#18, View, Vintage…

The View From My Apartment 18

But, Larry, Didn’t you Just Do A Whole Series of Blogs on Traveling? Why more?

It’s true, fans, I just had a vacation. Two weeks away from the drudgery and the constant sensory assault that can be New York City. Week One was spent in the lovely small town of Paris, France whilst week Two was spent in my hometown, the relentlessly growing Normal, Illinois.

(Yes. My hometown is named Normal. If you want to make a big deal of it, I have a knuckle sandwich waiting for you. A knuckle sandwich made with Grade A beef, hot mustard, and cheese. Do you really want to mess with that?)

What do you do in Paris? What everyone else does…stand in line.

We got into Paris early on a Monday morning, after a not what we expected flight from JFK on American Airlines. We HAD expected free drinks, like on most international flights. I have to say most now, where before I would have said all, because American Airlines does not give you free booze like everyone else. Though, one steward was nice and gave us a free bottle of wine to go with our “food.” Oh, and no personal TV screens…I felt like I was back in the 1980s.

One of the reasons for going to Paris, as if one needs a lot of reasons, was because my sister in law, Swati, has just finished up her classes in an art school there and we weren’t sure for how long she was planning on staying after. So, we took this moment to go.

Swati has been there for over three years, learning the language, getting to know her way around. Now that she was finished with school, she was carving out a career, finding work. She is a painter, dancer and now getting more into installation work. I mentioned the language thing, right? Because, yeah, it helps a lot in France.

She also helped get us a place to crash while we were there, a one bedroom apartment right near a Metro station. And a cheap place to crash…

Her boyfriend, Freddo, is a painter who lives near an area called Montmarte, a hill that over looks the city. A hill where Picasso studied. A hill made famous in the movie Amelie. It’s made up of those twisty tiny streets, cafes, and little shops. Oh, and it’s near the site of the now legendary tourist trap Moulin Rouge.

We trudged behind Freddo and Swati as we made our way up the hill, sweating, breathing deeply, like I said, it was quite a hill. Basilique du Sacre-Coeur sits at the top, overlooking the city, built in the shadow of both the Franco-Prussian war and the French Revolution of 1870, and at it’s foot steps one can sit and look at the city, enjoy the sun, and listen to two guys playing guitar, singing English songs, trying to make a living. The view is breathtaking. The entire city seems to be at your feet. It was where we first saw the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame…and, really, the whole city…stretching forever.

That night, Freddo and Swati take us to the river Seine, to get a view of the Eiffel Tower. It’s about 11 PM. The tower is lit and it is staggeringly beautiful. I just kept taking picture after picture, almost the same one…somehow I wanted to capture the same simple beauty of the Tower in a picture. But I couldn’t. I don’t think anyone can.

So ended the first day…

We didn’t have a plan per se but a list of things that we wanted to do…So each day was sort of up in the air…and on the agenda for day two…a tour of the river Seine…

New York City had been in the 90s when we left…but Paris, ah, Paris was going to be in the 60s! And raining. Don’t think that rains spoils Paris. It doesn’t. It makes it your own city. Rain clears out the crappy tourist, makes them run. The rain washes away all of the affectation, makes the place more real, because it’s not so perfect. A rainy day in Paris is like a beautiful girl who suddenly has her make up washed off, really all the more beautiful.

It drizzled constantly on our boat ride from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame and back, French history warbled out of the speaker on the boat, followed by English we couldn’t quite hear. But it sort of didn’t matter. Deepti and I just watch these marvelous buildings slide by…and occasionally Deepti would get the people on the bridges above us or on the boats near us to wave.

After: we decided to walk from the Tower to Notre Dame, as I wanted to see inside. On the way there, as we crossed the street with a 50ish looking woman, she exclaimed something…in some language that wasn’t French. We looked and in her hand was a thick gold wedding band for men. She pointed at the ground…claiming she just found it. Deepti and I were quite thrilled for her, what luck, we said, and we kept walking, the 50sih looking woman a head of us.

Then, she turned back. She handed Deepti the ring, it didn’t fit her it seems. Wow, we thought. Cool, we felt. Ah, Paris. As the woman walked away…

Then, she turned back. Let me tell you…the sign for begging, it’s universal. The woman wanted some Euros for a sandwich. Ah…Paris. Deepti gave her a few…the woman felt it wasn’t enough for a sandwich, Deepti offered her the ring, “Sell it, use the money.” The woman waved her off…Now, at this point, I was getting a little annoyed, sure, fine, con us with the ring, but then don’t keep asking for MORE money…

Realizing she wasn’t going to get anything more out of us…our Gypsy friend, as we later found out, moved on. We continued our walk down the Seine, laughing at the little theater that happened to us. We only gave her 3 Euros and it was quite a show.

We cross another street and coming towards us…is another lady…also about 50…Deepti sees in her hand…a gold ring, palmed, ready…And behind us, a young lady in her 20s…

We finally arrive at Notre Dame and we get into our first line of our vacation. The sun had come out and brought the tourists…The line moved fast, sadly, not a sign of what was to come. Inside…

I want it to be something special. I’m not one for organized religion, but I do believe in holy places…those places where you can let your mind relax and perhaps get into touch with something higher. Currently inside the Notre Dame, for a few Euros, you can purchase postcards to commemorate your visit.

The place is filled with tourists who look at this holy place with marvelous stained glass windows and long history through the lens of their cameras or video recorders, where they will experience their trip later in front of their computers. The great church echoed with the sound of cameras clicking, people talking and kids running.

As Yoda might say, disappointing it was.

The next day came a marvelous opportunity to line up: The Louvre.

The Louvre, all you Da Vinci Coders don’t have to listen to this, was at one point one of the palaces of the King of France. In fact, it’s original stone foundation, which you get to see, is from the 12th Century. However, currently it’s biggest claim to fame: The Mona Lisa. And when you mention the Mona Lisa to my wife, she rolls her eyes, and then demands to know…why is this painting famous?

Because it is.

So. We wait in line to get tickets into the museum, which, we learned is also the largest museum in the world and if you spent 1 minute in front of each painting, it would take you four months to get through. We had several hours. My wife gets punchy in museums after a while. Trust me, it isn’t pretty, but it can be funny.

We get our ticket. Well. Truth be told. I get my ticket. Deepti is going to use Swati’s student pass to get into the museum. We show our tickets to the busy ticket lookers…busy chatting with each other, and they barely glance at me or my wife’s fake ID. And INTO the museum we go.

We take our time through the museum. Plenty to see. And some of those moments… “Oh…this painting is…here.” The Louvre is mostly paintings from before the Impressionist movement, a lot of Greek and Roman, Medieval and Reniassance work. A sort of History of Art.

You could spend four months there. You might lose your mind…but you could.

So. We finally arrive at it. The Mona Lisa. It’s held in a very large wall in the center of a very large room, behind thick plexiglass. In front: a large horde of people with cameras and video cameras…clicking and recording away. Now, in theory, you aren’t supposed to use flashes…but that didn’t stop, nor were they stopped, the mob of people trying to get a photo of the Mona Lisa. The tiny Mona Lisa. It’s a small painting.

Now…I don’t know if this is true, but has been told to me by someone from the inside, Swati, that in fact the painting that is in the Louvre for display is actually a copy. One copy of several. Really, why show the real one is a fake will do?

It’s not hard to make a copy…there were tons in the gift shop…

We left the room…allowing the tourists to jockey for position in front of the fake. We walked on, to go see some real paintings, in peace.

Our next opportunity for lining up came at Versailles. But this time we brought two people who didn’t mind standing in line…Swati and Freddo. We had taken the train from Paris, about 30 minutes, and gotten out of the station, walked five minutes and there we were. From Louis XIV to now a town and a train station had sprung up.

We walked over the uneven cobblestone drive way, that could hold a football field to the line. A long line. A very long line. Well, I’m not actually sure HOW long the line is…it ran from outside to somewhere inside the palace. It was a long line. That wasn’t moving very fast. Swati wisely pointed out, and I pass on this hint for fellow Parisan travelers…after 4 PM, the cost goes down. She suggested that Deepti and I should go look at the gardens, while they wait in line and get tickets for the tour.

Happy to not stand in a line…we walked out back to the gardens…

…that go on FOREVER. The gardens…designed for one man are…it’s a park. A big park. With a gorgeous fountain, labyrinths, and a man made lake. In a theater history class we were told that Louis XIV would stage mock sea battles on the lake, and I remember thinking, it couldn’t have been all that great, I bet it was a small lake.

It is NOT a small lake. It’s pretty big. In the shape of a small T, but, big nonetheless.

It took us twenty minutes to get down to the lake from Versailles. And another twenty minutes back up once the tickets had been purchased. I have a feeling the King didn’t have to do all that walking. I know I wouldn’t have if I was the King. It’s good to be the King.

Swati and Freddo gave us our tickets and we were off…

The palace was mobbed…it could have been the French Revolution all over again…but…no. Tourists, again looking at the world through a viewfinder, proof that they were there I suppose. In the meantime, their kids ran on the wrong side of the ropes and played with the irreplaceable furniture.

The most breathtaking room was the recently open Gallery of Mirrors. One side were mirrored doors probably twelve feet high and on the other side large windows overlooking the gardens. It was hear the King would great guests and throw balls. It was beautiful.

After our trip through the palace, one has to wonder what the Kings and Queens would think of their home being turned into a tourist destination, we borrowed a rowboat and toured around the man made lake…

The next day’s standing in line was at the Eiffel Tower, we were finally going to go up the top. This was the day before Bastille Day, July 14th, their Independence Day, so the line was particularly long and slow. At one point, we weren’t sure if they took cards or not (they do) so I went off to look for an ATM. One guy pointed a direction so off I went. 15 minutes later, I decided, I’m not going to find it. So, I turned around and came back. My wife had only moved 20 feet.

She went off. She was smart, she asked some South Asian guys where there was an ATM. She found it, eventually, but it took her some time.

So, please note: it’s hard to find an ATM around the Eiffel Tower. Be prepared.

Two and a half hours later, we were finally in the elevator….to the second floor…and another line…to go to the very top. While we were waiting for the next elevator…we looked around…Something that Freddo had told us early in our trip, but we didn’t quite see, he called Paris a grey city, because there wasn’t a lot of color…and it’s true. All around the tower was the same color, different shades, but it was all grey.

Finally, we go to the next elevator and up we went…to an even grander view of the grey city. It had been cloudy and wet all week, but that day it was perfect, warm, sunny and not a cloud in the sky. We roamed around the upper deck, trying to find all the places that we had been at…it was easy to do…and then…

We waited in line to go back down to the second floor…

And waited in line to go back down to the ground…

We couldn’t spend more time at the Tower, we had dinner plans, and that’s my only regret, not spending more time on the First or Second level of the Eiffel Tower

What I thought would be our last day of standing in line was for the Comedie-Francaise…On Bastille Day, this 400 year old theater, renowned for putting on the works of Moliere…like…when he wrote them…gives away free tickets to the afternoon performance. So…we got in line at 10:30 AM. You would think it was like a rock concert…people were already ahead of us in line, and the tickets weren’t going to be released until 1. And it was just like a rock concert…people did their best to get a little bit of an edge to move up…when there was movement, taking a little bit more of a step than someone else…slowly moving up the ranks.

It didn’t really matter anyway. There were more than enough seats…Swati, Freddo, Deepti and I sat in this gorgeous red theater, it didn’t look a day over 200. The play was Moliere’s Le Misanthrope. And I couldn’t remember if I had read it or not. I had read so many one summer they blended together…

The play started…of course, it was in French. But I kept thinking…it’s a comedy, comedy is sort of universal, we’ll be able to figure out what’s going on.

By intermission, I had changed my mind. I didn’t know what was going on, I figured out who was who, but that was it. And it wasn’t a comedy. My luck: they do the only play of Moliere’s that’s not really a comedy. Deepti and I decided to leave.

Swati and Freddo were enjoying it immensely so…we left them to their own enjoyment.

We found a different place to have enjoyment: the French Café. And no lines. I have to admit, I could get used to the Café like style. Small tables, out on the wide sidewalk, positioned to people watch, and drinking espresso. Or beer. Or wine. And eating great food.

A week zoomed by in Paris. I haven’t even really had a chance to tell you about the walking, the trains, the trip to Swati’s Art school (in a quiet suburb of Paris). Or even the morning breakfast’s at McDonald’s where they serve espresso. But this is only supposed to be a blog…

But I will tell you of our final line in Paris. The airport. American Airlines. A long line. To the first counter. “Where has your luggage been?” asked the guy looking at my passport. “With me?” To my wife, “Where has your luggage been?” My wife looked at him, “With me?” He cleared us. A step forward to the check in counter. Then, over to security…A tearful good bye with Swati—she had a busy week as well, she was working doing interviews while finding time to squeeze in time with us, and then we stand in another line for security. Then a line for immigration. Then the metal detector. Then they wanted to look in my wife’s bag. Then my bag. (In the meantime, our plane is boarding, but there is no sense of hurry from the French Woman taking everything out of my wife’s bag.) And then…to the bathroom. Ah HAH! No line. Well. For me. But my wife, alas, a line.

And then…to the plane…and a very fast small line…and onto the plane…that still didn’t serve us free booze.

And then…Normal

My mother invited Deepti and I down to Normal, IL for a week, to celebrate my wife’s birthday and to spend some time with the family. We had one day in between Paris and Normal. Quickly repacking…well…throwing in dirty laundry and presents…we jumped back onto the plane.

Bloomington/Normal is a college town of about 120,000 people two hours south of Chicago. My family has lived there since 1980 and my parents have been in their current home for just over twenty years now. It’s just a little over time…the most recent big change…my room has been converted into a guest room. Gone are the two twin beds, replaced by double bed. Which, being married, I suppose is for the best.

And while it may seem to be a respectable guest room…the Space Shuttle mural suggests otherwise.

The first thing I always notice when I get our of the airport is how quiet everything is, how still. It’s then I realize how noisy New York City is constantly. It becomes background in the city, but it never goes away…noise, movement, rushing.

There’s a lot of land in my hometown. It’s mostly farms around the city, but they are beginning to be bought up and cut up into new subdivisions. With new houses come new stores, new churches and new school.

East of the city is a brand new kind of farm. A wind farm. They have already put up over 100 of these giant windmills, over 400 feet tall at the blades. The land is so flat you can see them for miles, circling up and down the horizon. More are to be added. If it’s put on your farm land, the company that builds and operates them will pay you around 5000 dollars a year. Just for having it. Some farmers are pretty happy, some, and some small towns, don’t want the wind farms. Perhaps…well…I don’t know. The amount of land you trade for the money, it would never earn you 5 grand a year. And besides if you had 10 on your land…

We only had a few things on our agenda to do, much like Paris, but, actually, we had to organize things a little bit more. My wife wanted to go swimming, I hadn’t gone swimming in 15 years, so that required not only a purchase of a suit for her, but also for me. We were going to see the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. We were going to throw a birthday party, and finally, I had to help trim the trees in my parent’s yard. Adventure!

I realize it is challenging for a women to find the right swimsuit. Or at least, I realize that now. I found mine in about 30 seconds. I found the men’s suits. Found a color and size I liked and then…I was done.

Deepti on the other hand…it was more involved. Perhaps if we had started earlier in the season it would have been easier. More of a selection available. Who knows. What I do know? We went to every store that just might carry a swim suit. From store to store, my wife would find the right section and begin to grope and poke at the suits trying to find the right one. Finally, success.

My wife was excited about going swimming. She hadn’t really learned and she hadn’t gone in a long time. She wanted to practice, she wanted to get more comfortable in the water.

But, much to her disappointment, swimming would have to wait until the next day.

We went swimming only twice this trip. The first time I had some bad problems with water plugging up my ears. The second time…my wife realized: it’s a public pool, with a lot of kids…who knows what fluid lurks in the water…

I had an epiphany while trimming the trees in my parent’s back yard. While I like living in a large city, not have to own a car, can get any sort of food I want, large book stores, I realized that I missed living in a small city, having a nice sized house with a large backyard. Sure, I would have to do things like stand on a ladder as it wobbled on a branch in order to reach an even higher dead limb and then drag it to the curb…but as I was throwing a branch on the garbage pile, I realized, I want this.

Now before my parents start searching the classifieds for a starter home in Normal, IL, I want to be clear, I don’t want it yet. I’m still happy slogging away in New York City. But…I have an idea of what I want to slog away for…

Deepti also had an epiphany. As she was putting the branches on the trash pile she realized what a big city girl she is…and then stopped putting branches on the pile.

We have some things to work out.

My quick points of the Shakespeare Festival:

  1. Much Ado About Nothing…if you are going to make something bland…don’t bother.
  2. Love Labor’s Lost…surprisingly excellent.
  3. Henry V…delivered with all the passion of someone running for office. For the third time.

The party done, the kite flying done, the fear of swimming in a public pool firmly rooted, it was time to go…

It had been a really great week. While Paris was beautiful and romantic, it was a lot of walking. And Normal, IL may not get many…or any…points for being beautiful…it does require a car to get around and that helped a lot these poor hips of mine.

And I have to admit, I like being home for a little bit in the summer, when the corn is taller than me, wind blowing in my face, and I can see for miles and miles…with no urban sprawl…(though perhaps now…suburban sprawl.) I know I’m being sentimental…but it was good to be home and do…nothing.

And for that…thanks Mom and Dad.

Alright. Another blog done. And I don’t have any travels coming up, so maybe I’ll write something untravel related. Of course, there is a weekend train trip the wife and I are talking about…hm…

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