Friday, October 5, 2007
A few notes on Paris
Our trip to France was lovely, marred only by the near-lethal cold I managed to contract on the transatlantic flight back home. Better then than at the start of the trip, right? Today my throat feels as though I've been gargling battery acid, but the golden memories help mitigate the pain. As the saying goes, we'll always have Paris.
We did all the things tourists usually do when they visit France, so I won't expound on them. Instead, here are a few impressions from a first-time visitor who doesn't speak the language. No doubt they'll seem hopelessly naive to veteran Francophiles, but it's my blog.
On our first night in France, we were treated to dinner by representatives of the mayor's office of the city of Orleans. As it happened, it was the final night of the city's three-year-old river festival, culminating with a fireworks show. We stood with a crowd of about 80,000 and watched the pyrotechnics light up the night and the Loire River. It was a splendid display, but what struck us most was the civilized nature of the crowd: No parents cursing their children; no drunken teens fistfighting, no shouted cell phone conversations, no shoving for better views. In short, none of the behavior that can make large public gatherings so memorable in the States. Are the French somehow more civilized? I don't know. But they've been at it longer, so the idea seems plausible.
In Paris, I was struck by the number of people riding bicycles to work, and somehow peacefully coexisting with cars, trucks and motorcycles. There is something inspiring about seeing well-dressed men and women nonchalantly pedaling through traffic without benefit of helmets or logoed spandex. Maybe it helps that Parisian drivers seem conditioned to share the road. Where I live, that is decidedly not the case.
One of the things I'd often heard about France is that anybody can be on strike on any given day. Apparently so. On our way back to Charles De Gaulle airport to drop off the rental car, we noticed traffic in the other direction backed up for miles. In the front of the line: an army of taxi drivers, who were registering their displeasure at certain fare rules proposed by the government. Those unlucky enough to be caught behind the roadblock seemed sanguine enough about it, sitting on car hoods and smoking or chatting on cell phones. Evidently the French are used to this sort of thing. We canceled our plan to get a cab back into the city, and took the train instead.
Paris is filled with museums, but you quickly become aware that the city itself is the best museum of all, so steeped in history and culture that you can't walk anywhere without crossing the steps of the famous and infamous. And so you keep walking, awed by one grand vista or another, or struck silent by some curving cobblestone street where someone well-known lived, loved, dreamed or died. Sometimes all four. I can see why Hemingway was taken by it. The place he first lived in Paris was a couple of blocks from our hotel. At least one of the bookstores he haunted still exists. (See above.)
Because the dollar is so weak against the euro right now, France is an expensive place to visit. One of the few bargains to be had there is the wine: We found all sorts of great local wine in the Loire Valley for three or four euros a bottle. I quickly calculated that I couldn't afford not to drink as much of it as possible. I only wish I could have brought a couple cases home.
As a dutiful tourist, I also took hundreds of snapshots, a few of which are displayed here. They're no different from the millions of others taken every day by first-time visitors to France, but I'm glad to have them. Have a look and let me know what you think.