Friday, December 18, 2009

Paris - Reprise

Well, the joke in Valencia was that I brought in the coldest spell of weather my hosts had seen during their six months in the city and the day I left, yesterday, a simply gorgeous day, I took the cold weather with me. Rety and Bruce walked with me to the tram stop dressed in short sleeve shirts, all of us enjoying the sun and warmth after three full days of uncharacteristically chilly temperatures. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic visit made so by my good luck at being able to stay with such interesting and friendly people, people I met through the Couchsurfing site.

My flight back was uneventful except for a couple of delays. But imagine my dismay when our plane dropped through the clouds to land at Orly Field and I saw that the ground was covered with snow! Yep, Paris has snow. Orly, south of the city, looked like it got about a foot perhaps. Here, in the heart of the city, there isn't much more than a trace of slush on the streets but after Spain, it feels decidedly cold and damp. I had emailed Thea to tell her not to worry about meeting me at the airport because, now that I'm a more seasoned traveler, I felt confidant that I could find my way to their flat. And so I did. But of course there's a story involved.

I went to the Information Desk at the airport and got directions from the attendant. Orly isn't on the regular subway route, she explained in English, so one must first take a shuttle bus to the closest subway station, Denfert Rochereau, catch the #6 Train to Bercy and then grab the #14 Train to arrive at Gare de Leon, the big railway station a few blocks from Thea and Arnaud's flat. She told me to go to Gate D for my bus. I wandered over that way to find the bus loaded and ready to leave. Great. I ran over and jumped aboard. I asked the driver how much was the fare and he responded, 6.40 euro. Huh! Right away I knew I was back in Paris, easily the most expensive city I've visited. Nowhere else are buses or subways this expensive. In Berlin, or Amsterdam, or Spain, the fares are more like 1.20 or 2.40 maybe, but not here. The driver laughed when he saw my look of surprise and said in English, "This is Paris, What do you expect?"

After about 20 minutes we arrived at the subway station. I had been careful to ask a fellow passenger which direction to travel on Train #6, so I knew I wanted to follow the signs for the train to Nation rather than the one going to Saint Lazare. Alas, when I entered the station there was no ticket window available that I could see. But I had saved a subway pass from my last visit and had kept it for two months in the back compartment of my billfold and I thought, okay, let's try it. It worked perfectly. I felt so proud of myself. Here I was, back in Paris and feeling very much the veteran, and so competent now compared to how I felt during my first hours in Paris back in October when I worried about every little thing.

I jumped on the next train and rode to the Bercy station. I exited that train and promptly caught Train #14 for the short hop to Gare de Lyon. So far so good. But getting out of this massive multi-leveled station isn't that easy. This major terminal serves the entire southeastern portion of Paris and has bus lines, subway lines and rail lines connecting on at least three levels (maybe four I don't know), and there are multiple gates requiring a pass to clear. I stuck my pass into the slot. Nothing doing. A red light came on illuminating a short error message in French. Damn it! My old pass had let me through the gate at Denfert Rochereau -- why not this one?

I had learned how to cheat my way through these gates during my previous visit. I hadn't intentionally set out to do that but buying subway passes in Paris can be very cumbersome and consequently several times I had found my self trapped in a station with no legal way out. What you do is to wait until someone walks through the gate using their pass. Before the gate can re-lock itself, you jump in right behind them and pass quickly through. Pretty soon a fellow walked up, put his pass in, and went through--I glided right in behind him and pushed through the gate. Success! Again I felt like quite the veteran. But there are many gates, four in fact, to pass before you are finally out of Gare de Lyon.

I  got through the next two gates without too much difficulty but had a problem with the final one. Because I was coming from the airport I had my daypack on my shoulders and was pulling my roller suitcase behind me. Getting all that gear through a gate directly behind someone else can be tricky and at this last gate my luck finally ran out. There are these little sliding doors as well as a turnstile that are expressly designed to prevent the type of passage I was attempting and this last one caught me good. I wasn't quite speedy enough. The damn gate closed early and caught my back pack solidly. To make matters worse, the turnstile had also locked and had caught my roller bag in the narrow aisle behind me. I was literally skewered in place, stuck firmly in the teeth of this infernal contraption. Oh, oh, I thought, this could get ugly.

But before I could even begin stressing out about this embarrassing development and to my immense surprise, two (three?) French commuters magically appeared and in a heartbeat helped me through the gate. A woman behind me grabbed my 40 lb roller bag and lifted it through the adjoining gate to a man. Either he or a third man somehow helped extricate my backpack from the little doors that only seconds ago had so firmly held me and before I knew it I was through. I said, thank you, thank you, and mumbled something, in English naturally, about my pass not working. But they were already gone. Like Robin Hood they seemed to relish the idea of beating the system and helping one of its unfortunate victims. As far as I can tell they didn't know one another and it was over so fast that I can't be sure if there were two people involved or three. But they responded in seconds to help me out of a jam and then just as quickly disappeared into the passageways ahead. Who says the French aren't friendly?

I somehow made my way out of the bowels of the station and when I finally emerged onto the street immediately knew where to go. I walked briskly to the Rue Trousseau and was inside the flat with my friends in a jiffy.

Today as I write, it's cold and gray and there is a light snow falling. It's not all that pleasant. But we'll head out for croissants and coffee soon and perhaps do something interesting later. I have a bit of Christmas shopping to do, and there's more of Paris to explore.