Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Moments, not Monuments

We rode the bus today. And why not, it was free!

To ensure the safety of the COP21 delegates, and to speed their transportation, numerous major roads and highways in and around Paris were closed to normal traffic. Then, to help offset the total chaos this was expected to cause, public transportation was offered free of charge yesterday and today (Monday), the first two days of the conference. Presumably, the no-cost transport would encourage people to leave their cars at home. I don’t know if that worked or not, but we got two free days of tripping around Paris.

The Metro is the standard method of getting around Paris. It works very well, is immune to weather and street traffic, and can be understood well enough with little practice. Buses are another matter. There are many more lines, and for some reason they just don’t seem to be as effective at getting you where you need to go. But the bus has one very great advantage: you can see where you are going! The Metro is (mostly) underground, so the view is mostly all the same, and upon exiting, you mostly have no idea where you are, or where you came from, or which way to go.

So one of our goals is to get a handle on the bus system: rather than just defaulting to the Metro, can we get to where we want to be using the bus? Two days of free travel has allowed us to explore that idea. Since after all, if we end up in the wrong place, we can just take another bus (or Metro!) at no charge.

We got an early start today (well, 11 AM, early for us), and went to the Luxembourg gardens, since we really haven’t explored the Left Bank and that half of the city south of the Seine. The weather was a warm 54 degrees (relatively; it has been cold, like in the low 40s), so a day in the park seemed like a good idea. Which it was, until it rained, which it did, just before we got off the bus. Ah, best laid plans, and all that…

It was actually quite a light sprinkle, and by the time we figured out what to do next (in something like just under an hour), the light rain stopped. We found another bus and headed towards Montparnasse. Why there? Well, we hadn’t been there yet.

We find we have little interest in running after particular buildings, or famous sites. Our goal for this trip is – and has been – to explore what life in Paris is like. How do Parisians live? To that end, we have a new motto: Moments, not Monuments! We’re looking for the moments that tell us we are in Paris, that connect us with the city and, more importantly, with the residents. So Montparnasse was just a place to go that we had yet to see.

First thing, once off the bus in the shadow of the tower (that would be the Tower Montparnasse, at 56 floors the tallest building in Paris, and hopeful the last skyscraper ever built in the city limits!), was lunch. We found a café that seemed “sympa” and indeed we did have a nice meal. As we were finishing we began talking to our table neighbor (cafes here are very small, and tend to be crowded!). John was a Brit living in Paris for the last 26 years, slowly refurbishing his 109-year old yacht. We chatted for quite a while, he gave us some tips on what to see and do (“best view in Paris is from the top of the Montparnasse Tower – because it’s the only place where you can’t see it.” – John was no fan of Tour Montparnasse).

We left the café feeling very satisfied with that Moment!

Our next bus took us to Etoile, as the area around the Arc de Trimphe is called (because the radial streets make a star, no doubt). OK, so it’s a monument, but worth seeing. We stood in the middle and looked down the Champs-Elysees towards the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre, with its Arc de Triumph du Carousel. Except, now you can’t see the Louvre, thanks to that stupid Ferris wheel (Le Roue de Paris, installed to mark the turn of the 21st century; now that we’re a decade and a half in, can’t it be taken down??) It’s a fine sight, really (in spite of the wheel).

Le Roue de Paris. Ugh!

 We strolled down the Champs-Elysees and night fell and the lights came on. One goal was to see the Christmas Markets, and the Christmas lights, along this major boulevard. Well, done and done. There were barricades at the end of the street; all government buildings are under heavy security for the COP21 conference. Pedestrians were able to pass, but the streets were cleared to allow rapid passage of official vehicles.

Which is to say, it was a wonderful place to walk! Many shops were open, but traffic was non-existent. And no cars – so quiet! It was quite pleasant, actually. And we stumbled upon a couple of wonderful Moments.

The Buddha!
 First was the Buddha Bar. For years we have been listening to the CD compilations they put out from the fantastic world music played there, but didn’t really consider a visit. It has an extraordinary décor, but was quite empty at 6PM -- too early yet. It’s located in the high-priced area of town, so just looked, astonished, and moved on.

Buddha Bar entry, Rue Boissy d'Anglas, 75008 Paris
Next up was the church called Madeleine. Modeled on a Greek temple, surrounded by massive pillars, at night is was a huge dark mass. But the front steps were well illuminated, and from the top of the steps was a fine view down a long, empty street to the lit-up Invalides, with the lights sharp and distinct in the clear night air. (Many streets in Paras have views like this, long straight streets with impressive structures at either end.)

View from the Madeleine with NO traffic!
Angles. On high.
We went inside (why not, we’d already done the work of climbing the tall stairs). The interior was not impressive in a country with the cathedrals of Notre Dame and Chartres, but someone had been at work making angels out of chicken wire.

The Holy Family and the expected donkey.

And over here, on the side, was the beginnings of the Nativity scene, Joseph with Mary and the Child, again in chicken wire, while three giraffes looked on. Yup, they were giraffes.
(A modern "World Christmas"??)
Yup. Giraffes.

 Eventually our stroll took us back into the un-secured areas, which were now in full rush hour madness. We popped down into the Metro, took it one stop and came up in front of the Opera, in all of its spot-lit golden glory. We worked out way over to Galleries Lafayette and its welcome toilettes and refreshment. Then, back into the press of shoppers and traffic to see the windows at Au Printemps, the other major department store in the area.

Once more exhausted, and much too tired to make sense of the bus map, we again descended into the Metro and caught a quick train home. Well, not quite. As we stood in the car, cheek by jowl with our neighbors in this rush hour crowd, an announcement came over the PA. There was some kind of holdup, so we could go one more stop and then we’d all have to get out. Which we did. Out of the packed car, and onto the very packed platform.

A confused looking fellow asked us what was going on. We explained what little we knew. Turns out he was from India, and he and his bride were on their honeymoon. They had spent the day at Disneyland (Europe Disneyland, just outside Paris, how convenient) and were looking forward to getting back to their hotel. Before long another train came, we all crammed into it, and we were soon back in our familiar neighborhood.

But tomorrow, it’s back to $1.50 a ticket, which means one ride out and one ride back. Which means, more walking! Which, come to think of it, means, we’ll have another croissant, please!

The Metro -- doors are closing, get on board!

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