Thursday, May 06, 2010

Up and overseas: Part II

Editor's note: We pick up CJ's tales of international adventure where we left off (in part I), getting off the Eurostar train in Paris...

After we checked into our Parisian hotel (a branch of the Comfort Inn chain), we first headed to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It's a pretty impressive place.

The stained glass windows are too numerous to count.

After grabbing a bite to eat, we visited the Eiffel Tower, getting there just before dusk. The area is packed with tourists and roving black market peddlers hawking knock-off key-chain replicas of the tower "Five for one Euro?" they ask, jingling a bent wire hung with mini-Eiffel'). It's not legal, and their business appeared pretty slow.

The police aren't fans of their entrepreneurship.

"Mire!" yelled one of the peddlers later that evening. And everyone -- tourists included -- looked across the plaza where a struggling black market retailer was being taken into custody by French police. The others scattered, but the disruption was only temporary. They quickly returned.

"Five for one Euro?"

There are three different levels on the Eiffel Tower, with varying costs for access to each. The first two platforms (which are big enough to hold decent-sized gift shops) are accessed through elevators or stairs that originate in the Tower's legs. From the second platform to the top, there's another set of elevators that take you straight up to near the top. The top is far more crowded. There's a tiny champagne bar (more like a closet), and that's about all that fits up there other than the folks enjoying the view and snapping photos of themselves.
The Eastern pillar of the Eiffel tower, the one we entered...

From the top of the tower, the views are breathtaking, and the faint wails of police and ambulance sirens are ever-present. When we went, English appeared to be the most common language spoken by those at the tower.
View from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The light streak is a spotlight with long exposure.

The few French business folk I dealt with on the trip knew English – thankfully – because I still don't know more than a dozen disjointed words (one of them being “Oui.”).

Ordering food involved pointing at stuff, saying "S'il vous plait," fumbling for the correct Euro change and mumbling, "Merci." Despite the limited amount of French involved, it's still awkward. Usually, the merchant immediately recognizes that you're an American before you even open your mouth to butcher their language, and by the time you pay, they're saying, "Thank you." What do you then? Do you keep it in English and respond "Thank you," or try French with "Merci"?

No one was noticeably rude. We ran into this really nice gal at a gelato shop near the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Apparently, "mango" (which is delightful as a gelato flavor, and, a far more common flavor in Europe, apparently) is spelled the same in French as it is in English. I knew it wouldn't be pronounced the same, but I had no grasp as to how French words are sounded out. Needless to say, I'm pretty sure I didn't even come close. After a friendly chuckle, the gal, in English, asked us where were from, shared that she had lived in the states, and wished us a good trip. Long story short, don't buy those tales about all French people being stuck up.

That first night, we did a nighttime boat tour of the Seine River, which flows through much of Paris. The youth that hang out on the river walkways like to wave to passing boater tourists. Or moon them. Either way.
The Seine river, just across the way from the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The Louvre, which came on our last day, is quite the experience. It is absolutely huge. And I don't mean huge in the sense of "thousands of paintings" huge, I mean huge in the sense of you literally get like 20 minutes away and hopelessly lost from the entrance. It seems like around every corner you're walking into a new world -- a hall of canvases, a wing decorated much as one a French king had it, a courtyard stuffed with statutes, a wall of Egyptian statues.
One of a seemingly infinite number of hallways in the Louvre.

There's no doubt that the Louvre's most popular attraction is the Mona Lisa. People are lined up several deep around a railing that sits about 25 feet away from a glass case that holds the painting. That’s as close as you can get. Two or three guards watched over da Vinci's most famous work while I was there. Though flash photography is not allowed in the Louvre -- and the rule is respected around the rest of the museum -- flashes are near-constant at the Mona Lisa.* The two guards didn't seem too worried.

It's amazing how small the painting is (30" × 21"). The gorgeous painting on the wall directly opposite the Mona Lisa must be a hundred times that size.

Among the folks in my tour group, and honestly, myself, the most common question was, "What's the big deal?"

My traveling buddy and art major Steve said it's a big deal because da Vinci carried it with him for a long chunk of his life, revising it until the day of his death. There are other theories.

A guard watches over the Mona Lisa (on the same wall he's leaning on) as the crowds snap pictures.

The Venus de Milo appeared to be the second-biggest draw. I think it's the only other piece that most people know by name. Personally, I was proud I recognized Hammurabi’s Code, and “That Painting from the Coldplay CD.”
Actually called "Liberty Leading the People."

The private bathrooms in London and Paris were essentially identical to those over here. Where they get weird are with the public toilets. As you may know, in many European countries, it's assumed that you have to pay for use of a public toilet. That doesn't take much getting used to. What does take getting used to is the set up of some of the larger restrooms.

I ended up using the free public toilets near an Eiffel Tower photo-stop on the second day in Paris. In retrospect, I might have been willing to pay money to avoid the experience.

I walk into the bathroom, and the place is shaped like an "L." To the left, beyond a turnstile, are urinals and sinks. Straight ahead, past another turnstile, are stalls.

An attendant is sitting at a little stool in an open booth on the right-hand side, just before the stall turnstiles.

Not knowing exactly how long it will be before I next run across a free bathroom, I start heading for the stalls -- even though I'm not particularly feeling the need to, uh, sit down.

Apparently, that was the wrong choice.

Just as I got to the turnstile, the attendant -- who, because she wasn't collecting money at a free restroom -- started doing her job. And a big part of her job apparently was to make sure no men entered the stall area. I don't remember exactly what it was she said, but the gist of it was, "No," and she pointed toward the urinals instead. I obeyed, but it was still awkward. The urinals had the usual privacy walls between them, and the turnstiles screened my lower half from the attendant, but she, and any man or woman walking into the restroom still had a wide-open line of sight at my torso and back.

So, to recap: I'm in a strange, foreign place, I'm confused as to where I'm supposed to be depositing my waste, a number two is off-limits, and there's a lady watching me pee.


Pretty sure I've had that nightmare before.

The tour director later said it's pretty common for public restrooms to only provide urinals for dudes. There's some rant about gender equality just waiting to be written here.

I'll share some final anecdotes in the last post (part III)...

*If you're reading this post and were one of those folks who used a flash on Mona, I hope you're looking at your JPEGs right now and realizing that flash doesn't work so hot on a glass case. Idiot.


Anonymous said...

For the guards not paying attention to the flashes....our only mission in not preventing from the flash...if we spend the day at joconde telling to each person flash is not allowed we wont be focused on the other missions we, preservation of national wealth...preventing thiefs, fire security.... general security....we are not standing here like this in a lazy way....observation is our 1st mission....and many others, lots of people might not realise but flash is actually damaging tissues and painting....please realise our importance, if you wanna be able to see all this in 200years...

as for touching 4000years old piece of art, human skin is digging the stone little by's very sad....please pay respect to us...we save art...we also save lifes....

We mostly tell about flash in not crowded areas to prevent people from using flash in the upper floors, it's called pedagogy....

It's a tough job pay some respect

from a guard somewhere in the louvre

Anonymous said...

PS taking picture of the guards is forbidden, have you asked the person authorisation to publish this picture