Paris, April 1997
My 40th Birthday Party Trip
I hate to start a travelogue with notes on the airplane but this is my first international first-class trip in a long time. June cashed in mega-miles to get the tickets and it was well worth it. So much legroom that my 6' 4" frame can't even stretch to touch the seatback in front of me. Its sheepskin back reclines so that I can lay out flat. My steak is cooked to preference and June's chicken breast on brie pasta is excellent. Better food than I often get in local San Jose restaurants. Another glass of the '88 BV Cabernet before we pop the 8mm movie cassette into our personal seat viewers. Halfway across the Atlantic the purser turns off the first class cabin lights and points out comet Hale-Bopp to us. The view from here is exceptional. There are no city lights to dim our view, no trees to block us. Traveling like this is no burden at all. Of course back in the cattle car of business-class seating the stewards are busy putting people to sleep with a vast selection of tired pasta dishes. There's no mention of Hale-Bopp or of this nice BV.
Without incident we arrive at Relais Christine. The taxi lets us out and the driver points down a narrow side street where a small sign hangs out declaring in vertical type, "HOTEL." It looks bad yet this turns out to be a delightful four star hotel. 2 blocks from the Odeon; three from Pont Neuf. Our room is gigantic by French standards, half the size of a Holiday Inn room in Jersey. The bath is modern and very big. Wish I knew what a bidet is for. We put the fresh fruit basket in it to add some color to the bathroom.
For 1500FF a night we also get use of the comfortable library. Half a dozen fat leather chairs, a dozen side chairs, walls of dark wood, and a beautiful carpet the color of warm tomato soup.
Being Easter Sunday not much is open. That's OK, we are dog tired anyway. The hotel sends us to a seafood restaurant down the street, "Le Bookeneste." We both start with carpaccio: thinly sliced raw beef under bib lettuce. I have canard (duck) stewed with caramelized vegetables which is very good. June orders the white fish which comes as six whole little fish bodies minus the heads, thank god. Her mashed potatoes make a nice little death bed for the display of these cadavers. She takes a deep breath, pinches off the tails and spoons them on to my plate to hide behind my little stew pot. Out of sight, out of mind. June says out loud, three times, "always ask for filets, always ask for filets, always ask for filets."
It's hard to stay in Paris without visiting my three favorite places: The Louvre, Museum D'Orsay, The Picasso Museum. Today we spend all day touring The Louvre. It is so big that some part is always under construction. Today parts are open that I've never visited before. We spend the day with Oriental art and tapestries of The Hunt. We're girding ourselves for a twelve hour day here by napping in the sun outside around 4PM. By the time we wake up and return to the museum it is closing up! Today they're only open until 5PM. We move quickly to retrieve my backpack. We turn in the audio tours machine just as they close, then we're out on the streets.
The Tuileries await and we walk the length of these pretty gardens. The sun is out, a cool wind is gently blowing. The chairs around each fountain are packed, each turned to face the sun full-on. Shoes are off, sun glasses on, and most of Paris seems to be sleeping away the afternoon. We join the party.
Tonight we dine around the corner, almost a disaster. I boldly and blindly order the "rognons au veau", some kind of veal I'm sure, and June wants chicken, "poulet barbuiller facon." My order is already written down when June asks how the chicken is prepared.
"Sautéed in white wine and, how you say... pork blood," he replies kindly.
"Ahh... and the entrecote (steak)?"
"I'll have that," says June.
Super for June, but now I have to ask, "and the rognons?"
"The kidney of veal is lightly..." he stops as I hold up my hand with a pained look.
With the facial expression of a simpleton I explain, "perhaps something more like at home?"
He advises the confit canard and retires a little disgusted with our lack of couth.
Rognons and barbuiller are now added to my "avoid list" right under "andouillette."
We're up early and on the train out of town. The RER goes right out to our destination: EuroDisney. June is so excited as we leave the train that she flubs her RER ticket in the out stile and is trapped inside the station. We exchange glances over the tall mechanical wall and all I can advise is, "tailgate the next person out."
The train station is adjacent to the EuroDisney entrance, a great, three story, white and pink affair. Walking under and through the hotel my FirstUSA Visa is denied at the ticket booth. I'll have to fight this problem all week. Somewhat embarrassed I have to make other payment options and emerge into the sunlight on Main Street, USA as the huge sign boldly declares.
(Despite my repeated calls to FirstUSA they cannot fix it. FirstUSA says my credit is clean and they want to authorize the purchases, but "it must be a problem with the merchants machine." Checking out of the Relais Christine my card is again denied. The clerk calls Visa France and they tell him "that card number is not valid in France." So much for it being a merchant problem. Now that I'm home I've re-activated my Traveler's Bank Visa and FirstUSA is history.)
Just like Disneyland in Anaheim. Walking down Main Street we're haunted by continuous player piano music. The hip hop beat keeps my heart jumping and my mind confused. Building signs are all in English. "Tom's Rawhide Shop," "Bart's Black Smithy," but all the rest is French. "Bignets" instead of doughnuts. I'm hoping we get to see Mme. Snow Blanc and Mr. Donald Canard. There are directions to "Indian Jones et le Temple du Peril." We ride Space Mountain and the "Phantom Chalet." It's quite an odd feeling to be strolling through wild west Frontierland in France.
I wear the kid out around 3PM and we trod back to the RER. On the way we pass "Festival Disney." Never one to let a buck go by, Festival Disney is the only way to walk from EuroDisney to the six other hotels out here. The Festival Disney courtyard is anchored on one side with a Planet Hollywood and on the other by a Johnny Rocket type hamburger joint. The outdoor mall bristles with American eateries. What a way to see America - er, I mean, France.
At night in Paris we wander over to the Bastille. On previous trips I've come to enjoy this side of town at night. More Parisians here than tourists it seems. We have a drink in my hangout from the last trip. This time the doors and windows are all open to the warm weather. Down the road is a Spanish restaurant. June has fajitas and I have feijoada. I steered us here just for this delicious stew of pork, sausage, and beans. I'll search the internet when I get home and post the recipe on my web site, if I can find one. Walking back I introduce June to Nutella and banana crepes. It's an instant love affair. I'll bet we have this a few more times before we go home.
I packed lightly this trip. Everything fit into my small Tourister carry-on. (Everything except the raincoat we packed at the last second since June had room in her case.) Making this work means coming to Paris with only two pair of trousers. I'm one that can easily pack too much; worry about too many eventualities that never eventually get here. These days I try to travel light. Olive and tan are the choices this trip. Tan is the color and we're off to the D'Orsay.
As I've said, this is one of my favorite museums in Paris. An incredible wealth of impressionist art. Rooms of Monet, Degas, Surat. So many that they even show some lesser known, inferior works. This is a great place to get to see the range these artists produced.
This is June's first visit here and I'm having a grand time being the knowledgeable tour guide. Step this way. See that. Look in here next. After the heaviness of the Louvre this bright and alive museum is a real treat.
After our standard afternoon nap June and I trade insults over the backgammon board and leave for dinner tied 5-5. Dinner is a stringy osso busco and ravioli at a little pizza place nearby. The waiter enjoys fooling with some young kids at the next table; we're entertained through the meal. A neat little place to relax and unwind our legs.
Resting in the hotel library we meet an older couple from Washington, DC. He totters around, stooped, in a daze and she chatters delightfully about what they'll do tomorrow in Paris. She's presenting him with several options that he listens to with a practiced disinterest. It's clear to us that she's making the decisions here and he knows to go along for the ride. When he pulls out a horrible cigar we hit the sheets.
Happy B.D. to me! This is the big four-oh. I've done a lot, seen a lot, enjoyed a lot. I don't feel much different, but I know the world looks at me askew now. Last week I tried to sign up with the health club at work and was told that because of my age I'll need a note from my doctor before I can use the facilities. Jesus! I don't see the difference from a month ago. True, I seem to be right more often than I was in the past. I can tell I'm wiser. I consider backgammon moves in more depth; not more slowly, but more considered. I feel the value of a seat in the afternoon sun. I really can't see any difference.
10AM on our way to Versailles. The weather's cooled off; we're wearing our coats on the train. We were careful to get on the VINK train to Versailles-RG, not the "other" Versailles train which stops a long way from the Chateau. Standing in front of the Chateau it's easy to see that this is truly a Palace. Beautiful, and large enough to fill all my peripheral vision. The gardens are just plain huge. We could easily get lost walking through them. We walk down about a quarter mile and turn back for fear of rain; it would be a cold trip in the wet. Instead the weather holds and we are greeted with a magnificent view of the Palace at the end of the long promenade. Walking back up the hill the feeling of majesty takes my breath away. It is a very quieting experience for me.
We translate some money at the hotel and move the backgammon score to 13-13. Dinner is across the street at Le Rottisserie. Super meals. June has a goat cheese in filo salad and I start with lobster raviolis in a seafood sauce. Main courses are roasted chicken and a thick cut pork chop. We end with ice cream and a pile of soft white cheese folded around a handful of sour black cherries. Yum.
In the library tonight a lone, well dressed, 50ish woman is helping herself to the bar. She asks my advice on how much to pour. "Some more" seems like the right response. I make some other comment which she interprets as a question and answers, "I'm meeting my lover here tonight." I'm not sure that's what I asked but we might as well talk some more about it.
Gaye is a graphic artist in Ireland and just had three works accepted for a show in Krakow. She is very proud of the honor. She's married but separated, amicably. "We don't divorce in Ireland." Her daughter runs a book shop, one son is a fashion designer, and the third lives in Australia with a girl he met down under. Six months ago Gaye met an Australian from Brisbane at a soccer match in Dublin. They've exchanged letters and now he travels to Paris on business. She's spending a few days with him here. They were to meet at Heathrow and train together to Paris but the freak storm in NY held him up. She's now here a day ahead of him; a bit nervous over making this trip for an affair with someone she's met only once. I think she's drinking a bit more than would be recommended in this situation. A hot bath might be a better prescription, but then she'd be alone with her doubts.
The bad cigar man shows up again. We exchange a glance and make our way back to our room.
Man, we are low energy today. Last tour day and we get up at 11. It's a long walk to the Picasso, but another beautiful day to do it. We walk for 30 minutes enjoying the sun and the sounds of Paris. I love this place.
I can't do the Picasso Museum justice here, except to say that it is well worth the time to see it. His range of style is incredible. He took on impressionism, cubism, realism; canvas, stone, plaster, bronze, collage. Watching the evolution of his style makes the blob people he drew later in life an understandable extension of his work.
We're done mid-afternoon and tube across town to the Museum of Modern Art. Don't know anything about it. Sitting at the cafe inside we almost don't go into the gallery, but figure that for 100FF we might as well push out of these chairs and give it a go. What a wonderful show it turns out to be! We view a temporary exhibit of Dali, Kadzinsky, Bracque, Miro, and more. Even a Picasso or two. There are several Mondrians, but I've never come to appreciate his work. The show is organized chronologically from the 1920's through the 1940's. Each two or three year period is accompanied by a small gallery of contemporary photographs. Watching the artwork get darker as the photographs detail the rise of Hitler in Europe until the last shows photos of the liberation of Paris. A really super exhibit.
Our final dinner is at a little Italian restaurant that we've passed over several times. The food is unfortunately unremarkable. Bland tortellini and blah sauce. As we scoop through dessert I see the "chef" opening a clear plastic container of pasta just like I'd buy in a Safeway back home.
We're awake and well rested. Now that we have adjusted to the time and our legs have agreed to stand 12 hours a day in front of artworks, we head home. Ahead of us is 15 hours in a plane, ten hours of time re-adjustment, 24 hours of catching up on mail, voicemail, email, then plopping our butts down in front of a PC screen at work. Hope my hands haven't forgotten how to hit the keys.
Airports on first class tickets are a breeze. We step up ahead of even the business class passengers and make our way to the Admiral's Club. Here it is quiet and serene, except for one woman who is almost screaming into a cell phone. So many people use cell phones in public to impress and show their inexperience by speaking loud enough to wake the dead. More experienced users allow the amplification electronics inside the phone to do the work. On top of this, she has the audacity to hold the most boring conversation! If we must listen to her winning voice she should be obligated to talk of sex and corporate takeovers. Instead it's some banal crap about leaving Paris.
"See you in D.C."
"Kisses to John."
"How sweet of you."
At last she shuts up. The whole lounge eases into a deep meditation.
Our flight is called. We gather our things and leave these gentle surroundings only to be assaulted by the outside world. The terminal is packed. People sit everywhere. The sound is cacophonous. Even the smell of the common man. Rather than making me feel alive, this dilettante first class traveler recoils from the pig sty humanity inhabits. The unfortunate reality is that next trip I'll be one of them.
We stop in Duty Free to buy a Hermes paisley silk scarf and I hold it to my nose as we trod through the muck to our gate. I'll have to burn these shoes when I get home.
The final security checkpoint is packed so we wait in line with everyone else. I scan ahead; can't someone help us? The bright pink jacket of our boarding pass declares us privileged but means nothing to passport control or the little man at the x-ray machine. Or perhaps it does mean something to him as he chooses my carry-on to paw through. God, get us out of here.
Help arrives as the machinery, in the form of a roaming gate agent, picks up our status again. She spies our pink and points us to the next gate. Here, just outside the swarm of bodies at the designated boarding gate, at least we stand only with Business Class, but even they seem a bit seedy to me now. Another agent senses the obvious status mismatch between ourselves and the rest of this crowd.
Catching my eye she whispers over the heads of the others, "first class?"
Her eyes widen and she plunges her arms into the seedy business class crowd to part them. "Excuse me please, move back, stand aside, excuse me, excuse me" she opens a lane for us. Unaccustomed to being treated like cattle, the business class travelers are slow to respond. She drives ahead to reach us.
"Sir, madame," she smiles brightly, "Right this way."
She guides us through the crowd, who still can't believe it.
We don't board the bus to the plane with everyone else. Instead we are seated in a little mini-van with five others of our superior standing. The agent jumps into the driver's seat and we're off across the tarmac like a Peter Seller's movie. The stairs to the plane are empty as we ascend to take our rightful places: seats 3H and 3J. We can sit with aloof, bored expressions as the coach passengers scan our beautiful seats on their way to the back of the plane. Even the business class passengers are unable to conceal their envy. While business class has a curtain to separate them from coach, we use a similar curtain to separate us from them.
Now at 30,000 feet we have drinks, warm nuts, and our personal movie choice. We snuggle into the bosom of this 767 for a seven hour gestation. Soon enough we will be stripped of our stripes and birthed back into the sea of commonality. Too bad, I could become accustomed to this way of life. Sigh.
Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else (although Jim wishes more people shared his opinions)
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