When someone is showing me a city I don't know, their first question is almost always, "What do you want to see?" And I almost never have an answer for this, because mostly I don't travel in order to see things.
My main objective in traveling seems to be not cities or museums or shopping, but rather people. Whether I actually meet some of these people or just watch them without interacting, what's memorable about my trips is always the people I find.
In Paris, a year ago (2002), incidentally, I was struck by the number of older women I saw on the streets who seemed really bitter. I'm talking about women in their sixties and older. And then in London, it seemed that often the older people I saw on the streets, both men and women, had a very defeated look.
I've been trying to think about what it is that makes eating in a cheap Paris restaurant such a nice experience. One thing is that, if it's not really crowded, it tends to be a quite, meditative experience. Because it's well known in France that Americans, as a rule, are very loud. And in French restaurants, except when Americans come in, there's a nice quiet murmur of conversation.
But at La Petite Venise on the Rue du Chemin Vert, my experience was different.
After getting back from Lisbon that night ---- Oh, god, what a nightmare that was. After the bad experience I'd had getting stuck in a traffic jam on the Air France bus the week before, I had decided to take the train (the RER) this time. Leaving Paris to go to Lisbon, that had worked fine. (Partly that was because I was going to Aerodrome 2. The next week I learned that going by RER is quite confusing if you're going to Aerodrome 1, where United and most other airlines aside from Air France are located.) But coming back, as soon as I got down to the train tracks, there was an announcement saying that because of an accident, the train would be delayed 20 minutes. Which turned out to be more like 30 minutes. From my long experience with public transportation, I thought that there was a pretty good chance that after a delay like this, when the train did come, there would be at least two trains following each other only a few minutes apart, and I thought it would be better to wait for the second one. But in fact, even after the long delay, when people got onto the first train, it was still not so very crowded, and so I got on and got a seat where I could easily watch the nice chart of stops which is posted on all French RER and metro trains and thus keep track of where we were.
What I hadn't counted on, though, was that this was only the first, and less popular airport stop. And when the train stopped at Aerodrome 1, people simply poured in through the doors. I thought that maybe I should get off and wait for the next train, but by the time I had thought about that for a few seconds, there was no hope of making my way through the crowd to a door.
Now I could no longer see the chart listing the stops, and it was pretty hard to even see out the windows to see where we were. And on the RER, they don't announce the stops, even in French. I hoped that when we got to Gare du Nord, which is the first stop inside the city, I would know it because a whole lot of people would be getting off.
In fact, when we got to Gare du Nord, I was able to see the Paris Nord sign, and furthermore half the people on the train wanted to get off. (The other half were standing in front of the doorways and very determined not to get off.)
And then I had a very hard time finding my out of the Gare du Nord station, although it was not the first time I'd been there. I had lost my cool quite a while ago, on the train, and was now moving towards the nervous wreck stage. Everywhere there were people rushing in all sorts of different directions and giving no quarter to anyone standing in their way, plus a lot of very unsavoury looking characters, especially the teenage kids jumping the turnstiles. (It was about 6 PM at this point.)
So I decided to forget about taking getting to my hotel by the métro (which would have involved one transfer and a five block walk from the Père Lachaise station) and, for the first time in Paris, I took a taxi. The taxi turned out not to be a very fast means of transportation, and the trip from Gare du Nord to the Modern Hotel on the Rue du Chemin Vert wound up costing me more than that Air France bus from the airport would have.
My first impression was that the Rue du Chemin Vert neighborhood was rather unsavoury. There were clearly a lot of immigrants there (the hotel is owned by Arabs, and not rich ones, but quite friendly), and the the places in the neighborhood clearly weren't expecting a lot of tourists (although the hotel itself, somehow having managed to get itself rated at two stars, does cater to big clientele of tourists on a tight budget). But in fact, just as I found that I had much more English experiences in Ealing than in the heart of London, in the restaurant and small bar I went to on the Rue du Chemin Vert, I wound up having some of my most authentically French experiences in Paris.
After taking a nap, I went to a restaurant just down the street from my hotel and with a big neon sign saying Pizza, which turned out to be, especially that first night, one of those little restaurants that is like a big family. Madame there was a very young Madame, maybe late twenties or late thirties, and one of those lively cheerful women who all the men are extremely good friends with, without there being any overt sexual content to the interactions. And there were seven guys at one big round table, it seemed that they were some sort of sports team or something, and Madame was having a very good time with them. Well, anyway, it was lots of fun.
I've always made the assumption that the best strategy is to go to as many different restaurants (or whatever) as possible, to get as many experiences as possible. But somehow it seems that when I am traveling, I often wind up coming back again and again to the same place, usually for various practical reasons. And now I'm starting to think that maybe that's the best after all --- I get one really good experience at one place over a period of several days insteads of a number of interesting but superficial experiences at different places.
On my way walking to the hotel, I noticed a bar, bistro, whatever, that I really wanted to go in, because there were two women there who looked like they'd be interesting, but I didn't go in at that moment because it seemed important to get dinner before it was too late. And then dinner took a long time, longer than I'd expected. I held up a finger when I was finished, and Madame noticed and nodded, but then had some more flirting to do with the seven guys at the big table, and it was twenty minutes later when Madame finally brought my bill, laughing. "Ah, oui, l'addition!" (What a silly thing, the customer has been sitting here all this time waiting for his bill and still hasn't got it.) I didn't really mind, because I was having a good time watching them all, and I think perhaps Madame was aware of that. Anyway, who but an American would want to leave a restaurant was soon as he finished eating? At the very least, one would want to smoke one's cigarette, n'est-ce pas? And who but an American would not have a cigarette to smoke?
Anyway, the two women I'd noticed earlier were still at the bar up the street afterwards, one behind the bar and one on the other side. The one on my side of the bar was a blonde, maybe in her late thirties, and I had the impression that she'd been through a lot of experiences, some of them not very nice ones, and had gained a certain amount of wisdom in the process, but her wisdom mostly took the form of cynicism. This was the impression I got by looking at her, not from anything she said. In fact, she said very little. But she was clearly intelligent and well educated. She looked at me with obvious interest, and I would definitely have liked to get to know her, but a young Arab was being very persistent in coming onto her, and I certainly didn't want to get in the middle of that situation.
Well, we all just had a good time talking to each other despite the fact that the blonde didn't say much. Nothing to write home about, as they say, but it was fun.
This tiny bar was also somewhat like a family. The woman behind the bar and her husband ran it and apparently owned it. Over the next few nights, the woman was quite friendly with me (and, in fact, with everyone) and corrected my French pronunciation of several words, something which is always useful to me. Often in French bars I order Ricard, which is the brand name of a liquor somewhat like Pernod and is very popular in France. And I have yet to master an acceptable pronunciation of that name. Bartenders almost always wind up asking me, quite politely, "Um, do you mean Ricard?"
Somehow from the way this woman corrected me, I got the impression that she herself was American. Maybe I was wrong, but she seemed to have an understanding of the difficulties Americans have in mastering French.
The parents of the bartender or her husband (the husband, I'd guess) were sitting on the customer side of the bar. I later found, going in for breakfast, that the mother tended bar in the day time.
Love & kisses to all,
From: Lee Lady
The second time I went to this Italian restaurant, I came to a realization: Madame is Italian. It's odd that this didn't occur to me before, because I had thought that she reminded me of certain Italian movie stars. Anyway, as far as I can tell, her French was perfect, but her overall, um, energy was Italian. And although it's not completely strange that an Italian restaurant should be called La Petite Venise and have pictures of Venice and other places in Italy on the wall, as well as scenes from Italian films, this did seem like a further clue.
Anyway, even the second night, with the sports teams not there, the atmosphere in this restaurant was not meditative. The conversation of the diners was quiet enough, but no place with Madame present is going to be meditative.
On a subsequent night, my hypothesis that Madame is Italian was completely confirmed, because she had the night off and her husband was waiting table. And her husband was conspicuously Italian. If I may put it this way, he was as Italian as Desi Arnez.
Yes, I know, Desi Arnez was Cuban. But, as we Americans say, "It's the same difference!"
Anyway, this seems to be the sort of thing I travel for. It doesn't seem that it ought to be necessary to go to Paris or Berlin to find it, but it is more fun when people speak a different language.