My crazy inclination to get up at 5:00AM on my travel day seems to have paid off. The Air France 747 wasn’t aloft more than two hours into its overnight Atlantic crossing before I was asleep, which is an absolute first for me. Mind you I didn’t sleep long; mostly it was semi-sleep, but that counts for something. Enough to reboot the old noggin. My only regret is that I missed the film they showed, a French film with the theme of unrequited love – something I would like to have seen all of, and not just the last 15 minutes which I caught when I woke up from my doze.
The plane landed only a few minutes late, just before 7:00 AM Paris time, marking just over six hours in the air. So quick. Charles de Gaulle 2 airport is so big that the plane’s taxi from touchdown to the terminal seemed like a long drive to the countryside. By the time I deplaned, got through customs, recovered my bags, and pulled 600 Francs out of an ATM, it was 9:00 AM.
It was cloudy, rainy, and cool – about 12° C. I found my way to the RER station for the train to centre-ville, and painlessly figured out how to get a ticket and where the platform was. This is a commuter train, so by the time we were half way to centre-ville the train was jammed. The Paris suburbs are strange places as seen from a train window. Some are like generic French villages from yellowing postcards, while others seem like wastelands of 1970’s-era Jane/Finch high rises. All around are vast rail yards.
The rain fell harder and there was much lightning, such that the thunder made my fellow commuters jump. I got off the train at the Port Royal RER stop at the bottom of the 5th arrondissement. That’s when I realized I had forgotten to pack the final version of my “Paris data sheet,” so I didn’t have the address of the hotel I had booked. Fortunately, I had my astounding sense of direction and the memory of seeing its location on a crude map a few weeks ago. And I knew the name; Hotel Port Royal, on Boulevard de Port Royal, a street that begins where I surfaced from the RER station at the bottom of the Jardin du Luxembourg.
So all I had to do was walk in the rain about 800 metres east on Port Royal, past Parisian cafes and sidewalk market stalls, until I found the hotel just before Boulevard Port Royal terminates at Place du Gobelins. The hotel, which was recommended by “Great Sleeps in Paris” (formerly “Cheap Sleeps in Paris,” but I digress) is a delight. From the street I entered a small but inviting reception area. There, the very nice receptionist gave me the info I needed and the key to inspect room 23. The room is small (as is typical in Paris) but very clean. A double bed, fake fireplace with a useful mantel, sink, armoire, and a French window facing the quiet enclosed courtyard. It’s done up in newly-applied subdued floral wallpaper. Down the hall, the toilet is sparkling clean with new tiles, and one floor down is the shower, which is brand new and very clean. All this for about $50 CDN a night, which is hard to believe considering this is central Paris in 2001.
It was still raining, which I used to my advantage. I wasn’t jet-lagged per se, but I was suffering from a time differential so I decided to take a nap to correct things. I opened the French windows and let the sound of the falling rain lull me off to sleep for a couple of hours. I got up around noon, showered, and headed out into the city.
By now the rain had stopped, and I walked through the 5th and around “le Mouff” – the market area of rue Mouffetard – eventually passing the Pantheon, and then the Sorbonne. At this point I was hungry so I found a take-away place that serviced Sorbonne students where I ordered a panini to go for a very reasonable 16F. (A Franc is currently worth about 25 cents.) I felt fully integrated, since about half the people on the street were eating a baguette or panini. I continued through the Quartier Latin, moving over to Boul. St-Michel, heading north towards St-Germain. My immediate goal was to get a visual on Dhely’s Hotel, which I’m moving to on Monday. I found Place St-Michel, which is right on the line between the 5th and the 6th, bordering the Seine, and a block from the Pont Neuf. The hotel is supposedly there, somewhere. Place St-Michel, as you can imagine, is very lively; sort of like Place Jacques Cartier in Old Montreal, but bigger and busier and with a lot more traffic.
Eventually I found the hotel down a ruelle just off of Place St-Michel. You go through an archway, down a few steps, and there it is. It’s 100 feet from Place St-Michel but as quiet as the suburbs. Perfect. See you in a few days.
My next destination was the Cafe La Corona, near the Louvre, where every Thursday afternoon at 3:00 PM a guy named Ric holds court over his fictitious “Cafe Metropole Paris Club.” Ric’s a cartoonist defying retirement by doing odd things like running the Cafe Metropole Paris web site and club. (Check his website’s update for May 3, 2001 – “No Ice in Paris” –for pictures of yours truly.)
Following instructions from the web site, I went to the Cafe La Corona at the appointed time, went to it’s “Grand Salon,” and headed for the back of the room. Sure enough, there sat a guy who looked like Ric from the photo on his website. I said hello and sat down with him. Soon after, a couple from “near Washington DC” showed up. Then a couple from Vermont de-cloaked and confessed they’d been “lurking” nearby. Then Charles, a kept man whose wife has some big-time job in Paris arrived (he was the only “regular” besides Ric). Finally, Bonnie from Maine appeared.
The next 90 or so minutes passed very pleasantly, with us all getting acquainted and telling stories. Eventually people faded away, leaving just me, Ric, and Bonnie. Ric walked us back to the Pont Neuf, playing the role of tour director. Back on the Left Bank he finally headed off, bound for home and website updatage. That left Bonnie and I. Bonnie is on a seven-week walkabout after recently quitting her job. She’s been here almost a week already, and will soon be joined by some friends and together they will head deeper into the continent for six more weeks of exploring.
We ran into a Spanish-speaking couple who where having trouble figuring out where they should be for a pre-arranged tour. All they had to go on was a badly-designed map from the tour company. After a couple of false starts I was able to interpret it and show them that they were exactly one-and-a-half blocks away from their target. I’ve only been in town for about eight hours and already I’m giving directions.
Bonnie showed me around Place St-Michel and its neighbourhood. It turns out she’s staying at Dhely’s Hotel – the same place I had checked out earlier. We’ll actually overlap, as I arrive there Monday and she doesn’t leave until Wednesday.
Since we’re both in Paris alone, we made a date to have a big-ass Parisian dinner on Saturday night. I was feeling fatigued by then, so we parted. A couple from San Francisco heard our goodbyes and asked me if I’ve been in Paris long. They’ve been here for four or five days, and they needed directions to Le Moulin Rouge. Being the Geographical wonder-boy that I am, I was not only able to give them precise directions, but also safety advice about using the Metro in that area at night (La Pigalle). This reminds me of the time in Portree, Isle of Skye, Scotland, when I gave detailed directions to a couple although I’d only been in town for about two hours.
So I walked back to my hotel, read for a while, and had a 15-minute nap. Then I went out for a pizza (I’ve had pizza on my mind all day). About two blocks away I found a Franco-Italian restaurant called Cesar Pizza, which had planted the pizza seed in me when I had spotted it earlier in the day. It was packed, which is a good sign considering this isn’t really a touristy area. I got a window seat and had a big salad, a 12-inch fabulous wood-oven-baked pizza, a half litre of vin rouge, and a café, for 129F (tax and tip included). That’s about $25 CDN. Damn cheap, given that people would have you believe you can’t chew second-hand gum in this town for under $100.