Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Paris: Day Ten (Wednesday)

We got off a little earlier than usual on this blustery cool day.  The sun was trying to come out after the rains the day before, and it would, in large stretches, followed by equally large stretches of cloudy skies.  No matter, after the previous day, the weather would not be a problem for what we had in mind: a tour of the Paris Catacombs.

We arrived at what for us what a fairly early morning time, around 11:15 to find that there was already a line.  Now it wasn't as long as the one at the Musee d'Orsay, and it wasn't raining, so we decided to be tough and stay.  I went up front to see what was happening, and discovered that they were limiting the number of people to about 200, and this meant letting in small groups of eight to ten every ten or twenty minutes.  We had stopped at a patissiserie on our way to the Catacombs, so we had some croissants, pain  au chocolat and Madelines to snack on while we waited.

The line moved quickly enough and soon we were walking down the 200 or so steps back into previous centuries and even into prehistoric time.  The tunnels themselves were the remnants of the quarries that provided the building material for all the churches and apartment buildings in Paris. Eventually those tunnels became a safety hazard, at just about the same time that the great cemeteries in the center of the city became overcrowded, so the two were combined to create a massive ossuary deep under the 14th arrondisement, or, as I knew it, Montparnasse.  This is the quartier that I first lived in, with the French family, the Bayon-de-Noyers, way back in the mid-seventies, and it's where we found ourselves when we emerged from the Catacombs.

After buying a few souvenirs for Maddie and Valery, we found a busy corner cafe for lunch.  I had what had become my usual: soup a l'ognion gratinee and a steak/frites.  Maddie had a club sandwich and Valery tried another version of the croque Monsieur. It was all good, if not exactly cheap.  I haven't been looking too closely at the bills, and it helps that I can't do a lot of math quickly in my head, so it's been nice not to worry about finances at all.  We have what we want, and there has been enough so far that we haven't given it any thought.  After years of desperate poverty in this very place, it was nice to have that security.

After lunch we wandered up the Avenue du Maine, looking for where I first lived in Paris.  But, although we found the Cimitiere Montparnasse, onto which our apartment building overlooked, the building was no longer there.  It had been torn down, or at least so considerably renovated as a Holiday Inn--yes, that's right!--that I couldn't recognize it.  Nonetheless, we had a nice walk through the cemetery, where I was able to show Valery and Maddie some of the other interesting graves that I recalled finding in my early days in Paris.  It was a nice quiet sunny moment to relax in the heart of the busy city and we took advantage of it.

I didn't know it then, but I would need that relaxation in order to face my next obstacle.

After we saw where my old apartment building should have been, and I was able to point out the rue de Gaite,which was in my day--and is till today, to some extent--a fairly sleazy street, lines with porn shops, peep shows and tourist shops.  This was the street I walked down every evening on my way to the Cafe Select back in the day.

Today I encountered the worst of the French, something that harkens back to my first days here, les petits Francais.  In an attempt to be smart about our travel plans, I went on the internet a few weeks back to purchase train tickets for our trip to Chartres.

Recalling how much of a hassle it was to buy train tickets at the Gare Montparnasse on the day of a trip, I thought it wise to buy our tickets in advance.  I even decided to buy first class tickets, since this is a luxury I could have never afforded on previous trips, even the one financed by Lynda in '03.  I got my email confirmation of our e-tickets and brought the paper with me as instructed.  Alas, on the day of our reservation, it was raining and we decided to postpone the trip for a day or two till the weather cleared up.

Then, I read the fine print, which stated that we had to make the change on the day or face a fee for making the change.  No worries, I thought, we can cover it.  I figured it would be easy enough to go down to the station and talk to someone and pay a fee and get a new reservation.  So, today, we did just that.  We went to the Gare and I waited in line to talk to a clerk.  When I showed him the paper, he was instantly dismissive.

'Non', he said, without even examining the paper, 'you have to make the change on the day or you lose your money.

Now this just didn't sound right at all, so I questioned him, but he was having none of it.  Without even so much as a shrug, or a 'sorry', he said simply, there is nothing you can do.  Nothing?  I asked.  Nope, he said, shaking his head definitively.  I pointed out that it said that it could be done for a fee, but he wouldn't even consider the possibility.  So, my anger building, I capitulated and bought another set of three tickets for the next day.  I left the line, furious and frustrated in the extreme.  Never had I heard that a missed train (or a missed plane) would result in the complete loss of the funds.  Always, there is a way.  Unless, of course, you are in France, where the petty in petty bureaucrat is carried to new heights.

Here, the smallest, most minor official--in this case a clerk at the train station--can simply wave of any and all requests for accommodation without any further consideration.  'Non' is the operative word, and it is the end of the line.  There is no higher authority, and they know it, especially when dealing with someone they know does not speak French as fluently as they deemed acceptable, and in this case it was me, despite the fact that I was polite and making every attempt to communicate in the language of love.

With tickets in hand, it would have been easy enough to leave the station and give up, but this encounter made me all the more determined to do something about it.  After a few minutes of stewing, I decided to see if my e-ticket could be obtained from one of the self-serve kiosks scattered around the station.  Sure enough, after about two minutes I had printed out three tickets.  I examined them and found that they were valid for a full month.  Now more determined than ever, I marched back to the ticket counter and got back in line.  Hoping not to get the same guy again, I was lucky and found myself in front of a nice young woman.  I showed her the tickets I had just printed and asked if they were valid.

Sure enough, she said yes.  So, I told her I wanted a refund for the tickets I had just purchased.  She was puzzled, but I assured her that this is just what I wanted to do.  She called over the first clerk, to show him my newly minted tickets and make sure this was ok.  He came over and without looking at my tickets, shook his head and said again, 'non'.  This time, however, I had an ally.  She pointed to the valid dates on the tickets.  Now, at last, he actually looked at them, and without a look of surprise, nor any word of apology, nodded his assent that they were valid and walked off.  If I could have said something meaningful to him, I would have, but this was the most French I had spoken all trip, and it was certainly the hardest, trying to communicate actual meaning, instead of just common requests and/or pleasantries.   After all that, all I wanted was my refund, which I got.

This is the worst of the French, the equivalent of the ugly American and it was fortunately just a tiny piece of this otherwise wonderful place and people.  I have tried to keep my comments as positive as the experience itself, so I hope both Reader will forgive this little rant and keep it in perspective as I have.

It's hard to believe, but our trip is winding down.  Tomorrow we visit Chartres, and Friday is set aside for shopping. The nice weather has returned, so we are hoping to see the stained glass at Chartres in all its glory tomorrow!

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