Looking back: Adventures and misadventures in Paris

14 November 15

This  morning I was doing a search for my favorite Paris photos to share on Facebook and came across this letter I wrote some 11 years ago to my friend Rogelio Cannady, who was then on Texas’ death row and has since been killed by the state. He loved reading of my travel adventures and so I made it a practice to describe the things I saw and did while on the road. 

01 September 04

HERE I AM, in the great city of Paris. It’s a bit after 5:30 p.m. and I am sitting at an outdoor restaurant, one of several thousand in this city, drinking a glass of red wine.

I also asked the waiter for a plate of various cheeses, but I guess he didn’t hear me, misunderstood me, or decided to ignore me. All three are possible, I’ve learned. All those French classes I took and I can’t even order a damn simple plate of cheese! That is how it has been all day: As soon as someone speaks to me in French, I get all nervous and I end up talking gibberish. When I ordered the wine, for instance, the waiter asked me if I wanted it “en verre,” which means by the glass, or if I wanted a carafe. The only thing I heard was sound, “ver,” which sounded very much like “vert,” the word for green (the French drop just about every consonant, unless it’s followed by an ‘e’. My first thought was, why is he asking me if I want green wine when I just asked for red wine? As happens almost every time, he saw my confused face and posed the question again, in English. By this time I was so rattled that I told him that yes, I wanted a glass, when the reality was that I wanted a carafe. Oh well, as they say here, c’est la vie. (At least I hope they do; they do in the movies!)

Here’s something funny: A few minutes ago, as I was standing at a street corner, looking at my map, trying to figure out exactly where I was, a young lady approached me and, in French, asked for directions to a nearby square, and I was able to tell her, also in French. She then turned around and told her companions, “Dice que está …”

”Ay,” I couldn’t resist telling her, “me ubieras dicho que hablas español!” We all got a good laugh out of it.

Oh wow! The waiter did understand me! He just walked up with my plate of cheese, and some bread. Oh man, this tastes great. Just what I needed. I love the bread in this country. How I wish you could be here to enjoy this with me.

I had already decided to return to the hotel, to rest a while. And go to the bathroom! But, because I was exhausted from all the walking I’ve done today, I decided to stop a while. I think that with this bit of food I won’t need to have supper; my stomach will be satisfied for the day.

I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon in what must be the old garment district in the old Jewish part of town, Le Marais. I wasn’t looking for any clothes, but I saw some real neat ties that I really liked, and when I inquired about their cost, I found out they only cost about $20 or $30, which is nothing compared to the ties in other stores.  I ended up buying four of them. Then I saw this beautiful leather jacket and I just had to look at it. Again, I was shocked by the price – $170. A coat like that in Washington would cost at least $300. I didn’t buy it, though. Because I saw another one I liked better, at about the same price. This one is wool, not leather. Now I have to figure out how to carry it home. I only brought a small suitcase with me, plus my backpack. If I keep buying things, I’m going to have to buy another bag, as I did the last time I came to Europe.

The weather has been spectacular. In the mid- to high-70s during the day, and in the 60s or 50s in the evening and early morning. Perfect walking weather, which is what I have been doing since I got here, except for the train/subway I took in from the airport because I didn’t want to pay for a taxi. The Metro system is vast and very easy to use. You can get just about anywhere on it. But, the way I see it, the more I ride the train, the less I see of this city – and the less time I have to stuff myself!

Last night I ate at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter, not far from my hotel, on a small street that was wall-to-wall outdoor restaurants. I sat outside and enjoyed watching the people walk by, and listened to a saxophone player who stood nearby and wailed away, with a number of jazz/blues pieces. Poor guy, when he finished playing, he came to where the patrons were eating to ask if we wanted to give him some money. I would have given him some, except that I thought he was asking if we wanted him to play some more tunes. By the time I realized what he wanted, it was too late; he was gone. The food (beef, with green beans and French fries) wasn’t that good. The meat was a bit tough and the potatoes lacked taste. Only the beans were good. And the bread, of course. Oh well. While I was waiting for my food, I noticed a sign on the wall that said Ernest Hemmingway had lived in the building for five years. The menu also had another literary claim. It seems that some French poet, whose name I had never heard of, lived there also. He ended up killing himself, apparently because he fell in love with another poet (also a male) and that was a no-no. At least that’s what I think I read.

Thursday, September 2

I AM IN LINE, waiting to climb to the dome of the Pantheon, which was originally a cathedral but is now a temple to French heroes. It’s a massive structure, although much simpler than the elaborately decorated cathedrals of Italy. It dominates the neighborhood in or near the Latin Quarter, not too far from the Luxembourg Gardens, one of several large formal gardens that provide a great place to rest and enjoy nature. Victor Hugo and other famous Frenchies are buried here. While waiting, I drew a quick sketch of part of one of the numerous statues. A bit simple, but I like it. I will try to make a copy of it and send it to you.

This morning I again started out somewhat late, for me. Normally, I am up and about by 6:30, but I guess my body has just been really tired, from all the walking, and even though I wake up early (7 or 7:30), I just lie there and before I know it, it’s already 8 or 8:30. No big deal, though: I am determined that this will be a relaxing trip, and if sleeping late helps me accomplish that, so much the better.

My hotel is a small tourist hotel. I wouldn’t call it quaint, or cozy, but it is comfortable and my 2nd-floor room is of a decent size. Certainly a lot larger than the one I got in Florence, which was so small that if I left any of my stuff on the floor, I could not walk to the bathroom. It’s air-conditioned, so I don’t have to listen to the traffic outside, although traffic noise is not that bad. For 10 Euros, I can get a decent breakfast downstairs, and for 5 Euros, I can log on to the Internet for half an hour. It would be more than enough to check the news and write a few emails if it weren’t for the damn French keyboard, which has certain letters – the y, the z and the m, for instance, in different locations altogether. The other guests are mainly Brits, and a few Americans and what appear to be Spaniards or South Americans.

I am now at a small park, Jardin the Teuleries, a huge park that connects the Arc de Triomphe with the Louvre, the large museum that houses the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces. I will visit neither. The arch because I was there the last time I was here, in 1988, and the museum, because I really do not like museums that much. Large ones, at least. And I have seen enough pictures of the Mona Lisa and the other masterpieces to know what they look like. I don’t think that when I die I will be ruing the fact that I never saw the Mona Lisa.

It is late afternoon and the weakening sun infuses the entire park with a nice, subdued hue. I am sitting on a metal green chair, one of many in this area of the park, surrounded by others, alone, in pairs or in groups, sitting and enjoying the sun amid the various pools and fountains.

The park resembles the Mall in Washington, but it is a lot more serene. It has a lot more trees, and it has these chairs, which is something you won’t find on the mall. It also has a lot of statues, mainly of mythological figures, but also some by some famous artists, such as Rodin and Maillol.

This is where I ate my lunch, cheese and bread and fruit that I snuck into my backpack at breakfast this morning. Delicious. I hadn’t eaten anything since this morning, when I bought something that looked like a Mexican empanada, and another pastry that looked like a campechana, at a patisserie, one of thousands of pastry shops all over the city that offer everything from pastries to sandwiches (yesterday, for lunch I bought a croq monsieur (I’m not too sure of the spelling), which is a hot ham and cheese sandwich; I was in heaven.)

I don’t know if I’ll eat anything this evening. I am not hungry, but maybe the walk back to the hotel will give me an appetite and if that happens, I’ll do another cheese-and-wine thing.

The Pantheon was very impressive, when we climbed to the deck that surrounds the dome. From there you can see the entire city, from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame and other famous sites. It’s a good place from which to see how different this city is from most American cities. There are skyscrapers, but they are away from the city’s center. I took lots of pictures, but the sun was very bright and there was a thick haze, so I am not sure how good they will be.

From the Pantheon I walked to the cathedral of St. Germain de Pres, one of the city’s most prominent Romanesque style churches, constructed in the 11th century. The bell tower is the city’s oldest. The heart of Rene Descartes is buried here. Don’t ask why just he heart because I have no idea. Neither do I know where the rest of his body is.

From there I walked along a street lined with some very expensive stores. No $30 ties here! My destination was a small museum, the Musee Maillol, dedicated to the work of Aristide Maillol. His work consists primarily of large marble sculptures of female nudes, most of them based on a single model, Dina Vierny. There are also some of the sketches he did of his models. This is the kind of museum I like: small and intimate, and I can get in an out in a few minutes. And – perhaps more important — it has a great bathroom!

And that’s what I have done today. To get here from the museum, I had to cross the Seine, which is always a nice experience. I love watching the boats and barges float by. I’ve been sitting here for about an hour, and I could stay here another couple of hours. It is so comfortable. Since I have been sitting here, it has become cloudy and it appears as if it might rain. According to the paper, it’s not supposed to rain until tomorrow. If it does rain, I hope it’s over quick. I hate walking around in the rain.


About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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