Travels in Europe, August 2005

Our trip to France this summer started with an email from our friends the Vincents. How about exchanging houses? they suggested. They had done this last year (through an internet service that links up potential exchangers) and had had a great time in California. Exchanging with friends makes even more sense – more trust, less fees – so we agreed that they would come over early August, we would hang out together for a few days to catch up on each other’s lives and then we would head over to their apartment in Versailles.

Our flight to Charles de Gaulle airport went smoothly. After we landed, the real beauty of the exchange became apparent – instead of piling into a bus, we located the Vincents’ beautiful new Toyota and piled into that instead. Versailles was still 45 minutes or so away, along unknown roads, but – never mind! The Toyota had a GPS guidance system. We set the destination to their apartment and a lovely English voice guided us flawlessly to their door. We christened the voice Gladys and I think I fell in love.

The apartment suited us just fine, having more bedrooms than we needed and a bevy of computers so that none of us needed to be off-line for even a second. We were a little flummoxed by the French keyboard, however, which put the ‘a’ on the top row, the ‘w’ on the bottom row and the ‘m’ on the middle row. To type a period required using the shift key, which seemed outrageous in this dot com age. But we also had my laptop which connected easily with the Vincents’ wireless network and which had an English keyboard.

Once settled in Versailles, we were able to able to do lots of good touristy things. We visited the Chateau. (Large, a bit garish. Didn’t they get lost going to the bathroom?) We drove down to Chartres. (The cathedral was great but we also enjoyed walking through the old town.) We went into Paris, strolled around and visited an amusement park set up temporarily in the Tuillerie gardens. (What would Louis have thought of that?)

But it is really the mundane things about living in France that are the most fun. Every morning, we would stroll to the nearby pastry shop and pick up some pastries and a couple of baguettes. By the time we had got back to the apartment, we had already eaten half of them. Versailles has a huge market that we went to several times. They had every variant of sausage you can imagine, plus some you can’t and probably shouldn’t. Vegetables. Fruit. Meat. Cheese. Flowers. Toni rose to the occasion and ordered the fruit in her excellent French. (Madeleine was prepared to show off her Chinese but the occasion did not present itself.) And every store had a huge selection of the most delicious chocolate bars I have ever eaten. We all immediately put on 20 lbs and got acne.

I haven’t yet mentioned that the Vincents also own a country house outside the charming town of Compiegne an hour or so north of Paris. After our trips out of Versailles, we decided that we needed to relax for a few days in the country and so asked Gladys to lead us to the house. By the time we arrived, however, it was past dinner time and we were hungry and tired. Perhaps an honest country meal in an honest country inn? But we drove around and around, getting hungrier and grumpier and seeing neither hide nor hair of a country inn – or any commercial establishment of any kind. Finally, we saw a group of people standing around a truck and decided to ask for help. The guy we asked thought long and hard – the only restaurant in these parts closed on Tuesday and he didn’t know of any other. But, on the other hand, he said, gesturing towards the truck, there is always pizza – we looked over and saw that the truck was in fact a mobile pizza oven and that these honest farm folk were in fact waiting for their pizza to cook. We ordered our pizza, waited for it to be cooked, drove back to the house and felt much better.

Compiegne itself has some wonderful old buildings. Rather than spend time looking at them, however, the girls preferred to buy cheap clothing from an outdoor stand manned by two young Arab men. Could they be al Qaida terrorists? Will they spit on our money, blow up the Vincents’ car? I talked to one of them and he asked me where I was from. New York, I replied nervously. Excellent! he replied – he had an uncle who drove a cab in New York. I took a photo of him with Toni and made him promise to visit us in New York when he came over to visit his uncle.

On the way back to Versailles, we stopped off for the afternoon at Parc Asterix, a Disney-style theme park, where the theme was based on a French comic strip I used to read in my youth. As at Disney, there were people dressed up as characters from the comic walking through the crowd. At one point, Toni heard one of these characters hiss some words to her. After some translation, she determined that the character, a Gallic redhead from some time BC, was humorously accusing her of copying her hair color. We all had a good chuckle. The park was enjoyable but too crowded and the lines on the major rides were 45 minutes or more. We gave it a B.

Back in the car, we asked Gladys to take us home. Unfortunately, she appeared to have suffered some sort of mental seizure and began guiding us towards Lyon. By the time we were certain something was wrong, we were already past Fontainebleau on the A6. When we asked her how much further we had to go, she replied: 8 hours. We tried to shut her off but she resisted us and continued to try to guide us south. Shades of HAL, in 2001 a Space Odyssey! We tried to ignore her, backtracked to Fontainebleau for dinner and guided ourselves back to Versailles while Gladys implored us to make a U-turn at the next roundabout. (I believe in retrospect that we had mistakenly asked Gladys to take us to someone else’s house who lives on the Riviera.)

We made one major side trip to Amsterdam for a few days. Gladys directed us flawlessly up through Belgium into the Netherlands but faltered when we arrived in Amsterdam. I can’t really say I blame her – Amsterdam is a motorist’s worst nightmare. I’m sure that there are rules of the road but they are far from apparent. Cars have to contend with canals, trams and great flocks of bicyclists. Following a tram, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a pedestrian square, closed to cars. A man angrily walked up to us and asked us if we wanted a ticket. No thank you, we replied. We found a gas station and filled the tank – it cost us $70. Two hours later, we made it to the hotel. I parked on the street until I figured that it would cost another $70 a day to leave it there, so I found some underground parking that was more secure and marginally cheaper.

My first impression of Amsterdam was not favorable. The impossible driving situation was the first irritant. But other factors quickly became apparent.

When we awoke from a noisy and uncomfortable night, things actually didn’t seem quite so bad. The garbage was still there, but we learned that it was due to a garbage collectors’ strike. The architecture was lovely – both the monumental buildings and the homes. The traffic was still inscrutable, but we were amazed at how bicycles were used by every type of person. Hip young people. Old people. Businessmen in fine suits. Ladies in dresses. Gentlemen in hats. When it rained, many bicyclists took out umbrellas and held them up while they pedaled. If they were hungry, they would stuff pastries into their mouths, all the while darting in and out of the rest of the traffic. I thought that I probably wouldn’t last a week cycling in Amsterdam before I ran off the road into a canal or was run over by a tram. The cyclists who have survived to ride the streets today, however, are a brilliant lot.

You coudn't help wonder why the buildings in Amsterdam are so narrow - in fact, we saw a few only one window wide. It turns out that there was (perhaps still is) a tax on frontage, so one could avoid the tax by building up and back, which is exactly what happened.

While touristing around, we did run into the dark underbelly of Amsterdam. In the red light district, scantily-clad prostitutes sat in windows so potential clients could check them out. (The first time I saw this, I was afraid that some worthy Dutchwoman had turned the light on by mistake while undressing and so I averted my gaze.) Coffee shops were everywhere – although we never actually went into one, I was assured that you could buy all kinds of substances in them that we couldn’t bring back through US customs. There was a lot of porno around – we went to an outdoor market and went from a table with vintage clothing laid out on it to a table selling CDs to a table covered with pornographic DVDs with lurid covers.

One evening, we heard a great disturbance outside our hotel. Curious, we went out to see what was going on. An impossible vehicle was in the street, composed of a platform containing a keg of beer hooked up to a spigot, six or eight seats above six or eight pairs of pedals, the whole thing being mounted on wheels. It turned out to be part of a bachelor celebration for a guy who was due to be married in a few days. His friends mounted the apparatus, sat on the seats and pedaled it down the street while the beer was consumed in vast quantities. Their judgment being seriously impaired, they offered us drinks too which we politely accepted.

By the time our vacation neared its end, we were ready to return to Larchmont, where the pastries are not up to snuff but you don’t have to buy drinking water in a store. I hope the girls will remember the feel of living, however briefly, in another country. And we’ll all miss the chocolate.

Selected pictures:

Arc de Triomphe Eiffel Tower
Relaxing in Compiegne Pompidou center
Pulling Gs Compiegne
Garbage in Amsterdam Graffiti in Amsterdam
One-window house The naked truth

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