The French, I’ve decided, have an entirely undeserved bad rap. Perhaps I’ve arrived at this conclusion because I can speak French. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, by heritage, I’m partly French and am thus unconsciously more inclined to forgive them. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that people in America already find me a little rude (no matter how hard I try to prove otherwise).
At any rate, I knew I was in for a week of surprises from the very moment we sat down on our Air France flight. Seated comfortably in two seats by the window, we first noticed how tangibly quiet the plane was despite the fact that it was packed. There was no large man yelling five rows back as though he were in his back yard on the Fourth of July complaining about taste conflicts between beer and hot dogs. There were no annoying kids who thought there was a Dance Dance Revolution interface on the back of my chair. No, the silence was such that we were embarrassed to even whisper to one another. The passengers, almost all French from the snippets of conversation I could hear, lost themselves in reading books or magazines, learning how to use the view screen in front of them, or they conversed with their loved ones in completely inaudible tones. This was, in short, far different than any domestic American flight I’ve been on, and I don’t remember being similarly affected by my flights to Italy, Greece, and the United Kingdom and Ireland in previous years.
In a nutshell, the flight over was blessedly quiet and uneventful. Gamers will be pleased to know that they had a built-in gaming system in each seat, although I didn’t spend much time with them since most of the games were simple and took half the flight to load (think Chess, Gauntlet II and the like). Instead, what really got my attention were the movies. Perhaps the fact that the World Cup was about to begin had something to do with it, but so many of the French movies I watched in flight to refresh my French had to do with soccer. There was a French movie about some Hungarian kid in France who kept switching football clubs while some classically handsome agent frowned with disapproval. There was last year’s Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. (I didn’t watch long enough to learn if the soundtrack simply featured the incessant roar of vuvuzelas.) Most unique of all was a bizarre French comedy in which a dog becomes a footballer as a human, and hijinks ensue when a woman tries to sleep with him. Yes, you read that right. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.
Most surprising of all was the food. Air France presents you with a meal that surpasses the fare found in many restaurants, complete with baguettes, wonderfully cooked and tasty meats, gorgeous vegetables, and deliciously mouthwatering desserts. Oh, and the wine’s free. I downed one little bottle and, a little embarrassed, I asked for another and received one without the slightest grumble. While not particularly tasty, the wine was noticeably strong.
Above: Watch out, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.
After arriving at Charles de Gaulle, we approached the city via the RER, which is basically the long-range commuter train for the area. After the luxury of Air France (and we were in coach, mind you), the RER was something of a letdown. For one, the windows were open and there was no air conditioning, and within moments I could tell that our time in France was already going to be much hotter than I had expected. Score one for Chicago’s El. Nestled in a plastic seat that looked like it was reapportioned from a defunct amusement park ride, I started sweating in my Irish flat cap and my black blazer. Looking out the window revealed nothing but a never-ending graffiti museum with a surprising amount of angst expressed in English, and occasionally views of grim-looking suburbs that oozed an ambiance of discomfort not so much from the buildings (which were actually rather charming) but from the shabby signs and bars on the windows. This inexplicable urge to deface such a beautiful country was also found on the train itself. With much more frequency than the El, you could find little scribblings even around the screws on our plastic seats and on the walking mat on the floor. (I was to later notice that French graffiti writers by and large only do this to areas that can’t be seen by most of the public—such as the backs of buildings or retractable storefronts. They’re polite that way.) I wanted to lean over to my wife and say, “Well, this doesn’t look so romantic,” but I held back, knowing all too well that my native tongue is perhaps the only one that could be understood even by some tribesman in the deepest jungles of Borneo. And of course, French was out of the question.
This, I learned later, was Aulnay-sous-bois, which, despite its serenely beautiful name, was one of focal points of the 2005 French suburb riots when restless people all over the country took to torching cars and buildings. Unlike the status quo in the States, the suburbs in Europe usually seem to be the crime-infested areas, and it was while passing by Aulnay that we had our first sight of a possible pickpocket. I’d read tomes on the subject before coming (largely spurred by a healthy awareness of them from my time in Italy), but I was surprised to see someone so soon. Being city folk ourselves, my wife and I had courteously sat opposite each other with our bags between us to allow other people a seat. About two stops in, a woman sat down next to us and immediately made a show of spilling stuff from a tiny handbag near our luggage. Watching her through my sunglasses, I saw how her hands kept getting closer and closer to our bags even though there was obviously nothing there. This went on for several minutes. Eventually, after some subtle gestures from us, she got the point and got off at one of the next stations.
Finally we went underground, passing stations that actually made me feel a little better about Chicago’s subway stations. After arriving at the Luxembourg station, a dingy place that belied the beautiful area directly above it, we walked above ground and I saw my first sight of true Paris where Boulevard Saint-Michel meets up with Rue de Médicis. I can’t speak for my wife, but I somehow felt like I was in comfortable surroundings again, and at first, all I could think was that I needed something to drink. After grabbing a Coca-Cola from a street vendor on Boulevard Saint-Michel (which also, incidentally, was my first ever conversation in French with a real French person and it went flawlessly), we realized that we still had several hours before our hotel would admit us, but, especially since the heat was already increasing, we decided to check our bags at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, a pleasant 18th century building on the Place du Panthéon where we’d be staying the week. They let us check out bags and, after an awkward tipping moment, we made our way to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg. Finally, here among the trees and shade, we found a place to relax beside the Medici Fountain, built in 1630 by Marie de’ Medici and restored by Napoleon. All around us we could see the people in the park, the cars zipping down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and the pigeons scurrying across the grass hoping for food. What most surprised us is how quiet it was. In Chicago, this same scene in Grant Park would have been full of cars honking, and the very moment you started to smile and look content, some “homeless” guy would come up and harass you. Not so here. We heard not a single honk or tire screech, and everyone around us took delight in the day. Parisians and tourists alike (more of the former) enjoyed the day without interruption.
Above: John Marston aims his sights on a Parisian.
Realizing that we should actually do something with our time, we walked toward the other side of the park along the front of the palace. Along the way I came across a young man sporting a Texas A&M cap and shirt, and I called out not ten feet from him, “Hey, A&M! Good to see another Texan out here!” I had already encountered many astoundingly polite French people, and I was in a good mood. The man, however, looked at me as though I were a scorpion that had only been born so I could be squashed and ground slowly under his crap-stained boot heel. “I’m, eh-heh, I went to UT myself.” Another dark look. Darker, I think. We walked on with a shrug and my estimation of the storied “friendliness” of my home state went down another notch.
The other side of the park was even more enjoyable, and we spent time watching a little donkey-driven cart take children up and down the Rue de Fleurus and a sparring match in which two Frenchmen beat each other up while a cute blonde couple picnicked a few feet away. Catering to our respective biological dispositions, Evonne sat in the sun and I sat in the shade, occasionally standing up to kick a soccer ball back to a father and son playing nearby. All around us native French people enjoyed the day in shorts and T-shirts (looking good in them, I should add) that complemented the surprisingly hot weather—a long shot from the myth we’ve all heard that French people all wear black and dress like they’re going to a gala while they’re hacking meat at the boucherie. I also noticed for the first time that French authorities abhor the notion of actually sitting on the grass in order to preserve the landscaping—indeed, I believe a small section of the Luxembourg Garden is the only place in the entire city I encountered where one was actually permitted to stand or sit on the grass. This is a commendable practice, but I submit that the Parisians really need to add more benches to parks in the city, and I can only surmise that their absence is meant to dissuade vagrants.
We next made our way to one of the spots that I’d longed to see for many months, chiefly so Evonne could see a real piece of Roman history. To the east of the Panthéon in a district seldom visited by tourists, you can find the Arènes de Lutèce, a 1st century Roman gladiator arena built in what was formerly the outskirts of the Roman city of Lutetia. Once upon a time it could hold over 15,000 spectators, making it one of the largest arenas of its kind, although what you see today gives very little indication of its form aside from the shape of the actual arena itself. For most of its history of the arena was buried and forgotten—much of the stone was carted away by barbarians in 280 A.D. for fortifications elsewhere—but it was discovered again during a surveying project for a tram depot. We walked in through one of the main entryways, and for a moment, as we stepped from the shadows and onto the floor of the arena, we received a fleeting feeling of what it may have been like to step out onto that floor to fight almost 2,000 years ago. By now the sun was beating down, and we enjoyed the shade and the view from a park bench, taking a tiny nap since the jet lag was partially catching up with us. Nearby, in the area where the stage would have been, several children played in a picturesque water fountain and, feeling dehydrated, I waited for them to leave so I could have my own sip. Once I did, I cupped the water in my hands and was shocked that the water was so ridiculously good. I don’t know what I was expecting—perhaps the taste of old, rusty or leaded pipes or flecks of rust or something worse getting caught in my throat—but I’ll always cherish the taste of water from Parisian fountains.
More later. In the meantime, if you want to check out my photos, click here. Much like this travelogue, it’s a work in progress.