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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Paris: Day 1, Friday, April 15, 2005


The plane lands and I’m nervous. My French hasn’t been stress-tested yet, so I’m running over random irregular verb conjugations like mourir and découvrir. For some reason this is the first thing that comes to mind, rather than the things I might need (customs vocabulary and phrases useful to, say, acquiring transportation).

From the gate I start down a two-way moving sidewalk that goes down a slope, then enters a narrow tunnel, probably fifteen feet wide and ten feet tall. The sides and ceiling of the tunnel are air-blasted foam insulation, all white. I feel like I’m sliding through a cannoli. The tunnel continues for hundreds of feet, before it begins to go up again, and something in me turns. I look around, and nobody else seems nervous. Of course, I’ve been awake for about 20 hours now... these people were probably smart enough to sleep on the plane.

We are led to a set of booths and we break up into a dozen or so lines. I stand in front of the agent who can’t be older than 25, and I show him my passport. This is it, the first opportunity I’ve had to speak French to a French person on French soil.

I am two classes, 6 hours, short of a degree in French language and literature from the University of Texas at Austin. I've been seeing French tutors for over six years, and I can speak and listen to them at what they say is their "normal rate of speech". Before I even bought the plane ticket I declared that I would not speak a word of English to any French speakers. So here's my first chance.

Je n’ai rien à déclarer!” I'm awesome. I even omit the “n” sound when I say it, just like the French. As I beam at the man, he looks at my passport, then me, and says, “Okay.” He wayyyy over-pronounces the “ay” (like he imagines an American would). I don't know why, but this jackass is mocking me!

I walk past the booth and see the sign for “la douane”--customs. What I just did was pass through immigration, but I treated it like it was customs. Son of a bitch! Uh, I mean, salope!

I don’t say anything when I approach la douane. I just hand them the little form that lets them know I don’t have anything to declare.

I quickly find signs to get to the RER-B (commuter train), and take an inter-terminal bus, then an inter-terminal shuttle, then an inter-terminal tram to get to the right place. Once inside, I try to figure out how to buy an RER ticket. The lines for the ticket agents are very long and full of Americans. I speak French, right? I don't need to go through that nonsense when there's an automated kiosk nearby!

The machine looks like an ATM. I stand in line for about three minutes, trying to remember not to smile at people when they look at me. Several people in flannel sit on a bench nearby, seemingly offering commentary on everything going on, but I don’t understand everything they say. When it gets to my turn, the kiosk asks what language I want. I snort and click “Français.”

Three clicks into it I realize I’ve made a huge mistake. I click whatever the hell the button for “cancel” is and back away from the machine. People behind me look puzzled, but I just wave them on and say, “s’il vous plaît.” I watch a few people buy tickets, but they go so fast through the menu that I don’t learn anything. I’m tempted to stand in line to speak to a human, but I'm driven to figure this out without resorting to English. By God I’m going to have that notion beaten out of me or I’m going to be successful, but I’m certainly not giving up thirty minutes into the trip.

I walk around the wood-paneled ticket office. The station reminds me of an aircraft hangar, with fifty-foot ceilings and dark gray concrete floors. Crowd-control barriers surround several open areas, and people move along interlocking figure-eights to get around. I don’t see any trains at all. There’s a restaurant nearby and I’m tempted to go in for some breakfast, but I decide against it when I see the prices. My budget for the whole trip is $400, including lodging, so I can't waste a dime.

I’m trying to find one of those ATM kiosks away from the crowds, so I can take my time. I spot one on the other side of the ticket office, and I figure this is the one the smart commuters use. I click English (it’s written, not spoken, so I don't have to break my little rule). I navigate through what I’ve figured out is the French “Zone” system.

The Parisian train system charges people less for staying within one zone than for traveling over many zones. Charles de Gaulle airport is in Zone 5, the bulk of the Paris métro system is in Zone 1. It costs about 8 Euros to go from Zone 5 to Zone 1, whereas it would cost only 1E to stay within a single zone. I don’t want to worry about other métro rides at the moment, so I decide on just one rail ticket into the city. This ticket will get me all the way to the hostel. Not bad.
My credit card is declined. I’m suddenly terrified. Is this how it’s going to be the whole trip? I try again with a different card. Nothing.

I wait in line at the original kiosk I started with, and this time I know exactly what to click through, and I’m able to get to the Moment of Truth much faster. This time my card is accepted. I wipe my brow and look for the train.

Escalators are carefully hidden behind the crowd-control barriers, and they lead me down to a big train station, like the ones I’ve seen in London and Chicago.

I slide my ticket into the turnstile slot and barely remember to gather the stub as it’s loudly spit out at the other end. Thank goodness I went to Chicago recently! Once on the train I set my bags down and take out my book. I’m trying (again) to read The Stranger in French, and it didn’t go well on the plane. The train starts to move, and for a minute or two we’re in dark tunnels. The light is bad so I look out the window. I can barely make out graffiti in the darkness, covering every inch of the tunnel walls.

Light blasts my eyes as we come out of the tunnel. Immediately I jerk my head around as a loud “whoomp” hits me like the concussion from a nearby bomb. A train, coming from the other direction, passes with no more than three feet between us. I lift my arms like I’ve just been shot at, and several people look at me. We pass what looks like an amphitheater, with row after row of large benches arranged in semicircles. Poles stick out of the benches, and I see smoke pouring out of the poles. Then I take a closer look. The benches are sectional, separated by color in a random array of reds and blues, and each one appears to be covered by newspapers or magazine pages.

It’s a shantytown, and it must cover five acres. For a moment I try to imagine anything I can that would come close to that life, and it comes up blank. I know nothing about that life, and I shouldn't pretend I can imagine the slightest detail.

I get out my métro map and study where I should get off. Agathe (my most recent French tutor) recommended I get off at the line 8 Commerce stop two blocks from the hostel, but I need to stay awake. I’m going to get off one stop early and walk a mile or two.

Another train blows by in the other direction, and I can’t believe I’m the only one bothered by it. If I did nothing but ride trains all day long I think it would still bother me.

The RER ride from Charles de Gaulle airport to my stop covers about 15 miles, and I’ll be damned if every inch of the concrete retaining wall isn’t covered with graffiti. The wall is about five feet high in most places, and it’s meticulously covered. This isn’t outlined and skeletal gang tags, this is art, filled in and shaded and composed as well as any modern art I know of. Most designs are words that meld into lions or bears or multi-colored birds. I don’t understand the words at all. They’re not French, or not any French I know. I think most are proper names. I don’t think to write any down or take a picture, but suddenly I have a fantasy where I spend a year or so trying to find the people responsible. I make a documentary about them or write a series of articles or a book. I’m sure it’s been done before, but I’m sure it could be done again.

On the way to my stop (La Motte Picquet-Grenelle), I see the Eiffel Tower. It pops into view, and the first thing I realize is that it’s actually brown, like the one in Las Vegas. I always imagined it would be black like iron, and that the one in Vegas was supposed to represent what it looked like when it was first built. Nope. I can see it, even from the train. It’s brown and looks like it’s constantly being repainted. I thought I would have some idea of just how tall it would be based on the one in Vegas, but I definitely under-imagined it. I can’t help but grin.

This stop is above ground, and reminds me of State street in Chicago. I have to walk down some stairs to get to street-level, and then I’m in Paris. No bullshit down-on-the-ground Paris. I should pee on the street or something.



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