Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation 5: Paris To Amsterdam

(How's this for a backyard view?)

Sunday. We slept in until about 9:30, and then packed quickly to depart the hotel by 10:am. We decided not to do a cab to the Gare du Nord since, traffic being what it is, the cab would cost $50 and take an hour. Our Paris hotel was about a three block walk to get to the metro and we'd need to change trains once to get to the train station for Amsterdam. Since we had some extra metro tickets and plenty of time, we decided to do it this way. The downside is that I had to lug both bags up and down the stairs several times, but the upside was that the ride cost us $2.20 and took only about 25 minutes. And we climbed up from our hole in the ground into the middle of Paris's Gare du Nord.

I never feel so much like a gawking tourist as I do when I'm engaged in something transportation-related, as I'm way too taken by all the little differences from what I'm familiar with. I love all trains, but the Paris metro, anyway, just seems a notch cleaner and more urbane than the trains in NYC and Chicago. (We'll see if the tubes in London and Amsterdam contribute to this impression.) And the trans-Europe rail systems exacerbate the situation even more, as we don't have anything like this anywhere I've been except maybe New York. The Gare du Nord is a perfect example. Open and airy, it's much more varied and spacious than an airport, and security is more lax, so you get all manner of panhandlers and scam artists mixed in with a hundred different nationalities waiting for the trains. There are several restaurants and cafes mixed with a variety of vendors and ticketing agencies, and there are a couple great, clacking train boards which list carrier, destinations, train numbers and, just before boarding, the platform number. The trainshed itself is soaring and glass-covered, like an immense greenhouse, with ancient steel girders and ornate support posts giving a bit of architectural panache. And it just feels like what one thinks of when you think of traveling in Europe: college kids with backpacks and lots of Americans and other nationalities, and vendors with magazines and newspapers from 10 different countries. This was some of the best people-watching in the city. We had a bite to eat while we waited for our train, I bought some playing cards, and we watched the pigeons and people walking their dogs. And we watched the scams in action.

There's one scam in particular that intrigues me, and we even tried to ask around to get the scoop, but nobody seemed to know what we were talking about. Someone--usually a man, but not always, and almost always of some non-French ethnicity--approaches you on the street and reaches down by their shoe and *voilá!* produces a gold ring, like a man's wedding ring, out of nowhere. They raise it up to you and hold it before you with a look of amazement and inquire whether you just dropped it (or look at you so as to imply this--there is often no speaking involved). After this happened to me about five times, I began to suspect when it was going to happen, and I several times looked on the ground for 5 seconds before they struck and verified that (of course) there was nothing there. So it's a sleight-of-hand thing. But how is it supposed to work? Do they expect you to show them your ring--"I'm wearing mine already, thanks"--so that they can clearly assess your jewelry? Or do they expect you to buy it from them? But then why do the "look what I just found" bit? I just don't get how it works, or works well enough that a hundred people in the city are carrying around a gold ring trying to make money off the same scam. In and around the Gare du Nord, though we saw it other places as well, a woman--sometimes wearing headscarves; gypsies, maybe--will ask "Do you speak English?" If you say yes, they then hold up a badly-worded, hand-printed request for money, usually to help them with some grave problem--husband died, I'm stranded here with three children, etc. We were approached 20 times this way during our two hour wait at the train station, and a couple times we saw security people walking in our direction and suddenly ten of these women ran from all around the station for the exits. I got to where I would nod "no" when I was asked if I spoke English, for which I would get a contemptuous look since I had a British newspaper clearly visible in my lap. C'est la vie!

I've become accustomed to strangers approaching me speaking English. I suppose my fatness and mode of dress mark me as clearly not from 'round hyah. I noticed a decade ago that I was fatter than most people in Paris, and now I'm a good 40 lbs fatter than that, something painfully clear in every photo where I obligingly block out the sunlight. Still, it's interesting that no one defaults to, say, Russian or German when they see us. But for all that, we encountered virtually no rudeness toward us for not speaking the language; on the contrary, people were very friendly and helpful, and we had almost no trouble understanding or being understood. I did read my little travel guide a bit too late, though. I noticed that all waiters were especially nice to us when they bade us goodbye, and I learned later that a service charge is included in your bill. You're expected to leave some small spare change in addition for a "tip." So my usual 20% tip was turned into roughly 35% gratuity. No wonder people were nice. In one case I even asked about a roughly 20% charge on our bill and was led to believe it was tax. When I asked about the gratuity, he answered "No, no, the tip is really up to you." Well, from our perspective that's not exactly accurate. But most of the time, and all the time on my last visit, we just ate sandwiches from street vendors, so the issue never came up. Susan and I had probably one sit-down meal a day, so we probably parted company with about $40 that we didn't need to. Ah well, Paris is an expensive place for these poor suckers to live!

(Speaking of which, Susan insists that I perform this act of self-abasement and tell of my foibles with attempted kindness in the laundromat. The laundromat by our hotel worked oddly to me: you paid for everything--washer, dryer, soap--from a central electronic control box, where you would enter the number of the machine you wanted to use and then the amount required to get that machine to run was then displayed. So, I put in washer #24, and the display says four Euros are required for that machine. Or, if you put in machine #40--the soap dispenser--then the box asks for one Euro; put it in, and the soap box falls from the machine a few feet away. Well, while we were waiting for our dryer to finish, an oriental man approached us and asked if we had change for a 5 Euro bill, as the machine would not take his. I offered to use a 20, and would just take the change that got spit out. Well and good. But the machine is not a change machine; I forgot that it was waiting for four Euros to get his washer going, and the change that came out was 16 Euros, not 20. So when he offered me his five, I needed to take it and give him a Euro back. But I was thinking that from my change--gleaned from the "change machine"--I then needed to cash his fiver. All I had was 2-Euro coins, so I gave him six Euros for his fiver, and he gave me 50 cents back, all the change he had--with a very confused look on his face. So I ended up buying his clothes cleaning and giving him 50 cents to boot!)(You should hear my wife cackle as I read this to her!)

(Fabulous cafe barge with Louvre in the background)

Now we're crossing the French countryside at what must be near to 200 mph. Whole landscapes come into view and pass in a matter of seconds. You see a little church steeple off in the distance, and the next instant it's past and gone. We glided out of the station right on time--it's said you can set your watch to the trains here, and so far that's been true--and the engineer seemed to keep things throttled back to 50-60 mph until we cleared the city limits. This happened quite quickly though, and we were suddenly rolling thru farmland which looks like farmland everywhere, except that the villages look older and all the roofs have tile instead of shingles. Leaving Paris, the train seemed absolutely as smooth as glass, but now we're up to speed it's about like any other train, though a bit quieter. Still, it must take quite the trackage to deal with trains at this rate of speed. Joints and imperfections would jump right up and bite you at 200 mph, and the consequences of something not working out would be dire. It's interesting to compare it to air travel, which is how we Americans all get around except along the Eastern corridor. This is not as fast as air travel, but getting to and from the stations, usually located in the middle of the cities, and getting on and off the trains; all this is quicker and easier than with the airport. The trains have more room and allow you the luxury of moving around. And, of course, you have something to look at with the train. An airplane is simply too far above anything worth looking at, and you only have a shitty little window anyway. But airplanes are all about speed, and even high speed rail would not work very well with the kinds of distances that American travelers must traverse.

So we've bid farewell to Paris. I think we could happily have spent another week there, but during the planning stages I was a little afraid that Susan wouldn't care much for the place. I knew that if people were rude to us it would really turn her vacation sour, and I expected that Amsterdam would be guaranteed to be friendly and relaxing. Looking back now, I think Amsterdam will have a tough row to hoe to win us over after loving the French capital as much as we did. We just couldn't have hit things better than we did, and these will be storybook days I'll remember forever. We're already talking about when we might come back.

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