While you are reading this, we should be in Florence, Italy as the third part of our Trifecta of Travel. Last week I wrote about a trip we took to London in the spring of 2002. The following autumn we went to Paris with a few days in London at the start of the trip to see some of the things we missed the first time or repeat our favorites.
One of the first things we did was go to the British Museum. I had no idea how many famous pieces from history and art were here; things I’ve seen in pictures all my life and never thought much more about. Of course, they were all stolen from another civilization and that kind of grated on me. Most of the stuff in this museum was “discovered and claimed” from Egypt, Greece, Turkey and other places that the early British Empire felt they could supervise or whatever you want to call stealing. I reconcile myself with the excuse that they have been protected all these years in a safer environment than the host country could have provided. But none of this stuff was “purchased” or originated in England.
If I had to single out my favorite it would be the Rosetta Stone. It was discovered in Egypt around 1800. This is the tool that unlocked communication to understand the Egyptian hieroglyphics. It has the same message in three different languages: the discoverers understood two and knew this would help them learn the third. Scientists were able to take the royal decree from 196 B.C. and develop the ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Beaven had never heard of it before but once he understood, it became his favorite, too.
One of the concepts this trip helped me solidify was the idea that communication and invention are the two greatest tools a civilization can have. You don’t have any kind of progress without both of these working hand in hand. You can have an invention but it doesn’t go anywhere without communication. And civilization goes nowhere without invention.
We went to hear the Brandenburg Concertos at St. Martin in the Fields Church. Whenever I’m in a new city I like to pick out my temporary “home church” and SMIF is mine in London. I went to Sunday worship there in April. Consequently, I am able to truthfully say that I have sung with the Choir of St Martin In the Fields. Sure, I wasn’t in the choir loft or wore a robe, but I sang while they sang. Doesn’t that count? But, even though the church is well known for their outstanding acoustics, choir and organ (and sell their CD’s in the basement) this is a real church with a real congregation and a real ministry . They do a lot of work with the homeless.
All the churches have basements except they call them crypts. And a lot of people are buried in their crypts--you can be standing in line in the coffee shop and notice you are standing on top of a stone with the engraving of something like “Edwin Martin, 1755-1814” They’ve got people buried in buildings all over this country. I would find out that Paris has a problem with dog poop and you have to be careful of where you step. But in England, it’s dead people.
In exchange for the artsy fartsy stuff I had to go with Beaven to visit the Tower Bridge. I never really paid attention to it until we actually got there and I realized it’s one of the icons you associate with London. It was built around the same time as the Brooklyn Bridge so it used the same construction methods. They had a really neat tour of the tower that appealed to Beaven’s engineering soul. We got to climb all through the innards, and see pumps and pistons and motors and all sorts of metal things. The real highlight of the tour for me came when we realized we had fallen into the line to meet and greet none other than Bob the Builder. Don’t ask me why he was there that day; it was some kind of special appearance. All I knew was that my granddaughter would bust a gut to think her Granny knows Bob the Builder. We stood in line for almost an hour to get our picture taken with him. When we got home and showed her the picture of us with Bob she wasn’t impressed in the slightest.
I found these things to be absolutely true about the English people: They really ARE incredibly polite and they do love their lines. We sat across a couple of women in a restaurant once who couldn’t get their food. They kept waiting and waiting for their order. We ordered, got ours, ate and were ready to leave and they still didn’t have their order. And as we left, they were saying for the fifth time “We’ll just give them five more minutes.” I heard more apologies for bumping into or otherwise invading my space than I’ve heard in my entire lifetime here in the US. And the other thing about them is their obsession with ques, or lining up for things. They absolutely love to line up for things. And woe be unto anyone who tries to break in line. Beaven and I were standing at a bus stop in Cambridge. We were the only people at the stop. An elderly couple came up to settle in for their own wait for the bus and, I swear to God, the lady asked me “Are we a que?” I got the impression she was making sure we both understood that she was behind me in whatever line might form.
I guess if you hang around enough places, eventually you will see everything. We ate at Wagamama Noodle Parlor, one of those trendy, yuppie-type Oriental restaurants that has communal seating. This was the kind of place that automatically gives you chop sticks and you have to beg for a fork. I loved the place. Beaven hated it. But what this kind of seating did was make one big family of us all, privy to individual conversations of all sorts. The couple of women across from us were talking just loud enough that I could hear them if I really tried but could tune them out if I wanted also. I could hear bits and pieces, enough to hear that somebody had brought their parents to meet her and her boyfriend because “we’re just about the only normal people they know.” But soon after this comment I sensed a commotion and they called the waitress over. In a very forceful but dignified voice she proclaimed: “I ordered a vegetarian dish and if I’m not mistaken that is a SHRIMP here in this bowl!!” I thought the lady was going to have a cow. Even after the waitress took the bowl away and promised to rectify the situation she kept going on and on. I started to wonder if she might barf or something. She kept moaning, “I ate it. I ate it” and “I’ve been a vegetarian for 16 years.” Then “Maybe just that one bite won’t hurt me.” I thought of engaging Beaven in a loud conversation about things like deer hunting just to make things livelier. I even thought of standing up and screaming, “Get a life, lady!” but knew this might cause an international incident and I had left my passport back in the room.
We then went through the Chunnel under the English Channel and started our organized tour of Paris. This was our second ride on what I call the biggest non-event you can witness but Beaven loves the trains.
The first day in Paris we had quite an orientation to the Paris Metro system. Our tour group, all 22 of us, gathered at the station for a lesson in how to use the system. Then heard a long announcement on the PA system in French. Our guide told us there was a sort of a strike that day which meant that the service had been severely curtailed. The first train that came was so crowded you couldn’t get on. By the time the next one came our guide told us we would have to get on it, no matter what. Which we did. I’ve never been on anything that crowded in my life. We didn’t worry about pickpockets. Nobody could move their arms.
We survived our first strike in Paris. There would be one on our last day by the garbage collectors. I think going on strikes is a hobby of sorts in Paris.
We proceeded to spend a week of visiting about a billion churches and museums—far more than the couple of things I wanted to see. When you see three once-in-a-lifetime things in one afternoon they all kind of blend together. Sainte-Chapelle stood out for the beautiful windows, which were not nearly as dramatic as they could have been because it was a really cloudy and rainy day. They had a really cool circular staircase. I loved that part. I enjoyed the flying buttresses at Notre Dame but have to be honest and say I can’t remember much more than the walk around it outside. I know we saw lots of stuff inside, I just can’t remember it all. The Cluny Museum I will always remember but only because it was the most boring place I’ve ever been. I guess I shouldn’t admit that. Beaven, on the other hand, loved this place. It had a bunch of really old, medieval stuff. Maybe I was just tired. One thing I learned on this trip was what a low threshold I have for getting bored when I’m tired.
In the middle of this day we had lunch at a tiny restaurant that our group of 22 filled completely. The owner did all the cooking and waiting on tables himself. It made for a really intimate and homey atmosphere. And the food was delicious.
My favorite museum of the week was the Orsay where the majority of the Impressionists are displayed. I just like the looks of this art better; things are brighter and ‘cheerier.’ Of course we saw the Louvre and Mona Lisa. What struck me at the Louvre was seeing Whistler’s Mother in one of the rooms. You never think you’re going to see a classic American painting at the Louvre.
We stayed in the Rue Cler area of Paris, a very residential part of town. The one-lane streets were all cobblestone. Our hotel was as small as they come. The shops are tiny and very specific. One store sold only cheese, one only meat, one fish, chocolate, bread, etc. There was even a store devoted solely to olive oil. It was a small store, how many kinds of olive oil can there be? I went to the chocolate store and was a little worried at first when the shop lady didn’t speak English. Then I realized “All women speak Chocolate,” and we got along famously.
One of the things I was very aware of in visiting these two cities was that London was bombed during the war and Paris wasn’t. I’m not sure how many great buildings London lost but Paris lost none. A huge chunk of St Paul’s Cathedral in London was blown up and rebuilt. Consequently, there are more “new” buildings in London. “New” would mean built in the 50’s and 60’s after recovering from the war. Paris doesn’t have any new buildings, and here “new” means anything built since the turn of the century. There’s one exception: there is a single skyscraper at the edge of the city. Almost as soon as they had built the Montparnasse Tower they regretted what it did to the city’s skyline and passed a law against anything over six floors within Paris. Consequently, the Paris skyline showcases the great churches and monuments since they are the only things over six stories
Beaven loves trains. I think I may have already mentioned that. He loves the ability to be able to get somewhere on his own. He loves moving around. I particularly enjoyed being up close and personal with the average citizen of the city we were in. We traveled at all times of the day including the rush hours when people were just trying to get to work. I loved watching them read their morning paper or novels. I loved the variety of people I saw: just about every country on the planet.
We never attended a concert while we were in Paris but that didn’t mean we lacked for entertainment. Paris’ best entertainment is found in the metro stations. I’ve heard that musicians have to audition for the right to play in the hallways and on the trains. The underground passageways provide such great acoustics that you would be walking through the connecting passageway and hear them in advance so you could be ready to toss them a coin if you enjoyed them. On the train they might jump on at a stop, play their guts out and jump off at the next stop. We heard several different guitars, saxophones and accordions. But there were also a Marimba band, an electronic synthesizer that sounded like a grand piano and a three-piece jazz band complete with a string bass. And the fascinating thing about the three-piece jazz combo is that they were ON our train. When you think of how much space this must have taken up and how much is available on a train, you can see how interesting a sight this was. I heard a lot of guys singing Beatles’ songs and more than one saxophone playing “Midnight in Moscow”…. in Paris.
We were in a different world for these two weeks. We became temporary citizens of Europe whether we wanted to or not. There were NO magazines or newspapers from the US. Especially in Paris it was hard to even find anything written in English so anything from Britain was received with gratitude. We read the British newspapers and watched TV in our room. In Paris there was only two channels that had programming in English: CNN and BBC. Both of these had a very limited array of stories they covered. There were only about three stories they reported and they did it in a loop so the same stories were reported over and over and over. We heard about the Washington DC sniper, the hostages in Moscow and the vote on enlarging the European Union. Enlarging the EU? I’ll bet this was stuck on page three of the Dallas papers. I tried to look it up in the Dallas Morning News when we got home. I couldn’t find any coverage on this at all. It was a HUGE deal over there. They were voting to enlarge from 10 to 25 countries, I think, and waiting for the key Irish vote.
I need to mention the facilities. There are a lot of pay toilets in Europe. I paid everything from 20 pence at an automated turnstile in London’s Victoria Station to a whole Euro at one of the Paris Museums. At one (I think it was a 40 cent one), I was given a ticket with a number on it like I was going to the theatre or something. At Sacre Coeur the charge was 41 cents and I couldn’t help wonder why the odd amount. They also had a kind of public urinal for the men that only cost 30 cents. The guys deposited their coins and walked behind a waist high wall to do their business – both men and women used the same area so I could see this set up. But the women got their very own stall with a door.
The way you flush the toilet was also different. When we moved into our hotel room in Paris I saw this square of white plastic mounted against the wall behind the toilet. I couldn’t figure out what it was and set to exploring it. Was it a shelf, a door, did it hold something inside? I tapped and pushed and pulled felt all around it. Suddenly the toilet flushed.
On our last day there I was checking my e-mail at a kiosk in London’s Easy Access. Out of the blue a guy started screaming in French and I could hear people trying to drag him out of the building. Everyone stood up at once to watch. I couldn’t understand anything he said but the tone of voice was a plaintive wail. He could have been a pickpocket that got caught. He could have been a distraction for other pickpockets. He could have been having a really bad day. It freaked me out and I was ready to come home.
One other unusual thing on our last day was the gale winds that blew into London. It killed five people (by falling trees). I can honestly say I have never been in weather like that. The wind literally blew me across the sidewalk, thankfully away from the street. When we got back home the TV said the gales reached 95 mph. I saw one family holding their five year old between them while the mother held a baby in her arms. The five year old was in tears from fear.
Europe was getting weird and I was ready to come home.
Jet lag is real and it’s sneaky. On our first morning in London we slept until 11 and took the train to Cambridge. Then we missed the last scheduled bus back to the train station for the return trip because our concept of time was so distorted; we thought it was lunchtime. We had no idea what time it was. We finally started setting the alarm to wake up. It was just the opposite once we got home. Our first day home we woke at 4 am just as alert and awake as though it was mid-day. We had chili for breakfast that day. It took a whole week to re-set our body clocks.
SPECIAL NOTE: Attention fans! Elizabeth here. Stay tuned next week for a special column written by yours truly. But don't worry - Mom will be back and ready to dish about her Italy trip the week after next.