<This is Part Three of the Punjabi in Paris series. Read the first two, too! Part 1 and Part 2 may be found, you guessed it right, congratulations!, by clicking on the words Part 1 and Part 2. Not these ones, the ones earlier in the sentence, the ones that are in blue, the cursor becomes a hand when you place your mouse over them..>
As the Boeing took to the skies above Toronto, I was struck by the thought that here we were heading to our first ever trip to a non-English speaking land. Yes, I do realize some of my readers will know that I have been to Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean. This however, is different. This is no all-inclusive resort holiday, surrounded by efficient staff trained in the ways of the non-Spanish. We’d have to rely on our own knowledge of French.
Total amount of French learned by the three travelers? Mom: 3 months at Alliance Francaise in Kolkata back in the ’70’s, sometime in the last century. Dad: Ditto in 1997. Boo: Grades 1 through 10. Collective French skills on a scale from 0 – 10. Spoken: 0 Written: 0. Reading: Mom – 1, Boo – 1, Dad – 1.5 relying heavily on his childhood interest in words and their roots.
Nevertheless, we all had the Mediterranean chicken and rice and prepared to nap. I am no longer allowed to sleep in public places for fear of breaking glass with subsonic sound waves, so I plugged in the headphones and watched “Shuddh Desi Romance”. A complete and unbiased review will follow in a later post, or never, whichever comes first.
The flight from YYZ to CDG is a shade over 7 hours. If you take away the hour they spend getting up to lets-give-the-buggers-their-freebies height, the hour to watch us eat, the half hour to clear up, the 45 minutes for breakfast and 15 minutes cleaning up coupled with the last one hour of straining to hear the change in engine note that defines the first sign of descent into the “Paris area”, you really have 3 hours to nap / sleep / shift uncomfortably / watch a movie and waste some time looking for something else to watch.
So Lesson 1, kids: do not take an evening flight out east. It is what is called a “red-eye” and for a good reason. More on that in a bit.
The approach to Le Aeroport named after Charles De Gaulle is unlike any I’ve seen in major cities. There is no urban or sub-urban development that you see on your way in. All you see is just fields; green, mottled with the occasional brown, darker shades of clumped green showing woods. Then, finally the customary highway just before the perimeter fence, the end of the runway, the zebra crossing and we are down on one wheel, a small bounce, a brake, the second wheel comes down and then finally we’re pointing down the runway and the nose comes gently down. A slightly acrobatic landing to end the long haul across the Atlantic.
We’re in France. My first thought? “I’d rather be in England”, suppressed quickly by the excitement of the moment. The long walk through the terminal took us to the customs hall where we decided to take a leak. Not in the hall, of course! We took turns to guard the carry-ons while the others visited the conveniently located washrooms, restrooms if American (I wonder why?), toilets or bathrooms, if Indian ( I wonder why? I mean bathrooms? Bath? ). Toronto airport – take heed!
Boo and I waited and waited for the good lady to appear. She did rolling her eyes. Long lines! Then we were through customs and to baggage claim, where the peeing and customing had taken so long that our suitcases were the one of the very few still on the forlornly moving conveyor. Loading up the baggage cart, we headed out to the sign marked “SORTIE”.
Once outside baggage claim and the restricted areas we decided that we would buy our museum passes and transit tickets before heading out to the taxi. After two different “Information Desks” had pointed us to different gates for taxis, we finally found the desk where we bought:
3 x 4-day museum passes. This would allow us access to the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chappelle, Versailles and other such attractions
1 x 10-pack of carnets, the mag-strip tickets that you can use on the subway and buses.
City maps showing streets and subway maps.
Then off to the taxi-stand and our first whiff of the French air. (More on that later, I promise.) The next 45 minutes were spent marveling at the driver’s skill in avoiding the motorcyclists weaving in and out of traffic on the highway. Actually, I lie. After the first 15 minutes, I shed my NorthAmericannness and was home in India. The hotel lobby was small, comprising of the front desk and a sofa. The lady behind the counter started with “Bon Jour” and then broke into perfect English.
Yes, I have your reservation. No, it’s only 9:30 am. Your room will not be ready before 2pm. I may have it by 12 noon, if you’re lucky. Why don’t you dump your bags here and go away for a few hours.
I, as always on holiday, was ready to sit down and have some breakfast. My Beloved Bangalan looked at me as if to say “Air France fed you breakfast on the flight, barely 2 hours ago. What are you? A human tapeworm?” Coffee, though, we decided, was definitely needed. And so we walked forth, straw hat on head, camera in hand, the perfect tourist standouts (did we mention we are brown?) on our first ever walk in this residential 14th Arrondisement of Paris.
On 2nd May, 1941, in the heat and dust of Africa, the leader of the Free French Forces who had just taken Koufra made his troops swear this oath , “Jurez de ne déposer les armes que lorsque nos couleurs, nos belles couleurs, flotteront sur la cathédrale de Strasbourg.” You shall not lay down arms, until the day when our colours, our beautiful colours, flutter over the Strasbourg Cathedral. That general, born Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, changed his name to Phillipe Leclerc and as General Leclerc, led the liberation of Paris, the main thrust of his forces coming up this very street on that fateful day in August 1944 from Porte D’Orleans, just 10 minutes walk southwest from our hotel. It’s no wonder they named the street after him.
The first cafe was barely 2 minutes away, at the corner of Rue Daguerre and Ave du General Leclerc. We walked down Rue Daguerre right into a street market. Fresh fish, sea food, butchers, sausage and cold meats were interspersed with cafes and restaurants. Oh look a Boulangerie! No point gaping, we learned soon enough. They are as ubiquitous as paan shops in India, as are the cafes, with the chairs outside all lined up facing the street, tiny tables scattered among them. All have people sitting, drinking caffe, a croissant or just sitting there smoking.
15 minutes of walking was more than enough for me. If I’d had a table in front of me I would have thumped it and cried “Coffee! For gods sake, get me some coffee!”. So we walked over to the Cafe Daguerre and sat down, wondering if we had collective French enough to order coffee and light refreshments. We discovered we knew enough to say “Bon Jour”. “Une Cafe olay”, “une cafe no-ar”, making sure we held up the right number of fingers.
Lesson 2: ‘Tis enough. ’twill serve. (They all speak fairly good English)
I ordered a Serrano Jambon and Emmental Sandwich and cafe noir. Boo had the same with a Heineken! The sandwich was a whole baguette, the best damn ham and cheese I’ve had in a long time. And the coffee? Aaahh!! Fantastic. I haven’t had coffee like that anywhere else. Wonderful. We sat there, killing time. When we looked at our watch next though, it said 11am.
Of course, milady had a solution. We would walk down to the Jardin du Luxembourg. According to the guidebooks and maps it was but a 10-15 minute walk away. We started walking commenting on the architectural detail on every building, the parked cars, the inexplicable lineup in the middle of nowhere.
An hour later, we finally came upon the Jardin du Luxembourg.
This is where the 2nd French Armoured Division of General Leclerc fought off strong resistance from the Germans armed with anti-tank 88s. Here we sat on chairs that lay scattered around wondering what the fuss was about, tired from lack of sleep, walking for what seemed like hours and exhausted with the thought that we still had 2 hours to kill, one of which would be spent walking back to the hotel. The garden looked pretty ordinary and we sat near some tennis courts watching a couple of young boys, 13-14 year old, playing some pretty good tennis. The served well, ran around picking up returns and were a bit of a treat to watch.
I said, “Well, the famed Jardin Du Luxembourg doesn’t seem to be much”.
She said, “Yeah! Hmm, well we should head back that way, since that’s the general direction of the hotel”.
So we walked on and about two minutes later, there it was. A fountain, broad avenues spreading from it and a massive array of tall hedges. So this is the real Jardin! Ok! So it is pretty impressive. Those hedges! Hoohah!
So we came out of the garden, spent 10-15 minutes debating the relative skills of Dad’s map reading and Mom’s “sense of direction”. Dad prevailed and 20 minutes later we were at the hotel. (Dad was much relieved!)
Now it’s time to find some eau distillee, or distilled water. I need that for the nose machine I use to sleep. Look, that Monoprix seems like a grocery store. Hmm, lots and lots of drinking water, both sparkling and still, but no distilled water. The pharmacy across the street was mystified at my asking for “oh?” “Oh disteelay?” Directed back to Monoprix. Headed over the cash counter to ask the cashier. Confusion. A customer chimes in “Water? eau?” and mimed ironing clothes. Light dawned on the cashier and I at the same time. “Oui, oui”, I said. I was pointed to towards the household cleaners and there among the bottles was distilled water for ironing clothes. There was no point in trying to explain that I wasn’t a professional ironer of clothes.
Back to the hotel across the street. The room is ready, huzzah. The elevator is designed and has a capacity for a pair of slim lovers only, so bags are taken up one at a time. 10 minutes later we’re all sidling around inside the two rooms. The triple room.
15 minutes later we were all asleep, fully dressed.
Four hours later, refreshed and groggy, I was ready for some dinner. Still dressed in the clothes we’d flown in, we headed to the Cafe du Rendezvous, right next to the Cafe Daguerre. Boo was convinced by the server to try salmon tartare, which he is probably not going to order again. My Beloved Bangalan had a pasta of some kind and I had a steak with pepper sauce. It wasn’t bad, but I made a mental note to leave behind steak as a dinner option.
Finally, around 11pm, we were asleep in Paris. Our first night in Paris. Parisians slept too, oblivious to the fact that tomorrow would bring into their lovely city three strange strangers.
Would Paris ever be the same again?