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.

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