Jan 13, 2016: Paris/ Meudon
We land at Charles de Gaulle Airport at about noon Paris time, which is approximately ass o’clock back home, but who’s really keeping track anymore? As expected, nobody here checks our passports. This is actually a disappointment in a way. It would have been nice to collect a passport stamp in every country we visit. Instead, it looks like we’re only going to get an entry and exit stamp from Iceland to accompany our decade-old stamps from Japan, leaving far too many blank spaces on our dance cards.
The first order of business, after assembling ourselves in le toilette, is to hit an ATM and withdraw 100 euros ($110) for our immediate needs. We’ll get more when we have a chance to visit an ATM at a bank affiliated with one of our banks. This will minimize fees as well as the risk of getting ripped off by machines that have been tampered with.
Next we proceed to the train ticketing office. Before leaving home, we ordered a pair of Eurail global passes, good for 30 days from first use, at a sale price that saved us about $400. These had to be sent by mail, and fortunately, we were able to have them sent to the home of some friends in South Carolina, where we were when we made our travel plans and purchases, and they were delivered very promptly.
But we could not make reservations for our rail excursions prior to actually arriving in Europe – and reservations are required, as only a limited number of seats are available to pass holders. This caused us some concern that we might not be able to reserve the trips we needed or wanted, but whatcha gonna do? We enter the ticketing office, where several people are already in line at about half a dozen open counters, and a man greets us – in French, strangely enough.
“Parlez vous Anglais?” I ask. As it turns out, he does. And he directs me to one of the clerks who also speaks Anglais, though at the moment she is busy with another customer.
With only 3 weeks to prepare and 5 languages to wrestle with, it wasn’t terribly practical for us to achieve native fluency in all of them. The best we could do was divide the languages between us, cram a few essential phrases into our craniums, assemble a cheat sheet, and pray that Europeans are more assiduous in pursuing other languages than Americans are.
While waiting our turn at the counter, we notice that at least one stereotype about the French appears to be quite accurate: they really do greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. Or at least the workers behind the counter do whenever one of them comes in to work for the day. Wow. It’s one thing to greet friends on the street this way, but can you imagine doing that with your coworkers? Surely it’s not a daily occurrence. Except maybe in a bar.
After a few minutes our turn comes and we get our first rude awakening (not counting the consequences of burrito abandonment mentioned on day 1). We’d been under the impression that our Eurail passes would cover any ride we took within the extensive network of rail systems. Not entirely true; in most cases, we still must pay a little more. And there appears to be no rhyme or reason to which trips require fees and which don’t. The upshot is that we end up shelling out an additional 178 euros, and that’s only for about half the month – the agent says that she can’t make the reservations for some destinations on our itinerary, so we’ll have to wait until we’re in the country in question. After about 45 minutes of putting her through the wringer, we decide that we’ve all had enough for now and we must be on our way.
The passes do not apply at all to tickets in the Paris area, so we cough up another 12.20 euros to get through the city to the other side, to the suburb of Meudon where we’ll be spending the next 3 nights. We’d toyed with the idea of getting off and walking around Paris for an hour or so, since we have to change trains anyway at Gare du Nord (North Station). But we would have to pay even more, and we’re already running later than expected and don’t want to keep our hosts waiting, and are quite exhausted and eager to get to our destination.
So we content ourselves with getting glimpses of the city through the train window, and they are rather fleeting since the track is mostly underground. We do manage to see a few stretches of the Seine and the classic buildings lining its bank, and even a smaller replica of the Statue Of Liberty. We also see quite a bit of graffiti, and it seems that the graffiti artists in Paris have talents a notch or two above those in New York or L.A. We change trains (underground) in Paris, getting on one that’s festively decorated with images of a site we’ll be visiting tomorrow.
There are two train stations in Meudon. The one closest to our destination is Meudon val Fleury, a classic little building that is quite suited to the classic little neighborhood we find ourselves in. It has the feel of a rustic village rather than a city of some 50,000 people on the outskirts of one of the world’s top tourist spots. Suddenly it hits us. We’re actually in Europe. Yesterday we were in Atlanta and today we’re in frigging Europe.
The neighborhood features a little park and other landmarks named after Francois Rabelais, the great French satirist who markedly influenced many later writers including Shakespeare. He’s known for Gargantua and Pantagruel, a sprawling epic novel about a couple of giants – yes, that’s where the word gargantuan comes from. He was a clergyman here for a couple of years, and accordingly there’s a statue of him in front of town hall. The town also has other historic milestones in the arts. Jean-Paul Sartre grew up here. Auguste Rodin lived, died and is buried here. Richard Wagner composed The Flying Dutchman here.
The Sartre and Rodin connections seem suitable enough, but the other two not so much. Wagner’s music is titanic and overblown like Wagner himself. The work of Rabelais is boisterous, earthy, bawdy and downright lewd. He even penned an exquisitely crafted poem on the complications of taking a dump.
In contrast, the people of Meudon glide softly along the streets with their baguettes tucked under their arms (yes, they really do) as placidly as if they were trying to hear a squirrel hiccup on the next block. Their “outside voices” sound closer to a conspiratorial whisper. It’s easy to see how Americans might have a reputation here for being loud and obnoxious. I’ve always found most Americans too loud myself – they often seem to yell during a normal conversation with someone standing right next to them. And I’m a certifiably soft-spoken person. Even so, walking down the streets of Meudon, I find myself checking my own volume lest the locals think I’m one of those Americans.
We’re on our way to find our lodgings arranged through Airbnb, an idea whose time really has come. Airbnb gives travelers the opportunity to stay with locals in a real home with real amenities, for a fraction of what a hotel would cost – and in many cases less than what a hostel would cost. You go on the website, select your desired room by location, price, features, and customer reviews. Then you pay for your lodging and the host has 24 hours to confirm it or your money will be refunded. (The host doesn’t collect the funds until you check in.) We’ve arranged for Airbnb accommodations for most of our month in Europe, at an average cost of about $30 a night, including some very touristy destinations.
With printed directions in hand, we stroll the few blocks to where we were supposed to find our address, but… it isn’t there. I stop a distinguished-looking gentleman who gives the aura of living in the neighborhood, and I show him the paper and ask in the best mangled French monosyllables I can muster, where this location might be. He looks at it, furrows his brow and then surveys the neighborhood. After a moment’s deliberation, he points to the address, a building on the corner behind a gated fence.
The gate isn’t locked, so we pass through it, and find the names of our hosts, Aurore and Shan, on the mailbox. Up the stairs we go to the second floor, and the door that’s supposed to be ours – but something doesn’t quite seem right.
We knock on the door, and an older woman peers out the crack apprehensively; she’s definitely not the twenty-something Aurore, whose photo we’ve seen online.
“Oui?” she asks.
“Pardon”, I say, which is perfectly good French if pronounced approximately correctly. And I add, “Wrong place”. Which isn’t.
We turn and start to go, but feeling bolder, she opens the door all the way and stands there jabbering at us, looking and sounding like a character in a Truffaut film. We show her the paper and try to explain that we’re looking for the address and the names printed on it. Which elicits more jabbering from her, as if she hasn’t even realized that we don’t understand a word she’s saying. We don’t know if she’s scolding us for disturbing her, offering to help us if she can, or expressing alarm that the loony bin would allow people who look like us to be on the loose.
Soon the man of the house appears behind her, and fortunately he speaks a little Anglais. We show him the paper and explain that we had seen the names on the mailbox. He asks us to take him down and show him, and we do. He smiles an aha smile, then turns and points to a door behind us on the other wing of the L-shaped building. We merci him and let him to go back to his wife so they can chuckle about how strange Americans are.
When we knock on the door of the real apartment, Aurore answers. She’s pert and petite (there, I do know some French) and looks even younger than I expected; she could blend right in at any high school. She welcomes us warmly in pretty decent English, and shows us around the modest apartment whose décor has a bit of Eastern influence. (Her partner Shan, who isn’t at home at the moment, is from India.)
The compact kitchen is also the entryway leading to our room, which is normally the living room/ dining room as well as Aurore’s bedroom. To the left is Shan’s bedroom, which Aurore will move into while we occupy hers. The bathroom has an electric toilet, a first for us – it’s actually plugged into the wall. Aurore, who doesn’t seem terribly happy with it, explains that it will indeed flush adequately though it may take several attempts. The refrigerator is tiny, but she assures us she’ll do whatever it takes to accommodate our stash of perishables. Even so, we realize that we will have to keep a minimal stock and shop daily. Which is fine with us.
We go on our first foraging as soon as we’ve rested a bit and chatted with our hostess, who gives us a key to the apartment, on a keychain with an Eiffel Tower on it. The first two stores we check out, including a health food supermarket near the train station, don’t seem to have exactly what we’re looking for. We finally settle on Monoprix, which is somewhat like a Walmart Super Center, minus the employee exploitation.
Before heading back home, we make a compulsory detour to a little bakery we’d seen on the corner, so my spouse can get her fix of genuine French bread. The woman behind the counter has the air of a person who’s been baking and selling this bread for 40 years. And maybe she has. If so, she doesn’t seem overly jaded.
We fumble through the process of selecting a baguette and paying for it with this Monopoly money we just acquired, and the lady patiently guides us through the ritual. By way of explanation/ apology, I say “American”. No other explanation seems to be needed.
I notice that, as in Japan, there is a little tray on the counter, somewhat resembling an ashtray (remember those?) that is used for depositing payment and change – no money is supposed to change hands directly. I also notice that the French – or at least the ones I’ve observed so far – don’t seem to have reservations about handling food with their bare hands. Being the germophobe I am, this causes me a bit of consternation. But hey, it’s a vacation. I grit my teeth and bear it.
Strolling back to the apartment clutching our baguette and speaking in reasonably subdued tones, we almost could pass for natives except for these homemade coats loaded with loaded pockets that make us look like we’re on our way to the moon. And by the time we do get home, we’ve devoured most of our disguise.
Back at the apartment we meet Shan, a congenial fellow who is fluent in both English and French. He and Aurore are hoping to move to India in the future, and she’s been studying Hindi, though she doesn’t seem very pleased with her progress.
They’re going out for the evening because it’s Shan’s birthday and she has some kind of surprise planned for him. We’ll have the apartment to ourselves. But we’re too exhausted to do anything but go to bed early.
Tomorrow this trip begins for real.