I am once again back in Hamburg after an exceptionally busy long weekend in France. Before I cover my French adventures, however, I'll begin with Friday:
Friday: Friday was a really, really good day. I was already out-of-my-mind excited to be going to France, so the day got off to a great start. Then for lunch the whole Online department got together and went to a local restaurant. It was this great place inside a building that used to be a warehouse or butcher's shop or something. The inside was all exposed brick, and there was a great chandelier made out of painted antique axes. The tables were particularly interesting: they were wooden, but the wood had been painted in myriad colours, then given a very shiny varnish so that the tables almost seemed to be tiled. I was facing the windows, so when the conversation switched to German I got to enjoy the view of the tall maples and the typically-European apartment buildings opposite. We were having inconsistent weather, so I could watch as the rain transitioned to dappled sunlight and then back again.
After lunch - which was an excellent mushroom penne - we migrated a door or two over to a local coffee place. This one definitely used to be the butcher's shop. It was huge and open inside, with a high sloped ceiling. The storage area was separated by some shelving which divided the space but did so elegantly and without eliminating the sense of space and openness. There was a long bar along the left side, and to the right and centre were scattered long wooden benches and clustered seats. The tables were decorated with white orchids and glass vases filled with coffee beans. The treats looked amazing, but since we'd just had lunch I stuck with a drink, which was sooooo gooooood! Once again I sat facing the windows, basking in the periodic bursts of sunlight while enjoying the banter of my coworkers. I'm really enjoying the Online department; they're a great group, and the dynamic is one that is really fun to be around. They're friendly and inclusive and very easy to joke around with, which I certainly appreciate - it lends an ease to life that is sorely needed when so much else takes such effort. Friday was the first time since arriving in Europe that I actually felt like I might not want to leave; like I had something here that I might want to build on, that I may actually have found a niche into which I might fit. It was a really, really nice feeling.
The afternoon passed quickly enough, and then it was off to the airport. Things went without a hitch until I arrived at my gate, at which point they announced that my flight would be delayed by 45 minutes. This begun something of a stress-fest for me as I was supposed to be connecting with another flight before arriving in Lyon. Thankfully several other passengers were in a similar situation so the airline announced that our connecting flight would wait for our arrival. Despite the setback the flights went by quickly and before I knew it I was collecting my luggage and meeting my host, a distant relative. By the time we arrived at his residence it was quite late, so we said goodnight and all went to get some much-needed rest.
Saturday: The next morning my cousin arrived from Lille, and so the family took me out and about to see the sights of Lyon. We started by visiting la Maison des Canuts, a small museum in the silk weaving district dedicated to silk's history in Lyon. Afterwards we walked through a typical French market, and then went out for lunch together at a typical French restaurant. The appetizer and entrée were alright, but what really impressed me was dessert. It was a fondant au chocolat (yes, the same dessert I had in Paris) which was ridiculously good.
After lunch we visited the famous Basilique de Fourvière, constructed in honour of the Virgin Mary after Lyon was spared from a plague epidemic. It sits high on a hill overlooking Lyon and its two rivers, the Rhone and the Soane. It is easily the most elaborate building I've seen thus far in Europe: every inch of it was covered in mosaic and cold detailing, which suits my taste just fine. It was absolutely huge, and awe-inspiring both inside and out.
After the Basilique de Fourvière we went to another church, the Church of Saint John the Baptist. This church was much older, constructed back in the 14th century or something close. It was also where Henri IV married Marie de Medici, which I found totally fascinating. It was much more austere and had a whole different aura to it. It was such an amazing feeling to touch a pillar and know that hundreds of years ago nobles stood in the same place witnessing the marriage of a king. Well, at least for me it was.
One of the most interesting features of the church was its numerous headless statues. During the French Revolution the strong anti-clerical movement had prompted revolutionaries to behead the various statues of saints and bishops.
After our church visits we wandered along the streets of old Lyon, where I got a first hand look at the Italian influences and even got to walk through one of the "traboules". These were long covered passages that wound between buildings. In the old days they were used to protect valuable silk from water damage during winter rains, but during the Second World War they could be used to escape the Gestapo.
After everyone had done enough wandering we headed back to the apartment, where I took a much-needed nap. That evening my cousin, his friend and I all went out to a local pub, though we kept it a fairly quiet and early evening as my cousin was getting sick and I was far too tired to begin stirring up trouble.
Sunday: In the morning I (very reluctantly) got up, though life was made much better by a French breakfast: baguette with butter and blackberry jam, paired with an exceptionally large mug of tea. Then it was off to the train station to begin my trip to Paris. Luckily after having taken the train to Munich I had a better idea of what to expect and managed to find my seat fairly easily. I stayed awake most of the way enjoying the absolutely stunning French landscape. It was a rainy and misty morning, so most of the fields were shrouded by cloud and fog. The countryside was quite like that of southern Germany, though the character of the towns was markedly different. The brick of the houses seemed slightly older, and was a yellow-brown colour rather than the customary German white. The red tile of the roofs was also slightly darker, and at times parts of the roof had completely fallen in. Spotting the landscape were creamy coloured milk cows and the odd horse, plodding along the lanes that were always bordered by hedges. One image I'll never forget was a bridge we passed. It looked to be a construction of the Romans (not unlikely given southern France was once their stomping grounds) that passed through a quiet valley. It was so old and unused that moss and trees had grown along its top, and the mist seemed to hover around its arches very prettily. I wish we had these kinds of things back home.
Eventually I drifted off to sleep, and next thing I knew we were arriving in Paris. I must say the outskirt of the city isn't the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I got off the train and then had to navigate the metro to get to my hotel, which wasn't too difficult but was scary. The Paris metro is nothing short of filthy and there were all sorts of disreputable characters hanging about. Despite that it was the middle of the day I did my best to get out of there as quickly as possible. Once I surfaced I got a little bit turned around on the streets, but was eventually able to locate my hotel and breathe a sigh of relief.
I stayed just long enough to check in and drop off my things before turning around and heading right back out. The first thing I encountered was the huge Eglise de la Madeleine, which looks remarkably like the Parthenon.
My goal, however, lay elsewhere, so I plowed on and was quickly at the Place de la Concorde and the Jardins des Tuileries. The gardens were absolutely beautiful, and the autumn foliage added to the expereince. I wish pictures could better convey the real scale of the place, but both the Louvre and the gardens are absolutely huge.
Place de la Concorde:
Approaching the Louvre itself was just... there are no words. It has been a dream of mine for a long time to see the French palaces. I wish I had had more time to really absorb the scenery and the history, but unfortunately I was on a timeline and the lineup to get in was several hundred long.
Once inside I decided to get a portable audio tour and started my wandering. In hindsight I definitely should have planned better, but there was so little time there wasn't much I could do. Despite access to maps the Louvre is - as I said - gigantic and it is exceptionally easy to get lost. So, I wound up wandering all the way through the Egyptian section, which I have little interest in (and at which point my camera battery died - FUCK!). I finally got out and managed to see the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory (Nike), some of the Greek statue collection, the French crown jewels, and my far-and-away favourite, the Italian painters collection. In this section I got to see Caravaggio, Da Vinci (yes, the Mona Lisa, as well as Madonna on the Rocks and several others), Raphael, Michelangelo, and many, many, many others. Some of my stand-out favourites were the massive Raft of the Medusa by Gericault and the equally large-scale Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix, both of which could have easily covered the side of a small house. All too soon it seemed the museum was closing, and that was before I had had a chance to see a personal favourite, David's Coronation of Napoleon. Alas, I suppose I'll just have to come back one day.
After the Louvre closed I walked back along the Jardin de Tuileries, where I sat for quite some time to people watch. At one point some sleazy French guy gave me the eye and then made a kiss-face, which was perhaps the most hilarious thing that happened all weekend. How typical! After that I wandered up the Champs Elysées towards l'Arc de Triomphe. Needless to say there were plenty of fabulous stores, but as it turned out I restrained myself enough that I only bought one (reasonably priced) thing: a navy blue cashmere sweater with camel-coloured suede elbow patches - more on this later. Finally I headed back to my hotel where I had the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner I posted about earlier.
Monday: Getting up on Monday was quite possibly even harder than getting up on Sunday. I don't know what kind of sheets they had on the bed (probably Egyptian cotton), but it was delightfully comfortable and the last sleep-in I had was more than a week previous. But I figured I have my whole life to sleep and only a few hours left in Paris, so up I got and headed out. Unfortunately what I didn't know was that Parisian stores don't open until 10:30 on weekdays. Uh, excuse me what?! Yep. 10:30 ladies and gentlemen. So I mostly wound up wandering around the Champs Elysées waiting for things to open and feeling irritated by French laziness (or so I saw it). Eventually things did open though, and I accomplished one last thing I had really wanted to do: I bought macaroons at Ladurée Royale. They are reputed to have some of the best Parisian macaroons, but honestly 80% of why I went was their packaging, which is totally beautiful. I got a package of six, including chocolate, vanilla, caramel, raspberry, orange blossom, and one other flavour I no longer recall.
I got a lavendar coloured box like the one pictured above, which came in a beautiful green bag. I have every intention of keeping both for the rest of forever.
After my stop at Ladurée I had just enough time to go back to the hotel, collect my suitcase and check out. Unfortunately this process was made significantly longer by the two women ahead of me who decided that they were going to dispute every detail of their hotel invoice. Really ladies? You think a four star hotel is trying to scam you? Of course in the end they realised that all the charges were justified, and succeeded only in wasting vast amounts of my time while simultaneously frustrating me to death. At long last I was finally able to get directions to the airport shuttle (an hour long journey) and be on my way.
Getting to the station was fairly simple (the hotel provided me with a small map and directions) and the journey itself was fine: I spent most of it reading Perfume: the Story of a Murderer, which was my chosen entertainment for my French trip. I had decided it was a good choice because it's by a German author (Patrick Süskind) but set in Paris and other parts of France. Also it's a really good book. Anyway, unfortunately once I got to the airport things started to devolve fairly quickly. At this point I was already feeling extraordinarily travel-worn and a little fed up with the French in general (10:30 - I mean really??). The thing is, I somehow managed to forget that I don't do well with extended public travel. Not in Europe, not in North America. I just get sick of people being in my space, and this was aggravated by the sheer volume of obnoxious fat tourists (no pun intended). Suddenly stupidity seems to be omnipresent, and while usually I can manage enough patience to handle this graciously, when I get travel-overdose I turn into the Queen of the Death Glare. While in the Louvre I was constantly irritated by slow-moving people, whether they were old, young, or just obese. Then there were the frequent Public Displays of Affection (PDA) which were enough to make me feel violent. At one point I recall thinking that if I saw one more Euro-trash guy groping his girlfriend I was going to lose it. I mean honestly, what exactly in the goddamn Louvre Museum is making you horny right now?! Do you absolutely have to feel up your lady-friend's ass while in a huge public area? Would you want to less were I to drive a stake through your palm? Thought so.
Worse than the European gropers, however, were the children. It's no secret that I strongly dislike children, but in extended public experiences like this weekend it morphs into something more like undiluted loathing. While at the Louvre my irritation was sparked by screaming toddlers whose idiotic parents thought it would be a good idea to bring them along. For starters, the Louvre is a biiiig undertaking even for adults. Its collection is so vast that it would take days or weeks to fully appreciate it, and its also just physically big: it takes a long time and a fair amount of energy to trek around it, up and down stairs and through halls and whatnot. Even as someone who has studied both art and history I found it very tiring. So, as a brainless toddler with no appreciation whatsoever of what's in front of me I imagine the Louvre would be something comparable to Purgatory. To add, the food was only located centrally and could not be brought into the galleries, so the children were not just tired and bored but also hungry. I couldn't decide who to detest more: the children for making the noise, or the parents for their total lack of understanding or consideration. Either they're too feeble-minded to figure out it's a bad idea, or they don't give a damn, neither of which endear them to me. Plus, children are just so annoying. I remember walking through the Egyptian halls, admiring huge carved idols that had been worshiped literally thousands of years ago, when up comes some snot-nosed little brat who slaps his filthy palm down on the aforementioned statue. His mother, trailing behind, casually calls out "touche pas!", to which the kid responds by doing the same goddamn thing to the next item within reach, which in turn received the exact same response from the mother. Was it wrong of me to want to exterminate both of them? Don't know, don't much care.
A comedian once compared children to drunk adults. They're mentally short-handed little assholes who will weep or shriek with joy from one moment to the next with little to no provocation, both done in the most noisy way possible. Whatever happened to the days when children were seen and not heard? Or better yet, not seen and not heard; when they were shut away from the public until they were old enough to behave with some shred of decorum? Society shouldn't be a right, it should be earned.
You may be thinking that this is an awful vitriolic rant to have flowed forth from just a few hours spent in the company of crying kids. But oh no, the Louvre was not the end of my encounters with the Satan spawn. As I left off earlier, I had arrived at the airport and was waiting to check in when things really took a nose-dive. Directly ahead of me was a family consisting of two parents, an aunt or nanny (henceforth nanny), and an assortment of three or four rug rats, one of whom was being carried by the nanny and was perhaps 18 months old. The infant was, of course, shrieking as loudly as it could, while the slightly obese nanny did absolutely nothing to shut the thing up. I quietly prayed to myself that wherever they were going was as far from me as possible. But because this was apparently The Day From Hell, once we cleared security I of course discovered that not only were they at the same part of the Terminal as me, but they were going to be on the same plane. Cue death wish. There also happened to be two other crying infants in the vicinity, so I swiftly left to go find something to occupy my time.
I wound up in the duty-free section looking for some chocolate to ease up my all-consuming hatred for humanity. As I was purchasing it, however, I noticed the woman placing it in a special bag, which she then appeared to airlock, which I thought was strange because I was just going to eat it anyway. On closer inspection I saw that it said clearly "Do not open until you have reached your final destination". What the fuck, France?! I had already surrendered my baggage AND made it through security, I was buying the stuff from the airport vendor, but for some reason the French figured that it should be sealed up until I returned to Hamburg, which completely defeated the fucking point and just gave me another thing to carry.
Livid, I went in search of the most sugary coffee I could find. I even took the trouble to order in French as I really needed them to get the order right. I ordered a Cafe Mocha, which on their own menu clearly described espresso, steamed milk and chocolate syrup. What I received instead was the shittiest coffee of all time. It tasted like dirt, and after three sips I gave up and threw it away.
The "fun" didn't end there. When boarding time was finally approaching it became crowded, and of course the little demon child from earlier began crying again. And kept crying. And crying. The useless nanny brought The Thing right up next to me, at which point I was so repulsed I had to step back two metres so as not to curse or explode in some violent manner. At long last the plane started boarding (second half of the plane first), though when I got on I noticed that certain passengers had ignored the order in which people were invited to load and had just piled on whenever they saw fit. A little enough offense, true, but in my current state of mind this just infuriated me more. Tired, murderous, and overdosed on train tickets, plane tickets, metro and bus tickets, I managed to settle in the wrong seat twice, which was embarrassing and so very frustrating.
When the plane began takeoff I soon discovered that demon child was only two or three rows behind me because - you guessed it - it started crying again. This continued for the entirety of the hour-and-a-half long flight. When we finally got off the plane (the expression "like a bat out of hell" comes to mind) the escape was only temporary as everyone wound up at the baggage carrousel anyway. I hardly should have to say that Satan's minion cried the entire time we waited. It's a miracle I didn't commit a massacre.
Finally I escaped to a cab, and then to my apartment which was blissfully empty.
Reflecting back on the trip there are (of course) things I would have done differently. I would have planned my tour of the Louvre ahead of time, and I probably would have planned to stay longer in Paris. Actually, I probably would have planned the trip for shortly after my arrival in Europe. I think part of the trouble with this weekend is that I'm simply tired of the foreign. Different countries and cultures are wonderful and very educational, but being away from your own home and culture for so long is exhausting, and after a while you begin to fatigue of all the extra effort needed for everyday life. It's easy to start to resent differences that you once celebrated, simply because they make life a little more challenging. I don't have the same boundless energy that comes with excitement over new travels, rather I feel burnt out and ready to return home. I find myself in a strange kind of state - I am still very much foreign and there is so much I don't know (notably language), but at the same time I've been here much longer than most tourists and seem to have absorbed a great deal of European snobbery: I often feel contemptuous of tourists despite essentially being one. Strange indeed.
A final factor which contributed to the exhaustion of the weekend was the language. My French skills are infinitely superior to my German skills, but for the last three months I have tried to speak German whenever I've possibly been capable. So it's kind of my default language at the moment, though I obviously speak English 95% of the time. French has been a far-distant third. This weekend was disorienting because all of a sudden the order was rearranged. I found myself starting to thank the French servers with a "Dankeschön", which was followed by a stuttered "Thank you" and finally a "Merci" (hence the post title). In a twist which I might at another time call "amusing", today when I returned to work I found myself inclined to respond in French rather than German. This language dyslexia is annoying and just concludes with me spending most of my time stuttering incoherently.
Anyway, there's much more to say but it's very late and I have to work tomorrow, so I'm afraid I'll have to conclude here. More to come soon, I promise.