“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”
Rose D. Kaye
For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.
‘God Is Hungry’
On our way to Notre Dame Cathedral, we bought one-day Mobilis passes at the Passy station and then transferred after traveling one stop to the RER C line that runs along the Seine. The RER (Réseau Express Régional) is a regional train system run in part by RATP – Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens – that since 1948 has also operated all Paris bus lines and le Métro as an integrated transit system for le Île-de-France. We found the signage even more confusing than le Métro and wound up on the wrong platform at Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel, (forgetting that the RER ran opposite side from le Métro) but the error was quickly realized and corrected. The view was stunning as this particular station is open to the Seine and there were many decorative house barges complete with requisite bicycles tied up along both stone banks. When our train pulled in on the left-side tracks headed east, the large double-decker coaches were clean inside although many had graffiti on the outside. Every tunnel and rail line we saw was covered with graffiti right up to the third rail.
Conceived as the link between the underground Métro of central Paris and the overcrowded main rail stations serving the greater Paris region, the first stages of the RER were constructed and opened in the years between 1962 and 1977. The first station opened on December 12, 1969 and the A and B lines began full service under the RER name on December 9th, 1977. The RER A line is in fact the most heavily used transit line outside of Japan and should be avoided whenever possible by using le Métro 14. To relieve the overcrowded original two lines, the ever-expanding service has now reached a total of 365-miles of track on a total of five separate lines. Lines C, D and E however, are actually operated by SNCF, since 1938 the national rail service of France. Over two billion passenger trips are taken yearly on the combined system of le Métro and the RER and this has allowed, for the first time, the integration of the capital with the dense population in the communities that encircle Paris.
As with the London Underground the Paris Metro offers a wide variety of payment options. The Paris Visite Card is a 1 to 5 day pass that covers all Metro lines, buses and the RER and some suburban SNCF rail lines. The single day is $27 up to the five day at $70. As a single one-way ticket – valid for up to 90 minutes – is 1.50 euros or about $2.25, you’d have to take between six to twelve trips a day to use up the pass versus only a trip a day in London. The daily Mobilis pass offers travel within various zones starting at 5.60 euros up to 9.30 for all zones. Again though, for traveling in central Paris you would need to take four separate trips before it would save money over buying single fare tickets each time. You can buy a packet of ten tickets called the Carnet for 11.10 euros or the equivalent of the Oyster Card called the Carte Orange for weekly and monthly travel. Both long-term passes do require an attached photo ID for all users.
We found that since we were arriving mid-afternoon and leaving the following evening that a single journey ticket the first day and a Mobilis pass the second day worked out the best economically. One caveat in this is the comfort of having a pass already in hand. Although the ticket booths in the international area stations may be used to dealing with foreigners, the same may not be true in other areas. The same can be said of course in London or in fact any country in the world where your particular language is not readily spoken. A smile, a bonjour and a merci go a long way in Paris.
The day was cold but with a brilliant blue sky, the sun was dazzling when we emerged onto the plaza to the west of Notre Dame de Paris. Having seen pictures many times before we were still moved by the way the cathedral is at once stunning yet quiet and dignified. Despite the brisk wind chill there were throngs of tourists entering and exiting the front doors and in the plaza, lots of beggars. On the trains, at the stations, here in front of Notre Dame as well we saw many beggars working the crowds. Some had children with them while others asked if anyone spoke English. If someone said yes, then an appeal for money was made based on the loss of a ticket or a valuable being stolen. The locals studiously ignored the begging and we took our turn to enter Notre Dame. The mid-day service was nearly over and we quietly joined in circling the nave counter clockwise.
Once inside the cathedral, at every section there where signs asking for donations. Two euros for a votive candle, one euro for a tea light candle, five euros for a tall glass votive with a picture and two euros for a devotion; two euros and up for anything and everything. The gift shop was doing a brisk business with the treasures of the Pope. I realize it takes vast sums of money to maintain a functioning church and certainly for all its grandeur and inspiring architecture, Notre Dame the religious church gets lost in the swarms of visitors. But where is the line between faith and commerce?
Last night on the walk after dinner we had encountered a homeless man and nearing the hotel Brian saw him again: bedded down upon cardboard on the cold concrete sidewalk with another man to spend the night outside. He gave them each two euros and they thanked him, but what for? A simple gesture but futile in the end. What then should we have done? Here were living examples of the boulders swept past by society’s river of prosperity yet all the money we had on us would not make a change in the lives of these two homeless men. So give two euros to the poor or light a candle in prayer? Which one is more effective? Which one means more to God?
I felt slightly overwhelmed by the masses of people inside the cathedral. The interior space is larger than it appears from the outside and a slight queasiness occurred when looking up. It’s apparent that the design was intended to create a sense of awe and humility in the worshippers, but I felt uneasy at the scale of construction. It didn’t feel warm, but rather distant and chilling. I was relieved when we left and felt that I could breathe again. From across the Seine, in many ways the exterior of Notre Dame is even more impressive. Certainly the stained glass windows are magnificent seen from the interior and the care and love shines through each panel. The stories they tell are a visual reminder of the faith in a higher power. For me, the towers, the flying buttresses, the gargoyles were more accessible; the entire history of France for the last 850 years is etched in the stone facade. Even though it is a large edifice, the view from the street seems to be more human scaled. Perhaps it was the hunger we were feeling, but the few hours we spent here left us slightly unsettled. Respect yes, but also the acknowledgment that Notre Dame de Paris represented an era when the Church was the State and for many, that was not something worth celebrating.
By now lunch was badly needed after the croissant and raspberry tart consumed for breakfast. It’s been observed by friends that we are obsessed with food but that is incorrect. Both Brian and Diane suffer from medical conditions that require regular meals. Any outing of sustained length must have prior plans for food breaks. Waiting until hungry will cause impaired judgment and in some cases, medical intervention. We knew that a diner called ‘Breakfast In America’ was only a few blocks away at 17, rue des Écoles, so off we schlepped to partake in some home cooking. It’s a small storefront restaurant whose bright crimson awning can be seen from a fair distance away. Once inside, there were four red stools at a short laminate topped counter and a handful of red vinyl booths with room to accommodate four people. A few tables at the front and at the ends, it was an intimate space and every booth was occupied. We sat at the counter, which was fun. Memorabilia covered the walls and familiar American music played in the background while the metal utensils clanked out a loud tempo on the short order grill. The lone waitress was named Leslie and she had moved from Toronto, Canada, two and a half years earlier. She informed us in English, or Canadian – she spoke French away from work – that she was friendly and the food was reasonably priced for Paris plus the bonus of being very tasty.
The restaurant was busy and in America we would call this place the local hole-in-the-wall where town politics and Little League sports would be discussed over endless cups of coffee. A place that exists in the mind of many as the ‘real America’ but which is a place that has faded from most people’s view. It is still there. In every town, in every state, there exists a place like this that the locals call their own and where the waitress calls you ‘honey’. The food is old-fashioned, greasy and heavy and the way life never was, but should have been, becomes real once more. Here in Paris, many of the patrons spoke French – obviously – but even so, there was a sense of camaraderie and connection. Despite our differences we were welcomed and never more was a more sincere ‘bonne journée’ heard than when we left.
“Rose you raise some salient points in this chapter about the conflicts between religion and commerce.”
“Or when religion and commerce are the same Dewy. This was my impression of Notre Dame, not anyone else’s. I do feel that God is hungry and for much more than a devotion or a prayer in a resplendent building.”
“Yet you also include the conflict that having so many tourists creates. Aren’t you then part of the problem Rose?”
“I told you at the beginning Dewy that I hadn’t solved the ethical dilemma of travel. I loved the history and grandeur of Notre Dame and Paris in general, but I also understand the complex relationship between residents and visitors; and between religion and faith and wealth and poverty. The distance I felt from the city and its people did not diminish the accomplishments they’d achieved.”
“All right, fair enough, Rose. What about lunch? Diane the ‘American Diner’ sounds like a place you would enjoy.”
“Yes it was Dewy, I’m the kinda girl that enjoys a hearty meal and a juicy burger. I actually selected a fish sandwich with fries and a salad though. I wouldn’t recommend the iced tea in Paris; it was weakly brewed. I had read about the restaurant in our guidebook, ‘Paris for Dummies’. There are two locations, both within walking distance of Notre Dame.”
“Brian, as a vegetarian, would you say that your trip offered a greater variety of food than back home?”
“That’s a good question Dewy. I think ten years ago the answer would have been yes, however, in almost all American restaurants today, you can order at least one vegetarian entrée. There is also an increased selection of vegetarian products available in supermarkets, but I still think we lag behind Europe in that respect. Here I selected a veggie wrap that I could have eaten anywhere which came with a ton of fries. I also had a root beer, which brought back some good memories for the boys. Another thing I liked was the carafe of water available on the counter. I always dislike waiting for refills.”
“Rose you write above about the atmosphere in the restaurant. Did you feel at home?”
“Not as such Dewy. It was more the relaxed and comfortable feeling that the whole place generated. We felt like we were among friends and the familiar clinking sound of utensils on the grill was so soothing. Watching them eat, I was happy they were having a good time. You gave the food a thumbs up, right Diane?”
“Yes I did, especially the mountain of fries! Dewy it was like they gave us each a full meal of them. Real good though, long and thin and crunchy and slathered in ketchup, they were so good. Like I said, I enjoy comfort food.”
“What about the waitress Leslie? How did you know her name Rose?”
“While Brian was eating, I was busy writing in my notebook Dewy. I came out and asked her for her name and I explained that I was writing a book. I wanted to make sure she was ok with being in the finished result. I also wrote her a note, then signed it and planned to send her a copy.”
“Overall Diane, how were you faring with all the walking and sightseeing?”
“I was holding up Dewy, being stoic. So much to see; I didn’t want to stop. Notre Dame was beautiful, absolutely breathtaking. The windows? Indescribable and the atmosphere felt ancient. You could hear all the times gone past when you were staring at the stained glass.”
An interesting observation that I had in Paris was that most people assumed Brian was French. He’d say ‘bonjour’ and the person would smile and let loose a rapid-fire volley of Parisienne French to which Brian would be forced to shrug and resort to pantomime. Despite the language barrier though, most service people did speak some English and greeting them politely in the native tongue smoothed most transactions. “Deux croissants si’l vous plait” was the phrase of the visit. After our lunch we walked back towards Notre Dame and made several stops for provisions. Since we were headed home that evening, we wanted some food for the return train trip to London. A fruit store yielded a pear and an apple, while at a bakery nearby the choice was a loaf of fresh peasant bread. The pantomime came into play with the desire to have the loaf sliced. Some postcards and a liter of water completed the sum total of our Paris purchases. Not counting the hotel, we had spent 90 euros in 24 hours, a drop in the bucket.
Considering the compact size of Paris it does a tremendous volume of business. [All figures based on 2006 numbers.] Around 1.7 billion dollars is the size of the daily economic impact of the Paris metropolitan region. By comparison London’s daily economy yields 1.8 billion dollars. In the United States New York City generates a daily business of 2.7 billion dollars while the world leader is Tokyo at 5.4 billion dollars created every day. Just these four cities have a Gross Domestic Product of 11.6 billion dollars in one single day, day after day. Compare that to the Sudan, a country that has a yearly GDP of 98 billion dollars, mostly from oil. Residents in and visitors to London, Paris, New York and Tokyo generate in little over a week what a country of 40 million does in a year. Of course civil war and genocide in Darfur tend to put a damper on discretionary spending.