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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