Friday, August 7, 2009

Europe Vacation 2: Paris

We arrived in Paris on Aug 2nd evening 4 PM. I did not factor in the local time of Paris being an hour ahead of UK so we had to scramble at Gare du Nord to get out. Du Nord was very much like central station, Madras. As an Indian who has lived in US for 11 years my prism of reference was a juxtaposed frame including India (to lesser extent) and US (mostly). The vehicle trolleys were interlocked and required 2 euros to unlock. No credit card facility unlike US. A kind woman seeing us with a child lent 2 euros. I paid her $5, more than what was the rate but we needed the coins.

Trying to get a cab was more chaotic for 5 passengers. We finally decided to split up. Two cabbies, ours a woman, drove us to Marriott at St.Denis, just outside Paris city. The route was just ugly, imagine Renganathan Street, Madras and multiply it 100 times, take away even the little cleanliness on R.Street. It was Paris' seedy underbelly. The French disdain for Hollywood is well known but Hollywood reigns. I saw many a poster for movies. We checked into the hotel, freshened up and hired a cab for Eiffel tower. Being the first day I was not comfy with trains.

Seeing Eiffel tower was anti-climactic for my dad, Preeth felt elated. The area around Eiffel tower had souvenir vendors hawking ugly cheap replicas of Eiffel tower "3 for one Euro". Most vendors were Blacks, mostly from Morocco. France's colonisation of Northern Africa is a much bloody one. Even today France's colonial interests hold sway in Africa (that is why American's foam at their mouth when France lectures US). The hawkers were frequently chased by the cops, all white cops. Every now and then tens of these Afro-American hawkers would run helter skelter across the esplanade near the tower, the white cops would chase them grinning like cheshire cats. One cannot miss the racial element there. France recently had an outburst of racial violence. Unemployment amongst blacks is in double digits. Just last month Sarkozy stirred the hornets nest saying "burqas are not welcome in France". Sikhs had to fight to keep their turbans on. France 'prohibits' showing off the religion in order to be secular. Undoubtedly method like these are self defeating.

We were hungry and went to the nearest restaurant. It was pricey but exquisite. Service was polite. Europe is an extremely difficult place for vegetarians especially those who cannot take salads. Even for non-veggies if they abhor veal/pork/beef the options are minimal. I've heard about Europe restaurants charging for water. Its true. In many places its cheaper to buy wine or for a few cents more you can get wine. English is truly a world language. I've survived with it easily in Paris/Zurich. In fact if your vocabulary is good many words would sound familiar. Credit cards are always swiped at the table.

Having fed ourselves we headed back to the tower. We wanted to go to the top. The queues were prohibitively long. Then we chose to go on a cruise on Seine. It was full moon night as we sailed on Seine listening to "le Paris" sung with an Edith Piaf like renditiion and "oh Champs Elysees". All along the banks of Seine many small parks were there with romantic couples. Nothing untoward though. Just simple love.

On Aug 3rd we started out early and headed to Louvre. When we visited London in 2003 we felt so easy to decipher the subway maps, trace the junctions to find changing trains etc thanks to having lived near NYC and DC. The same was true for Paris. The stations were dilapidated rivalling NYC subways. The trains were clunky metal boxes, the doors had to be manually opened. Louvre has a station right underneath. We took the tickets and headed to the 'toilets' (not restrooms as in US). We had to pay 2 euros for each. It was the most posh toilet I would ever see. The toilet papers were being sold at 9 euros a roll, they were artistic, they even had sudoku puzzles on them. We are ok wih buying charmin toilet rolls from Sam club, 16 rolls for $11, wipes as well these fancy ones.

The agenda was to see Mona Lisa. Everyone cautioned us to head out there as early as possible. So off we went. Da Vinci is a great crowd puller, more so after the blockbuster novel & movie. There are signs everywhere pointing to Mona Lisa. The small picture is housed in a glass encasement embedded in a huge standalone wall. Crowds mill around it. Its funny to see people snapping away with cell phone cameras from 30 feet away at the most famous picture in the world. Not even the best SLR can duplicate the eye and here are these guy using a cell phone, well each person to their own. There are thousands of art works. Da Vinci reigns supreme. Close second is Raphael. A bit of art knowledge would help, knowledge of Christian literature would certainly help. David slaying Goliath, St Michael, Madonna and the child, Stations of the cross are popular themes.

The statues were mostly of Greek gods, Diana the hunter etc. I was surprised to find the statues of all males showing them off in un-circumcised state. Circumcision was an important Judaic ritual. Some art historian might explain. But the hall of statues was no place for a prude. Knowledge of human anatomy owed a lot to these artists.

The famous glass pyramid is loved by many and hated by purists as having spoiled the purity of Louvre. Louvre was constructed as a fortress first. We did not have much notes on how France acquired all these treasures, mostly by Italians. What Shakespeare is to Stratford, Da Vinci is to Louvre. Its amazing how these two personalities stride like colossus.

Given my very compressed schedule this entire trip is more to get a flavor of the cities than to soak in the culture etc. So we skipped Musee De Orsay that houses art from Van Gogh etc. After Louvre we headed out and got onto a hop-on-hop-off. The first stop was Notre Dame church.

The Notre Dame church is immortalised in liturature by Victor Hugo's classic "hunchback of Notre Dame". On screen Anthony Quinn played the repulsive looking hunchback Quasimodo who would rescue Phoebe and shout "sanctuary, sanctuary", the famous gargoyles atop the steeples. Its an imposing work of faith. Thanks to a baby we had to hurry to a restaurant, then came the ticklish issue of finding some restaurant that would serve some palatable veggie stuff for my mom. Culinary taste mismatch in a group during tours can really be a flash point, a lesson learnt from an earlier trip with friends.

The bus tour was interesting from another perspective. Street names were "voltaire", "anatole france", "Montaigne" etc. France honors its literary giants.

The "Place de la Concord" where the guillotine stood during the revolution is chilling. An obelisk stands today and it marks one end of the majestic mile+ long Champs Elysees, with the other end marked by "Arc de triumph". Hearing the commentator say "this was where Marie Antoinette was guillotined" I thought of Edmund Burke's lament "I thought one thousand scabbards must have leapt out of their scabbards to avenge even one look that threatened her with insult, the age of chivalry is dead". Wordsworth sang of the revolution as "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven". Unlike the American revolution, the French revoultion did not establish anything remotely democratic but only bequethed Napoleon, the Son of the revolution. Is it ironical then that Napoleon should construct an "arch of triumph" celebrating his military victories just opposite to where a queen was beheaded. Interestingly one railway line is named Robespierre after the most blood thirsty general of the revolution who himself was guillotined finally.

Champs Elysees is just like Rajpath, Pennsylvania Avenue in DC is a poor cousin of these two in imperiousness. Posh stores, typical parisian bistros, trees line the Elysees. When Paris was occupied in the War Nazis would take flag marches on this street to humiliate the French when finally America and Britain liberated Paris. Hitler's instructions was to burn Paris when his rump army retreated. He would ask "Is Paris burning". His general with the last remaining vestige of humanity in him refused to burn down worlds most beautiful city. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins traced all this in "Is Paris Burning".

The trip to Louvre, Notre Dame visit, scurrying for restaurant, frayed tempers all tired us out and we headed for the hotel to cool down.

In the evening yet again I hunted for Indian restaurant since my mom was practically living on just soup and bread. We found one restaurant close to Notre Dame. Typical food, typical disappointments, typical frustrations. Interestingly the guy who served us was a Tamilian on a student visa. In our quick chat he expressed regret for not knowing Hindi enough. Mu.Kaa had crippled several generations with his linguistic chauvinism. We were seated near a window overlooing a very pictursque street lined with bistros. While I was eating undercooked, over priced, ill served Indian food, right outside my window people were sipping chardonnays on sitting on a rattan chair, tables with clean white linen, nice silver ware, ordering up nice pastas or desserts. Since we wanted to head out to Chateaux Versailles early next day we headed back to hotel after dinner. I was tad disappointed that we did not do little more sight seeing but then family was priority.

THe day I started dreaming up the Paris trip I was insistent on some day tour outside Paris, especially to Versailles. I shall stop for now. Versailles was the next day and I shall write about it and our trip to the top of Eiffel tower tomorrow.

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