PARIS: THE PENULTIMATE PLEASURE

November 17-18, 2001

Last weekend we enjoyed our penultimate European fling: a weekend in Paris. We boarded the TGV ("Train Grande Vitesse", or "damn fast train" to us Americans) in Lausanne at 9:14 on Saturday morning. By lunchtime -- well, late lunchtime, anyway -- we were in Paris.

We immediately headed down to the St. Germain-des-Près area. Hint to travellers: if your idea of New York is Fifth Avenue, you probably want to stick to the Champs-Elysees, but if you're more of a Greenwich village type, then St. Germain is for you. (Central Park is called the Bois de Boulogne, about which more later.) Our hotel was a charming little three-star that called itself, with uniquely Parisian modesty, the "Grand Hotel of the Universe." Or I may be mistranslating -- it may have been the "Big Hotel of the Universe." That doesn't have quite the same ring, though, so I'll stick with my first translation.

Having deposited our luggage in our petite, puzzlingly pink room (see footnote), we went out to lunch. Like any reasonable travelers who suddenly find themselves in the capitol city of French culture and cuisine, we went across the alley to the local Chinese restaurant.

Well, it seemed to make sense at the time.

Due to bad planning, I was not feeling very well that afternoon, so I sent Dave out to take pictures while I relaxed and consumed copious liquids in our room. This was effective enough that by dinner time I was ready to venture out again.

We headed over to the Eiffel Tower, hoping to find a restaurant with a view. (Second hint to travelers: if you want a window seat in the hideously expensive Jules Verne restaurant on the tower, make your reservations around the time you book your hotel, or sooner.) We had nearly given up on this project when we found a restaurant in the Palais de Chaillot, a historic building and museum complex across the Seine from the tower. The plate glass windows of the restaurant afford what must be one of the most spectacular Eiffel Tower views in Paris; the only catch was that the available tables were arranged in such a way that at most one of us could see it at a time. Ever resourceful, though, we quickly reached a compromise: Dave had the view during the appetizer and main course, while I had it for dessert and coffee.

To those of you who know me well enough to raise your eyebrows at that last: you're right, I still don't drink coffee. I asked for cold milk with my dessert, which caused the waitress to widen her eyes and laugh incredulously. This from a woman who then proceeded to serve my my warm chocolate cake in a glass. I don't mean stemware, either -- it was an ordinary five-inch-tall drinking glass, the kind we all drank Kool-Aid from as kids. Go figure.

The food -- including the glass of cake -- was as good as the view.

Speaking of incredulity, we got much the same reaction at the Musée D'Orsay the next morning, just because we turned up with roller blades. This baffled me. I mean, it's not as though we actually tried to wear them into the museum. Considering that the road along the Seine is reserved for skaters, bicyclists and pedestrians on Sunday mornings, I wouldn't have thought we'd be the first museum-goers ever to turn up with skates in hand -- but apparently we're more original-minded (or is that barbaric?) than we thought. Fortunately, after a certain amount of laughter and kidding, we were allowed to check our skates at the cloakroom and proceed into the museum.

As a building, the Musée D'Orsay looks like Grand Central Station must have during its heyday. As a museum, it hosts an impressive collection of famous and not-so-famous works by some of the most famous painters of the nineteenth century. Whoops, was that "Whistler's Mother"? ( Yup.) Who knew that Renoir had painted a portrait of Monet? (Not I.) Did the subject of that painting by Toulouse-Lautrec actually see it after it was done? (How did T-L die, anyway?)

One painting that particularly impressed me was a large oil by Renoir, depicting a crowded park or outdoor cafe. The painting must have taken weeks if not months to paint, yet every figure is natural and detailed. Did he sketch various individuals in that location over a period of time? Paint from imagination? Have an incredibly detailed photographic memory? Enquiring minds want to know.

Eventually, our cultural appetites sated, we reclaimed our skates and took the metro over to the Bois de Boulogne. Our plan had been to spend a few hours exploring it, but we were defeated by a combination of skate-unfriendliness -- all of the paths we found were either car-infested roads or dirt tracks -- and short time. Luckily there were enough sidewalks to let us travel between one metro station and the next, but we didn't get to see much of the park proper. (One memorable exception was the Hippodrome, which we passed while a race was being held. As we were quite close to the outside fence, we got a closer view of the horses than most of the spectators in the stands did.)

The true adventure of the day came in the late afternoon, though, as we realized that we still had to get to our hotel, pick up our luggage, and take two metros to reach our train -- all in just over half an hour. At stake was not only our return to Lausanne that night, but also the first-class upgrades we had purchased in order to avoid the smoking section. Anyone who thinks the TGV is fast should have seen us barrelling through the station, leaving smoking skid marks behind our suitcase wheels and blowing pedestrians over with the wind of our passing.

Well, not quite, but it felt close. We made the train with five minutes to spare.







Footnote: The room was also padded; the "wallpaper" was fabric with some kind of batting behind it. However, there are limits to the amount of alliteration I can perpetrate with a straight face. (back)

Copyright 2001 Lyn Pierce