Wednesday, October 15, 2014

European Travel: It's an Omelette Thing (part one)

This is the first installment of the account of our recent European trip - I hope you enjoy this travelogue:

International travel is marvelous. You have many exciting experiences, you see many beautiful things that are very different from the drudgery of everyday life. Also, many things are frustrating, incomprehensible, unreasonable, don’t work.

Recently, my wife Anita and I spent over a month in Europe. I first flew to Amsterdam, because my 101-year old mother lives in Holland, and I go there as often as I can to help her and be with her.
Then, Anita joins me and we tack on some tourism to my filial responsibilities. We usually go South for a few weeks, to France, Italy and so forth. Paris is often on our itinerary, because I grew up there, I still know people there, and a return to the City of Lights is always difficult to resist.

As usual, we took the marvelous Talys bullet train to Paris (also known as the “TGV”, for Train a Tres Grande Vitesse”). The smooth, luxury ride from Holland to Paris’ Gare du Nord takes only four hours. Feeling as if you were floating on cushions, you race by cars driving down the autoroute, easily going twice their speed, and thus realizing that you are traveling at the speed of an airplane, not that of ground transportation. Talys attendants come by and serve free gourmet meals and wines. The seats and leg space are so comfortable that sleep is inevitable at some point. If only airlines could emulate some of this! This is the form of transportation which a majority of Californians and other Americans consider a waste of money. Japan just celebrated its bullet train’s 50th anniversary. China has built several thousand miles of high-speed train tracks. Dozens of countries have, or are in the process of developing, high-speed trains. These include Poland, Spain, Korea and other countries which Americans smugly feel superior to. I often fear that ignorance and insularity will be America’s downfall.

But I’m getting side-tracked. A key point of this travelogue will be precisely the opposite, namely that travel in Europe is NOT all sunshine and roses. Many things are far from hunky dory. Some things work way better than in America, but some don’t.

We arrive in Paris early afternoon. The gorgeous city of lights is often where the difficulties start.

For one thing, the French continue to often treat people badly (although this may be a characteristic of Parisians, more than all Frenchmen). I am sorry to have to say this. I am practically French myself. My French accent is still flawless. When I visit, people ask me which French city I am from. I am a Francophile. I have taught French at the University. I believe that French music, painting and literature are second to none.
BUT: the French are difficult people. No doubt about it. France is like a gorgeous and high-maintenance woman. It is what it is.

Paris hotels are incredibly expensive, even the thousands of hotels whose rooms are small, mediocre, ugly and uncomfortable. We had reserved a room at a hotel recommended by Rick Steves, figuring that one can hardly go wrong doing so. It was in the 7th arrondissement, near the Eiffel Tower. The neighborhood and the street were darling, but when we entered our room, it turned out to be a dark, bathroom-sized cubicle on the backside of the hotel, with one small bed and a window looking out on a dirty stone wall close enough to touch it. This for 149 euros per night. The hotel’s name was “Le Grand Leveque” but there was nothing grand about it.

I immediately told the registration clerk that this room was unacceptable and I asked for a better room, whatever the cost might be. All she had was a frontside room with a fine view over the beautiful Rue Cler, but with three beds, and thus very expensive. We had no choice but to suck it up and pay the 100 euro surcharge, for a total fee of 250 euros per night. The alternative would have been to leave and lug our suitcases around Paris, looking for a better deal.

Anita and I have a new expression: “It’s an omelette thing.” This means that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. So whenever we meet with some adversity, we chalk it up as a minor, inevitable, but not catastrophic setback. For example, last year in Rome a couple of punks tried to rob me of my briefcase. I gave chase and retrieved my briefcase, but not without messing up my clothes and getting scratched up a little. I was satisfied with the outcome.

So now we were in Paris, paying more for a mediocre hotel room than I had EVER paid in my life. But this was just another omelette thing. We decided to enjoy ourselves and be happy. We had four wonderful days. We heard a marvelous string quintet play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and other hits at the Madeleine, we visited the Orangerie, which still houses the best Monet frescoes, we ate like royalty every night, we shopped at the amazing Galeries Lafayette, we strolled in the Luxembourg Gardens, and more.

Then came the day when we had to take the TGV again, this time down to Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city, located in the country’s Southwest. We wanted to use Toulouse as a base and drive around the surrounding region, called the Languedoc, for about a week. We planned to visit such places as Albi, a beautiful medieval town which also features the famous Toulouse Lautrec museum, the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, and other places. (To be continued) leave comment here