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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Day 1, 10:30 am

I decide not to bring my camera, because it's not going to be easy to carry on the bicycle. I leave the hostel and begin to walk up Commerce. My steps echo in the narrow street. Tiny cars are parallel parked on either side, all facing the direction I’m headed. Tall trees lean with the wind, but where I am the wind doesn’t disturb even the bits of paper on the sidewalk. The street is silent but for the clop of footsteps and the jingle of dog collars. I’m in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world and I can’t hear any evidence of it.

Things start to move a block further up. People are walking their dogs and trucks are unloading their goods in front of stores. A car comes by every few minutes, squeezing through the cars. All the streets I pass are one-way, and I wonder how people can remember how to navigate when the streets never hit each other at right angles. As I cross Rue Létellier I catch my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, just the top of it.

Commerce becomes l’Avenue de la Motte-Picquet and things pick up. The first McDonalds I’ve seen is at the corner when I hit Grenelle. It’s nearly packed, and I don’t see any obvious tourists. I turn left near the metro station (La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle)and see a repetition of everything I’ve already seen: bakery, cheese-shop, wine shop, clothing boutiques, newsstand, and several cafes.

I cross Place Dupleix and head up Rue Violet, cross Avenue de Suffren, and the world opens up and turns green. On my right is l’Ecole Militaire, and on the left is the Eiffel Tower. I can see all of it this time. I turn left and start walking.

What the tour guidebooks say about dogshit is 100% true. little bombs lay everywhere: in the grass, on the gravel, and on the pavement. I imagine some French people love to make tourists look at the ground the whole time they’re walking toward the tower; locals never look up in any city.

Dodging landmines, I glance up from time to time, and the tower grows taller and taller. When I reach the base I realize I’ve forgotten to watch for pickpockets, and I adjust my belt to make sure everything is still there. There’s a huge crowd under the tower. Children spin around and get dizzy, adults stand in line waiting for tickets, and a woman with a headcover approaches me.
“Excuse me sir,” she says in a thick accent--I can’t identify it at all. “Do you speak English?”


She holds out her hands, revealing a piece of paper written in English. It says she’s from Bosnia and she needs money to buy meals and to get her family out of Bosnia before it’s too late.
I hand her about a Euro, turn around, and there’s a tall man with tight brown curls running a little past his shoulders. He’s standing on a Segway.

It turns out he’s a tour group guide waiting for the Segway tour to begin. It covers the same route I’m on but costs twice as much. After his group leaves my tour guide shows up. A Bosnian woman (a different one) asks him if he speaks English.

“No,” he says, taking no pains to invent an accent. She scowls and walks off.

Several other people, couples mostly, join us. They’re all American or British, and just there for a few days. None of them speak French, including Jeremy, the tour guide. Jeremy tells a brief history of the tower, then we follow him on foot while he rides.

We follow Jeremy back to the Fat Tire offices, crossing the Champs de Mars, down Rue de la Federation, onto Edgar Faure, and into the office park. The building is flat and black, with windows going several stories up and unadorned white columns supporting corridors between buildings. It looks like it could be in any city in the world. Graffiti covers the walls and pillars, tags put up by gangs in the past week or so. Some of the tags look vaguely Arabic. We pay for our tours. We each get a bike, then we head off. I feel very strange, I haven’t been on a bike in about 10 years. I’m finally able to get the hang of the hand-grip mounted gear shift, and we begin the tour.

L’Ecole Militaire lines up exactly with the Eiffel Tower, as does the Peace Monument. These three structures line up with the Montparnasse tower back to the southeast. This is a theme which presents itself several times throughout the tour. Jeremy keeps using the word “symmetry” to describe the French penchant for lining things up, but I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

Napoleon had a room at l’Ecole Militaire, and one of his teachers made a favorable remark in one of his gradebooks: “If given the right atmosphere, this young man could go far.”

Next is up Avenue de Tourville, and to Les Invalides. We park in front of the Dome of Napoleon’s Tomb. The dome we see is not the dome you see when you’re inside the building. An inner dome was constructed so that the visitors would have a better view of the dome itself, and the clerestory of the outer dome was sealed up. American WWII pilots were smuggled in and out of Paris, using this outer Dome as a safehouse. Evidently Hitler visited this dome shortly after occupying Paris in 1941, and American pilots were in the outer dome at that very moment.
“If only one of them had had a brick, eh?”

When you go inside the tomb, you’ll notice that the round upper floor (where you enter) has a waist-high railing over which you must bow to see Napoleon’s coffin. This is not unintentional.
Counterclockwise around Les Invalides, Jeremy tells us we’re going to get a crack of nudity. To the right, across Boulevard des Invalides, we stop and look to the right: Rodin’s the Thinker shows us the crack of his ass.

“Ever wonder what he’s thinking? I’ll bet he’s thinking, ‘hey, where the hell are my clothes?’”


Continuing around Les Invalides, we stop in front of it, where the moat is being ripped up for what seem like minor repairs. The bushes are shaped like bullets or artillery shells. This is not unintentional.

We ride up Rue Galland toward the Seine, and stop at the Pont Alexandre III. The four corners of the bridge are decorated by tall pillars, each set atop by a golden statue of an angel. One has a sword drawn, one is blowing a pipe. I have no idea what the other two are doing.

We cross the bridge to see the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, then we head to the right, to Place de la Concorde. The Obelisk is here, as is the place where the main guillotine was in place during the Revolution. Jeremy gives us a graphic account of how Louis XVI was murdered, without a shroud, face up, with a very very dull guillotine blade. It took 5 drops to kill him, 4 of which he was awake for.

From the Place de la Concorde, we goEast to the Tuileries, in the shadow of the Louvre. There’s a small cafe in the sun here, where we sit down for lunch. I ordered Croque Monsieur and a cafe au lait. [JB has a one word reply to this: "tourist!"]

After lunch we goback to the office with few stops and little information. I stay for a while there to send some emails and take a peek at how Conclave is going (this is a few days after Pope John Paul II died).

On the way to the metro stop I find a book shop, a very small one like they have all over the city. I have a lovely conversation with the owner about whether it would be easier to read l’Etranger or Madame Bovary, or whether I should get something more modern. She strongly recommended Bovary for the reading level and overall value of the story. I buy it.

During the walk back to the hostel I start to get a sense of how tired I am. Nearly six hours have passed since I left the hostel, and I can't remember them very well. My legs are numb, and I can't believe I can still conjugate verbs in English, let alone French. At least I still have the presence of mind to dodge the dogshit.



Blogger Jess said...

locals never look up in any city.

Hah! Try having a town planner for a dad and make that assertion. I've walked into street signs while looking at buildings. (Yeah, it figures the one street sign in the city would be right there.)

Jeremy keeps using the word “symmetry” to describe the French penchant for lining things up, but I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

Axial planning?

Sorry, sorry, trying not to make all my comments about town planning and urban legibility.

All your stuff about feeling like a tourist makes me think of the way I felt while my family was here, because people kept asking me how long I was visiting for. At least when I'm at work they kind of get the hint I'm not a tourist.

Mon Sep 25, 11:32:00 AM  

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