Saturday, June 8, 2013

Paris and the American Who Yelled About World War II

Despite the considerable distance and channel between them, it is exceedingly pleasant to leave London in the wee hours of the morning, dive into the Chunnel, and resurface a few moments later in France, cutting well across two millennia of wars and World Cup rivalry in a shade north of two hours.
With my departure at 5:40 a.m., I had planned to nap for what I thought was a 3.5-hour ride to the City of Lights. I had forgotten of course the time zone change and the hour I would lose which made the commute faster and a less relaxing ride than I had hoped. In London I had been staying nearly six miles from the center of the city and was enthused to find my next place of rest only a half mile from Paris' Gare du Nord train station.
Upon arrival at the hostel I was greeted by a man whom I would later learn was my slum lord. 
The full danger and complete lack of amenity was not immediately obvious upon entering due to the fact that, in a shrewd move to capture more business, the lobby looked somewhat respectable. It belied the unkempt and shoddy underbelly of the facility.
It was nothing special, but nice enough to keep you from running back the way you came and when they asked for cash payment for the stay instead of card, I ignorantly handed over a wad of Euros before seeing the room. 
In retrospect, the half-dozen or so nefarious characters gathered near the entrance who were clearly not guests should have given me some amount of pause, but it would not be until later that I would learn to fully embrace the faults of my Parisian palace.
As I entered the room I was greeted by two bunk beds, four red walls so close that you would have had trouble playing a competitive game of foosball even if the room were empty, a single metal chair presumably for lounging and soaking in the comfort and luxury of your new environs, and two large Spanish men who hung off the sides of their bunk due to their considerable zeal for the Spanish cuisine I assumed.
With a full day ahead of me I had planned to secure my backpack in a locker with my own padlock, grab a daypack, and roam the streets of Paris. The next, but not nearly the final problem I would discover is there was no locker availble in the room as there had been in every other hostel along my journey. I thought briefly about asking my hefty amigos to keep an eye out, but decided instead to inquire about lockers at the front desk.
When I made my way back, the attendant I had just dealt with was in the midst of an arm-waving, hand-slamming-on-the-counter shouting match with another traveller. Something about water dripping on her face from the ceiling above and her desiring a refund. It is fair to say the proprietor of this quality inn was meeting her request with resistance. After an unagreed upon compromise, at least by patron,  she would have the option to switch the direction she laid in bed so that water might strike her shins instead of her face or she could collect her things and leave for new digs, but without a refund.
She turned and left without indicating verbally her choice, but the speed at which she turned and the voracity with which she made certain the door closed behind her, I assumed she chose to alight for a new place to  lay her head over the modified Chinese water torture being offered in her current room.
Optimism running low, I followed her performance with a more demur effort. 
"Pardon," I said after pondering and then deciding against attempting what little French I knew. "Is there a locker available for my pack here? I didn't see one in the room."
The man behind the counter, who had been checking a social networking site on his computer I could now see, took a break from cyber-stalking hapless French girls to give thought to my proposal.
"A locker?" he asked insightfully.
"Yes, for my pack. So that it's safe?"
"Ah, sure bring me your pack."
I left and grabbed the backpack wondering the whole while exactly what its' future held.
"Here you are,"  I said handing it over.
"Merci," he replied taking my pack and placing it at his feet, half-hanging out onto a highly-trafficked area of the floor beside the desk. 
I hesitated momentarily, then gave some space, assuming that my bag was about to be transported some place more sound than, you know, the floor of the hostel by the front door.
After a few minutes of waving at my terrified pack from across the lobby, I decided to press again.
"Excuse me, but are you going to put that somewhere or just leave it there on the floor in the open?"
He spun in his chair. Again I was stealing his social-networking time.
"Where would you like me to put your things?" he asked as if there was not some already agreed upon place these types of things went and perhaps being the first person to ever mention it, I had an idea.
"I don't know. Don't you have lockers or something?"
"Ah, oui," he said and gathered up my helpless pack, walked it across the lobby to what I would find out was a closet full of cleaning supplies and old mops, although judging by the appearance of the place they had suffered only slight use, tossed my bag inside and locked the door.
"Won't people be going in and out of there? You know, to get brooms and mops or whatever?" I asked, continuing my magnificent streak of  hopeless naiveté.
"Oh, yes. Problem?"
I pulled the blue ballpoint pen from my jacket pocket, uncapped it, and drove it deep into the meaty side of his neck, watched him grab wildy at the protrusion in vain, saw his eyes search the room in full panic, looked on as he fumbled for a cell phone that he might use to call for help, post one last update to his Facebook account, and then topple over onto the floor while I stood above him and said, "Yes. Yes, it is a problem."
To be more specific, I calmly asked to have my bag back and with almost no voiced complaint, locked it to the bed frame in my room with the obese Cheech and Chong impersonation team and left to visit the city.
Paris is a splendid place. I can say this confidently because even with the goings on in my hostel, I left with a very positive outlook on my experience there.
With three days to venture and climb around wherever I chose, I took the first day to visit Musee du Louvre, or the Louvre to anyone who does not stop to buy a baguette on the way home from work.
With over 35,000 different pieces, the Louvre holds what many consider to be the greatest single collection of art in the world, not just now, but in all of history. It began as a fortress in 1190 and transformed later into a royal palace, a cause it would serve for four centuries, before eventually becoming a museum in the late 18th century. 
The massive estate is best known as the home of Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa, but plays host to dozens of other priceless works such as the Venus de Milo, the sculpture of Cupid and Psyche, one of the world's oldest documents - the Code of Hammurabi, and the ultra massive Coronation of Napoleon. 
Many people are worried prior to entry that it will  be difficult to find DaVinci's most famous work among the sea of art on display. Quite the opposite, it is hard not to gravitate toward the painting. Once inside, virtually every corner has a poster with a print of the Mona Lisa adorning it and below an arrow guiding you in the right direction. It is as if the Mona Lisa were a garage band trying to get word out about next weekend's set at The Tipsy Room and were going around plastering advertisements on all the telephone poles in town. 
It would be cliche to say experiencing the Mona Lisa is a letdown, but that is almost exclusively the reaction most visitors leave with. Not necessarily because it isn't a captivating piece of art, but because there is nothing very obviously special about it. It is impossible to get closer than 15 or so feet due to a barrier that separates the throng of aspiring photographers from the glass case that houses the painting. In practice it is nearly impossible to get even that close. To do so, you have to have a questionable moral compass because it undoubtedly means you have elbowed an elderly Asian man trying to use up his third reel of film all on the Mona Lisa, and likely sideswiped a small child who has been commissioned to weasel between other visitor's legs all the way to the front for a better picture for their parents like some sort of photography child soldier.
I took the work in as best I could from about half a football field away and then moved on. 
After spending the better part of the day perusing the various galleries, I departed completly famished. My stomach barked at me to stop and grab a sandwich at a small cafe near the museum.
I ordered a ham sandwich on a baguette, although the whole thing carried a much fancier title on the menu, and a soft drink. The sandwich was priced at €5, which was reasonable enough considering this place dealt mostly with tourists.
"Would yooo care for Frommage?" the waiter asked.
He knew I was an American and obviously knew English enough to ask the question, but decided to replace the word cheese with the French, frommage.
"Uh, sure that'd be great."
The meal came and quickly disappeared. After checking my phone for directions to the Eiffel Tower for a night viewing, I walked to the counter. It was the kind of cafe where you paid at the counter, that is to say an affordable one.
"I'll take my check," I said to the gathered crowd of cooks and waiters, all of whom seemed to perform both duties with equal skill.
"Yes,  here you are," said the man who had brought my sandwich handing me my bill.
I looked down to discover a bill of €14.This was not an astonishing price to pay for a meal  in Paris, but when you order a €5 sandwich with one soft drink, it is a mild surprise to find a €14 bill awaiting your exit.
"I only had the sandwich and the one drink," I said. 
"Yes, the Croquere is here," he said pointing to my receipt and indicating the item I had the nerve to call a sandwich, "and the rest is for the drink and the cheese."
I  could now see a €5 charge for my soda and a €4 charge for cheese. Suddenly it was cheese. Not frommage, just cheese. Swiss at that.
"Cheese is €4?" I asked with a tone of someone who might have just learned the cost of replacing a radiator after the work had been done.
"Frommage is €4," the waiter/cook/obstinate cashier corrected.
"The receipt," I said, volume increasing, "says it's cheese."
I decided against pursuing the matter further and pulled out my credit card to pay.
"No card. Minimum €20 Euro on card," said the Frenchman. 
"Come again..."
"You must have €20 charge to use card here," he said gesturing to a case full of pastries that could bring my bill to a big enough number, "pick one."
"I should've just gotten double frommage I guess," I said. 
In a rare moment of victory in Paris, I made a stand. I made a stand for God and for country and for bullshit rules to run up someone's bill.
"I have €8 in my pocket. You can have that if you don't want to run this card. I also have this credit card that can pay for my sandwich, soda, and precious frommage in full. You can have your pick of the two, but I ain't paying €20 for a ham and cheese sandwich."
The small group who had now gathered behind the counter shared a handful of wordless looks and then ran my card for the €14 I owed.
I took my copy of the receipt, gathered my daypack, turned to leave, and said, "I'll  be checking my statement to make sure it stays at €14, too. And you're all welcome for World War II."
Yes, Paris and I - harmony from the very first.
Paris is a town for eating. It is a task to find a street corner in any part of the city that is not covered in small round tables with willing patrons draped over them. It is also a criminal offense to eat indoors in Paris if the weather is nice.
A tad over 88-percent of the city work in cafes. Another six-percent are docents at museums, four-percent peddle cheap replicas of the Eiffel Tower to tourists as they stumble drunkenly off dinner cruises of the River Seine, while the final two-percent of Parisiens spend their days zipping through the streets on scooters, utilizing their horns on unsuspecting tourists who get a little too loose with the rules of the crosswalk.
After a couple days, I began to wonder how things ever got done around here. It was as if the whole metroplex was run by machines that freed up all the citizens to lounge in sleepy crepieres stowed away on cobbled streets and curled up with their morning brew for three hours.
Coming from London where people eat sandwiches while riding their bikes to work,  Paris seemed downright lazy. Albeit a beautifully relaxed, supremely mellow kind of lazy.
I was wrapt in the Parisien way of life. Who among us would choose garbled muffins while chasing subway cars at 6 a.m. over croissants and coffee at one delightful cafe after another, changing locations only when your butt falls asleep?
If it were not for the French, Paris would be perfection. 
I say this only half-kidding, of course. The Parisiens often take the wrap for being rude and discourteous hosts to the world who would hope to visit their beautiful city. While many of them are short on patience and long on frustrated grunts and eye rolls, they are not all that different from New Yorkers. The difference is we, as Americans, pretend their is a softer heart inside every New Yorker while we imagine the French to be harsh, intolerant, and a bit too in touch with their sensitivities.
I developed a theory for what I believe is at least part of the discord between Americans and the French. To me it goes back to tone. Their is a natural French style and cadence of speech that does not translate favorably when they speak to Americans. Quite simply, the French speak the way Americans do when we are making fun of someone we do not like. 
An example might go something like this:
"So Peggy comes into the party and we all know how Peggy is, right?" one American might say speaking of an absent and generally disliked co-worker. "She's all like, "Hiii I'm Peeeeggggyyy and I liiiikkkkee to take fiiiiiiivvvee hoooouuurrr lunch breaks because  IIIIIII'mmmm too lazy to wooooooorrrrk like the rest of yooooooo."
This is how the French speak to their mothers. This became clear to me after asking a street vendor for directions to Notre Dame Cathedral. 
"The Cathedraaaalll is riiiiiiight theeeerrrreee," he responded waving his arm in the general direction as if he had just completed some trick of magic. "Caannn yooooooo not seeeee ittt?"
Initailly I thought he was being very condesending, but then I realized he was just using the same French tone and cadence, but speaking to me in English, thus causing him to sound as if he was speaking to someone who spends their time outside wearing a helmet while tethered to the monkey bars.  
Quite by accident I stumbled upon the   justice building after leaving Notre Dame. It is one of the only places in Paris where you can still find scars from World War II. They come in the form of bullet holes which dot the cement walls in two- and four-inch wide craters made by Nazi bullets after a rogue French force had retaken the once German-held building during some of the fighting.
It is rather a wonder there is any city worth visiting here at all.
The Nazis ran the place for four years and Hitler desired to see it crumble to the ground before being retaken by Allied forces. The dictator gave the command to the general he had placed in charge of controlling Paris, that if liberating forces drew too near to the city, he was to burn the city to the ground. If Hitler could not have Paris, like a child, no one could. 
The commanding general, Dietrich von Choltitz, decided in the final moments of Nazi control in Paris, not to flatten the Parisien cityscape in the interest of saving his own skin. He figured that salvaging the city could be parlayed into amnesty once it came time to pay for the sins of the war. Dietrich was right. The general recevied full pardon from punishment, despite whatever atrocities he committed or commanded, all because he did not give the final one - to crush the city.
My final stop was the Eiffel Tower, the one monument in Paris the French like to say was not conquered by the Nazis. As Hitler arrived at the monument to look over and celebrate his taking of the city, the lift operators lied and told him the elevator cords had been snipped, but that the Fuhrer could take the stairs.
Hitler suddenly insisted that the view of the city from the top of a nearby hotel had been largely underrated and thus never mounted the tower.
I had been the first night I arrived to see the magnificent light show that occurs in the first five minutes of every hour after sundown, but had not gone to the top. 
The feat of reaching the top, I discovered soon, was a fool's errand. It starts enticingly enough as tickets are only €11, the only detractor being the 35-minute line a visitor must wait in to purchase admission. 
I was also very aware I would have to climb from ground level to the second floor of the tower before I would be aided by an elevator for the remainder of the journey.
What I did not know prior, was that I would have to wait another 45 minutes on the second floor for the elevator. I was pouring sweat and drastically deydrated, but would have gladly clambered the rest of way by stair had that been an option. It was not.
After the nearly hour wait I rattled to the top by elevator and was met by a spectacular panorama of the city in all directions.
 What a surprising number of visitors do not anticipate, however, is that the tower itself will not be included in any of these wonderful photos.
I happened upon this humourous oversight while observing an older American couple negotiate which picture angle would best capture their Eiffel Tower experience.
"Just hold it up and get our heads in the picture with the Arch of Triumph behind 'em, Carl," the woman demanded.
"Sweetheart, I can't see what's in the camera view, honey. If I could I would get the picture, but I can't," Carl pleaded. "I'm doing the best I can here."
"It's not that hard, just hold up your hand and point it at us, you goof."
Carl made another go of the picture only to be met with a disappointed expression from his wife upon review.
"This isn't gonna work," she said.
"What's wrong now, Deena? It's all in there. Look you can see us and the Triumph Arch over our heads."
"You can't tell that we're on the Eiffel Tower though. How are people gonna know we're taking it from the Eiffel Tower."
I chanced jumping into Deena's sights to have a go at Carl's aide.
"What else will they think you're standing on,"  I offered, "The wing of your airplane?"
Carl smiled. Deena did not. I  left. 
It was another half-hour line for the elevator to get down and it brought to mind a story I read on the train from London about a local tailor who climbed to the top of the tower in 1931 when it was still the world's tallest and, with wings strapped to his arms and legs, had a try at flying.
He was unsuccessful. 
However, as I stood there in the midst of my third hour trapped on the tower I began to wonder if maybe he simply grew tired of waiting for the lift.

1 comment:

  1. first post of yours I've read and def made me laugh! you have a great way with words!