Day Trip to Paris

My brother is coming to visit next week and I thought it might be a good idea to go to Paris ahead of time and better acquaint myself with the train/metro/bus situation. And maybe do some sightseeing. I hadn’t been back to Paris since the first day I arrived in France but I can say the experience is a million times better when you aren’t carting luggage around.

I left Amiens early and arrived in Paris by 9 AM without any trouble. At that hour on a Saturday morning the city was actually tranquil, even at Gare du Nord. With the limited schedule due to the strikes my train back didn’t leave until 5 PM so I had all day to wander around.

The first place I wanted to go, preferably while the light was still good, was the rooftop terrace the Galeries Lafayette shopping mall. This is a place I never would have discovered or thought of on my own, I read about in another blog called An American in Amiens. What a find that has been!

After a short metro ride I arrived at the entrance shortly before the store opened. There was a large crowd of almost entirely Asian women waiting outside the door, so large that I waited across the street until they had all gone in.

A popular place to be on Saturday morning.

Apparently not knowing anything whatsoever about Asian females (or possibly females of any kind), I was rather discouraged that my trip to the rooftop terrace would be marred by a large crowd. But as I ascended a dozen different escalators to the top I passed the Gucci handbag section and what do you know, there were all three hundred women waiting in line.

The higher I got the more empty of life the building became and by the time I got to the top I thought I must surely be in a restricted employee area. There is no great entrance onto the rooftop, just a plain door that was already propped open. I walked out to a glorious view of Paris at sunrise and I was the only guy there, except for an employee in the distance picking up apparently non-existent trash.

Rooftop at the Galeries Lafayette

There are no obvious handrails at first, as you get closer you see they are just panes of glass. The rooftop area is enormous and you can walk all around and get a 360 view of the whole city. And it’s free! Thanks again to Kaitlyn for revealing to me this treasure.

The Paris Opera is across the street
Montmartre from the rooftop

The view upstairs is terrific, but I have to say the inside of the store isn’t too shabby either:

Notice in the picture above what appears to be a glass catwalk extending out into space on the left side. Yes, you can walk out on that and it’s free too. In a country that likes to charge you for taking a pee I was really surprised this store wasn’t extorting customers for these experiences, because people would absolutely be willing to pay.

Having not bought a Gucci handbag nor spent so much as a penny, but having enjoyed a priceless experience, I thought maybe I should just take a quick peek at the MontBlanc watches anyway (suffice to say they don’t carry those in my hometown). They were as beautiful and eye-wateringly expensive as I thought they would be. I sort of began to understand the lady handbag shoppers though, because if you think you might buy such a fine thing anyway, it really would be special to say “I bought this in downtown Paris!” You would have the thing itself but also a memorable and unique experience to go with it. But you would also then have the experience of being able to say, “and I paid a huge premium for it.” So I managed to leave without succumbing to any temptations.

Afterwards I headed to Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame. As everyone knows the cathedral is closed for repairs due to the fire last year. What I also found is that the entire area around the cathedral is walled-off and you can’t even get close to it or see it very well. The 13th century Sainte Chapelle is just a short walk away though and is well worth the visit.

Saint Chappelle

There are two chapels, the lower and upper. The lower has been turned into a gift shop and it’s not immediately apparent how you get to the upper chapel, but upon close inspection I found a small door near the entrance to the gift shop that leads you up a very small circular stairway. There were quite a few people inside but a disembodied voice emanating from a hidden speaker somewhere reminds everyone to be quiet (by saying SSSHHH!) and therefore the mood inside remains quiet and appropriately reverential.

Here is a great short video about Sainte Chapelle:

Afterwards I took the metro to the Eiffel Tower, which I did not take a picture of nor go to the top of. Mid-day sun is not ideal for photography and there were large crowds in line to go up. But I did rest my feet for a while on a park bench and reflected on how remarkable it is that such a large city as Paris has managed to avoid building skyscrapers so that things like the Eiffel Tower can remain in their proper visual place. (Ok, there is the unfortunate Tour Montparnasse but for the most part they’ve kept the skyline clean.)

Having still more time to kill I decided to head to the Louvre. Now the transportation issues started to become more apparent. Due to the still-ongoing strikes not all metro lines are running, and even of those that are, not all stations are open so you may have to walk to a more distant one to catch the train. In my case I needed to take both a bus and a metro ride, and the direct bus was cancelled and the not-so-direct bus was half an hour late and already full, but I managed to squeeze on somehow.

Beneath the Louvre there is a massive underground shopping center and I have heard it is easier to get in to the museum this way than through the glass pyramid above, and with a shorter wait in line. I found this to be true.

I noticed once more a very long line of Asian women at the Louis Vuitton shop, but the shop seem quite prepared for this. The employees at the store were also Asian and ladies would go up and down the line apparently confirming the purchases ahead of time, and it all seemed to move along fairly quickly.

At Louis Vuitton underneath the Louvre

You will see many different nationalities in Paris, in very large numbers together depending on the area of town. Each has their own characteristics but it would be hard to find much to fault with these female tourists. As would be expected from their home cultures, they are polite and quiet. They must bring in billions of dollars into the local economy. I have read that each year over 6 million Japanese people visit Paris, I can’t imagine what the numbers are from China.

Another quantity that must stagger the imagination of man is the number of photographs taken each day in the Louvre alone, nowadays almost entirely by cell phones. I don’t know how Appple has the space in the iCloud to store them all, and you wonder if some tech guy there is thinking “Enough already! We don’t need any more pictures of the Mona Lisa on our servers!” But more they will get, they are rolling in right this minute and will continue I guess until cell phones go out of style, or the Louvre fades into obscurity.

Nevertheless I will go ahead and make my own contribution to the world-overburden of pictures from this museum.

Galerie d’Apollon

Here is what the English novelist Henry James said about the Apollo Gallery,:

The wondrous Galerie d’Apollon…drawn out for me as a long but assured initiation and seeming to form, with its supreme coved ceiling and inordinately shining parquet, a prodigious tube or tunnel through which I inhaled little by little, that is again and again, a general sense of glory. The glory meant ever so many things at once, not only beauty and art and supreme design, but history and fame and power, the world in fine raised to the richest and noblest expression.

And of course I saw also the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the most stunning symbols of the grandeur that must have been the ancient world:

What really beggars belief is how this statue could lay abandoned on the ground for centuries on end. It is difficult to comprehend how a culture that could create such works could itself finally be almost completely forgotten. Thankfully for posterity Europe rediscovered itself and its past, although today it mostly seems busy in trying to forget it all over again.

To be on the safe side I decided to give myself 2 full hours to get from the Louvre back to Gare du Nord to catch the train to Amiens. Theoretically it should only take about 20 minutes via the metro, so this would leave me plenty of time to buy my ticket, amble over to a nearby café, rest my weary feet and enjoy a well-deserved tartine. Oh the naïveté!

On my walk to the metro station I was surprised by a youth (we shall call him), who came flying out in front of me and ran directly into traffic on the Rue de Rivoli and nearly got run over. My first thought, stupidly, was “there’s someone who is really desperate to catch his train!” Now just behind him comes a tall man dressed in an exquisitely tailored suit, also from Nigeria to judge from his blistering speed, and he too runs into traffic in pursuit. It was the suit that finally explained what I was seeing, as there are no better dressed men in Paris than security at the department stores. It seemed to me these two guys should really quit their day jobs as cops and robbers and try out for the Olympics instead; I was truly astounded at how fast they could run. I didn’t see the conclusion of the chase as they disappeared around a corner, but I noticed that one of them was wearing sneakers and the other leather dress shoes so I might guess.

By this time in the afternoon Paris was starting to become a congested mess. It certainly didn’t look to me like anyone in a car was having much fun. I walked to the enormous Châtelet metro station, which my handy app said is where I could get a direct train straight to Gare du Nord. Unbeknownst to me, this sprawling underground complex actually consists of at least three different stations with a half-dozen platforms, and I mistakenly got on the wrong train and ended up back at the Louvre.

So I got off and walked back to Châtelet and this time managed to find the correct place but it took me two T-tickets to get there, and I was down to my last hour.

At this point I might remark on another pastime of a different cultural group, which is jumping turnstiles. Apparently in an effort to combat this exuberance some turnstiles are not actually stiles but have glass doors that open briefly and which can’t easily be vaulted over. Not to be deterred, in these cases one may notice a frisky youth pressing up behind you, but no, you are not being groped, instead you are being followed through. I say “followed” through, but “shoved” through might be a better word for it, like so much rubbish that has inconveniently managed to get in the way.

The platform for the RER B train was already crowded when I got there and of course the train was running late. Looking at the sea of people waiting for it to arrive I realized that unless that train was completely empty when it pulled up, there was no way we were all getting on.

Desperately I watched the minutes tick by until finally the train pulled in. Not surprisingly, it was already packed to the gills. The situation was hopeless, not even a champion line cutter was going to have a chance (line-cutting is a national bloodsport in France, where even demure little girls can put a grown American man to shame). All the same the doors to the train did open, and people did try to get on (to the consternation of the few trying to get off), and it was total mayhem that just about ended with someone getting dragged or run over. If I’d had my wits about me I would have taken a picture but at the time it was the last thing I was thinking about.

The train looked something like this

My app told me it was a thirty minute walk to Gare du Nord and that was just about the amount of time I had left so I immediately booked it out of there. On my way up one of the very tall stairways from the depths of the station I noticed a young woman dragging a suitcase up the escalator (the of-course broken escalator), and I really felt bad for her as only someone could who knows exactly what that feels like. But as they say, each one of us has our own cross to bear and I let her bear hers, but I thanked my stars again not to have any luggage with me.

Now due to a very exciting paragliding experience some years ago my left foot has a metal plate it in, nine screws, and only four toes. Already after being on my feet all day it felt like it was going to fall off and I sort of wished it would because at the moment it was mostly causing me pain. Nevertheless, as lousy as it was, my left foot was a lot more dependable than the Paris metro so that’s what I relied on.

There are lots of bikes and scooters scattered everywhere around Paris that you can rent, and that really would have been the best alternative (the traffic that I could see with my own eyes told me that Uber or a taxi would have been a waste of time), but I didn’t feel like I had any extra minutes to figure out the phone app to rent one.

At one point along the way just in front of me I saw a girl on a bike take a direct hit from a car. She was thrown a good five feet through the air and the most interesting thing I noticed was how crumpled the front of the car looked. No time to stop and help this damsel either! I noticed that she did stand up afterwards, and had the presence of mind to put her khimar back on, and as there were only about five hundred other people nearby I plowed on.

Finally with but minutes to spare I made it to Gare du Nord and thankfully by now I knew how to buy a train ticket in lightning speed. Home free!

Well, almost. I made it on the train, but it seemed to be running awfully slow. Then it stopped completely, nowhere near a station. Then the lights went out (the sun had already gone down by this point). Various announcements were made on the PA but due to various non-French cultures speaking loudly on their cell phones all around me I couldn’t hear a thing (and I probably wouldn’t have understood anyway).

The train eventually resumed its way but this process of stopping at random places in the wilderness became a regular habit, while we sat in the complete dark and fogged up the windows with our breath.

Stopped again

On the fourth stop we sat for probably close to half an hour until another train was dispatched to deliver us.

Somehow Amiens was finally reached, and what six weeks ago felt like a strange and alien place to me, was now a beautiful sight for sore eyes: home.

The Hair That I Once Had

Today I went in for my second haircut since being in France, and I returned to the same place I went to before, just across the street from my apartment. On the first occasion I showed the guy a picture on my phone of what I had in mind and he more or less got pretty close to it. He only charges 9 Euros which is very cheap, but I wouldn’t mind if he raised the price a bit if it meant he could turn on the heat in his shop.

Anyway I went back today and the same guy was there and he recognized me, but there was a long line. During my wait, and as my toes slowly turned to ice, I considered how I would probably be better served if I could speak Arabic rather than French because that appeared to be the native tongue of everyone there.

Just as my turn comes up a second barber arrives and I am directed to sit in his chair instead. As the situation has changed I now have to throw out my pre-memorized phrases but I just showed him the same picture on my phone and off he goes.

I could tell this other guy is much more meticulous and things start off really well. He’s putting in a beautiful fade around my ears and I think “I’m going to get the haircut of my life today!” Which in fact I did.

The Picture

All I really needed was a trim around the ears to look exactly like the handsome model in the picture, so once he finished that I figured we were done. But no, he had further perfection to attain! Now out come the scissors and he sets in with a vigor at the top of my head.

Well ok, we can take a bit off the top too, that probably won’t hurt anything, but I am starting to worry about the rather long strands of hair falling in front of my eyes.

Thankfully he only cuts for a few moments and then blows me all over with his hairdryer. Now we’re surely done, I conclude. But instead he asks to look at the picture again and then he mumbles something in Arabic and out come the scissors once more.

Already I’ve been in the chair for 30 minutes but now follows a routine of chopping, cutting and slashing that seems it will never end. Every now and then he blows my whole head with the hairdryer and wipes me down with a towel and I think “That’s it for real!” but always afterwards he goes back for more annihilation.

I start to wonder if I missed the point where he must have said “I’ll just keep going until the sun burns out or you yell stop!”

Forty-five minutes pass, then an hour, and now the original barber next to me has gone through three customers in the time I’ve been sitting in the chair. My lap is covered in hair and the top of my head is starting to get awful chilly. I considered piping up and saying something but I’ve already learned the futility (or worse) of starting a conversation you can’t finish (I know enough words to get going, but not enough to conclude a train of thought or understand a response).

Instead I applied an expression to my face that I hoped would convey something along the lines of “Hey that’s great, but feel free to stop anytime!’ However my subtle body language went apparently unnoticed, and anyway whenever someone takes a family picture everyone keeps yelling at me to smile even though in my mind I already feel like I’m grinning from ear to ear. So maybe my face doesn’t work all that good to begin with.

Finally after not one but two eternities the masterwork is finally completed! The barber shows me the mirror, which I don’t even bother looking at because A) I’m blind without my glasses which are presently on his counter, and B) some uncanny sixth sense (called winter) already tells me I’m bald.

Ç’est bon comme ça, I lied. But when I tell him bonne année as I leave I’m surprised that every customer in the store replies back the same. There are definitely some nice things about French politesse.

In the end I got a bone-stock crewcut that would have taken any American barber about 15 minutes to achieve (think Ed Harris in Apollo 13). My hair is so short there’s nothing even to comb over and I don’t think I even have a part left.

What we got

That’s fine, it only took me two years to grow my hair out, and fortunately I’m pretty much still a handsome devil no matter what. But the cut I got isn’t remotely close to any universe in which the haircut in my photo exists.

In good news, and changing topics, after weeks of despair and withdrawal, I did finally find the French equivalent of Splenda. It’s called Canderel and it’s even better than Splenda although chemically it appears to be the same thing. The improvement is that it comes in pill form the better to remind you that you are an addict, in a convenient little dispenser that releases one pill with each press of a button, kind of like a morphine drip (for reference I believe I need 3 pills per cup of coffee). You can buy extra pills to refill your dispenser with and it’s cheap too, whereas Splenda seems to be made of gold to judge from the price in the US.

It was cute and all to relive my childhood days by putting actual sugar cubes in my drinks, but really I think sucralose tastes better than real sugar.