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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