Jan. 16, 2016: Paris to Marseille
This morning, we repack our backjacks for the first time, and discover that it’s a lengthier process than we anticipated. Not to worry, we’re going to have plenty of practice, so our speed is bound to improve. Then we say goodbye to our fabulous hosts and head out for our last stroll through the charming little city of Meudon.
We stop in a post office hoping to mail the gift we bought for our son. But the post office is very crowded and the layout is very confusing, and the people working there don’t seem to speak English any better than we speak French.
But a customer overhears us and says “I speak English. What do you need?” (When we compliment him on how excellent is English is, he explains, “I worked 45 years for an American company.”) He explains that, as we feared, it’s the really long line in front that we have to wait in to mail something. So we thank him and go our way, waiting to mail another day.
We can’t resist dropping into the Meudon library, since as professional children’s entertainers, we spend a lot of time performing in libraries all across the U.S. As it happens, the library today is having a story time; just as often happens back home, a children’s librarian is reading out of a book to an assemblage of toddlers and their parents.
Looking somewhat like astronauts geared up for a stroll on the moon, we ease our way into the room and hope we’re not too conspicuous. That hope quickly vanishes as the librarian comes over to us and gently reprimands us, apparently about where we were about to sit, and insists instead (as we are able to piece together) that we sit on some cushions nearby. We do, she seems satisfied, and then she begins her reading.
She reads expressively and effectively, and following along with the pictures in the book, we can kind of sort of almost make out what the story is all about. After one book, however, we decide we must make an exit, which hopefully will be more subtle than our entrance. Trouble is, once we get out on the street, I realize that I’ve left my Samsung tablet behind. Great. Two suspicious foreigners entering a room full of kids and leaving behind a suspicious electronic object.
Fortunately, nobody seems to have noticed it before I’ve sheepishly reentered the room, retrieved it, and left again. [This won’t be the last attempt I’ve made to leave the pad behind me. After several such attempts I will succeed a few months later, back in the states, leaving it behind me for good at a Home Depot in Reno. Fortunately, all of my photos on it from Europe will have been backed up online by then.]
Catching a train into Paris, we make our way to the station from which we’ll be leaving town tonight. After making sure our reservations are in order, we decide that since it appears the day is going to be not terribly cold, we’d prefer to shed our coats and baggage before exploring the town. So we rent a locker at a cost of 5 euros.
Then we start exploring, ultimately making our way toward Notre Dame. Near the station is a botanical garden and institute, and as usual, Kimberly manages to find colorful flowers to photograph even in the dead of winter.
There’s also a library of sorts, into which we go to charge our gadgets for a bit before resuming our walk. There’s a rather stern librarian stationed at the door, and when we ask her if she can speak English, she says no rather emphatically, as if to suggest she’s not the least bit interested in learning. She graciously allows us to enter the library, even though it appears to be designed for students of some kind or other, and all the books appear related to biology. She even remains silent, perhaps biting her tongue, as we later sneak back into the hall to use the bathroom.
After half an hour or so, we feel that our mission has been somewhat accomplished, so we continue toward Notre Dame.
It’s an impressive, unmistakable sight even from a distance.
When we get up closer, we find that street musicians are adding another layer of class.
So we have to contribute our own by doing our best Quasimodo impersonations.
Near where we approach, which is apparently the rear of the building, there is a public and (joyous tidings) free restroom. But there is also a long line, so we instead get into the (long and slow-moving) line to take the tour of the cathedral, and we soon realize that we may have miscalculated slightly in leaving our coats back at the station. The day is becoming increasingly brisk, and it is becoming increasingly clear that our sweaters are not quite up to the task.
I ask a man at the head of the line how long he’s been waiting and he says about 30 to 40 minutes. Well, that’s not so bad. Surely we can handle that, and then once we’re inside it’s bound to be a bit warmer. Meanwhile, I leave Kimberly as a place marker in line while I scout for a couple of blocks in quest of my daily cup of decaf. But the only coffee shops I find are none too promising, so I give up the quest for now.
We may be shivering, but we’re also enjoying the chance to savor the details of this massive medieval masterpiece next to us. The amount of work that went into this structure back in those pre-union days is just staggering to contemplate.
After the patrol of three heavily armed soldiers has made the rounds more times than we can count, we are finally at the entrance, ready to be checked out by security, before we go up some stairs into a little gift shop. That’s when we finally figure out that we have not been standing in line for 40 minutes to go inside the cathedral. We’ve been standing in line for 40 minutes to go ON TOP of the cathedral. This is a special tour that takes you up on the roof. Who can resist a chance like that, especially after so long in line for it?
We shell out 10 euros each, and then start plodding up a series of narrow, winding staircases, with which some of the more out-of-shape tourists are having some serious problems. The staircases are drafty, and we realize that we’re not going to get much of a reprieve from the chill just yet, especially once we get out onto the roof. Oh well, one must often sacrifice comfort for adventure.
And up onto the roof we go, getting a glimpse of the city from an angle that few are able to enjoy. Well, except for the gargoyles.
The tour also includes the opportunity to enter the belfry.
And get up close to the massive bells.
Once we’re finished on the roof, we of course have to take the inside tour as well. We go around to the front of the building and discover that the line is not long at all — maybe because there is much more room inside.
So after clearing another security checkpoint, we make our way inside. An attendant gestures to me to take my hat off. When I do, my hair doesn’t prompt him to whip out a taser, so we’re good.
Any hopes we may have had, however, of warming up inside, are mostly dashed. The exterior is not a heck of a lot warmer than the exterior. The place is cavernous, drafty, and chilling in more ways than one.
Like many things about the medieval era in which it was constructed, Notre Dame is a contradiction. On the one hand, you can’t help being impressed by the magnificent architectural and artistic achievements that went into it. On the other hand, it has an air of gloom and onerousness about it, making it an ideal setting for, say, a Victor Hugo novel. It’s hard to see how anyone can find this place spiritually uplifting. It’s much more inspiring on the outside.
A good illustration of the contradiction, and the grim historical baggage associated with this edifice, is the statue of Joan Of Arc.
Nowadays, she’s a saint. But once upon a time she was a teenage girl. An astoundingly brave and ballsy teenage girl. Who was horribly tortured and murdered by the very organization that now exalts her. (Burning at the stake didn’t entail setting someone afire; it entailed slowly roasting someone alive.) It’s encouraging that they’ve moved her from the stake to the pedestal, but an inscription beside it says something about the church “rehabilitating her reputation” or words to that effect. Which suggests that the church fathers have been invoking the Adam Defense. (“It was the woman’s fault. She made me do it.”) Perhaps they should be more concerned about rehabilitating their own reputation. (The present pope seems to be making a good start.)
Once back out in the fresh, and still frisky, air, we decide that we’re ready to cry uncle and head back to the station to get out of the cold. So we gradually make our way back and retrieve our gear to settle in and wait for our train.
Inside the station is a sobering sign of the times.
As well as another one that’s sad in a rather different way.
While we’re waiting, a panhandler enters and makes his rounds to the waiting passengers. When my turn comes, I say “non Francais”, hoping that will be the end of it.
“English?” he asks.
“Yes”, I tentatively respond.
“You are English?”
“Ah, I love America.”
And he proceeds to give me his spiel in flawless English.
We have our dinner on a bench, and I seek out my cup of decaf. I ask a gentleman in line at the cafe stand if he speaks English, which he does. He is kind enough to ask the barista about decaf, and the barista says that yes, they can make decaf americano. Which means (as I knew from experience back home) that they brew decaf espresso, fill up the rest of the cup with hot water and charge you extra for it. But I tried it anyway, and it wasn’t the worst I ever had.
Where we are waiting are some power stations for charging your gadgets. The trick is, you have to supply the power yourself by pumping bicycle pedals.
This seems to be the only way to get electricity. But later, when we go around to the platform, we discover that there’s a large waiting room tucked away with plenty of outlets.
Nearby is a piano, which apparently anyone is allowed to play. The man seated at it is rendering something classical quite adeptly.
After verifying with an agent that there will indeed be restrooms on the train (this is becoming a real issue), we get on board and are warm for the first time all day. Or at least since we went into that biological library.
We have reclining seats, for which we paid an additional 9 euros each, that will be quite comfy for sleeping tonight. I’ve made many overnight train trips in the States, but Amtrak is far behind Eurail when it comes to comfort. The only problem is a couple of ladies a few seats ahead of us who keep gabbing quite audibly in a language I can’t pinpoint. They finally zip it up, but they’re rather inconsiderate all around. At one point I go into the WC after one of them has just exited, and find a cigarette, still smoldering, in the toilet. Smoking is forbidden on trains here (it’s still allowed on platforms, alas) but that obviously won’t keep everyone from doing it anyway.
At about 11:00, we finally start dozing, resting up for early reveille in the morning.