stories >> 1997 - 11 - 16
The Paris trip
can be neatly divided into two pieces: Before The Fever and After The
Fever. For those of you not in the know, on Sunday I caught the most
wretched sickness I've had in eighteen years, and it's dogged me for a week
It's pretty simple to sum up the ATF experience: miserable. Flying for eleven hours, riding the subway for three hours, driving to Austin for 4 1/2 hours, my temperature in the thousands of degrees. All of it miserable. Ah well, c'est la guerre. It could have been worse. I just read in Backpacker about some guy's polar trip where it got so cold that his teeth splintered into pieces in his mouth. So I guess I got off lucky.
On to the good stuff.
I left for Paris, France on Friday afternoon
from Dallas, Texas. Thursday night went out and got good and drunk for no good
reason. I woke up at dawn on Friday, listening to my alarm clock going off.
I get up enough just to turn on the radio and then I creep back into bed. Then
the phone starts ringing, and everyone's checking on me. AJ calls to make sure
I'm okay. Jamie calls to make sure I'm okay. Jason calls about skiing. And finally
Jim calls, I suspect because Jamie asked him to... to make sure that I'm okay
I'm just lying in bed, feeling hung over, knowing that I'm going to have to drive up to Dallas, knowing that I'm never going to make the insane one o'clock time that I told Traci, but I just can't get it moving. I can barely hear the radio still piffling out lousy songs, and all I want to do is sleep. But then I hear that familiar "tap-a-tap-a-tap-a" intro of the Blur song, and by the first "WOOO HOOO" I'm jumping out of bed, wide awake, dancing in the mirror, and yelling at the ceiling "I'M GOING TO PARIS... WOOO HOOO!!!"
Now I'm totally juiced. I'm pumped and I'm amped. Swoosh, last load of laundry goes in the dryer. Zoom, I race out the door to buy millions of dollars worth of last minute cameras, shampoo, cigarettes (to trade with the natives, I keep thinking), toothpaste, blah blah blah. Back at home, bam, laundry in the dryer, passport, tickets, last minute luggage repair with a handy pad lock. Clothes are dry enough, stuff them in the duffel bag, I'm out the door by 11:30, and I'm on the road at noon.
WOOO HOOO! I've got the windows rolled down, the heater cranked, I'm in a driver's crouch with my hand squeezing the steering wheel at 12 and 2 o'clock, all I've had today is a bottle of coke and the caffeine is hitting me like a jackhammer. No way I can make one o'clock, but I can set the record. I put the hammer down and make a simple rule: I won't let a single car pass me. I'm leaning forward into the wind, chanting the words to the Blur song, and I keep thinking about a time I drove to Houston and was trying to outrun a monster thunderstorm at 100 mph down Highway 290. I'm hammering on to Dallas, then on to holy Paris, City of Lights.
I make Georgetown in 20 minutes, Waco in an hour and fifteen. I pull over at Elm Mott, where the cops really do park in front of the donut shop, to get some more Coke and give Traci a call telling her where I am. The guy in fron of me is buying lottery tickets and talking to the woman behind the counter.
"Don't know why I buy these things, " he says. "Never going to win nothing."
The woman behind the counter tells him, "Lady across the highway won 20 million."
The man starts laughing and says, "Bet she don't live across the highway no more!"
I'm laughing too at this crazy mad truck guy, cracking jokes in Elm Mott, and I get my Coke and I'm drinking it and I'm done before I can put my hand back on the Leper's peeling hood. I try to give Traci a call using that 1-800-COLLECT crap and I fail utterly. The 1-800 woman apologizes for my total ineptness, but I just don't even care and I thank her politely with a laugh and I'm back in the car, hammering it up to Dallas. There's a green Pathfinder and we do what the Leper's lying speedo says is 80 (it must be lying, because no one passes me when it says 70) all the way to Dallas.
I'm pleased to see that the "Commit thy works to the Lord and thy thoughts shall be established" junk yard is back up and running, just north of Waxahatchie around exit 406.
I make Dallas County in 2 1/2 hours (including my ten minutes in Elm Mott), and fifteen minutes later I'm at Royal Lane. The inevitable sclerosis of Dallas traffic hits and it takes me 25 minutes to crawl the last seven miles. I'm at Traci's doorstep at 3:10, and we've got a little more than 2 hours to make the plane.
WOOO HOOO! We swing by the post office, and then we're flying by all the god damned traffic in the sweet HOV lane. Sweet, sweet HOV lane. I wish they had these on every street, and I'd buy one of those high fashion manequins to sit in the back and keep me from getting tickets. We absolutely fly past the traffic as I tell Traci about the place that sells concrete animals and has painted all of the gorillas pink for some reason. One more snarl where the HOV runs out and 35 crosses 635, and then we're flying past people with Cornhusker license plates and we're hammering into DFW.
I remember to park near the little train station, and on the way in I realize I've only brought Traci's tickets with me. C'est la vie. I cough up $70 for the lost ticket fee, and now my $409 ticket is a $479 ticket to Paris. Who gives a flip? We take the train the wrong way and see all DFW while I annoy Traci with my lousy French. We finally reach our stop, I get 510 francs, Traci gets a Sprite, and WE ARE ON THE PLANE AND GOING TO PARIS!
WOOO HOOO! I keep rocking back and forth in my chair, muttering "I had my hair done/When I was young/It's not my problem..." The plane pushes off, the sun's going down, they're speaking French over the loudspeakers, I can't believe this is happening.
So, I quickly find out two things about American's trans-Atlantic flights 1) The stewardaii are all extremely friendly. The one who adopts us is this big Texas girl, who speaks Dallas English to us and beautiful French to everyone else around us. She keeps slipping Traci bottles of champagne. 2) The booze never stops. I try to stick with Sprite to keep hydrated, but Traci's getting the champagne and the guy behind us wolfs down five Stolis in a heartbeat. I relent and have a bottle of wine with dinner, and our stewardess slips in an extra bottle "for later." I feel like we're going to California instead of France: the chocolate is Ghiradelli, the wine is from Cedar Brook, and the champagne is from Carneros, deep in the heart of Napa.
There is always something to keep you distracted. They feed us twice, water us about six times, come by with the duty free cart, show the movie. In the dead of the night, I look out of the wing and see crazy old Orion bouncing around, with both of his dogs on either side of the wing. When I take out my contacts to go to sleep, I'm surprised that I can still see bold blue Sirius blazing away at me, King of the Winter Night.
I wake up an hour
or two later to a champagne sunrise, full of apricots and violets. We've hammered
our way 1/4 the way around the world, saying goodbye to the old sun and blasting
on over the ocean to surprise him as he rises just six hours later. I feel so
clean in this new born sky (later I'll think of Willem Defoe in The English
Patient: "All the black poison leaks away in the morning") even though I'm gritty
and bloodshot. I can't see the Atlantic because of all the fluffed out crazy
clouds below me, looking like huge cloud badlands with huge cloud cowboys chasing
wild cloud horses.
The sun's up in the sky, we're suddenly over land, and now we're descending into Orly. Off the plane, we stand in the passport control line for 49 minutes (I timed it). I go through cyclical stages of anger, frustration, indifference, and resignation. It's just like Dallas traffic: it drives me nuts. There are two British guys in front of me who tell me "We just came from Africa and it wasn't this bad there!" After we get through the passport line, we elude the customs officials and we're out into the airport proper.
I have a suspicion that Orly Airport intentionally hires the rudest, thickest sons of bitches that it can. No one will give us the time of day. I despair for a few minutes of us ever leaving. "What a great trip," I tell Traci. "We spent the whole time in the damn airport because we were too fucking stupid to find a way out." So we sit down, regroup, take pictures of each other looking lost, and finally wander outside.
We find the bus that will take us into town, buy our tickets in my masterful French ("deux billettes, sil vous plait" HA!), and plop on down. Once we start moving, I realize that Traci and I, along with one old guy, are the only people who have actually *bought* tickets for this deal. I guess it's generally a free ride if you're gutsy enough to just climb on the bus and take it into town. Once there, we get into the cleverly disguised metro station, I buy more tickets but blow my cover by saying "por favor" instead of "sil vous plait." We take a few trains, pop out of the subway, and we're at our hotel, the hotel La Familia, rated two stars by the French tourism board.
The guy at the desk is an absolute maniac named Eric. "Bonjour, how are YOU?!" he screams at us as we come in through the doors (you have to hear the cadence in this crazy guy's voice.) He starts talking a mile a minute, introducing himself and the rest of the Familia. He pulls out a map and starts scribbling on it like the crazy bastard that he is, pointing to random places and hollering "BIG STORE!" or "EIFFEL TOWER!" or "OLD CHURCH!" He assures us that everything is very safe in our neighborhood, and tells us to come down for breakfast and to drink plenty of coffee. "It is like our French wine. It is GOOD FOR YOU!" he shouts in my face. "But only in MODERATION!" This crazy French guy pushes us towards the elevator, which is really really the size of your high school locker, shoves Traci in, pushes on me until I squeeze in, yells at us "Cozy, NO?!", and slams the door. Traci and I look at each other, and she manages to push the fourth floor button.
Our room is shaped like some jig saw piece from a bizarre third grader's puzzle. I turn on MTV (good old MTV. Yeah for American cultural hegemony) while Traci takes a shower and see a video from a band of disturbingly young and androgynous kids called "Hansen." She gets done, we try to sneak past Eric in the lobby but he catches us and makes us leave the room key behind, and we get outside. We're staying in the ostensibly student part of town, and indeed the Sorbonne is only 1/2 mile away on one side. We wander past a couple of Vietnamese markets and some Pho houses. It's only about six blocks to the Seine and I figure we'll just keep walking until we hit it. We round a turn, and suddenly we see Notre Dame right in front of us. How cool! We run down the street up to a bookseller's stall along the Seine and stand there gaping at the cathedral. Traci's babbling about how she has always dreamed of doing this when she was a kid and can we just keep walking and can we eat lunch on a boat that's cruising the Seine?
We walk around some more, and I get my first inkling that French people don't drink water. I've become convinced that they get all of their hydration from the food they eat, like desert rodents. Wine and coffee can't keep you hydrated (it sure didn't keep me hydrated). We walk around some more, buy a baguette and some flan, wander up by the Pantheon and the Sorbonne, by the University of Paris's Law School, and on down the Luxembourg Gardens. Next to the Gardens we stop at a brasserie and sit outside. I'm drinking a Heinekin and Traci gets a cafe au lait or something. I'm so stoked -- here I am, sitting on a sidewalk in France, watching people trying to kill each other in their crazy tiny cars, people walking their huge and well behaved dogs (there are dogs everywhere in Paris), people talking French. The sky's getting threatening, so we head back to the hotel. On the way there, I buy a bunch of irises from a woman who doesn't speak a lick of English ("Ohhh, EARIS!" she says when I point the flowers I want) and give them to Traci.
Back at the hotel, it's 5:00 or 6:00 and I can't keep my eyes open from the jet lag and running around. I keep falling asleep for fifteen minutes at a time and I'm feeling awful and Traci's getting pissed off at me. I fell terrible: tired, sleepy, and dehydrated. Traci wants to go the Champs d'Elysee. I think it sounds like an awful idea, but dinner sounds great. Traci kicks me enough so that I get back up and we go back outside. Eric seems to have hidden somewhere but we're a little jumpy just in case he might leap out from behind the desk or something. We go to an Indian place with just a twinge of guilt ("we're eating Indian food in Paris?") The gorgeous hostess asks me some question I can't understand -- everyone always talks to me and ignores Traci, Paris is just that way -- and then seats us when I just stare at her kind of squint eyed. Since she sits us next to the window, I think she asked us "Do you want to sit next to the window." Amazing. We order a feast of mattar panerr, dingri aloo, a mess of rice and nan, and a bottle of Beaujolais. The wine is as cold as a crypt, and it's beautiful and it's making me come back alive. Maybe you can be hydrated on just wine. We hog as much as you can at an Indian place, I keep trying to steal cubes of paneer off of Traci's plate when she's not looking, we're watching some guy outside who's bike has a sticker that says "BRAINIAC" on it, and we suck down the bottle. I feel like a million bucks again. 240 francs laters, we're out the door and the way to the Champs.
We randomly end up next to the Cluny Abbey in this weird place that's packed with tiny bars and places to eat. All of the waiters are standing outside their restaurants, trying to steal patrons from each other. We see a guy walk across the street and pull two people away from reading the menu to bring them into his own place. It's mad crazy, but we finally find the subway and pop inside.
One train change later and we're at the Charles De Gaulle Etoille. We run up the steps and I see it before Traci: the Arc d'Triomphe, orange against the Paris sky. We suicidally run across the eight lanes of traffic to get to the Arc. From there we stare off at the Eiffel tower and down the Champs d'Elysee. Traci is jumping up and down with excitement and keeps screaming, "This is the Arc d'Triomphe!" The gendarmes start to give us the hairy eyeball, so we find the subterannean underpass to avoid the traffic and we race off down the Champs d'Elysee.
There are times
in my life when I know that I'm just a poor country boy, and this is one of
them. The Champs d'Elysee is the most glamorous place I have ever been in my
short life. It screamed "hip" and "important" and "culture" in big bold uphill
letters. As we walked along, we passed offices for Air Nippon, Aeroflot, Air
Russia, Iranian Air, Royal Jordanian Air, Air Tunis. We passed a giant Andersen
Consulting office. Everything was jumping. We duck into a bar to buy some French
cigarettes. We can't decided between Galouise or Gitane, so we buy a pack of
each. I can't believe this place. They're pumping the most thumping ripping
techno I've ever heard over their speakers, and everyone is sitting around drinking
beers and smogging these incredible dense cigarettes and shouting in French.
I'm more excited and hipped out than I've ever been in my life. This is exactly
what I had dreamed Paris would be like.
Back on Champs, and I'm smoking the only cigarette of my life and I'm on top of the world. We go into the Virgin Megastore, sort of like Tower on steroids, and it's huge and cool looking and packed. We don't buy anything, but we are dead dog tired now. We stumble back outside, get on the subway, stop only for a Nutella crepe (great call Priscilla!), and we get back to the hotel room. As I sink into the bed, I see that it's midnight, and I'm thinking that back in Austin it's 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon. I'm instantly asleep.
I'm up at 8:00. Something in the air bothers Traci, and she's snoring like an army of evil dead. Last night I smoked my Gitane, which was one of my French goals, and now it's time for the next one: to run along the Seine. I lace up, check the weather report (it's 48 degrees), pull on my Crown and Anchor shirt, and off I run. It's gorgeous, it's beautiful, everything is different in the morning. People look at the big bald American running by and wonder what the heck I'm doing. I run by a thousand landmarks and see the morning sun shimmering on the Seine. I even give the cobblestone quay a shot and quickly find that it's the most unforgivigin surface I've ever tried to run on. I run all the way down to the obelisk at the Concorde, and I can look back up Champs at the Arc d'Triomphe in the opposite direction from where we looked last night.
Back at the hotel, it's 9:30 and I wake Traci up for breakfast. We go down stairs, have some croissants that can't be beat and some coffee that's extra fortified with caffeine. I'm glowing from the exercise and the stimulants, and we pop back upstairs so Traci can get ready. I'm laying on the bed watching some French home improvment show, "This Old Maison" or something. Traci's showered and ready to rock, so we roll out the door.
Our first goal is the "BIG STORE" of Lafayette. It's a huge place, as big as a cathedral we'll see, just devoted to the strange gods of Commerce and Consumption. Inside, there is a huge dome covered with stained glass and painted spandrills. I almost expect to see some counterpart to the stations of the cross. Up on the 6th floor, you can look out on the roof of the Paris opera (you could see where a Phantom could lurk in that creepy place) and see the Eiffel tower off in the distance. Depressingly, the merchandise isn't really much different from what you'd find at Foleys. There's just more of it.
Down in the basement, though, there's Lafayette Gourmet. When you first walk in, you see whole wall full of booze, and at the very end, there's a huge stack of two liter bottles of water. Ha, we had finally found the secret Paris stash of water. I snap one up instantly and we wander around the store. There's so much here that I've never seen before that I start to get discouraged and feel like a thorough philistine. People are pushing these tiny little gold shopping carts just like they drive their crazy little cars, bouncing off of each other and up against the walls, glaring at each other and thinking impure thoughts. I get so bummed that I tuck my water bottle under my arm and slink off to a table to get something to eat.
Lunch helps immensely. I have a fantastic lasagne and a glass of white wine with some sort of liquer poured into it. Like everything French, it's portioned into this tiny little piece, but it's so good I don't care. We order coffee afterwards, and when it comes it's as black and oily as a Republican's heart. We pay way too much for it, get Traci some sort of berry tart, and head out the door.
We make our way to the church of Saint Madeleine, where we go inside and I drop five francs into the box for a candle. I light it and I think of all the people I should be burning it for. I pin all my hopes on those five francs and Heaven. Traci tells me that it's good I'm doing all of this in front of the Virgin Mary since she's the best in the Catholic dogma. I mutter something about idolatrous Catholics. We walk past a confessional that is actually advertising that Pere Blah Blah speaks four languages. Ah, celebrity confessors! Traci is impressed with the carving on the pulpit. When I tell her, "Babylon" she laughs and calls me a "damned Baptist." We head out the door, Traci does one last genuflection, and we're back on the street.
We go to a place called "The House of Honey." My mom, God bless her, likes the honey made from the palmetto plant, so every time I go somewhere, I try to scare this up. I've never been successful. But I figure a place called "The House of Honey" has *got* to have it. So I walk in, very confident, knowing I'm going to get my mom this fictitious honey she's always talking about. But my smile begins to fade as I realize I don't know how to say "palmetto" in French, and the poor girl behind the counter doesn't know the word either. But she's so nice that I buy five jars or random types of honey from her anyway, even though I know my mom will never eat the stuff.
A little despondent, we wander across the street to a real French cheese shop. "Real" means two interdependent thigns: no refrigeration, and everything has mold on it. I'm used to seeing blue cheese, but this stuff has real, bumpy, furry mold on it. Every cheese in the place is moldy. The freaking Brie is moldy (well, not really). The air's so thick that it slides in between your teeth. I find something that's not too expensive or moldy, and the surly owner sells it to me and I'm back outside gasping at the city smog. Later on, during the After The Fever phase of things, I'm going to have a fever dream that somehow one of these cheeses had lodged itself into my sinuses, and that the American doctors are going to be horrified when they pull this moldy monstrosity out of my nose.
We wander down by the back entrance of the Ritz Carlton, past some really expensive shops, and on into the Tulieres Gardens. Down by the Louvre, and I'm starting to get really really tired. Traci's all pumped up on walking some hellishly long route home through Montmarte or Montparnasse or Mont somewhere. I'm really dragging and starting to get a little homicidal. I start eyeing Traci and think that maybe I could just tie her up, hide her in some dooryway, a sneak my way back to the hotel. Maybe I could sleep a little before the gendarmes showed up. Luckily, Traci notices that I'm about to fall over, so she points to the metro station and we zoom on home.
This is where my diary runs out, and the last thing I write in it is:
Paris is just eating, walking, and sleeping.
That night we go to the Eiffel Tower and see
the entire city from the second level of the tower. Traci eats a giant hotdog
covered that's been with voodoo hot French mustard and stuck into a baguette.
I buy a cheesy shirt for Cantone at the Eiffel tower gift shop, and we look
across at the giant Palais du Challiot. I keep making jokes about the "Palace
of Onions." On the way back, we stop at a brasserie and I eat an omelette and
we drink a bottle of wine. It'll turn out to be my last meal in Paris, since
I wake up the next morning with the first stirrings of The Fever.