Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 5

It’s difficult to say whether Paris’ famous style and self-assurance are particularly evident in the normal run of things. I mean, you certainly walk by people who strike you that way, but they’re not a majority, and since we’re obviously in one of the showcase areas of town, it’s hard to know whether you’re encountering everyday Parisians, or visiting Italians, or paid models (one can confidently conclude however that none of the people catching your eye for their stylishness are English). You do detect a greater overall assurance here…I don’t know if you’d call it a sense of entitlement, or rather one of history and context. The fact of so many bookstores and vendors prominently displaying very old and scholarly books, and even newsstands carrying magazines devoted to Proust and Pascal, suggests a refined collective awareness, even if that’s largely a self-aggrandizing myth worked on by the few on behalf of the many. As a counterpoint, the French are famously jumpy about protecting their economic entitlements, even when these make little sense and are plainly unsustainable (reportedly a wave of civil unrest may lie ahead over the proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62). I suppose all cultures have their points of enlightenment and self-delusion, but at least you mostly get the feeling the French know what they like; I’m not even sure that much holds in North America currently.

Anyway, we left the hotel around 10 am today, but only so we could get in a quick morning walk before heading to the airport. We walked along the Seine’s left bank again, past Notre Dame, until the flavor started to drop away a bit, then we came back along one of the inner streets. It took about an hour. We checked out of the hotel, and the final proof of its perfect location is that it’s only a couple of blocks from one of the handful of downtown stations with a direct rail link to the airport (without requiring a metro change). So we took that, and barely more than an hour later we were all through security…today everything moved very serenely, although of course this may not be any kind of comment on the airport’s overall relative efficiency. I expect we are among the few people leaving Paris after four days without having added a single item to our collective possessions – we did not buy anything at all. In this respect at least we know what we like.

Semi-ambitious vacation plans always involve giving up some time to logistics, and this was our fate today – for seven hours we were primarily in transit. But then, what happens on either side on such days is usually so memorable that you remember those slivers of experience long after your fuller but more conventional days have faded into oblivion. Anyway, my personal goal for such passages is always to maximize the time you spend doing stuff you would have wanted to do anyway. So today, in addition to this blog, I wrote a movie article, watched half of Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, made some progress on the sizeable magazine backlog I brought with me, and napped a bit. Oh, and talked to Ally. But back to those memorable slivers of experience: today, to illustrate, will always stay in our minds as the day we entered a new country, Sweden, and a new city, Stockholm. The inward taxi ride followed the usual pattern, at one point wrapping us up in stalled traffic, but then we broke out of that, and the old city seemed astonishingly quiet and slow-moving after Paris. We are staying in the First Hotel Reisen, right on the water, although at first glance it appears virtually all of old Stockholm is on the water, the mainland and various interconnected islands combining into sheer expanse, at various points suggesting a series of facades that can't possibly have anything behind them. In its immaculate mixture of colorful historicity, and in its profoundly civilized relationship with the environment, it reminds us somewhat of Bermuda, where we lived for a few years and where we met.

We walked the entire circumference of the island that looks onto the hotel - it holds the Modern Art Museum, and seemingly has quite a boat culture on its far side. At around 8 it seemed the sun was on its last legs, but then it stopped descending, and it wasn’t ultimately dark until long after 11 (since we are not that proficient at using the camera, our photos from this evening are a bizarre minute-to-minute contrast of shots that might have been taken at noon and others that look like we were fighting off nightfall). We saw many groups of people setting themselves up on the grass with bottles of wine, just taking it easy and enjoying the sights – this, you feel, is part of picture-book Stockholm living.

We walked a bit deeper into the city, encountering a few streets conforming more to the downtown glamor model (they certainly have the biggest H&M we’ve ever seen) but more often wandering down narrow old lanes that don’t seem to owe much to recent decades. You always notice the little anomalies – cafes and bars here don’t seem to have table service, although of course restaurants do (no sign of Starbucks here by the way)…maybe it’s considered more virtuous to earn your drink by lining up for it. It’s very plainly a small town by comparison with Paris – among so many wondrous world destinations, it never reaches the top of the must-visit list for most people. Which is largely why we came here (plus, naturally, so I can indulge my fantasy of being here to receive a Nobel Prize, even if one of the lesser ones).

We eventually ate in an authentic-looking old place – we started with reindeer meat with whipped cream (fine, but we couldn’t really see the inner logic) and then Ally had Swedish meatballs (even in Sweden, that’s what they call them, Swedish meatballs) and I had vegetarian lasagna, and we shared the whole thing so it ended up a pretty good mix (people who just stick to their own food are really missing a trick). We went back to the hotel – and when I say things like this, I always mean Ally got us back to the hotel, she has all the navigation smarts – and had another drink at one of the tables outside. And that was a pretty darn good first night in Stockholm. Tomorrow, logistics demand that we move on again, but we’ll be back for three nights next week, all geared up for ABBA sightings.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 4

I finally slept through the night, and of course Ally did too. Actually, in another example of how quickly you get used to things, I woke up assuming it must be 2 am or suchlike, but then discovered it was six hours later than that. Did another Starbucks run, although the usual Starbucks was closed because of some kind of mishap so I had to go to another Starbucks, a whole block away. Despite this example of market saturation, I don’t get the feeling Starbucks is particularly integrated here– the volume of activity it attracts must be dwarfed by all the cafes (and it must be said, ordering a venti Americano or whatever feels rather gauche by comparison). Actually, North American brand names aren’t particularly prominent here. I mean, you see Macdonald’s and Subway and suchlike, but in comparison to other world cities we’ve been in, they never feel like they own the block. And the garish posters for Killers and Cop Out (or Kiss and Kill and Top Cops as they’re called here), seen in between those for weightier European films and (as you can tell I’m obsessed by) homages to past cinematic glories, seem like a form of sly cultural mockery.

We again got going around 11 am and walked down to Montparnasse station, where we caught the train to Chartres, about an hour away. This was an idea I’d had last night because I thought of the following monologue by Orson Welles about Chartres cathedral, from F For Fake:

Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it’s without a signature: Chartres.

A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked, radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe, which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

Well, it’s not a traditional marketing pitch maybe, but sounds more than good enough to me. The cathedral dates back to around 1200, but as I was saying about Notre Dame, it’s so irreconcilable with present-day achievements that it might as well have been left behind by aliens. Chartres is a gorgeous but modest city; the cathedral rises out of it like a vision made possible only by digital trickery. It’s enormous, but you can’t look anywhere without registering painstaking detail and sacrifice. We walked round the interior; I always feel a little guilty observing people who appear to there to pray and be humble, but who must put up with hoards of chattering kids and camera flashes and general hubbub. We went back again four hours later, just before catching the train back, and it was much more peaceful and somehow appropriate.

In between we walked just about every street on the Chartres downtown map. It has the remnants of an old medieval wall, and much narrow, cobbled character within that perimeter; there’s a square with lots of eating and hanging out, a river, and in general it just feels supremely scenic and satisfying. Outside the walls it gets a little more functional but still provides the basis for a great afternoon of walking. At one point (and I apologize for all the dog stories) we saw a woman shouting frantically after one of her three dogs, who’d got spooked by something and started running wildly up the street – we tried to catch him as he approached, but failed. Through pure coincidence though we saw her again later; the dog was back on his leash and – from the sound of it – having to suffer a big piece of her mind. We had lunch right opposite the cathedral – a gorgeous, easy-going spot – and caught the train back after five hours or so.

We walked back through Montparnasse. I mentioned yesterday how central Paris only seems to have a single North-American-level high-rise building – it’s opposite Montparnasse station, looking utterly anonymous and uncomfortable (as if the aliens who deposited Chartres cathedral subsequently engaged in a similar, updated, but less inspired experiment). We walked along St. Germain, ending up at the bustling square just a few blocks down from our hotel. It was busier than Toronto ever gets, but without the near-desperation you sometimes feel in London. We chose a café and hung out for several hours, getting through a nice amount of wine, a croque monsieur and a tarte tartin. We engaged, as we tend to, in some high-quality people watching, especially enjoying (and I apologize for all the…oh, who cares) the young woman who turned up with her dog – she put him on the chair beside her and they just hung out enjoying the human show. The light slowly dimmed (although it’s not getting dark until close to eleven) and the action slowly dissipated (relatively). And then we went back to the hotel, having already concluded our last full day in Paris. Which doesn’t mean the fun’s even close to ending…

Vacation Diary - Day 3

We’ve noticed more people kissing in public in Paris than we’ve seen for a long time – it really must be the City of Love (unless you don’t like the look of the people, and then it’s the City of Yuck). Of course, we’re not talking so many people in percentage terms, but then might be because the real Parisians are outnumbered by tourists, who I’m sure never kiss. Today was school outing day it seems, with clumps of kids trailing along every other street (in one case, the accompanying adult was enjoying a cigarette, which would probably earn her some newspaper notoriety back home). And I knew it was Monday when I came out this morning and the first two guys I saw in the café both had their laptops out. Also some student activity in the area because we are close to the Sorbonne, which I guess may provide the main audience for all the movie theaters.

Anyway, I was up again for an hour or two during the night, which is a bit irritating and atypical for me – Ally, who’s usually more prone to that kind of problem, slept magnificently for nine hours. I did another Starbucks run – funny how on vacation you do something twice and it already seems like a well-honed routine. We left around 11 am again, and walked past Notre Dame, which was overrun with visitors. We didn’t go in – we did on the last trip – but even the walls around the entrance amaze you with the intricacy of the stonework, in particular the layers of bodies and faces, as if trying to represent the world’s entire population at that point. I’m sure cathedrals have always been more about the earthly elevation of their sponsors than anything else, but it’s not hard to see them as records of a true relationship with the divine, the secret of which is now lost (the secret may have depended in part on keeping unlimited quantities of peasant labor on hand).

We walked on past the town hall, currently bearing a big photomontage image of Charles de Gaulle, and then wandered past the hotel where we stayed sixteen years ago – I would never have remembered the location, but Ally went straight to it. It doesn’t seem to have changed much, if at all. We’ve upgraded a bit since then, but then I guess you’d hope for some return on sixteen years of backbreaking labor in the coal mines (nah, I’m joking).

It’s only a short walk from there to the Pompidou Centre, over thirty years old now but still imposingly aggressive, daring you to find it ugly for how it foregrounds its basic anatomy. The elevator is pasted to the outside, along with the utility pipes, and even at a mere five flights up you realize how fiercely Paris protects its skyline – we only saw a single building of North American-type height. Unlike the Louvre yesterday, we took a more scrupulous approach here. We viewed the two special exhibitions – Dreamlands, devoted to real and imagined urban fantasies (Vegas, Dubai, Epcot) and another of Lucien Freud paintings. We wandered around some but not all of the rest – it’s a huge facility…we always enjoy the provocative modern stuff, and you know, as long as we get our quota of genitalia, and we always do, then we’re happy.

We walked back toward the hotel and stopped for a while at a café, where we shared a chicken/melted cheese sandwich and a fruit salad. Then we spent a few hours in the hotel before setting out to walk to Montmartre, right at the top of the standard city map. This took us about an hour and a half, much of it through much scruffier/earthier areas (would have been a good opportunity to load up on contraband cigarettes). We went through some kind of red light district containing a group of five or six aged prostitutes and I couldn’t help thinking, wow, the fact that you can still stick it today in the same place General de Gaulle did fifty years ago…what a symbol of continuity. Reaching Montmartre, we climbed the hill to the Sacre-Coeur basilica, once again finding a happy collection of tourists who’d gotten there an easier way (by tour bus, mostly). We sat for a while and then walked through the neighborhood, mainly junk vendors and various kinds of raciness. We sat for a while at a café and had some wine, then launched ourselves into the Moulin Rouge.

This advertises itself as a step back into the classic days of the Can-Can and the ooh la la, but from the opening seconds, starting off with a canned Euro-disco dirge, it's obvious it's not the same show that captivated Toulouse-Lautrec. Lasting around ninety minutes, it's a mostly dire assembly of hideous music, lumbering dance routines, a juggler who let one fall, a ventriloquist, miniature horses, a “talking” dog, two snakes , and lots of bare breasts (all of them identically A-cup except for one conspicuously bigger woman, so I guess someone else must have been running the auditions that day). Weirdly, the can-can – surely what most people would have wanted to see – only lasts a few indifferently executed minutes.

Well, since I’d earlier taken Ally on a brief detour in search of a terrace on which Jacques Rivette filmed a brief scene in his little–seen 1970 Out One, I’m obviously powered by a different paradigm of entertainment. The Moulin Rouge certainly packs in the people, although I doubt too many of them are locals (we were crammed in at a table with two women from the US and a couple from New Zealand); when we left it had a line-up round the block for the next show too. As I said to Ally, we’ll still remember it in some way after we’ve forgotten many other objectively superior theatrical experiences. I think it would have taken an hour to clear the place out (especially since everyone had had to check their cameras) but we raced out as soon as the lights came up and then even managed, against considerable competition, to grab a cab. The guy got us back to our hotel so fast that he was surely planning to race back up there and pick up someone else, although he paused for a good laugh at my absent-minded reference, when I asked for change, to francs rather than euros. We shared a plate of penne and a bottle of wine and just about closed down the café.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 2

It sounds like Toronto went crazy last night, so maybe I shouldn’t have mocked the security after all. But since it’s so widely known they spent a billion dollars on it, surely the logical protest strategy would have been to sit in sublime peace and serenity, threatening and breaking nothing, thus allowing endless scope for mocking the government as neurotic fools. Now, it seems to me from this distance, Harper will be able to claim all was justified, and the authoritarian narrative (the same one that has us in Afghanistan, wasting a fortune on building new prisons etc.) just gets stronger. Ah well, I guess you have to shake the cobwebs off the anarchy talk once every decade or so…

While that was happening, we slept until 9 am, although I’d been awake between around 3 am and 5am, posting yesterday’s installment among other things. I went on a Starbucks run – hardly the right French thing to do, but I figure we can start being French once we’re properly awake (virtually everyone in line there was a tourist). We got going around 11 and embarked on a major walk (our hotel, by the way, is categorically in the most perfect of locations). We wandered up boulevard St-Germain, known as a centre of left bank activity, embodied in particular by the “Deux Magots” café where many artistic giants have hung out over the years (more recently, someone I know made a Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher/Bruce Willis sighting there). The sidewalk cafes aren’t very differentiated – they tend to have identical red awnings and I expect largely identical menus, and at the more popular ones you really have to like having a stranger’s ass crammed up against yours – but they’re a huge source of energy: with so many people sitting outside and watching the world, the world self-evidently has to be worth watching. And how could any new city ever replicate those tree canopies? can do all the planning you want, but you can’t fake the quirky reality of natural evolution (that’s why they keep quoting Jane Jacobs). It’s all pretty easy-going on Sunday morning though. We wandered the length of the boulevard, bringing us back to the Seine, then crossed to the right bank and continued walking north, toward the Pigalle area, past endless stylish-looking stores all closed for today (no, not for the G-20, for Sunday), with the streets largely deserted, and then veering more to the south-west, eventually encountering a few more people, and then a lot more people. That’s right, if it’s tour buses, it must be the Arc de Triomphe.

Whether or not the Arc itself is in some sense a great (as opposed to big) creation I don’t know, but it’s certainly a classic example of urban structuring. We walked down the Champs Elysees, just about a thousand times busier than the otherwise largely similar streets we’d explored earlier, all the way down to the eye-defeatingly vast Place de la Concorde, where they seem to be in full swing setting up seating and other infrastructure for the July 14 parade. From there we entered the jardin des Tuileries, a dustier and more slumbering park space than last night’s Luxembourg gardens, which took us right up to the Louvre. We had been walking for three hours, with hardly a break; we decided to get out of the sun and get us some culture.

The Louvre is just enormous, and surely not objectively a triumph of the curator’s art in that you register volume more than individual greatness or significance. We didn’t even try to pretend to take it in as we normally would. We somewhat arbitrarily chose a direction, which took us to the Egyptian and other antiquities. Virtually every museum and gallery we’ve ever visited, anywhere in the world, had English captions to accompany the local language, but not this one. Yeah, quite right too, let the dimwits either learn French or else live in ignorance. We then decided to go with the flow and head for the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. These two attractions are much better signposted within the museum than anything else is, indicating they’re resigned to giving the people what they want (and presumably saving their staff from answering the same where-do-I-find-the-Mona-Lisa questions a thousand times a day). Venus de Milo is beautiful, and I speak for every man around when I say I would have loved to see that babe in something tight and form-fitting. Then we walked down I think the longest gallery I’ve ever been in, which halfway down yields the big pay-off. If memory serves they’ve reorganized since the last time we were here, moving La Giocanda to a free-standing wall allowing greater visibility from a semi-circle of angles. It’s a gorgeous sight, but again the art counts for less here than the phenomenon. I swear seventy per cent of the visitors don’t really look – they just photograph. But then I think the place has probably resigned itself to that.

We were pretty tired by now so we left after less than an hour and a half, having absorbed perhaps 0.0001% of what the Louvre has to offer. We walked back along the Seine toward our hotel, stopping along the way to share a sandwich and a strawberry tart, and some cold beverages which are never as big as you want them to be (one of the few times when the super-size concept seems appealing). We stayed in the hotel for a few hours, during which Germany kicked England’s sorry ass. When we went back out we walked in a new direction, kind of south-east, which revealed several more terrifically quirky cinemas (can you believe it, one of them showing Antonioni’s The Passenger this week) and then quickly led to the Pantheon, another mind-boggling imperial glory. From there we came to a little area just teeming with restaurants and activity, which surprised us because it hadn’t shown up in the guide book. Eventually we chose a place not so busy that we'd get into the stranger's ass thing, not so quiet that you suspect the locals must know something. Here we got to observe the high-tension local drama of a woman walking her dog off-leash, then the woman looking for her lost dog, then the dog trotting round looking for the woman, then the woman again, and then the happy reunion. I had salmon, Ally had beef (that’s right, our choices always reverse the gender clichés). We stayed there quite a long time and then made our way back, after which, once again, we could ask nothing more of Paris nor of ourselves.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 1

And then we left, to fly to Paris. It’s been a funny week in Toronto because of the G-8/G-20 summit – I suppose the leaders must only be human, but looking at the disruption of their pending presence (the only thing left to happen is for Lake Ontario to part itself in two so they can stroll to the island), you almost think maybe they’re more than that after all. Or maybe it’s just that neurosis on so grand a scale starts seeming almost magnificent. Either way, the analogies people draw with living in a police state are pretty well founded, even if the police so far have mostly appeared to be standing round looking blank. It’s the small stuff that gets to you – I went to a cash machine the other day, located far from the meeting site, and it had a sign saying it was making payments but not taking deposits. Is there a rational explanation for that? Do they think protestors will be lying in wait for customers bearing uncashed cheques? Anyway, on Friday morning, many people stayed from home and the city was basically dead. The lack of traffic (especially heading out of the city – official motorcades were causing delays on the way in) made it a good day for heading to the airport, although we still left earlier than we normally would, because you can’t beat an airport for taking a minor ripple of uncertainty and turning it into overwhelming chaos. In the end we had ample time, but that was no problem. Unfortunately, we couldn’t sit together on the flight – apparently a problem for lots of couples on the plane (no doubt another summit-related security measure).

For the last four years our vacations have had us flying for at least twelve hours, so the trip to Paris - a mere seven and a half - was nothing by comparison. I slept a bit, and also finished watching Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, which is one of the great exuberant French films and a terrific mood-setter (as if my mood wouldn't have been fine otherwise!); Ally slept a little more. The flight was on time, around 9.30 am local time, and we were downtown a couple of hours after that. The cab ride was one of those great emblematic introductions – functional highways turning into pleasant but unremarkable outskirts turning into something that looks increasingly like your idea of Paris, and then all of a sudden, wow, it’s Notre Dame Cathedral! The ride also involved taking our life constantly in our hands of course, as all foreign cab rides seem to.

We are staying at Place de la Sorbonne, in the Latin Quarter, just a few minutes from the Seine and Notre Dame, a good base for whatever we might get into our heads. We have not been in Paris for sixteen years, and we have lots of memories of that, but not much of a mental map of how it all fit together, beyond the core structure of the river Seine and certain landmarks (we could remember generally where the Louvre was in the scheme of things, but not the Eiffel Tower). Our room wasn’t ready for us, so we dumped the bags and just started walking. It was a terrific, pristine day – a little hotter than back home. The area around the hotel buzzes with cafes and stores and general activity (several Starbucks close by too so, hey, we must be in a classy neighborhood). We just started walking along the Seine's left bank, past the river-side vendors of (often impressively intellectual) books, prints, vintage dirty postcards and of course tourist-bait crap – most of them just sit there in their deckchairs lost in a book or in contemplation, seemingly with little expectation of actually selling anything. The general atmosphere, the sense of what it’s like to be in Paris, came back to us virtually at once. At various points you're looking in one direction, and then you turn round and realize you’re missing something impossibly scenic – for today we did not worry about identifying all these grand structures and squares and vistas. It’s Paris – magnificence to spare.

We decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower, mainly for the sheer obviousness of it – of course you’d go there on your first day! This took us through a random series of endlessly charming Parisian streets, although I can’t necessarily articulate what’s charming about them – you know, it’s just that it’s so old and quiet, and they still display fruit outside. Unsurprisingly, it was much busier around the tower, with big line-ups at each entry point. We went to the top last time and probably won’t bother this time, you know, just to show we’re classier than the average tourist. We bought ice creams and sat in the shade nearby. The vendors in this area are a different breed – sorry-looking guys trying to unload replicas of the tower and other equally hopeless material – I’m sure there’s usually a grim exploitation narrative in the background there. Some others sell one-Euro water bottles, out of buckets of (based on our purchase) often lukewarm water. The luckier guys had ice in their buckets...maybe it's all who you know.

We crossed to the other side of the Seine and worked our way back, leaving aside for today the Champs Elysees which is just a little further north. But by now we were getting tired – on a body clock equivalent of around 9 am after very little sleep, no freshening up, in pretty heavy heat, no surprise. We stopped on a bench for a few minutes and I nodded off (Ally thinks I may have a mild form of narcolepsy because I often fall asleep getting my hair cut, in the dentist’s chair etc.) We wandered slowly back – it looked like the neighborhood might have been gearing up for a gay pride parade or something similar. One of my favorite memories of Paris was movie theaters playing old films just as prominently as new ones – I’d wondered if the DVD/technology explosion since then might have largely killed that off, but theaters close to the hotel have posters for Gloria and They Shoot Horses Don’t They, among others.

We got into our room. It’s a pretty new boutique hotel, very stylish – our room is inevitably smaller than it would be in North America, but it’s been carefully designed on a split-level and has everything we would have wanted (well, I like it when you have the in-house coffee-making facility, but I didn’t expect that, and frankly it's better without it). Most important to me of course – wireless, how would you be reading this otherwise? We both fell asleep almost immediately; I woke up after an hour or so though while Ally slept on – this is the time-honored pattern to our trips. So I wrote this, went on the Internet and so on. Periodically the room seemed to be seized by a huge noisy vibration but I couldn’t figure out whether it was outside, or a clunky hotel heating system or suchlike, or maybe a manifestation of psychic terror (strange time for it, if so...)

We went out again around 7. We are close to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a magnificent old-time garden marked by lots of sculptured focal points, military-straight boulevards of ancient trees, and people hanging out on folding chairs. Beyond that is the district of Montparnasse – venerable atmosphere and high-end shopping – where we walked around for a while before deciding it was time to eat. We chose a place on a side-street, the name of which wasn’t evident from the outside or the menus or anywhere else, but it worked out excellently (Ally had lamb, I had swordfish). My French is extremely shaky but I did well enough to earn the waiter’s respect, including an exchange, after he forgot about us at one point, where he self-deprecatingly suggested it was because the French were lazy and I charitably proposed it must have been because he was thinking about Jean-Paul Sartre. That got us two free glasses of an apple liquer (albeit that he described the taste of it as “girly”). From there we walked back – the Luxembourg gardens were all locked up now – stopping only to buy Ally some shampoo since our hotel room oddly doesn’t have any. The hotel neighborhood was still hopping. But we'd already had as good an opening day as we'd ever want.