Coop Goes to Europe Part 8 – Paris

View of central Paris from Montmartre

When I finally woke up it was already past eleven in the morning on Monday October 15, and I had slept so deeply that it took my mind some thought cycles to remember where I was in time and space. I recalled listening to a World Series game last night on the radio, which is something I often did at night during the summer in my bedroom at home. But I quickly oriented to being far from home. The room I was in was tiny with no windows and barely room for the small bed in which I was nestled under the covers.

Given the Noon checkout, I got myself up, stumbled down the hall of the little hotel to the bathroom, hoping it would be unoccupied and have a shower with warm water, which it was and it did. It was the first shower I had had since I left Angelica and Helmut’s place in Munich four days ago. The hostels I had stayed at since had all had showers, but none with hot water, and I hated taking cold showers, and preferred to go without, with just a quick bird bath with a moist washcloth instead.

It was past checkout time when I got back to my room and quickly decided which of my three changes of already worn and dirty clothes I was going to wear that day, and whether I would wear my big klunky hiking boots or my lighter two-inch-heeled shoes instead. I chose the latter, which meant I would have to carry my boots, hanging on the outside of my pack. Having paid for my room when I had checked in last night at two in the morning, I shouldered my heavy pack and left the hotel. A quick scan of the street on either side detected no grocery stores other than a little convenience store where I was able to buy yogurt, since Switzerland my new favorite food, and a small package of crackers for breakfast, or given the current hour, lunch. I ate in the small waiting room in the little train station across from my hotel, waiting for the next train headed south for France.

The train took me to Givet, on the Meuse river just over the French border, where I had to change trains to head for my day’s destination, the youth hostel in Epernay, some 140 kilometers northwest of Paris. After boarding my train to Epernay I realized that I had lost the two ten-franc notes I had just exchanged all my remaining Belgian francs for. They had either fallen out of my pocket or I left them right there at the station exchange booth. Even though it only amounted to about five dollars U.S., I was on such a tight budget, still nursing a cold, morale tenuous, that the loss really stung. Those twenty francs would have bought maybe four of my typical grocery store meals of bread and yogurt, cheese or cold meat. I did the math in my head, and without some money wired to one of the American Express offices from my mom I would not make it on even six dollars a day to December 2, when my rail pass ran out, let alone get me back to England to my plane back to the States.

Sitting in the train coach, watching the French countryside go by, I realized that I was amplifying the loss in my mind and that given my tenuous morale, I just had to let it go, laugh it off, silly Coop, and try to minimize the effect. I had to take care of myself. And with that direction to myself I realized that my train was due to get into Epernay after dark, and I had had now several recent bad experiences with trying to find a hostel after nightfall. Consulting my rail map, I saw that my train’s next stop was Charleville-Mezieres, where according to my guide there was also a hostel, which I could reach in the still late afternoon light.

The hostel was up in the low rolling hills just outside of town, a couple miles walk from the quaint little town square built around the train station. It had the typical big common room, but this one was particularly nice with a high angled ceiling that was the underside of the roof, and big picture windows that looked out into the meadows and hills surrounding the property. Feeling philosophical, I noted that I liked big rooms with just a few people in them, because it gave personalities room to shine. Like at the first hostel I had stayed at in Chur, the two guys running this one were just a few years older than I was. It seemed at times like there was an entire subculture of my young adult peers that was providing the support network for my traves. Only one of them spoke even a little English, and there were only six other travellers besides me staying there, none of which seemed to speak my only language.

After booking my bed, I sat in the spacious common room with its great view, where several other residents were sitting having an animated conversation in what sounded not like French or German, but some warped amalgam of the two. The big television in the room had a newscast in real French, with only the occasional word – like “monsieur”, “cava” or “tres difficile” – that I recognized. There was a story about the war in the Middle East, but it was mostly pictures of world leaders engaged in diplomacy with a French voiceover that I mostly did not understand. As they talked about each story music played in the background and there were weird musical interludes between news items featuring xylophones and cymbals. There was no good looking young Sweedish woman sitting at the table knitting and making radical political pronouncements like Bublil at the Chur hostel two weeks ago. Or noone on the couch playing guitar and singing evocative Dylan songs, like that hostel in Koblenz five days back. Noone for me to engage with at any level. I felt totally anonymous and invisible.

Hoping for some sort of English speaking backparcker, preferably of the female persuasion to appear in the hostel entryway, I sat in the room and caught up on recording the receent day’s events in my journal, particulary that very long day I had just had taking me through seven cities in three countries before I found a place to rest my head. Having no desire at this point to leave the hostel and see the town. I wrote…

Sightseeing as a highlight is not interesting, not especially enjoyable. But as a background for survival or a relationship, two things which I very much enjoy partaking in, I can appreciate it.

I realized that it had been two long days since I had had any sort of real conversation with another human being, beyond the perfunctory exchange of a few words to buy something or try to get directions. Encased in my language bubble, feeling tired still from yesterday’s ordeal and still nursing the cold, I ate the food I had picked up in town and went to bed. I would be on to Paris in the morning to visit, or at least attempt to visit, Giselle and her family, and hopefully be able to engage with them.

When I woke up the next morning and I was doing the daily audit of my important stuff, I did not find my hostel card and assumed I must have given it to one of the staff and not gotten it back. But when I went to the common room which included the desk where they checked you in there was no person on the hostel staff anywhere to be seen. I waited 45 minutes only to be informed that they had given me back my card last night. Sure enough, another more thorough investigation of my money belt and I found it. A little disgusted with myself I set off for the train station. It was raining, so I had to cover myself and my pack with my now well used orange poncho. Perhaps because of the cold rain, at the store in town I bought comfort food for breakfast – yogurt, cookies, and a small aseptic tetrahedron of unrefrigerated “long life” milk, the only milk they had. When I opened it, it smelled like scrambled eggs and tasted like chemicals, so I watered the grass in the town square with most of it, supplementing the still falling rain.

My train departed the Charleville-Mezieres station just before Noon and got me into Paris Gare De L’est (East Station) in mid afternoon. I was grateful it was not raining here. At the information desk in the station they couldn’t figure out where Arcueil, Giselle’s neighborhood, was. Finally another good samaritan waiting in line for information overheard the conversation and told the station staffer in French, and then she told me in English with directions on how to get there. Following those directions, I exited the big train station to the “Metro” (subway) station across the street. Got on the “ligne” (line) to “Porte D’Orleans”. Took this line as far as “Denfert-Rochereau”. Then I had a very confusing switch – riding several escalators up and back down to board the line to “Sceaux” or “Robinson” and finally exit the Metro at the “Arcueil” station, though I later realized I would have been closer if I’d gotten off one station earlier at “Laplace”. A shopkeeper I asked for directions in French pointed me to a gas station across the street where the attendant studied my map of Paris and found the street, about a mile’s walk back the direction I had come on the train, right by theLaplace stop. Though rudimentary, both the conversations were completely in French! Me asking, “Ou et Rue Pierre Brossolette?”. Them replying a bunch of words in French and pointing. Me nodding my head and saying “Oui” and “Merci” several times.

So I found the unassuming little street with the two-story townhouses coming right up to the narrow sidewalk on either side. At Giselle’s house I rang the bell. A thirty-something woman, who was apparently cleaning the house, opened the upstairs window, looked down at me and spoke. She knew absolutely no English. She said in French that Gisele would return at six o’clock. It being 5 o’clock now, I did my best to tell her I’d be back in “une heure”. So I backtracked a bit to a hole in the wall little cafe I had passed. I had a cup of tea and a “jambon-beurre” (ham and butter) sandwich, played a game of pinball, and sat down and noted the blow by blow of the day in my journal.

I returned to Giselle’s place a little after six to be greeted at the door effusively with hand gestures, a hug, and verbal flourishes by my mom’s friend in her very tailored work suit. With her limited English, she did her best to introduce me to her husband Paul, tall and shy and an engineer of some sort, who spoke even less English than Giselle. I had met him briefly, along with Giselle, three years ago the summer we spent in England. They had gotten to know my mom, and like most people who met her, were struck by her engaging charisma, and had become fast friends. Giselle also introduced me to her daughter Laurence, who was my age, and if she had learned any English in school, did not let on.

Laurence was stunning. Short straight black hair parted on the side, dark eyes, high cheekbones and the tall thin figure of a model, almost as tall as I was. Confident and cerebral like her mom and shy like her dad, or at least as best as I could tell from her body language and the cadence of her voice, since regrettably she spoke hardly any English. Given my own libido in pretty much high gear at that point, I struggled not to rudely stare at her face or down at her chest.

I gathered from Giselle’s half English half French review of their current circumstances that they were all very busy with their lives. I did not want to impose on them for a place to stay, but given the lateness of the day and that they wanted me to be their guest for dinner, Giselle insisted that I spend at least tonight with them, and tomorrow she would help me find a youth hostel for the rest of my stay in Paris.

It was my first real experience being in a classic “townhouse”, narrow in width with three levels and with all the rooms directly off the central staircase. A small room they used as an office on the ground floor just off the entranceway, with a small daybed where I would sleep. Up one flight of stairs to the dining room, kitchen, toilet, and bathroom. Up another flight to the bedrooms, which I never saw. No living room. It was very elegant, with thick carpets, all white walls with wrought wood mouldings, and translucent glass doors. I have always had a love of geography and physical spaces, exterior or interior, and I loved the way their place was laid out.

Before we sat down for dinner, I had a chance to take a bath and put on the least dirty of my three changes of clothing, none of which had been washed since I left Angelica and Helmut’s place in Munich a week ago. The bathroom was small with no shower but a small square tub with tall sides that you sat upright in rather than lying down. Like the house we lived in our summer in England, the toilet was in a separate tiny room of its own. Like all the other rooms in the townhouse, the bathroom was just big enough to perform its function.

Not very worldly in the cuisine department, I described the quiche we had for dinner in my journal as a “pie made with scrambled eggs”, and the baguette as a “long thin loaf of bread”. There was a bottle of white wine and one of sparkling water on the table, and Laurence drank a mixture of the two. I stuck with the wine full strength. Giselle and I did our best to communicate, and she translated what she understood of my words to Paul and Laurence, who both seemed very interested in what I had to say.

I shared with Giselle as best we could about our lives in the States. I told her my mom’s story since they had met each other four summers ago at the “Son et Lumiere” at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. How my mom had gotten into local politics and from there into the women’s movement working on the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. How she continued to paint. Giselle was very pleased to hear, and Paul and Laurence eagerly awaited the translations. Partaking more wine from a second bottle brought to the table, I tipsily shared the narrative of my odyssey so far – landing in England, my travel partner Angie deciding to go home, the American kids living on the U.S. army base in Munich, Oktoberfest, the breathalyzer test from the police in Chur, Angelica and Helmut, boats on the Rhine and Moselle, my long day in Luxembourg and Belgium. Giselle seemed to be pleased with my story, nodding, sighing or laughing at all the right moments and then pausing me to convey in an animated way with many facial expressions and hand gestures to Laurence and Paul waiting for her translation to explain Giselle’s latest exclamation.

She shared with me a bit about her work as a bureaucrat with the “Ministère de Gaz” (Ministry of Gas), Paul’s work for an engineering firm, and Laurence’s preparations for the all-important entrance exams to try to get into a “grande école”, one of France’s elite universities. Laurence had completed “Lycée”, the French equivalent of U.S. high school and was now halfway through two years of study for the tests which could gain her entrance into that university to study, in her case, physics. Laurence was spending entire days studying at home or in the library preparing for tests that were still a year away. For me who had always been uncomfortable in school and had spent most of my energies in endeavors outside of its academic confines, I found her cloistered life very alien to my own nature. If only she spoke English I would have relished a discussion with her about it. Well… I would have relished any opportunity to have a one on one discussion with her!

Leaving my pack at their place, the next morning Gisele dropped me off by Notre Dame on her way to work, with a plan to meet up at her work site at lunchtime. I walked around the the massive Medieval church that though obviously old in its construction, looked almost alien with its flying buttresses holding up the walls of the apse on the east side of the structure. Not being a believer in god, or in any sense identifying as a Christian, I felt intimidated to go inside the thing, from some sort of irrational fear that it would be obvious that I didn’t belong in its midsts. But seeing the line of obvious tourists entering, including chattering Americans, I decided finally to enter as well under their cover.

The place looked even bigger on the inside with its huge stained glass windows and statued figures lording over the floors where we mortal humans walked. An assembled group of churchmen in their robes – monks, friars, whatever they were – began chanting some sort of a prayer. Their voices were both sullen yet ethereal. At the end of their prayers the massive organ with its more than seven thousand pipes began to play and the robed men sang. I closed my eyes and listened to the passion behind the music, and imagined what it must have been like to be in this place in an earlier time. How it represented, even resonated the hierarchy and supremacy of God over man, the Church over the people. I imagined being a bishop and strutting about confronting one of my associates in the huge nave. Again, geography and interiors, I loved interesting and unique spaces.

After a couple hours I left the place and walked about the old streets of its tiny island, Île de la Cité, stuck in the middle of the Seine river, again loving its unique cloistered geography. I then consulted my city map, headed for the Metro station and found my way to the stop by Giselle’s workplace, and from there hunted around and found her building. In the lobby the very officious woman behind the big reception desk had apparently been alerted to my coming, waved me over and told me in rehearsed English, that “Madame” would be down shortly to meet me.

Soon Giselle appeared, dressed in her tailored work clothes and coiffed hair with all her enthusiasm and energy, reminding me a bit of, and in this moment kind of standing in for my own mom. We walked from her building through its neighborhood to a small cafe where she bought me lunch. With my consultation she ordered everything for us. First we had a salad, with lettuce, cooked carrots, eggs and asparagus in some kind of sauce. Then a small rare piece of steak, very thin, with French fries and a glass of red wine. For dessert there was a kind of strawberry pie and coffee. I noted that the portions were very small by U.S. standards but the food was all delicious. I was particularly not used to vegetables tasting so good. I also noted again watching Giselle eat her food very precisely, how they use their knife or a piece of bread along with their fork to capture a piece of food, and how the bread is also used to clean the plate.

After lunch Gisele gave me a quick “tour” of the downtown area in her car. We drove to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elyse, which was ten lanes wide, the widest street I had ever been on. All the headquarters of big corporations were on this street. We drove around the Place du Bastille, the storming of which in 1789 was a key event in the French revolution, and then into the courtyard of the Louvre, where she pointed out where the entrance to the museum was.

Then we returned to her work neighborhood and she dropped me off at the metro station. I noted later in my journal…

Parisian drivers are wild. They change lanes and cut corners and just barely avoid accidents. The laws of the Parisian roads must be very instinctive, very animal.

On my own for the afternoon, I went to the train station and found out where the post office, the American Express Office, and the youth hostels were located. I went to the post office, wrote and mailed postcards to my mom and dad. Then to the American Express and got any incoming letters from back home, several from my mom and another from my friend Avi. I just had to open and read them immediately, so I sat on a bench in the bustling office, tuned it all out for a moment to concentrate on my fix of home.

I opened and read Avi’s letter first, needing most to feel that connection with one of my peers, he being one of my closest friends who felt like an additional younger brother to me. He was now in his senior year at my old high school and struggling to stay motivated with all of the mind-numbing logistics of classes and taking SATs and other college entrance related tests. He also filled me in on how the rest of our circle of wargaming friends were doing – Jerry, Clark, Dave, Patrick and his Mick Jagger lookalike marijuana pedalling younger brother Damian.

I missed him and all the rest of our motley crew of nerdy gamers. I could read between the lines in his prose that he missed me as well. I pondered once again that I could probably get home in two or three days if I really wanted to – train to Calais, boat across the Channel, bus to London, flight home from Heathrow. It was tempting. I was enjoying this time with Giselle and her family, including fantasies about Laurence. I would enjoy seeing Angelica again in Tubingen assuming that might be next. But in the end I would be back traveling on my own which was wearing on my soul.

But that combo of thrift and ego, what might be my dad’s voice, was there whispering in the other ear. How could I waste the remaining six weeks of my rail pass and this golden opportunity to see more of Europe, including Spain and Italy where I had not set foot yet? I couldn’t have anyone question why I didn’t stay longer and exhaust all my financial resources. I was earning difficult self-esteem points with each day, each week, I hung in there with my odyssey. It would just have to get worse than it was now for me to really bail on it all.

I then read the series of letters from my mom in chronological order. She wrote about all the latest happenings at home, including that she had been part of a group of women, including her friend Mary Jane, that had successfully kept open the new Community High School, that my brother and a number of my younger theater comrades were attending. I was really glad to read that. Though the new alternative high school had come along too late for me to take advantage of it, it represented a very different approach to school with students able to work more collaboratively and be more involved in directing their own education. My brother was going through a tough time in his life and I figured the school and the community of peers there was an important sanctuary for him.

Her latest letter said that she hadn’t received a letter or postcard from me in ten days and that she was very worried and to call home immediately as soon as I got this letter. I had been sending the occasional letter but a steady stream of postcards daily, or at most every other day. (What I learned later was that their had been a big postal worker strike in several European countries that had severly set back mail pickup and delivery.) Well I really wanted to talk to her anyway, so I was very excited and set off immediately for a nearby post office where I knew that the staff could assist me in making a phone call to the States. They made the connection and my mom accepted the charges for what would be an expensive collect call.

I had not talked to her in some three weeks since that day in England when Angie, my original travel companion, had set off a crisis when she informed me that she would not be continuing the journey with me. In a bit of a crisis now with the thought of continuing to travel on my own, it was good to hear her voice on he other end of the line. It made the world around me a little less strange and unreal knowing that I had a life waiting for my return back home. I shared with her my feelings of loneliness and most of my misgivings about continuing to travel on my own. She told me that she was really proud of me for all I had accomplished on my trip and I should not be concerned about coming home any time, either earlier or latter. Either way the trip would still be a great accomplishment. Though I didn’t really concur, it was good to hear her say that, and feel I had that escape hatch that she would support me on if I really needed it. She also said she would send me $100 to the American Express office in Madrid.

By the time I finally said goodbye, with some tears in my eyes and a little bit of a tremor in my voice, it was 5:30 and I had told Giselle that I would be back at her house by 6:30 for dinner. With all the feelings from my conversation with my mom still swirling in my head I headed for the Metro station. It was rush hour and the stations were packed. The streams of people trying to get home from work pushed and shoved their way onto the packed train. By the time I got back to Giselle’s it was 6:40.

Gisele was concerned about me finding a hostel to stay at. She said that her understanding was that some were better than others. I told her that there was one several miles east of her place that had been recommended by one of the young guys who ran the hostel I had stayed at in Charleville-Mezieres. We looked it up in my book and she called several times, but the line was busy. While she prepared dinner I continued to call and finally got through. They had plenty of space. Gisele said that she and Paul would take me over after dinner.

Dinner was similar fare to the night before, though the salad had these little white cylindrical stalks in it which tasted like salty cooked cauliflower, which Giselle informed me was marinated palm tree hearts. Concerned about getting me to the hostel before it got too late, we ate more quickly, though I did manage to drink a couple glasses of wine and savor the warm buzz of alcohol and hospitality. After dinner they drove me to the hostel. According to Giselle the neighborhood looked reasonably okay so she seemed comfortable enough with it. They both gave me hugs on the curb of the narrow street, invited me to be their guest for lunch three days hence on Saturday, and were off.

The next morning I was up and out early. I had noted in my journal before bed that there were a lot of strange people at the hostel. Not the array of young adult Americans, Brits and Australian backpackers I was getting used to encountering and engaging with. Seemed that there were more locals staying there who did not speak English and who seemed otherwise homeless. I had encountered individual homeless people, particularly in some of the bigger train stations, including that memorable guy, Walter, in the Bern train station, who had confounded our stereotypes and gone out and brought back a six-pack of beer to share with us. Though the hostel was a reasonably okay facility it had more the feel of a shelter than an inexpensive lodging for travellers.

The streets of Paris seemed chaotic with traffic, that only occasionally followed the traffic lights and signs. In big intersections, some more complicated than just two streets intersecting, lots of cars trying to turn left would get stuck out in the middle of the intersection while other cars in the cross traffic would try to drive around them. Meanwhile people on scooters would weave their way seemingly unperturbed through the mess.

I took the Metro to the Louvre which had been top on my list of places to see in Paris. But it was such a nice day I decided I would save the great art museum for another day and walk the city streets instead, to enjoy such a nice fall day, the first after a couple weeks of cold, windy and rainy weather everywhere I had been. I headed north on Avenue de l’Opera with the classical Greek facade of the Opera building off in the distance. From there I picked another random northbound street and eventually ended up on Rue Blanche which finally concluded its run at the Place de Clichy. There across the street was the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub, looking more tacky than impressive, particularly in the daytime.

From there it was a short walk on the Boulevarde de Clichy, past strip joints and sex shops, up the hill known as Montmartre to the Sacre Coeur church. Later I would learn from Giselle that this Catholic church, built in the late 19th century, was an anathema to people on the left politically, because it was built specifically on the site of the uprising that led to the Paris Commune insurrection in 1871 to commemorate the defeat of that rebellion and the reestablishment of conservative state and religious authority over Paris.

I paid one Franc to climb up to the top of the dome. It was a climb up a long spiral staircase then along the eaves studded with gargoyles, and into the inner dome which looks down on the altar in the center of the church. From there up more stairs to the outer dome and a great view of Paris. The center city to the southwest was notable because other than the Eiffel Tower, there were no tall buildings that dominated the skyline. I would also learn later from Giselle that this was by design and by continuing city ordinances limiting the height of buildings in the central city.

Alone atop the cupola for maybe a half hour, I again felt that aloneness in a larger sense, and pondered where to go from here, both for the rest of this day and in general. The thing I really wanted to do was go home, the triumphant traveller. Travelling about was just what I had to do first to earn that stature, in my own estimation if no one else’s. It was hard being alone, especially in a foreign land and particularly in a big anonymous city where it can seem no one speaks the language you do, and so you have no real conversations. I was beginning to resign myself to homesickness continuing to dog me for the rest of my trip.

Click here to see part 2 of my Paris piece.

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