Day 1: Rainy Train to Paris
The day dawned cool and rainy. My hopes of it ceasing after I escaped the last minute run to the bank in order to deposit my pay from the night before...and to take out quite a sum more, without a drop were literally dampened as I set out, umbrella in one hand, suitcase pulled by the other into the steady shower. Within minutes, my shoes and socks were soaked through. Not a great start, I thought. The subway ride to the train station was routine, although I felt slightly stressed having missed the one that would have gotten me tothe station with enough time to pick up some more lactose pills. Entering the land of cheese and buttery, creamy pastries without them was a very poorly planed move on my part. The delay had come fromthe very well intended well wishes from my landlady. Well, somethings can be excused. But not if I missed my train.
Upon arrival, I made my way swiftly through the train station, wincing at the squelching sounds my feet were making and even more so at the sickening feeling of damp cold between my toes. Naturally, my reserved seat was in one of the furthest cars from the station. I found my seat, a comfortable one on the window with a table, stripped off my socks and shoes, removing the insoles, and set them on the empty seat next to me to dry.
A middle aged gentleman soon joined me, newspaper in hand. An idea sparked and in a wave of daring originating from the depths of my beginning adventure, I shyly asked him if I could have any of the pages when he had finished. After clearing up a misunderstanding (No, I didn't want to read it, I wanted to ball it up and stuff it into my soggy sneakers.), he generously gave me several pages he absolutely didn't need with a smile and assured me if I needed anymore, I need only ask. Thus with Problem Swamp Shoes on the mend and my feet curled under me, I embarked on my great adventure to the City of Light.
Our train arrived in Mannheim, where I had to make an already close transfer, about 7 minutes late, forcing all of us connecting to Paris to run for the next train, crowding the doors closest to the platform stairs and clogging the aisles. Once again, my reserved seat was in the last car, and after fighting my way through the legions of confused, seatless, and in some cases slow witted, I came to my seat where the luggage compartments were already full. Setting my coat and purse down, I rolled my suitcase several seats back, struggling to set it up above a pair of orange clad girl scouts who giggled as I excused myself in soft, nervous French. Upon returning to my seat, I noticed half our car was full of them, whispering and laughing in the language and I tried my best to understand a few words and phrases that I had learned. Amused, I caught the eye of the girl next to me who smiled back and returned to reading the Princess Bride in English. Across from us, a couple was puzzling over their Paris tourbook in the smooth tones of the British. I supposed we were the english speaking table and I wondered where the girl next to me was from. The stress of the transfer had shaken me, but after several more shared smiles, I worked up my nerve again and we started into a spirited conversation in German. It turned out she was also living in Germany and was reading in english for the fun of it. J worked in Medical Science Liason Nutrition, basically an expert on feeding tubes. Fascinated, I asked her if there was a future in replacing the act of actual eating with such direct forms of nutrition, which she vigorously denied. “If you can eat, eat.”
After revealing what I did for a living, I found out that J sang as a hobby and had even sung a bit of Renaissance choral music. With the departure of the amazingLaura from Munich and the Palestrina Ensemble who I sang with still a fresh wound, I suggested she give it a try. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict it wouldn't be possible, but maybe in the future! Since J was being picked up by her boyfriend to travel on to the French seaside, she offered to have him help me with the buying of my Metro tickets once we reached Paris, which I gladly accepted.
As we pulled into the station, Gare de l'Est (East Station), I could already see the trademark Parisian apartments with their tall and skinny windows flanked by rickety wooden shutters, the thin, black metal gates curling under them into balconies. My heart fluttered with excitement. We exchanged information on arrival and I felt proud at having made my first friend on my little adventure, even if she wasn't sticking around. I followed J to meet her boyfriend who said he'd do his best to help. Unfortunately due to my own confusion about the type of tickets I wanted/needed, he directed me to the information window where I could buy tickets directly from an attendant. J and I parted ways, promising to keep in touch, and I was alone again.
The line at the information window was long, tourists of all nationalities milling about, lookingas confused as I felt. But with a hand on my purse and a steady, confident gaze, I stood in line patiently, ignoring the potential conartists attempting to sell their Metro tickets to the panicked droves. As I approached the window, I rethought my plan and decided on a book of 10 tickets as opposed to a 3 day pass and to buy my ticket to Versailles then. Ordering the book would be doable and I practiced this phrase in my head several times, but the pass to Versailles would be more complicated and I would need to switch to English. Finally it was my turn. The girl on the other side of the window seemed in good spirits which gave me hope. I greeted her in French and politely asked her if she spoke English. She apologetically confessed that she only knew a little and when she failed to understand my questions about the Versailles ticket, I gaveup and just ordered the 10 tickets in French. She smiled and said something to the effect of “See? That wasn't so bad!”, handing me the small, rectangular tickets in a pile as well as a map to the city. Feeling accomplished, I selected one, stuck it into the mouth of the turnstiles, picked it up when it was spit out at the otherend, and moved smoothly through the gate to the Metro that would tak eme to my first hotel.
Before I continue, I needto give some background on the next part of the story. And I promise it is relevant and that Paris itself will be more center stage eventually. In the November of last year, a very influential teacher who helped shape the path of my career passed away. The loss was difficult not only for me, but for the thousands of students whose lives he also touched. Among these was K, a student back in the 80s who over time became a close friend of his. K reached out to several of our teacher's students, me being one of them. Talking to him over Facebook was one of the most helpful things in coming to terms with the loss and through our conversations, we became friends as well. Since he is working in Singapore and I'm living in Germany, we had always planned on meeting somewhere on this side of the world. Whenhe told me he'd be in Paris at the exact time I was planning my vacation, I figured it was as a a good time and place as any. Our conversations mainly consisted of witty banter, as we both write and seem to have relatively the same comedic style, but I was wondering how awkward our finally meeting in person would make that. There was also a concern about the motives of his incredible generosity, thedetails which for his sake, I will not clarify.
I found the hotel without a problem. Our plan was to meet in the lobby at 6:30pm in order tontake a cruise on the Seine at 7 or 7:30, something that had come highly recommended by all the travel books I had read, especially atsunset. After entering the hotel through the wrong entrance, I came into the lobby from the back. As I did, I saw the back of a head that looked as if it could belong to the face I was accustomed to seeing on Facebook. I pulled up at the table he was sitting at and my suspicions were confirmed with a surprised “Hi!”. Hiding myrelief in order to follow along with the pace of our Facebook conversations, I answered, “Hi. I recognized the back of yourhead.”
“The back of my head? Isit that distinctive?”
“Well, I'm assuming I'mright. You could just be some weirdo playing a joke on me.”
And so on. It's a greatthing when someone's vibe is automatically so open and exactly the kind you thought they'd have after months of online correspondence. We decided to stick to the plan of 6:30 and I went up to check into my room.
Finally able to stop for a second and take in where I was, I dropped my bags and made a beeline for the window, flinging the curtains aside to reveal the city of Paris in all her glory sprawled out before me, the gilded domes ofthe Invalides and up on the horizon, the pale, ornamented turrets of Sacre Coeur. I couldn't resist a couple bouts of jumping around the room whispering “I'm in Paris!” before crashing on the bed for a 10 minute power nap.
At 6:30, K and I met in the lobby and off we went. I mentioned briefly the problem with the lactose pills to which K replied that there was a pharmacy just down the street. With the help of K's superior French skills and the little bottle of the equivalent that I had from Germany, mission accomplished, although we looked in danger of missing the 7pm cruise. According to the tickets, the cruises ran on the half hour except for 1pm and 7:30pm. We decided that it wouldn't be so bad to takethe cruise at 8pm and figured it would leave us more time to marvel at the Eiffel Tower, where the cruise was scheduled to depart from.
We exited the station, and were met by several men with hundreds of tiny Eiffel Towers on large key rings, trying to sell them for a euro a piece. Pushing by them,the real thing suddenly rose up before us like the majestic head and throat of a large metallic giraffe.
I'm not usually one for cheesy tourist attractions, and in fact I had seen this structure once before in 2006, but to see the real thing in such stunning prominence was a feeling like no other. I felt like I had to keep pinching myself in order to reprocess that it was real what I was seeing. After sheepishly succumbing to touristy pictures with this symbol of France, we ventured closer where I was struck by the complex architecture of it's underbelly.
With still 45 minutes before the 8pm cruise, we decided to check out the dock where ourship would depart. The sun was still relatively high in the sky, so I figured we may still catch some bits of sunset. But upon ourarrival at the dock, a ship was already waiting. We decided to seehow far our tickets would get us, and sure enough we were allowed onboard. At 7:30 sharp, the ship disembarked and K commented that Ihad a charmed life. Maybe so. Sun certainly had not been in the forecast for the evening and here we were taking the cruise at the ideal time with the ideal weather. I opted to take a seat outside inthe back for better to see the sights unobstructed.
The wind was brisk and the sky had taken on an almost fantastical quality with the vast blue fading into a rainbow of colors in the setting sun.
As we passed under elaborate bridges and along landmarks like the Notre Dame and the clocktowers of the Musee d'Orsay, K and I talked about our teacher,our international lives, and expressed our mutual relief that our meeting was free of awkwardness and even more so free from the complication of romantic feelings on both sides.
After agreeing that we most definitely needed to write something together at some point, and the ship turned around to make it's journey back to the Eiffel Tower, K decided the cold wind was too much and retired to the indoor portion of the ship. I remained outside, savoring the wind in my face,taking in the proud, majestic stance of the city's important buildings and the dignified poise of the apartments that presented themselves in between like ladies at court.
I felt a delightful thrill of independence at the adventure I was embarking upon and great anticipation for all the things I had planned.
As the sun sleepily bowedhis brassy head for the last time behind the city skyline, I too sought the warmer refuge of the ship's glass paned interior. Soon after, the ship docked and we stood once again under the Eiffel Tower's watch, a golden full moon rising at it's side and a warm glow around it's feet and neck, contrasting against the cerulean sky likea brooch against a Countess's velvet gown.