September 3, 1991
The ferry trip from Ireland to Le Havre
France turned out to be one of the worst 24 hours of my life. There
was no place to sleep and so I slept on the ground in the dining room
which made for about two restless hours of shut-eye. When you are tired,
bored, and grubby time does not pass very fast and it seemed like forever
before we arrived at port in France. The only thing to do at the grubby
port city of Le Havre is get the hell out to someplace else, which
I proceeded to do with as much haste as I could muster. I stopped in
Roeuen in bad need of a bed, shower, and rest. Unfortunately, I decided
to walk to the Hostel and after continually getting lost, I finally
found it some 3 miles away from the train station and was soaked through
with sweat by the time I arrived. The Hostel is huge and dismal -it
reminds me more than anything else of a jail. Hostels vary greatly
in quality and can be at their best fun and exciting and at their worst
run down and dreary. At any rate, they are a bargain. Roeuen is interesting
- Joan of Arc was burned here and there is a beautiful Gothic Church.
It feels good to be on the European continent
and to see something other than Anglo-Saxonness. I enjoy being able
to speak French and there is a more modern feel to the stores here
that makes me feel more at home than I did in the sleepy islands to
September 10, 1991
My first impressions of France are good:
modern, not as colorless as British Isles. I arrived in Paris on an
early train from Rouen and eagerly listened to Paris radio on the way.
I immediately reserved a room in a hostel and this was a good thing
for Paris can completely fill up by noon! Paris is beautiful - the
whole city is like a museum. I visited the Palace of Justice and the
beautiful St. Chapelle church inside. How French it is to have an important
cultural site inside a governmental building! The Palace itself is
replete with history; Robespierre & Co. were held here in prison before
their executions. Today it is still the district court of Paris and
there are many cops and judges walking the corridors. One submits to
a thorough inspection by aggressive Gendarmes and a metal detector
before entering the grounds.
Notre Dame was huge, dark, and typically
Gothic. I climbed the many steps to the bell tower and it reminded
me of Quasimodo and his dark benefactor. There are fascinating gargoyles
at this height. They are evil and aggressive looking and are supposed
to ward off evil spirits. They jut out at a 45 degree angle from the
cathedral and there is even one gargoyle who was carved taking a bite
out a rabbit!
The Georges Pompidou Center and Place des
Halles is a gathering place and a good people watching location. Paris
is very expensive and many Parisians seem very well off financially.
French women (or at least Parisian women) are small boned and slight,
and surprisingly beautiful. But they are unapproachable and aloof like
snow princesses; they are "chic," which means money, beauty,
glamour, good taste, connections, etc. A form of snobbery. Paris to
me is beautiful in the same way that an ice sculpture is beautiful:
ascetically correct and of perfect design with a smooth brilliance
and an untouchable chill - it is unapproachably intimidating. Paris
reminds me of the color grey although this is no way implies blandness
September 14, 1991
The French are hospitable to me, perhaps
because I speak French (more or less) and am polite. I have personally
experienced none of the renowned French anti-American attitude, even
though undoubtedly it probably screams out that I am American. I have
been polite to people and they have in return been polite to me, as
is the case almost everywhere else. I have heard that Americans are
at an all-time high in popularity with the French because of the end
of the Cold War and the Gulf War. Still, I think this translates into
an ambivalent neutrality.
France sees the U.S. as uncultured and
unrefined - a new powerful and stupid Rome (Rome as seen by the Greeks)
with a vulgar commercial "bourgeois" emphasis (Is there anything
more stupid and pseudo-intellectual sounding than persons speaking
snobbishly of the "bourgeoisie" in 1991, as if they were 19th
century Romantics?). The French totally discount any American views
of trade or morality as held captive and dominated by provincial U.S.
concerns, as the French are very perceptive of power politics. Furthermore,
the French argue very passionately and get very personal and I found
myself getting offended in "polite" conversations. The French
themselves do not take these conversations personally and all is forgiven
afterwards. But it breaks the cardinal Anglo-Saxon-American rule of
arguing the facts only and not getting personal. I don't quite understand
how the French can say the things they do to each other in their conversations
and still remain friends. Talking with a group of French medical students
at a bar, one of them said that he thought the United States was "disgusting" and "obscene" -
those were fighting words to me. They also predicted to my sister that, "Tonight
you will spend the night in my bed." Whatever.
"France is not France without greatness," de
Gaulle proclaimed. And compared to the extent and size of the U.S.
or Japan, France is not great. France still has culture, refined living,
good food, etc., and jealously guards itself form "cultural imperialism." Still,
U.S. pop culture is much in evidence here as in the rest of Europe.
I don't think a French intellectual is ever as happy as he is when
he is talking disparagingly about the United States.
I got the wrong date for Katie's plane
into Roissey Airport and slept in the airport waiting for the wrong
flight! I ended up taking the twenty minute RER ride to the airport
because the flight I mistakenly thought Katie was taking was delayed
many hours and so I came back in the middle of the night for the wrong
flight. Finally, I caught up with her and ended up carrying her heavy
luggage all around Paris. Since rooms are so hard to come by in Paris,
I rented a room for Katie the night I thought she was coming in but
it, of course, was wasted. Despite the inconveniences, it was good
to see Katie and to have a traveling companion. The night Katie arrived
in Paris, we went out to the Latin Quarter and stayed out until 4 A.M.
at these really neat bars. Paris is an insider's city and one can find
some great bars with unbelievable ambiance! We ended up at a dive bar
that was packed and run down, seamy with Doors-type music. It was perfect.
Paris nightlife would be unbelievable if only I had about two hundred
dollars a night to throw down.
Pretending to be passed out in Paris!
I do not think I enjoyed the Louvre as I should have. To me, after
a couple of hours all the different art work begins to blend together
and I was cognizant of the fact that much of the lovely art was wasted
on me. I saw all the famous works: the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa,
etc. I know that if I was constrained to spend a lot of time scrutinizing
all the different pieces of art (if I was with art afficiado Rick Roshan,
for example), I would be intensely bored. I found the whole Louvre
complex and I.M. Pei's pyramids to be the most interesting. The Louvre
and the neighboring gorgeous gardens with statues on the greens has
got to be one of the most glamorous few square miles on earth. There
is still a treasured hint of the grandeur of the French monarchy and
the grand siecle and elegance of Louis XIV. I very much enjoyed the
Rodin museum, especially "The Gates of Hell," "The Kiss" and
an anatomically correct statue of an exposed naked woman. The Hotel
des Invalides is the historical center of French military history and,
typically French, the military museum inside heavily emphasizes the
glamorous swords and uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries at the
expense of modern developments - the piece de resistance being Napoleon's
tomb. I ate out in a nice restaurant in Paris only once because of
the expense but and had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch. The obligatory
wine, however, made a nap imperative. Katie and I climbed the Eiffel
Tower together and collectively froze in the chilling wind. Finally,
we met her "parents" who will be hosting her during her stay
in Paris and study at the Sorbonne. They are an elderly couple who
were most gracious to us in our tired (ie. carrying Katie's baggage
there from the other side of Paris) and hung-over state.
Katie and I also enjoyed visiting Strassberg,
France. It is a sort of multi-cultural city, being located so close
to the border of France and Germany. This Alsace-Lorraine area has
been either French or German territory in the 20th century depending
on who was the victor in the last war. Supposedly, some of our ancestors
came from this area.
Today, it is a charming city with a beautiful
Gothic church and the Council of Europe. The Youth Hostel is modern
and clean and Katie and I saw the American movie "Boyz in the Hood" in
French. It is surreal to see a movie about gang life in L.A. in France,
and strange indeed to hear gangbangers saying, "Bonjour!" to
each other. Something is missing.
Heidelberg was my first taste of Germany
and the language is distinctly evil sounding at first encounter. Perhaps
this is a result of Nazi movies but the language is unusually garrulous.
Heidelberg is a mostly university/tourist city and has a gorgeous "old
town" section with a castle on the surrounding hill and cobbled
streets, cathedral, etc. The famous castle is most beautiful when seen
from afar, especially at night. The inside of the castle is less impressive.
Katie and I enjoyed a relaxing dinner and sort of hung out until it
was time to go to sleep. German beer is cheap and commonplace but has
a sort of strange taste that grows on you. At any rate, it is great
compared to the lame beer of France. Katie and I are spending too much
money. Germany is very American with teenagers with long hair and rock
and roll concert T-shirts. At our impersonal but efficient Hostel,
the German teenagers are about as loud and obnoxious as U.S. teenagers,
if such a thing is possible.