Written 24 March 2005, ca. 7 p.m.
Here we are in Paris, at the Hotel Belloy St. Germain (2 rue Racine), just a couple of blocks from the Palais and Jardins de Luxembourg and right around the corner from the Cluny Museum. We're on the (French) 5th floor, which is really the (American) 6th floor, with a great view up the rue des Écoles. We were just now admiring the way the setting sun lit up the buildings despite the rain when the most gorgeous double rainbow appeared! An auspicious start to a vacation that threatened to be rather discombobulated.
Last night, I set out to do laundry so as to pack all clean things for the trip, then remembered after the washer was started that machines in the laundry room at the résidence close down at 8 p.m. Drat, there wouldn't be time to run the dryer, and although most things would dry overnight, there was no way my two favorite knit tops would air dry before our 8 a.m. departure today. Then, when I went to retrieve the laundry at 7:50 p.m., I found that both my machine and that of a guy who had started his at the same time had stopped in mid-cycle some half an hour before. Both were full of water, soap, and sodden clothes, and the doors would not open! On any other day, I'd have stormed reception, but on Wednesdays, reception and all the other offices of the résidence are closed all day. The emergency number—which I dialed with murder in my heart— was that of reception at another Pierre & Vacances résidence, two towns over. When I'm nervous or tired, my French tends to get clumsy and halting, but when I'm mad, boy, it flows. The nice young man promised he'd send somebody right over and asked how they could contact me. I gave him phone and apartment numbers, but when an hour had passed and no one came, I went to have another look at the problem. It seems they had come and gone—they just restarted the machines so they could finish the cycle and left again. At least the clothes had been rinsed and spun and were no longer dripping wet. Meanwhile, I had completely reorganized my long-planned packing. As predicted, the knit tops were still too damp to pack this morning, but everthing else dried in time.
This morning, we left the apartment at 8 a.m. and walked to the Beaulieu train station, rolling our luggage behind us. The trip, normally about 15 minutes, took 22 thus encumbered, but we had allowed plenty of time. At precisely 8:42, we boarded the little commuter train that whisked us in 12 minutes or so to the central station in Nice (it's a lot faster to go the straight-line, traffic-light-free route under Mont Boron than to go around or over it, as cars do). There, we had plenty of time to make a leisurely connection with the 9:26 TGV (high-speed train) to Paris. The same train took us all the way, but it doesn't actually become high-speed until about Marseilles. It therefore took us 2 hours (including two brief stops) to cover the leg from Nice to a little station east of Marseille, then only 3.5 hours to do the rest of the distance to Paris, nonstop. Our train was only about five cars, one of which was the restaurant/coffee bar. Rather than braving the lines at lunch time to try for one of the hot entrees, we bought lunch early. I had an excellent Greek-style salad, roll, and fruit cake; David had a "vile" club sandwich and mediocre chocolate tart. I was even able to put in several hours of editing before my computer battery ran down.
Written 25 March 2005
We pulled into the Gare de Lyon in Paris about eight minutes late and easily got a cab (despite a light rain) to the hotel, where, of course, they'd never heard of us. Or of the people meeting us here (who had made the reservations). Through what agency had the reservation been made? No clue. But we slapped our voucher on the counter, which showed their name, our name, the hotel's name, the dates in question, and a declaration that room and breakfast were already paid for, in advance. Once the clerk consulted the manager, things smoothed out. I think they think we're the Budman's, but whatever . . . .
The hotel doesn't provide free Internet access except through AOL, but they can give me dial-up access through a local call. Local calls are charged by the "message unit" here, but relatively cheaply.
The room is small (even though we got bumped up a grade, for a fee, to get nonsmoking). Two people can't pass in the space between the bed and wall on any side, and the AC is mostly losing the struggle to cool it down (even though it's nice and cool outside), so we keep the window open most of the time when we're there despite the street noise. And the street noise was considerably soon after we arrived, because a good-sized group of "lycéens" (high-school students) held a protest march, chanting loudly, that occupied the intersection below our window for a while, until squads of riot police arrived—sirens screaming—to make them keep moving, much to the glee of the demonstrators. We couldn't make out what they were protesting, because they didn't hold their banners taut, and the chanting was full of acronyms we couldn't parse. Probably the recent proposal to change from comprehensive testing at the end of the year to course-by-course testing, the way we do it in the U.S.
The shower is, as predicted, a hand sprayer at the end of a hose that can't be hung on the wall or put down unless turned off, and there is no trace of a shower curtain. Typical.
Once we were installed, we went book shopping—the hotel is right in the middle of the "Quartier Latin," the university quarter—then out to dinner at "Le Paris," the restaurant in the Hotel Lutetia, at the Sèvre-Babylon metro stop, across from the "Bon Marché" department store. The rain stopped, so we were able to walk both ways. It's a G-M 15/20, and dinner was good, but the only dish that really knocked our socks off was David's starter: marinated raw scallops and cold lightly cooked baby vegetables with basil sprouts and two sauces (pesto-hazelnut toast on the side).
Our friends Joyce and Michael Budman (Jason's parents) and Rachel and Ev Sinnett (grad-school friends with whom we spend New Years every year) are due any minute—they were due to land at 7:05 a.m., about two hours ago.
Written 27 March 2005
The plane was almost an hour late, but by mid-morning, the Sinnetts and Budmans made it to the hotel. Their rooms weren't ready, but we were able to leave their bigger pieces of luggage with the hotel receptionist and the rest in our room and to set off for our recommended anti-jetlag regimen—lots of exercise and as much exposure to sunlight as possible. It was a beautiful, sunny, cool day—perfect for the purpose. We ducked into the nearest subway station (Cluny-La Sorbonne), bought 5-day "Paris visite" cards all around (unlimited bus and subway trips), and caught the #10 line to Ségur, a pleasant walk from the Eiffel Tower. Surprisingly, Paris seems almost as full of American (and Japanese, and Italian, and German) tourists in March as in July! We thought the lines at the tower would be shorter, but it's Easter weekend, and apparently spring break for a lot of people, so the lines were ridiculous. So we just took advantage of the numerous photo ops and kept on walking, past the tower and over the river to Passy. There we applied the hundred-yard rule and, hey presto, out of the crowds and into the very pleasant Brasserie Poincaré for lunch. Rachel and I got the duck-gizzard salads we were looking forward to, David got fish with a "beurre blanc" (one of his favorite sauces), and Ev discovered "île flottant" (a popular custard, meringue, and caramel dessert that I promised him he would find in lunch venues all over the city). Still in search of sunlight (and a little rest for the feet), we took a "bâteau-mouche" cruise on the Seine, on a large tour boat with much better-than-average sound system and multi-lingual narration—we could actually understand everything they said! Only two of the travellers dozed off during the trip. After a brief visit to the memorial marking the spot where Princess Di was killed (coincidentally close to the tour-boat dock), we walked back to check the lines at the Eiffel Tower again—still ridiculous—so we just walked to the nearest subway stop and headed back to the hotel to shower, change, and rest our feet until dinner. I was even able to log in and check e-mail.
For an early dinner, we just crossed the street to the famous "Bouillon Racine." It's only rated G-M 12/20, but it's a historical monument and beautifully decorated. The food was actually very good. I had snails cooked in the traditional manner with butter, garlic, and herbs; sautéed lamb kidneys with oyster mushrooms and old-fashioned mashed potatoes; and a dessert of crisp meringue strips, prune-armagnac ice cream, and whipped cream, garnished with more armagnac-soaked prunes. Other folks had, variously, fish soup with rouille, cheese, and croutons; onion soup with toasted cheese croutons on top; cold foie gras; eggs "meurette" (that is, poached in red wine with garlic and mushrooms; roasted salmon; white chicken stew; duck confit; etc. The prize find of the meal, though, was Michael's dessert—a Belgian waffle toasted crisp, drizzled with a sweet syrup, filled with crême brulée mixture, and grilled to crisp the top. Wow! We may go back there for dinner another night just so we can all order that for dessert!
Saturday morning, we hopped the subway again, this time to the Arc de Triomphe. It was mobbed as usual, but the line for tickets to the top was surprisingly short, and the only elevator operating was the one for the handicapped (the others were closed for construction). Few people seemed to notice that any elevator was available, so we got to the top in record time. Rain had been predicted, but the sky was clear and the view was great, so we spent a lot of time up there. After enjoying the view, we visited the museum one floor down, where there was a great exhibit of rare color photos of World War I. Among us, we had it covered—up on the roof, I could point out and identify all the domes, steeples, and other monuments. Rachel then lectured us (and a number of bystanders who clustered around, knowing a good tour guide when they heard one) on the architectural periods and influences of each of the domes and was able to date them from their shapes and ornamentation. Downstairs, David could tell us all the history behind the troop movements shown in the photos and knew the stories behind the battles whose names were etched around the tops of the arches. Fun.
Back on the ground, we strolled down the Champs Elysées, stopping off at the Lido to make reservations for the dinner show Wednesday night and applying the 100-yard rule partway along to find another great lunch (hot goat-cheese salads, niçoise salads, and (for Michael) frankfurters (strongly flavored with nutmeg, like bratwurst) and fries with hot mustard.
When our feet got tired and time got short, we hopped the subway the rest of the way down to the Louvre (we'd bought one-day museum passes at the Arc, so we waltzed right by the ticket line). We stuck together as far as the Mona Lisa, then scattered to pursue our separate interests. I bailed out of paintings and marble to visit the "objets d'art" in the Denon wing: gorgeous little bottles, cups, jars, animals, snuff boxes, spoons, etc. carved out of and/or encrusted with crystal, precious and/or semiprecious stones, gold, silver, ivory, and wood; hand-made furniture; silver dishes, cups, and flatware recovered from Pompei; the jewelry of Empresses Eugenie and Josephine; famous large diamonds; ancient armor and weaponry; the private apartments and furnishings of Napoleon III; and of course the building itself (including the "Grand Gallery of Apollo") which was carved, painted, gilded, frescoed, parquet-ed, and otherwise embellished. Wonderful.
Back at our preagreed rendezvous under the giant glass pyramid, we strolled out for a little light refreshment at a nearby sidewalk cafe (the rain came and went while we were in the Louvre) before taking the subway back to the hotel. Dinner was at La Méditerannée, in the Place de l'Odéon. I had the fish soup (with cheese, rouille, and croutons), then the smoked haddock poached with marrow atop mushrooms and sautéed potatoes; David started with [I forget; I'll have to ask him], then had filets of rouget (little red mullet). For dessert, I had coffee ice cream, raspberry sorbet, and lemon sorbet, and David passed. Michael was especially pleased with his white chocolate mousse with passion-fruit sauce, and Rachel raved about her chocolate crisps layered with coffee ice cream.
Today, we're invited to Sunday dinner at the home of Michael's French second cousin Albert, who lives in the old Jewish quarter in the 4th arrondissement. Should be fun!
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