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Monday, September 4

We left Boston’s Logan Airport at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday. We arrived in Paris’Orly International Airport around 9:00 am (French time) the next day. During the long trip, it occurred to me just how huge this journey would be. After all, I’d be a foreigner who didn't speak the local language. What would I do? How would I get to all the sights, or even know which of those sights would be worth going to? How would I buy Twinkies? Luckily, some local friends gave me a list of fun things to see and do. Of course, I forgot to bring it with me. We’re off to a good start already.

Instead of packing properly -- which I had all of Sunday to do -- I hung out with my old pal, the beautiful Judy White. She’s the red-headed vixen who talked me into buying a camera to document my European Vacation. I’ve never taken photos before. It seemed that stopping whatever fun I would presumably be having, in order to use the camera, would be counterproductive to going on vacation in the first place. My freckled companion countered that by saying that her seeing a bunch of my photos would enable her -- or anyone else -- to “live your adventure vicariously.” That, and her threat to never speak to me again, was the final selling point. Besides, I’ve never even loaded film into a camera before, so who knows how the damn things will come out anyway? Computers I know. But this is the first 3 mm experience I’ve ever had (unless you count those “art” photos, taken back when I really needed the money), so good luck, I say!

Speaking of photography, I should dedicate at least one paragraph to my completely horrible passport photo. This is my first passport, so I didn’t know I’d be stuck with this damnable image for ten years. When it was just taken, I thought this was merely the ugliest photo of me ever taken. Now that a few months have passed, I’m convinced it is the ugliest photo of anyone ever taken since the first camera was built. I’m told that sucky passport photography is nothing new, but even most-traveled and passport-savvy among my crew were amused and shocked at how this image turned out.

watercolor painting

Sophie Cohen-Solal
Most men forget
to remove the watch.

As already mentioned, the flight proved to be pretty long and exhausting. Although the graceful Sophie Cohen-Solal-soon-to-be-Gordonized was my pal, I traveled with the groom’s entourage. The cast of characters: Michael (the groom, God help him) Gordon, as well as his brother William and sister Lisa, his parents Peggy and Walter, and his long-time buddies Tom and Walter Carr. Good pal Shohei would join us later on Thursday. The flight from Boston to New York’s JFK was pretty short and we had an hour to kill before heading to France. While still at Logan, we saw the New England Patriots’ come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns, so airport entertainment was not an issue. At JFK, we were stuck between a bar and a Burger King, both of which would close at 7:00 pm. It was 6:30 pm when we arrived. You know, the help gets pretty serious about going home on time. Since we didn’t make up our minds to eat until 7:59:30, this proved to be an issue. We’re lucky to have gotten out alive.

So there we were, on this big-ass plane, heading to Paris. For some reason, we tacitly agreed to avoid talking for most of the trip. In fact, I actually managed to sleep for almost half of the 7-hour flight. This would play a major role in my inability to match my sleeping patterns to Paris time.

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Michael Gordon
We call it “Das Boot.”

We all took the Metro to Sophie’s parents’ house. One thing that instantly struck me was the electronics. Sophie bought our Metro tickets through this machine that took her ATM card. This vending system was much more interactive and advanced that any transit system I’ve ever seen. Unlike the one in San Francisco, this one even works! Her father later showed me an on-line service that gives him access to local train schedules, ticket fares, shopping centers and more. The computer geek within me made a thankfully-brief appearance and was utterly amazed.

While traveling along the Metro, I noticed a couple of things. Being in a land where every single word -- both printed and spoken-- is in another language can make mere existence into a surreal experience. As far as direct contact with any native who wasn’t bilingual, we were at the communicative level of 2-year-olds. Where were all those convenient translator devices we saw on Star Trek? To say the least, asking for street directions was bound to be an adventure. Anyway, I now have a new-found appreciation for what foreign pals of mine went through when they entered the United States.

The buildings also caught my attention. Since most of the tracks between Orly and Paris are at least 40 feet above the Parisian suburbs, I could look, through the round-cornered windows of the train, down upon the rooftops. They were a collection of shapes, textures and sizes that I’ve seen in photographs,but never in this context. The buildings, roofs, pipes, chimneys, drains and tiles absolutely drew in all my attention.

The only similar experience I’ve ever had was when I first came to Boston at 17 years old.

It was 1980, my first year at Massachusetts College of Art. I was staying with family in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, which at the time was the last stop on the transit system’s Orange Line. The track was elevated high above Washington Street, between Essex Street and Dudley. In September of that year, my daily commute offered a bird’s eye view of all the tenements, gas stations and record stores. The view was so fascinating that I stared with all my intensity. Every fiber of my being tried to soak in all the details; memorizing every nuance, all the shapes, pipes, skylights, laundry lines and billboards. It seemed like a giant Lego village. Getting any artistic feelings from this new toy seemed like stealing. I ran straight from the station to my Aunt Linda’s house, frantically drawing as much detail as possible before my short-term memory would cause my precious mental snapshots to vanish. These trances would sometimes last for hours. The next morning, on the way back to school, I’d bring my sketches with me to compare them to the actual cityscape. This process went on until Christmas.

For Paris, I didn’t bother; looking was enough.

By the time Sophie and her parents got the tired, smelly, rag-tag lot of us into their home, we’d been up and on-the-road for 19 hours. My plan would have been for us to catch a quick shower and nap, then do the social thing later in the evening. But nooooo ... both parents decided -- no doubt based on their vast experience in international traveling -- that we should all try to stay awake until 10 pm to battle the jet-lag. 12 hours later. So there we all were, staring into space in the Cohen-Solal living room. There were more than a few pockets of silence. We must have come off as boorish Americans, but the truth is we were simply pooped. After comparing notes with the others later, I know now that any one of us could have fallen asleep the instant we thought we could get away with it.

Thank God Sophie’s mom is a great cook, but an even better host! She didn’t just make a terrific meal, she presented it one course at a time. Each dish was more elaborate and involved that the last. The food was wonderful, but I think the actual act of eating somehow gave us our second wind. And Sophie’s mom seemed to relish in the role of presenter, host and savior. She made us feel so comfortable.

watercolor painting

Willy Leitt
You did WHAT to my shower?

After brunch, Sophie introduced us to the Metro, bought us week-long transit passes, showed us where and how to exchange our dollars into francs. Sophie and Mike took the rest of the entourage to the hotel to get situated. This left me alone with François, Monsieur and Madame Cohen-Solal. They were nice enough to let me sleep until Sophie could return to drop me off at my temporary residence Willy’s apartment, which is in the Belleville neighborhood (9 Rue Morand,right in between the Belleville, Parmentier and Couronnes Metro stops, the 20e arrondissement). Michael is fond of referring to the apartment (or “flat” as they say here) as “Das Boot”, because of the unique architectural design. The walls are white with thick stained-wood trim. The floorboards are wider than average and creek. Willy’s rafters have ancient-looking runes burned into them, presumably to ward off evil spirits.

This area is neat, but not as pristine as the more tourist-conducive Saint Augustin area where the hotel is. A mosque is just at the end of the block. There are a lot of Arab-looking dudes, so this must be a predominately northern-African ’hood. Having been raised in an American ghetto, and having lived in Boston’s Roxbury twice as an adult, I wondered just how safe this neighborhood was. Did I import American paranoia? Philippe later told me that this neighborhood used to be a red-light district that was full of crack dealers. From what I see tonight, quite a bit of money and a lot of spirit must have been put into rebuilding the area. There are no hoodies with beepers, no cars jacked up on cinder blocks and no winos. And I didn’t see one pregnant teenager. Belleville’s vibe doesn’t have the same unspoken, constant potential threat of danger I’m used to.

Mike and Sophie dropped me off around 9:00 pm. They split, I fed Clementine -- the cat -- and that was that.


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Blogger Alexiev says:


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Blogger Tsahi says:

Great post.
"...There are a lot of Arab-looking dudes, so this must be a predominately northern-African ’hood'..."

Welcome to the New (Islamic) France....

Next time try other hotels...
Three Star Hotel in Paris

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