Saturday, July 31, 2004

Train Ride Snippets

On day 5 we left Rouen for Bayeux.

We travelled by train, first to Caen and then on to Bayeux. We left the ultra-silent electric trains behind. From Rouen west, we took smaller two-car diesel trains that weren't quite as quiet but sailed just as smoothly across the landscape spread out before us.

These were wonderful rides thru the Normandy summertime countryside. Here are some snippets from that journey...

  • On the other side of the sun lit patio is a dining room with a fireplace at one end and a continental breakfast buffet spread out along one wall. Among the many tables, there is a table set for three, for us. We have a breakfast feast to send us on our way.
  • Why does French yogurt taste so good!?
  • Why is it so difficult to get people to make change!?
  • Here I am on the streets of Rouen trying to get change for the Metro while Trudy and Ben are down in the station. Here I am asking at the bank for change, trying to figure out how to work the Poste machine that they suggested. I can't figure it out. We can't afford to miss the next Metro train. I rush into a Tabac where they make change very willingly.
  • When I get back to the Metro station with change, Trudy and Ben look up as I ride the long escalator down. I give a thumbs up. They smile in relief. We get three tickets. A Metro train arrives moments later and takes us back under the river to the train station, where we arrived only yesterday.
  • When the train pulls out, I look at my watch. On time departure.
  • A blue enamel sign says "Tourville". Our train doesn't even slow as we go by the station. Behind it, on a triangular plot of land, is a garden full of blooming flowers and vegetables. These gardens are everywhere. Everyone in Normandy seems to have one.
  • At Elbeuf St. Aubain, a young boy climbs onto the train. His mother and his aunt follow him from the platform outside, walking along with him step by step until he finds a seat. They smile and wave goodbye. He waves back. This must be his first trip alone.
  • That woman sitting across from us was at our hotel. She is writing a postcard to someone in Ontario. A boy (10 or 11 years old) sneaks up behind her. Hello, Grandma! he says and goes back to his seat.
  • When the train goes into a tunnel, it gets dark. Then the lights flicker on in the car. Then there's a pressure gradient that makes your ears pop.
  • When the westbound train passes an eastbound one, there's some kind of funny bee-boop horn that sounds as the engines pass each other and then a reverse boo-beep horn as they leave each other behind.
  • There are two cars stopped at a crossing by the fields in the countryside waiting for our train to pass. The driver of the first car leans against the second car, talking to the other driver as they watch us race by.
  • We squeal to a stop in Brionne. A boy and a girl hold hands as they walk towards the train. He gets on. She stays behind. He finds a seat. She turns around and walks back alone.
  • The railroad follows the river. We speed along the valley. Overhead is a tall-spanned highway bridge crossing the valley from hill to hill. Its white concrete pillars shine brightly in the summer sun. We speed under it and leave it behind.
  • We pass a picnic table under a tree near the water's edge along a one-lane road. On the one side of the road are the table and the river. On the other side is a grove of towering aspens with their silver-backed leaves quaking in the breeze.
  • As we accelerate away from the station at Serquigny, we are back in the countryside in no time. The speeding train sends amber waves thru the fields of grain on the side of the tracks.
  • Hay pooches in the green fields. Blue sky overhead. And cattle grazing all around.
  • Dad. You wanna play chess? Ben asks. He will ask this question over and over thru the course of this trip. I will play only once. I could sit here and look out this window forever.

Trip to France - Day 5
Rouen/Caen/Bayeux by train

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Making a Living

1. Metro Music

When we took our first Metro ride in Paris, there was a musician playing (or was it singing?) in the car. The people were crowded shoulder to shoulder. Some looked at him. Some looked away. He was actually pretty good. I dropped 50 centimes in his cup when he was done.

The next musician in the next Metro hop was not so good. She was singing pop tunes. Her voice was lousy. I don't think anyone dropped any coins in her cup.

2. Rainy Day at Musée d'Orsay

At the Musée d'Orsay on a rainy day a couple weeks later, when we walked up to get out of the rain, we passed a man sitting on the sidewalk with a panoply of instruments spread around him. He was a one man band playing drums and cymbal and valve trombone. He was wet.

On our way back out, it was still raining. Where the one man band had been before, a different man now stood with a raincoat to keep him dry. He was playing a clarinet. The sound of it was wonderful, but the rain was coming down and we had someplace to go. We didn't get to listen, but I turned around as we walked away and dropped two Euros in his box.

3. Playing in the Plazas

There were musicians in the plazas of Rouen, too. We heard a banjo player in the distance as we sat waiting for the restaurants to open. He was wandering between the tables on the other side of the square singing bluegrass songs.

And when we had dinner that night in the Old Market at tables sitting out on the cobblestone, the same banjo man showed up. Now, Trudy's not wild about bluegrass, and you wouldn't necessarily expect it to be well received there. But as he walked the tables afterwards holding out his upturned hat, people dug into their pockets for him.

Then came a man with an accordion. He showed up not long after the banjo man had gone. His hair was black. His skin was dark. He was playing show tunes that didn't work so well with accordion. I don't know what the protocol is (who plays first and who plays next), but this guy got a raw deal, because when he walked the tables afterwards, no one seemed in a mood to dig into their pockets again.

What a hard way to make a living.

Trip to France
Paris & Rouen

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La Place du Vieux-Marché


1. The Old Market   [goto synopsis]

After resting a while, we walked thru the cathedral. And we gazed back on the west facade from the plaza where Monet used to paint it.

And then we went in search of food.

It's funny how the search for food was such a constant feature of this trip. We were constantly on the move. We were constantly hungry. And it was constantly a challenge to find the right place to eat at the right time.

Fortunately, we had some idea where to go for tonite, since white-haired Jacques outside the Metro station had given us some pointers and mentioned that there were many places to eat around La Place du Vieux-Marché.

Here is where Jeanne d'Arc was burned at the stake at the twilight of the Middle Ages. The plaza was paved in cobblestone. In the center, sat the modern-day Eglise Jeanne d'Arc with its wall of stained-glass and sweeping roof ascending to the sky. At its edges, the plaza was surrounded by old half-timbered buildings -- and many restaurants.

And here were tables and chairs set out under umbrellas to shade the summer sun. And there were people sitting and talking. And there were waiters and waitresses bringing drinks out to the seated customers from the restaurants on the periphery.

2. Too Early to Eat   [goto synopsis]

One of the challenges of finding dinner on this trip was adjusting to the dinner-after-7pm rule. Most restaurants are closed until then, making it difficult to eat if you're famished before the designated time arrives. We were famished, and the designated time had not yet arrived. However, it was 6:00pm. Close enough.

So we walked into the plaza and found a table under and an umbrella with the restaurant name, Le Maupassant, written on the canvas. We sat down. We watched people come and go. We absorbed the feeling of this medival city. We looked up at the blue sky. We watched the other sitting people sit. And periodically we looked back at Le Maupassant, wondering when they might bring us a menu.

No one came: no waiter, no waitress, no menu, no nothing.

I began to think that perhaps the curious look that man at the table over there gave us when we sat down was more than a passing glance. And we noticed that no one was sitting at any of the other Le Maupassant tables. And now that we stopped to notice, nobody else was eating; they were just sitting, drinking, smoking and talking.

Should we go and ask? Trudy wondered.

We glanced back at the restaurant again, gave them a few more minutes, and finally I got up to go ask.

Compared to the bright sunlit plaza, the inside of Le Maupassant was dark. Stepping in felt like stepping back thru centuries. All the tables were empty except for one in the back. Three women sat there. They were clearly waitresses. They were talking to each other and smoking cigarettes and eating dinner. I walked up to them.

Bon soir! one said.

Bon soir, I replied. Est-ce que vous etes fermé?

Oui, she said.

They were closed. But she smiled and said they would open at 7pm. I thanked them and walked back out to the plaza and gave my grim report.

3. Around the Block   [goto synopsis]

Ok. This is an old town, and we're only going to be here one day. We can walk around and see more. Let's go exploring.

We decided to wander the streets and peek into storefronts and look down narrow alleys. All the stores were closed, so we couldn't go in anywhere, but we weren't of a mind to shop, just to absorbed more of this place -- and to burn enough time to return to Le Maupassant. So we walked around the block.

But this was not your ordinary block, not a block by urban American standards where you might accomplish the feat by walking straight and taking four lefts and ending up precisely where you started out. This was a centuries-old town with narrow, uneven streets winding around and old buildings leaning out over you as you passed.

So we walked slowly and turned left every once in a while. And we sat on some benches in front of an old church in another plaza a short distance away and watched the people come and go there. And we listened to a musician playing on the far side of that plaza as he wandered between the tables of another cafe. And then we decided we'd burned enough time.

4. Dinner at Last   [goto synopsis]

We wandered back to the Old Market, taking a few vaguely-defined left turns and ended up back where we had started. It was still early, but just by a few minutes.

A smiling waiter came out soon and gave us menus. You could kind of tell from his eyes and his smile that he understood our predicament and didn't particularly care that we were still too early.

He took our order, rushed back and forth getting ready for the evening, set up a reserved table for 20 people or more (although no one was yet sitting under any of the Le Maupassant umbrellas but us). And when our food was ready, he brought it out.

Bon appetite! he said.

5. Taking Our Time   [goto synopsis]

Children ran around the plaza. Periodically a motorbike buzzed thru. As evening approached, more and more people streamed into the plaza. Once or twice, a white police car full of blue-uniformed officers drove by the tables slowly, threading its way between the waiters and waitresses and the steady stream of pedestrians.

Evening arrived. People came and went. We sat and ate and ordered dessert and sat and ordered coffee and sat some more. The summer sun in the west lit the rooftops of the buildings on the eastern edge of the plaza.

Three and a half hours passed after we sat down to eat. We got our money's worth and more. We were content. We were rested. We were ready to go to bed.

We thanked the smiling waiter and high-heeled, short-skirted waitress who had been running between the restaurant and plaza over the cobblestones all evening. And we walked back up the narrow streets of Old Rouen to our hotel.

It was not yet dark. But as on almost every night of this summer trip at high latitude on the western edge of the timezone, we collapsed into our beds with the fading light of day still sneaking in between the curtains.

Trip To France - Day 4

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 Friday, July 30, 2004

We're Not In Arizona Anymore

So when we got to our hotel in Rouen, we took a nap.

I guess I didn't shut the window all the way, because when I woke up, I could hear the sound of footsteps on cobblestones and the buzz of motorbikes on a street further down the hill. The sound they made and the sound of boo-bee-boo-bee sirens once in a while gave the afternoon a distinctly European feel.

And there was the sound of some American outside complaining about the motorbikes. There was no mistaking where he came from. His volume and his accent and his attitude gave him away.

In Arizona, he observed, they wouldn't let motorbikes race thru the city like that. And they wouldn't make that kind of racket. Not in Arizona, they wouldn't he declared loudly, his voice echoing up and down Rue de la Cathedrale.

Eventually, his voice faded away along with his footsteps. The sun was still shining on the iron spire of the cathedral outside. It was time to go take a look.

Trip to France - Day 4

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1. The Cathedral in the Distance

After lunch and an early afternoon among the willows and beech trees lining the slow moving streams and lily pad ponds of Monet's garden in Giverny, we road our bikes back to Vernon.

The ride back went much more quickly that the ride there. It was easier to stay on the trail. And the route back to the train station thru the cobblestone streets of Vernon seemed familiar.

The train station was mobbed. Most of the people were on the other side of the track, headed back to Paris. We were headed to Rouen. As usual, the train arrived and departed right on time.

I fell asleep once we sat down. Ben did, too, his head leaning against my shoulder. Trudy was wide awake and watched the blue sky and green fields of Normandy fly by.

We approached Rouen by a round-about route, the tracks following the curve of the Seine. As we came out of a tunnel, Rouen was spread out before us with the river running thru it and the cathedral rising up in the middle. Its towers and spire gleamed in the sun, unchallenged by modernity.

It was a sight to take your breath away.

2. We Did It!

Rouen has a Metro, too. Not as extensive as Paris, it was nevertheless just what we needed to get from the train station to the hotel. It took us a while to get our bearings, but eventually we found our way. Without leaving the station, we descended on an escalator deep down into the Metro tunnel that would take us under the Seine to the central part of the city.

There was nobody selling Metro tickets, just automatic ticket machines. In Paris, we had always bought them from a warm body behind a plexiglass window. Here we didn't have that option, and we had trouble figuring out just what we were supposed to do.

We pushed the buttons and put in our money but it wouldn't take the coins. We pushed the buttons and tried again, but it still didn't work. After going thru this exercise a few times, we finally figured out that the machine was at fault and that we were doing nothing wrong. (Who would have guessed it!?)

We picked up our bags and moved 10 feet to another machine. There we deposited our money and got three tickets, 1.35€ each.

We did it! Trudy shouted in triumph.

3. White-Haired Jacques

Three Metro tickets at 1.35€ each -- and we only had to go one stop. We felt like slouches. Shouldn't we have walked? Perhaps, but I have a feeling that had we not taken the Metro, we would still be in Rouen dragging outr bags up and down the streets looking for L'Hotel de Cathedral.

And we might still be dragging our bags looking for the hotel were it not for white-haired Jacques who descended upon us as we ascended out of the Metro tunnel.

As he walked up to us, he asked if he could help us. Trudy said, Merci. And I told him what street we were looking for. He quickly figured out that we were Americans and began to speak English.

Jacques knew the city well. He knew the street we were looking for and pointed just one block away where we should turn left and walk all the way past the Cathedral to find our hotel.

Corneille wrote from a room in that hotel, you know, he said. And he explained some about Corneille and some more about Rouen. And then he let us go.

We were grateful. Merci beaucoup! we both said.

4. The Cathedral Up Close

So we picked up our bags and walked down the cobblestone streets of old Rouen, down Rue de L'Horloge and thru the arch under the great clock, into the plaza in front of the looming cathedral where Monet would set up his easel and capture the colors hitting the west facade.

The narrow streets were mobbed. Modern day stores lined the medieval street. As our bags clacked and clattered on the cobblestones, a throng of people walked past us in both directions. Until we came to the corner of the plaza. There, at the corner of the plaza, the street narrowed and the crowd disappeared. There were few shops down this way.

The afternoon sun failed to throw any light directly onto the ground, although the sky overhead was blue and the towers and spire of the cathedral soaring beside us were in full sun. We continued down the street until we came to a sign that said, L'Hotel de Cathedral.

The room was comfortable and spacious, a welcome surprise from the tiny one we had in Paris. The window opened directly out onto that cobblestone street. The stone wall of the cathedral on the other side felt so close that you might be able to reach out and touch it. And if you gazed straight up, you could see a slice of the iron spire rising into the blue.

I closed the window and took a nap. Ben took a nap. Trudy took a shower.

This was day one of our tour of Normandy and Bretagne. Now the fun part was beginning.

Trip to France - Day 4

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Biking to Giverny

The train left Gare Saint Lazare right on time. I set my watch by its departure. It rolled out of the station increasing in speed quickly as we left Paris behind, travelling first thru the graffiti soaked rail lines in the suburbs and then to the greenery of the countryside and the sun lit valley of the Seine.

We arrived in Vernon on time, getting off the train with all our luggage, not knowing quite what we were going to do next -- only that there was a bus to catch to Monet's gardens at Giverny.

Est-ce qu'il y a une place ou on peut laisser nos baggages? I asked at the information booth, hoping there were train station lockers where we could leave our bags. (Vernon was just a side-trip. We would leave again by train in the afternoon for Rouen.)

The woman shook her head. So we walked out onto the cobblestone street, Trudy and Ben with their suitcases behind them (making an incredible racket) and I with my duffel bag over my shoulder (walking quietly with a no-breakfast/no-coffee headache roaring in my head).

We found the bus stop. We walked to the end of the long line and sat down. [*]

Now we were faced with two problems: (1) what to do with our bags, and (2) where to get some coffee. Our attempt to solve the first with train station lockers had failed. Trudy proceeded to solve the second.

With the same undauntable determination she had shown in consuming her lemon pastry on Quai 17 in Paris only an hour earlier, she stood up and took some change out of her pocket.

I am going to get coffee, she announced, and she walked back up the cobblestone street.

I barely noticed. My head was buried in the one croissant I had ordered at the patisserie on Rue Cler. By the time I was finished, Trudy was nowhere to be seen.

Want some baguette? Ben asked (a question he would prove quite adept at asking during the rest of our trip, as he became the official keeper of baguettes by virtue of his backpack, which made a perfect place to put them).

I don't remember if I had any or not, for soon after that Trudy reappeared in front of us with a cafe noire for me and two cups of cafe au lait, one for her and one for Ben.

I was saved. I'd eaten. I now had coffee. I held the tiny demitasse paper cup between my shaking fingers and drank the thick, dark coffee that it held. The headache began to recede.

The bus arrived, and the people in the line climbed in. It filled up with many of us still waiting in the street. The driver said she would return, but we had no idea how long it would take.

That is when things took a turn for the better.

How about if we see, I proposed, if the cafe where you got this coffee will keep our bags for the day if we rent bikes from them? (We had seen a bike rental sign as we walked by.)

Trudy was delighted.

Wait here, I said.

The man inside the cafe was wonderful. He tolerated my French. He said that of course they would keep our bags. I went to gather Trudy and Ben and our bags, much to the curiosity of the others waiting for the bus to return.

He took our bags into the back and locked them in a closet. He gave us locks for the bikes. He told us to take whichever bikes we liked. And he gave us a map that showed the hike/bike trail from Vernon to Giverny.

We got on the bikes and rolled down the narrow cobblestone street past the bus stop with the still-waiting people.

What a good idea, I heard someone say as we rode by.

And we rolled around the corner, down the hill, past the church, over a bridge crossing the Seine, and on our way to Giverny.

That is when one of the best moments of the trip happened.

As we crossed the bridge over the river, the church bells in the city began pealing. And I mean pealing. They didn't just ring, the pealed. Their tones and overtones filled the air, filled the valley, rolled over the water, bounced off the hills around us, filled our ears.

At the far end of the bridge, I veered off the path onto a hill overlooking the Seine and sat down in the grass looking back over the water, back at Vernon on the other side sitting under a blue sky with the sound of cathedral bells filling our ears. Tears were running down my cheeks. I was sobbing audibly.

Want some baguette? Ben asked.

Trudy was smiling ear to ear. I did want some baguette. Nothing in Giverny could possibly compare to this.

[*] That is a story in itself. It turns out that we chose the wrong end of the line. We walked down the cobblestone street dragging our bags and, as it turned out, proceeded to the front of the line where we planted ourselves before the 50+ other waiting people. No one said a thing. Our error was not at all obvious until the bus pulled up, stopping directly in front of us. Of course, at this point, we realized (in horror) what we had done, and proceeded to let everyone else file by us before even standing up. Amazingly, not only did no one ever say anything to us, but there was not a single dirty look thrown our way from any of those other waiting people. Perhaps they felt sorry for us and all the baggage we were pulling. [return to text]

Trip to France - Day 4

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The clock went off at 6:00am. We were all dead-tired, but we had showers to take, bags to pack, and a train to catch to Vernon. We hadn't written down the departure time, but Trudy said it was eight-something. I suggested we assume 8:00am. She scoffed, saying it must be 8:47am or something like that. We had plenty of time, she said.

We showered. We packed our bags. We climbed down the five floors as quietly as we could. And we searched for breakfast as we walked to the Metro.

The search for breakfast was a failure. No places were open yet on Rue Cler, and we didn't have time to mess around. So we grabbed some baguettes and croissants and other pastries from a patisserie on the corner and headed to Gare Saint Lazare.

When we got to the train station, Trudy and Ben let go of their rolling suitcases and I dropped my duffel bag and went to find our departure info.

8:17am, quai 17, I reported when I came back.

We had seven minutes to spare. Plenty of time, I thought to myself smugly. But I held my tongue -- how much of the itinerary did I assist in planning? If we arrived anywhere on time on any of these 15 days, it was exclusively the accomplishment of the fair and industrious Trudy. So I held my tongue.

A look of horror came over her face. She mumbled something to herself about not even wanting to think about what almost happened. (This was the only train we could catch that would get us where we needed to go, and we had a distant hotel reservation that evening.)

We marched off in the direction of Quai 17, found the train, and climbed on board. We had made it. But the more serious matter now was breakfast. We had not had any -- nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and particularly: no coffee.

But what about the pastries? you ask.

Well we hadn't had the courage to eat them on the Metro, although we had had plenty of time. We had images of chastising Metro police dancing in our heads. And now that we were safely on the train with only minutes to spare, we had similar images of chastising conductors -- images reinforced by the gathering of a dozen or so right outside our window. So no breakfast. No coffee. No pastries.

Actually, Ben had eaten. Those inhibiting images of chastisement that had danced in Trudy's head and mine had not encumbered him at all. He had munched a baguette discretely on the Metro and was now bent over his two croissants, devouring them bite by bite. It was only Trudy and I who were in dire straits.

Trudy stood up.

I'm going to eat my pastry, she announced.

And she took hers out of the bag over which Ben was huddled. (It was a lemon something or another.) She took it out of the bag and stood straight up and walked down the aisle and out the door of the train car and onto the quai. There, standing on Quai 17 next to those dozen train conductors in their uniforms holding their conductor books, Trudy proceeded to devour her lemon something or another.

The lasting image I have of the event is something like the pictures Charles Schultz used to draw of Pigpen. Not that she was making a mess -- she wasn't losing a single crumb. But I have this image of her devouring that pastry in a furious flurry with her head rolling and her teeth gnashing and her hands held ever-closer to her mouth and a cloud of breakfast satisfaction swirling around her in ever-increasing intensity until...

Until she finished her pastry.

Standing there on Quai 17, Trudy looked up and wiped her mouth with a swipe of a napkin. She stood up straight, for the effort had left her slightly hunched. She took two steps forward and was back on the train while the crowd of book-toting, uniformed conductors had still not broken up to go to their respective trains.

She came back down the aisle and sat down with a look of relief on her face.

And it was now only I who had had no breakfast.

Trip to France - Day 4

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 Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Eiffel Tower


1. Destinations Fit For A Teenager   [return to synopsis]

When we planned this trip, a lot of our destinations were chosen with Ben in mind. You can't drag a 13 year old from from attraction to attraction, museum to museum, stopping to look for example at Dutch Masters one by one with their dark hues and somber subjects frowning down from massive gilded frames. You can't take a trip like that if you have a 13 year old. Heck, you can't really take a trip like that if you have anyone with you.

Climbing the Eiffel Tower. Going to the D-Day beaches. Crossing the Cher River in the galleries of Chenenceau. Spending a night on Mont Saint Michel. These were destinations we chose not only for ourselves, but also for Ben.

And the Eiffel Tower had been calling him for quite some time.

2. To The Eiffel Tower   [return to synopsis]

So after we had gobbled our sandwiches and guzzled our Oranginas and had rested our feet in our chairs along the sidewalk across the street from the Seine watching the setting sun... After that, we made our way to the tower.

We cut thru an alley as a shortcut. The Tower was now lit and stood shining at the other end making this the obvious route. We walked down the narrow street, weaving between parked cars and delivery trucks. And the alley abruptly ended as it hit the gardens under the Eiffel Tower.

It was here that Ben announced that he had to go to the bathroom. (This has been a 13 year long theme in my life, but at this point we are pretty much used to it.)

He was eyeing the bushes to our right. I was eyeing the two soldiers carrying automatic weapons ahead of us. And I was remembering yesterday when the guard at Les Invalides shouted to Ben and me (in English -- she knew we were Americans) not to sit on the grass. And I was also remembering yesterday when the police on the Champs de Mars told a father (no mere American, he) not to play soccer with his kids on the grass.

I think, I said, perhaps those soldiers wouldn't look kindly on it.

He looked at them and could see the silhouette of their battle fatigues and rifles. He agreed that it could wait.

3. At The Bottom   [return to synopsis]

To the southeast corner where one of the four legs of the tower came sweeping down from the sky and planted itself on its angled concrete foundation that for every ton of iron and steel weighing down from above pushed a ton back up (action-reaction stuff, you know)...

Around the corner into the plaza under the tower where people were milling around and lining up at the ticket booths at the base of each corner...

Ben went in search of ice cream, which he had found so refreshing at this very spot yesterday. We asked a ticket taker at the base of the southeast corner if there were bathrooms above.

Est-ce qu'il y a des toilettes en haut? I said pointing up.

Oui, he said, puffing his cheeks and rolling his head a little the way the French do to say, Sure!.

When Ben came back, he reported that the ice cream stand was closed. By that time we had bought tickets, so we got into line, gave our tickets to the helpful ticket taker (who now also pointed out that there were ground-level toilets under the northeast tower if we needed them), and we began our climb on foot.

4. To the Top   [return to synopsis]

One, two, three, Ben started counting each step as we went.

This was evidently part of his plan all along, as he began the count-up on the very first step. Hundreds of steps went by, and he counted out each one until we reach the first level.

Trudy and I took pictures and gazed out over the city. In the distance we could see Sacre Coeur and the now-lit towers of Notre Dame. Ben gazed with us for a while and then ran around a bit. We told him to go all the way around while we continued to gaze. He disappeared in a flash and was gone a surprisingly long time, but just as I was beginning to go look for him he snuck up and said, Boo!

We began the ascent to the second level.

I don't know where the count was at that point. You'd have to ask Ben. But it was somewhere above three hundred.

300, 301, 302, he continued until we got to the second level.

Somewhere along the way, as the people in the plaza below got increasingly small and our view over the city got better and better, he lost count, forgot precisely where he was, dropped (or added) a step or two. But he quickly compensated and resumed the count.

I don't know where it ended up. You'd have to ask him that, too, but it was somewhere above eight hundred.

So 800 steps or more above the city, we stopped and gazed again. On the hour at 11:00pm, the lights on the Tower began to strobe and flicker. From the platform on the second level, we could look up and see the rest of the Tower blinking in the summer night with a few clouds floating across the sky. And the stars. And the moon.

5. Stopping Short   [return to synopsis]

Ben wanted to continue up the steps to the top. He wouldn't believe me when I told him they were closed, until I showed him the doorway to the stairs and the barrier across it.

Then let's take the elevator, he said.

Now this stop was for him. So there was nothing a priori unreasonable with that request, although it was after 11:00pm and we were on the brink of exhaustion (having not yet recovered from the jet lag). Still, this was one of the destinations we chose for him.

But when we walked up to the elevator line with more than a hundred yelling, screaming, jostling, pushing, pulling kids waiting to go to the very top, I just said No.

So if you ever ask Ben about that night, he's certain to point out that we climbed the stairs of the Eiffel Tower but didn't go to the very top, because his dad didn't want to. Which is true.

6. Oblivion Again   [return to synopsis]

On the other hand, by the time we had descended back down those 800+ steps and walked back along the Champs de Mars, where the lawns were now filled with college kids singing, talking, drinking wine, taking pictures, juggling fire and laughing loudly... By the time we had done all that and finally found ourselves at the end of Day-3 back in our hotel room on Rue Cler at the top of five flights of stairs, we all three collapsed for the second night in a row into instant oblivion into our beds.

And at that point at least (just before our collective collapse into oblivion), I don't remember hearing any complaints about not making it to the top. So on the whole, I would say the we heeded the call of the Eiffel Tower well, leaving ourselves just enough energy to keep us going on the 12 days of travel we still had ahead.

Trip to France - Day 3

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The Hunger Was Setting In

Let's see... Where was I? Oh yes. A walking tour of the Louvre.

So by the time we did that... By the time we saw the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory and myriad Greek antiquities and (of course) the Mona Lisa... By the time we did all that, it was getting late and I was running on empty. And dinner seemed out of reach. Those who know me know that this was an ominous sign.

The hunger was setting in.

But it's not like I didn't try to put eating on the agenda. On the way out of the museum, before we had even left, I spied a restaurant on the bottom floor. It was undoubtedly overpriced. And I have no doubt that the food they served was unremarkable.

Still, the hunger was setting in, and the place and time seemed perfect.

I looked longingly in the direction of the shining lights and beckoning tables. I suggested that perhaps now might be a good time to sit down. Ben showed now interest. Trudy would have nothing to do with it.

We continued on.

I vaguely recall some sort of crankiness on the stairs of the Metro station near the Eiffel Tower. We were standing on the grey concrete steps climbing out of the tunnels. The walls and the ceiling were covered in white enamel tiles.

And the hunger was by now sinking its roots deep into me.

I was running on empty with barely enough energy to climb the rest of the way out. When we emerged on the streets, I looked around desperately in search of a cheap, fast place to get something (anything!) to eat.

And there it was.

There on a corner along the Seine with wisps of cirrus clouds glowing pink and white and lavender against an early evening sky, there with tables and chairs sitting empty along the sidewalk, there was a sandwich shop.

Is this ok? I asked.

Ben was silent. Trudy said something noncommittal. That was good enough for me. I walked up to the counter and ordered.

The man then looked at them, and they turned to me as if I was going to order for them. I wasn't. I had not an ounce of strength left in my body. I stood silently. The man was still looking at them.

In a rush, they ordered Hot Dogs and something to drink. The man gave us our food and drinks, and we sat down (collapsed?) into the chairs along the sidewalk.

Cars drove by, stopping at the stoplight at the corner. The people in them looked at us sitting there eating. Perhaps they were wondering why we were eating so early. (After all, it wasn't even 7pm.) Perhaps they were gawking at three tired American tourists. Personally, I like to think they were as hungry as we were and that they were eyeing our sandwiches enviously.

I devoured mine, which was nothing remarkable but did the job. Ben and Trudy devoured theirs, which evidently were remarkable and left them far happier than they had expected to be when I dragged them across the street in desperation as the hunger was getting the better of me.

And we all three lived long enough to continue on to the Eiffel Tower, as the last lingering light of day disappeared behind the city on the far side of the river and the sky turned deep blue.

Trip to France - Day 3

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 Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A Path Thru the Louvre

Est-ce que vous parlez Anglais? I asked the woman behind the desk.

I promise, it was one of the only two times during our trip that I started out a conversation asking if they spoke English. But I knew I didn't know the words I needed to know to ask what I needed to ask.

She said yes, and she clearly did speak English. Very well.

I told her we had a 13 year-old son, and asked if there were some brochures we could use to map out our path.

Yes, she said. And she took out a brochure from the display case (right in front of me) and opened it up.

I will show you a path that will be perfect for him.

She circled the spot on the map where we were, and she drew a line thru Egyptian antiquities to Venus de Milo.

Et Victoire de Samothrace? I asked.

Of course, she said.

So her line extended up some stairs to the landing where Winged Victory stands. And from there, down a long hall to the Mona Lisa (of course) and from there around a long, long loop to the end of another wing where the Dutch Masters are and Vermeer.

I thanked her profusely. She said, You're welcome with a smile on her face and such sincerity that it made me stop. ... But not for too long. Because we had a path to follow.

In the end, we didn't make it to all of them: too many pieces of art, too little time. But we were wise to limit ourselves, because we only had three hours and...

The Eiffel Tower was calling.

Trip to France - Day 3

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Goodbye Nani

There was a white rose on the table on the hill at sunset looking out over the lake where my grandmother used to sit. A white rose and baby's breath looking out the window.

The sun, as it set, glowed its orange-red glow and descended into the trees on the far side, making the waves on the water sparkle and dance, throwing a doubly warm radiance on that spot on the hill.

She died this morning, my grandmother did. After a long descent of her own, she has left.

But that sun and that glow and those glimmering waves will not. Nor will the sound of her laugh echoing thru the woods and across the water from that point upon the hill.

Good bye, Nani. You did good.

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 Sunday, July 18, 2004


Vous avez des tickets? the woman asked.

We were at the Richlieu entrance of the Louvre reserved for people who buy their tickets beforehand.

Trudy reached into her bag.

She has all the papers (always), and this time was no exception. In fact, she had some personal pride invested in the tickets, since she had herself gone and bought them while Ben and I remained at the cafe on the Champs-Elysees watching the people walk by. (She was determined throughout our trip not to be daunted by her newness to French, and this was her first run at it.)

But she couldn't find the tickets. She set her bag down on the ground and looked in a side pocket. She still couldn't find them. She picket the bag up with an apologetic look on her face and started looking again. She was beginning to get flustered.

The woman waved us on.

Allez-y, allez-y, she said, smiling to let us know that it was no big deal.

But Trudy didn't seem to hear her, now being quite absorbed in finding those tickets which she herself had bought. I touched her arm gently.

She said we can go, I said.

We walked thru the turnstiles and got on the escalators that took us down into lobby of the Louvre. As we descended Trudy turned to me.

Now that is really unsatisfying.

She had really wanted to use those tickets.[*]

[*] In the end, she did find them, and we did in fact need them to get the rest of the way into the museum, which explains, I suppose, the discretion that was afforded to the woman at the top of the escalators.

Trip to France - Day 3

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Sitting in the Tuilleries

Here we are, sitting in the shade of the Tuilleries with a cool breeze blowing across the pond, rustling the leaves overhead. It feels good to sit. We've been walking a lot, already.

We woke up after 13 hours of sleep a little before noon and set out on foot, starting out (of course) with breakfast. Mercifully, there was a place near the hotel that served "Petit Dejeuner Americain". We each had one -- ham, an egg over easy, croissants and butter and jelly, and dip-it-in bread.

The Metro took us to the Arc de Triomphe, although not without us mistakenly riding the line much further, to the Grande Arche, a modern echo of the former at the other end of another long boulevard but in the opposite direction from Les Champs-Elysees, which was our ultimate destination.

We climbed the stone spiral stairs to the top of the Arc, much larger close up than it seems from even a few blocks away. We viewed the land -- the Grande Arche in one direction, the Champs-Elysees leading to the green Tuilleries in the other, Sacre-Coeur shining white on the heights of Montmartre, and the dark green of the Bois de Bologne far in the distance.

After that we walked the Champs-Elysees from one end to the other, stopping at a cafe on the sidewalk for lunch along the way where we took our time and watched the rest of the world walk by for a long time after we had finished our meal. (This is one of the immense pleasures of dining in France: it is common to keep your table for a long time after you are done; there is never a sense that you're expected to leave.)

Eventually we came to the gilded gates of the Tuilleries, and the white crushed stone walkways shining dazzlingly (no blindingly) in the sun, and the pond, and the box-trimmed trees making shade where there were plenty of benches to sit.

And that is where we are right now, sitting in the shade of the Tuilleries with a cool breeze blowing and the leaves of the trees rustling.

Tonight we'll climb the Eiffel Tower. But now it is time to continue our walk thru the Tuilleries to the Louvre where we plan to take a whirlwind tour, not pretending to see it all (of course) but just to hit a few goodies. There are a few goodies there, I hear.

Trip to France - Day 3

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Blissful Oblivion

When we got to our room, we collapsed into blissful oblivion.

That's what I wrote, but it isn't quite true. They collapsed. I sat up in bed and dutifully put pencil to paper. (What my mind won't hold, my journal will.)

Actually, as I look over it now that is about all I can claim. I put pencil to paper alright, but the results are entertaining.

On two pages, I managed to pull together a handful of bulleted items. Things we had done during the day condensed down to the barest of details, such as A guard telling us not to sit on the grass. Compelling stuff.

And at the end of that list, the writing started falling apart. It's as if the computer has lost control of the robot arm and the arm slowed and the writing fell into meaningless, undecipherable jibberish.

A couple just-mecldistlkjlkj

We walked from the hotel to Les Inislivelkjlkj

Eventually I gave it up. By the time we all fell into the beds, we had been awake 36 hours or more. I wrote, I can't continue and something about sunlight still coming in thru the window.

I put my pencil down. And then I also collapsed into blissful oblivion.

We didn't wake up for 13 hours.

Trip to France - Day 2

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 Saturday, July 17, 2004

A Walking Tour

The roasted chicken at the cafe on Rue Cler tasted mighty good.

It was the first thing we did after leaving the hotel room. We promised ourselves we would no nothing else first. And it revived us. But by the time we were done, the better part of the day was gone.

We set our eyes on the Eiffel Tower, a walking tour that would take us in that direction and then bring us back. The sky was blue. The air was warm but not anything near the heat we had left behind in Texas. And our stomachs were full. So as tired as we were, we figured we could handle it.

First was the Les Invalides with its gilded gates and dome shining in the sun and the blooming trees in the gardens filling the air with an intoxicating sweetness.

Then we walked the Champs de Mars where it seemed the whole of the city had emptied onto the lawns: babies, kids, students, couples, families, and policemen telling fathers where they were allowed to play soccer with their kids.

At the end of the green, the Eiffel Tower beckoned. The plaza underneath was teaming with people when we finally reached it. There were babies, kids, students, couples, families, policemen chasing wind-up airplane vendors away, soldiers carrying machine guns, and tourists gasping and gawking and waiting in line.

We chose to go up a different day.

Ben got a popsicle, and we continued to the Seine and across to the Palais de Chaillot. We went up the long walk beside the reflecting pool to the terrace where we turned around and looked back at the pool, the river, the Tower, and the lawns of green behind running into the distance.

And then we headed home.

It was late as we returned, with darkness falling on us before we got back. Strobe lights flickered on the Tower. Flame throwers performed on the lawns. And as we reached our room at the top of the stairs, we collapsed into blissful oblivion.

Trip to France - Day 2

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 Friday, July 16, 2004

On Rue Cler

The hotel was easy to find. We managed the check-in protocol in French even though they clearly spoke English. And we managed to climb the stairs without losing our breath.

Ok. We lost our breath. But hey, we had been up for ... what ... 26 hours. I don't know. Some obscenely long time.

Anyway, when we got to the top of the stairs and the end of the hall and finally jiggled the key in the lock and the nob to get the door to open, we were happy.

Out of our window to the right, we could see a patisserie and several cafes and Rue Cler with its shops and general hubub in the street. To the left we could see the Eiffel Tower rising up over the city.

It looked almost accidental, the Eiffel Tower did. Poking up from behind the buildings as if it had only recently appeared.

Look, I said.

Trudy and Ben looked and said, Wow.

Accidental perhaps, but it was impressive, too. A spike of iron lacework rising out of a sea of five to six story buildings.

Actually, some of the buildings were higher than that. There was one, with a greenish color near its flat-top roof that was probably 10 stories tall.

And when we took the time to look, we noticed people standing on top. People holding their hands up in the air. People waving signs. People holding a long banner that was impossible to read from our angle.

And there were police cars in the streets below. And police vans. And policemen. With helmets and batons. Some stood at the alleys along the street, blocking them off. Others stood at other strategically chosen spots.

There were whistles and sirens -- those European boo-bee-boo-bee sirens. And now we noticed barricades completely blocking the big street at the end of the block. And now we heard the people on top of the building shouting something thru a megaphone. And we heard shouting from the streets around the corner, out of sight.

More police came walking down the street, a large group walking closely together.

I leaned out the window and took some pictures. Of chimney tops. Of the Eiffel Tower. Of the protesters on the green building. And of the policemen gathering in the street below.

And then we shut the window.

The sounds of the city were gone. No motor scooters. No whistles. No sirens. No megaphones. Just complete and utter silence.

I turned around and looked at Ben with his head on his lap and his eyes closed about to fall asleep.

The day was only beginning.

Trip to France - Day 2
Rue Cler, Paris

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How Could We Go Wrong?

From the airport we had to take the train downtown. Finding them was a piece of cake. After all, the word for train in French is, train. How can you go wrong?

Bite my tongue.

There were, of course, many ways to go wrong. The first hazard we had to negotiate was getting tickets for the right trains, the RER and not les grandes lignes.

We managed just fine. We found the tracks at the bottom of a stairway and stood and waited for a train to arrive.

A round, blue sign overhead said (in several languages), All Trains Go To Paris. So we knew we were in the right place. And there were other people looking like recent arrivals standing there, too. How could we go wrong?

Bite my tongue.

There were many ways to go wrong, and the next was what to do when a train emerged from a dark tunnel in the distance, stopped (far from any of us waiting) and let a bunch of passengers off.

We all stood and watched and waited. The train stayed put. Its doors stayed open. We were waiting at one end of the quai. The train stood silently at the other.

We all stood and watched and waited. Still the train stayed put.

Then some new travellers came down the stairs. They looked and saw us, and they looked and saw the train. Without hesitation, they turned and walked to the train.

Then a few of the waiting crowd walked in that direction, too. And a few more. And a few more. Until we all were walking (some of us quickly) toward the train that seemed to have stopped barely out from the dark tunnel behind.

How do we know which direction it is going to go? I asked.

There was no one to answer. And we didn't find out how. It just ended up going the way we wanted -- to Paris.

It is only now that I write this that I realize the answer to my question lay before our very eyes. That sign. That round blue sign that spoke in many languages. It held the answer: All trains go to Paris.

In the end it was true: we couldn't have gone wrong.

Trip to France - Day 2
Paris Charles de Gaul Airport

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 Thursday, July 15, 2004

Practice Proved Different

In theory it was a good idea. It came highly recommended from experienced travellers.

The idea was this: shift our schedules 30 minutes earlier every day for a week. At the end of that time, we'd only be out of sync by three hours with our destination time zone.

It sounded like good advice. It came highly recommended. From experienced travellers, even. So we did it. Night after night for a week, we went to bed earlier and earlier, until just before we left we had risen at 3:00am.

The problem with it was this: we didn't sleep a wink on the plane. It wasn't supposed to work that way. We were supposed to sleep like babies and arrived refreshed at the other end ready for the dawning of a new day.

Instead we found ourselves dropped into the new day having been sleepless much too long. And it showed.

We walked slowly. We didn't read the signs. We ended up in the wrong line at French passport control, surrounded by people speaking eastern European languages. Ben fell asleep every time he sat down.

In theory it was a good idea. Practice proved different.

Trip to France - Day 2
Paris Charles de Gaul Airport

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Waiting for Gates

Here we are at Gatwick. Sitting amid the shining lights and duty free shops selling cigars and clothes and liquor and perfume. Sitting amid travellers rushing in every direction -- we to Paris, everyone else to everyplace else.

Here we are, under four big monitors hanging from the ceiling showing arrivals and departures in full living color.

These monitors are something to be seen. Imagine one of them sitting on your desk. Oh, the pixel count! Oh, the icons you could scatter!

But oh, the shame. The computers keep crashing.

First a blue screen. Then "No Signal". Then a black screen with the operating system trying count the bytes on the disk. Then the Windows 95 startup screen. And eventually, the Pivot Software start up screen, followed by lists of flights and times and gates.

Gates! Our eyes snap to attention. We are waiting for our gates! But before long it's the blue screen again and again and again.

I'm so glad I stuck to Unix.

Trip to France - Day 2
London Gatwick Airport

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 Wednesday, July 14, 2004

We're Going To France

Ben sat in his seat, face glued to the window with excitement as the plane passed over the coast out over the Atlantic Ocean, leaving North America behind.

Trudy and I looked at each other and smiled. She whispered to me, We're going to France!

And we pushed back in our seats and proceeded not to sleep one wink for the whole flight there.

Trip to France, Day 1
Over the Atlantic Ocean

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The Scarfed Woman

It was the beginning of our trip. A friend had braved the pouring rain to get us to the airport. We checked our bags. We got our boarding passes. We were ready to go. Along with a plane full of other people, we waited for our flight.

I first noticed her from across the waiting room. She was a big woman, tall and broad. She had a scarf over her head and a long tunic on. She walked with a distinctly non-feminine walk, something between a limp and a lumber.

She walked into the waiting area pulling a black suitcase behind her. She was very large. It seemed very small. I watched her for a few moments and then put her out of my mind.

But a minute later she walked up to us, pulling her suitcase behind. She came up to us but didn't sit down. Instead, she pushed her suitcase backwards, close to Trudy's legs. And then she turned and walked away.

She walked away!

In the middle of a mass of people waiting to board a transatlantic flight, this woman with broad shoulders and a manly walk and (forgive me) a scarf on her head walked quickly away from the suitcase that she has just pushed so close to Trudy that it seemed to belong to her.

Did you see that!? Trudy gasped.

The stunned look on my face was all the answer she needed.

Another woman sitting across from us who did not speak English was clearly distraught. She motioned with her arms and uttered a few words in a slavic accent as if to ask, Do you know her?

Trudy said, No, we don't!

Meanwhile, the scarfed woman showed no signs of returning.

As I began to try to decide what I was going to say and to whom I was going to say it, she walked across the hallway into a restroom. I kept my eyes riveted on the door. I frankly expected a large woman without a scarf and without a tunic and without a limp to come out of the bathroom soon.

A few minutes went by. The woman seated near us was looking very, very rattled. And then a large, scarfless woman did emerge from the bathroom.

My nerves began to tingle. My palms began to sweat. I prepared to stand up, not knowing what I was going to do. But before I could move, another large woman followed the first. And the second one had a limp. And she wore a tunic. And she had a scarf on her head.

She crossed the hallway and walked directly to where we sat. Without sitting down, she grabbed her abandoned suitcase, turned around and walked away.

We watched her as she left. She followed a winding path between the waiting passengers. She traced a wide circle around the room to the hallway which she had earlier crossed. And eventually, by this odd choice of route, she arrived again at the bathroom, but this time she did not go in. She walked past without stopping, pulling the suitcase behind her. Down the hallway and soon out of sight.

The woman across from us shook her head in evident disbelief. Trudy laughed. I sank back into my seat.

And a man, whom we had not previously noticed, looked over at us and said, "Ok, that was weird."

Trip to France, Day 1
Houston InterContinental Airport

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