Monday, September 14, 2009

Okay, So I Walked

I learned a lot today. And by the way, Paris no longer reminds me of San Francisco. I'm sure anyone who knows Paris is relieved and, no doubt amused, to hear that. It didn't take long. Now Paris reminds me of... well, Paris, actually. We were taken on a three hour bus tour today. Most of the major sights. So beautiful, such massive historical influence in the architecture and the street design. Incredible.

And if it had ended at Notre Dame, if someone had just whisked me away and brought me home.... if things had been just a little easier, I might feel prouder of myself for actually managing to buy groceries—which I did. But the fact is, I literally walked in a circle for almost an hour. I mean, literally. In fact, in the end I completed the circle on purpose so I could start over. I thought that would be the easiest way to find my way.... home.... yes, home, sweet, home. My feet hurt and I was wearing my walking shoes.

Let me see if I can start at the beginning.
First, I left the house this morning, which was very brave of me given the fact that one of the things that was in the suitcase that hasn't made it here yet was my MAP of Paris. So one thing I learned was that I'm naive. I can't believe I assumed my suitcase would make it and that it was okay to pack away something as basic as a good map! It's doubly stupid because I did it at the very last minute, when I was blitzed out. It had been packed in my carry on for weeks. (I'm now in possession of a new one. Here! Here! Purchased in Paris.)

So. I walked to Gare Nord this morning; it's seven blocks away and I only walked an extra three or four blocks, maybe, before I found my way to the station. Gare Nord, for those who don't know, is a train station—Nord, for north. It's big. It has trains, the Metro, buses and what's called the RER, or the commuter express.

My first time-consuming choice was that I boarded the Metro, when I wanted RER, but this morning I didn't understand the difference. After riding the Metro during rush hour, I learned. But I did get across town, from the north side of the 9th arrondissement to the FIAP building in the 13th, and I only got lost for another ten minutes or so at the other end, when I exited the Metro at one of those huge intersections that look like stars.

And yes, I also learned that Paris has intersections (if you can call them that) where about six or eight (or is it a hundred?) streets come together—stars shooting out in every direction. And I learned that they don't always tell you the street names. I don't know what the pattern is, but honestly, no matter how long I looked, sometimes, I could not find a street name at those intersections. And they don't put street names on street signs, they put them on the corner buildings, and you have to be looking from the right vantage point to see them, and you have to be close enough to read them, which can mean crossing the street just to see where you are.

It also helps to have a sense of direction. Silly me. I had forgotten how bad my sense of direction can be. That's how I managed to walk in a circle. Really.

I felt pretty good when I walked from Notre Dame to where I could catch a bus heading north to Gare Nord. It was rush hour and the bus ride was crowded, but I did arrive at Gare Nord feeling quite optimistic and pleased with myself. The bus stopped in a different part of the station however, than where I'd found my way to the Metro in the morning. That was how it began. In retrospect, it reminds me of being lost in the fun house as a kid. Yes, that really happened to me. I went round and round, covering the same territory thinking, "I've been here, this is right," when in fact I should have thought, "I've been here, this is wrong."

It all went south when I couldn't stay on Rue de Dunkerque. There are eight streets that come together in one of those stars at the first intersection after the station, and even though I was on (yes) Rue de Dunkerque, I lost track of it somehow at the intersection. I guess I assumed I was in the right place and then I guess I assumed I could, you know, sort of "go around the block" to get back? Maybe I was just tired. I was tired. It was the end of a long day. I actually think I passed through that same intersection three times, but maybe not. There's another one, that only has five streets and then Rue du Faubourg Poissonaire, which isn't exactly at the intersection, but crosses close enough to feel like it is.

Rue du Faubourg Poissonaire: I think I got mesmerized by the street name because it's in my novel. I saw it in the morning too. I walked on it in the morning and it got me back to the right place. That didn't work in the evening. I just got even more turned around. If I'd gone any further south on it, I would have passed by the Conservatoire du Musique during the 19th century. Time warp. I could have walked on the street where Franz Liszt lived. At one point I was tempted. I looked down a street and I'm almost positive I saw Port de Saint-Denis in the distance—another of the big arches.

As it was, I also learned that when you buy groceries in a small Paris market, neither a shop dedicated to vegetables, nor a big supermarket, you weigh the vegetables and get a little printed out tag that tells you the weight and then is scanned up front by the not-so-patient clerk who sits at the cash register, yes sits. I thought that was very civilized. But, unfortunately, after being lost for a good hour, and celebrating that I was found, I overlooked that small detail until it was my turn to pay for my groceries, with a line behind me.

The clerk was actually quite amusing, though not amused. She bounced the lettuce on her scanner and actually got a price. She sighed loudly when she spied the tomatoes and the green pepper. She picked them up and let fly with a mouthful of directions. When I looked at her blankly, which I know I did, she waved her hands a bit and managed to make me understand that I had to take them back to where I'd found them. As I did that, I wondered if I was supposed to put them in a plastic bag, or what. Fortunately, the gods of travel were slipping slightly towards sympathetic. Someone was actually at the scales weighing vegetables and I managed to notice what she was doing.

I had a moment of "ah ha" followed by the inevitable,"ah shit!"
I had accomplished my first faux pas, irritating the Parisians by being a total idiot tourist in a store that doesn't get that many, I suspect. When I came back, she'd found a way to move on with the line but did come back to me. She said something almost sympathetic sounding as she collected my vegetables back. I said, "Je suis désolée," which is about as apologetic as one can get and then I said. "Je suis americaine," as if that explained everything. But I probably said it wrong; I probably said the masculine version, not the feminine. She kind of tossed her hands in the air again as if to say, "enough, enough!" It wasn't even unfriendly; she was just exasperated by an occupational hazard. I left the store relieved, and shaking my head, thinking, "what was I thinking, thinking I could just rent an apartment and go native?"

I should have remembered the day it took my husband and I together at least an hour to figure out how to use a British telephone. That was in 1984.

Fortunately, for me, as I arrived at my apartment on the wrong side of the street—something I didn't realize until I got there—another tenant rang the bell that opens the outside door and stepped in. Timing was such that I could follow and I realized as I did that I wouldn't have known how to let myself in if she hadn't been there.

Ahhhh, yes. Now if I can just figure out how to turn on the stove...

I think they call it culture shock.


  1. Molly,
    I am amazed that you could write that much after a full day of sightseeing in Paris.

    I was wayyy too exhausted to do anything but try to read an occasional email during my trip.

    BTW, should you go to Notre Dame Cathedrale again, go inside Hotel Dieu which is right next to it. Go through the circular doors, turn right and go past the admission desks and through another door. You'll see a hallway to your left that goes into a gorgeous garden courtyard.

    If you go up the dozen stone steps you will discover historic woodcuts of Hotel Dieu that depict it over the centuries as well as Notre Dame.

    It is worth your time.

    On the top floor of this hospital are fourteen hotel rooms. That is where we stayed when we were in Paris for a week. It was wonderful.

    Have a great and fruitful trip.

  2. Thanks Linda, for the suggestion. I do plan to return to Notre Dame, so I'll definitely explore Hotel Dieu. Sounds beautiful.

  3. Hi Molly,
    You might consider investing in a compass! I found mine most helpful when navigating the streets Rome.
    Enjoyed immensely reading of your first day out on your own, feeling like I'm there with you.