Somehow, in all my years of dreaming about a trip to France, I never heard that the country is mostly rural. As the plane approached our destination at Charles de Gaulle Airport I was amazed at all the farmland surrounding it. The various sizes and textures of the fields led me to believe that they were mostly small farms producing a variety of crops. This visit, for me, was about internalizing French culture, so the realization that this was a land of small, independent farms set the scene for the rest of my time there. (I have not researched this bit of information, but I did get this impression based on my observations.)
While I do remember showing my passport to someone who probably asked me the purpose of my visit, I do not remember ever seeing any sign of customs. I grabbed my suitcase from the belt and started walking, wheeling this ungainly beast along, in search of one of the ATMs I heard were plentiful there. MUST HAVE EUROCASH. Such focus. Cash in hand, I set out for the bus stop for the Air France coach that would take me to the city. Once out in the fresh air and sunshine, it hit me that no one ever asked me if I had anything to declare. Did I miss it or do they just not bother? All the hysteria about airport searches turned out to be a bit exaggerated, at least for France.
The bus ride to Paris was pleasant. All the excitement kept me from sleeping much on the plane and I was transfixed with the sights along the way, trying to absorb every detail. It’s quite a distance from the airport to the city center,perhaps a 40 minute drive. My stop was Gare de Lyon, not far from my hotel. It made it easier to buy the round trip ticket for that stop, especially since the last leg of my journey was to drop me off there. Why the TGV can’t just go directly to CDG is perhaps a question for greater minds or powers. For now, we have to deal with these transfers.
Paris. All of it so beautiful and amazing, on such a perfect sunny day too. The bus dropped me off and suddenly there I was walking down the sidewalk feeling like I was in any city anywhere in the world. Actually, it reminded me a bit of Dakar, where I’d visited many years before. So many Senegalese or other Africans in their traditional attire. One of them asked me directions, which stunned me, having literally just set foot on French soil–well, concrete, to be exact. Quite a few people asked me directions during my brief time in Paris. Glad to find that I was able to blend in so thoroughly.
My hotel, the Hotel Grand Francais, was lovely, perhaps a 20 minute walk from the station that took me longer for having such a load to carry*. I was pleased to almost manage to check in without having the desk clerk speak English, but when she had specific information to give me regarding keys and breakfast, she asked me if I would prefer English for clarity. Since my comprehension of French is rather limited and I didn’t want to waste her time, I said yes.
My room had such an inviting bathtub that I immediately settled in for a soak to revive myself. Whenever I travel, I refuse to succumb to “jet lag,” convinced that it’s in the mind. So I’ll stay awake no matter what the time is back home, forcing myself to acclimate. Somewhat… because I do believe I was a bit addled wandering the streets after my bath in search of dinner.
For some reason I was afraid to speak French, so worried I’d make a mistake or someone would laugh at me. I popped in to a bar/restaurant on Rue Chanzy called Le Chardenoux to see if I could get dinner, but they weren’t open yet. At least that’s what I thought the bartender said, and judging by the empty tables, that seemed to be an accurate conclusion–honestly, a lot of my apparent language skills are a bit of a guessing game. I ordered a Stella and drank it at the gorgeous old marble bar from the turn of the 19th century with my bag on the adjacent stool. Just the sort of place that I imagined my favorite American expatriates from the 1920s might frequent, basking in the court of Gertrude Stein and such. An old woman entered from where she’d been sitting outside and said something to me that sounded sarcastic, something about not wanting to disturb me–that word, “deranger,” I believe. So I picked up my bag in case she meant to sit there, but then the bartender told her I didn’t speak French and she shrugged. I had no idea what had just happened but I wanted to get out and get some food so I wouldn’t be quite so dazed.
Across the street I stumbled upon La Patisserie Cyril Lignac, where I ordered a gorgeous little kouign amann to tide me over till I found the courage to order dinner somewhere. Again, the response of the clerk baffled me–why didn’t people sound like they did on my RFI broadcasts? The pastry fueled me up enough to get me to a restaurant that was actually open, La Ravigote (which is a sauce) on Rue de Montreuil. And perfect: it had a sign with a pig’s head outside and tables on the sidewalk too. Somehow I managed to order a fairly complicated meal from a waiter who didn’t seem to speak a word of English. Later in the evening a couple of men sat at the table next to me and we chatted a bit, first in French then in English then both, back and forth. They told me this was a local hangout, everything made on the premises and very popular in the neighborhood. What luck then! The prices were reasonable too. A man who seemed to be the proprietor would greet many of the guests with French cheek kisses, lending an air of hospitality to the place.
Unfortunately, I misunderstood the waiter regarding the half bottle of wine–I thought he was telling me they didn’t serve half bottles (despite what the menu said), but in fact the way they did it there was to set the bottle on the table and charge you according to how much you drank from it. My neighbors explained this to me, but by then I was already well into the second half! But considering it was my first day in France, my very first dinner there, it somehow seemed fitting to drink an entire bottle of wine during the course of an evening. Oh, and of course there was lots of PIG to go with it: an assortment of sausages to begin with, then roast pig’s foot for dinner. Creme brulee for dessert–everything perfect of course. The bread goes without saying, perfect.
Such a perfect finish to my first day in France! Back to my hotel where I fell into a well-earned sleep.
*Note: I DO NOT LIKE TAKING TAXIS, mostly due to a very bad experience with a taxi driver in Warsaw years ago. Yes, I know I need to get over it!