Friday, August 8, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Paris

The other day, a week or so ago, my lovely wife and I found ourselves transported, as if by magic, or a Boeing 787, to Paris, France.  Imagine our surprise.

Actually, as the story goes, back in February my lovely wife was lamenting about turning 60 this year.

And so I ask, "What would make it better dear?"

And she says, "Paris."

I suppose Paris might make any birthday just a little bit better.  Unless you're a big fan of Uganda.  Then Uganda would be better.

But if I asked my lovely wife, "What would make it better dear?"

And then she said, "Uganda", then I would have thought she was beginning to lose her mind.  Too soon.  Paris made much better sense.

Who can afford to go to Paris?  Certainly not us.  We thought about it a bit, and then the next day my brother in law the ER Doc sent me an email about something silly.   Or stocks.  Maybe both.  And then he ended it by asking, "When are we going to Paris?"

Let me back up a bit.  Back in 2007 or so, my lovely wife was an Escrow Goddess on the Central Coast of California.  She went to a benefit auction one night put on by the real estate industry. She won the bid for a week at a home on a canal in Amsterdam, which was owned by a local realtor.  Since we had an entire three bedroom house at our disposal for a week, my lovely wife asked her lovely sister, who lives in Florida with her husband the ER Doc, if they would like to join us.  So we spent a lovely week in Amsterdam with them and found that we really travel well together.  We all enjoy a good mix of exploration and relaxation, and everybody's a trooper.  That helps, cause even the best laid plans can go awry.  My lovely wife and I also went out to visit them a couple years back when they first moved from Tennessee to Florida.  You can read all about that here: Florida, Ann Curry and the Big's Midlife Crisis.

While in Amsterdam, exploring the museums and cafes, we decided, apparently, that our next European gambit would be to Paris.  I, quite frankly, did not recall that conversation.  It must have happened on a cafe afternoon.

And then that very same weekend a friend of ours, a few years younger than us, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Fortunately our friend is doing well at the moment, for which we are very thankful.  She is a bright shining star and the world is a much better place with her in it.  But her event brought it all home.  Shit howdy, this sort of thing could happen to us at any moment as well.  We're of that certain age, you know...old.  What if?

So, we sold my old rusty trombone and some lawn furniture and started to make plans.  I'm an avid travel researcher and generally use a number of sites to search for the best deals for our destination.  Our closest international airport is at the California state capital, Sacramento.  As an airport, it's great.  As an international airport, it lacks a bit.  You always have to go somewhere else before you get to go where you really want to go.  Unless you're going to Uganda.  So, for the flight out, we were going to go from Sacramento to Chicago to Montreal to Paris on United.  It was the best deal out there.

We could have driven to San Francisco, about three hours away, to their fabulous international airport.  And for several hundred dollars more per ticket we could have flown direct to Paris.  Hmmm, let's see.  Drive for 2 hours more each way and spend another $800 bucks?  Maybe we could spend that on some souvenirs instead.  Considering drive time the overall travel time would end up being about the same.

With flight booked, it was then time to look for a place to stay.  Again I searched through a plethora of travel sites and wasn't really finding anything that truly fired my rockets as far as hotels go.  And there were no deals, not in July.  So then I started to look into renting an apartment for a week.

Obviously price was a concern, as was the location.  And my only other major had to have was two bathrooms.  I mean, we're all aging folks.  There is no time, let alone vacation time, that four adults our age should share one bathroom.  I mean, I peel paint some mornings.  Who wants to follow that act?

Armed with our must haves, I started in with and   Both are really great sites when looking for vacation rentals all over the planet, but I wasn't finding anything that tripped my trigger.  Or fit the bill.  The two bath thing I discovered was not that easy to find within our price range.  And then I stumbled upon  They had a plethora of Paris apartments and I found one therein with two baths in a great location within our price range.

Rentavilla's site is very easy to navigate and their on-line follow-up is timely and thorough.  We booked the apartment for $390 per night, which was less than the $200 each per night MINIMUM we were looking at for a hotel in a decent location.  Plus tax.  Less party down room.  Yeah, the apartment saved a lot of dough.  You can also spend a lot more for an apartment, but we weren't planning on spending a lot of time in the apartment, ya know?

Once the airlines and accommodations were taken care of it was research time to figure out what the heck to do while we were there.  Paris is a very big world class city with a shit house howdy bunch of new and old stuff to see and do.  Of course there were the obvious; like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomph and Notre Dame.  Some cheese.  Wine.  Pastry.  You know, a little foreign decadence.  But what else?

My lovely wife went out and  purchased Rick Steves' "Paris 2014" travel guide, which I found to be a fantastic resource.  If you aren't familiar with his travel style and work, do check him out.  He has a "back door" travel philosophy which is smart and usually saves money.  Good website too. 

Like Amsterdam, Paris has a gob smacking ton of museums.  Besides the Louvre, Paris hosts the Orsay, the Orangerie, the Rodin, and a Picasso to name a few.  Plus some more.  We found out later you could spend two or three days ALONE at the Louvre and still probably not see all of it.

Another nice aspect of the Steves' travel book was the various walks he recommended.  These walks would take you to various spots in the city which contained a myriad of shops and sights.  We managed to take a couple of them, found his descriptions to be quite accurate and enjoyed them immensely.

Being somewhat compulsive, sometimes obsessively so, I actually made up an Excel spread sheet for what we could do while we were there.  I looked at the list of MUST do's and had to pare that down.  I mean exploring is great, but it is a vacation.  A little down time is necessary as well, especially at our afternoon nap time age.  I intermingled museums in the morning with casual walks in the afternoon, bringing some down time recreation into the incredible barrage of world famous art saturation we would be experiencing.  I also noted Steves' optimum and not so optimum visit times for museums and locations and plugged all that into the equation.

And while I researched, I started to think about getting from the airport to the apartment.  I certainly did not want to replicate our arrival in Amsterdam seven years earlier.

Since my brother in law the ER Doc and my lovely sister in law lived in Tennessee at the time, on the opposite side of the country, we met at the Rembrandt restaurant at Schipol, Amsterdam's airport.  They got in about an hour before us and were having an on vacation glass of wine for breakfast when we hooked up.  We then rolled our old people fifty pound big fat suitcases around the airport for a while until we found the train station.

We rolled and wandered, trying to figure out schedules and platform locations and finally landed on the wrong platform.  We discovered this when we saw our train leave about four platforms away.  There was no way to catch it, are you kidding?   Four fifty somethings, including two lovely females, dashing down the lane with  fifty pounders in tow?  It was easily a hundred yards away with several turns and twists.  And a lot of people in between.  One of them (or us) would have surely died.  So we rolled back around at a reasonable pace and were on the correct platform when the next train to town took off thirty minutes later.

After a reasonably enjoyable twenty minute ride to the main train station in town, we then, per the apartment owner's instructions, looked for the correct bus to take us to the closest stop to the house.  Another thirty minutes of  figuring and finagling, gesturing and wrangling and we lugged our Big Fat Luggage (BFL) up the narrow steps of the bus.  And then chug chug chugged along until we got to the correct stop.  And then we lugged our BFL back down the way too narrow bus steps and proceeded to roll along the crowded streets of Amsterdam looking for the correct street.  And so on.  And so forth.  It was a massive pain in the patoot.

We finally got there, a quarter mile later.  Otherwise I probably wouldn't be here.  I'd still be on the streets of Amsterdam.  Lost, but probably happy.

At any rate, we're all now seven years older.  Like, we wanna do that again?  You wanna blow another hole in my what?

So, as I was doing my research, I stumbled upon another fantabulous site,  This site was developed by a couple of Canadian brothers, as their website says, who were tired of the assault and barrage of taxi drivers and would be taxi drivers when they first arrived at an international airport, like Des Moines for instance.  Even more so when they arrived at an international airport in a real foreign country, like Kansas, where language could really be a barrier. 

Now I don't know about you, but I have been assaulted by would be taxi drivers and have ended up paying way too much for a cab ride into town in several foreign countries and island nations.  I've also ended up
in the back of a jeep for a long ride in the jungle looking for zebras and melons.  Or shiny things.   Maybe both.  Maybe this is a flashback.  Boy am I getting confused.   

I love this site!  First of all, posts the going taxi rates at an incredible amount of domestic and international airports.  From Algeria to Zambia with many places in between. So you KNOW what the taxis should be charging.  Then they also have contracted with a number of drivers and agencies all over the universe to offer airport transfer services, both private and shared.

I ended up booking a private transfer through them from De Gaulle airport directly to our apartment.  The price was about $20 more than a cab ride would have been without any traffic.  If there was any traffic heading into the city, which there usually is on a week day morning, then a cab ride could easily eclipse the transfer cost.  Boom.  Done.  That was sure gonna be better than lugging our BFL a mile or two around the streets of Paris, arduously seeking our sanctum.  Or sanity.

We left the 15th, with the hopes of arriving at Charles De Gaulle airport around 10:00 AM on the 16th.  The paramount concern of this whole excursion was that my lovely wife BE in Paris on the 18th, her birthday, so that she can now forever say, "I was in Paris on my 60th birthday."  Nothing more, nothing less.  Everything else was butter.

The morning of the 15th came early.  Really early.  I mean, why the hell go to bed kinda early.  At 3:15 AM our son's fabulous girlfriend came by for the ride to the airport.  She graciously offered at dinner one night and how could we refuse?  Besides, she paid it forward.  When next my son and her are off to some exotic location, the old man here will most certainly reciprocate.

Our flight to Chicago left at 6:05 AM, and we figured a 4:30 arrival time would be sufficient.  It's an hour ride to the airport from the old homestead here, so we needed to charge out of here around 3:30.  Fully caffeinated, we hit the road.

Even though amazingly there are a number of humans up at that ridiculous hour, we breezed through check in and security.  The United flight to Chicago was uneventful, I might have even slept a couple hours.  The next hitch to Montreal was short and uneventful, except, of course, for the Sky Mall magazine.  You know, that fabulous catalog that contains a ton of far fetched notions and faldoral that nobody in their right mind needs.  Especially at their prices.  Nevertheless, it's always entertaining for me.

I mean, there's butt enhancing briefs in there.  For men!  There's raincoats for your dog.  Birdhouses for your cat.  There's a motorized gondola to turn your back yard swimming pool into an enchanting Venetian canal.  Seriously.  Even I can't make this crap up.  I'm gonna keep it as a point of reference for crazy.

We had a three hour layover in Montreal, departing there around 9:30 PM EST.  We had a casual dinner at the airport, looked around for a few folks to say "Eh" to and then began boarding about 8:30 PM EST.

The 787 Dreamliner is a wide body jet, seating ten folks across almost all the way down the plane.  Naturally there's the first class, but even those sat six across.  We were fortunate, getting an aisle seat and then the middle seat on one of the sides.  The window seat was occupied by this petite, lovely little twenty something female creature who huddled up next to the window and slept almost the entire flight.  This allowed me, the old middle guy, to stretch and belch pretty much at my leisure.

We had our usual materials to keep us busy, books, newspapers, crosswords and the Sky Mall Mag.  But did I mention we flipped over to Air Canada at Montreal, and that they have now become our favorite airline?   They have also been voted the best North American airline for five years in a row.  I think I know why.

Even though the rows sat ten across, and there were about sixty rows on the plane, the leg room was very accommodating.  And then their entertainment system was off the hook.  There was a nine inch screen on the back of everybody's seat, with hundreds of hours of movies, TV shows and music.  It was there I first heard Philemon Cimon, a decidedly French musician.  You can check out his sound here: Soleil Blanc.  I have no idea what he's singing, but the melody sure is snappy and sweet.

Try though I might, I have serious difficulty sleeping unless I am prone.  Or deathly tired.  I might have dozed off for an hour or two, but definitely no more than that.  No sense arriving in Europe with all my bells intact.  I watched a couple old movies set in Europe, "The Ipcress File" and "How To Steal A Million."  My lovely wife, on the other hand, can sleep just about any time and any place.  I think she dozed about half the way there.

Air Canada also served a fairly decent meal on the flight.  Food is kind of fun when everything, including individual peas, are all prepackaged.  It gives all us fliers lots of stuff to do even if we aren't really hungry.

It was about half way over the Atlantic that I realized by flipping over to Air Canada in mid stream I may have put our well plotted meeting spot with our fellow travelers from Florida in jeopardy.  Holy Cream of Corn Soup Batman, we had a problem, and it probably was not going to be very funny!

I don't know if any of you have ever flown into CDG in France, but it's a big dang airport.  It has three terminals, and I think Terminal One is bigger than the entire airport.  In doing my pre-flight research, I learned that Delta, our fellow travelers airline, flew into Terminal Two.  United, our carrier, flew into Terminal One.  Of course I neglected to learn that we would be switching to Air Canada in Montreal, which also flew into Terminal Two, which notice was clearly stated on our itinerary.


Since our fellow travelers would be arriving an hour earlier than us, I instructed them to make their way to Terminal One.  Remember, I'm compulsive, obsessively so?  This was where our driver would be meeting me, the contact.  I figured our fellow travelers had to be there too. 

Upon arrival at CDG, which was right on time by the way, we fired up my lovely wife's smart phone.  She had made all the proper arrangements with her carrier to handle the foreign situation.  Good thing too.  While wading through the very informal and easy customs process, I contacted the local property manager.  She informed me that our apartment would be ready at 12:30 PM instead of 5:00 PM, which, of course, made us quite happy.  My lovely wife then contacted our fellow travelers, and informed them we were actually at Terminal Two, the one they just spent the last hour leaving.

We told them to sit tight until we made contact with our driver.  Once we rolled through customs, I was a little dismayed.  There was no driver waiting with my name on a sign.  Dang!  I've always wanted to roll into an international city with a driver waiting for me with my name on a sign,.  You know, a guy in suit and sunglasses holding the sign, which, of course, says, "Bond".

A little concerned, I called the company on the voucher I had printed from  I learned our driver had been hung up in traffic but was then at the airport and minutes away from us.  This turned out to be true, and within a minute a fine gentleman was walking up with my name misspelled on a sign.  I laughed, he apologized.  Two very trivial hiccups in a very BIG foreign connection.  We were in the car in a minute.

Then it was time to explain to the nice driver that our fellow travelers had left Terminal Two upon my stupid  instruction and labored for the last hour to get to Terminal One.  The driver, a very congenial fellow and a navigation expert of CDG, instructed our fellow travelers to go to a specific gate on a specific level and that we would be there in five minutes to collect them. 

When we arrived at the specific gate and specific level, they were no where to be found.  Undeterred and wildly buzzing like a screaming banshee from lack of sleep, I hopped out of the car and entered the crowded foreign jabbering labyrinth.

"I got this," I said to my lovely wife and the driver, or maybe to myself.

A glance or two around and within seconds I honed in on the two of them.  I was apparently experiencing that ephemeral lack of sleep time space continuum thing where the crowd slows down and your awareness slides up and you can observe vast segments of your encompassing surroundings within seconds.  Or maybe that was the cookie.  Or a flashback.  Maybe both.

I saw them beyond the crowd, just inside the gate and politely seeking guidance from half English speaking information officers.  I snuck up behind them and  grabbed them both in an all encompassing bear hug.  Within minutes we were all in the car with our big fat luggage and on our way.  It had taken our fellow travelers an hour carrying their big fat luggage to get to Terminal 1.  It took our driver five minutes to fetch 'em.

Oops.  Travel stories.

While jovial visitation began in the back, I strapped in at shotgun for the lively ride into Paris.  Car movement and traffic on the way to and in Paris is truly an art form.  It is, apparently, a very artistic town!  There appeared to be no real rules of the road as far as I could see.  They did stop at red lights for the most part, and moved forward on green.  Other than that, just about everything went.

Lots of two wheelers, mostly smaller motorcycles and scooters.  Lots of 'em.  Lots of cars, mostly smaller sedans.  But a number of Mercedes, vans, trucks and buses.  And they all want to be at the same place at the same time.  If there was grid lock, which there was quite often, the bikes scooted around and wound through the idling cars.  Hell, even our driver, in a van, did an almost complete lateral across three lanes to get around a stall.  It was insane!!

It took about an hour to get to our Rue, or street, arriving there around 11:30 AM.  I called the property manager to say we had arrived, and she said she'd be there in about an hour to let us in, which she was.

While we waited, we explored the block, more or less.  Two doors down on one side was a bar, and several doors down on the other side was another bar.  At the end of the street, about three blocks down was a brassiere, or bistro, essentially a bar with food.  We had landed, apparently, right smack dab in the middle of the Bar-muda Triangle.  Sorry.

We hung out in the 200 year old apartment's small courtyard, about the size of a single car garage.  We entered the courtyard through these two massive twelve foot high doors, which were open at the time.  I learned later they were closed around 6:00 PM and were accessed via an electronic punched in code.  The doors were about three feet wide and three inches thick.  Most all the outer doors we saw around the city were similar to this.  They opened wide enough for a vehicle to enter the courtyard, essentially. And they were strong enough to stave off  a battering ram attack by a wild horde of insurgents, or a small car.  Or some ducks.

Once the PM arrived, we entered the stair well through a keyed glass door. Then it was a three story hike up the stairs to our apartment.  Two hundred year old buildings usually don't have elevators.  At least the stairs were wide and we would only be carting our big fat luggage up once.

The apartment looked very much like the photos Rent a villa had posted on their site, Bourse.  Sometimes one can wonder at what they are seeing and ordering online, but this was all coming to a good conclusion.  The only negative part was the second bathroom, the one our fellow travelers graciously took, was kind of upstairs.  I say kind of because it was just off a loft, which was accessible by a wide stepped ladder, of sorts.  But it was a lovely bathroom, with a sink, toilet, bidet and bathtub.

Look, this was an old, refurbished building.  In Europe.  You should have seen the house we rented in Amsterdam.  It was a lovely three story building (with a basement) right on one of the city's lovely canals.  And the building was also leaning.  It was about a foot off on the top, and just about every tourist boat that floated by on the canal stopped and everyone took pictures.  We waved.  They thought we were Dutch.  We played the part.

The house was three stories and it had, essentially, one room per story.  Our fellow travelers slept in the basement, where a bathroom was located.  The first story contained the kitchen and dining area, the second story was a family/living room, and the 3rd story was our bedroom, and another bath.  And the stairs, the stairs to get from one floor to the next?  Ever been on a tug boat?

Narrow, winding stairs about a foot and a half wide, almost impossible to get a fully loaded large suitcase up.  Seriously.  It was a challenge, as you can see.

Paris, except for the loft, which also contained a sofa and TV, was fortunately all on one story.  Both bedrooms, our bath and the kitchen dining area were all on the main level.  No tug boat stairs.  Just tree house stairs for our fellow travelers to hit the bidet, a standard in most French bathrooms.

There was a large glass dining room table in the large dining room, with tall, ten foot high double windows opening out into a small courtyard.  There were about twelve other apartments facing the courtyard, some with balconies and some with windows.  For certain, this had the makings for some very lively interaction.

We unpacked our massive suitcases, and armed with a little bit of locational knowledge from our property manager, we ventured out into the bustling city to find a grocery store.   We knew it was going to be an early night for all us weary travelers, so we wanted to get some goodies, dine in and get a good nights rest.

The secret to managing Europe's time zone change for me is not to nap and blaze through the first day, hitting the sack around 9-10 PM Europe time.  I'll be delirious by then, but then I'm usually good for the duration of the stay.  It does, however, take me about a week to get back to normal when I return to reality and PST.

I took the city map with us that our property manager left, but the more complete and detailed Moon Paris Map Guide the Doc brought was left at the apartment.  That was a mistake, and this would prove to be one of those travel times that all traveling companions be fabulous troopers.