Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 12

We were up at 6 am today, and for once we stayed up. It was a beautiful day in Stockholm, and it would have been so alluring to slide into the slow early-morning activity, but instead we took a cab to the airport. Is there a more comprehensive short-term hell than the check-in process? The automatic machines seem to promise a smoother process, but it’s just a psychological trick, merely displacing your frustration onto the tortuous baggage drop-off line. The airport didn’t actually seem that busy overall, but at the check-in point you would have sworn the whole country was heading into exile. Anyway, all of that said, we had time for a quick breakfast and our flight to Paris was on time.

We were both delighted with the Sweden trip. We’re both big believers in the cliché about travel broadening the mind, and even if a particular excursion doesn’t necessarily do that so much – for instance by primarily confirming preexisting impressions rather than generating new ones, or by providing mental postcard images more diverting than they are instructive – there’s a huge value to feeling at ease in the world. A lot of people just aren’t – we tell them we’re going to somewhere like Sweden and they reflexively ask if we’re visiting family members (the assumption being no one picks a foreign destination – unless it involves lounging on a beach - on any other basis) or whether we’re taking a guided tour (because even in the Internet age, how could you ever trust yourself not to screw it up?). We are not adventurous travelers by any means, but it’s one of the happiest things in my life that we’ve occasionally been able to engage with the world as a menu of choices rather than a series of barriers and traps. The other thing, of course, is that for now at least we have the resources to do all of this. I know for many people it's simply impractical, except perhaps for the dream of one day taking that “trip of a lifetime.” We’re pretty obviously getting stuck in wretched economic times, and I don’t think foreign travel is going to get any more accessible in the foreseeable future, if ever. It’s sad, because along with the miserable standard of cultural education and awareness, it’s just another thing adding to the prevailing ideology's unbelievable stupidity. If you can find a workable revolution anywhere close by, sign me up.

Anyway, we are spending our last night in the Sheraton at the Paris airport, because that’ll make things easier tomorrow morning. It’s actually right within terminal 2, and from the window you can look down at the activity below and then at the runways beyond…maybe not a classic Parisian view, but still kind of diverting. We had a smooth flight and a very quick turnaround within the airport and then headed downtown on the train, getting off around 3 pm at the Les Halles shopping complex. Apparently it’s regarded locally as a bit of an eyesore, but at first glance it has some rather eye-catching angles, and the fact we couldn’t find the right exit added to the adventure. Then when we did get out we were opposite St-Eustache church, which is very beautiful. I have been negligent in documenting all the architectural highlights of our trip, partly because it’s all in the guide books anyway, but in both Paris and Stockholm we would occasionally stop ourselves and say something like: you know that building above the café, it’s actually gorgeous! And then we’d pause and look up, and it really is! But what can poor tourists do other than drink in the whole – if we were paying due respect to all of the individual parts, we’d never be able to leave.

We instantly remembered that Paris is many multiples busier and faster-moving than Stockholm, magnified today because it’s unbelievably hot here. We walked round the neighborhood a bit, back past the Pompidou Center, and then to the Bastille/Marais neighborhood, which we hadn’t visited first time round. We would have gone to the Picasso museum, but it’s closed for renovations until 2012, so we mainly wandered the streets – lots of slow-moving people, café activity, elegantly distinctive-looking stores. We came to the place de la Bastille, with the opera house on the other side, and then wandered back down towards the Seine, where our pace got more and more leisurely. You know, some of those intellectual book sellers actually use the philosophy volumes and the historic prints to hide material like “America’s Biggest Tits.” That’s the kind of thing you notice when your pace slows down. And frankly, I question whether it's even a well-researched claim.

Anyway, Paris never runs out of options of course – we’d talked about the Musee d’Orsay too, which would have got us out of the heat, but we didn’t feel like it. We ended up eating much earlier than usual, at the Deux Magots café I mentioned earlier. The outside spaces were crammed, but we sat inside, where it has a more desolate but entertaining air. We split a club sandwich and a weird salad, presumably a signature dish of sorts, comprising lettuce, green beans, foie gras and duck. Then we walked some more and stopped for a final glass of wine, and a final tarte tatin, at the same place we’d spent the evening after our day in Chartres. We took the train back, and that was almost it. Except that we did walk around the airport for a while – it’s rather liberating to walk through an airport just because you can, with no immediate pressure about checking in or security. Some parts were deserted, others were still teeming with late night flight activity, mainly to the far East. For us, that’s tomorrow’s problem. When we entered the hotel, we glanced towards the bar and every face in the place was staring silently upward in the same direction – yep, Germany versus Spain. We were of course neutral (we love all of Europe equally!), but our unscientific survey of the streets earlier suggested greater local support for the latter. So I guess they must have been happy.

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