France on Fridays: Escalier au Ciel

REPOSTED from a 2011 series of posts
entitled LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE.

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Stairway to Heaven • Sunday, June 4

In a city with one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, where do you go on Sunday morning? Mass at Notre Dame, bien sur!

Leaving the hotel, DeLinda and I walk the now-familiar streetscape, winding past the shops and cafés we’ve come to know on this daily passage. It is not as foreign as it was that first, map-in-hand day. The pâtisserie, the copy shop, the boutiques. The lovely French women in scarves and heels with wisps of perfume drifting as they pass. The short Napoleon-like Frenchmen, confident in stride and stance. It is the transition that happens whenever you travel, small and careful steps concede to confident stride.

We stop at one of the pâtisseries along the way to sample the morning fare.

Bonjour,” we smile to the woman behind the counter; she reminds me of my high school French teacher, Mrs. Masaccio.

Bon matin,” she smiles back.

In broken French, we make our selections and watch as she wraps our treats in tissue paper and slips them into parchment bags.

She is the owner, and I think of the business owners I know at home. My clients opening their shops on Main Street in the early morning.

“What is it like?” I want to ask, “being a woman business owner in France?”

“I own a business, too.” I would tell her.

“How long have you been doing this? Do you enjoy your work?”

But I do not have the words for the conversation I would like to have, so I just nod my appreciation and give her a knowing smile. I like to think she understands.

The Metro stop is around the corner, and we descend into the winding tunnels of lovely white tile, decorated with bold colored advertisements, and glide along to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

The plaza in front of Notre Dame is early-morning quiet. Instead of the hum of tourists, DeLinda and I are greeted by the glorious sounds of the bells of Notre Dame chiming out the hour. Above us, the three amazing carved portals, the crazy-quilt of architecture, the immense flying buttresses, and the famous gargoyles watching our every step.

Inside, a heavy smoke of incense lofts overhead, the choir sings in French, and a muffled “Amen” marks the ending of the 8:30 mass. It sends a chill up my arms. This place is dark and still, holy and…familiar.

I was raised Catholic, but it has been many, many years since I voluntarily entered a church to attend a mass. I am not prepared for the wave of emotion that fills me as I walk around the tourist perimeter of the cathedral. The tears sneak up on me as if to reveal some past, deep sadness, and they don’t stop.

“Was it a spiritual moment?” a friend will ask me later. Spiritual, perhaps, but in the moment it is quite off-putting, and I wonder to myself, “Am I supposed to be Catholic after all?” The thought surprises me, here in Paris, here on vacation.

Sitting through the 10:00 mass, old memories visit. I remember my Grandmother and her quiet reverence of her faith. I remember my father and his Catholic upbringing. I remember how important it was to my parents that I be raised Catholic. And for a while, it seems like this is an important moment. Perhaps I’d been too stubborn in turning away from the religion of my family. Perhaps I had not understood it enough, not given it enough time or patience.

And then, in a dark and righteous voice, the priest reads the second reading, while I follow along in printed English…

“I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfill the desires of your lower nature. That nature sets its desires against the Spirit, while the Spirit fights against it…. Anyone can see the kind of behavior that belongs to the lower nature: fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who behave in such ways will never inherit the kingdom of God.”

His voice reminds my of my Grandmother’s funeral and the priest who warned us of the error of our ways, the darkness that would come to us in the end. “Beware,” he’d intoned in a deep, ominous voice, “for ye know not when you will be taken.” There had been no celebration of her life, just a dark foreboding of death and damnation. I’d felt alienated then, and again, now, as I sit in this beautiful testament to faith and art and reverence.

“What a shame,” I think, “to use this magnificent creation for the execution of man-made rules of right and wrong. Here, in this impressive space, it should be a celebration of our amazing gifts, the beauty of this place…the magic of this life.”

Then I relax into my seat, tune out the sermon, fold the mass program in quarters, and silently celebrate all that is in front of us. The mass is spoken and sung in French, voices echoing against the immense stone walls, the grand Rose Window glows from the morning sun. Heavenly French perfumes mix with divine incense, and stir the senses.

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Click here for a slide show of photos called: The Spirit of Notre Dame

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Sitting against our small wooden chairs, DeLinda and I pat each other softly as if to say: “I know, isn’t this amazing?,” “I know, aren’t you so glad we did this?” “I know, it’s almost over.” I forgot how long a Catholic mass can be.

After mass, we wander the grounds of Notre Dame and stop for lunch — French onion soup and croque-monsieur — at a café amidst the sudden flurry of tourists. From our window seats, now, it is hard to believe this space was so still and silent just hours earlier.

Despite our agenda for the day, the café insists we stay a while. It is like that here — sit, stay, relax — not at all like the fast-lane, drive-thru, hurry pace of home. The French, for example, have yet to master “to go.” After lunch, our “take-away” coffees take 10 minutes to prepare and are served in scalding-hot cups sans lids!

Leaving Notre Dame, we make our way across the Île de la Cité to Sainte-Chapelle, a 750-year old Gothic chapel said to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Perhaps this is the reason we encounter the x-ray machine and pat-down security at the main gate. Another sign, like the machine-gun-carrying guards at the Eiffel Tower, that our world has changed greatly since my early dreams of this place.

Saint-Chapelle is a glorious structure that, once inside, appears to be made entirely of stained glass. In the upper chapel, every inch of wall, floor, and ceiling is gilded and ornate. Detailed mosaic tiled floors, decoratively painted trompe l’oeil walls, and elaborate wood carvings set the stage. The King’s throne sits high above; it looks like the inside of a Fabergé egg. And then! The stained-glass windows! There are 15 windows totaling more than 6,500 square feet of glass. With shimmering colors of cobalt and ruby and emerald, you feel like you are standing inside a kaleidoscope.

We stay for a while, then leave and find our way to an outdoor flower and bird market, across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou for a visit to the famous colorful, dancing Stravinsky Fountain.

It has been a long day, but we have one more stop before day’s end — the top of Notre Dame. In preparation, we find a corner café and feast on chocolate mousse, fresh raspberry tart and frothy, decadent hot chocolates! Outside the café window, the Seine and street vendors, and Paris in her Sunday best.

“You should not ascend to the towers if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or suffer from vertigo,” warn the signs at the entrance of the Notre Dame towers, sounding like one of those U.S. pharmaceutical commercials. DeLinda and I, feeling young and healthy — and appropriately nourished with chocolate — walk through the doorway.

As our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see a dark column of stone spiral steps leading upward. 387 steps, to be precise. Three hundred and eighty-seven. The width of the staircase is no more than five feet across, and the steps no deeper than 10 inches. Their centers are worn, with smooth indentations marking the millions of visitors who have also braved this staircase.

We hold tightly to the metal railing along the outside of the column and pull ourselves up, step by step, trying to stay at the widest edge. In doing so, we find ourselves looking down, guiding our feet so as not to lose footing. And then, looking up to see where we are…it turns out we do suffer from vertigo after all!

“It’s a good thing,” I wheeze to DeLinda, “we did this for my fortieth birthday. Any later, and I’d be dead by now.”

We would have laughed. We didn’t have the lung capacity.

And so we climb. Around and around. And around. Small windows at each story trick us into thinking we’re almost there. Voices above and behind us encourage the same, “We’re almost there. Almost there.” But we’re not, so we just keep climbing. There’s no alternative, really.

Three hundred and eighty-seven steps and several seated pauses later, we find ourselves at the top of Notre Dame overlooking Paris; it is worth every gasp of breath and aching muscle!

From the top, we visit up close with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, including the famous Stryga. We see the magnificent facets of the stonework and sculptures. We see the details in the city below, the perfect lines of streets and houses and building laid out in geometric perfection.

We can see for miles, and catch glimpses of where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. We watch the tiny specks of people walking in the plaza below, the skateboarders performing on the sidewalk — each of us silently dreading the 387 steps we must now descend to find our way home for the evening. There’s no alternative, really.

Do you know how, when you learn something new or are thinking about something in particular, you see it more often? Notice it more than you would have if you weren’t thinking about it? Well, I will tell you, there are an awful lot of steps in Paris! I had not noticed them before our trek to the top of Notre Dame, but I do now: the steps down to the Metro, the steps from one train line to the next, the steps out of the Metro station near La Madeleine up to Rue Royale, the two stories of mercifully carpeted spiral steps we must climb to our hotel room — the elevator mysteriously out-of-order for the evening.

We settle in to our nightly routine. DeLinda writes quietly in her journal, and pens poetic postcards home. I shuffle through my backpack — dumping everything out on the bed, tucking away the day’s collections, reorganizing the contents neatly for the next. We wash our clothes in the sink, roll them to dry and hang them where we can with hopes they will be clean-enough and unwrinkled by morning.

As we crawl into bed wearily before seven, we look forward to the day ahead, our last full day in Paris.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

For more by Jen Payne, purchase a copy of Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind! BUY THE BOOK TODAY!

France on Fridays: Revenez à Paris, Le Jour Final

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Return to Paris: The Final Day • Tuesday, June 14

In the morning, DeLinda and I quietly gather our things, return the rental car, and walk to the train station. Our road trip complete, we make our way via high speed Eurorail from Annecy four hours back to Paris.

The train ride is fascinating. Out from the mountains, back through flat countryside and rolling patterns of green hills and trees, past white-dotted landscapes with sheep and cows, until the cities begin to reappear outside the window. Across the aisle, a lovely Frenchman serves as additional scenic view — his certainly-Roman profile with dark curled hair inspires day-lit dreams.

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Scroll right to see some photos en route.

On the Train

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We arrive at Paris Gare Lyon at 13:00 to unexpected heat and humidity that drop down on us heavily as we exit the train. The station reminds me of an Impressionist painting, though I know not by whom. It is frenzied with activity this day. Perhaps the unexpected wave of summer heat initiates a grand exodus from the city? We would be of like mind, were it not our last full day in France.

Lugging our belongings, we quickly exit the un-air conditioned station and find a taxi to take us to our final stop, Hôtel Splendid Etoile, or “splendid star.” This last night is our one splurge—a four-star 250€ a night hotel located one block west of the Arc de Triomphe. We count not one, but three well-appointed spaces in this room: a bedroom with two twin beds more than a foot apart, a dresser and crystal chandelier; a sitting room with couches and a television; and a bathroom with toilet, bidet and full shower (complete with shower curtain and overhead nozzle), set against floor-to-ceiling marble. It is grand, and the 10-foot windows offer up new views of the city and the very top of the Arc de Triomphe.

A blanket of summer envelops us as we exit the hotel and cross the street for lunch. It has been a mere seven hours since we left Annecy, but the heat makes it feel longer. We dine on light salads and cold water before quickly returning to our air-conditioned hotel for naps.

Some three hours later, we leave the Hôtel Splendid Etoile and wander off into Paris for our final evening. We are determined to see the lights of the “City of Lights” before we leave for home.

In no hurry — it is only 7:00 with hours until sunset — we walk through the Le Quartier de Chaillot, past fancy shops and grand houses. France is playing in the World Cup soccer tournament this day, and crowds of cheering fans gather in local cafés for the event.

A block away from the Seine, we find a rather cosmopolitan bistro, deVèz, and dine street-side near Place de L’Alma—our final meal in France. We are quiet; tired, no doubt, reflecting on the many days, amazed this is our last. The expressions on our faces tell it all — we have done it. On our own, by ourselves, without major incident. We have done this. We have done this!

After dinner, we wander…crossing the street with le petit homme vert, past the Grand Palais, over the Seine across Pont Alexandre III once more, through the park of perfectly manicured trees, towards the Eiffel Tower. Backtracking, almost, the steps of our first days here in France.

La difference? The sun sets, the sky goes dark, and — as if on cue — the Eiffel Tower beams in a grand display of sparkling lights and illumination. A celebration, it seems, for us and our grand adventure. Les Deux Amis en France…finalement.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art
Escalier au Ciel
Plus Escaliers et Alors Nous Arrêtons
Le Voyage de la Route!
Les Américains
Saints et Soldats
Tapisserie et Tripe
Sur La Route Encore
Visions de Monet et des Montagnes
Choix d’un Pas Plus Lent
Été sur Le Lac

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

France on Fridays: Le Voyage de la Route!

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Road Trip! • Tuesday, June 6

In the morning, we gather our things, say goodbye to our petite chambre, and enjoy our final breakfast at Hôtel Rochambeau. We wait patiently, then, in the lobby for our taxi. Some 45 minutes later, it arrives and the driver not-so-kindly tosses our luggage into the car. It is hard to tell who is more annoyed — the cranky cab driver who does not want to be bothered by our tiny fare, or DeLinda and I for the wait. We are anxious to be on our way. We may have thought twice.

Our car finally negotiated with the rental car agency, we arrange our things in the back seat and settle in for the ride. Our journey over the next eight days will take us northwest to Normandy, southeast to Annecy, and back to Paris. DeLinda takes the helm, and I settle in as co-pilot, giant Michelin Atlas in hand.

Our itinerary reads: 979.9 kilometers; 1 day, 1 hour and 28 minutes. In total, including day trips, it will be close to 2300 kilometers (1400 miles). But, this will not be our longest road trip together; in 2003, we trekked some 2400 kilometers into West Texas and Big Bend National Park. Still, by comparison and experience, driving a rental car across a foreign country for a week seems beaucoup plus grand.

The directions, supplied by our travel agent Liz and her French counterparts at Legends Travel, read like an obscene science experiment.

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9:00 AM 0.0km Depart 27 Rue Saint-Ferdinand, 75017 Paris on Place Saint-Ferdinand (North-West) for 60m

9:00 AM 0.1 km Exit roundabout onto Rue Saint-Ferdinand for 02km

9:01 AM 0.3KM Turn RIGHT (West) onto Avenue de 113 Grande Armee for 0.1km

9:01 AM 0.4 KM At roundabout, take the FOURTH exit for 0.3km towards Peripherique / Porte de Neuilly / Porte des Ternes

9:01 AM 0.7KM Exit roundabout onto Avenue de Neuilly for 0.1km

9:02 AM 0.8KM Turn RIGHT (North) onto Place de Verdun [Porte Maillot] for 30m

9:02 AM 0.9 KM Turn LEFT (West) onto Avenue Charles de Gaulle for 02km

9:02 AM 1.0 KM Bear RIGHT (West) onto N13 [Avenue Charles de Gaulle] for 2.0km

9:04 AM 3.1KM Continue (West) on Esplanade du General de Gaulle for 0.7km towards A14 / Rouen / Cergy-Pontoise / Rueil-Malson / St Germain en L. / La Garenne-Colbes

9:04 AM 3.8 Bear RIGHT (North-West) onto A14 for2.8km towards A14 / Poissy-Rouen / Cergy-Pontoise

9:06 AM 6.6 KM Toll Road, Stay on A14 (West) for 16.6km towards A14/Rouen

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We have barely left Paris.
Actually, we will not leave Paris for a while.

Approximately 1.5 km into our road trip, I notice white smoke coming from under the hood. We are in the middle of a “roundabout” (a.k.a. traffic circle) at the time, with no defined lanes and too many cars to note.

“DeLinda,” I say matter-of-factly so as not to alarm her, “we’re smoking.”

“Damn right, were smoking!” she says, as she enthusiastically reaches for her pack of French cigarettes.

“No, uh, we’re smoking,” I say, pointing to the front of the car in a panic.

She sees it, finally, as do two kind souls at the next traffic light.

Vous êtes fume! Vous êtes fume!” one of them calls out with alarm, as he heroically steps in front of our car, poking his face around the windshield.

“We know. We know,” says DeLinda, trying to figure out what to do next. I am ghost-white, deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyed, and no help at all.

Our good Samaritans, Pasquale and Henri, take over. They stop traffic for us — we are on the three-lane, very crowded Avenue de Charles de Gaulle — direct us to a parking space on the side of the road, and come to our rescue.

In patchwork English-French, we explain what happened. They ask questions. We try to respond. If there was ever a time for a cell phone, Joe, this is it. Thankfully, Pasquale is so equipped. The traffic and honking cars make it impossible for him to be gallant, so he climbs in the back of our car.

Vous êtes Américains?” he asks.

Oui,” we say in unison. Are we that obvious?

Pasquale is delicious. Shoulder-length dark hair, large brown eyes. Tan, a leather-corded choker, speaking with a beautiful French accent. The perfect dashing hero, and I am in love…momentarily, until I remember we are STRANDED ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD IN PARIS. Breathe. Blink.

To our surprise, the tow truck Pasquale calls for us arrives in mere minutes. He has arranged, also, for us to return to the rental office for a new car. He has arranged everything, except how to speak with the French-speaking tow truck driver after he leaves us to return to his job. We thank him profusely, with many mercis and smiles, then return to the tow truck driver and our predicament.

DeLinda is valiant in her efforts; part French, part English, part sign language, she does her best to explain what happened and defend her driving ability at the same time. But all is not lost. A charming Englishman arrives on a scooter, explains that he owns the same kind of car, and begins to discuss the options, en Français, with the driver.

Some twenty minutes later, we are back on our way — 0.0km, Depart 27 Rue Saint-Ferdinand, 75017 Paris on Place Saint-Ferdinand (North-West) for 60m; 0.1km, Exit roundabout onto Rue Saint-Ferdinand for 02km; 0.3km, Turn RIGHT (West) onto Avenue de 113 Grande Armee for 0.1km — in our new car, to Normandy!

The rest of the ride is thankfully uneventful. DeLinda and I have been driving together like this for years, so despite the foreign signs and the complex driving instructions that go on for four, single-spaced 8-1/2 x 11 pages — it is less than a three-hour drive — we are quite comfortable now that we have left Paris. I am quite comfortable now that I have left Paris.

I always forget how out-of-my-element I feel in cities. My system does not take well to their pace, their noise, their frenetic energy. I am wary and watchful in the unfamiliar settings, and it tweaks my nerves so I cannot quite get comfortable, or relax in my skin.

Unlike Paris, Honfleur feels familiar. It feels like home, and reminds me much of Essex, Connecticut or Rockport, Massachusetts. Located along the northern coast of France, it has the feel of the shoreline towns I’ve lived in most of my life: the smell of the ocean, the gulls flying overhead, the shops dotted along a main street, the small-town mannerisms of the shop keepers and townsfolk.

Perhaps that is the greatest irony of our trip! When DeLinda and I first began planning, we knew we wanted to see Paris. But, we also wanted to drive and explore France proper. I had always dreamed of visiting Mont Saint-Michel, so I chose the Normandy leg of our adventure. DeLinda’s friends spent time in southeastern France near the Alps and loved it, so she chose Annecy. In the end, our choices reminded each of us of home — Honfleur and the shoreline in Connecticut, Annecy and the eclectic sense of Austin.

At midday, we follow A14 north to A13, then A29 West to Honfleur, and find our way to our hotel, Hôtel La Diligence, set just off the main cobblestone road. It is a charming hotel, Tudor style with a small courtyard and parking lot in the center. We are greeting by a polite young middle-eastern man, our age I think, who welcomes us kindly and points us to our room on the second floor balcony.

We settle in and arrange our travel gear across the room just as we had in Paris, though there is more space here. Two twin beds (some two inches apart), a television stand, a watercloset and a bathroom for showering. The door opens onto the balcony and overlooks the courtyard and rooms across the way.

As we lie on the beds and rest a bit from our journey, it occurs to us that we are sick. The allergy sneezes that have plagued DeLinda since we arrived have taken up residence in me, and we are both sneezing and congested now.

“I suspected a few days ago,” DeLinda confesses, “that it wasn’t allergies, but I didn’t want to say anything.”

I love her anyway.

Rested up from a nap, we wander out to explore. Along the way, we stop at a chocolatier, and sample a heavenly truffle the size of a golf ball, with rich chocolate and a Calvados liquid center. Then, with cocoa powder still on our lips, we wander down cobblestone streets, past little shops and a small park, to the harbor.

This man-made harbor, or quay, is rectangular, perhaps a block wide and three blocks long, with six- and seven-story tall houses and cafés surrounding three sides, the fourth the exit to the English Channel. Colorful boat masts and marine flags, café umbrellas, and the carousel at the north end make it look like a carnival — and despite our exhaustion (and colds), we celebrate!

We take our seats beneath a red awning, in wicker chairs right next to the water and dine on the most delicate of muscles, cooked in a broth of white wine and butter. Steak frites, fresh fish, and French bread (bien sur). We toast our arrival in Honfleur with two sugar-rimmed Kir Normands and enjoy the late afternoon sun on our faces.

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Kir Normand
1/2 ounce Crème de Cassis
2 1/4 ounces Dry, Sparking Apple Cider
and a touch of Calvados
Sugar, for glass rims

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• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art
Escalier au Ciel
Plus Escaliers et Alors Nous Arrêtons

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

France on Fridays: Plus Escaliers et Alors Nous Arrêtons

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
More Steps and then We Stop • Monday, June 5

It is hard to hide the weariness from each other as we make our way to breakfast in the morning. Thankfully, we are good traveling companions. We get each other and move in similar rhythm; we are both tired, we are both sore, but we are both determined to see Sacré Coeur this morning.

We enjoy breakfast early and leave for a 30-minute Metro ride north across the city. At the base of butte Montmartre, DeLinda and I look questioningly at the steps that lead to the basilica. More steps? We don’t have to say a word, and opt instead to ride the tram car to the top.

Sacré Coeur is not Notre Dame. It does not have the same grandeur, yet, it is venerable in its own right. There are no grand stained glass windows or flying buttresses. They do not accommodate the tourist here; the inside is quiet, no photos are allowed. In a way, it is a simple cousin to Notre Dame. Ah, but how simple is a filigreed white church on the highest point in Paris? Sacré Coeur’s travertine stone remains white despite Paris’ rampant pollution, and it is a site to see from far, and near.

DeLinda will tell me later that while we are standing inside the basilica, I whisper “Do you see god?” She thinks it is a profound question and considers her response, until she sees that I am pointing to the 5,000 square foot mosaic of Christ in the apse.

Surprisingly, we have no misgivings about ascending the steps to the top of Sacré Coeur. There are less than 387, surely we can manage. Our legs say otherwise halfway up, but the pain is worth the gain of seeing the city and Montmartre from up-high, of seeing the details of the domes and stonework up close.

The experience is not without sacrifice. We are drained. It has been a long week in Paris and our awe and enthusiasm begin to give way to exhaustion. In Montmartre, we wander past les artistes at work, but barely stop to see their finished products. We walk along cobblestone streets that remind us of the movie Amélie, but do not say much. In an outdoor café under the shade of trees, we dine quietly on ham and cheese sandwiches that have somehow lost their uniqueness — we promise we will be more experimental in the next leg of our adventure. We select sweets from a pâtisserie for our trip tomorrow. We get lost in the Pigalle district and wander aimlessly for a while until we find our way to a Metro stop.

The rest of the day is a blur. We had thought we had one more day in the city, then realize suddenly we leave tomorrow for Honfleur! We nap. We visit Le Monoprix for souvenirs. We email short notes home on rental computers with European keyboards. We enjoy a slow and quiet meal at a brasserie around the corner, the late-day sun warming us as we watch commuters passing by. We pack up our things and write postcards we will not get to mail from Paris. We crawl into bed at 10 — still as bright as day outside — with anticipation of leaving the city and driving northwest to Normandy in the morning.

Le Voyage de la Route!

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art
Escalier au Ciel

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

France on Fridays: Escalier au Ciel

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Stairway to Heaven • Sunday, June 4

In a city with one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, where do you go on Sunday morning? Mass at Notre Dame, bien sur!

Leaving the hotel, DeLinda and I walk the now-familiar streetscape, winding past the shops and cafés we’ve come to know on this daily passage. It is not as foreign as it was that first, map-in-hand day. The pâtisserie, the copy shop, the boutiques. The lovely French women in scarves and heels with wisps of perfume drifting as they pass. The short Napoleon-like Frenchmen, confident in stride and stance. It is the transition that happens whenever you travel, small and careful steps concede to confident stride.

We stop at one of the pâtisseries along the way to sample the morning fare.

Bonjour,” we smile to the woman behind the counter; she reminds me of my high school French teacher, Mrs. Masaccio.

Bon matin,” she smiles back.

In broken French, we make our selections and watch as she wraps our treats in tissue paper and slips them into parchment bags.

She is the owner, and I think of the business owners I know at home. My clients opening their shops on Main Street in the early morning.

“What is it like?” I want to ask, “being a woman business owner in France?”

“I own a business, too.” I would tell her.

“How long have you been doing this? Do you enjoy your work?”

But I do not have the words for the conversation I would like to have, so I just nod my appreciation and give her a knowing smile. I like to think she understands.

The Metro stop is around the corner, and we descend into the winding tunnels of lovely white tile, decorated with bold colored advertisements, and glide along to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

The plaza in front of Notre Dame is early-morning quiet. Instead of the hum of tourists, DeLinda and I are greeted by the glorious sounds of the bells of Notre Dame chiming out the hour. Above us, the three amazing carved portals, the crazy-quilt of architecture, the immense flying buttresses, and the famous gargoyles watching our every step.

Inside, a heavy smoke of incense lofts overhead, the choir sings in French, and a muffled “Amen” marks the ending of the 8:30 mass. It sends a chill up my arms. This place is dark and still, holy and…familiar.

I was raised Catholic, but it has been many, many years since I voluntarily entered a church to attend a mass. I am not prepared for the wave of emotion that fills me as I walk around the tourist perimeter of the cathedral. The tears sneak up on me as if to reveal some past, deep sadness, and they don’t stop.

“Was it a spiritual moment?” a friend will ask me later. Spiritual, perhaps, but in the moment it is quite off-putting, and I wonder to myself, “Am I supposed to be Catholic after all?” The thought surprises me, here in Paris, here on vacation.

Sitting through the 10:00 mass, old memories visit. I remember my Grandmother and her quiet reverence of her faith. I remember my father and his Catholic upbringing. I remember how important it was to my parents that I be raised Catholic. And for a while, it seems like this is an important moment. Perhaps I’d been too stubborn in turning away from the religion of my family. Perhaps I had not understood it enough, not given it enough time or patience.

And then, in a dark and righteous voice, the priest reads the second reading, while I follow along in printed English…

“I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfill the desires of your lower nature. That nature sets its desires against the Spirit, while the Spirit fights against it…. Anyone can see the kind of behavior that belongs to the lower nature: fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who behave in such ways will never inherit the kingdom of God.”

His voice reminds my of my Grandmother’s funeral and the priest who warned us of the error of our ways, the darkness that would come to us in the end. “Beware,” he’d intoned in a deep, ominous voice, “for ye know not when you will be taken.” There had been no celebration of her life, just a dark foreboding of death and damnation. I’d felt alienated then, and again, now, as I sit in this beautiful testament to faith and art and reverence.

“What a shame,” I think, “to use this magnificent creation for the execution of man-made rules of right and wrong. Here, in this impressive space, it should be a celebration of our amazing gifts, the beauty of this place…the magic of this life.”

Then I relax into my seat, tune out the sermon, fold the mass program in quarters, and silently celebrate all that is in front of us. The mass is spoken and sung in French, voices echoing against the immense stone walls, the grand Rose Window glows from the morning sun. Heavenly French perfumes mix with divine incense, and stir the senses.

rule

Click here for a slide show of photos called: The Spirit of Notre Dame

rule

Sitting against our small wooden chairs, DeLinda and I pat each other softly as if to say: “I know, isn’t this amazing?,” “I know, aren’t you so glad we did this?” “I know, it’s almost over.” I forgot how long a Catholic mass can be.

After mass, we wander the grounds of Notre Dame and stop for lunch — French onion soup and croque-monsieur — at a café amidst the sudden flurry of tourists. From our window seats, now, it is hard to believe this space was so still and silent just hours earlier.

Despite our agenda for the day, the café insists we stay a while. It is like that here — sit, stay, relax — not at all like the fast-lane, drive-thru, hurry pace of home. The French, for example, have yet to master “to go.” After lunch, our “take-away” coffees take 10 minutes to prepare and are served in scalding-hot cups sans lids!

Leaving Notre Dame, we make our way across the Île de la Cité to Sainte-Chapelle, a 750-year old Gothic chapel said to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Perhaps this is the reason we encounter the x-ray machine and pat-down security at the main gate. Another sign, like the machine-gun-carrying guards at the Eiffel Tower, that our world has changed greatly since my early dreams of this place.

Saint-Chapelle is a glorious structure that, once inside, appears to be made entirely of stained glass. In the upper chapel, every inch of wall, floor, and ceiling is gilded and ornate. Detailed mosaic tiled floors, decoratively painted trompe l’oeil walls, and elaborate wood carvings set the stage. The King’s throne sits high above; it looks like the inside of a Fabergé egg. And then! The stained-glass windows! There are 15 windows totaling more than 6,500 square feet of glass. With shimmering colors of cobalt and ruby and emerald, you feel like you are standing inside a kaleidoscope.

We stay for a while, then leave and find our way to an outdoor flower and bird market, across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou for a visit to the famous colorful, dancing Stravinsky Fountain.

It has been a long day, but we have one more stop before day’s end — the top of Notre Dame. In preparation, we find a corner café and feast on chocolate mousse, fresh raspberry tart and frothy, decadent hot chocolates! Outside the café window, the Seine and street vendors, and Paris in her Sunday best.

“You should not ascend to the towers if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or suffer from vertigo,” warn the signs at the entrance of the Notre Dame towers, sounding like one of those U.S. pharmaceutical commercials. DeLinda and I, feeling young and healthy — and appropriately nourished with chocolate — walk through the doorway.

As our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see a dark column of stone spiral steps leading upward. 387 steps, to be precise. Three hundred and eighty-seven. The width of the staircase is no more than five feet across, and the steps no deeper than 10 inches. Their centers are worn, with smooth indentations marking the millions of visitors who have also braved this staircase.

We hold tightly to the metal railing along the outside of the column and pull ourselves up, step by step, trying to stay at the widest edge. In doing so, we find ourselves looking down, guiding our feet so as not to lose footing. And then, looking up to see where we are…it turns out we do suffer from vertigo after all!

“It’s a good thing,” I wheeze to DeLinda, “we did this for my fortieth birthday. Any later, and I’d be dead by now.”

We would have laughed. We didn’t have the lung capacity.

And so we climb. Around and around. And around. Small windows at each story trick us into thinking we’re almost there. Voices above and behind us encourage the same, “We’re almost there. Almost there.” But we’re not, so we just keep climbing. There’s no alternative, really.

Three hundred and eighty-seven steps and several seated pauses later, we find ourselves at the top of Notre Dame overlooking Paris; it is worth every gasp of breath and aching muscle!

From the top, we visit up close with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, including the famous Stryga. We see the magnificent facets of the stonework and sculptures. We see the details in the city below, the perfect lines of streets and houses and building laid out in geometric perfection.

We can see for miles, and catch glimpses of where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. We watch the tiny specks of people walking in the plaza below, the skateboarders performing on the sidewalk — each of us silently dreading the 387 steps we must now descend to find our way home for the evening. There’s no alternative, really.

Do you know how, when you learn something new or are thinking about something in particular, you see it more often? Notice it more than you would have if you weren’t thinking about it? Well, I will tell you, there are an awful lot of steps in Paris! I had not noticed them before our trek to the top of Notre Dame, but I do now: the steps down to the Metro, the steps from one train line to the next, the steps out of the Metro station near La Madeleine up to Rue Royale, the two stories of mercifully carpeted spiral steps we must climb to our hotel room — the elevator mysteriously out-of-order for the evening.

We settle in to our nightly routine. DeLinda writes quietly in her journal, and pens poetic postcards home. I shuffle through my backpack — dumping everything out on the bed, tucking away the day’s collections, reorganizing the contents neatly for the next. We wash our clothes in the sink, roll them to dry and hang them where we can with hopes they will be clean-enough and unwrinkled by morning.

As we crawl into bed wearily before seven, we look forward to the day ahead, our last full day in Paris.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

France on Fridays: À Travers La Ville

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Across the City • Friday, June 2

This will be our first full day in Paris, and the morning greets us as if we are the city’s favorite guests. Bright sun pours through the thick brocade curtains to wake us from our much-needed 10 hours of sleep. The sky is crystal blue and the air crisp and cool.

Our room is tiny — big enough for two twin beds, a small desk, and a path from one to the next — decorated in pale blue with golden-yellow accents. The beds are comfortable, though I doubt we would have noticed otherwise, as exhaustion is not choosy where it puts its head. At one end of the room, a large, eight-foot tall, wooden window opens, sans screen, onto a concrete courtyard three stories below; at the other, a television on which we watch the local weather, CNN and the funky European music videos we fall in love with.

The bathroom, by comparison, feels enormous. Its marble-tiled floors stretch from one end of the room to the other. A large window allows light in. At the far end sits a long, thin tub with no shower curtain, and a small shower head affixed to the faucet by a hose at calf-level. As I stand there, in the middle of this funny little tub, perplexed at how to actually “take a shower,” I start laughing. And keep on laughing as I try to soap up with one free hand, then rinse my hair…and the entire bathroom in the process.

“I don’t want to know,” DeLinda laughs at me from the other room.

“No. You don’t,” I laugh back. “You’ll see.”

We have the luxury of enjoying free petit dejéuner each day, and they are not — as my sister so aptly pointed out — the American attempt at a “continental breakfast.” Le Petit Dejéuner? My second favorite meal. Every one of them! Imagine the most heavenly pastries: croissant, pain au chocolat (fluffy square croissants dotted with bits of dark chocolate), pain aux raisin, petit baguette, all perfectly light and buttery. And as if that were not enough, we can select from fresh strawberry, blackberry, plum, peach or rhubarb preserves. Or cheese! Cheese for breakfast! Camembert and Emmental. Or yogurts, real yogurt, thick and creamy with fresh fruits. And coffee — now that is what I miss most about France. The coffee.

Ironically, on a two-week diet that consists primarily of pastries, cheese, yogurt and ham, I lose about eight pounds, my abs never look better, and I have a tan to boot! But, I imagine that walking ten hours a day and carrying a 10-pound backpack has something to do with it, non?

Rested and well fed, we trek off. And where is the first place you go on your first full day in Paris? The Eiffel Tower, bien sur!

Our first ride on the Paris Metro with its white tiled walls and maze-like tunnels is exhilarating. And no pickpockets in sight; we had heard they crowded the Metro stations one-per-tourist waiting to grab at you and ruin your vacation. Clutching my backpack, I ride warily at first, but settle in to a big-city familiar, this-isn’t-so-bad ease, as we shuttle southwest across the city.

Being in Paris is quite surreal; it is not exactly as I imagined — that romantic, sepia-toned city with Gene Kelly dancing on the lawn. Paris is real and gritty. There is traffic. There are lots of people. There are cars honking and homeless people pandering. At times, it’s hard to imagine you’re in a foreign city, in a foreign country. Often, you get the feeling you’re in Disney World, holding your E-ticket for the Notre Dame Cathedral ride or the scenic Seine boat cruise. And then…you turn a corner and see, peeking from over the rooftops, the Eiffel Tower!

We begin our slow procession to the Eiffel Tower from the Ecole Militaire, up the pristine expanse of lawn called the Parc du Champ de Mars. We walk slowly, down this long aisle, as if to meet our intended, only our intended is this grand world wonder and celebrated landmark.

At the base of the tower, we stand, looking up. It is immense and beautiful. The detail of the metal structure is fine artwork, as is the geometric way the grassy Parc du Champ de Mars and the River Seine criss-cross beneath it.

We ride to the top, and I close my eyes in excited panic. The view is breathtaking, out and across the city in all directions. You see the grand view, you see the small details, and you take a deep breath.

The sun is our friend this day, and it lights up the city with a blue-sky backdrop one could only wish for. DeLinda and I walk around, and walk around, and take it all in for hours: the people speaking different languages pushing to get the best view; the glistening white Sacré Coeur cathedral on the hilltop; the smell of coffee; the dizzying height; the path of the Seine as it wanders through the city. It is like nothing I imagined, yet everything I hoped!

Suddenly, it’s noon and time to return to the hotel for a whirlwind tour of the city, courtesy of our travel agent, Liz at Sundial Travel, who listened to our very first ideas for the trip and magically made it all happen for us avec la perfection!

DeLinda and I are greeted in the hotel lobby by Thierry, the charming Frenchman who will show us his city. We speak in broken French and English, but he is impressed that we speak what French we do, and that we had studied it in school. He seems to appreciate our questions about where we are and what we’re seeing. We chat amicably, sharing pieces of Paris history and its monuments with each other as we make our way across the city to pick up another passenger.

We call him “Joe.” It seems an appropriate name, though DeLinda and I both mean it with all of the “average American” sarcasm a name like Joe conveys. Joe is young—mid-twenties, from Chicago by way of India. He works for GM and is in town to market Hummers to the French.

“Watch out,” he says, “Hummers are about to invade Paris!”

Has he been out of his hotel, we wonder? Has he seen the size of the streets? The size of the cars? Hummers? In Paris? Mon Dieu!

Actually, Joe has never been to Paris. He doesn’t know anything about the city. He doesn’t speak a word of French, doesn’t know a thing about the places we visit on our tour. His only concern is getting a picture of himself in front of the Eiffel Tower to show his friends, “been here, done that.”

“On your left,” points Thierry, speaking from a prerecorded cassette, “is the Hôtel des Invalides, with its…”

[insert sounds of the 1812 Overture]

“Hello?” says Joe, taking out his cell phone in a this-is-very-important, corporate way.

“Yea, I’m in Paris. Oh, just for the night…” he continues on, while Thierry politely waits to continue the tour; while DeLinda and I watch the city race by the car window.

“Sorry about that,” says Joe.

“And so, on the right there, is the River Seine. And to our left, is the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens.”

[insert sounds of the 1812 Overture]

“Hello?” says Joe into his cell phone once again.

“Hey, how are you…” he continues.

Thierry pauses, and DeLinda and I fume.

“We’re now entering the famous Latin Quarter,” begins Thierry again.

[insert sounds of the 1812 Overture]

“Hello? says Joe.

I smile, embarrassed, to Thierry in the rear view mirror. DeLinda and I look at each other. We are no longer feeling polite.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt, tapping Joe on the shoulder. “Do ya think you can turn that off?”

“Oh? sure,” he responds. You can tell it never occurred to him.

“We’re now entering the famous Latin Quarter,” Thierry begins again, with a deep breath and a return smile in the rear view mirror.

We continue our tour…through the tiny, crowded streets of the Latin Quarter to Notre Dame Cathedral. We listen to short stories of Paris and its history — ancient mixed with current: like the impressive carved Colonne de Vendôme, constructed in 1810, that stands dramatically in a courtyard next to the Ritz Carlton where Princess Diana dined the night she was killed. We pass grand monuments from Napoleon’s time, while familiar names and places from the pages of The DaVinci Code creep into the conversation.

As we drive across the city, speeding along the Seine, through crazy traffic, up the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe, to the Eiffel Tower, through winding narrow streets up to Sacré Coeur and a breathtaking view of the city — we are overwhelmed. Like name-dropping at a cocktail party, these famous sights and places we have known about for half our lives are suddenly right in front of us. It is impressive…and humbling.

Thierry leaves us, exhausted, at the doorstep of our hotel, four hours later. We are hungry and make our way to a brasserie near Saint-Augustin—Le Pépinière announces its red awning. We sit at a small table not far from stree-view. DeLinda notices the woman behind me applying fresh lipstick after each course; two businessmen eat and talk energetically a few tables away. It is familiar, yet excitingly foreign.

Our waiter is kind and funny. We make our best effort at the end of a long day to use the words we know. We order — steak frites and small glasses of chilled Bordeaux. We say merci. We smile. A lot. Unlike at home, the wait staff does not feel the need to check in every five minutes. Here, we are left to enjoy our meal, uninterrupted. It is a nice change of pace.

At meal’s end, we wait for our check. But it does not come. Our waiter passes us several times, smiling. We smile back.

“How do you say ‘may we have the check, please’?” I ask DeLinda.

She thinks for a moment. “I don’t remember.”

We have left our French dictionaries at the hotel, so look to our memories, casting glances upwards, as if the French words will magically appear on the ceiling. The waiter notices and comes by the table.

Vous aimez toute autre chose? (would you like anything else)” he asks.

Non, merci,” we respond, smiling. He will bring us the check now.

He does not.

“How do you say ‘may we have the check, please’?” DeLinda asks me.

Je ne sais pas,” I shake my head, embarrassed.

The waiter notices and walks by the table. He places his hand thoughtfully on his chin, looks to the ceiling pretending to find the magic words, also, and thinks out loud with a smirk, “Hmmm? Hmmm?”

We have been detected! We laugh. He laughs.

He will bring us the check now.

He does not.

C’est combien?” DeLinda suggests

“This is how much?” I translate. “But isn’t it rude to just ask that way?”

It is better than nothing, we agree.

The waiter approaches the table again, and DeLinda says that magic words,

C’est combien?

“Ah ha!” he says, smiling and laughing. We laugh, too, at the moment, at ourselves, as he brings us the check.

Merci beaucoup!” we smile to him in unison.

I wish I had a photo of him. Our thin and funny waiter with the moustache, rubbing his chin, drawing an invisible question mark in the air with an audible “pop.” Laughing at us kindly. Laughing with us.

I wish I had photos of all of the people we met along the way — Jamie in his wrinkled suit, Thierry and Joe on our tour; Pasquale and Henri, the good Samaritans who rescue us from our smoking car; the young middle-eastern hotel owner in Honfleur; the round, jocular concierge at the hotel in Paris where we spend our last night. I want to remember their faces, but they fade now, like their names.

This was my first big trip. My first time out of the country — unless you count a school trip to Canada and those 15 minutes in Mexico. There are things I will remember for the next one: pack less and bring a smaller suitcase, write in my journal throughout the day; and take pictures of the people — all of their faces, all of their smiles.

After dinner, we stop at Le Monoprix for snacks — and water. Liters and liters of water. “Hydrate!” will be our mantra on this trip, and DeLinda the water guru. “Here,” she will say to me often, “drink more water.” Lotion, lip balm and water — our hydrating talismans.

It is evening, now, and the streets are quiet. To our surprise, the sun still sits high in the sky. It feels like two in the afternoon; it is closer to six. We don’t notice this at first. And then, several days into the trip, we realize we have not seen darkness since we arrived. There has been daylight in the morning when we wake, daylight when we’ve crawled exhausted into bed at night. Despite our successful avoidance of jet lag, our inner time clock wakes us up before the city rises, puts us asleep just as the “City of Lights” wakes.

It will be another eight days before we see nighttime in France, when we will race excitedly to the porch of our hotel room in Annecy to watch the moon rise up over the Alps. For now, we pull the shades down and the covers over our heads for darkness.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

France on Fridays: La Plus Longue Journée

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
The Longest Day • Wednesday, May 31/Thursday, June 1

A week before the trip, I rented The Longest Day in preparation for our visit to the beaches of Normandy. A 1962 war movie, it starred a who-was-who cast including Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowall, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, John Wayne, and Fabian.

It was a good, albeit Hollywood-interpreted, synopsis of the D-Day battles, and served as good Cliff Notes as DeLinda and I walked along Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach. It was even more fitting as the title of the first day of our journey…the longest day.

• • •

DeLinda and I meet, as we often do these days, at the airport: Newark, in the International Flight Terminal. She left Austin at six, I New Haven at nine, and here we are at noon meeting up for the first time in over a year. With 150 pounds of luggage combined — no doubt 125 of it in my suitcase “Big Red” — we are prepared for just about anything including popped buttons, blisters, clothing stains, lint, snow, torrential downpours…the trip of a lifetime!

A five-hour pause before our flight gives us a chance to catch up, talk about the days ahead, compare notes, and share the library of information we carry with us for the trip. Then it’s off through security and one more pause before we board the plane sometime around 6:00 p.m.

The eight-hour flight is well-paced — dinner, movie, lights dimmed, breakfast — so by the time we land in Paris at 8:30 a.m., it is almost easy to forget that it is 2:30 in the morning for us, some 21 hours since our day began.

Landing in Paris, or any foreign country I imagine, is a bit of a shock. Lulled into a false sense of familiar on the plane, you step into the airport and at once are immersed in all things French. The language, the people, the sights and sounds — all foreign, all exciting! I am reminded of the 15 minutes we spent in Mexico two years before, when the foreignness overwhelmed us to the point that we spent more time crossing back into the country than we had in Mexico itself. Only this time, there’s no turning back.

Those first moments in France are vague in my mind. From the plane, we crowd onto a shuttle bus, our eyes adjusting to the morning sun. On board are tourists and locals — a short Frenchman standing near me both looks and smells deliciously European. An intercom voice makes arrival and departure announcements in the terminal and sounds like the woman on my Learn French in Your Car CD — though there will be no English translation to follow.

Our escort, Jamie, a hip 20-something in a wrinkled, black pinstripe suit we swear he’s been wearing since last night, greets us as we exit a maze of security, customs and baggage. In broken French and English we chat over French pop music on a station we will delightfully come to know as “NRJ,” as he casually navigates us through an hour of frenetic Paris traffic.

The ride is a blur…cars criss-crossing each other like frenzied women at a shoe sale, the crowded rows of buildings, the famous places…all rushing by the window. I barely recall, now, the trip or those very first glimpses of the city.

With no neon-signed introduction, our hotel, the Hôtel Rochambeau, sits discretely on Rue de la Boétie, just around the corner from Saint-Augustin Church. Located in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, a business district dotted with shops and cafés, it serves as the perfect respite for our five days in Paris.

The glass-walled entrance opens to a small lobby, where the friendly hotel staff greets us. To the right is the dining room where we will eat our breakfast for the next four days. Around the corner is a small elevator — just large enough for DeLinda, me, “Big Red,” and the rest of our belongings — and a red-carpeted staircase with stained-glass windows curving around to the upper floors.

Having checked in, our first task is coffee, and lots of it! It is now 12:00 Paris time, 6:00 a.m. our time, and some 24 hours since our journey began. Our plan is to avoid jet lag, and missed moments, by staying awake and enjoying the day as if it is a new one. Sleep can come later. Right now? We see Paris!

“Bonjour, Madame,” we say with a smile to the woman at the café across the street. There is a counter with stools, and several small tables lined up along the tiled floor.

“Bonjour!” she smiles back.

As we settle into this first day, these first moments in France, there is a marked transition in our conversations. At first, we only speak English. But gradually, as we acclimate, they become more hybrid: “Bon Matin! Where are we going today?” or “Je voudrais to sit down for a little while.”

Both DeLinda and I have studied French. My strength is in vocabulary words — fromage, pamplemousse, merde — and I am excited to use them in something more authentic than a classroom. But speaking French for me is almost embarrassing, like singing in public, and it takes a while to feel comfortable. I manage, though, with a good measure of Bonjour, Merci, Pardon, and Mon Dieu!

DeLinda, on the other hand, can actually put vocabulary words together in a comprehendible sentence, complete with verb conjugations and an accent! We partner well in our efforts; I the linguistic sous chef to her communication mastery. It is this team effort—relying on each other’s strengths — that get us through conversations and navigations on our two-week trek.

There are, for sure, moments of confusion and humor. In Paris, we struggle for the correct and polite way to ask for our check, and make do with “how much is this?” Desperate for roadside car repair, we resort to sign language, nods and pointing. In Honfleur, in need of white-out for a botched postcard, I politely ask the woman in the stationery store, “avez vous le blanc dehors,” (rough translation: do you have white outside), while I mimic writing, mistake, cross out, painting. “Ah! Correcto!” she finally smiles.

They always seem to know what we are trying to say. Looking back, though, I will confess, I didn’t understand a word they said! I could speak French at them, but their responses were usually met with my furrowed-brow look of utter confusion followed by a glance of “help!” to DeLinda, who would translate so I could nod politely.

We’d read that the best way to make your way about France was to smile and to be polite.

“Deux café creme, s’il vous plait,” we say to the woman in the café.

“Oui, deux café creme,” she smiles her response.

It seems to be working.

“Merci!”

At the Tabac on the corner, we eye the French cigarettes. And lighters—they’d taken our “terrorist paraphernalia” at the airport in Newark.

“Bonjour, madame,” I say to the stalwart woman behind the counter.

“Bonjour.”

Good, so far.

“Avez vous…”

I search my brain for the French word for “lighter,” as if they would have taught us that in school. I search the counter for something I could point at. And then I see the display…

“Avez vous…une Bic?” I pronounce it “beek” so it sounds French.

“Ah, ‘briquet,’ oui,” she responds with an unexpected smile.

Several days into our adventure, we come to understand that this emphasis on the correct word, the word en Français, is their way of trying to teach us the language. Eventually, we learn to repeat the words back to them as practice. For now…

“Oui, merci,” I say, very politely.

On our trip, we also come to understand the misunderstanding many have about the French. We’d heard they could be rude, that they were proud of their language to the point of arrogance. What we discover is quite different.

We find the French to be incredibly kind and gracious with us. Our efforts to make an effort, to speak with confidence—even if we don’t know the exact word or verb conjugation — are welcomed with open arms and generous smiles. Humor at times, yes, like the bartender who laughs when his “Avez-vous pris une décision encore?” is met with my polite furrowed-brow.

“Have you made a decision yet,” DeLinda explains, and we all have a kind laugh at my expense.

The French are actually incredibly polite and well-mannered, in that way one might be with an older relative. Remember? Sit up straight. Put your hands in your lap. Say “please” and “thank you.” Be on your best behavior.

Sadly, more often than not, it is the Americans we see who come off as rude and arrogant. Rude and arrogant to the point of embarrassing, truth be told.

In our hotel, two mothers and their teenage daughters from Kentucky are in Paris for the weekend.

“Do y’all take American money?”

“Non, madam.”

“Y’all don’t take American money?” she asks, offput and confused. “Well, where can we git French money?”

Five minutes later, she presents the hotel staff with gifts — shiny new Kentucky quarters. No “French money,” but enough forethought to go to the bank and purchase a brand new roll of quarters before they left? It is an uncomfortable exchange. Unfortunately, not the last we overhear on our trip.

“Honey,” yells the husband from across the street.

Two weeks into our trip, we haven’t heard yelling since Newark.

“What?” his wife bellows back to him.

“Yer gonna miss the bus, woman!”

We sink into our seats and look the other way…

“I just ordered a beer!”

“Oh, Jesus.”

…pretending not to understand.

It is a snapshot moment: DeLinda and I, sitting at a table by a window in a street-side café. Small, white porcelain cups filled with dark, rich café crème, smoking French cigarettes, watching France walk by. When I see it now, the photo is black and white and grainy.

With our first successful interactions en Français, we freshen up in the hotel and make our way out into Paris for the first time. Down Boulevard Malesherbes, past La Madeleine, down Rue Royale where Place de la Concorde suddenly opens up before our eyes. We are in Paris! Mon Dieu!

We wander, in a bleary mix of exhaustion and excitement, across the Place de la Concorde, along the Seine, and into Le Jardin des Tuileries. It is raining — the only bad weather we will see in our two weeks — but, it is a light rain, and we wander quietly through the sculptures of Tuileries, finding our way to a little café in front of the carousel that spins nearby.

When people ask, now, what was my favorite meal — they ask favorite meal, favorite site, favorite moment, as if you could pick just one — I think of the lunch DeLinda and I enjoyed on that very first day. Sitting under a burgundy canopy on plastic chairs, sipping French wine in the rain, we enjoyed the simplest of sandwiches: French baguettes, camembert, slices of ham, and a startling Dijon mustard. Ham and cheese sandwiches I will never forget!

On our way back to the hotel, we make our favorite discovery: Le Monoprix, a colorful and fun French department store. Small, on the corner by our hotel, it invites us in with its funky window displays and familiar appeal. It reminds me of Target, only smaller, more friendly and less American. French perfume, pretty outfits, multicolored scarves—everyone wears scarves in France. (I buy five by the end of the trip!)

Tucked in the back is a grocery store, and we select snacks to take back to our hotel room — fresh cheese, nuts, French bread, olive tapenade, cookies, chocolate. We are almost too tired to eat, but we do, as we wearily attempt to record the day’s events in our journals. It is hard to take note that we started our journey some 4,000 miles away more than 33 hours ago!

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne. Newark Airport, 4:30 p.m. on May 31; Paris, 3:30 p.m. (9 a.m. Newark time) on June 1.

France on Fridays: C’est La Vie

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Such is Life • Wednesday, May 31

The weeks leading up to le grand voyage were a whirlwind — the kind that comes with the anticipation of leaving one life behind in order to discover another. But the usual excitement of vacation’s adventure was buried somewhere under all of the preparation, and I couldn’t find it for the life of me.

“Shouldn’t I be more excited by now?” I wondered the night before I left. “Shouldn’t I be wide-eyed and ready to race out the door in the morning?”

This trip, it seemed, was pushing me hard out of the comfort zone I’d created for myself. You could see the psychological fingernail marks in the door if you looked carefully.

Slowly, though, as I hauled my suitcase into the trunk of my friend Martha’s car, nervously sipped coffee at the limo station, then quietly rode along I-95, the fear began to fade. My last thoughts of work and the house, and what I hadn’t gotten done wandered off somewhere in the Bronx, and I didn’t miss them.

It occurred to me, as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, that my life, for the next 24 hours or so, was completely in the hands of other people. The ballsy Latino woman who maneuvered the New York City traffic like a pro, the pilot who would fly us 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, the escort we are relying on to meet us at the airport in Paris — in the hands of other people and completely out of my control.

Apparently, the big life lesson of the year was “letting go” and this trip was just another practice exercise.

As I sat there in the back seat of the limo, I thought to myself…I am going to France. I know the Universe wants me to go. I wouldn’t have gotten this far if she didn’t. So I will just let her take me. I will sit back and let these strangers lead me to this experience.

And then I closed my eyes and breathed…

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
• L’introduction

Photo Crossing the GWB ©AnthonyMendezVO. Some rights reserved. Please click here for details.

France on Fridays: L’Introduction

Les Deux Amis En France

Of Paris, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” DeLinda and I set off for France some five years ago now, yet the stories wander into my mind and my conversations like scenes in a favorite movie or lines from a great book.

I had wanted to go to France since I was in high school. Six years of French class had shown me the sights and sounds of a country so very far away, and they rested in my memory for many, many years. As my 40th birthday approached, I felt the need to do something big. Mark the moment in some way that would have weight and meaning and impact. Celebrate it! And so, on a whim in 2004, I called my good friend and traveling companion DeLinda, and we began to talk about the possibilities.

When we met in New Haven in the early nineties, she and I shared a certain ease with one another. Long conversations over lunch-hour breaks turned into a friendship that has weathered close to 20 years of life journeys.

These days, with me in Connecticut and DeLinda in Texas, the friendship is more often noted by short emails and long phone calls. But when we do visit in person, we settle quickly into a comfortable and familiar rhythm.

That we made this grand journey together — a first for both of us — was nothing less than perfect, and will indeed stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Les Deux Amis en France is our story. Will you join us? Come to France on Fridays, beginning here on Friday, October 28.

• • •

Photo: Les Jeunnes Femmes from the Roger-Viollet Collection, 1925.