WELCOME TO PARIS OCT 11 2015
Paris is unlike everyplace else. We love its energy, its irrepressible pleasure in every sensory experience, its affinity for spontaneous expression of feelings.
We came this time from London, via the Eurostar train, which uses the “Chunnel.” This was our first time taking the train. It was a simple, pleasant two hour or so train ride from London to Paris – making the two cities seem suddenly close to each other – closer than New York and Washington in the US. Our assigned seats faced two other seats, with two young British women taking a few days to visit Paris – very chatty and pleasant. Most of our time on the train was spent eating the lunch we had brought with us – sandwiches and crisps, with bottles of soda. The Chunnel was dark, with nothing to watch out the windows, in any case.
When we arrived in Paris Gare du Nord, our car driver was waiting for us (it helps, when one has major luggage, to arrange for a car, for the assistance one receives with the bags.). Very soon after our cheery greetings, we knew we were in Paris, not London. The driver took us to the elevator to the parking garage, and pressed the button for the floor where he had parked. The elevator door opened at the floor – onto a piece of green corrugated metal that had been nailed across the opening. He muttered something about construction going on, and pressed the button for the floor below. There, he deposited us and our bags, saying he was going to the floor above to retrieve the car, and that he’d be back to pick us up, as he sprinted for the stairs. Five minutes later, a black Peugeot 508 came down the ramp between floors and stopped to pick us up.
Then our Paris adventure really started. As we left the station, we noticed that, a block to our left, a huge crowd of people was also leaving the station, on foot. This was a truly enormous crowd, filling the width of the Parisian avenue, and continuing, tightly packed, for at least a block or two. Our driver took off, trying to get ahead of the marchers, who were participating in a demonstration, something that occurs frequently in Paris. We asked the driver what it was about, and he said he thought the people were protesting the attacks that had taken place the past week in Turkey – attacks by the Islamic state, or the Syrian rebels, or some other destabilizing group in the Middle East. After a couple of turns, we came upon the marchers again, and of course, traffic was blocked along their whole route. Our driver then started weaving through a street that had been blocked off from cars as a pedestrian passage for shoppers. There we were, weaving among the Sunday strollers, none of whom paid us any mind. The streets became narrower and narrower, as we wove through, our driver attempting to find a way to get ahead of the march. We finally left the pedestrian area, but then found our way blocked by several people standing in the middle of the narrow thoroughfare apparently engrossed in a heated argument, complete with eloquent gestures. The driver stopped, left the car, and went to join the argument, with his own angry gestures. After a couple of minutes, the driver of the car blocking traffic got back into his vehicle, to move his car forward ten feet or so. As we passed through, he had parked again in the middle of the street to go back and continue the argument, apparently about a minor bump that had produced no noticeable damage to the vehicles involved, but which must have aroused serious issues of honor and precedence. Our driver pulled away, muttering under his breath imprecations of doom on those who will block the way of others for nothing at all.
As we drove on, each narrow street ended in a one-way sign that directed us back once again to the avenue blocked by the marchers. So our driver turned the wrong way into the next one lane street, and we drove the wrong way through a series of these narrow passages, until we arrived yet again at the major avenue, with the marchers still proceeding along steadily.
At this point, a police car was facing us. The driver and the officer, without leaving their cars, carried on a dialogue of gestures – no sound – with hands holding their respective steering wheels. It was clear that traffic was blocked, and our driver presented that as an extenuating circumstance for his apparent – but clearly reasonable – violation of the laws of traffic direction – and the policeman conceded the point. At this point, we could see that the demonstration was truly massive – probably 20-25 people across, in a mass of humanity that stretched for at least a half mile. There really was no way around them. So we ended up as part of the demonstration, driving meekly, at walking speed, at the visible end to the phalanx of marchers. Fortunately, we were by now nearing the Seine, after over an hour of frenzied driving through alleys and one way streets going the wrong way. Soon, the marchers were turning off for planned speeches in the plaza of the Hotel de Ville, so finally, after the last of them turned into the massive plaza, we were able, finally, to cross the river and speed up the Rue St. Jacques to our apartment.
This experience had contrasted dramatically with London, where we had ridden a few cabs, in addition to taking the underground. The London cabbies, before they can be licensed as taxi drivers, have to learn every single street in the city – no matter how tiny – its direction and its connections. So the London cabbies were a delight. They whizzed us away from traffic down and around the same kind of narrow medieval ways that our Paris driver had attempted. But where he was randomly taking alleyways, hoping to come out in a better place relative to the marchers, the London cabbies were coolly efficient. One even used a shortcut through a parking garage. They got us where we were going in virtually no time, traffic be damned. What a delight to experience their encyclopedic knowledge of their city!
We had to laugh at the ways our first ride in Paris from the train station to the apartment had encapsulated so much that was strictly Parisian, in high contrast to the purposeful bustle of the city we had just left.
In that first hour and a half, we experienced a massive demonstration that blocked traffic and stopped normal life, a dramatic argument about a tiny incident, and a driver intent on demonstrating his earnestness with frantic and random attempts to circumvent an obstacle, including minor traffic infractions and a successful ploy to explain them away . There could be no doubt that we were now in Paris, where life is lived intensely, and people’s sense of worth is sometimes embedded in the creative flair with which they process each moment.