Thursday, April 11, 2019

Back across the pond

We spent our last night in Paris over dinner at Gemini, one of the restaurants we’ve visited on every trip here. Such a nice place, and some of the best Italian food we’ve ever had. For some reason, we seem to eat a lot of Italian in France, though on this trip we did honor the local cuisine twice, at the Gascon restaurant with duck and that great classic French neighborhood brasserie with Ruth. We had the greatest waitress at Gemini, from Italy and fluent in 4 languages.
Having had such a great experience with the ride service coming into Paris, I used them again on the way out. Once again, the driver was great – on time, willing to chat in Franglish and in every way a classic Gallic character. Damien by name.
He was using Waze to plot the best way to Charles de Gaulle Airport, and frankly I’m not sure the app was up to the challenge this morning. It routed us up the Champs, where we could see first hand the damage from the ongoing Gilets Jaunes protests. Broken windows, boarded up stores. On our walk back from La Tour yesterday we saw the same on a few storefronts, including one with a sign that said, “You can thank them for doing this to us.” Interestingly, every single Parisian we talked to said they started out supporting their message but now they were sick of the violence and destruction. “Bad for tourism, bad for business, bad for us personally” was a common refrain.
We eventually reached the traffic circle under the Arc de Triomphe and the traffic was amazing. Our driver wanted to exit onto Avenue Foch, which was at the 2 o’clock position (we having come in at the 6 o’clock position.) Problem was, there were two buses that had had a fender-bender, and they were in the process of taking photos of each other. When they finally started to move, Damien angled the car against the traffic and managed to sneak through between the buses. Had a dump truck not just complete the same maneuver, I would have doubted it could be done. But he made it, and Avenue Foch was gratefully empty. The traffic was heavy again on the peripherique, but it thinned out as we got further from town. Damien told us, “45 minutes out, 2 hours back.” We made it with time to spare and had a nice second breakfast in the lounge and boarded and departed on time.
While taxiing out to the runway, I had a nice view of the original Air France SST, now sitting on pylons just beyond the terminals. Aside from the futuristic design, I am always amazed by how small it is, particularly compared to the 777s and 787s sitting at the gates. So far ahead of its time.
Nothing interesting to report about the flight except that the 787 has auto-dimming windows which denied me my departure photos. I always try to get a shot of whatever coastline we cross as we head out to sea, but with the windows set to “Deepest Blue” it’s difficult. I did get a shady one leaving France and another leaving Ireland. Britain was too socked in to see anything.
We used Mobile Passport to get back into the country, and as always, we beat everyone including the Global Entry bunch. It’s a great app - you pre-load your passport information, answer the Customs questions and submit it as soon as you have a signal after landing. Then, you get a QR code that you show a dedicated agent and you’re on your way.
The TSA treatment you get in the US really makes you appreciate how it’s handled abroad. After the highly automated system in Portugal, and the quite intense but quite fast check in Paris, our system just seems so rinky-dink. Half the time it seems like your throwing your stuff up on a folding table that’s been sitting there since 2002.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The rain quit, we went to the Tower, because you must go to the Tower.

The weather gave us a short reprieve in the later part of the afternoon so we decided to make the long walk to La Tour, because you cannot visit Paris without a visit to La Tour.
It hasn’t changed much, but the security sure has – the entire base is now surrounded by 10’ high clear glass panels in concentric rings. You can enter the garden (surrounded by 10’ high steel fencing) by passing through an airport-style bag check. To get under the Tower itself, you must go through another airport-style bag check, and you must have tickets.
We walked around it, because all I really wanted was a couple of photos and some churros. Well guess what, in all the confusion, the churro guy was gone. Instead, there is now a tidy food-related pop-up village of little white tents serving up what smelled like the most amazing food in the world. African, Mid-eastern, Caribbean, French, you name it and they had it. Giant piles of sausages cooking on grills. Huge paella pans filled with simmering stews. World music blaring. It was glorious, and a great place to find on our last day here. Best of all, the churro stand was right there in the middle. I ordered a “petit” and he cooked them right there in front of me. A dusting of powdered sugar and 5€ later we were on our way, happiness in hand in a paper cone.
The weather was suggesting that it wasn’t quite done with us, so we turned towards home and into a stiff headwind. The sky was getting grayer and more threatening. We crossed the Seine on the Passerelle Debilly footbridge, now adorned with lover’s locks, and walked past the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, not to be confused with the national modern art museum which is located at the Centre Pompidou. Interesting building - it’s part of the Palais de Tokyo whose other half is dedicated to temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.
Further along, we passed what many people believe is a monument to Princess Diana who was killed in a car crash in the tunnel below. In reality, it’s a monument to Franco-American friendship offered by the International Herald Tribune in 1989 on the 100th anniversary of their publication of an English-language daily in Paris. Called “Flame of Liberty,” it’s an exact replica of the flame on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Since her death, visitors have officially co-opted it for as a memorial, and it’s suggested that almost no one who visits it today knows its real purpose. In fact, the cab driver who ripped us off in 2014 on our first visit told us it was for Diana. The mystery isn’t helped by the fact that the plaques explaining it are missing and the carved names on the base of those who supported it, are unreadable.
From there, not much else to report other than maybe it started raining, but we weren’t convinced as it was so slight as to be unnoticeable. So – off to a final dinner and finish packing. Homeward bound tomorrow morning.


The rain finally caught up with us.

I did a lot of research about umbrellas before we left for this trip. My experience with them has been very bad – blown out, broken ribs, torn fabric. The last time I needed one was during a downpour here in Paris several years ago, at the end of which my shoes and jacket – both waterproofed – were soaked through. I didn’t want to do that again.
I finally ended up with a nice one from Davek, lifetime guarantee and a 50% reduced price replacement if anything happens to it. Including being lost. Having made a great decision, off we went.
The single most effective insurance policy against bad weather is to spend a lot of money on a great umbrella. We never had a single cloudy day in Sevilla or Madrid  and never needed it once.
Unpacking in Lisboa though, I noticed that I didn’t seem to be in procession of the fancy umbrella. I checked inside the suitcases; I checked the zip panels on both. It was gone. I had packed and repacked in the spare bedroom in Madrid and somehow it had not made it into the final rearrangement. At that point, my highly effective insurance policy began to fail.
It started one night with mild but consistent sprinkles one evening when looking for restaurant. Then a threatening day. The morning we left Lisboa the weather changed completely and I think it’s still raining there today. But Paris came through and we had two beautiful days followed by a cloudy but no precipitation day. My luck was holding. Monday evening, a black sky that cleared before going out to dinner. Yesterday, cloudy here on the Left Bank, misting in Saint-Denis but broken clouds by the time we met Ruth later in the afternoon for a glass at a truly exception wine bar. By dinner time it was cloudy again, but not threatening.
This morning – our luck ran out. Pouring rain from some early hour. So, with one umbrella only we’re stuck inside until (hopefully) it clears up a bit. I did go out in the downpour to find the New York Times but discovered it unavailable. I asked both vendors what the problem was, and the answer resided somewhere in a lot of French words that I didn’t understand. Oh well.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about Mosquitos. We have never had an apartment with screens - it appears that no window in a classic building in Europe has them. We’ve only had a problem once with mosquitos, and that was in Sevilla long ago. Every other place, we sleep with the windows open unmolested. Until this place.
They began maybe two nights ago, that tell-tale buzzing in your ear when you’re half asleep. Then maybe you get lucky and crush one just as it’s starting to dine, only to fall back to sleep and begin the cycle again. We asked our friend Ruth and she told us bugs are not a problem here, she’s never had one her apartment. In fact, even in the heat of summer, it cools off at night and people throw open their windows to allow the pleasant air to chill their apartment.
Yea, well, no one in this apartment is throwing open the windows on any night unless they are happy to be a blood bank.
For now we’re sitting and watching for any glimpse of blue in hope that we can walk to La Tour and get a churro.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis

Yesterday ended with a threatening gray sky, and it was still there this morning when we woke up. Having no idea what we wanted to do today, we hashed around a couple of ideas over coffee and finally decided to take the long Metro ride up to the north of the city and pay our respects to the Kings and Queens of France, peacefully interred in the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis.
MLW finished Ina Caro’s book “Paris to the Past” while we were in Portugal. The book is an interesting account of how she created a long list of sites of historical significance, all within a reasonable day trip from Paris via the rail system. Some merely Metro, others requiring the RER or (as in the case of our Chantilly excursion) one of the Grand Lignes. I really like her style - it’s what I like to do when writing these blogs. A lot of history, a little bit of personal spin. And so today’s trip was one of hers.
I have a great app on my phone that allows me to plot the best Metro route. A couple of options were offered for Saint-Denis, but the one involving the least number of stairs in the bowels of the subway meant walking in the same direction that led to our hospital adventure last Saturday. But first a diversion to the news kiosk for the paper.
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker wrote a not very interesting book about living in Paris some years back. Neither of us liked it, but I took away one thought – a simple “Bonjour” greases the skids in just about every interaction. He relates the story of a bus driver who mumbled “Mal elevé” every time he got on the bus. A self-explanatory insult, “poorly raised.” When he dug in with local friends, they told him to just say “good morning.” And lo, his interactions improved instantly.
I did not know this on previous trips, and my interactions with the news sellers was always a bit cold and a bit perfunctory. So this time I’ve been starting every visit with “Bonjour” and amazingly, I am now best retail friends with both of the kiosk guys. These little things are never taught in language class and never covered on Trip Advisor – you either pick them up in a book written by someone who lived here long enough to scratch the surface, or you learn them the hard way.
Of course we had a bit of problem finding the Saint Françis-Xavier station because it was only marked by two giant red Metro signs. While clear, they are not the easiest thing to see in a confused and busy square. And in general, there is an absence of other signs pointing in their direction. But we finally found it, went down and got on the train.
Most of our time here, on this and every other trip, has been spent in “monumental Paris,” the refined, tourist-centered parts of town. Our furthest journeys into the areas away from here have been the long rides to Canal Saint-Martin and Père Lachaise. Driving to the airport also requires passing through the grimy banlieues but you’re in a car so it’s hardly an authentic experience. Exiting the station at Saint-Denis was a whole new experience for us – working class, every day, lots of real Parisians. Not scary, just different. It’s a rundown district and it shows. But the church was easy to find and we were there in a couple of minutes of walking in the rain – our first genuine wet weather in these three weeks.
Built on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman cemetery, and the tomb of the patron saint of Paris, Saint-Denis, work began on it in the 5th century. Saint-Denis had an interesting martyrdom - beaten, thrown to the lions, crucified and then beheaded, he wouldn’t give up. He picked up his head, carried it to this spot and finally died.
The core of the basilica was built here in 775, to house the relics of Saint-Denis and other martyrs. In the 8th century it became one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in medieval Europe. Beginning around 1100, the extremely intelligent and forward-thinking Abbot Suger began to transform it into a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that it is today. Fighting hard against the religious asceticism then in fashion, he sought to build an edifice that would awe the parishioners, royal and common alike. His greatest accomplishment was the “rose window,” the first truly stained-glass window to decorate a church. Prior to this, colored windows had been merely pieces of painted glass. Suger imported artisans who had the skill to introduce various oxides in glass while still molten to create the various colors, and then to build windows out that material.  Dedicated in 1144 by King Henry VII and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Suger’s work forever changed the nature of cathedrals. The attending Bishops went back to their Sees and rebuilt the lot.
Due to Suger’s incredible work, the church became the necropolis for the Kings and Queens of France. Eternally resting there today are 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 royal children and 10 great men of France. King Dagobert (to 637) was the first, and with only 3 exceptions, all the other kings remains are represented. Their eternal sleep though was not without interruption- during the Revolution mobs broke into the crypts, removed all the remains and threw them into a lime pit. Following the restoration of the monarchy in the 19th century, those bones that could be found were gathered and re-buried.
Quite an amazing church, magnificent but not gaudy, crowned all the way around by magnificent stained-glass windows. Rows of chairs fill the nave as the church is still used today by Parisians for regular services. On the right side of the nave are small chapels, filled with dozens of life-sized carvings of the kings and queens whose tombs they cover. There are so many that eventually they all blend into one giant short-term memory. Small placards describe who is entombed where.
At the back, under the apse is the crypt, home to many more tombs, most not represented by a supine figure but rather an elaborate altar on a wall, or just a simple plaque. This is the most ancient level of the church, held up by short, elaborately carved pillars.
The tombs on the left side are both more modern (and fancier) and more ancient (less fancy.) Here is where you find the resting place of the 7th-12th century kings, alongside a monumental tomb from the 16th century for Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne (15th century) are for some reason shown dead, naked and flayed in the tomb but alive and praying on top.
Leaving, we stopped to admire the glasswork one last time and to take a long view front to back of this magnificent monument to the royalty of France.
We came out to a mix of rain and sun and found our way back to the Metro, passing a temporary carousal which provided an interesting contrast to the front of the church. A truly interesting way to spend the morning.

As always, but spend some time enjoying the incredible detail.