Sunday, November 30, 2008


It's a good train and we are prepared. We have sudoku, pretzels, Italian lemon cookies, knitting, books, conversation. People around us have companions who will not be travelling north, but for the time being they stick around. When the station master makes a preliminary announcement with 5 minutes to go, the husband in the row behind us says his goodbyes, and as I watch him leave the quay, lots of other people seem to be leaving too, almost like a train just pulled up and is letting people off.
Across the aisle are two Turkish girls. The one going to Paris isn't happy with her aisle seat being next to an occupied window seat, so she tried to snag the window seat behind, but then the occupant of that one arrived too. The difficulty of reserved seats. So she and her friend sit in different rows and chat hanging into the aisle. They're so absorbed at trying out various loud and annoying ringtones for their phones that people have to ask twice to get through to their seats farther down.
There's the second announcement, meaning our departure is imminent, but the non-traveller makes no move to wrap it up. I consider saying something, but they've both been rather Don't Bother Us!, and quickly enough the station master blows his all-clear whistle and off we go.
We slide out of the station so smoothly that it takes the Turks a moment to notice, and the look on Girl 2's face is priceless. No translation necessary for her torrent of comments!
(Oh, come now, I wasn't that mean by not saying anything. Our first stop is in Riom, barely 7 minutes away. She'll get back to Clermont without any trouble. If this were a nonstop to Paris, of course I would have said something.)
At two, long past Lunchtime (can you see my life revolves around when I might eat next) and having exhausted our snackage between Nevers and Fontainebleau, we go drop off our stuff at the hotel in Montmartre. No proper lunch: we'll enjoy our tibetan dinner that much more tonight.
First thing: Booktrading.
One of the main attractions of Paris for me is turning over my library. I love books, but I don't need to keep them. It's what's in them that counts, not having the object (unless I haven't read it yet). So I've got 11 or 12 books to get rid of, hoping to change them into a handful of new titles at my favorite used English-language bookstores. Berkeley Books and San Francisco Books are just a block from each other in the Left Bank university area, run by ex-colleagues.
I like Berkeley better, both their stock and the owner. He only wants four of my books today, while I want five of his. Settle for three, and I still have to reach for cash. Down the street I'm pleasantly surprised that the other guy will take all but two of my remaining titles. Deal! I want a couple new ones, and Darrell wants a couple, and even weeding out some I'm digging for change. I'll just ditch the other two in a likely spot for some anglophone to pick them up.
The rest of the afternoon we wander across the Latin Quarter to Notre Dame. They're advertising an organ recital tomorrow evening that sounds like an interesting experience, even for non-organ music, non-religious people like us, but we'll eventually not go. Then through part of the Marais toward the Defender of Time for its 6 pm show. Iris told me some time ago that it had been repaired, but either she was misinformed or it’s broken anew. Awww. Though it does seem to have been polished.
Back in Montmartre it’s not quite seven, the absolute earliest time you can get dinner in Paris. But we’re starving. Must Eat. In front of Gang Seng at 6:58, their staff is rather surprised to have customers on the dot of opening.
It’s a short menu, but even so I haven’t tasted all of it. For starters, I prefer the salad - a sort of cole slaw with carrot shreds and cilantro on top - to the soup. And I’ve only tried two of the main courses (and nibbled bits of others off of friends’ plates), but the coriander lamb is so delicious I can’t bring myself to take a chance on anything else. And the steamed bread is excellent. Darrell and I order the same things, though he goes for rice instead of strange bread. He remembers my recommending injera at that Ethiopian place years ago. And we’ll have a pot of butter tea.
This Tibetan butter tea is a sort of weak tea with a lot of milk, and a fair quantity of butter melted in. It’s salty. Served scalding hot, the up-front saltiness is surprising; the butteryness is unusual. It’s okay. But I’m not a fan of milk tea in the first place. I’m glad to have a small carafe of wine. Darrell quite enjoys the tea as long as it remains very hot. Cooled, we both find it undrinkable.
The coriander lamb is a big hit, and although the chunks of lamb are practically dry on the outside, covered in their paste of spices, they’re wonderfully tender.
I love our hotel room. It has its flaws, and its unfortunate color scheme, and its windows positioned to either side of the very bright on-all-night neon sign outside, but what it mostly has is heat - no cold toes!- and a bathtub. Ah, for a glorious HOT bath at the end of the day.

At breakfast there is unlimited coffee, to the very great pleasure of my companion. Bread and croissants and butter and jam and honey, but alas, no little packets of Nutella. We decide the Nutella situation must be rectified tomorrow.
Our mission today is to travel on the RER system (the suburban trains) to Ecouen and the castle there that houses the National Renaissance Museum. We pack up Maurice and the camera stuff and etc, and take the metro, and the RER, where we sit upstairs for the view of scuzzy near-Paris, and a bus into the leafy commuter towns, and we get out there. It’s a quiet Tuesday in November and, rather as anticipated, there’s nobody much around.
There is a crew working with a dumptruck and a large, interesting vehicle tearing up the road leading to the castle. The interesting machine is like a road harvester, breaking up the top four inches of the dirt road, leaving a smooth surface behind. With a belt it transfers the dirt to the dumptruck strategically placed to catch, like a flow of dark wheat. It fills the truck from back to front, beeping for it to move forward and to stop again, every several seconds.
There’s a front gate, and off to the side a ways a large panel announcing the National Renaissance Museum in several languages, followed by some small print you’d have to go over there to read.
The gates are open so we head in toward the castle. It has a moat, or an ex-moat now a concave lawn. The fourth side of the originally U-shaped building has been rather crudely filled in with a fourth wing to complete the square. This new (19th century) wing, the closest to arriving visitors, is very plain and unimpressive. Not an architectural success. Take it away.
It does have a big wooden door in the middle. A big closed door. Perhaps another 2-5 pm only thing in this off-season. There aren’t any hours posted, no signage at all except for the profusion of keep-off-the-lawn markers.
Try the right door: locked. The left door: locked. But then Darrell hears a voice asking something and the door opens, revealing a small brown frenchwoman. She tells us the Museum is Closed on Tuesdays. Open all the rest of the week, Sundays, holidays, but not Tuesdays.
Why didn’t our little what-to-see brochure mention this important detail? Open All Year it says. Except Tuesday.
Alrightthen. We’ll see the grounds.
There is a group visiting the grounds already. It seems to be some kind of youth group, and three of them have split off and are jogging around the formal garden area - now just a lawn with paths to nowhere in it - like this were their phys-ed period.
We stroll down one of the many alleys, hoping to chance across a promised fountain, but the castle park isn’t anything but a November woods crisscrossed with paths more or less covered in leaf litter. It’s damp and dull and we give it up to explore the town instead. At least there we won’t get our feet wet. On the way out we read that fine print: Closed Tuesdays.
The town is quickly done, and soon we have found the bus stop to get back to the RER. How about we stop at St Denis, at the basilica there is where most of the French kings and queens are entombed. It should be quite something, and churches are rarely closed. Plus, it’s on the way back to Paris.

After a sandwich eaten on the train we stop in a St Denis bar for tea, as much to warm up as anything else. It looked like a decent choice from the outside. Darrell, however, gets trapped in the bathroom because the door handle is wonky, then reports that the establishment is still in the 19th century as far as plumbing goes. I’ll wait.
In the main commerce square, just off the main official square with City Hall and the Basilica, we come across a market just packing up. Darn! I love poking around those markets.
Then the Basilica (actually a “cathedral” due to its being the seat of a certain level of cleric, they still call it by the lesser rank of “basilica” because they like to). Yep, very impressive. Not exceptionally large - many cathedrals are more than twice as large. But very ornate. A lot of basilicas and cathedrals have a lot of exterior decoration, but St Denis is exceptionally rich. Famous people and events all over, a storybook in sculpture if you can decipher it, down to the symbolic plants and animals you might think are just there for aesthetic reasons.
Inside, I’d really like to be allowed to walk around the gallery upstairs, where all the kings, and some queens, are lined up in a stained glass parade. Their names are too ornately written for me to read from the floor of the nave, though some may be guessed: Dagobert, Clovis...
Access to the nave is free. Today there are as many people come to pray as to gawk. A quiet day. At the limit of the choir area, though, there is a fence of iron bars. That’s where the necropole is, with the tombs of France’s royalty, some marble, some plaster replicas. To walk among them, touch them if nobody is looking, takes 6.50.
Nah. We can see them fine from here.
There’s a gift shop, as there is in most major cathedrals and religious sites, where you can get St Denis rosaries, books about the church or the life of the saint, St Denis figurines complete with head off, and, the first I’ve seen, St Denis T-shirts. Not even Notre Dame de Paris sells t-shirts.

At a supermarket we equip ourselves with Nutella, and hand cream because the hotel room is extremely dry from the glorious heat running constantly. There are three basic sizes of Nutella. The 200 g jar will get us through breakfast for the rest of the trip, but it’s awfully expensive. 400 g is more reasonably priced, but once you get up in weight (it comes in thick glass jars), why not just go for the more economical 750 g jar? And once you’re leaning toward 750 g (1150 with the jar - we went to the produce department and weighed it), there are not one, but two special-offer jars, with 780 or 825 g of hazelnut & chocolate goodness. They’re all mixed in together, as if a new pallet of 750-s just arrived and they tossed the odd 780s and 825s on the pile. 825 grams it is.
In the evening we stroll around town looking for holiday decorations. The big department stores have their famous animated window displays ready, and it’s the perfect time to browse them: no Christmas crowds out yet. I think they’re cool, often ingenious. Darrell is unimpressed. Aside from the windows, there’s not much decoration up yet. Or, it’s up, we can see the strings of wire, but it’s not lit up. We’re keeping a lookout for Christmas markets, too, hoping to score presents for everyone back home. There’s nothing in several of the usual places, except for the Champs Elysées, and even that is pretty lame.
More later, and the pictures should be ready Tuesday...

No comments: