Last Night in Paris

I’ve been putting off writing this last blog about our trip, partly because it seems a little unfair to reflect on what was a lovely end to our summer travels given the recent news about Ramatou, and partly because I’m hesitant to give up this last tangible link with being on the road. But here goes…

We left Cahors early the morning of the August 17th, taking “forced luxury” (as Rick Steves calls it) in the form of first-class seats to Paris. Because of some strange promotion SNCF had going on for the summer, these tickets were considerably cheaper than 2nd class tickets on this particular day and route. Otherwise, I’d never advise springing for the upgrade. It’s kind of like flying first class domestic in the States – the seats are only marginally wider, the bump in service from paltry to disingenuously attentive doesn’t justify the premium, and the people you’re surrounded with are bound to be road-weary frequent fliers and stuffy bluebloods rather than the more interesting rucksackers you’re apt to find in coach.

Hopping on the Paris Metro after getting in early at Gare d’Austerlitz, we unwittingly took the scenic route to our hotel by getting off at the Invalides stop. We’d stayed at the Hotel du Champ de Mars when we had passed through in June and so were quite confident we knew the way. Finding the hotel on foot didn’t give us any trouble, but hoofing it for more than a kilometer under the weight of our port- and cured-meat-laden packs turned out to be unnecessary.

Anne-Claire’s friend Julie from Marseilles met us that afternoon for dinner. “You’re joking, right?” she said, when I told her, yeah, the hotel was nice, but wasn’t well located for catching the Metro. “It’s just right around the corner.”

A lot of times people will say something’s right around the corner, when in fact something’s considerably farther away. Even with Julie’s excellent colloquial English, I didn’t believe her…until we walked right around the corner to the École Militaire station.

We have few excuses for this flub up. It wasn’t a language barrier or a lack of travel experience. It was just the arrogance to think that we didn’t need to check the map of a Metro system we both thought we knew well, or to not ask the hotel clerk the best way to get around, or to not just simply be a bit more aware as we were walking around. Oh well, I suppose there are worse places to take a long stroll through than the 7th arrondissement around the Eiffel Tower.

We met Sophie at her office to pick up a few of our things she’d been kind enough to hold for us while we’d traveled through Spain, Morocco and West Africa. Strangely enough, the very next morning Sophie and her boyfriend flew to California for vacation, and they’d end up staying with us in Pacific Grove not a week later.

After a quick “see you soon” to Sophie, we set out in search of a drink. Paris has automated kiosks all over the city crammed full of bicycles for rent. It’s not a terribly new system, but it’s light years ahead of similar programs that have taken off at places like Washington, D.C., and New York in the past year or so. As long as you’re a member (which Julie is), you swipe your credit card, pop the bike of the rack and start pedaling the big city. There are rules about how much you’re charged for the duration of the rental. The system’s optimized for short trips, like the one we were taking to get from the business-y 8th arrondissement back to our hotel, which ended up costing us about a euro each.

Biking through some of the busiest parts of the city was a whirlwind adventure. Yes, there are bike lanes (which you often have to share with buses), and in my two very short pedal-powered trips in Europe, I do think drivers are generally more aware of cyclists. However, I haven’t quite figured out how that dovetails with Europeans’ hell-bent need to get to where they’re going as fast as possible. Relaxed – bordering on lackadaisical in certain situations – Europeans, and the French in particular, never seem in a hurry when not confined in the cabin of a vehicle. But stick them behind the wheel of an automobile, and no amount of swerving, hedging traffic lights and breaking the occasional traffic code is too much if it shortens the journey. Maybe they’re just jonesing to get back to all that good living. Perhaps that’s another vestige of their culture they’ve left behind in West Africa.

Regardless, just because I had the impression that I’d been noticed (often not the case here in the States) didn’t mean I felt safe. We barreled through oceanic intersections with starfish-like (the sunflower type, not the classic 5-legged variety) patterns of streets coming in from all directions, only to come up on Place de la Concorde. The mammoth, oval-shaped roundabout swallows streams of cars, all eager to reach another of the oval’s access points (again, as quickly as possible) and get on their way. Unfortunately, none of the drivers seemed to have seen this oh-so-helpful video from my hometown on how to properly and safely navigate this traffic feature. The half-hearted attempts at lane lines appeared to be mere suggestions, and the traffic lights, presumably protecting gawking tourists brave enough to cross a dozen lanes of traffic, seemed to be more starting gates than safety devices.

Taking the second turn onto the Champs Elysées, we somehow ended up in the middle riding along the center divider. After a hair-raising left turn on a just-turned-red light toward the Seine – and a brief *chat* with a few police officers who mistook Anne-Claire and Julie for monolingual tourists but were quickly assuaged with a little eyelash batting – we crossed the Pont Alexandre III and were soon clicking our bikes back into the rack just off Rue Cler before having (at least for me) a much-needed drink.

The end of any journey is always a bit sad.

Staying true to form, Julie, Anne-Claire and I headed for a known entity, reprising the meals we’d had in June at Vins et Terroir in the Latin Quarter. Some of Julie’s friends met us for the evening, and mercifully, one couple had traveled and worked quite a bit in Australia (where they met Julie), so they spoke excellent English. Apart from not having the steak tartare we’d enjoyed so much in June and that Anne-Claire had been dreaming of on our long hikes and bush taxi rides through Africa, dinner was superb and the conversation excellent.

We held down the table for more than three hours, unfortunately outlasting the gelato shop down the street that locks its doors at 11 pm. Julie and her friends were bent on making a night of it, inviting us to have a drink somewhere else, but we opted to stroll Paris’s streets one more time before leaving the continent the next morning.

Like so many visitors, the pull of Notre Dame is a force too strong to shake when we’re the grand cathedral’s neighborhood, so for perhaps the fourth time in as many days in Paris (including June), we crossed the Seine and set off toward the twin Gothic towers. Of course, the square out front was packed, on this evening gathered around a fire dancer. Transfixed by the light show, it occurred to me that, five hundred years ago, a crowd might have enjoyed a strikingly similar show in Renaissance-tinged Paris, or that in another five hundred years, a similar scene would perhaps unfold right where we stood.

The Paris Opera House

We wandered back up the Seine toward those icons of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Through the Tuileries Garden, across Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysées we walked, until finally, exhausted, we caught a quick Metro ride back to our hotel. And this time we didn’t take the scenic route.

Thanks so much for joining us on our summer trip. It’s been great to hear from everyone who’s been reading. Keep an eye out for weekly updates, as I’ve got a few stories I hope to go into more depth on. I have a few ideas beyond just a summer jaunt to keep this blog going, so I hope you’ll continue to read and let me know what you think.