🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017
The coach lurched along from airport Charles de Gaulle past many Paris streets and squares that I thought looked familiar but probably were not. We caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower briefly, before the tall buildings and streets of Paris swallowed the open sky. That sounds nice. Actually, we arrived quickly at the east end of the Seine River, several long blocks below Notre Dame, near Bercy. Considering every moment in Paris precious, and anxious that we not waste any, I checked our halted progress via GPS on the “Ulmon City Maps To Go” app on my iPhone.
I could see that our relatively direct trip had stalled completely in the insane morning traffic as our off-ramp merged with one or two others, plus four lanes from various feeder streets. Every bus, auto, cab, and motor scooter, wherever it was coming from, seemed intent on getting to the other side of the stream of cars in front of it, where we were ALL headed. Caught up in the excitement of the streets of Paris, our travel cohorts were oblivious to the delay, except Donald. He was obsessed with the rising temperature inside the almost-stationary, sunbaked coach.
“Air Conditioning!!” He shouted repeatedly to the bus driver, “Air Conditioning!!”
Need I say he included no, “S‘il vous plaît.”
“Air Conditioning!! Turn on the air conditioning!!”
The AC came on. I heard no one, except myself, say, “Merci!”
Stopping and starting we made a few feet of progress at a time, taking about an hour to transit the single block to our hotel.
The Hotel Bercy is a “modern” glass and steel “business hotel” with several fountains and a 15-foot-tall, bright red, muscular, caped, male superhero statue in front. I could speculate, but I have no explanation for this statue. It was just there.
The female receptionist at the hotel was young (in her twenties?) and attractive with long straight brown hair, a smart suit, and dark, spiked heels—stylish enough to appear on the cover of Vogue or the New York Times Women’s Fashion magazine, although maybe not quite starved enough. This was true of all the women coming and going in the lobby. Not just the heels that is, but the stylish and attractive part too. Yes, we are in Paris.
The men? Oh, they are all thin, though not underfed, well groomed. Fortunately, very few sport the time-consuming, face-covering, trendy, hipster beards seen in parts of the USA. If these men have beards at all, they are close-cropped stubble that gives depth to their chiseled chins. The male hotel staff wear suits. Male businessmen wear typical European business attire: jeans or slightly more formal trousers, lined or solid (sometimes button-down) dress shirts, and dark leather loafers often without socks. Most wear sport coats, which in France are narrow sleeved, snug fitting jackets, the lapels held together with one button.
Nobody but the tourists, wear sneakers or running shoes. (Donald, blinding, in his bright white sneakers and bleached white socks halfway up his calves, steps off the coach trailing a wave of cool air.)
No sneakers, and thank goodness, no ties. Maybe the maître d’ hotel and the bartender wear ties. But otherwise, no ties. I don’t like ties.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of time to observe the lobby, because our rooms are not ready.
I consider the possibility that we do not actually have rooms, but we are assured the rooms are there, the Hotel Bercy is just behind schedule with cleaning. Way behind.
Several times the Front Desk receptionist walks over to our group, sprawled awkwardly on the artsy, cube-shaped chairs and couches. We rise. She hands Steve a too thin stack of envelopes with keys and room numbers. Steve reads the names and hands white envelopes to the lucky winners, who quickly leave to get settled in their digs and enjoy what was left of our “free” day. The lobby emptied a few people at a time, in this manner, the process repeated over and over.
We waited for hours. And we were, yes, the last, the very last to receive our room keys.
Before the eventual delivery of our envelope, Christine walked those of us remaining over to the charming, tree-lined Bercy Mall for a quick tour. Bercy had once been an industrial bakery, and has the red brick charm of very old buildings, but all the swag and glamour of a trendy destination for young business people and tourists. We noted the location of a small local grocer, the local ATM, the soon to be recognized as ubiquitous “artisanal ice cream” shop, and strolled along the partly shaded pedestrian promenade lined with tables and umbrellas that front the many bars and restaurants. We saw designer shops, stores with special French candy packaged in French art tins, a Surf store with surfer shirts, skateboards, and yes surfboards for sale and on display in the windows. Is Bercy near the beach? Does Bercy have quick access to mysterious Mediterranean swells? Is there an Internet “Surf Report” available for Bercy? “No,” would be the answer to these questions. (Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Surf shop, more than once, to peruse the shirts and board shorts.)
Christine escorted us down the escalator to the Metro. She provided quick tutelage in the basics of ticket purchase, the various lines, maps, and other arcane knowledge required in the underground. Important but not important, the “Purple Line” as we might call it in Boston, is not the “Purple Line” in Paris. It is the “M 14” between St. Lazare and Olympiades. But on all the maps and signs it is purple, so I called it the “Purple Line”, which was usually fine as long as we remembered we wanted to go to “Olympiades” to get back to Bercy. The ticket machines may challenge, especially if you use a credit card, but otherwise (from previous Franco-adventures), I considered myself fairly adept at Metro use. (A notion disproved dramatically a day or two later).
We popped back into the daylight upstairs, abandoned Christine and tour group to fend for ourselves in Bercy, searching for a place to lunch, and eventually settled at a little outdoor cafe. We sat next to tour manager Steve, and his wife Karen. After ordering salad for Deb, croque-monsieur for me, and two glasses of rosé of course, we got to know our tour hosts a bit.
A university academic, Steve, though well-versed in Literature (and an exemplary English Major), holds a PhD in History, the subject he teaches. Karen has a consulting business where she is engaged in multi-year research and writing projects. Their professions and interests allow for much international travel, which they have done with Arawho for years.
We enjoyed the relaxed meal and conversation, and I tried to remember what I had learned from the Rick Steve’s podcast about French restaurant protocols:
- The wait staff generally leave you alone, for hours.
- When you want the bill, DO NOT shout, “Garçon!”
- To get attention, make eye contact.
- They will come over.
- Generally, do not tip, but ask if the check includes a service charge.
(This part is a little complicated at first. I’m sure we tipped when we should not have and vice-versa. By the end of the trip I was pretty clear about how it all works, but writing now I can’t recall well enough to explain it. Sorry. Listen to Rick Steve.)
The clouds and rain moved in, and I gradually became bothered by the drifting cigarette smoke from the tables of other diners. This was odd, I thought, the smoke, because although I had expected the worst on my last trip to Paris, in fact I had experienced very little exposure to second hand smoke.
You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.
Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Leavitt and Peirce Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers, smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.
At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not like that!