El albergue

El albergue

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Snapshots of Paris

Late afternoon on Thursday, the Madrid metro:
I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  I had to wait in line at the printing station on campus for 20 minutes to pick up the boarding passes I printed off online in the computer lab upstairs, then I had to run to the grocery store down the street to pick up lunch, then I just missed the train and had to wait impatiently for the next one, then once I got to the apartment building I had to run around like a crazy woman to finish all my packing and somehow fit two big bags of food that Señora María packed for Marisol and me to take on our trip to Paris.  I don’t have a whole lot of time to get to the airport and go through security (I don’t yet know that the flight will be delayed over an hour, giving me extra time), so I feel a little flurried right now, but I guess there’s not much I can do to make the metro go faster.  *sigh*  The woman standing next to me is asking me which stop she needs to get off on if she’s going to terminal 1…I think her calm and friendly wordiness will help calm me down, so here’s to making conversation with strangers on the metro!

Late-ish Thursday night, the hostel in Paris:
We finally made it to our hostel, after a bus ride from the airport that lasted over an hour and a half and the adventure to figuring out how to work the Paris metro system.  We’ve hammered out the room situation at the front desk and rented our sheets and towels, and now we’re up in our rooms…not quite top notch, but we were trying to find the cheapest place near the town center…..  Marisol and I have two really friendly Malaysian roommates who arrived earlier in the day and staked their claim on the lower bunks, so we’re chatting with them as we stow our bags and settle in a little before heading out to explore the surrounding streets for a tad.

Noon-ish on Friday, the Louvre:
We’ve just seen the Mona Lisa!  It was actually pretty small….and surrounded as it was in a huge room filled with paintings that I thought were more beautiful, impressive to the eye, etc, I had to wonder – why is it that this single small painting is one of the single most famous paintings in the world?  Apparently, Da Vinci said that it was his best work, and that’s why it’s so famous.  It is lovely, with perfect detail, but why does he consider it his best when he has so many others that seem to me to be more beautiful?  Ah well, I’m no art major, so I really have no answer, I just form part of the crowd of humanity paying homage every day to this small painting and the artistic genius that it embodies. 

Shortly after:
It seems that my contemplative pace isn’t suited to the tastes of my companions, who like to move along through the exhibits with a livelier step, so they’ve gone on ahead.  I’ll just call them on our cell phones when I’m done to see where they are so we can meet back up……

Around 3 on Friday, the Louvre:
I’ve been wandering around by myself, a solitary sailor floating on the waves of humanity that flow through the halls of this giant palace-turned museum, but now I’m getting hungry and decide that it would probably be a good idea to join back up with the girls.  I turn on my cell phone and realize that it only gets reception in Spain.  Crap. We didn’t set up a meeting place or time since we were relying on our phones.  Crap.  So basically, I’m stuck.  Crap.  This place is gorgeous, but how in the world do I meet back up with my group.  Crap.  Luckily for me, the information desk is extremely helpful and calls the number I give them (my friends have a different server than me, so their phones work), and I’m able to talk with the girls and figure out where they are.  Thank God!

5-ish on Friday, Champs-Élysées:
The Arc de Triomphe is huge!  It dominates this part of what I think the French might call “the most beautiful street in the world,” towering over the traffic that perpetually circles the round-about and vying with the tall stores on either side for preeminence.  It’s covered in names that I’m pretty sure are the names of battles that the French have won in the past, or at least that’s the kind of thing I would expect to be on a monument with such a name as this one has.  Even more interesting, we’ve stumbled across some sort of military ceremony that fills the ground in the middle of the arch, complete with a band, honor guard, large bouquets of flowers, and an impressive array of flags belonging presumably to the different sections of the French army, although oddly enough we spy an American flag in there among the rest.

Friday evening, next to our hostel:
Trying to decide on what to eat for dinner, we’ve fixed upon the little Chinese restaurant right door to where we’re staying.  The menu looked good when we went by earlier, so we step in and follow the owner of the place over to a little table in the corner.  He’s the cutest little old man, friendly and chatty in his own way.  We get our food, and it’s delicious!  I have a curry vermicelli dish, which he says is a really good Singapore chow mein, or something like that, and he speaks the truth – it really is quite delicious.  I’m serious.  Delicious.  The other girls have ordered kung pow chicken, so he’s constantly coming back to our table to refill our water pitcher, each time with an endearing nod of the head and some small comment.  He’s definitely getting a tip.

Saturday morning, walking up the street to Versailles:
The buildings all around us are quite impressive to look at, with imposing architecture, stately windows, and immaculate shrubberies, but we can see the impossibly huge and ornate Versailles growing larger as we get closer, leaving all the rest in the shadows of its magnificence.

Saturday afternoon, Versailles:
We have to stop and take a rest on some of the benches in one of the innumerable rooms.  We’re nearing the end, and our feet are tired.  We are in one of the less crowded areas, so we sit and listen to the free audio guide we picked up at the entrance, learning little odds and ends of information about this particular room.  Once the recording is done, we remain seated for a little while, comparing this room to what we have seen in the chapel, in the Hall of Mirrors, in the King’s Bedroom, in the rooms of state, in the Queen’s Bedroom.  It’s not quite as ornate, but it would still be something else to live in. 

Friday evening, Versailles:
The fountain show is over, so entrance to the gardens is now free.  Yes.  I love free stuff.  We walk through the turn stall into an exquisitely landscaped world planned out to demonstrate the wealth of the French monarchy and all the beauty that it could command.  The flowers seem to be wild at first glance, then you look a little more closely and realize just how carefully they have been placed within the curling fleur-de-lis design of the low shrubs.  Looking down from the giant open area just behind the building, you can see the rest of the grounds laid out in a sweeping expanse of ponds, canals, pathways, and above all trees.  It looks like a veritable forest out there.  Hiding somewhere is Marie Antoinette’s estate, with her own farm and gardens, but I think it would take a good 20 minutes to walk there.  We mean to go visit that area, but instead we decide to relax near the boats tied up around the canal and watch the day fade on the horizon.  It’s beautiful.  Fall is in the air, and the sun is coloring the skies soft hues of orange that peek out from the surrounding treetops.

Friday night, the Eiffel Tower:
As we were walking up to the Eiffel Tower, we thought we were in the middle of some fireworks show – there were tons of blue lights flying up into the sky and floating down to earth in lazy arcs, fierce and happy little sparks.  What it turned out to be was a random little light-up toy that the street vendors were trying to sell to all the tourists.  Their tacticts of demonstration seem to work too, since the three girls I’m with have all bought one and are now laughing hysterically at themselves as they try to figure out how to use them.  I laugh on the sidelines, watching the show as they run around, the river Seine on one side and the beautifully lit Eiffel Tower on the other.

Sunday morning, Moulin Rouge:
We’ve just come from a little flea market we found in the northern part of the central city, and now we’re outside the famous Moulin Rouge.  It looks kind of funny, a bright red building with a bright red windmill on top in the middle of a thoroughly modern street filled with thoroughly modern buildings various shades of gray and neutral tones.  The girls are having a ton of fun taking pictures on what I’m assuming is a metro vent, their scarves and hair blowing around their heads and their smiles wide with nonstop giggles.

Sunday afternoon, just outside Notre Dame:
This cathedral is really quite impressive.  Huge.  Beautiful.  Filled with detail.  And that’s just the outside.  The inside is gorgeous.  It’s filled with artwork, stained glass windows, and gilded chandeliers and such perfectly placed on the imposing stone walls and towering columns to create an amazingly majestic atmosphere.  It’s filled with sightseers, but the ethereal music wafting through the cavernous space fills everyone with a sense of awe and respect.  Outside, the crowd is a little more boisterous, a troupe of break-dancers performs to the delight of the every passerby, and little children fill the air with happy sounds as they play on the seesaws near the bench where we’re eating our sandwiches.

Late Sunday afternoon, a little park in Paris:
When we saw that one of the metro stops was named “Bastille,” I assumed that it was next to the actual Bastille, so I convinced the girls to stop there and see this famous fortress-prison….which was apparently demolished before the 1900s.  So instead of some huge stone edifice, we came out of the metro to see an opera house and a completely modern roundabout with a monument in the middle commemorating the French Revolution.  Luckily, it wasn’t a bust, since after wandering around the surrounding streets for a little bit, we found this charming little park filled to overflowing with people.  The French seem to all come out before dinner and congregate in droves – the grass was completely covered with bodies.  We found a little spot on the grass, and now we’re enjoying the sunshine on our backs and the throngs of people all around us.  We’re people watching, looking up at the square of buildings surrounding us, and trying to figure out if the group next to us is doing some sort of book reading.  It’s quite relaxing.

Sunday evening, the Eiffel Tower:
We’re on top of the Eiffel Tower!  Granted, the wind is more than a bit nippy, but the view is gorgeous.  The city spreads out below us in shimmering light, main thoroughfares forming strong currents that pull along the more dimly lit side streets and outline the face of the metropolis.  The Seine curves away from beneath the tower, flowing silently out into the ocean of humanity that surrounds us. 

Monday afternoon, the airplane taking us back to Madrid:
Our weekend in Paris is over.  There’s so much that we didn’t get to see.  And yet there’s so much that we did manage to fit in during our few days in the city.  Did I enjoy it?  Yes.  Would I go back again?  Yes.  I’m reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and come across a passage that makes me smile – it makes me think of everything I’ve seen in Paris and the role it has always played in the world.  It’s the perfect ending to a wonderful weekend, a thought that caps off the whole experience:
“Of bounds and limits, Paris has none…Paris does more than lay down the law; it lays down the fashion; Paris does more than lay down the fashion; it lays down the routine.  Paris can be stupid if it likes; sometimes it indulges in this luxury, and the whole universe is stupid along with it.  Then Paris wakes up, rubs its eyes, and says, “Am I ever stupid!” and bursts out laughing in the face of mankind.  What a marvel, this city!”

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