After a week of ups and downs, we made it to Paris for a week of logistical legwork.
An overnight flight helped neutralize a close-quarters flight; between the on-demand video system Karen loves so much stuffed under the seat where your feet used to go and some very tight row packing, I was grateful to be only semi-conscious for most of the flight and so only half-aware of the pain in my knees and neck. I'll try to forget that going back will be a longer flight during the day.
In the end, we got to Charles de Gaulle safely and after the ritual of the US Air baggage delay, we were on our way to our hotel. Well, we were on our way to someplace near our hotel, anyway, because we forgot to print out the hotel address, and our cabbie didn't know the area. So we found a local landmark and hoofed it from there.
Sunday in La Defense, the suburb just outside Paris proper where Karen will be working and where we're staying this week, is best described as quiet. Mostly a business park with densely packed, if somewhat whimsical by US standards, corporate highrises, it has a modern glass "arch" with a view in the distance of the Arc de Triomphe. A kind of then-and-now thing, I guess. We encountered a few tourists checking out the main promenade, but until the offices open again tomorrow, it's mostly tumbleweeds.
That meant we ate lunch at our hotel, in the bar, since all of the other eateries were closed for Sunday. This suited me just fine. Counting on a long stint in Paris, I figured I'd have time to ease into a re-acquaintance with my decades-old school French, and we were to take an immersion refresher in January in NY, but it was cancelled due to low enrollment. So I was looking forward to a hotel environment to ease into making an ass of myself with my poor French skills. So it was astonishing that I failed to live up to even those lame goals. Italian and even German words stumbled out, but any French words that actually made sense were a complete accident. Yikes. Lunch was mediocre, but there was good bread, at least.
So when it came time to venture into the city to find dinner, I had to modify my original goal of staying out of tourist areas. Though that's still a goal, I need to bring some language game to do it justice, and watching some speed skating and ski jumping on French-commentary EuroSport after lunch didn't quite bring me up to speed. We got a couple of recommendations from the staff at the hotel and cross-referenced those with other sources and decided to try Chez Andre in the 8th arrondissement of Paris proper.
Now, we've spent a fair bit of time in Italy over the years with our bikes, including living in apartments in small villages and at least briefly integrating ourselves into the mercantile life there. But it didn't take long to realize that Paris is whole different world-- the scale and intensity are completely different from Tuscan hilltop towns. Kind of like moving to NYC from pretty much anywhere in Montana, I would guess. And so while it's obvious that there's a lot on offer, there's also a lot more to do to cope, and that means a lot of things to screw up until you figure them out.
Our first flub was getting cash. We've done this a lot in Italy. Find ATM. Use ATM. Done. But none of the ATMs here would give us cash. Is it a case of over-protective banks at home (we've run into that in the past), or a case of incompatible card technologies (the French vending systems use cards with chips in them). We'll have to work that out. Our second gaffe was getting to dinner by public transit. Paris has an awesome metro system, with a stop just 5 minutes' walk from our hotel. We found an open ticket window and bought week-long transit passes to get us through the week, and at the end of the transaction the sales agent was nice enough (and I mean this-- I think most would not) to tell us that the passes were good Mon (tomorrow)-Sun. Um, that didn't help us tonight. Already holding up the line at the only open window, we went to a machine to buy tonight's tickets, only to learn that it wouldn't take paper money (we hadn't yet conducted a transaction to generate coinage) or plastic, despite its claims to the contrary. So after 10 min of failed reasoning with the machine, we were back at the ticket window for our getting-to-dinner fares. So it goes. We got our train and away we went.
As we rode from suburb to the 8th, each stop was busier than the one before. Emerging from the Franklin D Roosevelt metro station to street level was my first experience in Paris since 1984. Though early on a Sunday evening, the sidewalks were bustling with people, many young. Traffic dropped when we turned off of the Champs Elysees to get to our restaurant, but this is unmistakably a Real city with lots of traffic of every variety-- car, scooter, foot, bicycle. Paris is going to be a really cool place to live. Six months will not have been long enough when it's time to go back home.
Dinner at Chez Andre, which is listed in the restaurant guides as a "bistro," was fine. Nothing special, food-wise, but nothing to complain about. Most of the life-in-Paris books I've read have been written by British men, who have apparently spent their entire lives eating nothing but fish and chips and packaged foods. Philadelphia (and the rest of the east coast city scape) has great fresh food availability and outstanding restaurants, so it'll be interesting to see how eating in Paris feels. I'm expecting the average take-your-chances dining out food quality to be lower than in Italy, where's it's so easy to get simple food of high quality and value, though perhaps with higher highs if our budgets will allow. Our first dinner together featured a lot of mustard (in both green lentil and endive and blue cheese salads), well-prepared meats (beef and duck, both of which were "gamier" than in the US, which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and reasonably priced wine. And a basket of good, crusty bread. No complaints.
The most memorable event of the meal, though, came as we'd nearly finished, when a table of 3 anglophones were seated at the table behind us. They asked for the menus and wine lists, and as the waitress started off to fetch them, one of the patrons added, "Oh, and can you bring us some French bread?"
French bread, in Paris? What will they think of next?