Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Euroblog, Take 4 - Paris, Round 2

You might think a little diversity in the menu is desirable. And you're right. But that only works in Paris if money is no object, and for us, "money is no object" can quickly take on the sense of having no money at all. Which I object to. Thus we essentially only ate three things while we were in Paris: pizza, sandwiches, and a third meal that will become obvious if you further read this. Incidentally, I have to wonder which is better: a French waiter saying "bon appetite," or an English butler saying "what can I do to help you, sir?" Take into account the accents.

To get back to Paris from Geneva, our only ride to the train station left in the morning, while our train left in the late afternoon. That equals seven hours in the train station coffee shop. Fortunately, they had comfortable furniture, so I put my feet up and went to sleep. A couple hours later I was awakened by high-pitched harsh-sounding French not too far away from me. I groggily looked up to see the waitress staring right at and just going to town on me in French. I tried to tell her I only spoke English, but it didn't phase her one bit. After she had ranted to her satisfaction she sped off and left me there to wonder what I had done. I learned from a nearby customer that she objected to me just sleeping in her coffee shop. So I bought a sandwich to appease her. Then I went back to sleep.

We got back to Paris around ten in the evening not having eaten anything since lunch. There was a legit Italian restaurant a few blocks away from where we were staying that we were hoping against hope would still be open when we got back, because nothing else would be. Now, I would first like to say that our hosts were very fun and very caring people and we had a great time with them. But we were mortified of having to eat at our hosts' place because they would always offer us was the flattest tasting lemonade I've ever had and stale French bread that you would have to rip at like a caveman if you want to have a bite. Sometimes I wondered whether they only bought that bread because of the fancy French wrapping it came in. What made the food issue worse was the fact that they were very controlling people, so they would get out the stale French bread and the flat lemonade and insist that we have some - and we couldn't say no. On top of that, since they were both controlling people, their relationship consisted a lot of the time of them having to explain to each other every solitary detail both of what they wanted to do and what each of them thought we should be doing with our time there. At times I would sit there with there staring at my stale French bread and flat lemonade listening to them discuss how dishes should be put into the dishwasher and I would just want to tear out every last hair that I had. So maybe now you can see why we thought all our hopes of not going to bed starving rested on this Italian restaurant.

We went by the house to drop off our stuff, and Carly promptly started to get into a conversation with our hosts. I quickly ended it for her and we ran off to the Italian restaurant. People were still eating when we walked up, and when we asked the waitress for anything edible... they were closed. We walked back towards the house as depressed as we've ever been on the trip. But then what seemed like a miracle happened. A guy on a motorcycle drove by us with what looked like a large stack of pizzas on the back. We flagged him down and it turned out he was in fact a pizza delivery guy. I got the phone number for the place and we had renewed hope. We called the place looking for anything edible... they were closed. At this point I was wondering what the next cruel twist would be - was I going to discover a frozen pizza in the freezer only to burn it black in the oven? Fortunately, our hosts came through in the clutch and fixed us a bunch of spaghetti, of course accompanied by the the customary bread and lemonade. Perhaps the whole thing was a test of character - we definitely could have told the pizza guy that we had ordered it, paid for it, and run off with it. And in the end we got a providential meal.

Having yet to actually visit the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, those were next on the list. But first we visited some street shops. We had thought about buying a weird hat that whoever was the last person to say something stupid would have to wear. Carly found a potential candidate, but I apparently upset the shopkeeper by putting in on and trying to take a picture of myself to see what it looked like. I slowly became aware that he was angrily addressing me as "woman" and signaling me to remove the hat from my head. Guess what? He got no business from me. We had another typical American tourist moment at the Louvre. As soon as we got in, we rushed to see the Mona Lisa. Now, the Louvre is tens of thousands of square feet of world-renowned paintings and architecture, but after we had spent five minutes at the Mona Lisa, we turned to each other thinking, "Now what?" The Eiffel Tower was of course legit. We made it all the way to the top, courtesy of some tickets from some older English folks who didn't want to stand in line, or "queue," as the Europeans call it. One thing I thought was interesting to see was that from the top of the Eiffel Tower you can see the actually curvature of the world. Perhaps if the motivation behind the Tower of Babel hadn't been so wrong: 1) we all could still be speaking the same language, and 2) the western hemisphere would have been discovered earlier because people wouldn't have been afraid of sailing off the end of a flat world.

We also visited the palace of Versailles, which was the most ornate place I've ever seen. The front was nothing too gawk at, and you probably wouldn't expect much based on first impression. However, the rooms toward the back and the gardens behind the buildings were incredibly lavish. The walls and ceilings of the rooms were covered with classic paintings, intricate woodwork, plush materials, and decorations made of precious metals. The gardens weaved back for probably a quarter mile before ending in an amphitheater. The palace of Versailles has the personality of a mullet - business in the front, party in the back.


Steve (while visiting the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre): I've never seen so much human anatomy in my life.

Helen (to Matt, after he messed up a line from Pride and Prejudice that she taught him): I taught you that sentence for you to be elegant, but now you look like a fool.

Carly: When I was young I read a really scary picture book.

Steve: You ready to leave?
Me: I really like Napoleon.

Helen (several times after we taught her the word "fruity"): That's so flowery.

Next we head over to Stuttgart in Germany. We wonder if there are any Nazis left. Are we typical Americans? Possibly. We'll see what happens next...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Euroblog, Take 3 - Geneva

You might say that you have to have money to live in Geneva. And you're right. Of course you have to have money to live anywhere. Except Siberia - I think they pay people to live there. But Geneva is a Goliath-sized head and shoulders above the rest - matters of cost quickly become costly matters. Because of this, we cut our stay a little shorter than originally planned, but nonetheless it was still a fun time. And I didn't have to sleep in the same room with Steve, which was a plus for my ability to sleep.

We thought there would be no trouble getting a train from Paris to Geneva. After all, who goes to Geneva on any regular basis, besides a few determinists and people who can't do without authentic watches and Swiss army knives? As it turned out, everyone from Paris does, when the Geneva Festival is going on, the grand finale of which occurred the day we tried to get there. So basically we got up before five in the morning to catch a 7:30 train that turned out to be already full. When Steve tried to get tickets, the lady laughed and said, "Impossible!" I was still half asleep for this trip apparently, as I was too late getting out of one of the metro cars. I timed it perfectly wrong. There were two sets of doors - one on the metro itself and one on the edge of the platform. Both sets of doors simultaneously closed on me right as I walked through with my two bags. Pandemonium ensued as I fought two sets of doors that kept trying to shut on me as I tried to rip my bags and myself through. Thankfully, some of the locals helped me out or half my luggage might have become an artifact of the Paris metro system. I found the whole situation rather humorous. Carly was horrified and thought I had broken my ribcage, that I was going to need emergency surgery, and that I would possibly die.

As it was, we made it to Geneva that evening all in one piece. We did get in at an ideal time, right when they were having a massive fireworks display. The buildings for blocks around were literally shaking. I felt like I was reliving World War II as I was walking out of the train station. After the fireworks came my blind date with the Genevan cost of living. Being hungry and wanting something cheap, I figured McDonald's would do well. After all, they have a dollar menu in the States. As Steve and I looked over the menu, we saw that a meal was over 12 Swiss francs. Unaware of the conversion rate, we decided that there was no way that the Swiss franc was nearly as strong as the dollar, because there was no way a meal at McDonald's would cost anywhere close to 12 dollars. So we both ordered a 12 Swiss franc meal. Warning flag number one was when they wanted to charge us for the little packets of ketchup for the fries. The cashier lady did us a favor by throwing those in for free. Soon after we had gotten the meal, we were informed of the truth - the Swiss franc and the dollar are essentially equal. I learned this in time to realized as I ate my burger that each bite I downed was another dollar I had spent.

The Geneva Festival was a madhouse of people running all over the place filling themselves with food and alcohol. As we walked across a bridge, I felt someone latch onto my bag. Ready to deal with some kind of pickpocket, I whirled around to engage the culprit. I was greeted by 5 smiling faces surrounding one lady in her late 30's, who was grabbing onto my bag. She said something in French, and it was obvious she was totally drunk. Not understanding her, I just stared at her, creating a great awkward moment while she and her friends all smiled back at me, before they just walked off. As John Glass - our gracious host - informed me later, she had asked me to take her away with me. Oh well, the one that got away.

We stayed at the foot of the Alps, and decided to go on a hike up to a nicer spot a bit higher up. It ended up having some great views, and was a popular spot for hang gliders. Apparently it was also a popular spot for kids with remote control airplanes, one of which seemed to keep zooming unnervingly closer and closer to us as we ate lunch on the side of the hill. I wanted to grab the plane and send it sailing over the cliff to its destruction. Our American tourist moment came when we were trying to find an edelweiss, despite having no idea what an edelweiss actually looked like. Is touring in a foreign country known to automatically make you dumber?

Another day we walked around downtown Geneva and checked out a few of the shops. All Carly really cared about on this leg of the trip was being able to try some authentic Swiss chocolate. We found it in a shop, where each bite-size piece cost a dollar. Because of our poor state, we bought five of these little pieces of chocolate. Each of us then took a tiny bite from each piece. I felt like street urchin. Later on, we ventured into several clothing stores. I walked into a Gap, and was laughed at by the shopkeeper lady as it apparently was a women's-only store. Feeling poor and dumb, I ventured into a Diesel outlet, where one pair of jeans sold for 350 dollars. As we walked in, the shopkeeping lady gave us a "What are you jokers going to buy here?" look. Being in Geneva I felt like I had been shot with a shotgun and money was just falling out from every hole. It felt like I was growing poorer even when I was just walking around and not spending anything. I suppose it was only fitting that perhaps the most fun we had in Geneva came when we tried out all the child toys on a playground at a nearby park. This was near what is supposedly the longest bench in Europe, which must have been over 50 yards long. But this begs the question - who figured that out? Where do you work where you get that assignment? "Hey Bob, make sure everyone gets the memo about the meeting tomorrow, and also figure out whether our bench is the longest in Europe."

Sitting at the bus stop we kept cutting up about guys in suits driving bicycles and mopeds around and kept being amused by some of the fashion styles that seemed to be normal for that area. It was like the stereotypes of the 70's teamed up with the stereotypes of the 80's - eccentric clothing revealing extra hairy chests topped off by hairstyles sporting the colors of the spectrum. John - who has lived there for a large part of his life - ridiculed us as being typical American tourists. I say at least we're adept at something on this trip besides ooing and ahhing and spending lots of money.


Carly (concerning germs she was worried had accumulated on her in the city): Why do they stick to you? Can't you feel them on you?
Me: There's probably germs frolicking around all over you right now.
Carly: Germs don't frolic. They miiiingle.

Steve (trying to stall while grabbing camera items): You guys ready?

John: I grew up French, so I'm negative.

We're heading back to Paris for round 2. Ideally both my pocketbook and myself survive. We'll see what happens next...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Euroblog, Take 2 - Paris, Round 1

You might think it's a good idea to know how to get to your destination in a foreign city, especially when you don't have the phone number for the residence at which you are staying. Well, you're right. We walked out of the train station and into downtown Paris, and within five minutes it was apparent that we had no idea where to go. Carly and I had assumed that Steve would know how to get to his friend's house where we were supposed to stay, but quickly discovered that the only directions we had were Steve's scribbles from a phone conversation he'd had with his friend weeks ago. I knew we were in trouble as soon as I asked Steve where we should go, and he responded by trying to pronounce one of the street names, then shaking his head in confusion and admitting he had no idea how it was spelled or pronounced. He was, however, convinced that the final stop was "3 Rue Alexandria Street," and that it was only supposed to be a few blocks from the train station. As it turned out, no one around the train station had heard of "Alexandria Street," and the large maps at the station apparently hadn't, either.

I decided that we should consult Google Maps at the nearest internet cafe. Unfortunately, we had no euros, since we had arrived straight from England. I tried with my Visa to buy 30 minutes of time for 4 euros, only to be told that the minimum amount they accepted on a Visa was 12 euros. We then proceeded to buy all kinds of drinks just to get the total above 12 euros, so that we could use the internet, so that we could hopefully find where in the world we were supposed to go. Several SOS emails were sent to Steve's friend, telling him to call us as soon as he got the message. As it turned out, Google Maps hadn't heard of an "Alexandria Street" in all of France.

Checking through Steve's emails, we found that one of them from his friend mentioned Meudon, which was another district in Paris and a good distance away. An older email even had a picture of the house where we were supposed to stay. Assuming that "Alexandria Street" was wrong, we again consulted Google Maps to try to find any street beginning with "A" near the train station in Meudon. A "Rue d'Alesia Street" turned up, and so we took a taxi over to what we thought was the Meudon train station and walked up and down Rue d'Alesia Street looking for the house in the picture from the email. We found a 3 Rue d'Alesia Street building that didn't really look like the one in the picture, and banged on the door for a few minutes with no answer. After this latest failure we trudged all the way back to the train station. I will mention that this whole time we were carrying all of our bags around. A legally blind person could have identified us as lost, clueless tourists. At this point it was getting dark, and Steve became worried that we would get jumped by French hooligans.

We found another internet cafe, and tried to get some of the locals to tell us if they recognized where in Paris that picture was. They informed us that all streets in Paris looked the same. At this point we discovered that we had mistakenly picked the wrong train station around which to search. Google Maps was consulted again, another train station near Meudon found, and a "Rue d'Arthelon Street" turned up. We tried for over half an hour to get a taxi, as almost no taxis came by the station since the trains were done for the day. When we finally got a taxi, the driver couldn't find an Arthelon Street in his GPS. Fortunately, another taxi did, and we left to go investigate Rue d'Arthelon Street. Halfway there, we got the call from Steve's friend. We discovered that the street we wanted was "Rue ALEXANDRE Guilmant," not "ALEXANDRIA," and that was by a still different train station in Meudon. Guilmant was the name that was put aside because of spelling and pronunciation issues.

As we found out, Steve had missed the step in the directions where we took a train to that station. I was further chagrined to discover that I could have left a message on Steve's friend's U.S. cell, which I didn't because Steve said he was told that it didn't work in France. All in all, Steve and Carly were ecstatic just to finally make it. I just wanted wreck Steve as soon as he went to sleep. However, a large pizza later all was forgiven - a good meal is the adult pacifier.

One thing that became the predominant theme was Steve trying to identify with the locals, but failing miserably at the language barrier (incidentally, I don't think anyone could be a more stereotype American tourist). Examples:

- At a French pizza restaurant, he tried to order a pepperoni pizza, but pronounced pepperoni with an Italian accent, rolling the r's and all. I wondered if a strain of Rigoletto was next.
- He continually speaks Spanish to all the French people. At a sandwich stand, he said "si" to the owner, we laughed at him, and then five seconds later in all seriousness he emphatically said it again. "Gracias" and "bueno" make frequent appearances as well. I continually give him a hard time about it. But apparently he still rubbed off on me. On our third day in Paris I accidentally said "si" to our French waiter. I don't know if I've hated myself more.

Carly inadvertently joined in, developing a brand new English/French accent as she tried to order a panini. It is a challenge trying to order good in a foreign country. I was trying to order a large pizza for myself and they weren't reading me. By the end of the conversation I was just waving my arms in a big circle and telling them I wanted "a bunch." Used to having to speak slowly, enunciate, and make hand signals, Carly found herself doing that very thing to me when she asked if I could get the pictures off of her camera. She leaned forward, looked at me with wide eyes, and made what I'm guessing was her sign language interpretation for downloading, which was one hand continually pulling something out of her other hand: "DO.. YOU.. think you can.. GET.." - frantic motioning - "PICTURES.. from my" - goes through the motion of taking a picture - "CAMERA?" I found myself subconsciously leaning forward, eyes widening, and nodding like I was getting the gist of what she was saying.

In walking around the streets of Paris and hearing all the foreign chatter, I feel like I'm in the video game Age of Empires, where the characters from different civilizations all have several nonsensical phrases that they say from time to time in their civilization's particular accent. You might have to have played the game to get that one. I've decided that you are not properly speaking French if you are not somewhat trying to turn your lungs inside out. We were on the metro trying to find Sacre Coeur, and people couldn't understand what we were talking about until I jokingly said it with a loud, exaggerated French accent.

Characteristics of Paris:

- at least some of every class of citizen have a backpack and ride a bicycle - even businessmen in suits
- people make out everywhere with no regard
- there are more hip black people in Paris than London - actually, I don't think I saw any in London
- I saw a cop on a motorcycle pull out a smoke at a red light - you won't see that in the U.S.
- yes, street performers play the accordion - some bring various boom boxes to add a synthetic beat.
- there are two kinds of people: those who enthusiastically help you, and those who look at you like your clothes are made of trash.

Out hosts showed us around very well. We visited Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower (I can't believe both were almost torn down). The Louvre looks like it could be a quarter of a mile long. I'm only slightly exaggerating. Carly got a chocolate crepe and was satisfied with Paris. We also visited a museum of Monet's artwork, which was Steve's highlight. I must admit I wasn't too impressed. A lot it was just various lily pad arrangements - several times while walking around I couldn't really tell if it was the second time I was looking at some of those paintings since being there. Well done? I'd say so. World class? Don't see it - but then I'm not an expert. A few other famous artists featured, and people lying around naked was a popular theme for these artists. I have to admit it's a kind of strange vibe to be standing next to a bunch of other people, all of you thoughtfully inspecting nude paintings.


Me: Do any of us know any French?
Carly: I saw Beauty and the Beast.
Me: My dad took French in high school.
Steve. I walked by French class a few times.

Carly: I don't like vanilla coke. It looks gross. (Don't all version of coke look the same, maybe cherry coke is a little reddish?)

Carly (trying to keep the conversation going with a local and running out of questions to ask): When you get lost, what is the best thing to do?

Steve (whenever we get in the way or be loud): Sorry, we're Americans.

Local girl (explaining where she works and getting excited as Carly nods her head): You know?!
Carly: No.
Local girl deflates like a balloon.

Carly (referring to all the peddlers): I just don't want to say no. I might hurt their feelings.
Me: The Egyptians have their little kids try to sell you things.
Carly: I would lose all my money there.

Switzerland is up. Thankfully our host is picking us up at the train station. We'll see what happens next...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Euroblog, Take 1 - London

So we all decide to meet up in London, with only myself having a phone. You might think that's asking for trouble, and you are right. As it turned, Steve spent over 35 straight hours in airports getting continuously bumped. I told him that was the price he paid for getting an essentially free pass over (the paying passengers got preference). Poor Carly was the first to get to London and expected to meet up with Steve, who was obviously nowhere to be found. I didn't get in til later, and so she was left wondering if she had been stranded in a foreign city halfway across the world.

Steve, when he finally got on, didn't realize he had a business class pass. He was eventually guided to his seat, where this conversation ensued with the person next to him:

Steve: Hi, I'm Steve.
Person: I'm Sir Douglas MacArthur III. [Scottish accent, pronounced "dooglas"]
Steve: Oh, hi Doug. [pronounced "dug"]
Sir Douglas MacArthur III: Doug? ["dug"]
Steve: Doug? ["doog"]

As it turned out, Sir Douglas MacArthur III was a monarch of some sort from Scotland. He was quite put out that he had been bumped down from first class, and proceeded to pound free alcoholic beverages the entire trip. Steve fell asleep and snored, which combined with his disgraceful bumping to business class and the butchering of his name probably pushed Sir Douglas MacArthur III to the edge of an emotional breakdown. If you've seen The Last Samurai you know that when Samurai are beaten they request to have their head cut off because their shame is too great for them to bear. I wonder if this is the same level of shame that Sir Douglas MacArthur III felt sitting in business class.

Apparently, London was more of an international city than I expected. After I landed, I went to buy a subway ticket. The ticket window was initially empty, then in stepped an Arabian with a full curly black beard and a turban. For a split second it felt like a bad dream in which I had been transported back to the Middle East. I essentially had the subway to myself until a load of oriental children all speaking Japanese or Chinese or something all boarded the train. All were equally fit with ipods and squarish black-rimmed glasses. At this point I was wondering if there were any native English people left to be found. In the area around out hotel, the only qualifications to get a job seemed to be:
- Indian nationality
- poor at speaking English
- not know where anything is.
Maybe Westminster is the Indian quarter or London. A good amount of the recommended restaurants in the area were in fact Indian.

As luck would have it, while on the subway I became distracted by a pretty English girl and missed my stop, so I rode all the way to the end of the line before changing to a subway going back to my original stop. On this subway it was just me and a random black guy who looked semi-stoned. He ended up trying to no avail to pull the automatic doors open when he reached his stop, before they eventually opened of their own accord.

Whenever the subway came up for air, I noticed that the countryside was covered with suburbs full of houses that all could have been possible locations of Mary Poppins' house, depending up which view you hold to of 19th century London architecture. In downtown London - which stretched for miles - there were literally no buildings less than four stories - many seven or eight. If you tried to built a two-story store in downtown London they would run you out on a rail. Another thing I noticed was that there were no bridges, except across the Thames river. There was nothing like the freeway spider webs you see everywhere in the U.S. - everything ran on one level. And I never really got used to the opposite side of the road thing. All the time I kept getting this urge to yell at the drivers, "What are you doing, you morons!?"

Good food wasn't that hard to find. That may seem obvious, but try visiting a foreign city after traveling around Egypt for a week, which was one of the last foreign places I visited. In Egypt you are hard-pressed to find anything besides peta, shawarmas, and falafels, and so a pizza joint is the best thing this side of heaven. Still in that mindset, when we went out looking a place to eat, my first instinct was to run into the first Pizza Hut I saw.

We all had slightly different agendas. I wanted to see as many legit sites as possible. Steve just wanted to get on a double-decker bus and ride around and take pictures with his new camera. Carly wanted to go see Notting Hill because it coincided with that chick flick starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. That and she wanted to find the steps on which Mary Poppins fed the birds. As it turned out, they were the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. But all things considered we had a pretty good time and I think everyone got at least a little of what they wanted.

Humorous quotes:

Me: I think we'll go visit the Tower of London.
Carly: What's that?
Me: It's where they kept all the legit prisoners for hundreds of years.
Carly: Are there still any prisoners there now?

Steve (as we're looking at all the world famous paintings in the National Gallery): What's after this?
Me: The Tower of London.
Steve: Where can we do laundry?

Carly: (because I wanted her to get the angle right): You're a camera Nazi.

As I write this I'm currently under the English Channel heading for Paris. We'll see what happens next...