Paris Progress: Bustle to Brussels
Sunday, December 26, 2010
After three days of airport madness it was kind of soothing to get on a train for a few hours and wind our way to Strasbourg. I've been on trains before, mostly subways and metro rails, along with the occasional novelty train ride at a zoo or theme park. But this was my first time to ride a train cross country, watching an actual panorama of landscape whizz by. It was my first time to have the chance to sit comfortably in a first class seat and tappity-tappity the ol' keyboard, letting the clomp-clomp-clompity-clomp of the rails lull me into something resembling a shaman's trance.
OK, don't judge me, but I have to be honest here: I was not really following along as this little trip was being planned. I had decided, early on, that it was enough for me to know we would be in multiple countries in Europe. The particulars I left to my wife and mother-in-law, who are both way more keen on details than I am. And I know what you're thinking. "Knowing which country you're going to be in is a little more than a mere 'detail.'" And you'd be right, if you were you and not me. But you are me. At least for now. Congratulations. And while you are me, I'm sorry to inform you that, though you are mightily awesome, you are more of a big picture guy, and not so much into the details.
Suffice to say, I knew only in general terms where the hell we would be at any given time. I knew that we had talked about being in Germany, and France, and Belgium. I knew that we would be in Paris and Munich, Strasbourg, and Brussels. We missed Munich because our original flight was cancelled, but that was OK, I reasoned, because we were going to ... Strausburg.
See where I went wrong there? Strasbourg/Strausburg? Notice the difference? Well, it's much tougher when you're just hearing it said aloud, but what it boils down to is the difference between being in France and being in Germany.
So when we boarded that train, honest to God, I thought we were on our way to Germany. It wasn't until we were halfway there that Kara corrected something I wrote in the last blog entry, and informed me that we were, in fact, still in France.
Meh. No sweat. Sure, it would be cool to go to Germany. But considering that this ol' boy was barefoot in Wild Peach for the first half of his life, any travel in a foreign land is remarkable to me, and something to be treasured. Strasbourg or Strausburg, it made no difference to me. I was just "happy to be here."
But in reality, Kara could have let me continue to live in my delusion. If not for all of the French, I could have easily been fooled into thinking we had crossed the border into Deutschland. Or, as my friend Andrew described it, we had just disembarked in "French Germany."
Actually, come to think of it, I might not have clued in to all the French. It has taken nearly two full weeks for brain to get used to picking out familiar strains of language in the worldly babble that surrounds me.
But here we were, in France (still), and hopping off of a cross-country train to Strasbourg. We rolled our bags out of the train station and straight to a taxi pickup, where we waited only a few minutes before a cab came rumbling up. The air in Strasbourg was already thick with cold and tourists, and our view was of a night-darkened, snow-covered plaza encircled by hotels with bright signs casting Vegas-like glows onto the white drifts below. Looking back at the station as we shoved our bags into the trunk of the taxi, Kara noted that the building's front was encased in a glass facade, and the original facing of stone and brick within was lit a fairytale purple.
There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of nice hotels in Strasbourg. We were only visiting a very small part of the city, but in that area you would be incredibly hard pressed to throw a stone and not hit at least three stars. Every building had a sort of rustic, old-world charm and perfection that, oddly, brought up visions of Disney World for me. I kept waiting for Mickey Mouse or Goofy to come ambling out of one of the buildings and pose with me for pictures.
With all those nice hotels, though, and all of that rustic, old-world charm, I'm almost embarrassed to say that we had rooms at the Best Western.
See that? Those images of a cheap hotel by the freeway that just popped into your head? The chintzy continental breakfast of cereal and bagels? The desk clerk wearing a blue blazer and watching a Spanish soap opera on the lobby TV? Get all of that out of your brain. This is gonna BLOW. YOUR. MIND.
Yes, we were hold up in a Best Western, in a city that has hotels old enough that my great grandfather might have bunked in one as a little Laffoon lad. But this was nothing like the freeway blights I've encountered in the states. For starters, Best Western had apparently purchased an existing hotel and updated it for their needs. This place had all of the charm and warmth you would expect from a good European hotel. It was a little disorienting to see the blue-and-yellow logo glowing next to the old-world-style "HOTEL" sign, but beyond that the place felt very authentic and natural for the environment.
Or room was on the top floor, and was an erector set of thick wooden beams and an angled ceiling. The king-sized bed dominated one chamber of the room, while still giving us plenty of space to lounge in comfy chairs, sipping hot beverages while watching German TV programs. And to one side was a small office area, complete with a gorgeous wooden desk that backed against a window with a view I thought was only possible in Bourne movies.
Other than the fact that the free WiFi inexplicably did not work in our room (and only in our room), Kara and I found this little spot to be one of the nicest and quaintest hotels we had ever stayed in, lifetime grand total. Kudos, Best Western. I dig your Strasbourg joint.
Our first evening in Strasbourg was primarily marching through streets filled with booths and vendors. The crowd was thick, but the mood and atmosphere was one of relaxed enjoyment. Unlike Paris, Strasbourg isn't clogged with beggars pleading for Euros while wearing pricey and pressed jeans, or street vendors hawking their junk and knockoffs. No one here tried, even once, to force feed us touristy crap. No one asked for money, or wailed despairingly at us while rocking a fake baby in her arms and holding out a Pringles can. And as crowded as it was, most people were pleasant, polite, and accommodating. People apologized if they bumped into you ("Pardon, masseur!"), and a few were even willing to play along on some hand-gesture-assisted jokes from yours truly.
On our second day, we were back in the market. This time, as Kara went on a hunt for a book about the area (a personal collecting hobby of hers), I ducked into a store that sold knickknacks galore. Here you could buy anything from ceramic cats to busts of Napoleon, and I had my eye on a very swank chessboard with wood and gold chess pieces, priced well beyond my tolerance level but still attractive. Here is where I met Marjorie, from Tyler, Texas.
"A fellow Texan!" I said, as if I hadn't seen one in years.
She smiled tolerantly. "Did you just get to town?" she asked.
"We flew in from Houston a couple of days ago. We were supposed to be here sooner, but our flight got cancelled."
Marjorie nodded, and looked a little sad. "My sister and her husband were supposed to join us for this trip but their flight got cancelled on Saturday. They fly out of Houston today."
Oops. Today, meaning Wednesday, meaning the flight Kara and I had been placed on originally after the first flight was cancelled. The flight we would have been on had we not been so persistent and insistent about flying out earlier. If we hadn't been such pests, in other words.
Marjorie is a nice lady in her fifties, who is currently living in Paris with her husband, a retired engineer who consults with the oil industry. It's a tale similar to that of my in-laws, who are living in Paris while my father-in-law does his Chemical Engineering thang with GDF Suez. Hearing stories like this, from multiple Texas ex-pats, gives you the false impression that it must be pretty easy to get a gig working and living in France. Still, I haven't come across anyone in desperate need of an American writer, willing to put me and my wife up in luxury while I cram beautiful English words together in meaningful ways. I keep my fingers crossed.
After leaving Marjorie I wandered around until I stumbled across Kara, who had failed in her quest for a decent local history book. We would find something elsewhere, I assured her. For now, it was time to catch up to her parents and check out the "big attraction" of the area.
The Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg rises over the area like a gothic mountain, with spires jutting and disappearing into the foggy sky, giving the whole place a sort of "Pillars of the Earth" feel. Kara fell in love with the cathedral instantly, and demanded that I take pictures of every possible angle. I was happy to oblige ... mostly. After a while, all of these pictures start to look identical, and you'd be better off buying post cards for all the quality you can muster from a street-level view. Still, I managed some outstanding shots, truly wall-art worthy. And from one angle, with two large, round stain glass windows and a pillared and spired doorway dead center, the building resembles a sort of steampunk Darth Vader head. Tres bon.
Cathedrals and palaces. Call me a pagan and a dolt, but after a while you start to feel you've seen all of these things, in every possible configuration. I know, I know ... these are feats of architecture and marvels of history, and have symbolic and cultural meaning beyond anything found in the United States. But really, they're big churches with no climate control. I appreciate them, but they aren't the big draw for me. I'd rather be outside, among the locals, people watching, taking in bits of dialogue (what I can understand), noting interesting behaviors, and sniffing out delicious food and wine as needed.
I have this affinity toward the culture of actual people. This is different than "local culture," or "national culture." This is the kind of thing you can only see when no one knows you're looking. The kind of culture I like to observe and absorb falls under headings like, "In-jokes," and "Pet Peeves." I like to see how people react to the environment around them. Which also means that I'm fine with touristy locations, even though these people come here bringing all of their personal cultural baggage with them. I'd rather see how the guy from Spain reacts to the guy from Berlin, than read about the cathedral that made this town so darn attractive to tourists.
Still, there is one awesome attraction inside the cathedral (aside from Jesus ... who doesn't need any PR from me). Inside is a large clockwork contraption, which includes an astrological mechanism and a couple of banks of whirring gears and doohickamabobs. This really appeals to my maker/steampunk sensibilities.
Every hour, this thing whirs into action, and a parade of animatronic(esque) figures comes whirling out and acting a bit. Jesus chases away a skeleton-like figure of death, who is busily bonking poor members of humanity as they flee in fear. Eventually Jesus turns to bless disciples and true-hearts, including the crowd itself, and the whole mechanism resets itself.
At least, that's what I've read. Unfortunately, we were there on the half-hour, not the hour, and didn't get to see the real "show." However, the crowd was gathering and buzzing (sometimes even in English) about the activity that hits on the half hour. My father-in-law, a fellow camera buff, maneuvered himself close to the machine to be in place for some cool shots. My mother-in-law, an aficionado of handheld cinema, put herself in optimal recording position with her HD camcorder in hand. And I inched in closer as well, eventually squeezing my way to the railing that surrounds the gizmo. I had my little Canon pocket camera ready to shoot some high-definition Jesus blessing.
"Counting down now!" I said, mostly to myself. The time started to tick down, and you could hear dozens of clicks, clangs, and ticks come from inside. The crowd murmured in anticipation. French chatter filled the hall in a half-whisper. The excitement built until we could all hardly stand it! What marvels we would witness! What feats of mechanical magnificence! We could hardly contain ourselves.
And then, the half-hour struck.
"CLANG!" a bell sounded, and then faded quickly as it was absorbed by hundreds of coat-clad cathedral visitors.
And that was it. Nothing else happened.
"Voila?" a man said behind me.
"I feel your pain, French dude," I said, and slowly pushed my way back through the crowd to meet up with the rest of the family as we slunk, disappointed, back out into the cold, cruel world, sans joyous clockwork Jesus.
That night we ate at a tannery.
Well, it used to be a tannery, back in the 1500s. Then it closed down until the 1700s, when it was reopened briefly as a restaurant, serving the hungry folk of Strasbourg. That venture lasted for about fifty years, until the place closed once again and remained more or less derelict for the next two hundred years, until in the 1970s someone picked up the property, presumably for a steal, and once again opened the doors as a German-French fusion place, serving sauerkraut with piles of meat, as well as poisson and veal dishes that could make a grown country boy weep for joy.
Sadly, I never managed to catch the name of the place. I tried, though, and even thought I had it when I saw the word "Tannery" emblazoned on a few things. But those turned out to be decorations of the type you might expect to find in a restored building turned restaurant, or maybe a Bennigans. So, alas, I can't put in a plug for the place. But I don't think it matters much. They were so busy, we almost didn't get a seat (they actually turned away other parties before us). And besides, the city is full of restaurants serving delicious food. You could eat on every block. It's the Houston of France.
The next day we awoke to snow.
I'm from Texas. More than that, I'm from Wild Peach, Texas. Snow is the kind of thing that comes maybe once every 20 to 30 years. In all my life, I can count on three fingers the number of times it has snowed in my home town, and only once in my memory was it thick enough to do anything as cool as build a snow man or a snow fort.
Still, I am familiar with snow, and in large quantities. My church youth group used to take annual ski trips to Red River, New Mexico, and Wolf Creek, Colorado. In fact, vacationing Texans are ubiquitous in those regions. I once rode on a ski lift with a guy who started our conversation with, "So, what part of Texas are you from?" without so much as a word from me beforehand. Texans like their Colorado vacations.
And since becoming a bonafide grownup, I've traveled to places like Salt Lake City, Denver, Pittsburg, Nome, and the Great Lakes region during some of the snowiest times of hte year. I've seen drifts tall enough to bury a man.
At any rate, I'm familiar with snow, and lots of it. And so I wasn't shocked at all when it started wafting down from above as we walked along the idyllic streets of Strasbourg on our final day there. In fact, somewhere in my brain I had this impression that snow was right for the place. Snow had to be something these folks dealt with all the time. Right?
Well, not exactly. The nice Best Western lady filled us in that, in fact, for the past 15 years it hadn't snowed much at all in these parts. Up until about two years ago, she couldn't say for sure that there had been any snow. It got cold, sure, but snow was still somewhat rare.
Later, when we were on the train back to Paris, I discovered that snow was kind of rare there, too. And that got me thinking: No wonder our flight got cancelled. I had always assumed that all of Europe was a "snow culture." I think of the place as being covered in drifts starting around October and not letting up until late May. I don't know where this impression came from, but it has always been there. Turns out, it's not really accurate. Not 100%, anyway. Snow, it seems, is kind of rare in these parts of France.
So yeah, when there's a bit of heavy snow at Charles De Gaul, flights get cancelled. There's really not much else to do for it.
Back in Strasbourg, snow was starting to pile up all over. The cold became biting, and gloves and scarf became the rule. That morning I had ventured out without my hat, my trusty Indiana Jones-like fedora that I had waited my whole life to wear without self-consciousness. I didn't think I'd need it, since the day prior it had been warm enough, and I wanted to feel the cool air in my hair and on my scalp and forehead.
By the time we swung back by the hotel to drop off a few purchases before going to lunch, I had sworn that I would never leave without that hat again. Not only is it of the awesomeness, it is also quite handy for keeping my brain from freezing to the inside of my skull.
Our final day in Strasbourg was quiet and slow and relaxing. Kara and my mother-in-law went on a little shopping spree for hosiery and travel gifts, while my father-in-law and I checked out a record store that also happened to sell these strange, hardback little graphic novels I was sorely tempted to buy. Eventually we all met back outside, in the cold, and wandered toward a little cafe Kara had spotted on our first day. This was one of hundreds of cute cafes we could have eaten at, but it didn't disappoint. I had a medium-rare piece of veal that actually was medium rare, and a glass of wine that seemed near bottomless (thanks to copious refills from my father-in-law), and resulted in me being in excellent Christmas cheer for the next hour or two.
When we were finished it was time to casually stroll back to the hotel and gather our things for the train ride back to Paris. The clerk called for a cab for us, and was kind enough to take our group picture while we waited. Soon, the cab pulled up front, and within the next 15 minutes we were boarding our train.
I don't know why passenger trains aren't a big, huge, honkin' deal in the U.S., but dammit they should be. If I could hop on a train and go to any U.S. city from Houston, any time I wanted, I'd take that over flying any day. No pat downs from the TSA. No cramming myself into a seat two sizes too small for an anorexic toddler. No one yelling at me to turn off my computer or cell phone while the train is "taking off." No worries about whether or not my baggage was loaded. And I can get up any time I want to go buy myself a drink or a snack. Plus, I can write in peace on a train, whereas I'm never able to type more than three words on an airplane thanks to having my elbows shoved into my lungs by drink carts and my back assaulted by the shitty seating.
My first cross-country train ride was an excellent experience for me, and so was Strasbourg. I want to live there. I want to wake up to stone-paved streets and people cheerily walking or biking to work with loaves of paper-wrapped bread under their arms. I want to have legitimate reasons and opportunities to wear coats and hats and scarves. I want to live in a city that could be ironically described as "Diseny-esque."
Please buy more of my books so I can move there.
Until then, I'm off to more of Europe. Christmas in Paris was sweet and relaxing, and very low-key. Now we're on our way to Brussels, by way of Brugge, for a couple of days Belgium waffling. Another train ride, another chance to reflect and write and relax. I could grow to love this continent.
Seriously, buy more of my books.