Jun 30 2010


Ever since getting to Paris three weeks ago, I’ve had one logistical task in mind: how to get out. Not because I dislike this city of croissants and fine cheese, but rather because we need to be in Turin on July 2nd, and we didn’t have any means to get there.

I usually like to plan things ahead of time, so when we arrived on June 14th, I looked online to see if I could buy train tickets, thus taking advantage of advance-purchase rates. I checked out the cheerful Artesia train website, which proudly proclaimed that there were two trains a day to Turin and, what’s more, they were only 60 euros a piece. What a deal! The website, however, did not offer any means to book these tickets.

After an hour or so of investigation, I determined that I needed to buy them through France’s train network, known as SNCF. But, despite recommending that you purchase tickets more than 45 days in advance, their website did not list the Artesia trains; the itineraries they offered were much longer, and almost 250 euros a piece. This was odd. Convinced that it was my understanding of French railway websites that was at fault, I set off on a cross-city quest to go to an SNCF “boutique,” as they’re called, to buy the tickets in person.

A 30-minute Metro ride and a 35-minute line later, I finally spoke to a ticket agent, who politely informed me that there were only tickets available through June 30th because the Italians had not sent the ones for July yet. “Oh, the Italians,” I said. “Toujours les Italiens!” attempting to make a joke, while at the same time wondering why it was necessary, in this day of online ticket sales, for Italy to “send” the tickets. Couldn’t they set up a system where the tickets automatically loaded into the database 45 days or so before departure? You know, like how they do with airlines or, for that matter, most trains?

No. This was not possible. I went back to the apartment, tired and dejected, but figured that if tickets were available till June 30th, it would be a mere two days or so before those for July 2nd were as well. So I dutifully went back to checking the SNCF website.

A week passed. No tickets. Worrying again that this might be my fault, I sent a message to the SNCF support staff asking if there were another way to buy them. What if there were a cabal of train-hopping, Italian-bound Parisians snatching up all the seats? Was I missing something? No, they wrote back. There are no tickets yet. But they should be listed soon. Keep checking.

And so I did. At some point, my quest for the tickets went beyond a mere desire for logistical resolution and became a personal compulsion — a ticket tic, if you will — to check for them at any possible point during the day. Every morning and evening, I tried online. Every time we passed a SNCF automatic ticket machine,  I tried it as well — despite the fact that I already know that my Visa card does not work in French ticket machines.  I asked in person at the SNCF booth beneath the Musee D’Orsay. I asked again outside the Eiffel Tower, during a day in which a country-wide SNCF strike pre-guaranteed failure. No tickets.

By this point it was Saturday, less than a week before our train was scheduled to depart. I went on a walk that afternoon through a park near our apartment, and was in the midst of admiring some beautiful hydrageas when I saw it: an SNCF sign beckoning me from across the street. My mind told me I should ignore it in favor of taking a leisurely stroll through the park’s manicured grounds. I had just checked the train schedule that morning online — I knew there were no tickets. But I couldn’t help myself — lured by SNCF’s siren song, I crossed the street, walked past the train tracks, and took a number in the small office, where a single ticket seller was working his way through a line of people.

Having already waited in line in three SNCF offices, I knew how slowly things progress: from what I can tell, the ticket sellers act as personal internet tour guides, working with customers to do exactly the same searches that one could do at home, patiently researching endless combinations of dates and times before the customer finally settles on an itinerary and buys a ticket. It’s painful to watch, actually, each transaction taking a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes.

As I sat there, I recognized that I was in essence putting myself through a foregone conclusion, waiting in line to have an agent tell me in person information that I already knew. Staying there was, then, objectively absurd. And yet, I couldn’t get up. The office was air conditioned, and besides, I was beginning to almost enjoy the ridiculousness of the situation — both the lack of tickets, and my own compulsion to track them down. It was as if I’d become obsessed with hunting a unicorn.

Sure enough, when my time finally came, Jean — a very patient, very sweet man who turned out to be the manager of the office — told me that the tickets were not yet available but that, in true SNCF style, he would search for them anyway (thereby guaranteeing that our interaction would be at least 3 minutes longer, much to the delight of the people behind me in line). He typed something into his computer, squinted at it, and gasped.

“Attendez!” he said with excitement — my heart fluttered — could it be? Then his face fell.

“Ma coeur, ma couer m’a parle,” he said, gesturing toward his heart. “My heart, it spoke to me!” But alas, his heart had been mistaken.

Jean showed me how I could put in a request to be emailed when the tickets became available — a nice gesture, except that when you’re checking four times a day on your own, an email alert becomes a bit superfluous. I then went back into the streets and drowned my sorrow in a goat cheese salad.

But the story did not end there: after three more days of checking, the tickets — again, for the train that leaves in three days (I might be crazy, but so is this system) — suddenly appeared online yesterday afternoon, the second time I’d checked that day. My heart did indeed speak to me, and I attempted to book them — before realizing that they were 40 euros more than I’d anticipated.

Since I knew I’d have to pick them up in person anyway (not so big on etickets, the Europeans), I went back to my friend Jean, and waited in another half-hour line. While there, I listened to another woman who was trying to get from Paris to Turin — on July 12th — speak to Jean, and learned that while the tickets had been available just that morning, they had since been taken back for all trips starting after July 8th. That was fine for me, seeing as how we leave July 2nd — but not so much for the woman, who departed from the office 40 minutes poorer and with no tickets to show for it. I began to think of the Italian train office as some sort of coquettish tease, flashing her tickets at her suitors before tucking them back underneath her clothes.

But luckily, my tickets were available. Albeit, not at the price advertised (according to Jean, there had been none offered to begin with) — but still, after 16 days of effort, I have two seats on the train to Turin, safely stowed in my bag.

Here’s hoping I don’t lose them.

Jun 27 2010

Body Attack

As noted previously in this blog, my body decided it would be fun to celebrate my arrival in Paris by contracting a flu-like illness over the appetizer course last Saturday night. Since then, I’ve worked my way through several stages — fever, sore throat, general fatigue, lingering cough — before waking up Thursday morning feeling like I was finally back to normal.

My mother, a nurse and overall wise and practical woman, probably would have suggested that I continue to take it easy. But instead, I decided it would be an excellent day to use my free pass at the gym across the street (a 25 euro value!) and try out a class called “Body Attack.”

According to its description on the gym schedule, Body Attack is “encore plus fort, encore plus loin pour une forme explosive.” Even stronger, even further, for an explosive form! (Hannah read the French text aloud to me on the subway, much to the amusement of the man standing next to her.)

I’ve been feeling recently that, given the abundance of camembert, my forme is not going in a particularly explosive direction. So despite my lingering fatigue, I headed across the street to the Vit’halles gym, where I walked past two floors of French weightlifters, found the aerobics studio, and noticed several things: first, much like the Metro, the room was not air conditioned. Second, there were only about five people in it, none of whom looked explosive. Whatever. I pulled out a foam mat and took my place toward the back, looking up at a small stage backed by Nike posters.

I should note that attending aerobics classes in foreign countries is one of my favorite things to do when traveling — past favorites include hip hop in Beijing, Croatian pilates, and a South Korean class called “dance dance.” I love seeing how different cultures have reacted to fitness trends — say, step class — and what traditions they bring to the gym themselves. In China, for example, people worked out with nalgene bottles of green tea and, despite the 90+-degree heat, I saw multiple women who had saran-wrapped their thighs.

The French class was a little different. There were only about five people, and instead of my charismatic Chinese aerobics instructor, Lightning, the teacher did not introduce himself with any sort of fun fitness nickname. But he was still perky, dressed in shorts with a Madonna-esque earpiece in one ear. He started by asking if anyone were new to the class. I raised my hand. “Zero experience?” he said.


“D’accord,” he replied, and proceeded to explain the class format: cardiovascular work followed by sports training followed by muscles.

For first half of the class, I didn’t have any problem. We worked our way through jogging in place, punching the air above our heads, and doing a shortened version of jumping jacks as the Black Eyed Peas played at high speed on the stereo. I was feeling pretty good about myself, noticing that, even if I cannot properly form the conditional or future tenses, I am good at following exercise classes. Grapevines? Jogging in place? High knees? Who needs French? I speak aerobics.

But then came the sports training segment. The teacher divided us into two “teams” and instructed us to sprint back and forth down the gym, five times in a row, before taking a break jogging in place.

I started off strong and cocky — despite being led by the instructor, the other team was lame. One of the woman hadn’t even been able to keep up with the jumping jacks. “Sprint,” I decided, was clearly a relative term.

But then, halfway through the first sprint, I saw her: a woman in a red tank top who seemed — no, was definitely — trying to beat me.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I thought to myself, momentarily falling behind. Did this cigarette puffing Frenchie think she was going to win Body Attack?

Uh, no. Putting aside the fact that 24 hours earlier,  I’d been feverish and on the couch, I stepped on the gas and coasted past her to the end of the room. I felt a little winded, but then again, so did she.  So I was surprised when she did the same thing on the second sprint, leaving me with no choice but to push past her again.  Sprint numbers three, four and five? Same deal.

By that point, I felt a little like I was suffocating. I don’t sprint much in my daily life, my blood sugar was high, my head was starting to hurt, I had no water, and I was seriously resenting the gym’s decision not to install an air-conditioning system. Whereas before I’d been jauntily jogging in place during the rest periods, now I was feigning reasons to bend over so I could catch my breath. (I think my shoelaces “untied” about six times during the course of the sprints.)

Unfortunately for my heart rate, the ancient Greeks’ obsession with the rule of threes has influenced modern-day cardiovascular training: we had two more sets of five sprints ahead of us. I struggled through them, still managing to beat my nemesis most of the time before needing to tie my shoe laces again.

The rest of the class was relatively simple, except for a long lunge sequence that I knew ahead of time was going to make it difficult for me to sit down in a chair for the next three or four days. But the damage had already been done. Today I’m feeling a little sick again and, what’s worse, the body attack has literally attacked my body — my legs are killing me, and my triceps burn every time I straighten my arms.

Whatever. I still won.

Jun 26 2010

Les Egouts de Paris

Let’s say you were in Paris and had just spent 32 euros on a two-day museum card, a special pass that allows you to skip the lines and walk right in to some of the major museums in the city. Let’s say that you’d already visited the Louvre and L’Orangerie. And let’s say that you were debating between the Rodin Museum — i.e., the famous sculptor of The Thinker, among other emotive masterpieces — or a four-euro display entitled “The Sewers of Paris.”

For me, the choice was obvious. Peter and I had spent the morning working our way through an audio tour of the Musee d’Orsay and, while I enjoyed our virtual guide’s description of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell,” I decided it might be time for something off the beaten path.

Mission accomplished. The Egouts of Paris are right next to a bridge close to the Eiffel Tower. Unlike the Orangerie or, god help us, the Louvre, there was no line. We waved our museum passes and went right downstairs, where several groups of uniformed school children were being led around by guides.

I had just gotten caught up in a display about rainwater when Peter, who had wandered ahead (I’m assuming out of excitement, not boredom?) came back to me.

“I need you to come with me,” he said. “This is too smelly to do twice.”

I needed no further invitation. As friends may know, I spent much of 2008 and early 2009 wrapped up in a series of pieces about the state of American sewage. Hell, I even made a music video. A sewer tour is, as they say, totally my bag.

My expectations were high, but the Paris Sewer Tour did not disappoint. Sure enough, we turned a corner and were hit in the face with a smell I knew all too well from my research phase.

This is the authentic Paris underground.

Unlike the hygiene-obsessed US of A, this was not some synthetic scent being used to create an authentic sewer atmosphere, like how they spray popcorn perfume all over the 68th street Loews theater. Rather, it came from the river of untreated wastewater running through a trough in the middle of the room.

When I say “untreated” and “river,” I’m not exaggerating. Check out the photo. That’s, if you may excuse the expression, the real shit.

I found this disgusting, yet fascinating, but I wanted more background information. How did this system come to be? How did a dredge boat work? What were those enormous wooden balls?  Thank goodness, then, for the hallway full of informational placards, helpfully printed in English and French, explaining the evolution of Parisian wastewater treatment. (For a long time, it was quite simple: dump it into the Seine.)

I wanted to soak up all four sides of each information station (no pun intended), but there was one slight problem: in what must have been a sewer worker’s joke, the boards were set up directly above a different rushing stream of wastewater that had been covered by the same sort of see-through wire grate that covers the air vents in the NYC subway system (think Marilyn Monroe, but smellier). Even I, a truly devoted sewer follower, had difficulty trusting that the wire grates were not going to collapse while I read about Napoleon’s clean water initiatives, dropping me into what could easily have qualified as a beginner kayak run. Making me more nervous: some of the placards, made of sturdy laminated plastic, had actually begun to disintegrate from the fumes.

Peter eventually braved the grate.

Luckily, the grates held and we made it through to the gift shop, where I learned that giant wooden balls were — and are — used to help build up enough water pressure to flush the sand (or “hybrid mixture,” as they called it euphemistically) out of the pipes. I also verified that a large crocodile was once found living in the sewers (it now has its own sewer-themed enclosure at a zoo), got some free sewer tour postcards from a curator at the gift shop, and was invited to a new exhibit — presumably above ground — celebrating Parisian water.

A good time all around.

Jun 23 2010

Hannah in the House

This just in: Hannah Leckman has arrived in Paris, has already eaten her first baguette and is off on a walk with her son as I stay home to “work” (which I wish could translate to “nap”). She has just finished her last year of teaching, and is threatening to start her own blog, titled “realretirement.net”

I look forward to it — not to mention our adventures over the next week. More soon. Welcome, Hannah!

Mother. Son. Croissants.

Jun 20 2010

Old Friends and New Flus

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, while my heart is still in the goat shed, my body is in Paris. Ah, Paris, where the scooters don’t stop (especially for pedestrians) and where Peter and I just spent a great weekend with my dear friend Kristy, who came over for the weekend from London. Behold: a photo of the windswept third grade friends in view of the Eiffel Tower:

Kristy made the brilliant decision to bring with her a book called Hungry For Paris, a guide to 102 of Paris’s best restaurants, which she has bequeathed to me and Peter for the remainder of our time here. All I can say is that I had also better make it to the gym across the street (I want to go to a class called “Body Attack”) — considering all the cheese I’ve been eating, it’s not just the weight of my luggage I’m going to be worried about.

We spent most of the day wandering our way toward the Eiffel Tower, making a memorable, if brief, stop in the bathroom of the Printemps department store.

A quick side note — when I was little, I kept journals of all our vacations that tended to focus on two things: airplane food and toilets. (“We are at the Sistene Chapel,” I would write. “I will now draw a picture of the bathroom.”) I thought — and suppose still do think — that my obsession was odd. But now that I’m back in Europe, I find my attention drawn once more toward the WC — and I’m starting to wonder if it’s really my fault.

For example: how am I not supposed to comment on this bathroom of a Parisian cafe, where the room pulsed with disco lights and a song called “Let’s Make Tonight A Night to Remember”?

Likewise, in the Printemps bathroom, I found many things which begged for comment. Why did it cost a Euro ($1.22, give or take) to use the toilet? And if I am going to spend that much money to pee, why did the room smell like body odor? More importantly, who was buying the luxury rolls of toilet paper printed with dollar bills? And who was the mastermind behind the campaign to sell tricolor rolls in honor of the World Cup (mix and match to make your flag)? So many questions.

After climbing up the first two levels of the Eiffel Tower, we headed to dinner at Chez Rene, a lovely bistro on the Left Bank where Kristy had been with her sister Loren (hello!). Boeuf Bourgignon was had, along with Coq au Vin, and my dish, a boiled sausage studded with pistachios. Delicious, except for one slight problem: halfway through our appetizers (warm chevre on arugula salad? thank you very much) I started to feel like I had the flu.

I commented earlier this week that it’s not good to be a diabetic in Paris (so many pains au chocolat!). But it’s especially not good to have a vague flu-like illness in the City of Love. I spent the night wrapped up in a blanket, shivering with chills, while also radiating heat from a fever. I was convinced I was coming down with full-on flu, which I haven’t had for eight years and which is definitely not on my “can’t miss” list of Parisian experiences.

Luckily, when I got up this morning, the fever had broken and I feel nearly back to normal. Not enough back to normal to want to do much other than eat cheese and take naps on the couch. But given the circumstances, that’s not entirely unusual.

And it’s also given me a chance to figure out the whole YouTube situation, so that I can share some videos from the farm. Here is a shot from early one morning, when Peter really did not want to milk the goats:

Lastly, I was talking with Kristy about how certain French words and expressions have gotten stuck in our heads since 7th grade, despite the fact that we have never had a chance to use them in casual conversation. For her, it is “aveugle” — blind person — whereas I prefer “la pelouse” (lawn) and “naufrage” (shipwrecked person, a gem given to me by my friend Andy). I’ve been in France for nearly three weeks now, and so far have not had an opportunity to talk about blind shipwrecked people on the lawn.

But one word I do find useful, much to my surprise, is “la greve.” It means “strike” and I remember that my textbook, cheerily titled “Viens Voir!” (“Come See!”) made a really big deal about it. Why was I wasting brain space on this word, I asked myself? (Especially when there were so many shipwrecked people clamoring for my bilingual attention.) When would I possibly be chatting about the labor situation in France?

Oh, 7th grade Catherine, how naive you were. Along with “le carnet” (French-speak for a 10-pack of metro tickets), “la greve” is one of the most useful words to have in your French arsenal. It is a major form of entertainment, la greve — and it pops up in the oddest of situations. When we were taking off from Bordeaux, for example, our captain informed us that we would be delayed by 10 minutes because the air traffic controllers were on strike. To me, this seemed like more than a 10-minute issue — what were we going to do if the air traffic controllers didn’t come back? Wing it? And besides, aren’t most strikes longer than a coffee break? But we took off fifteen minutes later, making me wonder whether French strikes are governed by the same work ethic that brought about country-wide 5-week mandatory vacations.

And then just now Peter read me a news story about how the French World Cup soccer team is refusing to practice because they don’t like their coach. I’m sorry, but what? You have the opportunity to play in the game of your life — the moment you have fantasized about since you were a wee, thick-thighed young boy dreaming of soccer balls — and you decide to go on strike against your own team?

J’adore Paris, but there are some things I just don’t understand.