Demystification Guru

Just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean it isn't understandable.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 22

Our last day in Arles. We thought we would take the bus to Aix for the day but when the alarm goes off at 6 am, we roll over and go back to sleep, thinking, we are on holiday after all. Eventually we go out for breakfast, get souvenirs and decide to take in some of the museums left on our museum pass. First, two places we visited but I forgot to write about until now.

The Musee de l'Arles Antique is all about the ancient past of Arles (as the name implies) and contains all sorts of things dug up like floor mosaics (which were stunning, by the way). I recommend a visit just for the history of it all. It was mentioned in our France for Dummies book and they said it was "a long dusty walk west of the old city". We studied our ever-present map of Old Arles and while the museum is clearly indicated, it doesn't really show how to get there, because you have to cross a major autoroute/bridge getting out of the old city. We'd walked along the wall by the Rhone a few times but once we got to the autoroute/bridge, we stopped and turned back.

This time, we carried on walking and saw there was a road under the autoroute as it turned into a bridge. We had to abandon the gentility of walking on old narrow and quieter roads and venture out into a place where pedestrians were an afterthought (if they were thought of at all, really). As avid cyclists back home, we are certainly not afraid of traffic but it is noisy and dirty. After we walked under the bridge, we passed a wine co-op which looked deserted but I suppose it only gets used in the Fall at harvest time. Then we passed a skateboard "park" which is actually noted on the map. It had one small curved ramp and it was covered in graffiti. Other than the graffiti, there was no evidence it was ever used. Now, if you wanted to encourage your young people to do their skateboarding in one controlled spot, why would you ever build something remote, ugly and small like this and put it where no one would ever go, except to spray paint on it in contempt? Talk about not involving the stakeholders.

As we rounded a bend in the road, we were startled by the modern appearance of the museum of antiquities. It is a giant blue metal structure, all angles and blank surfaces. I guess it works in its own way. But it is also isolated outside the city, with nothing else around it to see or do (unless you are a skateboarder, I suppose). It was still a ways off and as we plodded along the dusty walkway, we passed the excavation of the ancient Roman Circus which was interesting in itself to look at. When we finally got to the museum, a bus full of small children was disgorging its contents and although we beat them in to the building, they haunted us around the exhibits, their voices echoing along with their extremely loud efforts to shush each other.

Speaking of art, I also forgot to mention what was almost performance art, or at the least, social commentary art. We often would go down to the Rhone and walk along the wall from one end of the Old City to the other. One day, we spotted GOLD dog poop!
France 2008
That's right, someone had collected a nice sampling of large breed dog poop, painted it gold and then reassembled it in at least three different locations along the wall. It made me laugh out loud when I saw the first batch of it and by the time we saw the third batch, it had become apparent that someone was making a statement. I thought it was fabulous and hilarious at the same time.
France 2008
I did have to poke it with a stick to see if it was real on the inside and it was. I never knew if anyone else remarked on it or if it got written up in the local paper (was there a local paper?) but I applaud the efforts of the artist.

The next place I forgot to mention was also a bit outside of the walled city but you only had to cross the ring road boulevard to get there and it seemed more pedestrian-friendly. This was Les Alyscamps, an ancient burial ground from at least Roman times. According to my guide book, the Romans avoided the place at night so early Christians met there in secret. Vincent VanGogh also painted a picture of people strolling there in his time and there is even an "easel" set up with that painting on it, to show his vantage point (as there is at the Cafe au Nuit and the other places around Arles where VanGogh painted now famous scenes).
France 2008
What I found interesting was the apparently discarded carved stone bits outside the church. The church itself is beautifully lit and serene and seems to be in the process of renovation. So maybe what appears to be pieces of Roman columns aren't supposed to be there. Maybe they'll be taken to the Museum of Antiquities later?

So, back to May 22. We went to the Foundation VanGogh , which was NOT on our museum pass. Many of the artists shown at the Foundation were asked to do an homage to Vincent in 1988 and these works are shown here. There are also a few pieces from before and after that year, done by other artists as an homage, and collected for the Foundation. I enjoyed seeing what artists would imagine as an homage and found it quite inspirational. It is a fairly small collection which can be seen in a short time and there are many things to buy when you leave, if you want.

Finally, we went to see what was at the Musee Reattu, since it was right across the street from our hotel. The museum was named for its owner back in the late 1800s, Mr. Reattu. There are many of his paintings there - he was a classically trained figurative artist who painted large allegories, among other things. But his bigger claim to fame was that he collected work from contemporary artists such as Picasso and so there is an eclectic mix of work there, including some very modern pieces collected by the museum as it now exists. The current exhibit shows the work of the couturier Christian Lacroix from the last 20 years or so. Some of the outfits were clearly runway fantasy pieces but I enjoyed examining the workmanship and appreciated the effort that went into creating each garment.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 21, our anniversary

Today is our 26th anniversary. We were supposed to go on our "big trip to Europe" for our 25th but this will do, now that we are here. It's a Wednesday and our map says there is another market on Wednesdays, only on a different section of the big ring road boulevard. We had already walked down that section, looking at the ancient walls of the city from the outside.
France 2008
We had also come upon one of the cemeteries of the city and spent quite a while there, quietly walking around the many above-ground mausoleums. Some graves were obviously visited frequently but others had had no one come by in years. I have not been to New Orleans but it reminded me of that cemetery style, with everything in crypts.
France 2008
This time, we decided to go straight to the market and get our breakfast there and much to our dismay, we found out this was a junk-only market with no food at all. By the time we discovered this, we were tired, cranky, and caffeine deprived so we walked back into the Old Arles and found a small "tabac" that sold cafe and croque monsieurs. I remembered croque monsieurs from my days in Belgium back on the 70s and they are still bread with some cheese and maybe something else on them. Not too exciting but better than no food.

We decided to do laundry, in spite of it being our anniversary. We had found a coin operated laundromat (laverie automatique) the previous week and had determined that we would do two laundries while we were in Arles, timing the second one so that we would have enough fresh clothes to get us through Paris and home again. This was Wednesday and our travel day to Paris was Friday so we figured it would be a good time. There really weren't enough shirts and underwear and socks to justify a full load but when you travel light, you do laundry when you can.

We got back to the laundry, after our late and unsuccessful breakfast and no one was there yet. You put your clothes in the chosen washer (a front loading machine) and then go buy the soap by hitting certain buttons on a wall mounted machine and then putting in the money it told you (30 cents). Then you choose your machine on the same gizmo and put that money in (3 Euros). Then you set your watch and go have a coffee or something in the Place Voltaire, which was very close by. By the time the laundry was done and we'd taken it back to the hotel to hang and fold, it was lunch time.

We had rediscovered where the fabric store was that I had seen on the first day we got to Arles and looked around. It was just off the Place Voltaire, heading away from the Arena and toward the old walls. After lunch (at which I fed the black Lab again), I left Peter in the Place having a glass of wine and I headed over to the fabric store where I took my time and bought 16 metres of fabric of different patterns - 2 of this, 4 of that. The woman cutting the fabric was very nice but she didn't speak any English so our conversation was a little limited. As she finished cutting the last few metres, I started looking around for a sign by the cash that said "Visa" and had a sinking feeling when I saw no such sign. I asked her if she took Visa and she looked at me surprised and said "of course not".

So I told her I would be right back with cash. She actually looked like she believed me - she didn't look worried. But I would have been worried if I were her, cutting all that fabric and then not being prepared to take plastic from an obvious tourist. Yikes. I literally ran back to the Place and found Peter chatting with some Americans. I gasped out that I needed 142 Euros and fast! He actually had the cash on him, so we didn't need to go to an instant teller.
Provencal fabrics
I ran back to the store and paid for my purchase. I was relieved that she acted as if this was normal but I was amazed at the same time. I toted my fabric back to the Place and sat while Peter introduced me to what appeared to be a mother and daughter from the States. They were good friends, as the older woman's now late husband had taught the younger woman in high school. The younger woman was a chef and she was taking a working holiday by teaching cooking at a B&B in Arles for a few months and so the older woman was staying there too. They were very pleasant, tres gentil.

We stay for a while in the Place and then make our way back to the hotel to drop off the fabric and change for dinner. We decide to go back to La Gueule du Loup for a second meal, as the first one had been so wonderful. We discover the menu is the same so we order something different and enjoy it just as much. One of our desserts had lavender flavoured ice cream in it, something we had never had before. We toast ourselves - to another year.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 20

Some more observations:

Most cars and especially larger vans have scrapes and dents down the sides. Not so much on the fenders front and rear but the sides are often bashed in. It is not surprising, given the narrow streets, many bollards and the tendency of every driver to think he or she has the right of way at all times. There are many one-way streets but people park in them (only temporarily!) and two cars often don't fit abreast. They love their mobility but maybe they don't care so much about the car. Since they don't have the road salt issue we have in Canada, they must not get rust like we do, so they don't fix up the dents so readily. Interesting.

We were sitting as is our wont, in the Place du Forum and suddenly we were invaded by Les Anglais. About a dozen loud people arrive and promptly rearrange the patio furniture. The fat and old ones sit down, the others mill about. We ask our waiter, "hey, les Anglais sont faire du bruit. Q'est que c'est ce passe?" and he replied that they had been to a wedding recently and seemed to have enjoyed the local wine.

Another Place to hang out is the Place Voltaire, cheaper than the Place du Forum and with mature trees shading it. This is where we discover that the classic Clouseau line really does work in France!

We're sitting at a table having a substantial salad (7 Euros) and white wine for lunch. We notice a black Labrador (an un-neutered male) slowly walking around the tables. No collar, a bit of white at his muzzle, lovely brown eyes. He's not casing the joint, he's just looking for likely customers. I make eye contact but he seems to know that Peter has asked me not to feed him (right then, anyway) and so he walks off. (I was going to write "wander" but he has more purpose than that.)

Eventually I decide to give him a little crumb of baguette (after we have finished our meal - that was Peter's stipulation), after I see he has not got anything from other patrons. I make eye contact again with him when he is a few tables away and he slowly but deliberately walks over. I hold out a very small piece of bread and say, "asseyez-vous". He does not seem to know "tricks" and drool slowly drips from the back of his mouth. I give him the bread anyway. He politely takes it and eats it. I give him several more tiny pieces and ask him to sit each time, but he does not. Then I hold up my now empty hands and say "c'est tout" and he sits.
France 2008
I take his photograph and he poses nicely for me. Then he gets distracted by some other people and I lean in for a close-up and I can almost hear him say "Yikes!" at the look of me, too close and with a camera in front of my face, so he gets up and moves on.
France 2008
So polite! Si gentil!

So, now for the Clouseau line:
Clouseau, seeing a man with a nice looking dog, asks, "does your dog bite?"
Man, "No."
Clouseau pats dog who snarls and bites him.
Clouseau, "I thought you said your dog did not bite!"
Man, "That's not my dog."

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 19, evening - eating out

When we got back to Arles Monday evening, we decided to try out a restaurant that Peter had noticed while we were walking one day, and which was mentioned in our "France for Dummies" guide book. Nothing is very far in Old Arles and this place was just across the big boulevard "ring road" where the market had been on Saturday. After a shower to wash off all the dirt that had blown on us from the day, we headed out only to find that this restaurant was closed. And it looked closed permanently, even though there was no sign one way or the other.

Momentarily nonplussed, Peter decided we should try out the hotel restaurant at the Jvles Cesar, as it too had been mentioned in the Dummies book and noted as one of the best restaurants on all of France, not just the south. We plodded up the road, hungry and tired and peered in the windows at the Jvles Cesar. It was only about half full and most people in there had ties on. The wait staff was dressed very properly in black and white. And the doors off the terrace where we had approached it were closed. We turned to see if we could access the restaurant from the hotel, when one of the doors opened and a waiter called out, "Bon soir, monsieur!" It turns out they had only closed the doors because of the ferocious winds and we would be more than welcome, tie or no tie.

We were seated at a nice table by the window and given menus. Descriptions of the food looked good and while expensive, it wasn't prohibitively so. We decided on the prix fixe, made our choices and ordered a bottle of wine. We had been trying to drink local wines exclusively and it is never difficult to find a delicious, reasonably priced bottle anywhere. Our waiter was quite chatty and spoke English very well. We noticed that everyone else in the room was an Anglo of some sort. The food was very good and nicely presented and when we made our choice for dessert and I selected a plate with four tiny, different things on it, they gave me extra. I'm not sure why - I think by then we had mentioned it was our 26th anniversary (in 2 days, actually) or maybe it was because I said "mmm" out loud a fair bit while downing the dessert.

I haven't been writing much about our meals but of course, we have to have three every day in restaurants of some description because the hotel does not allow you to bring food in. We have eaten breakfast several times in the hotel and it is a good one - with bread and eggs and fruit and coffee. But it seems expensive at 7 Euros each which is why we have tried the occasional cafe and croissant outside. But that isn't very satisfying, especially for me, as I like to have more at breakfast than at dinner (well, in theory, anyway). On Saturday, we had fruit and cheese at the market but (according to the map) there's only a market on Saturday and Wednesday.

Lunch can be a large and sustaining meal if you want to eat light at dinner. Most shops close down for about 2 hours from noon until 2 and the restaurants fill up. Some restaurants are only open in the morning and at lunch and some only open for the dinner crowd, so it helps to have scoped out some places ahead of time. And some restaurants are closed one or two days of the week. But there are many places to eat on Arles and if one is closed, another will be close by.

We had already had dinner once at La Gueule du Loup, as it had also been recommended by one of our books. It is a very small place with a few tables on the ground level, where you can watch the chef at work if you want. It has about 8 tables up a steep flight of ancient stone stairs and a small but attentive crew of wait staff. The menu is limited and probably changes weekly and the choices sound wonderful. And they are wonderful. Beautifully presented, interesting combinations of tastes, scrumptious.
France 2008
What we've also taken to doing, especially if we have a light lunch and are waiting for restaurants to open for dinner, is to find a cafe in the late afternoon, to while away our time until dinner. There are many of them around of course, but we seem to have settled on the cafes surrounding the Place du Forum as the best place for people watching. I am sure the Place had a more important past but now, its main claim to fame seems to be the cafe that Vincent painted one evening: Le Cafe au Nuit Right beside that cafe (now painted up in yellow to resemble the VanGogh painting) is one owned by a former bull fighter. The centre of the Place is filled with tables and chairs and different sections of them are serviced by the restaurants and cafes that line the Place. I think the clientele of the entire Place is tourists, unlike some of the other cafes in Arles that are more obviously populated by local people. But as long as it is not time for a meal, they don't seem to mind if you sit there for hours having a small pichet of wine, while you take pictures and write in your notebook.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

France 2008 - road trip, May 19

Monday, we rented a car. We had planned on taking local transport out of Arles for the day but with train strikes making for uncertainty, we decided to splurge on renting a car. We just showed up Monday morning at the Avis place at the train station and what they had left was a mid-sized Peugeot. It turned out to be a standard transmission which is not a problem for either of us but it was also a diesel. We knew there was something tricky about starting a diesel but we figured, "how hard could it be?"

Thirty minutes in the parking lot later, we had to go ask the rental lady how to start the darned thing. (The reason it took 30 minutes is because she wasn't there when went back 5 minutes later after we first got the keys.) She took the keys, locked the car with the remote, unlocked it, got in, put the key in, put it in neutral but did NOT step on the clutch, turned the key one notch, waited for a light to come on and then turned the key a second time. We had tried a lot of that but not in that particular order.

We were off! We both enjoy driving but Peter likes the challenge of driving in foreign places (he was the one who wanted to drive on the wrong side of the road in Barbados), so I let him do the driving. Also, if he drove, that meant I got to drink at lunch. Bonus! We headed out into the Camargue, retracing part of our route from the day before with Alan. This time, we got to see horses from the comfort of an air-conditioned car with a suspension system. The day was clear and very warm but the most notable feature of the weather was the WIND. We don't have proof but we think there were sustained winds of over 50 kph and gusts much more than that. I wore a skirt and spent most of the day holding it down with both hands.

Our first stop was breakfast at a road-side cafe, where we merely had the usual cafe and croissant. There was also the usual family dog on the premises, this time sitting in the window, placidly looking around and then having a snooze. I find that most of the dogs in France are the calmest dogs I have ever seen, many of the large ones allowed to wander around without even the benefit of a collar. I don't know if it is just because all the other ones get run over or something, or maybe it is something about the French dog owners, that they are real pack leaders. But the dogs are very well behaved.

Our next stop was Aigues-Mortes, begun in 102 BC and rebuilt in the 13th century by Louis IX. It was used as the embarkation point for the Seventh and Eighth crusade and it was in our Eyewitness Guide book, so we went. Also a walled city like Old Arles, this one has the wall still all the way around it. In other respects however, it was very much like Old Arles except the streets were on a grid. By the time we got there, we were starting to think about lunch, so we just looked around a little and then pushed on.

I had been thinking of visiting Nimes since we started planning this trip, because I read in the Eyewitness book that it was where denim fabric had been invented (fabric "de Nimes", get it?). Plus, I read that Nimes was the home of many of the true Provencal fabrics and I wanted to shop! However, by the time we drove up to the outskirts and saw that it was really a huge looking modern city, and by the time we had been around about a hundred different roundabouts, each with about 5 or more exits, and we realized that we were driving along at 70 kph on the ring road, we decided to bail and not visit Nimes after all. I had seen a fabric store right in Old Arles and said to Peter, "keep going, we don't need to stop."

Our next goal was the Pont du Gard.
France 2008
How anyone can fail to be impressed by the engineering feat that is this aqueduct, I am sure I do not know. The Pont du Gard is the longest "bridge" in the 50 km long aqueduct that brought 5 million litres of water every day to the Roman city of Nimes from the source at Uz├Ęs. Some stones weigh nearly 6 tons. The slope of the 50 km water run averages 34 cm of drop for every 1 km of run. That's about 17 metres drop for the entire length of the aqueduct. And all without a slide rule or theodolite. 2000 years later, parts of it are still standing. I would love to transport the engineer responsible forward in time and show it to him now.
France 2008
You are allowed to climb up the side of the hill and look at the aqueduct from the top, where the water ran. It's wonderful.

When we got to the Pont, we had lunch first, as we were starving and there was a really nice looking restaurant right on the bank of the river. It was a little more expensive than your average restaurant but you couldn't beat the view.
France 2008
Here's Peter taking a picture of some tourists with their own camera - probably the best picture they have of their entire trip. That patio umbrella is down because of the huge winds. You just can't tell at ALL from these pictures but the wind was amazing. We spent a good couple of hours here and then moved on to Avignon.

The driving was good and there are lots of signs and we had a map, so we never got lost. We even took the toll road at one point, to get from Nimes to the Pont without having to slow down every kilometer for yet another roundabout. They are in fact really useful, those roundabouts (rond point) because you don't have an intersection with stop lights and so you just have to slow down, figure out which exit to take, merge and you're continuing on your merry way, but they do get wearing after a while if your goal is a town and not the journey.

We arrived in Avignon and decided to enter the walled city with the car, driving slowly into yet another Old Arles. We were certainly familiar with this sort of old street network as pedestrians and dodging cars, but it is another thing altogether to drive in there. We finally stopped and asked some police where we could park and they said "outside of the walls" so we drove out. Luckily, we found a long, narrow parking lot sandwiched between the river, a main ring road and the wall and it was free! It was also packed but just as we crept down the long line of cars, someone left and we pulled right into their space. AND it was right by a recently-made (as in modern and not 500 years old) pedestrian entrance in the wall.

We walked into Avignon and consulted the map in the Eyewitness Guide. We weren't on the map. The main reason to visit Avignon, other than to "danse sur le pont" as in the children's song, is to see the Palais des Papes. There were 7 French popes from 1309-77 and they built a grand place for themselves, indeed. Talk about a seat of power that let everyone else know about it. The Palais is way up on a steep hill that looks down on the river and it's built like a fortress. When we walked into Avignon, off the map, it was easy to see that we had to go UP and to our right but we weren't sure which was the best route to take.

So when we walked past a woman sitting out on her steps, having a smoke, we stopped to ask for advice. We thought we were being polite when we started by saying, "excusez moi, Madame" but apparently, she didn't think so. After Peter asked what was the best way to get up to the Palais, she didn't answer for enough time that I immediately got that she was about to make a point. Then she looked at us with contempt and said, "Bonjour." Yeah, okay, we get it. Much bad language ensued in my head but I stifled it and said, "bonJOUR" back. Dumbass. She waved in the direction of the giant and obvious mountain to our right and said something like "that-a-way", and before I could say something I'd regret, I plucked at Peter's sleeve and said, "let's go!" I was seething at the first (and almost only) rude treatment we'd had from a local but Peter had been too busy concentrating on getting his French right at the time, to notice.

Unfortunately, that set the tone for what we think about Avignon, not to mention the ostentatious display of religious power-mongering by the long-dead popes. We finally made it up the hill and there was the Palais. We went inside and whatever it cost to see the whole thing was too much for me, especially given that it was late in the afternoon and I was getting tired (and obviously cranky). So we hung around the outside in the hot sun and ferocious wind for a bit and finally I said, "let's go have a drink!"
France 2008
As the DD, Peter had to have coffee but I had a much welcomed glass of wine (okay, "whine"). We chose the patio of a very nice-looking hotel for our stop and it wasn't until after we sat down at a table at random that I noticed their planters had herbs growing in them! Lovely. I felt better right away, even if the drinks were hideously expensive and the bathroom cost 0.20 Euros to get into a stall.

We check out the map and leave the walled city by an exit right near the historic Pont d'Avignon. Peter had never been taught the song but I remember it (at least the verse) from - it must be - kindergarten or grade one, when we lived in Quebec City. The bridge doesn't go all the way across the river but it was originally built by a shepherd boy who later became Saint Benezet. It fell down a lot and by the 1600s, they stopped rebuilding it. The only access to it is through this building beside it, where you have to pay 4 Euros to go dance on it. I decide to "danse sur le trottoir" instead, and we fight out way back toward the car park against the wind. Halfway there, we notice some steps leading up to the Palais des Papes from the level of the river (we are walking along the very busy ring road outside the walls).

I figure the steps have to be blocked off at the top because everywhere else, they were charging entrance fees but we decide to climb them anyway. We finally get to the top, where the wind must be blowing at 60 kph at least and discover that we can wander around the top of the Palais des Papes and take in the terrific view of the surrounding area for free. I count the steps on the way down and discover there are exactly 200 of them. Now I feel like Avignon has been worth the visit.

By the time we get back to the car and on the road home, it is rush hour and we stop and start our way out of the city. We finally hit the open road and head back to Arles, tired and wind-blown but satisfied over-all with our road trip. We drop the car back at Avis at 6:30 pm, where the office is still open and we express our thanks to the rental lady. It is only after we get home and the Visa bill that we discover that the car has cost us $240 Cdn for the day. Of course, that included gas.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

France 2008 - the Camargue, May 18

Sunday, we went on a safari.
We bought our tickets on Saturday, while we were down at the market. We went over to the info booth and asked about seeing the Camargue. One of my stated goals on going to Provence was to pet one of the white horses in the Camargue. We had seen pamphlets about going there but there seemed to be many variations on a theme and it was a bit confusing. We asked the woman at the info place to choose for us and she said she wasn't allowed to but then she did suggest we try the one called "Gallon". We got our tickets and she phoned the company and we heard her say there were two "Anglais" to pick up Sunday morning at 9.

We arrive at the meeting spot at 8:40 and wait for 9, watching the young "gypsies" (I'm not sure if they really were gypsies or just young people hanging out) with their four large black dogs. It looked like they had spent the night in the relative shelter of the large public bandstand or gazebo near the Info Centre. One young guy take three of the dogs, one of them not on a leash, and walks over to some bushes where they can relieve themselves. The dogs seem friendly and the one not on a leash is older and wags his tail a lot. I figure how bad can these folks be, with such nice dogs?
Camargue horses
Right at 9 am, a Land Rover shows up and this man, older than we are, climbs out wearing leather pants, a leather jacket and a neck gaiter. He later explains that he had been running late so he just jumped on his motorcycle to get to where the LandRover was. His name is Alan, he is 61, he used to work for a pharmaceutical company and he speaks English, French, German and Farsi (at least).

It turns out we are the only people on this particular safari and boy are we glad because, although there are three seats on each side of the open back of the Land Rover, the only way you could fit 6 people in there would be if they were small children. We take off for the Camargue in a clash of gears, with Alan talking to us by turning right around to look at us sitting in the back of the Rover. It's a little nerve-wracking to start, with him not looking where he is driving but he isn't really driving that fast and he seems to know what he is doing. He reminds me of Lee Marvin with the short white hair, Hollywood smile and attitude.

After our initial wariness wears off and my bullshit meter dies down, we find him entertaining, straightforward and honest. He explains about bulls and bullfighting and the horses and birds but most of all, about the rice. Rice fields, rice paddies, crop rotation, wild rice, NOT organic ("biologique") rice, etc. etc. We make a detour to see a real monastery and come upon a monk in robes and rope belt, strolling down the road. I like to think it was not on cue. Alan stops to talk to him and by the conversation, it is far from a silent order and they do seem to know each other. A farmer approaches them and he has a large herding dog with him - the same size as an Anatolian shepherd but hairier. That breaks up the conversation and we move on.

Around the next bend, we see a large flock of sheep and one lamb looks right at us, its ears pink with back lighting. We travel mostly off-road but on the paved roads, we are asked to not stand up in the back and at least to pretend to have our seat belts on. I put mine on but Peter's is all tangled and he doesn't worry about it. The dirt roads are rough, with plenty of large potholes from Saturday's rain storm. I wonder if we have an accident, will he have the presence of mind to try to dive out of the open roof, or will he try to save his camera at the expense of his own life? I can see the headlines: "Canadian man killed in road accident while on holiday in France, widow has lots of nice pictures to remember him by."
Camargue horses
Alan stops at the first white horses we pass (all animals are fenced in - we never saw any real wild bulls or horses), and fetches a large bag of really stale baguette slices out of the Rover and the horses run right up to the fence looking for the familiar treat. I get to pet two of them and feed them bread and they seem completely tame and domestic. A couple of horses hang back in the field but they have foals with them. Like the Lipizzaners, the foals are born dark and turn white as they get older. I am so pleased that I got to pat some horses that I had not thought about how filthy my hands would be and how I wouldn't necessarily have access to any place I could wash. I try to keep my hands away from every other part of me.

In a little while we pass a herd of the black bovines and Alan stops to explain about bulls. The Spanish bulls weigh about 500 kilos and the horns go downwards. The Camargue bulls weigh about 300 kilos and the horns go out and upwards. The neutered ones are oxen and can be used to keep the bulls calm when they are moved from one field to another. A lot depends on the manager who rents the bulls out for the fights. He gets a reputation for more entertaining fights - or less entertaining - depending on which bulls he chooses to put in the arena. And they rent bulls because most of the bull fighting in southern France tends to be bloodless.

It's an expensive business, with matadors getting 100,000 Euros for the fight and bulls costing 10,000 Euros (or rented at 1,000 Euros for the 15 minutes of the fight). Reputation becomes everything. One local bull named Rami was particularly famous and when he died, his owner buried him on his land with a stone obelisk and a marble plaque with gold lettering. Alan took us to this grave and we saw the owner's own grave a few hundred metres away with a less ostentatious headstone than the bull.

We went to a "domaine" where they had what Alan called "an ugly arena" made of aluminum (bleachers, really). It existed for tourists and they had a little but real train to tour you around the property. We didn't go on it. They also had plenty of white horses to rent but we didn't ride them either. I wasn't concerned that we didn't ride any of the horses - I have ridden horses and prefer to do it with proper gear. All the horses we saw looked well cared for, and the bulls too. They had public washrooms and here is where I finally got to wash my horsey hands.

We stopped at Les Maries de la Mer church on the Mediterranean. It is named for the four Marys that were expelled from the holy land after Jesus died. It is another lovely Romanesque church with a lot of history. Many gypsies live at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and beg for money or offer to read your palm or sell you things. Alan told us to beware of the gypsies stealing things and told me to wear my little backpack on my front, which I did. But we were only approached by one old woman and she only persisted through several "non, merci" with lots of smiles on our part. For all that they criticize gypsies around here, there is a monument to the 700 of them rounded up in the Camargue in the early 1940s, who were then sent off to die in Hitler's camps.

We passed quite a few other tourists and bird watchers, stopped by the side of the road. Alan would roll his window down and call out the window in an American accent, "Bone jur, bone jur, c'est tres beaucoup jolie!" He was always greatly amused by himself when he did this and frankly, it was pretty funny for us too. I finally asked him why he did this and he said he wanted them to think he was a tourist who had stolen the Land Rover.

We didn't get back to Arles until about 2pm so we surely got our money's worth from that safari. It cost 48 Euros per person for what was described as a four hour tour. I suppose with a less entertaining guide and poor weather, we might have thought it not worth quite so much but we had a great time.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 17

Saturday, we went to the market. It was advertised right on the map of Arles, that they had a market every Saturday and Wednesday so we decided to see what there was to see. Wow! All along the Boul. des Lices was a market and the traffic was stopped. (This is part of the "ring road" that goes around Old Arles on the sides away from the river. It's all one big road but is broken into three different names.) On one side was all the food stuff and on the other side was everything else.

To have a great look at the market, go to Peter's set at Flickr and enjoy. The food side was especially impressive, with large vans where the sides opened up to vans where things were being cooked right in front of you, in one case, on giant wok-like surfaces.

We have been having breakfast at the hotel and enjoying it but thought we should try something different. On the way to the market, we stopped in the Place du Forum (where VIncent's cafe is and where we stop a lot) and had a cafe and a croissant. When you ask for a cafe you get an espresso. For any other kind of coffee, you have to specify. The shop with the cafe didn't have anything to eat but referred us two doors down to the bakery where we bought something and then went back to the cafe to eat it.

By the time we got to the market, it had been open for some time and the place was packed. But real Arlesiennes were doing their shopping and while busy, people were in constant motion so it was easy enough to wander around. So much wonderful looking food! I got hungry right away and so we stopped at different places to buy a bag of cherries, half a baguette and some soft cheese. We stepped away from the steady stream of patrons and sat on a half wall and ate our finds. Mmm.
Outfits I made that I wore in France
The other side of the street had everything but food, including a young man with three miniature goats who wasn't selling them but just using them as a draw to get you to buy outrageously priced candy to support some cause. Near the end of the line were some folks selling Provencal fabrics. I bought a few meters but worried that it wasn't "authentic". On the other hand, it was nice so who cares?

I have noticed that there seems to be a hierarchy of greeting. If you don't know someone but are introduced by someone you both know, you shake hands. If you know the person and have seen them recently, you kiss each other twice. But if you know someone and haven't seen them for a while, you kiss each other three times. This is just a theory on my part, but I like it.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 16

When we planned on spending 9 days in Arles, we thought we would get out of the city almost every day, to go see somewhere else in the area, like Aix and Avignon and Nimes. Having arrived late on Wednesday, we thought by Friday we would take our first day trip. But we seemed content to stay, even in the small Old Arles and just walk around and see what was there. So we bought a museum pass which allowed for entry into 8 different museums or sites and since it was raining on Friday, we decided to start looking at them then.
France 2008
We bought the museum pass at the information booth at the train station but you can get them in many other spots, including the museums themselves. We started at the ancient Roman Arena, built about 90AD having been first carved out of the hillside. Imagine walking on stones where people had trod 2000 years before you. Giant stone steps led up to the top of the arena and there was a medieval tower which stood even higher that gave a great view of the city. I could feel the steps in my quads the next day.

There was some restoration going on. I wasn't sure if they were doing more than just cleaning the stone of the 50 years or so of internal combustion engine pollution. I am thinking that someone should ban driving most cars in Old Arles, as the pollution is ruining everything including my lungs. But what political will would that take?

The day before, we had been to St. Trophime, the church on the Place de la Revolution which was started in the 1100s. It was the first, truly old building that Peter had ever encountered, given that he had only travelled in North America prior to this. It was wonderful to watch him grasp the fact that the paving stones in this still operational church had been laid 800 years before he got there. The main nave columns were Romanesque which is a style that I find serene and calm. The apse and side chapels had more Gothic arches, as they were built later. One side chapel was barred off with ornate iron work and contained more reliquaries than you could shake a stick at. I saw femurs in one of them!
France 2008
Even as impressive as an 800 year old church is, it's hard to beat walking up the steps in an arena that is still being used, where people had walked 2000 years before.

Later, we went to the Musee Arlatan, established by local poet Frederic Mistral after he won the Nobel prize for poetry in 1905. For years, he had collected artifacts of local culture and when he won the prize, he turned his family home (itself old and built on Roman ruins) into a museum.

We looked up some other museums on our pass but found that they were closed for construction or renovation, which explains the discount we got when we bought the pass. We are staying at the Hotel du Musee which is directly opposite the Musee Reattu, named for some fellow I am sorry I never heard of, who himself painted but also collected Picasso. We still have not visited it and are saving it for when we have run out of other things to do. In fact, they are busy setting up an exhibit of a local and still living artist (a couturier) Christian Lacroix and have been having parties in advance to celebrate the opening.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 15

We decide to wander around Old Arles and just look at things. This is a holiday after all and we don't intend to see or do everything that there is to see and do. While it's not quite a "sit on the beach and read paperbacks" type of holiday, we do want to relax and just BE.
France 2008
(Outside the walls)
Old Arles is distinct from the rest-of-Arles. It was a walled city and remnants of the walls are apparent here and there. It is also surrounded by large, busy, noisy, boulevards which run outside where the walls used to be. We get a map from our hotel that appears to be schematic but which is very accurate and it is impossible to get lost. (They give out these maps at the information centres and everywhere.) It turn out that you can walk across Old Arles in about 15 minutes if you don't stop to look at anything. But we always stopped to look at everything.

We walk to the Place de la Republique where some civil servants (I think they are teachers) are having a demonstration complete with loud speakers, flags, drums and a faux coffin. It makes for an interesting photo shoot for Peter and reminds us of the probability of strikes. I remember Europe in the 70s when any excuse for a strike was used, especially in Italy. Apparently, people are annoyed with Sarkozy's attempts to change the system. We aren't very concerned until we realize that rail travel can be stopped with strikes, but even that worked out for us in the end.

(Along the top of the wall.)
We walk along the bank of the Rhone, on top of huge walls that have very steep and very narrow steps leading down to the water. There are about 40 steps at a 60% angle with no railings and apparently, no traffic, as weeds flourish in the cracks. I am not sure who would use these old steps or why - there are other places with better access to the water, where giant tour boats tie up.

At one point along our walk, we see a second level of walkway, below the main travelled (paved) portion of the wall. It too was paved but there are so many weeds growing through the pavement that it looks grassy now. This reminds us that we have seen no lawns in Old Arles. Looking down at the green walkway, we see more piles of dog poop than you would believe possible. I would not walk there as a person - there was hardly a clear space to put a foot, much less a paw. Some time later, we did see a woman walking a large white dog down there. She took the dog off the leash and let him pick his own way through the mess. I am grateful for the daily street sweepers that pick up all this excrement on the streets where we usually walk, but I wonder if people could be persuaded to pick up after their pets if perhaps they made some advertising showing a famous and otherwise "cool" celebrity picking up dog poop. I wonder.

I saw a bat last night and wondered what they call it in French, so we asked our tres gentile waiter and he said it is called a chauvesouris. Now I just ran that through my translator and it came out "bald person mouse". Hmm. In German it is "fledermaus" or some such spelling. In both languages, the bat is described as a type of mouse, even though we know it is not a rodent.

Then we were looking for the French word for "confused", as we often are on this trip so far. We ask a different waitress at a different restaurant and say in our very Anglo-French, "what is the word for - I don't know what is going on - or, I'm a little bit stupid". She recoiled from the word "stupide" which I'm now thinking must be a real insult. Later we came up with the word "deranger" which is deranged in English and which about sums it up.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 14

Arrive at 6 pm, try to use the bathroom at the train station and both are out of order. The map says we are very close but we get a cab anyway because we aren't sure and we have to pee. Should have gone on the train but the toilet there was in a horrible state. Turns out it is less than a 10 minute walk away (we checked it later) but anyway, we had to pee.

We checked into the Hotel du Musee and get a much bigger room than the closet where we stayed in Paris our first night. Very picturesque, lots of plants in open courtyards, overhanging rambling roses on the exterior stairs on the way up. No elevator but we only have to walk up two flights.
France 2008
We stagger out to get a real dinner, as we have not had one of the prix fixe menus we have heard about and we missed lunch effectively and are starving. We walk around a fair bit and get disoriented. We choose a place that turns out to be a 5 minute walk from the hotel, when we eventually finish dinner and return to our room. It is on a street (Rue du Docteur Fanton) we realize has three very nice restaurants in a row and later, we try them all. This first night however, we are still new to France and to Arles so we choose one, "Les Oliviers Sont Bleus", based on the plants shielding the patrons from the traffic, which thankfully is light.

The menu has two sides: one says "Carte" and the other "Menu 25 euros", so we figure it is the prix fixe. There are two sections on the prix fixe and each section has about 7 or 8 items on it. We try to translate all the different items to figure out if they fall into a class and eventually decide that you choose one section or the other and get all 7 items. This sounds extravagant now, but at the time, we had just finished reading Peter Mayle's book and he talked about the many course dinners and how the Provencals love their food so we figured 7 items for dinner wasn't a stretch. I also think we were still suffering from jet lag.

Both sections have a "tartare" item of which I am wary - one is thon or tuna and the other is beef (cut by hand, "hache la main"). I have eaten beef tartare once and prefer most meat cooked to break down the fibre. When the very young (and we later discover, Italian) waiter comes to ask for our order, I point to the top section on the prix fixe and say, "je voudrais cet chose" and Peter says, "le meme pour moi". We also order an Appellation controle Minervois, a blend of Syrah and Grenache grapes, for only 17 euros, a bargain!

Our food comes, starting (we think) with some cold layered vegetables (I identify zucchini and eggplant) with brie in the layers and diced red pepper in the sauce. we later realize this is the Terrine de Provencal vegetables. It is accompanied by a mix of lettuce and other leaves in a nice vinagrette and slices of baguette. After we do everything but lick the plate and scarf down the dozen black olives that were on the table when we arrived, we wait with anticipation for what we think will be the second of the many dishes but nothing happens. Eventually a young female waiter brings us the dessert menu and now we really get confused. The dessert menu says "6 euro" and we look at each other and say, "wait a minute! We paid 25 euro for some limp eggplant and now we have to pay 6 euro for dessert?"

We get the waiter's attention and try to figure it all out. It turns out (of course) that you choose one item from the top section - that's your appetizer - and one from the second section - your main course. Then you also get dessert included in the 25 euros. We felt embarrassed but for some reason the female waiter seems even more embarrassed and Peter said she turned quite red. We then order something from the main course part of the menu and I cant even remember what we had but I do remember it was tasty.

At this point, we notice the couple beside us is watching us, amused because we don't seem upset about any of the mix-up. We try to explain that we were confused (we don't know the word for that) and then Peter says in English, "I'm sorry, I didn't get the memo!" This cracks us up and we have to take some time to compose ourselves. For all that we may have seemed like idiot tourists, we had a fun time in spite of it.

They turn out to be an older couple from Switzerland, touring the area on bicycles. She speaks English, French and German but he mostly just speaks German but understands French. He speaks German to Peter who understands it perfectly and we women round things out with French and English and so we manage to have a polyglot conversation that is a lot of fun, even if tiring. We finally finish our dessert (creme caramel, I believe, what else?) and stagger back to the hotel with turns out to be completely quiet and dark, in total contrast to our Paris hotel. Small screaming birds (swifts or swallows) wake us up at about 4:30 am when the sun starts to make its presence felt.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

France 2008 - travel day, May 14

After a rough night in which people outside in the narrow street under our hotel window yelled at each other for hours, we had a nice petit dejeuner complet (I think that's what it was called - it had eggs, in any event) at the Bistro where we had our first beer. We had purchased tickets for the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) on the internet and our departure time was 1 pm so we had the morning to kill. We decided to walk across the Seine and have a look at the University in the Latin Quarter on the other side.

As we walked onto the bridge, I noticed two young women standing on a sort of pedestrian island. Later, we determined that on the left side of the wide bridge were two dedicated bus/taxi lanes that went in both directions. One of the women didn't look where she was going and stepped out onto the two lanes, right into the path of a taxi. The side of the car clipped her hand and spun her around and she fell forward onto the street. The taxi never even slowed down and didn't stop. Even if the pedestrian was at fault, it seems odd to me that the car wouldn't even stop.

Her friend screamed and traffic continued to go by while the woman who was hit got up and walked over to the main sidewalk at the side of the bridge where she had been headed. She had scraped her knees in the fall and she was nursing her hand which may very well have been broken in the impact, but otherwise, she seemed okay. A bus coming in the other direction stopped and a helpful woman got off and talked to the young women. We decided they had enough help and we didn't need to interfere so we kept on walking. But it was a bit of a shock and we weren't even involved.

It turns out that the Museum of Natural History is on the other side of the Seine at that bridge. We wandered around and looked at sculptures of dinosaurs and then headed up the busy, noisy road that runs along the river - the Quai Saint-Bernard. It seems the French love their cars and they zoom around in them all day, everywhere. There is never a lull in the traffic and I'm not sure if there are emission controls either. I sneezed regularly all the time we were in Paris. So we walked up the Quai and suddenly noticed what looked like pens behind the wall on our left as we were walking. It occurred to us that this might be a sort of zoo, when we spotted an Emu and then some other animals and finally ran across the sign that indicated it was indeed a Parc Zoologique. I mean, it's on the map, but we hadn't noticed.

By then, we'd had enough of cars and headed back to check out and trudge over to the Gare de Lyon where we were to catch the TGV. It was way early but I had a fear about missing this train that we'd paid big bucks for tickets in advance, so Peter indulged me and even though the train wasn't due to leave until 1 pm, we were there with our bags at 11 am. sigh. Sorry about it dude. So what do you do when you get to the station early and there are NO seats in the public areas? You sit down at the restaurant and have - you guessed it! a beer! We nursed that thing for over an hour until they finally started setting tables for lunch and then we felt we should move on.

The station itself is very pleasant to look at and I think I studied it (or one just like it) lo those many years ago when I took art history. It was quite the feat of architecture to span a huge open space like that, covering many tracks for the trains to come in and be under shelter. There was a large board with all the incoming and departing trains information on it and it was updated every few moments. Most of the trains left right on schedule, especially the TGV. Ours boarded about 10 minutes early and left right to the second, when it was due to.

The train journey itself was uneventful and the trains go so fast and I had had so little sleep the night before, that I fell asleep on the train and missed some lovely scenery. We changed trains to a regular local in Lyon and because we had a bit of time there between trains, we got a late lunch which consisted of a baguette sandwich with tomatoes and slices of brie. I don't ever remember having a brie sandwich in North America! Next stop - Arles.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

France 2008 - Paris, May 13

Still the afternoon and fading into evening:
In retrospect, our first day in France was totally successful. After we arrived, we got on the right train, made the right connexions ('correspondence'), walked short distances, found the hotel first try, had beer. At 4 pm we got up after a much needed nap and set out to see what see could see. Our hotel was on a tiny street called Rue d'Austerlitz, off the Rue de Bercy. We oriented ourselves using the Rue de Bercy and headed west toward a canal off the Seine, between the Boulevards Bourdon and de la Bastille.

We saw lots of activity and canvas awnings lining both sides of the canal but when we went to walk down what appeared to be a sort of flea market lining the canal wall, a man stopped us and asked for 8 Euros each as an entrance fee. I still don't know if Peter was acting innocent or jet lagged or just being provocative but the first word out of his mouth was, "Pourquoi?" and this just cracked up the entrance guy. He said the equivalent of "Good one!" and let us in for free. I have no idea if this tactic would ever work again.

It turns out it was like a flea market and everybody in there was selling something, from paintings to books to huge pieces of furniture.
Outfits I made that I wore in France
Here I am, pretending to look at picture frames. Every tenth vendor had their dog with them, some snoozing in little baskets under tiny cafe tables.

Later, we walk further west, into the Marais district and have a beer at a cafe, to rest and look at the map. We finish our very small draft ('pression') beers (at 250 ml, not very big at all) and continue on, just looking at things. Finally, we stop at yet another cafe, this time for a glass of real French wine (not to be confused with that stuff we get at the LCBO). It sounds like all we're doing so far is drinking but don't forget we were terribly dehydrated on the flight over.

We people watch and develop our theory of the Parisien. Peter takes a photo of a woman with a small black dog of indeterminate breed and she comes over to chat with us. She only speaks French and so we have a real conversation entirely in French with a real Parisienne. It turns out she is from Normandy, but she has lived in Paris for the last 30 years so I count that as being Parisienne. We are amazed by how our French comes back to us and how we are able to make ourselves understood. If Peter can't think of a word, sometimes I do or we just describe whatever it is in other words. No one seems to mind that we lapse into English in order to think through what we want to say and then launch back into high school French. We speak slowly, with a smile, make an effort and are rewarded by Parisiens being nice to us.

Finally, it's time for dinner so we find a place that looks inviting and have something light - not a whole three course meal or anything. It's still light even at 9 pm. I don't remember where we walked exactly but we ended up walking alongside the Seine. Apparently we walked fairly far west because when we turned to walk home, we were past the Ile Saint-Louis (the one without Notre Dame) and so we stopped there for coffee and dessert. And met an American woman artist who struck up a conversation with us, which was quite friendly. She was from New York City but spent a lot of time in Paris. She wondered where were we from since we seemed to be mangling both English and French (not what she said! but what I felt was happening). We told her it was the jet lag and we were Canadian, so that explained a lot.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

France 2008 - Paris, May 13

After our much-needed nap that wasn't nearly long enough, we change and walk out onto the streets of Paris. I have lived in Europe (but a long time ago) but this was Peter's first trip and our first trip together so it was all new and good. We had a map of the city and just decided to walk in one direction and then another, covering some of the Marais in the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements.

I start developing a theory of Parisiens, working against the stereotype that they are rude. Of course, you get rude people wherever you go but my generalisations lead me to a theory that Parisiens just "Do". They don't ask permission, they don't say "do you mind if...", they only obey the rules if they must (and the rules make sense). However, they do say "excusez moi" If they bump into you and they say "Bonjour" when you enter their shops. What I don't feel is an overweening sense of entitlement that I sometimes get in North America.

Peter opines that because they live in a large, congested city (he has been reading up on Paris and it has the greatest population density of any European city, according to "France for Dummies" which we left there, rather than carry it home so I can't look it up), they have limited resources and just want to make things work. If officious people came along all the time and told them not to park on the sidewalk for just five minutes, the level of frustration would explode. When they do park on the sidewalk to unload something, they don't expect anyone to accommodate them. They just do what they have to and move on. And yet, we don't see people taking advantage of lack of rule enforcement, maybe because they know the few could spoil it for the many.

Unfortunately, my laissez-faire opinion of them to the good does not extend to their resolute refusal to even acknowledge that their dogs poop. I have watched them (and the Brits too, I must say) stand and stare at anything but their dog while their dog poops and then nonchalantly stroll away leaving the evidence behind. Of course some people do this in North America but more people pick up I think than not, judging by the evidence. It is likely one reason that they have street sweepers out every day. The street sweepers really do keep the place clean and that's appreciated. But I wonder if that's why dog owners don't pick up - because they can get away with it.
France 2008
As for this bit of evidence, not only do I not know how it got up there, but I would guess the motorized street sweepers didn't get it the next morning.

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France 2008 - Paris, May 13

We get in to Charles deGaulle at about 8 am on the red-eye (there's a reason they call it that) and after a very disorganized shuffle through Customs, we find the train that will take us into downtown Paris. 8 Euro each and you can transfer to the Metro when you get downtown. Every square inch of vertical space beside the tracks is covered in graffiti. Disgruntled youths, perhaps. Certainly not budding artists. We watch the place names go by while we are still above ground and marvel that we are indeed, in France. Le Bourget, Aulnay-sous-Bois, La Plaine Stade de France. There were others but only the local trains stop there and now I don't see them on the map and I didn't write them down.

We change trains to get on the Metro and end up at the Gare de Lyon. Our choice of lightish weight backpacks proves to be a good one. We manage to find the right exit, based on where we think our hotel is and narrowly miss choosing to go in the wrong direction based on street names. For a moment, we thought we had to cross the Seine and it was our skepticism that that should be the case that made us look at the Metro neighbourhood map one more time. There are maps of the 'hood outside each Metro stop and they are handy for getting yourself oriented. It would be more helpful if there was an indication of North on the pavement outside the Metro because there are often multiple exits. I got this idea from a New Yorker who said they had a sort of contest to elicit ideas for improving the subway and that was one of them. It never was implemented, but what a good idea.

We come up from underground and blink in the bright sunlight. Get out the map and stumble the 5 minutes to our hotel on sore and swollen ankles (mine, anyway). Find out that the rooms are not available yet as checkout is 11am and they have to be cleaned which will take until about 1pm. We leave our packs at the Hotel Gare de Lyon and stumble back around the corner to a tiny bistro. By then it is nearing noon and I rationalize that I am so dehydrated and jet-lagged and in need of something sustaining that we order our first beer in Paris. Mmm, beer.
France 2008
We sit and drink beer and observe. There is a Velib stand right down the sidewalk and we watch as some people stop or start from there and many more whiz by on the narrow but busy street. This is our "recover from jet lag" day so we don't have ambitions to see much of Paris before we take off for Arles tomorrow. We finally go back to the hotel where our room is ready and have a shower in one of the world's smallest showers. At least we have a bathroom in our room, I am thankful for that bit of planning and extra splurge. We collapse on the bed and sleep for the next few hours, having set an alarm so we don't sleep too much.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

France 2008 - travel tip 2

UPGRADE. Sure, it's $2000 more than economy but you're worth it, right?
I had forgotten the (literal) pain of a flight longer than 4 hours, sitting in economy. And I think they have moved the seats closer together (front to back) compared with my last long flight across the Atlantic in 1996, and they were tight back then. I could not bend forward to untie my shoes. My head hit the back of the chair in front of me. And when the person in front "reclined" (even if you only get to go back a few inches), it felt like an invasion of my personal space.

Flying east, I thought about the airline executives who made the decision to cram another three people into that metal tube and I decided they should be tried for their crimes against humanity and sentenced to sit in economy seats. Flying west, I thought if you strapped a monkey into one of those seats and made it sit there for 6 or 7 hours, you would have the animal rights people all over you. But we put up with it because we understand. Good grief. When we got to Paris, my ankles had swelled up like grapefruits and I couldn't see the ankle bones at all. Interestingly, they hardly swelled on the way home. I suppose it was a combination of factors - the flight over was a night flight during which I hardly slept at all, I was dehydrated and I was tense, man. Anyway.

They tell you to get up and walk around the cabin but that's always complicated by the drinks cart being in the aisle half the time. It was further complicated on the way home by the fact that we were in seats A and B of three abreast and C, the aisle seat, was occupied by a cranky older woman whose face was permanently set into a frown (I checked and she looked like that when she was sleeping too). Soon after take-off, we both needed to pee and so we indicated that we needed her to stand up and let us out. She did, but with a singular lack of grace. Getting in and out of seats also isn't easy because you cannot stand up straight but had to hunch your way in, bending to fit yourself around the seat in front. When we got back, we wondered if we'd be able to pee again during the flight. Luckily, she decided to get up some hours later and walk around so we made a sprint for the bathroom then, so as not to inconvenience her. Some people should just get over themselves.

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