Wednesday, December 2, 2009

London & London

Greetings from London. Quite the change from 30 years ago—it’s amazing what an American Express card can do for a girl.

And regular showers.

It was a bit of a comedy getting out of Paris—for some reason my hotel reception gave me a wake-up call at 0430.

They got the wrong room.

Well, couldn’t get to sleep after that, so at 0630 I just got up and got ready to get to the airport. At 0700 it took only about 25 minutes, which is pretty fast for central Paris to Charles de Gaulle.

I have to say that the flight, while far superior to the boat train I took in 1979, was something of a damp squib. I’d been thinking of the trips I used to take on BA on the LHR-CDG run. In this respect the Brits had it all over Air France.

Of course, that could have changed, too—last time I took BA was in 2001.

Once here it was a bit of a struggle—although I had a first class ticket for the Heathrow Express, the first class coaches were locked and I couldn’t get in to them. Interesting marketing ploy.

Then, the cabbie didn’t appear interested in helping me get my three bags into the cab—what’s up with that?

I’m staying at the Park Lane Hilton—a far cry indeed from 30 years ago when I shared a room at a cheap flop (WC down the hall) with an American woman returning from Greece whom I met on the ferry. She and I took a ride on a double-decker bus as our entertainment that evening, and were both aghast at the fact that it cost 50p (about $1 then).

(I’m not actually paying Park Lane prices for this—I used some of my Amex points that I couldn’t use for the air fare for this. Not that I have to apologize, but it’s just such a contrast to that very first stay.)

Back then I was waiting for my bike to catch up with me, checking constantly at the Victoria Station baggage office. I was very worried about how long my money would hold out (no credit cards, remember). When it finally came in (minus a few tools out of the panniers), I went to a removals company to get a carton for it, and then to Woolworth’s to get a wrench (one of the tools that had disappeared) and went to work right there to get the bike into the carton.

Then out to Gatwick, where I spent the night right there, waiting for the next day’s Laker flight to LA. (Lying across some seats at the airport is cheaper than even the cheapest student share; probably not markedly more uncomfortable, either.) My splurge was a paperback copy of The Long Goodbye, which turned out to be my favorite Raymond Chandler book.

One final discovery on that trip.

I’m off now, to have a stomp through some of the places I liked when I lived here, and then dinner tonight with a friend. Another good way to end a trip.

(Posted at 0957 on Tuesday 2 December, London W1.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Paris sera toujours Paris

I still have to officially get myself back to Paris/London from Santiago in 1979.

As you’ll recall, I bought a train ticket and trusted l’Escargot Rouge to the baggage car.

At first one of the porters situated me in a first-class car. Despite my attire I think he figured out I was an American and therefore would not be with the riff-raff. Then a conductor came along and rousted me—he was suspicious that I had ideas above my station and was trying to sneak a first class ride.

He conducted me to my appropriate compartment—where I did have a reserved seat, amongst three Portuguese guys going back to jobs in France and Spain from time off at home.

I’ll tell you what—no one needs entertainment devices when you’re in second- (or maybe it was third-) class compartment with three Portuguese workers. One spoke only Portuguese, one Portuguese and Spanish & the third Portuguese and French. The latter two were translating for the former and asking their own questions. I was in a blizzard of multi-lingualism.

Plus—they were going back to their jobs (I got the impression that the only way they could support their families was to go outside Portugal) completely laden with food and drink from home. They gave me pork sandwiches, and each seemed to have a different type of Portuguese wine; in plastic five-gallon (it seemed) jugs. And I had to try each one. (There was one that I think was vintage Sunday—I mean, several layers peeled right off the enamel of my teeth.)

It seems that Portuguese wine is much better than any plonk you can get in Spain, or France. We spit on your French or Spanish wine.

There were also Portuguese cookies and Portuguese cognac. I shudder to think of that combination now, but it didn’t seem to do me any harm at the time.

A fourth Portuguese guy joined us in the morning—he was working in Germany.

At Hendaye I said adios/au revoir to my new friends and changed to a Paris train. I took the time to buy some bread and cheese for the trip. I planned on staying in the train station in Paris to save money on a hotel, so I thought I might be able to have a hot meal at a restaurant when I got there.

On the journey I spent some time talking with a young Spaniard who confirmed my observations that the Spanish weren’t too concerned with history; they wanted to forget the past and were into novelty. As he put in: afuera, afuera.

At the Gare du Nord I put my sleeping bag and lunch in the consigné, then went looking for dinner.

I was at an Italian place, really minding my own business; I was. Two Swedish businessmen started a conversation with me. Well, one of them did, in English, the other may or may not have understood the language and he just didn’t speak. I thought of them as Paul Bunyan (this guy was enormous) and Babe the Blue Ox.

Well, Paul told me they’d been to Paris 12 times in the previous year (one week at a time), and hated it. Paul bought me a Grand Marnier and would have paid for my dinner if I’d let him. (I try to follow the dictum that if you can afford to buy your own beer you don’t have to rassle for it.)

Paul invited me to see Paris at night. I thought, what the hell, and schlepped my rucksack and handlebar bag (the panniers were still on the bike) and went. He drove like the insane—at one point cranking the little Renault up to 100kph on the Champs Elysées. We went to a cabaret, where they insulted the maître d’hôtel, resulting in us getting a table. The show was a mix of striptease and vaudeville. I noted that “the strip part wasn’t really interesting, except for the costumes and the fact that they were doing routines on a tiny stage. But the two vaudeville acts (one with puppets) were fun.”

We drove back to their hotel, across from the station; the ride was even wilder than the one before. Babe, who’d fallen asleep at the cabaret went straight to his room; I had an orange juice with Paul in the hotel bar.

Seems his company (he was president) was a subsidiary of some firm in Connecticut. He specialized in a metallurgical treatment to strengthen nuclear turbines. (I’m not making this up; I’m just reporting it.)

He invited me to spend the night in the extra bed in his room—no funny business, etc. Just a bed.

Then he said, “There’s a bath tub.”

Okay, it’s good to know what one’s price is, and sometimes a girl’s just gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. So I accepted.

I must have spent half an hour in that tub; I don’t even want to think what dirt was left on the fixture. When I got out, Paul was already asleep, so I crawled into the extra bed and did likewise.

In the morning he insisted on me having breakfast at the hotel. I felt a little awkward, dragging in my gypsy bags and looking like a ragamuffin, but Paul and Babe were oblivious. In the end I decided I’d never see any of these people again, so who cares?

The waitress took a very dim view of me there getting breakfast amongst all those businessmen, however. When Paul gave her his room number, she went away to check, and then returned to say, “Monsieur has a single room!” and Paul said he’d pay for my meal; to which she sniffed, obviously thinking me no better than I should be. And it cost 12F50, which was a huge sum to me at the time. And it fortified me for the trip to London.

And it was a very nice way for me to end the Continental part of my journey. I mean, really: a bath, a bed and breakfast. What better is there in life?

I’m headed to London myself in the morning. No boat train for me this time; Air France. Business class. (Here’s how whacked air fares are: I looked into business class prices SEA-CDG and took a deep breath. Then I checked out RT on the EuroStar, Paris-London; and that was more than $700. So I took a look at what flying RT, to get back to CDG to return to Seattle, would cost. And can you feature: the total fare for SEA-CDG-LHR-CDG-SEA went down by 25%?)

The hotel breakfast here is pretty good; but I’m guessing the one I had with Paul and Babe was just spectacular, by comparison.

I did indulge at the hotel’s chocolates bar this afternoon, after walking 19K steps. Had chamomile tea and three exquisite dark chocolates (one with raspberry filling, one with vanilla and one with coffee). Mon Dieu—magnifique! And tonight I’m going to a place nearby for bouillabaisse.

No vaudeville, though.

(Posted at 1800 Monday 30 November, 7ème arrondisement, Paris)