was similarly stumped by "6 Place De l'Odeon" but did seem to clue into "Odeon Metro," and unlocked his doors for me. After dumping me at the Metro station, I walked the 10 minutes to my hotel and was finally home at 3:30 in the morning, nearly one and a half hours AFTER I left the last bar. I walked up to the door of the lobby and pulled on it.
The door was locked. If I had a brick...
Beside the door were two buttons, one red and one blue. I pressed the red button. Nothing. I pressed the blue button. Nothing. I pressed both the red and blue buttons together, and again nothing. I tried pressing the red and blue buttons in different combinations, much like Tom Cruise trying to crack a safe in Mission Impossible 3: L'Hotel en Paris. Nothing. Finally I just grabbed the door and rattled it, hoping either I would wake someone or I would break the lock.
Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw a slumbering body rise from one of the bench seats of the breakfast nook like a zombie from Night of the Living Dead. The corpse stumbled forward, arms outstretched and moaning. The corpse entered the light, and I saw it was the night desk clerk, apparently trying to catch some sleep. He unlocked the door.
Finally I was back. All I needed to do now was retrieve my key from the clerk and I could go to bed. "Desole," I apoligized for waking him. "Trente-neuf," I asked, requesting the key for my room, number 39. He looked at me as if I had said, "Rrresarf-Dognuggets." If I had a brick...
The next day, after sleeping until 11, I felt much better about life and about Paris, even if the sky was gray and threatening rain. After going to the local market and purchasing an umbrella (which a smarter and more prepared traveller would have probably thought to have packed), I set out to see the Catacombs.
An extensive underground catacomb system runs underneath Paris. It was originally a quarry, but was covered so they could build streets and cafes and flats (holding beautiful naked French chicks) on top of them. Not sure what to do with the massive network of underground caves, the French decided in the 1700s, in a move designed to make room for all the living paying rent in those flats and buying drinks in those cafes and paying taxes to build those roads, that they should move the dead from their "final" resting places in the local above ground cemeteries to a more final resting place under the city. So they took the remains of their ancestors, and piled them neatly in the dank, dark and musty underground.
The public is allowed to walk through 2 kms of the catacombs, including a large section containing the remains of many 18th century (and earlier) Parisians. It is very creepy at first to see the skulls and bones of so many dead. After a while, though, you turn another corner and see more bones and think, "oh look, more bones."
It is amazing to think how many people are down there, though. A lot of people have lived on this earth, and most of them are now dead. Kind of eerie to think about it that way.
I have included a picture from the catacombs. It may, as the warning to the entrance of the catacombs says, "make a strong impression on young children and people of a nervous disposition." For those of you who are afraid to look, I will point out that inside all of us, under our fancy clothes, coifed hair and exfoliated skin is a skeleton, dying to get out. And some day it will. As transplanted Parisian Jim Morrison noted, "nobody gets out of here alive."
Catacombs, Paris, France
Saturday night, after an early dinner, I wandered up to the Place De Clincy to see the Moulin Rouge. I didn't go in (the show there is almost 100 Euros!) but I wandered by. Far from the romantic image of can-can girls, Toulouse Latrec and Nicole Kidman dying (sorry if you haven't seen the movie), the Moulin Rouge is located in the Times Square of Paris. It's all strip clubs and XXX movie theatres and fast-food joints. Right beside the red neon windmill of the Moulin Rouge is the red neon bottle of Coca-Cola, below which sits above a Quick Burger, the Euro equivalent of Burger King.
I wandered further down the Blvd. De Clincy. Outside each strip club was a hawker, someone paid to try and get people to come in. Seeing a single male walking, I was a prime target. Most walked beside me for 20 feet, and wandered away after my second, "no, merci."
One man, however, stood in front of me, stopping me in my tracks. "Hello, please come into my club," he said to me in English. (How the hell do they all know to speak to me in English?)
"No thank you, I am not interested." I stepped to my left to try and get around him.
He stepped to his right to block me. "My club is different. It is not a strip club, it is a private club. It has a live sex show."
I stepped to my right, and again said, "no thank you, I am not interested." Again, he stepped in front of me.
"No, sir, please, you must see it. Come in and look and you will see that we are very different," he continued, all the while expertly ignoring my head fake to the left and moving right again as I tried a bob, spin and break on him.
He would not be deterred. He was like the robot in Terminator II. He just kept coming.
Bill Bryson, travel author, says that wandering around in a country where you don't know the language is like being a five year old. It is a constant state of wonder mixed with fear. You are constantly amazed by what's around you, but you don't really know how anything works. Mr. Bryson even points out (correctly as those who have tried to cross the streets in Paris can attest to) that "you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life."
So, here I was, a five year old in Paris, being harassed by a man I could not shake. I had no idea what to do to get this guy out of my way. So, I went back to Kindergarten and remembered the lessons they taught me there. When a strange man is doing something you don't like, just shout "NO" and run and get a grown up.
"NO!" I said, raising my voice. The strip club hawker looked hurt, like he'd been trying to sell me a painting of the pope or his dead mother and I had just spat on it. He walked away, turning and sarcastically calling after me, "NO," mocking my delivery of the 5 year old's stranger-trying-to-molest-me mantra.
But it worked. I was free to move on.
The confrontation had left a sour taste in my mouth though. I needed to wash it out with some nice scenery and a cold beer. I climbed to the top Montmartre to watch the evening sun wash over Paris. Such a beautiful site, all the white stucco buildings glowing with the dying daylight.
I caught the metro back towards my hotel, and deposited myself on a stool outside a cafe. Soon I was sitting with a cold pint in my hand, watching the Saturday night crowd stroll down Blvd. St. Michel.
That's the true beauty of Paris. While The Eiffel Tour, the Arc De Triomphe, the Catacombs and the Moulin Rouge are nice to see and a fun for an hour or so, ultimately the real joy in Paris comes from just sitting and taking life slow. Whether you are chatting with friends, reading a book or just enjoying the night air, there is nothing quite so nice as sitting in a little cafe on a chair facing the street with a cold beer on a tiny little table.
Sunday I woke to a sunny day, so I went to the Chateau De Versailles, home of the Sun King Louis the XIv and his heirs. Much like seeing the Alamo for the first time, it is a shock to see Versailles. One thinks it should be out in the country, surrounded by acres of manicured gardens and prime royal hunting grounds. Instead, it is 45 minutes from the centre of Paris smack dab in the middle of the suburbs, accessible by commuter train. The train that usually brings sleepy commuters rustling through the daily newspaper in the morning into the heart of Paris brings a load of tourists on the weekend out to the country get-away of the kings of France. Stopping at the Versailles Rive Gauche station, I and a throng of people (looking quizically at the local signs) disembarked from the train and en masse we moved to the front gates of the palace.
I had purchased a combined train and Versailles pass, so I was able (all for only 22 Euros) to skip the monstrous lines and enter the palace directly. It certainly is beautiful, but inside is crowded again, and while there are probably grand things to see beyond the velvet ropes, it was hard to push through the 4 deep crowd to get a good look. Luckily, they had painted most of the ceilings so at least you could look up and feel that you were seeing something.
Is there something to see back there?
The back garden is more how I pictured the Chateau de Versailles. It stretches for a kilometer or two, with a canal running the length. You can rent a row-boat for a romantic row, or just wander the gardens on foot.
Along the main canal was busy, but I wandered off to the lightly wooded side trails. The paths provide a quiet and cool stroll beside old stone walls and corn fields. Just the kind of relaxing and leisurely walk that I, were I the King of France, would want to take with my Courtiers on a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon. Relaxing in the early autumn sun of Paris, hoping that I find a small cafe at the end of my walk, with chairs facing out into the street and cold beer available.
Dressed in royal blue, just like the kings of old, I stroll the grounds at Versailles
I had it right on the first day, and it took a few bad encounters to remember the true lesson. Paris is about relaxing in cafes with fine food, fine drink and fine literature. Paris is about strolling leisurely with no destination and no timetable. Paris is not the tourist sites. Paris is the small, crowded street-side patios outside the numerous cafes. Paris is the parks and fountains. Paris is slow. That is the good life of Paris.