For those of you who don't speak French, that translates to "The Weekend". (It's always nice to educate my friends a little.) By the way, I understand that the French authorities are quite upset that words like "le weekend", "le drugstore" and "le hot dog" have invaded their pure language. Next, they will want to charge us royalties for using "rendezvous" and "boocooze", even though we don't exactly spell "beaucoups" the same way they do.
Ok, enough hilarity. Tighten your seat belts, I'm off again. I haven't made a trip to anywhere special since last week and I start to quiver if I don't get to Paris pretty often, so yesterday I decided to have a nice weekend to get away from all that vacation hassle around the house. Most of my stuff was unpacked from Christmas in Tunisia (is that a song title?), so it was quick work to throw a couple hankies in and head for THE CITY OF LIGHT. (At this time of year, they need lights most of the day. Paris is further north than Montreal.)
Planning the trip should have been fairly easy. I had a timetable for the train from Mulhouse, France, to Paris, and the German Rail web site showed a good connection from my town to Mulhouse. No problem. Walk to the train station, take the train to Muellheim, Germany, and the bus across the Rhine to Mulhouse. (Same name, different languages.)
The only problem was that I looked up the schedule for Friday and decided to go on Saturday. Wrong! Bad move, Howard. I forgot that many bus routes and some trains do not go every day, especially weekends. I was on the German rail web site looking for an earlier connection than the one that would put me in Paris late Saturday afternoon and couldn't even find the one I had looked up before and had planned to take. Whasssup?
So, I go dig up an old bus schedule I used when I first came to Bad Krozingen (one year this week! Ta dah!), and saw that the schedule showed Mo-Fr for the bus connection. Now you don't have to speak German to work that one out. You don't even have to know that it stands for Montag-Freitag or what those words mean to realize that this bus does not fly on Saturday. Oops!
What muss us do? When this realization dawned on me, it was already too late to make the connection on Friday. Back to the net. Instead of the one hour bus trip to Mulhouse, I could take a two hour train trip through Basel, Switzerland, on the same ticket I had bought, but this was not a "clean" solution. So-o-o, I went back to the train and bus timetables and found a connection to a later train leaving in an hour or so and made my move. Although German trains have a great reputation for punctuality, they seldom arrive right on time. If my bus was not right on the dot, I would miss my connection, but it was and I didn't.
Everything worked out fine. The bus stop is only two blocks from my apartment, saving me the walk to the train station, which is 10-12 blocks. The bus trip was very comfortable and we arrived right on time at the train station in France. There was a 12-minute connecting interval, during which I had to wait in line and buy my ticket, but they opened another ticket window and I made it. The train was already at the platform, but I had plenty time to get seated and away we flew!
Then my next plan disintegrated. I love dining cars on European trains. The food is usually good to very good and prices are comparable to airport prices. Problem was that this five o'clock train that gets into Paris at 10 PM had no food service. Luckily, my finely honed traveler's instincts had told me to throw in everything snackable in the apartment when I packed my bag. If you have never savored a fine orange juice, washed down with potato chips and bananas, then you just aren't much of a traveler, my friend.
Let the adventure begin!
(By the way, I feel compelled to point out the extreme economy of this trip for those of you who wonder how a near-impoverished pensioner like me can travel so much. One hour bus ride--$5. Five hour train trip to Paris--$20. Dinner-zilch. The round trip costs are left as an exercise for the student. When I get to Paris, I will pay rates comparable to Motel 6 in the U.S. Maybe I should start a guide service.)
(Another note: In addition to the bus and rail lines that don't operate on the weekends, many trains, especially in France, will not carry all the cars to the end. The train from Paris to Munich leaves the last few cars in Strasbourg, France, before continuing into Germany. Many Americans on Eurail passes learn this the hard way after wondering why they have been sitting in Strasbourg so long.)
We made it nearly to Paris on time. Some unexplained problem caused our train to pull an emergency stop, where we sat for about 20 minutes, then proceeded slowly until another long stop, then another. It wasn't clear whether they had to clear the sheep from the tracks or whether there was a conspiracy between the train driver and the guy who left off the dining car from that particular train (although reference to the schedule clearly shows that there should have been one). On the other hand, it also said bicycles were allowed on board and nobody brought one, so maybe that left them off the hook for the food service. Quien sabe? Oh, wait, that may be Portuguese. Sure is fun, getting confused in multiple languages.
Finally, about eleven PM, we arrive. I'm not in the mood to spend a long time looking for a hotel. There is an Ibis Hotel across the street from the train station. They have a room. I have a credit card. Did, did and done, to quote Mr. Python. (The same company owns Motel 6 and Red Roof Inns in the US.)
Saturday morning was cold and drizzling rain, just about what I expected. After breakfast, I set out on my morning walk. This is the first time I've stayed near the Gare de l'Est (Train station-East), so much of my walk was newer ground to me than the area around Notre Dame, where I usually stay.
The deal with the train stations is that Paris was a very old city when the train came around and there was no place to put a huge station downtown, plus the number of tracks coming into town would make a madhouse, so they have multiple stations scattered around. Trains coming from the east terminate at the Gare de l'Est. Trains from the north at Gare du Nord. See? This is easy, but then you have Gare Montparnasse, Gare d'Austerlitz (what direction is Austerlitz) and Gare de Lyon, but the trains from Lyon come into the Gare de 'Est, or maybe not.
The subway connects all the above, as well as all of Paris. The trains run every few minutes and cost $1.30 (approx.). They have stops every half mile or so, (about every two McDonald's). By the way, if you are in Paris and are having a terrible time getting by without a cup of good American coffee, it gives one reason to go to McDonald's. Can't think of another.
I like to walk five or ten miles in the morning, to clear the pipes, and can't think of a better place to do it, except for some beaches I remember fondly.
For lunch, I hit the Chinese buffet next to the train station. For about $9, it's all you can eat of really good Chinese food--beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, fish, etc. I've heard that Chinese food tastes better with chopsticks, so I always use them and think maybe they're right. On the other hand, it isn't so different from other food. Maybe all food tastes better with wooden utensils instead of metal. Who knows? All I know is that coffee in a styrofoam or thin plastic cup loses an awful lot compared with the same coffee in a ceramic mug.
My next excursion took me back to my favorite stomping grounds. It had begun to snow heavily while I was eating lunch, so the two-mile walk was quite enjoyable, with the snow blowing in my face and all the Parisians wearing hoods and carrying umbrellas while I strolled along bareheaded, enjoying the drifts on my hair.
The area I walked through was very heavily populated with African immigrants. There were many shops catering to them. Half, it seemed, specialized in beauty supplies, treatments and wigs for black women. At one subway stop, several young African men had a thriving business, where they waited with umbrellas for women to exit the subway, hoping for a tip if they escorted them to the beauty shop without getting their hair wet.
I really love movies, but don't get out to them very often for various reasons and don't watch many on TV any more because of the commercials and editing. However, movies in Paris! Aaah! What a breath of fresh air. Most of the movies I have seen here have never made it to the U.S. The one I saw today would never be able to get much showing in the US because it would have to have sub-titles and Americans don't do that well.
But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself. I stopped by the theater to see what was playing before going to my favorite bookstore(s). The Gibert Juene bookstore has apparently bought out every competitor in the area. It is near the Sorbonne University and appears to be nearly the only nearby choice for the students.
I always enjoy browsing through their comic books. No, not Superman and Batman. The French have a love for comics and illustrated books of all kinds that we don't understand. They come in hard-bound editions and are meant to be kept in libraries, like more "serious books". The subject matter ranges from Garfield to extreme descriptions of any type of life. It seems that every conceivable subject appearing in literature of any type is covered. Children's' books, religious books, comedy, adventure, fantasy--everything. I usually find at least one or two that I can't bring myself to leave in the store, but this time I didn't and left to wander some more in the snowstorm.
As I left the bookstore, I noticed that one of the movies that had caught my eye at the theater was about to start, so I ducked in there. It was a documentary, entitled "Cool and Crazy" and was so fantastically good that it made my entire trip worthwhile, by itself. It touched me in ways that few movies have. I don't know if was the music, the people, or the way the story was told and filmed. It was the story of the men's choir from Berlesvag, Norway. (Old men, oldest was 96.) They spoke and sang in Norwegian over sub-titles in French. If you look on your map, look all the way to the top of the world, just north of Murmansk, russia.
There was something very powerful about the way the 30 men stood on the beach in the dead of winter and sang their compelling songs about life that depended on the sea for its existence. They stood on the beach in dinner jackets with the waves crashing over the breakwater and sang. It's pretty certain that the sound was recorded in the studio, but as the camera would zoom close to one old man with ice in eyebrows or to another with a "buggercicle" decorating his nose, their individual voice seemed to come through louder.
Their leader was a bear of a man in a wheelchair, which they all banded together to transport when the ground was too rough to roll. My favorite scene was when they put his wheelchair on a sleigh and towed it through the snow. He was apparently Russian or else had family in Russia. During his interview, he mentioned that he had been a communist for many years, but was politically "dead", now. When the choir made a trip to Murmansk, Russia, to give a concert, as soon as they crossed the border the scenery went from north country cold to the communist ideology of who-cares-about-the-environment? The choir members were giving their leader a hard time about how terrible everything looked. He felt compelled to justify the bleak landscape by explaining that they had to use all their money on arms because the terrible Americans had kept developing more and more weapons and they had no choice but to try to keep up. The choir didn't buy it, so he finally just told them to shut up.