“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”
Rose D. Kaye
For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.
‘Dogs and Guns’
Our overnight trip to Paris came to a rather abrupt end. We strolled along the Seine the length of the Île de la Cite to Pont Neuf; watching tour boats sparsely populated with bundled-up tourists cruise slowly upstream. On the other side of the narrow street was the imposing facade of le Palais de Justice. Part of the former royal palace which still houses Sainte Chapelle, today it is guarded by stern faced gendarmes in blue while rows and rows of police vehicles line the sides. Despite the presence of so much security, the streets and sidewalks were open to the public, although the unblinking stares of the corniced windows did hasten our steps somewhat. We had planned to keep walking until we reached the Tuileries Garden and then travel to see the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, but Diane could do no more.
A quick check of the map and we rode le Métro from Pont Neuf to le Musée du Louvre. There we saw the courtyard, took a picture of the glass pyramid and then decided it was too cold to go anywhere else. Back onto le Métro then transferred to the RER B line and rode one stop north to Gare de Nord. I must mention that the sprawling RER station at Châtelet-Les Halles was amazing with three different RER lines converging and trains in both directions on multiple platforms constantly. When combined with the two stations and the five lines of the connecting Métro it’s the world’s largest underground station in area with more than 750,000 passengers every day. The boys were in heaven.
At Gare de Nord we emerged from the train to find ourselves in a vast shopping arcade. We had taken le Métro only yesterday from here and had not seen this area because it was part of the RER station. It was a sprawling complex but the only restrooms we could find charged a euro to utilize. We were three hours early and could not check-in to the Eurostar terminal so we sat on our backpacks and waited an hour until they let us through. While we waited I looked around the terminal at all the frantic activities. Each platform was rarely empty, as soon as one train would depart, another TGV or a burgundy Thalys train would enter the station. (Thalys is a service provided jointly by the Belgian, French, Dutch and German railways and has replaced nearly all short-haul air travel.) There they would be cleaned and restocked and within the hour would depart once more filled with business travelers. All except the Eurostar trains, which were arriving twenty to fifty minutes late on their two segregated platforms. Departures were on time though so I could only assume that trains were being swapped assignments.
The other very noticeable presence was the gendarmes in large numbers, both singly and in groups. However, the active security provided by paratroopers bearing assault rifles was even more visible. A combat patrol went by while we sat against the wall. An officer was on point and two soldiers in a triangle formation followed behind with fingers near triggers slowly walking and scanning the area for hostiles. We merited but a brief sweeping glance, seen, analyzed and dismissed in a fraction of a second. Steady hand signals from the front directed the action. A short time later another soldier came by, followed by his handler; a free roaming German shepherd sniffing for foreign substances.
The security procedures were similar to yesterday’s at Waterloo, except here, the French Border Police stamped your passport upon exit and sent you round the corner to be processed through the United Kingdom immigration control. For a brief period of time, we were no longer in France, but not yet admitted to the U.K. We were in no man’s land and the feeling was distinctly unsettling. This was by far the most stringent checkpoint we encountered during the entire journey and we saw several passengers being interrogated quite strongly as to the reasons for wanting to enter Great Britain.
In the departure lounge, because we were so early, there were still two scheduled trains leaving before ours. We found seats and rested our weary feet for an hour and a half. In the far corner, with lots of boxes and luggage filled with purchases, there was a small group of Korean couples traveling together. They wound up sitting next to us on our coach and seemed to be having a grand time. As in Miami when we flew out, there were also lots of children toting Disney souvenirs. Eurostar runs one daily excursion train from London direct to Euro Disney, but with changing at various stations along the line including service on the RER A line to Marne-la-Vallée, there are numerous times and directions throughout the day that families can arrive at Disney.
It’s at night when a train journey most feels like flying. Except for distant lights and the ‘whump’ and rhythmic compression of an express scurrying by in the opposite direction, you are reduced to your seat and to surreptitiously studying your fellow passengers. I’m not one to romanticize anything, so the Eurostar service, while quick and efficient, showed the strain that marks shuttles the world over. Sacrificing luxury and leisure for speed and practicality, as the distances between place and destination continue to shrink, what is lost is the time spent relaxing and becoming. In fact, it was very jarring to enter in Paris and exit in London; somehow, it didn’t seem real.
The ride home on the Eurostar left on time although we were a few minutes late in arriving, primarily because north of Brixton we traveled a different inbound route. It must have been quite a sight to be waiting at a small urban station in the dark and see an express train sweep through instead. The Tube journey home was without incident although for ten o’clock at night the trains were still packed with passengers. Ann picked us up at the station and took us home. Home, our temporary home had become a welcome retreat.
So what were my overall feelings towards Paris? The average person in the street was always scurrying somewhere but the shopkeepers at least were eager to serve. Everyone, without exception, would say ‘bonjour’ and wish you ‘bonne journée’ when you left the store. There was though a weary sense of fatigue to the City of Lights. A perverse pride in the tight parking, the crowded boulevards, the extremely high prices, the swarms of tourists and the resultant dirt and trash that coated the sidewalks. Perhaps this patina is what marks all great cities, but here in Paris, it detracted from the beautiful history blossoming around every corner.
“Any comments anyone? Yes Diane?”
“Paris fell short of my expectations Dewy, but I did have prior illusions of grandeur. I was expecting a trophy city, pristine and welcoming. I thought it would be bigger than it was, but even being so compact, it was difficult to find your way around. I found Paris to be a very fast paced city; maybe the problem is they don’t have time for tourists. I guess I expected there to be more of an effort to guide visitors. Instead it seemed to be that you had to find it yourself. Is that how you felt Brian?”
“It’s interesting you remember the fast pace Diane because I compare Paris to New York City in the sense of purpose and culture. I enjoyed Paris for the history and would like to return someday to explore all the museums and monuments. My overwhelming impression was the sense of distrust and distance when around others in public. This contrasted with what Rose pointed out, that the service people were very pleasant and accommodating. An interesting contradiction and one I’m sure that has been noted before.”