|Our trip - it went according to schedule this time. |
I was walking toward the Eiffel Tower on my first day in
Paris. Apparently my subconscious mind already was working hard on my lead to
this blog because I started singing this to myself:
“I was a free man in
Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. There was nobody calling me up for favors.
And no one's future to decide.”
That’s Joni Mitchell’s song about her trip to Paris with the
president of her record label. David Geffen didn’t like the way the words portrayed
him, but he probably changed his mind when “Free Man in Paris” was released as
a single and became one of Mitchell’s biggest hits.
We spent 16 days on a vacation that wound its way from Paris
to Nice in France with a side trip to Monaco. About a week was spent cruising
down the Rhone River in a group of about 40 other Americans. It have written up descriptions of the places we saw and posted them on my travel
as usual, I took notes about what we noticed about our trip along the way and
asked our new friends who joined us on the tour for their thoughts too.
I learn a lot about where I have been that
way. Therefore, this admittedly lengthy report is not about what we saw, but
about what we experienced.
The City of Lights
|Paris is a lovely city, especially when viewed|
from the Eiffel Tower.
* There’s no easy way to
cross the ocean by plane and be anything but tired. We flew from Buffalo
to Charlotte, sat around for four hours, and flew to Paris with a 6:55
a.m. arrival time. The best way to say how tired I was is that some days
later I was asked if there were movies on the flight. “I watched two of
them – one was about Bill Murray, and the other was … um … I have no
recollection of what the other one was,” I answered.
* They really celebrate
their holidays in France. On the morning of May 1 (Labor Day or May Day),
the usually crowded streets were empty. Few businesses were open, except
for some restaurants that probably catered to tourists. We missed a couple
of planned visits to attractions because of that. A week later, we were in
town for V-E Day, yet another holiday that closed many businesses.
* Meanwhile on May Day, thousands
gathered to protest government policies. More than 100 were arrested. Some
of the metro (subway) stops were closed for security reasons.We couldn’t
get near the Arc de Triomphe; access was blocked by well-armed military
troops. In fact, the nation is on its highest alert for security, and
military types were very visible in almost all potentially crowded areas.
* If you are interested in
fine dining, Paris obviously is the place to be. We saw not one, but two
Five Guys hamburger places there. McDonald’s and Starbucks were
everywhere, while Burger King had a small presence. More seriously, there are cafes and
restaurants all over the place, with a few on almost every block. For
an expensive city, food prices were actually quite reasonable. However, soft drinks were outrageous, unless you think a bottle of Coke Zero without ice cubes is worth as much as 4.50 Euros. Footnote - It
is a tough place to buy a salad, for whatever reason.
|The roof of Lafayette Commons was spectacular.|
* The malls of Western New
York aren’t doing well, but they have evolved into something quite
successful in Paris. Population density may have something to do with
that, of course. In any event, Galeries Lafayette is the big shopping spot in the big cities, and it has a fabulous building in Paris that was near our hotel. The
building features an atrium with a beautiful roof and a skywalk with a
glass floor. It helps that there are plenty of tourists in the area, and they
seemed anxious to spend money. There was a line to get into the Chanel and
Louis Vuitton sections of the building. That was a mall first.
* Paris needs a little work
on its cheap commercialism. You couldn’t find an original or interesting
t-shirt in the city limits.
* Visitors hear about the
problem of pickpockets almost everywhere in Paris, as well as in Lyon and
Nice. Theft from tourists almost sounds like it provides a good-sized
portion of the GDP. If you are planning a trip, take appropriate measures
like the purchase of a money belt.
* My friend from another cruise, Gail Alderton, once said to me, "You must
go to Paris." She was right.
Turning the tables
Jody’s knowledge of her high school French lessons paid off nicely
throughout the trip, as she could understand a bit of what was going around us
and point us in the proper directions. Meanwhile, my elective of Spanish in
those school years was of no use. But then we ran into a family from Argentina
at the shopping center in Paris, and my shaky knowledge of that language came
back to life briefly.
After I explained that I spoke “muy, muy poco” (very,
very little) Spanish after taking three years of it in school, we talked a
little in a combination of Spanish and English. The three women were delighted.
When they said they were leaving Paris that night, I said, “Que lastima!” (What
a pity!), which I think I learned in my first month of lessons in seventh
grade. And when we split up, I said, “Adios! Buena suerte (good luck)!”, putting a big smile on their faces.
You’d be surprised how much fun it
Rolling on the river
* Cruising usually is
associated with the big ships on the oceans. This was not one of them. Our
boat this time was about a third as crowded as the one we took in Central
Europe last year, with about 42 passengers. One nice feature was that the
rooms were downright spacious by cruise standards. In other words, you
could turn around in the shower without opening the door.
* Grand Circle
sometimes brings in guest speakers to its event, and we had a couple of
unusual ones. The first was Jean Nallit, a man who worked on the French
Resistance during World War II. As a forger, he saved the lives of several
Jews who were slated to go to the death camps. Yes, he’s 96 now, but he’s
still doing OK. It was remarkable to hear a first-person account of
experiences, which included a stay in a concentration camp. When he was
released, he was so thin (76 pounds) that his mother didn’t even recognize
him when they were reunited after the war.
By any definition. Nallit is a hero. Also, two people from the “Yellow Vest” protest groups took time to
talk with our group and answer questions about their activities. The protesters seem to have some energy, but no obvious place to direct it and
no clear leadership. Apparently, they get on Facebook and say, “Where
should we protest on Saturday?” Unless they set up a clear path for
progress to a particular destination and find some leadership, it’s hard to
believe they will do more than cause honked horns by drivers who can't get by them.
* Some of the boat tours
through Grand Circle feature variety shows from the crew. We had such a
small boat (13 crew members or so) that such a show was impossible, so
they took questions for more than an hour instead one night. They were
mostly Eastern Europeans (Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia) and in their 40s, so I asked how the end of
Communism had changed their lives. That hit a nerve. The answer from about
four crew members ran for about 20 minutes and had plenty of passion. It
was clear that they didn’t miss Communism, where everyone you meet is a
potential spy for the government.
However, there was a sense that they miss the safety net of the old
regime. Many people have realized that there’s not much opportunity for
advancement in the Old Country, and the people there need to flee to the
West for a better life. That "brain drain" has left those Eastern European countries
behind economically. I also asked about influences on their culture:
movies, television, music, sports, etc. They all quickly answered that
everything in those areas came from America.
* A story: Jaroslav, the hotel manager, talked about how a woman came up to him at the front desk and asked, "How does the ship get its power when it is not in port?" He was feeling silly that day, so he said, "We have a long
cord that is plugged in at the city of origin, and it unrolls as we go from city to city."
|Our traveling party visits a bull farm in Southern France.|
* Grand Circle markets its
tours to Americans, so again the conversations weren’t as international in
nature as the ones we’ve had on a big ship. However, this was a bright
group, and some interesting chats did take place. Within a period of a couple
of days, I talked with different people about the lessons offered by
France’s military defeat in colonial Southeast Asia in 1954, inter-faith
marriages, and abusive sport coaches. A woman asked me whether I had ever interviewed one of my boyhood idols. I told her about one such interview - it was difficult it was to talk to Carl Yastrzemski at a baseball game in Toronto for that reason. No one had ever asked me that question before.
* Speaking of marketing,
Grand Circle’s approach to touring apparently appeals to those in the 70-79
age-group, as we say in the running community. Some were older than that, and a
few were well above that. Those most senior of senior citizens didn’t take
part in all of the programs, but had a good time by all accounts. At the
other end of the spectrum, we weren’t the youngest this time like we had
been in 2018. A family reunion of nine was part of the group, and four of
them were sons and their significant others. I told one of the young
ladies that if they ever wanted to talk to someone who didn’t remember the
Korean War, we were there to help. She laughed. Without them, though, we would have been the kids on board again.
* The food was quite good,
with an emphasis on French cuisine. Remember, this is from America’s
fussiest eater, so it’s high praise. I think I could come to like Crepes
Suzette on a regular basis. We made sure to do plenty of walking during
the day and not drink too much alcohol in order to be able to
fit into our clothes upon returning. Others weren’t so, um, dedicated –
but that’s part of the attraction for some. To each his or her own.
* Let’s salute our program
director, Martin, for his effort throughout the trip. He worked extremely
hard for all 16 days (plus a post-trip extension that we missed) without
missing a beat, even when he was a bit sick for a while. Martin was always
in good humor and full of enthusiasm, and knew the highlights of the
visited cities forwards and backwards. He even put up with me when at one
point I started to snore loudly when he started to sing a lullaby into
the bus’ p-a system on a drive. (That got a surprisingly big laugh, by the
way.) You couldn’t tip him enough for what he did; let’s hope he received
enough to take a nice vacation of his own somewhere.
The rest of France
|One of the best war memorials is in Nice, near the waterfront.|
was mentioned along the way that there are three ingredients that are
crucial to French booking: butter, butter and butter. You didn’t need to
put any on your morning croissant to taste the stuff.
* There appears to be three
basic industries in France: The manufacturing of bread, wine and cheese.
They were ever-present throughout the country, and according to all
reports were always good. A friend of mine reminded me before the trip
that “If you haven’t had a bottle of wine by 11 a.m., you are playing
catch-up the rest of the day.”
* As you’d guess, English is
fairly common in the tourist areas of Paris. Most merchants can at least
get by. It was less common for the other portions of the journey.
* You’d expect plenty of
tributes to the heroes of World War II, and they were present throughout
France. It’s interesting, though, that World War I is still well
remembered in many places in the form of monuments, street names, heroes,
etc. France obviously suffered incredible losses in the earlier conflict,
but the tributes are noticeable for someone coming from an American
perspective. World War I doesn't come up much on this side of the pond.
* Europe has much more
smoking than the United States, and the French seem to be the leaders in
that category. It’s a great country for walks as long as you can find some
clean air to breathe along the way.
* As best as we could figure
out from the road signs, the speed limit on the big highways goes down a
bit when it rains. That’s not a bad idea. However, it is interesting – if not
scary – to consider that wine is sold at Thruway rest stops. Driving is
not cheap in France. We spent an afternoon with a French family, who said
it costs about 75 Euros to fill the tank. Whew. Many cars are indeed tiny,
particularly in urban areas where the streets are not exactly boulevards.
* Speaking of driving, the
French certainly love their traffic circles. There are about 30,000
scattered around the country. The rotaries force drivers to pay attention - according to a book I once read on traffic - so the accident rate drops in such spots. However, the Arc de Triomphe
features six roads coming into a circle without a yield sign in sight. We
went through the area on the way to Versailles, and we needed a “discomfort
bag” like they hand out on airplanes.
* You’d think France would
be a little less stingy with the size and number of its napkins. There weren't many paper towels in the bathrooms either.
* We took a high-speed
bullet train out of Paris (right) to get to the boat on the Rhone River in Central France. It
supposedly hits 180 mph at certain points, and it was funny to see it swiftly pass the cars on the big highways along the way. I can report the
ride is smooth and comfortable.
* When we were riding on the
subway in Lyon, we were serenaded by a street musician who was playing an
accordion. So much for the old saying, then, that a gentleman is “someone
who knows how to play the accordion … and doesn’t.” The music seemed
almost continental in that setting.
* Does every city in France
have a carousel?
* While in Viviers, we were
introduced to a French game called pétanque. It’s a great deal like bocce,
as players have to get large balls next to a small target ball by throwing
it a good-sized distance. As my friends have said, I’m a good athlete
when my feet aren’t moving (which covers most sports, by the way).
Therefore, I got the hang of the game quite quickly. I wonder if there is a professional league I can join.
* One key observation from
Jody: She was surprised and disappointed that users of the hair dryers must hold the "on button" in order to prevent it from turning off.
* There’s one common problem
in the cities of France: what my mother used to call “dog stuff.” One
local tour guide said that residents often let their dogs run around the
city streets, and – using a nice phrase – don’t monitor their “production.”
Martin called the gifts from our four-footed friends “landmines,” and we
all learned to look down frequently while walking.
* The French people say they
don’t consider Jerry Lewis a god. So let’s put that one to rest right now.
* For those who like to
count the countries they’ve visited, which covers almost all of us, the
idea of a morning trip to Monaco was irresistible. It’s less than a square
mile in size, a postage stamp in the world community. You don’t need a
passport to enter the country. However, if you want to get that document
stamped, you can do so. The Tourist Information booth at the train station
will be happy to add a bright red color to your otherwise drab passport
|Another Saturday, another protest in Nice.|
* At one point, we got off
the train in Nice after coming in from Monaco, and found ourselves in the
midst of a Saturday protest by the Yellow Vests. There were drums and
whistles by the few hundred people involved, not including the police
presence. They marched several blocks to the big town square, and we never
felt threatened walking behind the group. However, they sure messed up
traffic patterns for a while.
* At the end of the trip, I
had to use the business center of a hotel to check in for our flights
home. When I started to use the computer, I quickly discovered that I was
typing something close to gibberish. No remarks please – it was because it
was a different keyboard. A few of the letters were in the “wrong”
position (z was where the w usually is for us), and the numbers could only
be typed by hitting the shift key.
When we got on the plane from London to Chicago, as part of
the illogical trip home from Nice to Buffalo , we were happy to see that we had
boarded a 747. I told a flight attendant that
it was a first, and she said, “Rows and rows.” We sat in Row 52, and there were more people upstairs. That’s one big
plane; I still don’t know how it gets off the ground.
Our seats had a video screen, and British Airways offered a
wide variety of movies to make the eight-hour trip go faster. I saw three, and
was almost willing to go on to Los Angeles for a couple of more. In looking
over the vast listings, I saw that “Whiplash” was available – starring J.K.
And then it came to me: I had watched “The Front Runner,”
featuring Simmons, on the way over.
Let’s hope all of the memories on such great trips in the
future don’t disappear, but last a lifetime.