Paris retardé

It took me 18 weeks to get to Paris. Prior to starting my rotation in Stuttgart and while considering which European cities I’d visit, I was under the impression that I’d be in Paris several times: once to do wine tasting, once as a base for a Normandy excursion, once to be among Parisians, once to explore the tourist attractions. What actually happened was that I ended up spending four weekends in various Swiss cantons whose native language isn’t even French, drawn instead by the allure of the Attractive Looming Pinnacle Sensation to the south. Suffice to say I was chuffed after seeing low TGV prices to Paris and that they happened to coincide with a four-day weekend. (I can’t take full credit for making the pilgrimage, though, as two friends from the US found cheap airfares and suggested Paris as a possible destination.) It was to be my third time in Paris, but I still didn’t feel like I “knew” the city after the first two times. I hoped this time would be different.

When I was studying in Nancy in 2005, a TGV line was being built between Paris and Strasbourg. Sometime between then and six years from then (i.e. now), it was finished — and my oh my is it incredible. It was impossible to see anything at night, but I later learned that in certain stretches between Paris and Strasbourg, the TGV gets up to 320 km/h. I’m no rail expert, so take this with a grain of salt, but I feel like the TGV was smoother even at the higher speeds than was the German ICE lines I had ridden. There is no doubt that the French know how to design a train line. [Ignoring monetary issues,] If every American experienced this TGV business, all the misconceptions of high-speed rail would probably vanish. Done properly, it’s incredible.

On Saturday, I wandered around the city a bit. I took a bus to Charles de Gaulle Étoile (the Arc de Triomphe) and stood silently for a while at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I hadn’t even been in Paris for 24 hours and I was already getting a bit sentimental… for all the touristic happiness that surrounds it now, this is one solemn monument.

I started walking down the Champs Elysées and turned around for a quick snap. I saw some tourists hurtling off to their next stop in a big yellow-green object.

As I continued, I came across a few interesting cars — I saw [what I think was] a Porsche 356A Cabriolet, a Ferrari 458, and two Aston DB6s. Only one had an contemplative Frenchman next to it, however.

After two hours (I took my time to take lots of crappy photos — I mean I reallytook my time), I finally made it to the Louvre. I was thinking of going back after dark, but the pools of water by the glass pyramids had been emptied in preparation for winter. I didn’t know that I’d end up being too exhausted to do night shots, but I was still a bit bummed at the time. After some more walking, I stopped at the Hôtel de Ville. There weren’t many people here, which I thought was curious. The city hall had a pretty big draw in Munich the week before. (Maybe this one is a bit less interesting than the one in Munich.)

I ate dinner with a former roommate who is now working for the RATP (sweet job, I’ve gotta say) and an old friend of his. They then took me up to Montmartre along a non-common route and pointed out various buildings once we reached the top. The next morning, I awoke at 7 AM to get to the hotel where my two US friends would be meeting me and stopped at Montmartre for sunrise on the way there. There were a surprising number of visitors already — and actually, there were more than I expected the night before, too — but the street vendors and artists hadn’t arrived yet.

On the way down, I saw the second thing that gave me the chills: a plaque dedicated to the memory of children who lost their lives in WWII. The building is still a primary school today. The commemoration reads:

To the memory of the students of this school [who were] deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the barbarian Nazi regime and the Government of Vichy.
They were exterminated in concentration camps. More than 700 of these kids lived in the 18th arrondisement.

I tried to think about other things as I made my way from the 18ième to the 7ième arrondisement. After we met at the hotel, I continued with Brian (not the same Brian that visited Lucerne, Salzburg, and Prague with me) and Matt and headed toward the 4ième. Not sure exactly what to do, we swung by Notre Dame, gawking at the long line; Île St. Louis, immediately next to Île de France but of a vastly different atmosphere; and then went into the Centre Pompidou, where we were astonished to find that a majority of the patrons were actually around our age. We agreed that it was awesome that people in Europe seem to read, care about the classics, and otherwise behave as mature adults. I don’t know that this is true of all of Europe’s youth, but it was nice to get away from Bimbo Bardashian and Co. What better city than Paris to express these pompous thoughts in! We were treated to a light show as a result of our condescension.

Brian and Matt needed to catch some winks to shrug off the jetlag, so we headed back to the hotel after a great dinner at Panfoulia. The restaurant was a suggestion from my French friend (François — also the RATP engineer) and was great. For the second time that day, we mulled over engineering education, the economy, and other subjects almost comically stereotypical of an intellectual discussion in Paris.

On Monday, I proposed that we try to do an en masse tour of Paris. We started off by going toward the Eiffel Tower at sunrise, then continued up to Sacred Coeur (Brian and Matt hadn’t seen it yet). We walked down into the Pigalle area (not at night, though) and took the Métro to where I had started my trek two days prior — at Charles de Gaulle Étoile. Though similar to the walk I did on Saturday, this time we planned to also visit the Sorbonne and surrounding area. We could not have asked for better weather… it was a gorgeous afternoon.

About seventeen hours after we woke up, we were back at the hotel. Matt and Brian still had some work to get done, but we eventually also planned what to do on Tuesday. At about 2 AM, we had had enough of emails and set our alarms for a few hours later.

The final day had arrived. I was trying to avoid thinking about it too much, but it eventually dawned on me that I needed to leave Paris and go back to work. I bid Brian and Matt a fond farewell — I love a good intellectual conversation and these two are more than my equals when it comes to discussing such matters — and headed back toward the Eiffel Tower, this time with my tripod. I had left Matt my Paris mapand directions for how to get to Versailles, so I saw the second sunrise at the Eiffel Tower on my own.

On the way back from to the hotel, I saw a movie being filmed and stopped to be a small embodiment of the culture I was making fun of two days ago and took some shots of the actresses also taking in Paris. I was captivated at how slow moviemaking is: as seamless as the final version is, actual filming takes a lot of time and patience. There were four groups of cars parked around the Eiffel Tower, but in the hour or so I spent watching nothing unfold, the cars never moved once. The process of taking a picture takes several seconds to visualize and execute — I can only imagine how challenging it can be for a director to get an entire movie just right.

Several times that morning and several times again on the TGV, I choked up as I thought about the previous four days. I was in a country whose language I spoke and could understand, acted both as tourist and Parisian, and finally got to understand la Métro (which is without a doubt the best public transportation I’ve ever been on — it’s damn near perfect in my eyes) and les arrondisements de Paris. More important, I got to see two friends from the US and discuss some rather weighty topics with them. I don’t think I’ve had a more fulfilling, more complete weekend since I arrived, and as a sum of all these factors, for the first time since I arrived, I genuinely felt like I belonged in that country.

Une note sur le tître: the title is a play on words in two and only two ways. The word retardé is the past participle of the verb retarder, to slow or to slow down. Thus, the play on words is first that this post is late (I couldn’t — and still am not sure I have — figure out how to convey the emotionality of this trip) and second that it took me an awfully long time to get to Paris. It is not meant to be a play on words on the incorrect usage of the English adjective, “retarded” (e.g. something that is silly, stupid, or that doesn’t make sense). In my use, “retarded” refers to something or someone that is late or that has been slowed down; it is for me always a literal translation from the past participle, retardé.

Paris retardé

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