The alarm went off at 3am and it was time for Paris. Seeing as how the alarm went off in London, this was going to require some buses and a train and a chunnel.

I was under the mistaken impression that the 4am bus crawling across London would be pretty empty, patronized only by insomniacs, drunks and vampires. I was so, so wrong. The 4am bus is jam packed to the gills with people who must have truly awful jobs. I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever been on a bus anywhere in the US where all the seats were completely full. Plus in the UK you can also stand in the aisle like on the subway. And there’s an upstairs to the bus, with seats and aisles of its own. So, plenty of room. Right?

After a few stops all the seats were full and all the aisles were full. Then people would get on at the front of the bus, and not be able to move any further back so they’d just stand right there by the driver and try to act casual. Each stop, more and more people packed in. Soon there were people standing on the stairs, which all the signs say you can’t do, but this was probably safer than hanging off the sides of the bus or the roof like they do in India. Those of us lucky enough to be standing on level ground were crammed in tighter and tighter as more people got on at each stop.

I had a moment of concern about having my wallet stolen out of my pocket until I realized we were jammed in so tight it was literally impossible for anyone to move their arms, and no one was getting between my ass and the person behind me without a crowbar.

At the next stop, there was no way for anyone to get in the front door, so more people just hopped on through the side door back by where I was standing. You can’t pay your fare at that door but the driver didn’t care, and what was he going to do about it? They were going to have to tip the bus over and shake it to get any people out at the end of the line anyway. Eventually we reached a stop where somebody finally wanted to get out, having reached the limit of how long they could hold their breath. But for anyone to get out, the 20 of us crammed up against the side door had to all get off the bus so that person could be uncorked and shot out onto the street, then we all piled back in, resuming our Russian nesting doll positions until that whole dance was repeated at the next stop.

Eventually we made it to St Pancras International for the early train to Paris. Our sister and her boyfriend had bailed on the Paris trip to go to the US, so we had two extra seats to nap in as the train whizzed along the dark countryside and down below the English Channel. Part of me had imagined I would use the train ride to brush up on my three years of high school French, but that was before the alarm went off at 3am. Sleep, dream, and wake up in Paris.

Off the train, into Garde du Nord station. Bathroom. How do you say bathroom? “Le vécé?” Toilettes! There we go. Oh, you have to pay. Fine. Euros? Do we have euros? We have euros.

File past all the people in the station asking “Do you speak English? English?” because they are stealth panhandlers. Out into the street. Mon dieu! We’re in Paris. Oh my, Paris smells like a toilet. Roll with it, roll with it.

First lesson of walking the streets of Paris: Look out for bikes. Cars, sure, there are cars in the street. But if you’re foolish enough to step into the bike lane by the sidewalk, you will be murdered. Do not mess with bicycle riders in Paris. You can’t hear them coming, but you can hear them yelling curses at you in French. I came to find that French people only care about a very few things, and the sanctity of the bike lane is one of them.

My head swam as I tried to dredge up French lessons from 20 years ago. Translating street signs and the names of shops as we walked along helped. There was a very strange repetition of shops as we walked up the street: Travel Agent, Beauty Salon, Wig Shop, Travel Agent, Beauty Salon, Wig Shop, over and over. A glitch in the Matrix? I strained to remember the days of the week as we looked for a grocery store that was open. The first one we found smelled like the inside of a diaper so we didn’t buy any food there. The next was much better, and I coached my brother through the banana-buying transaction. Aster spoke no French at all, so I taught him the three essentials: Bonjour, merci, and pardon. Hello, thanks, and excuse me/sorry. You can go a long way on just that, as it covers you through most transactions and stepping on people’s feet on the metro. You don’t really need to know how to say yes and no if you’re not going to understand their questions anyway. Eventually I added “au revoir” for goodbye and the granddaddy catch-all for all other scenarios: “Je ne parle pas français” for “Sorry Gustave, but I don’t speak your silly little language.”

Aster didn’t need any more than that because apparently I look French enough that everyone just talked to me. Like everyone: French people, hookers, lost tourists who needed directions, etc. I’d retained enough French from school that I can follow French movies without the subtitles, but I was definitely not ready for full-speed conversations on the street. It was humbling to realize that while you were mentally translating someone’s first sentence, they’d spoken three more or had wandered off while you were staring at the sky and moving your lips or they were hit by a bus. Eventually I had to downgrade my expectations from “fitting right in” to “not getting into a knife fight in the street” and often had to meet anything more complex than “You’re standing on my dog!” with “Excusez-mois, mon français est très mauvais” (“Sorry, my French sucks dong”) which with any luck is the cheat code to switch to English.

Strangers seemed startled that I wasn’t fluent in French, which I took to mean that either my pronunciation was baller or I just look really French. Maybe it was the Hamburglar shirt I was wearing.

The funniest moment for me was the Indian guy with his wife and kids who asked me where the Moulin Rouge was. I even knew, and gave him good directions, since we had walked by it earlier. But it cracked me up that this guy was taking his kids to see some burlesque dancing.

By the second night people started asking Aster for directions, so either he’d soaked up the Parisian vibe by then or word had gotten around town that I didn’t know where anything was. Some lady stopped him for directions while we were running across a busy street in the middle of the night in the rain, which is not the time for your French to be put to the test. Another young woman approached us and very rapidly asked Aster where something was in French. He sheepishly played his “Je ne parle pas français” card, to which the woman, in an obvious American accent, said “Oh, you don’t speak French. Okay!” and then took off down the street. Wait- but obviously we speak Engli- she’s gone. Just as well, it’s not like we knew where anything was.

The biggest stereotype about French people is that they are rude, and I so wanted this to be untrue. I figured this was the opinion of typical “ugly American” tourists who went over and expected everything to be in English and be just like it is at home, etc. I figured if you made an honest effort to speak French, even if you sucked, people would respect the effort and be kind to you.

Eh.

People in Paris were kind of assholes. The first day there I figured it was just because my French was so rusty, but as more came back to me and I became more confident that I was saying things correctly, I realized they were just jerks. Not everyone, mind you, and the bigger the tourist spot (Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre) the nicer the people were. But the more you delved into real Paris street life, riding the metro and the bus, talking to people on the street, etc., the more you felt like you’d pissed people off by existing.

Everyone I interacted with outside of Paris was quite nice, so it seemed like it was more of a Paris thing than a France thing.

Eventually we got from the train station to our AirBnB apartment in Le Marais, and spent a fun few minutes yelling into the wrong intercom to let us in while they jackhammered the building on the other side of the street. Inside, the flat was tiny and nice and I was so charmed that they had a Monsieur Malchance mug (apparently a French variation on the Mr. Men books that came in Arby’s kids’ meals when I was little) that I didn’t mind at all that the water in the flat didn’t work, which they said they’d fix while we were out. Note that down, as the game says you need to drink every time something related to water doesn’t work in France for the rest of this blog. If you make it to the end, call an ambulance.

Soon we were off like a shot to Notre Dame, where we waited in the wrong line and French people asked me for directions. Eventually we went inside and… you know, Notre Dame was surprisingly kinda meh. Maybe church fatigue was starting to set in at this point, but it was kind of dank and disappointing. The most memorable thing about it for me was that there was a gift counter right there in the cathedral. Not downstairs or tucked away in the back someplace, I mean there’s the Father giving mass, turn your head and hey, you wanna buy a Hummel figurine of Jesus? But I already have three!

notre-dame
Eeeeeexcellent.

Because I am an American and we have no culture at all I wanted to see some favorite movie locations as we walked around Paris. We stopped into the café from Amélie, which was neat to see but not thrilling enough to stay and fight our way through their very non-vegan menu. It more or less looked like the movie, only full of tourists and there was a big Amélie poster on the wall, which I don’t remember in the movie. We went to the Abbesses metro station where Amélie meets the blind man, which was fine but also one of those times where you realize movie mood lighting goes a long way to making something ordinary seem more magical.

amelie-cafe

We also hiked up to the Sacré-Cœur basilica up on the hill, where Amélie spies on her boyfriend-to-be from the pay phone as he runs around the steps and the carousel. The church provided a great view of the cityscape and inside was shockingly similar to my favorite building in Minnesota, the Cathedral of St Paul, which I later learned was designed based on Sacré-Cœur. Small world!

sacre-coeur

Much like Amélie, Inception was all over the place in Paris, and we walked through many of the neighborhoods from when Leo DiCaprio is teaching Ellen Page how to control dreams and she folds the street over on itself. The best part though was walking across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim where they filmed the mirrored bridge of endless steel pillars.

inception-bridge

For whatever reason I really wanted to see the staircase that Robert DeNiro descends at the beginning of Ronin as he’s going to meet his crew for the first time and ascends at the end of the movie as he leaves Jean Reno and returns to his solitary life. This wasn’t too hard to find, though the café at the bottom of the stairs had become a TexMex restaurant, then a Madagascan restaurant, and then an abandoned nothing before it burnt to the ground, so there’s just a dirt lot there now. It was still cool to walk up and down the stairs though, and as I was taking a picture of the staircase two French guys cracked me up by walking by and saying to each other (in French):

“What’s that guy taking a picture of?”

“Oh, there was a Jean Reno movie here.”

Ha, but of course everyone remembers that movie from the one French actor who had a minor role. I suppose we do that too but it still made me laugh.

ronin-stairs

I’d also wanted to see some of the places Frederic Chopin had lived in Paris, and wandering around (careful not to step in the copious water flowing through the streets for no apparent reason) we found two of his apartments. Both were businesses now, and in both cases we walked right past security guards put there to keep tourists from coming to see where Frederic Chopin lived without realizing we had done so. This probably wouldn’t have worked if we were a gang of 16-year-old Japanese girls with selfie sticks, so I suppose there’s something to be said for looking French. I did get yelled at by some random guy for taking pictures of the second apartment, but whatever, it was neat to wander around and see the buildings that looked like they hadn’t changed much since the 1800s.

chopin-apt traverser

Eventually we made our way to the Eiffel Tower and set out to hike the stairs to the tippy top! Only you can’t do that. There are three floors, and only the first two are accessible by stairs. Still, the adventure to get to the second floor! Yeah: It’s not that many stairs. I mean, it’s more than you’ll climb to get to the Cinnabon at the mall but you’re not going to need to stop for a nap or for supplementary oxygen or anything. Up on the second floor we enjoyed the view and the suicide-proof railings as I imagined Roger Moore trying to shoot Grace Jones for stealing his girlfriend.

eiffel

My brother likes to carry a water bottle around, and was caught off-guard by the utter lack of public water fountains anywhere in Europe. In England he’d had decent success going into restaurants and asking someone there to fill his bottle with water. Somehow in France this was my problem, so I approached a dude manning one of the Eiffel Tower’s snack counters and said “Pourriez-vous s’il vous plaît remplir cette bouteille avec de l’eau?” which I’m sure wasn’t perfect but should’ve been enough to get the damn bottle filled. He frowned at me like I’d just told him I don’t eat cheese and said flatly: “What language do you speak?” Ouch, because it’s clearly not French? Fine buddy, you’re off my Bastille Day card list.

That morning I’d bought a packet of metro tickets to get us around Paris, after none of the automated machines worked anywhere and I managed an awkward exchange with a ticket agent who pretended to not understand a word of English. I couldn’t remember the French word for tickets (billets), but come on, you’re a ticket agent, all you sell is tickets. If I come up and ask you for ten smurfs you should be able to figure out what I’m asking for, right? Unless you’re just being difficult on purpose. Oh, you are? Well okay then, thanks for telling me.

Later when I was complaining about the general level of customer service in Paris being below that of a bored 15 year old movie theater employee, Aster’s well-traveled girlfriend Libby explained: “The French care about food and they care about their time off work. Everything else can fuck off.” That sounded just about right. This was one of those moments though when I realized I’d always taken for granted the American sense of work ethic that I’d grown up with, and while the general lack of this among Parisians seemed strange to me, maybe to them we’re all suckers for giving so much to our jobs and getting so little in return.

The carnet tickets were just little stubs of paper you fed into the turnstiles, which seemed a bit low-tech after experiencing the Oyster card magic of London, but whatever. This was all fine until only the first two tickets worked at all, the rest were spit out by the turnstiles like a vending machine refusing that $5 bill your dog ate.

So it was off to another metro station to plead our case to another ticket agent who also claimed to not speak any English. He was then so terrified by my French that he proceeded to explain in perfect English that he had reset all of our tickets and would let us onto the metro through that gate over there on the right by the TV.

The French subways themselves were quite charming, with many stations reflecting the character of the surrounding neighborhood (sculptures behind glass in the Louvre station, the inside of a submarine in the Arts et Metiers station, etc.). The cars were much older than the ones I was used to in London, which was both charming and scary. Unlike the London Underground, where copious screens, signs and announcements make it absurdly clear what station is coming up and where you’re going, on the Paris Metro you were on your own, Jacques. Most of the announcements were just warning you to watch out for pickpockets. I did feel better about my French pronunciation though when the official announcement completely mangled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name when declaring that his namesake station was approaching.

metro

The greatest miracle of all in Paris (a not very vegan-friendly city in a country whose overall attitude toward veganism is best described as violent distain) was that our AirBnB apartment was 100 feet away from an amazing vegan hamburger joint called Hank Burger. We ate literally every meal there and it was fantastic. Also, I think owing to the fact that they were obviously catering to a non-French clientele, everyone there was wonderful and nice to us and not at all offended if we wanted to order in English. Hank Burger, my warmest memories of Paris are about your burgers and cake and your fantastic spicy mustard.

At the end of day one we got back to our apartment and the kitchen sink had been running all day (#francewaterwtf). After walking all over creation and back, my feet felt like they’d been through a hotdog-making machine. What could feel better than a hot shower? Aster got into the bathroom first, then 30 seconds later came running out as water was spilling out of the shower and flooding across the floor. Drain doesn’t work! (drink). Fine, I’ll justZZzzzzzzzz.

On day two we took the train out to Versailles, to see where the queen lives. What do you mean France doesn’t have a queen? Way to update your Wikipedia page, France! Jesus.

We rode on the train with a pack of older American tourists with great New York accents. “I paid for Normandy, don’t tell me what I paid for.” “Maury, would I lie to you?” Nothing like a taste of home! The day before, we’d passed two teenage girls on the street who had hilariously awful southern US accents, and that made me just as happy.

By day two more and more of my French was coming back to me, which dovetailed nicely with visiting some very touristy spots where people were being paid to be nice to you.

Versailles was every bit as opulent as expected, though after about a dozen rooms you realize these people were just gigantic knobs with tons of money, and you can see that kind of thing on reality TV for free. You do develop a measure of sympathy for them after you look at their portraits and realize they were all horribly, horribly ugly (if you can avoid having kids with your close relations: I say go for it!), and then you go into the next room and the audio guide tells you that Louis built this room as part of a fancy-room-off rivalry with some other asshole while the peasants starved and there goes that sympathy.

Walking the grounds of Versailles was more pleasant, as there are all kinds of little hidden gardens and things to explore. Though it’s kind of funny that after you get past the immaculately trimmed and landscaped main gardens that you can see from inside the building, everything beyond that has the same maintenance standards as your local dog park. “Wow, this pool would probably be beautiful if it wasn’t clogged up with moss and algae.” “Are there carp in there?” “I think they’re dead.” None of the fountains were fountaining, and there were a couple manholes where it looked like someone had started work on the plumbing before becoming more interested in something else and wandering away. All of this added to my general impression that France has not mastered water yet. Which is all right, I can’t ski. None of us are perfect.

After Versailles we took the train back to Paris and visited the coolest thing I saw in all of France: the Père Lachaise cemetery. I hadn’t expected this to be a huge highlight. I just wanted to see Chopin’s grave, but this place was amazing. It was like a little city of the dead hidden away in the midst of Paris, a place where you could disappear out of the crowded streets and wander in peace and quiet for hours. Many of the graves were above-ground crypts roughly the size of telephone booths, and the streets and paths curved and wound around them, up and down the hills, creating a beautiful miniature cityscape. All of the crypts were decorated in an ornate dark gothic style, and after a couple of minutes I realized that Tim Burton had clearly visited this place in his formative years.

crypt

After much aimless wandering around and decompressing, we found the grave of Georges Méliès, the great early silent film director that Ben Kingsley played in Hugo. His grave was covered in beautiful little trinkets left by fans, including a child’s drawing of the famous scene from A Trip to the Moon.

It was nearly impossible to find anything in this densely packed yet meandering landscape, which somehow added to the cemetery’s charm. Eventually we did find Chopin’s grave, which had been beautifully maintained, as fans had left tiny oil lanterns, plants, ribbons, and fresh flowers in the colors of Poland’s flag. I was very moved by the things people left on the graves, to think of your life still meaning something to strangers so many years later. As it started to rain I noticed someone had draped a crucifix over the railing of Chopin’s grave. Hey, Chopin wasn’t religious at all but whatever lady, it’s all about you.

A hilariously out of place American stoner in board shorts was wandering around asking everyone where Jim Morrison’s grave was, and they did their best to tell him to fuck off in French. Eventually we found the grave of the Lizard King, which is sort of awkwardly tucked away at an angle, you’d probably walk right past it if it wasn’t completely barricaded by a railing that is absolutely festooned with bracelets, graffiti and assorted fan shwag. A nearby tree had been wrapped in some kind of wicker samurai armor to protect it from the love of Doors fans, and this too was covered in tons of weird shit.

After Morrison we found Oscar Wilde’s tomb, a monolithic block of limestone completely surrounded by Plexiglas. The need for the Plexiglas was obvious as immediately above the top of the barrier, the tomb itself was covered in lipstick kisses. There was an official notice there about “dammit please stop kissing the tomb, the family has to pay to clean this” and this had so moved people that they had clearly climbed on top of a neighboring grave (which looked like it had been hit by a bus) so they could kiss Oscar’s tomb above the Plexiglas. Carved into the tomb is an Egyptian-looking winged messenger, and there has been much hilarious drama over the years regarding this figure’s nakedness. First, French customs wouldn’t let the tomb into the country, then once it was in the cemetery, officials had it covered in a tarp because it was too damn naked for them. You know you’ve accomplished something when you’re too damn naked for the French. Eventually they removed the tarp but they covered the figure’s balls with plaster because “the size of the testicles was considered unusual” which is what I hope it says on my grave.

The artist who created the tomb had to sneak in and bribe the cops so he could remove the plaster that was keeping the nuts from breathing. Some time later a bronze butterfly plaque was installed to cover the balls, which was later stolen by Aleister Crowley so he could wear it over his own balls. Then, in 1961 two old ladies were walking by the tomb when one of them exclaimed “The balls on that statue!” and seeing no other recourse to recover their dignity they picked up rocks and went into a ball-smashing frenzy, as elderly English ladies are known to do. Some say the dislodged testicles ended up as a paperweight on the cemetery caretaker’s desk. Others say they roam the streets to this very day, seeking a host. In the 2000s somebody mended the statue with silver balls, like the Bing Crosby song. Apparently though, as the saying goes, some time after that it had been cold enough to freeze the balls off Oscar Wilde’s tomb, because we didn’t see any balls at all.

After the cemetery, we went to the Louvre, which is French for “The Lube” since you can get your oil changed there. No takers? Fine, I tried. The Louvre has the Mona Lisa of course, and the Venus de Milo. But what most people don’t realize is those are the only two things you’re going to recognize there. It has a bunch of other stuff you’ve never, ever heard of, most of it in what my brother called the “Jesus Getting Stomped” genre of religious art. People had warned us ahead of time that there are better museums to visit than The Louvre, but I’ve never let good advice get between me and pushing through an enormous throng of people to take a quick snapshot of the Mona Lisa from 20 feet away.

I could never regret our visit to the Louvre however (even though the Flemish and Dutch wing was closed and we somehow walked by the famous “Liberty Leading the People” painting without noticing it) because they had an Easter Island head. We stumbled across it accidentally in a disused corner of the Louvre on a long-forgotten floor.

I’ve been fascinated by Easter Island ever since I was a little kid. One day in an encyclopedia I saw a picture of the famous moai statues on a green hillside, and was filled with a suffocating foreboding as a chill raced right down to my bones. I grew up wondering what it would be like to live on an island cut off from the rest of the world, forgotten by time. A few years ago I started remembering scenes from what seems to have been a past life on Easter Island. Swimming deep in the ocean off the coast. Standing on hill and looking over a forest from before all the trees were cut down. Looking up at the sky as a storm rolled in.

In London I finally got to see one of the moai in person, which was a real thrill. But there was something special about the moai at the Louvre, even though it was just a broken head. No one was on this entire floor of the museum so I was free to stand in front of the statue for a long time. I cleared my mind and looked at the light hitting the stone. After a minute my face started to vibrate. Stronger and stronger. This feeling swelled and pushed back through my head until my entire body was vibrating.

easterisland

After several minutes of feeling like I might lapse into a different dimension, I turned and saw my brother was there waiting for me. The feeling dissipated. Huh. Someday soon I’ll be writing one of these posts about visiting Easter Island. To be continued.

Anyway, the Louvre also had this:

porcupine

The other unexpected thing about the Louvre is how beautiful and ornate the building itself is. Pro tip: If you go to Paris and don’t have time for Versailles, the Louvre looks an awful, awful lot like Versailles.

Except for the pyramid.

louvre-pyramid2

Pretty much immediately after we left Paris, it started to rain and didn’t stop until the Seine river was threatening to flow right into the Louvre, and they had to move all of their Christmas decorations and old records out of the basement before the flooding started. See my previous comments about France and not mastering water.

On our third day we got up at the crack of oh my lordly lord and took the metro across town to a wee little rental car office the size of my closet. Our car wasn’t ready, so we took a little metro tour of the Arc de Triomphe and the Grande Arche de la Défense, which is that big Lego box building you see in all the Liam Neeson movies.

defense

Eventually they did get all the baguettes and condescension hosed out of our rental car and we were off! We were back on the right side of the road, and driving a Ford Fiesta felt so much like being at home I nearly ran down a woman on a bike within one second of starting the car. Oh, Parisian cyclists, the tables have turned! We fought our way out of Paris traffic and suddenly we were on the wide-open and nearly empty freeway. Why is there no one on the freeway?

By the end of the day we had paid nearly $50 in tolls, that’s why there was no one on the freeway.

Also, the French drive kind of terribly, so it is probably best to just stay at home and save your euros for cheese. I have never seen people wander all over their lanes like these French freeway drivers, and the only time they used turn signals at all was when they were passing. But not in the way you think. Say one Frenchman in the right-hand lane wants to pass another. He’ll swerve into the left lane without signaling, then turn on his left-turn signal for the entire time he’s passing, then turn off his left turn signal and swerve back into the right-hand lane. So basically no signal means I’m turning left, a left signal means I’m driving straight, and then no signal again means I’m turning right. Okay!

I saw enough people do this the exact same way I figured it must mean something, and Google came to the rescue. Apparently the left-turn signal in the left lane means “Hey, I’m passing here, don’t ride my ass in an attempt to get me to switch lanes and get out of your way.” I never thought a signal was necessary in this situation, since, you know, people can tell you’re passing because they saw your slow ass get into the left lane and then speed up to one mile an hour faster than the car on your right so you could have lunch with them while you pass.

Over the course of the day’s many, many toll booth stops, my brother transitioned from believing me when I told him the proper response to a tollbooth operator saying “Au revoir!” was “Va te faire foutre!” (“Go fuck yourself!”), to saying the four French words he knew like he’d lived there his entire life. I was so proud.

Most of the time when we’d approach a tollbooth, we’d dare each other to come up with the worst “American trying to speak French” accent possible, which was usually a Texas accent yelling something like “PARTY YOUS ENGLISH? EN-GLISH!

We were bombing along the countryside out past Normandy so we could visit Mont St Michel, an island commune on France’s northwestern coast. I was going to tell you that the design of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings films was based on Mont St Michel but then I realized I could just show you a picture.

Most people wouldn’t drive eight hours round trip for a day trip, but most people lack character.

The island was once connected to the land by a causeway that was only accessible during low tide, when the sea rolls out and exposes all the seaweed, crabs and dead hookers everyone was trying to forget. This was replaced by a bridge in 2014, which never goes underwater except oh shit last year it did, way to go guys, I guess every other year ain’t bad. The French have problems with water.

The first monastery had been built on the island in 708, after archangel Michael reportedly appeared to the local bishop and said yo, build a church here. The bishop dragged his feet until Michael burnt a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger, which okay, but shit man, you jumped right past “kick it in the ass already.” Let’s talk a little about management styles.

“I need religious visions like I need a hole in the head!”

Okay fine bishop, you earned that one.

Eventually, because history is horrible the monastery had to be fortified into a fortress to keep people from coming in and killing everybody just because they’d had a bad day. Then Louis XI turned the whole thing into a prison because he was a knob.

Walking up the beach, the castle’s flags were flying high in the wind, and they featured the happiest damn lions I’ve ever seen on a flag. These were some serious party lions.

Through the gates! A dense medieval village that had been built into the hillsides, shot through with winding cobblestone streets and all manner of secret stairs and passageways between the buildings. The town hadn’t been changed one iota in hundreds of years except that everything was jammed to the hilt with tourist crap now. We bypassed all the “get your face engraved on a dueling pistol” shops and scampered up to the monastery at the top of the hill.

From there we toured through all the various great halls, so-so halls and the rooms where they kept all their stuff that needed to go to the Goodwill.

Outside, we enjoyed the view from the balconies across the tidal flats that stretched to the horizon.

The highlight of Mont St Michel for me was the abbey’s cathedral. It had a wonderful feel to it, still peaceful and austere all these years later.

The rest of the abbey was a strange and interesting mix of different eras, from the lovely cloister garden to a huge treadwheel crane that prisoners would walk inside to pull supplies up a ramp from the ground level.

Our mom had always wanted to visit Mont St Michel, so I picked up a stone for her from the gravel walkway on the way up to the abbey and Aster grabbed a big hunk that fell off the building. So, if that whole thing falls down into the sea next week, itway asway Asterway.

After touring to our heart’s content we were left to bomb back to Paris before our late-evening train back to London. Reports online were that the French police would hide in fields and all kinds of crazy nonsense to catch speeders, and if you were too far over the speed limit they’d confiscate your car, but we didn’t have time for any of this. Zoom zoom zoom.

But what we really, truly did not have time for was the giant traffic jam we ran into on the main freeway heading back to Paris. In my time there I learned that the French love few things more than protesting. Honestly this is probably a “good for them” point, as they seem to hold their own government accountable far more than we do. This particular protest was what they called an “escargot action,” where truckers slow down traffic on purpose to make a point about outsourcing jobs or serving white wine with cheese or whatever this was about.

We were stuck in the snail protest so long we almost ran out of gas, so we detoured off the main road to find a petrol station. The problem was that we had a diesel car, and none of the stations we could find listed diesel as an option. They listed the fuel options as “Super,” “Essence” or “Gazole.” Wut? Could gazole be French for diesel? Conveniently, cell signal was completely absent so there was no Google to the rescue. Drive, drive, drive, gazole, gazole, gazole. It wasn’t the kind of thing where you could chance it and be wrong without completely destroying the car, so we kept driving. At one point we futilely circled a gas station from three different roads before deciding it didn't actually have an entrance and was just there to scare away crows. Finally on the outer reaches of empty we found a station with a diesel pump, and then conveniently the internet came back online to tell us that gazole is French for diesel. Thanks a bunch.

This being day three of the trip, my French was getting pretty smooth and I was pleased with myself for getting through the day’s interactions in French without incident. When we stopped to get gas I went inside and paid without any problems. “Numéro huit, s’il vous plait!” When we stopped again to top off the car before returning it in Paris we were really running late, but I figured this wouldn’t be a problem until I realized we were on pump number eleven. Shit, what’s eleven? Onze? I think it’s onze. Inside they didn’t call Interpol when I said onze, so things seemed to be okay. But they weren’t used to seeing goofy American chip-and-signature credit cards (Euro cards all use PINs) so they didn’t have a pen for me to sign the receipt with. What’s pen? “Crayon”? That’s pencil. I almost said “penis” when the girl asked “Stylo?” Yeppers! Shit, what’s French for yeppers?

Aster was behind the wheel when we hit the cluserbomb of Paris traffic. Motorcycles flew by, inches from our doors, splitting the lanes as we sat in otherwise silent traffic in the tunnel. This seemed a step beyond bold and maybe a bit closer to a death wish, but that’s hard to define in a country where literally everyone smokes and everybody seemed to be perpetually fresh off a bad breakup. Eventually we rolled into the circus that is the giant traffic circle in front of Le Palais des Congrès, which would have been several lanes wide if there had been any concept of lanes at all. Chaos, chaos, chaos. Motorcycles, scooters, cars, is that a cow? Aster fought through traffic like a professional maniac, swerving, slamming on the brakes, driving sideways, ending friendships and inspiring vendettas left and right. Then suddenly we came to a stop diagonally at a red light, the chaos jarringly paused for a beat as everyone was suddenly still. A clearly insane homeless woman wandered out between the cars, begging for money. It was like seeing someone panhandling on the beach during the invasion of Normandy. Get out of the street, woman!

We abandoned the rental car in a parking garage, ran through some kind of giant Brussels solidarity protest on the way to the metro, hit up Hank Burger for four precious final burgers for the train ride to London and busted subway back to the train station and onto the train. The couple sitting across from us on the train were by chance tough mudder racing fanatics from Las Vegas who had just been to Paris, London and Ireland themselves, so we swapped stories of foreign hilarity as the train slid through the darkness of the chunnel and we shared with them our delicious, delicious mustard.

. . .


COMMENTS:
UpSky2
July 05, 2016
Es le Francais vrai aussi comme le ‘Francais’ Canadien?

Noble Sieur, merci. It was good to read about le moutard (the cow-retard.)

So in sum: Scots are amiable but ugly and often Huge (-was Miles O’Keefe Scottish? um. hm.) English don’t want you here… except maybe just for now. French are all crass/cross-patched gourmets who want to be off work and treat their government like the front desk at a fast food joint. Irish? hm… I’ve already forgotten how you described them. Unmemorable maybe? oh right, they’re nice.
And Iceland women are byoooooooootiful.
And the Orkneys are unmemorable flats. No wonder they set up standing stones just to have some feature to look at, maybe.

Seriously, good to have put Mont Saint-Michel in the account. That vertiginous view down the supplies-hauling ramp really illustrates: that place was built as a fortress. Imagine how heavy a small brioche gone stale would land on your iron helmet if it was tossed on your from that high.

So what nation do we collide with next I wonder?

Whatever it is, I’ll keep reading. With interest. I know a bit about all the nations you have touched on. But… aside from actually having been to Italy once – I’ve been there – the others are all mysteres to me (except Germany, of course. Kennt uns alles richtig von der Stadt Deutsch?) I can hardly wait to see it all through your writing and your photos.

Thanks.

UpSky2
July 05, 2016
Oh, sorry: you said the Parisians were crass and cross, not the Francaise omne. My mistake.

YibbleGuy
July 06, 2016
For a long time, I used to go to bed early … oops, sorry, different story.

For a long time, I’ve had a (probably ridiculous) theory about why it never, ever works out that “I figured if you made an honest effort to speak French, even if you sucked, people would respect the effort and be kind to you.” And why Parisians therefore often seem like jerks.

In the good ol’ USofA, most of us are used to communicating with people who are making an honest effort to speak English, even if they suck, because they’re from some non-English-speaking place like Sri Lanka or Myanmar or Alabama. And as long as they clear a *very* low bar (basically, anything this side of Penelope Cruz), if we make the effort, we can understand what they’re saying. And if we *don’t* make the effort, it’s because we’re jerks.

Not so with French. French is the language that ate all its consonants. So, if you don’t get the vowel sounds absolutely *perfect*, no native French speaker has any clue what you’re saying. *We* think, “Hey, I must speak French a hell of a lot better than my Sri Lankan friend Batarang speaks English–so what is this bigoted so-and-so’s problem?!” *They* think, Frenchly, “What the hell does ‘Arglebargle rassafrasa’ mean?”

Of course, I would have a little more confidence in my probably ridiculous theory if I actually spoke French. But, alas, I conform to the stereotype in the standard European joke:

“What do you call someone who speaks two languages?”
“Bilingual.”
“What do you call someone who speaks *three* languages?”
“Trilingual.”
“Okay, what do you call somebody who only speaks *one* language?”
“An American.”


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