Friday, August 22, 2014

Bon Jour, Arrivederci, Por Favor, Where the Hell Am I?

I have been lost in foreign cities before, like Amsterdam.  But when you're lost in Amsterdam, you're usually not very concerned at all.  It doesn't matter who and where you are after a half hour in Amsterdam.

When the four of us intrepid European Wayfaring Wanderers first arrived in Amsterdam back in 2007 and got all our big fat suitcases unpacked, we went out for a little exploration.  We didn't have to explore too far, there was one of those magical cafes, appropriately named the Majik, about six cars down in the below shot, which was taken from the front steps of our rental house.  Nice location.
After hanging out there for an hour or so, by general consensus it appeared to be time to go out and explore some more.  Not thinking we would be further venturing forth, we left our Moon Map Guide Amsterdam at the house, about six cars up in the above photo.   You know, an extreme hundred feet or so.  

By the way, if you've never utilized one of the Moon Map Guides, check 'em out.  In my humble opinion they are the best dang locational medium out there when exploring any new city.  Smart phone maps be damned!  I saw tourists walking into walls all over Paris while they were holding their "smart" phone in front of them like a locational divining rod.  In the Moon guide, Paris is divided in ten sections, with the detailed street maps on heavy laminated stock.  Very easy to comprehend.  Metro locations, notable restaurants, shops ETC are all noted. That link above will take you to their site.

Which brings me to another point.  If you've never clicked on any of the hyperlinks included within this blog, you're missing out on a large part of the equation.  Many times they links are to relevant sites, such as the one above.  Many times they are a link to a relevant song, usually from You Tube.  Lots of good stuff in there, for instance: Get lost music.

So we left the Majik (in Amsterdam) and walked down our street a few blocks until we found a boulevard that felt exciting and appealing, you know, lots of stuff going on.  We hung a right, over the canal, and strolled, soaking up the teeming, electric and fabulous Amsterdam atmosphere.  We walked several blocks, probably about twelve, and, in the lead, I stumbled upon a large courtyard ringed by restaurants.  There were probably sixty tables about that were serviced by four different restaurants.  It was a lovely, tree shaded courtyard, filled with afternoon drinkers and diners.  But what struck me more about the courtyard was what was happening above the tables.

Ranging from ten to twenty feet above the tables, a middle aged fifty something grey haired man in astounding shape was doing aerial gymnastic acrobatics on ropes and cables that were taut between the trees.  He was incredibly graceful, very agile, and not shyly dressed in not much more than a leather loin cloth.  And when he did the splits above your table, well, you get the picture.  Or maybe not-can't blame you.  A picture would have been fabulous, but remember, we left our house without a dang thing except adventure in our hearts.

Entertained, bemused and just a little bit hungry, we sat down for some Amsterdam ambiance and a bite to eat.  An hour later we were on our way back to the house, after tipping, of course, our afternoon entertainment when he dropped by for a split.  Our first venture out, even though enhanced by some cafe medium, was easy.  We just did an "L", had memorized our street and knew it was just over the only canal we had seen that day.  No problem.

Our first gambit out on the streets of Paris was a little bit different.  We did leave the apartment with a basic fold out city map our apartment manager had given us, but that was all.  It pretty much just showed main city streets, not the detailed dynamics of specific blocks.

After making a left out of our apartment door, we walked the block to the end of our Rue and made a right, strolling past the Elvis museum.  Yes, Elvis.  On a tiny little side rue in the middle of Paris.  Go figure.   We strolled along another long block and then we made a left on a larger thoroughfare, right at the Bourse, Paris's stock exchange.
By the way, that may look like a parking lot to you in the above shot.  It's actually business as usual at one of Paris's very lively intersections, where about four or five lanes all merge into one.  Or sometimes they merge into a circle.  What fun!

Not quite as big as the NYSE, The Bourse was nevertheless another ornate Parisian landmark with a small amount of gold leaf, like maybe on the tip of a spear.  The Bourse would soon be a major landmark for us as well as becoming our "home" metro stop, once we got into the metro swing of things.  The Bourse was currently closed for the month(s) of July and August.  I wonder what American hedge fund traders would do if the NYSE closed for two months every year?

From the Bourse we made another left, off in the direction of Le Opera Garnier, about six blocks down and another one of Paris's fabulous and ornate centuries old buildings.  That one had a lot of gold leaf.  Apparently French sopranos have historically fared better than French stock brokers.

The city streets were alive with electricity along the way, or maybe that was just me cruising on no sleep.  The sidewalks teemed with Parisians and tourists, while the streets were packed with bustling sedans and double decker buses carrying scads of camera toting tourists.  The streets were definitely busier than the sidewalks, but not by much.  Everything got more crowded as we approached the Opera square, where no less than seven rues (streets) intersected.  Ah Chi Mama!  Talk about honking wild hordes and crazy European drivers!

All along the way were shops and sidewalk cafes, or brassieres, where you could get a bite along with a glass or two of your favorite beverage.  But we were on a mission.  The first thing we really needed to do was to find an exchange station and convert some dollars to Euros, then find some groceries. 

Credit cards generally work great in Europe.  Call your carrier ahead of time though so they know where you are.  Most CC companies will charge another 3% on all foreign purchases, which isn't bad considering what they try to do to you when converting cash.  But there would be times we would want to use cash, especially for smaller purchases and cabs, so some Euros were imperative.

We finally found a Travelex office just off the square.   I walked up to the window that was manned by a lovely young female creature who spoke little English.  I flipped her $400, and she was going to flip me about E260 back.  WTF?  I wigged.  I mean, the exchange rate then was $1.353 per Euro, so we were already taking a bath.  Based on that, without any commission, I should have been receiving around  E296  for $400.

I was willing to pay a few cents per dollar for commission, but not nineteen!  I told her I wanted my four bills back, that I was going elsewhere, and then she started to wig and started to speak (in French) to her manager.  One thing led to another and she finally gave me E285, which was a little more than the E280 I figured was a fair deal.  Then my bro in law the super ER Doc did the same thing, so she made out a little better by having two $400 customers at once.  We did go to a Western Union office later in the trip and their initial exchange was where we ended up at Travelex, without any bickering or bartering.  Just in case you wanted to know.  BUT, we also quickly learned you can barter at these places.

With Euros in hand, Paris was at our fingertips.  We were pulled in a hundred different directions by all the sights and sounds, but the primary goal then was to hit a grocery store for provisions.  Eventually I found a French tourism office just off a main drag where one of the staffers spoke fairly decent English.  I got a grocery store location, and after saying , "Arrivederci," I ambled out the door and found my traveling comrades.

My newly rehearsed phrase was that day was, "Parlez-vous Anglais"?  (Do you speak English?)  If that didn't get a bite I had to move on because there were only about four other French words I knew.  I found a little Espanol rolling around my tongue tip that day, and I have absolutely no idea how "Arrivederci "got in there.  I've never even been to Germany.  I don't know how these multi linguists do it.  I had snippets of about eight words in four languages short circuiting my cranium like scrambled eggs on rye.  An entire language?  Now you're talking a cruise ship buffet on the largest onion roll in the universe.  In my brain.

Off we went in the direction of the grocery store, which was also heading back in the general direction of the apartment.  Only on a different street.  Which ran about four blocks behind the Bourse, running at diagonally perpendicular laterals to the original triangular point of embarkation at the apartment.  Or something like that.  But we did not know that then.  I had innocently isosceles'd a parallel triangular direction (or dimension) and thought it was our own, leading our intrepid party astray.

Initially it did not matter.  We were in Paris, and actually enjoying a Rick Steve's recommended Montmarte walk.  Bedazzled by the sites, sounds and big city fabulous European energy, we almost walked past the very nondescript MonoPrix market.  The only indication there was a grocery store in the vicinity was viewing a gentleman walking by with a canvas grocery bag that was filled with, well, groceries.  We traced his steps back and then entered a two glass door store.  There were incidentals on the very small double garage sized first floor, but then about ten wide steps down found us in French Grocery Nirvana.

Sigh.  Foreign grocery stores are an extremely simple source of pleasure for four wayfaring foodies.  We got a couple hand baskets and off we strolled down the short but amply stocked aisles.  Many things weren't familiar, which is half the fun.  It's definitely a good way to learn the French words for food items too.   

A baguette later, and maybe some bottled water, juice, wine, cheese, cold cut meats, coffee, fruits, Louis Maille mustard, mayo, chocolates and pastries we were on our way.  Did I forget anything?  By the way, a large jar of Maille mustard, about twice the size of what you see on grocery store shelves here was less than half the price you pay here.  1.8 Euro there.  And what a refined, wonderful Dijon mustard it is.  We may have been converted into mustard snobs.  Is it French Dijon?  No?  Why no thank you then.

We packed up my day pack with three liters of water and several other incidentals.  We also ended up with two large canvas bags purchased from the store.  As yet unhampered by our new weight, off we went in the perceived direction of the apartment. It only took us about fifteen minutes to get to the Opera Garnier from the apartment, and the grocery store was about half the distance back.  Ten minutes tops, right?

Forty minutes later we were sweating and discovered we were wandering in circles.  We were starting to feel the strain of our new addled weight, my back under the pack was solidly sweat soaked.  We were beginning to wonder where we were.  Or where we were going.  Paris, right?

On Montmarte, a boisterously busy street, we ambled into a Starbucks for our only native purchase experience of the excursion, iced coffee.  It was necessary.  Several doors down was the Hardrock Paris, I was sure we had seen that before.  Or was that the day before?  This is 2014, right?

Caffeinated and rejuvenated, we undertook the next phase of getting home.  Or the next phase of figuring out where home was.  Or the next phase of figuring out what century it was and what planet we were on.  Boy were we ever getting confused.  What the heck was in that coffee, anyway?

The good Doc had his smart phone out like a locational divining rod, and we could see the little beeping dot, indicating where our bastion of shelter lay.  But the smart phone map did not contain all the streets of the domain either, and with multi story stone buildings all about it was tough to get our bearings.

I figured the hell with it.  Our combined bags of groceries now surely weighed about 476 pounds after carrying them around for an hour.  I can admit defeat.  We were all getting tired.  Let's grab a cab and get the fu*k home.

I accosted several cabbies through their open windows, "Parlez-vous Anglais?"

One of them finally did, and rather than let four wayfaring wanderers into his cab for the three block ride to their apartment, he showed me the beeping locational icon on his smart fuc*ing map.

BUT, somehow that was all we needed.  Between that fix and the good doctor's divining rod we honed in on a three block radius, wound around and finally found the Elvis museum, knowing we were right around the corner.

Once ensconced back in our little slice of heaven and changed out of sweaty clothes, out came the wine, baguette, meats and cheese.  Then we sat around the huge glass dining table, ate, drank and sang French sailing songs.  We were loud enough to get a grumpy, middle aged Parisian housewife (whose balcony shared our apartment's courtyard) to yell at us to be quiet.  Yeah, we were having fun!

We turned in by ten, a little hoarse from all those sea shanty's, but much the better for wear.  The next day we were going on the Le Open on/off double decker bus tour to get a good view of the city.  Somewhere in  our ramblings, while we were lost, we ran across one of their bus stop signs along the Montmarte.  I only hoped we could find our way back since we were essentially lost at the time we found it.

The next morning we arose at a reasonable hour and got the Starbucks coffee going.  OK, we bought two American things while we were there.

Armed with a couple bottles of water AND the Moon Map Guide Paris, which the ever wise good doctor brought, we were off.  We were not going to get lost again!

We walked out just like the day before, left'd and then right'd past the Elvis museum and eventually we got to the Bourse.  We walked right past the dormant stock exchange another four not quite so ordinary blocks and we were once again on Montmarte.  We found one of the "L'Open" Bus stop signs and waited.

One came along within ten minutes or so, and then we all got an all day wristband  for E31 each.  Yeah, a little pricey, but a fantastic way to get orientated to the city, which, witness the day before, was rather necessary for us.

When we were telling folks we were gong to Paris in July, everyone told us it would be hot.  But everything we read on line and elsewhere stated the temperatures would generally be in the high seventies to low eighties.  Once in a while it could get into the nineties, but not that often.  Compared to the high nineties low hundreds we were leaving, we figured the weather would be fabulous.

It turned out to be in the low nineties our first couple days on the streets, and pretty darn humid.  It was hot.  Fortunately, besides a pair of clay colored khakis, a pair of levis and a nice pair of slacks, I also brought along a nice, formalish pair of navy blue snappy cargo shorts.  My lovely wife bought them for me.  They were the only pair of cargo anything I could wear that allowed her to be seen with me.   Cargo shorts and pants are, apparently, not of the current highest fashion standards.  Highly practical, not so very fashionable.   Especially in Paris.  I ended up wearing those shorts five of eight days in Paris.  It's a good thing they were snappy. 

Both our lovely female travelers were wearing sun dresses, and the good doctor was in khaki.  That first day in the city, on the upper deck of the double decker bus, we four intrepid travelers sweated with impunity underneath the humid, ninety something, sweltering Paris summer sky. 

We got off at one of our first stops, a train station.  I was in a frenetic search for le toilette, while our lovely female traveling companions purchased a couple of lovely French sun bonnets.

The excellent aspect of the ON/Off bus tour is just that.  When you land at a spot where you'd like to spend some time, you just hop off and spend some time.  You can return to the same stop to pick up another bus or pick one up at another stop after you've strolled for a while.  One is usually along in 10-15 minutes.

After the train stop we were back on the hot and humid express.  We rolled past Notre Dame, but did not stop since it was on the Excel spread sheet for a thorough review the next day.

After a lovely ride along the sights, sounds and scenes of the Seine, the picturesque river that runs through the city, we hopped off along the Champs- Elysees for a little cafe time.

After lunch we strolled along the Champs-Elysees down to the Arc de Triomph, which is a pretty busy darn intersection, with no less than 12 streets colliding right thar.  Honk, honk.  Beep, beep.

We found the appropriate stop for our bus based on their map, waited for five minutes and then were off to the Eiffel Tower. The quintessential Paris landmark, the Eiffel Tower is not without it's crowds.  There were scads of people everywhere, especially on it.  We chose not to make that trek, all the way to the top.  Lots of Euros and long lines. Plus, we'd already been higher than that numerous times.  Like in Amsterdam, for instance.

There were also quite a few hawkers selling Eiffel Tower replicas.  Everywhere.  You could get five key chain sized Eiffels for one euro.  Or a ten incher for around ten euro.  A euro an inch.  And they were everywhere.

So I semi got to chatting with a non-English speaking hawker, "Parlez-vous Espanol?" and ended up getting two ten inch towers for ten euro, or five euros each.  It was unheard of!  Even in the shops they were over a euro per inch.  I had unwittingly made the foreign deal of the century, saving us all a grand total of about six euros.   

Sweltered and just about sight-seeing'd out, we rolled on the Le Open back to Le Opera, which was, based on their maps, the closest stop to our apartment.  Le Open has four different routes, all accessed by the wristband.  If you didn't get off the bus at all, it would take you about five hours to complete all four routes.  But if you stop, and I mean, you HAVE to stop once in a while, it would certainly take longer than one day.  That's probably why they sell two and three day passes for a fraction of the initial purchase price.  You just can not do it all in one day.

As we approached our stop by the Opera, we all ambled down the stairs from the upper deck to be near the doors so we could disembark.  Imagine our surprise when the driver just rolled past our stop.  A little concerned, I approached the driver who was talking on his phone and asked, "Parlez-vous what the hell??"

He brushed me off and said the next stop was only a minute away.  And about four more blocks past the six blocks we'd already gone since we wanted to get off.  That's ten extra blocks of walking for two very tired  lovely women who just wanted to get off their feet.  That was the only rude French man or woman we encountered on our stay, and I repaid him by leaving two empty plastic water bottles on his bus.  Not extreme, I know, but I had to do something other than poop in the corner.

Ten extra blocks?  Hell, we were troopers, we could buck-up and handle it with a sardonic joke and a smile.  And maybe a little song.  It was all an adventure, and we were in Paris

Once on the street, we started to walk back towards Le Opera singing "Val-deri, Val-dera" when we quite accidentally and maybe more magically stumbled on to a MonoPrix grocery store.  We decided what the hell, rather than return to our tried and true grocery environs we'd venture into something new.  We raided the store and armed with a baguette, wine, meats, cheese, chocolates and pastries we ventured back out onto the street to begin the trek home and finish our song.

"Val-dera, with my knapsack on my (sweaty) back."

Instead of simply capitulating to a long march on a tried and true route and inspired that we found a market right after suffering a ten block setback, I consulted the Moon Map Guide Paris.  Once I had two intersecting street names I found our location immediately.  Then, much to my happy surprise, I discovered that we were actually about six blocks closer to our apartment than if we had been dropped off at our original desired stop.  Ha!  Even in his endeavor to be rude the French bus driver actually did us a favor.

We were in Paris, and it appeared we were on a roll, "beneath the clear blue sky."