Summer Autumn Vacation IV
An American In Paris
(and Brussels and Brugge and Amsterdam)
by Jeffrey Scott Duly, Age 40
Just like with successful bands, members go their separate ways from time to time and do solo projects. Well that is what happened this year. My usual parental partners, John and Margaret, went on an transatlantic cruise. It was one that I was not particularly keen on going, so I sat it out. However, I had always had an idea of going to Europe and taking the train to various cities. So that is what I did. I went solo. I realize I said in one of my stupid rants that after the reaction of the French and Belgians to the war in Iraq I didn't really feel like visiting either of those countries. I suppose after two and a half year I softened a bit and actually I had a nice time with no anti-American encounters at all. As always you can skip my blathering here and go directly to the pictures here, but I do blathering over there too, so why not just read all of it. And as before, I include on this page hyperlinks to internet sites about places and things seen and done.
Prologue: Once again I had a brilliant plan to combat the change in time and jet lag. Once again it failed miserably. I had been waking at around 3:00 a.m. for several days before leaving to get at least close to the time difference and to make sure I was nice and tired so I could sleep on the plane. Ha! I got no sleep on the plane thanks to some loud members of a traveling group and people who just had to knock into my seat as they walked up and down the aisle. So by the time I landed in Paris I had been awake for about twenty hours. And that with a full day ahead of me.
The Air France flight left Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon. There is not a lot of difference between Air France and British Airways to me except that on Air France you get wine or champagne with a meal. After all they are French. I sat next to a woman called Mary Ann who designs closets. The movies on the flight were not interesting at all. I did some puzzles until I tried in vain to get some shut-eye. Dinner was tuna salad to start, then ravioli and bread and finally some sort of cream dessert with a vanilla sponge cake. I had a nice cabernet to drink with it. We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is outside a suburb of Paris called Roissy-en-France, at around 6:15. It took about fifteen minutes to taxi to the spot in which we disembarked from the plane onto a bus. Then it was another fifteen minutes or so on the bus to the terminal. The airport is a little inefficient, but they are going through some expansion, so I'll cut them a little slack. It was not long to get through immigration and then on to Paris.
Wednesday, 2 November (Paris, France): There is a train station at the airport, so there was no problem in trying to figure out how to get into the city. The ticket kiosks were all in French, so I had to go into the ticket office. I got a three day pass for all transport. This was very handy. Then it was on the train to the Gare du Nord and my hotel. The Relais de Paris Gare du Nord was a short walk from the station. I was fortunate that there was a room ready at that hour of the morning. So I put away my luggage and hit the town.
I had a Rick Steves guidebook to Paris with me, so I decided to start out with his Montmartre walk. This was probably not the best thing to start with, but I'll get to that later. On top of the hill is the Sacred-Heart Basilica of Montmartre or Sacre Coeur as it is commonly known. It is a well-known landmark and for good reason. It is a beautiful building on a hill with an amazing view of the city. From there the guide book took me to see a few other places of interest in the Montmartre area (an old vineyard, a couple of renowned establishments, a windmill or two) and ending at the Moulin Rouge.
From there I took the Metro over to the catacombs. This is something I discovered I wanted to see not too long before I left on the trip. I remembered that the catacombs existed, but forgot that visitors could go down there. Basically what happened was there were limestone quarries beneath the city that date from way back. They started putting the bones from the cemeteries into the passages in the 1780's. At the time disease was being spread through the city due to poor burials and mass graves in churchyard cemeteries, so their solution was to dig up the remains and put them deep underground in the old quarry. The catacombs are a massive network of passageways, but a small part of it is open to the public. There are lots of bones stacked up in areas with markers that indicate from which cemetery they came and on what date they were moved. Overall, kinda creepy.
It was getting late in the afternoon but I still had time to do something. I had read that the Louvre has reduced admission after 4:00 p.m., so I visited that famous museum. The museum is huge and really cannot be done in a couple of hours that I left myself, but to me art is art. There's so much of it there that it would all look the same after a while anyway. That being the case, I hit the highlights. Among other things, I saw the statues of Winged Victory and Venus de Milo and finally the Mona Lisa. You know what? It looks the same as it does in pictures. I don't really know what the big deal is. But it draws quite a crowd of people who look at it just to say they have seen it. I can now say that I have seen it. I ate dinner at the museum. I had a salmon salad sandwich while Napoleon stared at me from a painting in the other room.
The problem with starting on Montmartre was that the climbing up and down and all around the hill meant that my legs were shot by about midday. This was not a good development as I was going to be walking around for the next ten days. By the end of the day my left hip, right knee, left shin and right foot were in pain. So for most of the remainder of the trip I limped about. I didn't feel much like trying to figure out dinner so I just went with fast food. Not a chain from here like McDonald's or KFC, but from Quick.
Thursday, 3 November (Paris, France): I crashed at about 8:00 p.m. the night before and I slept for a little more than twelve hours. I wanted to be awake a little earlier so I could catch the train out to Disneyland Paris before the park opened at 10:00. But that did not happen. The hotel had walls as thin as paper and I could clearly hear the conversation in the room next door. I had to use earplugs. Because I had them in I slept through the alarm, which only beeps for a minute before stopping. But I needed the sleep anyway, so it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Anyway I caught the train and got out there at about 10:15. I had thought that they didn't start selling one-day Park Hopper passes until later in the month, but as it turns out they were selling them. So I bought one which allowed me to visit both the Disneyland park and the Disney Studios for only €6.00 more than the one-day, one-park ticket. Crowds were light, being a weekday in November. Weather was relatively clear and the temperature climbed into the low 60's.
Disneyland Paris is awesome. There are not as many attractions as Walt Disney World or even Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, but the attractions they have are better than the ones at either of the U.S. parks. The reason for this is that the park is newer and they could improve on the older rides. Most of the attractions in DLP exist in the other parks except for a few (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom rollercoaster and Alice's Curious Labyrinth for example). Many of the attractions were in French, but I've experienced them enough in English so the change was interesting. I did just about everything except the stuff geared more to kids (like Dumbo and the carousel) and the stuff I don't usually do anyway (like the tea cups). I also skipped the shows. I've never been a big fan of most shows at theme parks. Besides, they are time killers when you are trying to get a lot into a visit. I probably could have done a little more if I wasn't limping around the parks like an invalid, but I saw a couple of the hotels, the Disney Village area and both parks. As I previously mentioned, the Disneyland park was great. Disney Studios was a little less interesting. It is small and mostly shows. Disney Village has some shops and themed-restaurants. All together, DLP is a day's worth of fun. Unless it's during peak time or you just like to take it slow, you don't really need to spend more than one day to see everything here.
Friday, 4 November (Paris, France): I was on the street by 9:30 a.m. The plan today was to see Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower again, the Champs Élysées and to see Napoleon's Tomb. Given the sorry state of my legs, I didn't know how much I would accomplish, but I'd give it a try. I took the Metro to the Bastille. There isn't anything there anymore. Then I walked over to the islands that are in the Seine, the Île Saint Louis and Île de la Cité. It was raining a bit when I ducked into a bakery for a delicious chocolate éclair. Then across the bridge to Notre Dame. It sure is big and old. You have to hand it to the Catholics. They sure can do up a church right. I think visitors can climb the towers, but I was in no shape to do so.
After a chicken crudite for lunch while strolling along the Seine, it was over to the Champs Élysées. I'd been there before, but I wanted to spend more time at the Arc de Triomphe. A walk that should have taken a few minutes took an eternity as I limped like a cripple up the famous thoroughfare. After taking a few photos at the Arc, I hopped the Metro to the Eiffel Tower. It's not a long walk over there, but again I was in no shape. At this point if there was public transport going my direction, I took it. I'd been up to the top of the Eiffel Tower before too, so I didn't this time. I did get a couple of good pictures. It was the afternoon when I made it over to Les Invalides (seemed appropriate given the sad shape of my legs) and Napoleon's Tomb. It's not every day you get to see the tomb of an emperor. I had to rush a bit through the military museum as it was closing shortly after I go there. There was a lot of cool stuff in there from the French army. After dinner I went back to the Eiffel Tower to see it lit up in all its glory. It is an even more impressive sight bathed in auburn light. The Metro was a buggered up for some reason (the announcements were in French) so I had to go out of my way on several different lines to make it back to my hotel.
French television is rubbish. The set in my room only got five channels, all French. A lot of the programming was dubbed American programs and movies. I caught some original shows. I think they were all dramas. Then again, this is the country that considers Jerry Lewis a genius, so maybe comedy isn't their strong suit. "Days of Our Lives" was on every morning.
Saturday, 5 November (Brussels, Belgium): Most of the train tickets I had were open tickets, which meant I did not have a reserved seat. The trip from Paris to Brussels (and the return trip on the 11th) were reserved, so I had to be sure I was at the station on time. It was a nice ride to Brussels, doing puzzles and listening to CD's. Even better, there was no one in the seat next to me. I had a mission upon my arrival in Brussels. Anderlecht played a game that night at 6:00 p.m. and the ticket office closed at noon. The train got in at around 10:30, so rather than go to the hotel I went out immediately to find the stadium. I eventually got out there but the train station was a little off of the map I had printed showing the location of the grounds. It took a little while to get my bearings and head in the right direction until I found my way onto the map. However, since my legs were still killing me and I was pulling my luggage along behind me, I was not exactly moving at top speed. But I got there at 11:55. Whew, five minutes to spare. So I had my ticket. Now I could check into the hotel and see the city.
There are two places that most people go to first in Brussels and they would be the Grand Place and Manneken Pis. The Grand Place is a market square that dates back to the Middle Ages. The buildings around the square look old, but actually most of them have been rebuilt after being bombed flat in a war in 1695. The Manneken Pis is probably one of the dumbest popular tourist attraction ever. It is a little fountain where a statue of a boy urinates. Seriously. That's what so many visitors (including myself) flock to see. They are quite proud of it over there too. Oh well, after seeing men pissing on trees at the soccer stadium after the match, I'm not surprised. Speaking of the soccer match, excellent! I had a fall back plan if I couldn't get into the Anderlecht match. There is a second division club that was playing the next afternoon, but I really wanted to see a top level match. Unfortunately the only tickets available when I got there were in the end zone terraces. That meant standing throughout the match. But I did it, despite my aching legs. An interesting thing was that the stats on the scoreboard (goals, fouls, etc.) were written in English. The Charleroi supporters were in the balcony above our terrace, just singing away. There was a bad call by the ref against Anderlecht and the whistles from the crowd for the next minute or so was almost deafening. I love watching a match where the crowd cares passionately about the game.
Sunday, 6 November (Brussels, Belgium): Most of the day was just spent wandering around. An early morning walk through the Parc de Bruxelles and through the streets of the upper city. To be honest, there isn't too much interesting in Brussels. There are a lot of museums, but I didn't do to many of them. Art is art to me. One museum I did visit was the Musical Instrument Museum. Three floors of musical instruments throughout the ages. Stuff like glass trumpets, saxhorns, Chinese temple bells, old violins, gamelan instruments from Southeast Asia, a piano droit with a curved keyboard, sitars, ocarinas, Jew's harps, and just about anything else you could think of. They even had on display some old tools piano players used to use to increase their fingerspan. Pretty gruesome things, some of them.
The hotel had a great satellite system for the television. They had networks from across Europe. There was French, Belgian, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Greek and most importantly English programming. I finally got to see footage of the rioting around Paris with English commentary. Amazing stuff. I was never anywhere near where any of it was happening, but it was on the news and on the front pages of the papers the entire time I was over there. I hate to say it, but deep inside I had to chuckle. I mean it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people. The French, speaking strictly in generalities, have been looking down their pinched noses at the rest of the world with an air of unearned superiority for so long. Now they were shocked that this could happen to them. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité my butt! The exposure of their passive racism was too sweet not to notice.
Monday, 7 November (Brugge, Belgium): I don't know when I got the idea to go to Brugge, but I figured a day there would be enough. After all it is a medieval city with old buildings and such, so most of what I would want to see is just there. Simply walking around would do the trick for seeing the sights. And armed with my trusty guidebook, I knew I would be okay. I checked into the hotel in the morning. It is an old building that has been a hotel for over three hundred years. Then I hit the streets. I realize when I travel I end up taking pictures of buildings mostly. Well that's pretty much the appeal of this town. A boat tour of the city canals gave a different perspective of things. I did a tour of the Halve Maan brewery which ended with a glass of Belgian beer. It was a pilsner, which isn't my favorite, but when in Rome (or Belgium). After dinner of Flemish stew, I went back to some of the same places I saw earlier in the day to see the town at night. The town must have figured out that it is a good idea to light the old buildings because it is absolutely beautiful after sunset.
Tuesday, 8 November (Amsterdam, Netherlands): Okay, when you think of Amsterdam you generally think of two things: prostitutes and pot. Well I'm here to tell you that it's absolutely true. It's all drugs and whores. I partook in neither, but it was all right there. I arrived in town in the morning and went straight to the hotel, that is after starting out walking from the station in the wrong direction. But I eventually got there and checked in. I had no real plan for this town, so mostly wandering around was what I did. My legs still hurt, but I noticed that they started to feel a little better if I would just slow down my pace. For those of you who know me, that is a difficult thing to do, but I reminded myself of it constantly. I visited the Anne Frank House. It is one of those places that is solemn and quiet. It's also one of those places that make you want to punch the first German you see. I have never read the book, but after my visit I think I'm going to have to. After all, I've seen where it takes place.
After wandering around a little bit more I decided to see the Sexmuseum. They have on display mostly erotic artifacts from years past. You've probably seen the kind of thing they have there like Japanese art portraying sex acts or little naughty sculptured from the Victorian era. And there were displays to great personalities in the history of sex like Valentino and Marilyn Monroe. The whole exhibit was mildly interesting. Admission wasn't too high so it was worth the small cost. That evening I wandered about the Red Light District (which started on the street on which my hotel was located) just like all the other tourists.
Wednesday, 9 November (Amsterdam, Netherlands): The fire alarm went off sometime after midnight and startled the crap out of me. It was a false alarm, but it was so loud it damn near gave me a heart attack. Anyway, I noticed when I arrived that there was a laundromat almost across the street. So I was there shortly after it opened at 8:00 a.m. to do a little laundry. I would have clean clothes for the rest of the trip. Once again I had absolutely no plan for the day. I walked through the Red Light District to see what it was like in the morning. Believe it or not there were women working at 9:30 in the morning. I wouldn't have thought that there would be many customers at that hour, but I suppose there must be. Otherwise why would they be selling their services at that time. I looked through my guidebook and found a couple of museums that might interest me. The first I visited was the Amsterdam Historical Museum. It chronicled the history of the city from the 1200's to present day. There is a lot of great old stuff in there. The other museum was a little farther away, so I had to take the subway out to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It is located in one of the old Jewish neighborhoods. That is before they were shipped out and liquidated. (Nazi bastards!) There was considerably less English in this place, but there was enough to get the gist of what was going on. It was interesting to see how some Dutch collaborated with the Nazis but so many of them did not. Eventually the Germans decided to stop trying to convince the Dutch that they were part of the same Germanic brotherhood as their friendly invaders. The Nazis then changed the plan into one of more violent means of coercion.
That evening I decided to go see the show at the Casa Rosso. It is a live sex show. I read in Rick Steves' guidebook that it was the most well-known and legit place in town, so I figured what the hell. I figured it would be mostly full of tourists like me anyway. Let me tell you, it was actual sex. People on stage licking and sucking and humping and pumping. The thing is that it was rather uninspired. If not for the novelty of the fact that we were watching people fornicating on stage, it offered little of interest. The action was rather pedantic and the performers often looked bored. I always used to laugh when people called the men and women in X-rated videos "actors". After watching these people I now know that they really are actors compared to the Casa Rosso performers. This was the show:
Thursday, 10 November (Amsterdam, Netherlands): I did have a plan for today, but I didn't follow it. Well not all of it anyway. My idea was that I would rent a bicycle and ride up to a historical park called Zaanse Schans. It is about 15 miles or so north of Amsterdam. I found a website that described a cycle route and I printed a map to take with me. That was the plan, but with my dodgy legs I thought it best not to chance it. I was feeling better, but the last thing I wanted was to be somewhere between Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans and not be able to pedal anymore because of terrible pain in my right knee. So I took the train and was there in about fifteen minutes. It is an interesting place. The buildings and the windmills were not there originally, but they were brought together in a kind of open-air museum in the 1960's and 70's, a real-life exhibit of what the Netherlands probably looked like at one time. The only problem was that there were several bus loads of Asian tourist milling about. So it ended up looking like what the Netherlands would have looked like if the Japanese had invaded. But hey, it was a chance to see windmills. It was Holland after all. Windmills, wooden shoes and all that. After wandering around old Holland (or what it probably would have looked like), I took the train back to town. I thought I'd walk around and find some things I had not seen yet, mostly more old buildings.
A word or two about the famous Red Light District. It seems to be more of a tourist attraction than anything else. People mostly walking up and down the narrow streets past women in their underwear available for services. Coffee shops for the out-of-towners who want to smoke weed legally. Sex shops packed with magazines, DVD's and toys for all sorts of enjoyment. It's one big weird adult Disneyland. I don't really know how many people actually employ the prostitutes. I didn't see too many people going in or out. I did see an Asian fellow go in with encouragement from his buddies. They were laughing and so was I. To be honest, I was actually considering doing it myself, but there was really no way I would have had the nerve to try it. I have no problem with legalized prostitution, but most of the women just didn't look that appealing. Hey, maybe next time.
Friday, 11 November (Paris, France): Not much to say here. Caught the train from Amsterdam to Brussels where I had a reservation to Paris. I did see something interesting from the window of the train as it pulled into the Gare du Nord in Brussels. There is a red light street near the station. I could see the familiar window fronts and red lamps just as I saw in Amsterdam. I got into Paris at around 2:15. I supposed I could have tried to do something in town before heading out to Roissy-en-France, but I thought I had done enough for one trip. I just wanted to wind down. So it was back on the train and back to the airport where I grabbed the hotel shuttle. After checking in I went out into the town of Roissy. It is a cute little town but I don't know much about its history. There were parts of it that appeared to have been there for a while, but much of it looked fairly new. I have a theory about Roissy. My idea is that the village had existed there for some time. The people who built the airport came to them and told them of their plans. The town politicians said "Sure, build the airport over there, but you are going to give us some new stuff." So they got a new park and a tourism center and improved streets. The airport brought jobs and the employees needed places to live, so new houses and apartment buildings were constructed. And that's how Roissy got its groove back. Or at least that's my guess. The facts could prove otherwise.
Anyway, for some reason the town was almost empty. There were few people on the street and all the businesses were closed. It was like everyone had just left. Or maybe they were all at work at the airport. So I had dinner at the hotel. I was surprised at how good the restaurant was. I had salmon and spinach and an apple tart for dessert. I asked for water to drink. The waiter asked if I wanted a small or large. I was thirsty so I said large. He came back with a 1.5 liter bottle of water! I did my best to drink most of it. There was a Ligue 2 soccer match on television. Le Havre versus Caen. I watched some of it before falling asleep.
Saturday, 12 November (Return Home): I waited in a light rain for the shuttle back to the airport. I didn't know which stop I needed, so I just got off at the first one. As it turns out I think I should have gotten off at the last. So I walked from terminal A to E and got to the check-in counter. It was a bit of a surprise to me that I had been put on stand-by. The brilliant people at Air France (like a lot of airlines) overbooked the flight. I had to go to the gate and wait until 9:15 a.m. to find out if I could get a seat. I was a little nervous about it but I was there just as the seats became available and I got a boarding pass. Had I not, there would have been quite a scene. What a mess that would have been, with me yelling in English and them trying to calm me down in French.
The flight was supposed to take off at 10:15. It pulled away from its parking place at 10:40 and took off at 11:05. We were late. I read some of the book I brought (Ben Elton's Past Mortem) and watched a couple of movies on the way back. I had already seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I enjoyed it in the theatre so I watched it again. I was pleasantly surprised by The Wedding Crashers. I thought it would be stupid but it is quite funny. Anyway, despite leaving almost an hour late we made up time in the air and actually landed a little early. It's amazing how they can do that. If they can fly faster, why don't they just do it all the time? It was good to be back home.
Epilogue: Traveling alone has its advantages and drawbacks. I have done quite a bit of both. On the one hand you are free to go and do as you please without having to take into account the wishes of someone else. But on the other hand you have no one with which to share your experiences. I did some of the things I like to do when traveling abroad like going into groceries and local shops and other places that are not so much for tourists. I would have liked to read some of the newspapers, but that was impossible. And when is the next time I'm going to have a chance to see a woman in a nun's habit blow some guy on stage?
Speaking of women, they got better looking as I traveled north. The fact that I was mostly in big cities where people from all over the world go to live probably skewed things a bit, but the women of The Netherlands and northern Belgium were cuter than their sisters in France and southern Belgium. Paris and Amsterdam in particular are very multicultural cities. Well actually Amsterdam is multicultural. Paris just has a lot of people of different races.
Train travel is quite easy in Europe. Trains between most medium and large cities run fairly regularly. The next time I go over there for a similar vacation (maybe to southern or eastern Europe), I will definitely go by train. Europe has not yet fallen apart as I predict they will, so there may still be time for a few more trips. I just wouldn't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Poland, September 1939.
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