Friday, March 13, 2009

The Pork Crusades... Part III

Paris… I spent the day on the train reading and watching the Alps, southern Germany, and central France roll past. I arrived in Paris around 10 p.m. I knew that my train’s final destination was a stop called Gare d’Est, but from there, I did not know my way to my next hostel. I got off the train, and did what any experienced person who’s lost does… I followed the big swath of people. I located a Metro agent, and bought twenty subway passes. I joined the increasingly jostling crowd and plunged into the depths of the underground trains. Soon the smell of the station and of the city just outside became noticeable. The sounds of the people of all races speaking French… made me think about how cool must french kids feel knowing that they grow up speaking the most beautiful language on earth. I found my train, got on, and quickly sped away into the dark tunnels towards Crimee’ in northeast Paris.

Leaving the platform, I rose back up to ground and found myself in a crowded, mixed neighborhood. Crimee’ is in an area known for its ethnic mix of North Africans, Vietnamese, and Indians. Just outside of the metro exit was my first Parisian patisserie… I had to grab a quick croissant to celebrate finally making it into the city. I walked about a kilometer north until I arrived at the newest, and nicest, hostel in Paris, St. Christopher’s. The hostel was huge, seven floors built alongside a Holiday Inn. It rests directly on the water’s edge of the Parisian canals. The first floor is a separate restaurant/café/bar where anyone can enjoy a coffee… not just residents. I checked in for my five-night stay and got settled into my room (top bunk again… dammit!). One quick café and a smoke outside to enjoy the night air, and I was ready to start my adventures again.

Next morning, I enjoyed my obligatory coffee, cornflakes, and mini-baguettes with Nutella and got on my way. I met up in the lobby with a group for… wait for it… the free walking tour! God, I love hostels! Our guide was an American who was teaching English at a college in Paris, a really great guy whose name I cannot remember… so I’ll call him Trey. Trey got everyone together; we introduced ourselves, and took the walk to the Metro station and pulled away for St. Michel station.

After a brief into to the Metro (how to use, what not to do, don’t be a tourist) we exited into the hub of Paris, St. Michel. Oh God… was it beautiful. The people strolling around bundled up wearing elegant scarves and pea coats. Everyone was drinking a coffee or eating a pastry. Notre Dame was just across the Seine, and the fountain of St. Michel was just out of the Metro station. Now, this tour was five hours long, and contained so many things that there is no way I can put them all in, so I’ll just give the main path. The tour started with hellos and welcomes on the Left Bank, then into the history of St. Michel. From there, a quick walk across the Seine to Notre Dame and the Ile de Cite. Next, Parisian history and politics along the Seine, followed by the Pont Neuf.

By this time, it had started to drizzle, then rain, then heavy sleet. We were all getting quite cold and wet when we reached one of the main reasons I have always wanted to go to Paris… the Louvre. I am a museum whore. I hope one day to retire and become a docent. I love them. Just as we arrived at the Louvre from the east, walking thru the first corridor, the sleet stopped… and the snow began. It was the first snowfall of the year; huge, heavy flakes came down thick in the main square of the Louvre. For someone who loves Paris, the Louvre, and snow… it was a pretty good time for me. By the time we reached the Pyramids, the snow was so thick it caused mini-whiteouts in our pictures.

From there, it was north thru the famous shopping districts and the opera houses. Around 11, we stopped and pulled into a charming deli where I had a cup of mixed cheese soup with the best Province ham and chorizo sandwich ever… I don’t know if it’s the bread or the meat… but damn those sandwiches were good!

After a respite, we walked thru the Tuilleries, glimpsed just a bit of the Eiffel Tower thru the fog, walked across the Concorde, the Grande Palace, and up the Champs-Elysees. At this point, the tour ended, and we thanked Trey with gracious tips, and we headed our separate ways. Trey mentioned that he was giving a night tour of Montmartre that evening, and suggested that we take him up on it. I walked across the bridge near Les Invalides, and stood on Le Pont Alexandre III (the bridge with little golden dudes on it) staring at the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and watching the boats drift along the river. The rain started to come down once again, and I found myself welled up with emotion… almost to the point of tears. I had so wanted to visit Paris for so long. Every time I tried to get there, something stood in my way. But, finally, I was there… and I was loving it.

I took a series of Metro trains back to the hostel. Negotiating the tunnels and the maps is half the fun of any major city in Europe. Wherever I live, I will always vote for light rail or public transport. There is no need for a car in any city in Europe… everything lives and dies by the quick, efficient, and cheap public transports. I had a coffee to warm myself up and changed into some dry socks. I knew I shouldn’t push myself too much the first day, as my legs and feet were already sore from the morning’s walking, but I was really looking forward to the night tour of Montmartre. I found the connecting Metro rail to Blanche station, and took off into the Paris night.

I didn’t know exactly where I was going, so I was taken aback at what was waiting for me at the Metro stop. As I exited into the night, I found myself staring at the Moulin Rouge! I took a ton of pictures, then walked around the sex shops for a while; talking up the near-naked women trying to pull me inside. I met up with Trey and a new group of people, and we started our climb up the Mountain of the Martyr.

Once again… too much to discuss in detail. Needless to say, I saw the artist’s quarter, Au Lapin Agile, the homes of van Gogh, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec. And of course, the stunning Le Basilique du Sacre’ Coeur de Montmartre. While climbing the hill, you don’t even see the basilica until you turn a quick corner, and you find yourself right on top of it… gorgeous. From there, we overlooked all the flickering lights of Paris at night. We then lazed our way down thru the old quarters and back into the Red Light district. I got a huge kick out of seeing the Café de 2 Moulins and the corner grocer from the movie Amelie. If you have not seen this incredibly beautiful movie, stop reading this and go buy it. After viewing it, you will fall in love with Paris, too. It shows Paris as everyone wishes Paris could be… and sometimes, when the light is right… Paris really does become magical.

Trey wanted us to join him for a drink, so we took the Metro back to St. Michel and had a few glasses of the “new red.” By this point, the non-stop climbing up and down the twisting streets, plus the morning tour, plus my fat ass had made my ankles and hips start to swell and strain. I bid everyone goodnight, bought a sugar-and-butter crepe (what love tastes like) and headed back to the hostel.

At this point, I should tell you I had a good night’s sleep after having walking about twenty miles, most of it uphill all day. But no… I had a really good laugh during the night instead. My lower bunk mate, some 20ish emo wannabe (tight fitting black jeans, too big scarf, white belt… you know the type) decided to bring a girl back to the bunk. So instead of resting my wearing joints in slumber, I had to listen to the most awkward, juvenile attempts at sex I had ever heard. Dialogue like “we shouldn’t, I really like you,” and “I want you to respect me for the rest of the week” were some of my favorites. I especially enjoyed the extremely slow (at least ten minutes) unzipping of the jeans, followed by slurping, followed by “I’m sorry, but we really shouldn’t” followed by the quick unzipping of everything, followed by five-minutes of very selfish, frenetic fucking… quickly followed by “I’ll get you a towel.” I do not miss being young anymore.

The following morning, I realized that I had made a big mistake. No, not asking if I could join in on the fun below me… I had pushed myself too hard on my first day. I was hurt… bad. My feet and ankles had streaks of purple and blue in them. My hips were popping funny, and my lower back was dying from sitting up in the bunk reading while the amateur porn stars were getting it on.

So I decided to take it easy, and spend my day inside the Louvre. I got to the Louvre early, and walked straight into the Pyramid. Grabbing the English map, I decided to hit it all… the entire Louvre… in one day. I would start at the top most corner, and work my way across the three buildings, floor by floor.

Ambitious… yes. Stupid… also, yes. But I had a plan, and I was going to stick to it. I rode the escalator up to the top floor (I think Spanish artists), stepped onto the famed parquet floor and started my exploration. It only took one step for my plan to coming crashing down.

Several weeks earlier, in Dubai, I spent a lot of money on a very expensive pair of Gortex, water-proof, high-traction, Timberland trekking shoes… the perfect shoe for backpacking. Unfortunately, these particular shoes, which had been incredible throughout my trip, sounded like they were strangling puppies as soon as they hit the Louvre’s wooden floors. They squeaked so badly, I honestly thought about taking them off and trying to get by in just socks. Every step I took resonated five rooms in either direction. Lone artists working on their craft by painting the masters had to concentrate with squeak-squeak-squeak-sorry-squeak storm past them. There were entire rooms filled with docents teaching students that came to sudden halts as soon as I entered the room. I was a little more than embarrassed. Thankfully, I found that when I approached the more popular wings of the museum the sound died out under the throng of noise.

The Louvre was amazing, though. Winged Victory at Samothrace. Venus de Milo. The Mona Lisa. All there… all beautiful. An incredible day in a stunning place. I did find myself having to stop and rest, though. My legs and back were really starting to hamper my progress. When my tour of the Louvre was over, I decided to walk thru the Tuilleries again and head to the Eiffel Tower.

The tower was the only place I went where I had to stand in line… it pays to visit in the dead of winter. I paid my fee, and rode the trolley all the way to the top, where I took some great pics of the city. Last year, I did a 2000-piece puzzle of a 360-view from the top the Eiffel Tower. And now, being there in person, it was so cool to look out and know where everything was… to be able to see exactly where I had walked and ate and taken pictures. Very cool.

After the tower, I walked to the Champs-Elysees and checked out the food stalls that were lined up for Christmas. After eating some creamed potatoes with herbs and bacon, I found the nearest Metro, and took myself back to the hostel. It was only around 4p.m., but my legs just couldn’t take much more. Later that night, I met up with some of my tour group members, and got some of the best Vietnamese noodles I ever had just down the road from the hostel. Then, it was a night of cozying up with a book under the blankets while dropping massive doses of aspirin. What can I say…? I’m getting old.

After breakfast, it was the train back to St. Michel, then a morning walk down the Seine to the Musee d’Orsay. This museum is even more beautiful than the Louvre, which is hard to believe… but it is. After spending a few hours there, it was the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, followed by a walk thru Les Halles, then into the Musee National d’art Modern at Centre Georges-Pompidou. I wasn’t a fan of the modern art museum… they seemed to take themselves a little too seriously for modern art. Next up was another Metro trip to Concorde and a long walk all the way up Champs-Elysees. I didn’t realize that damn road was eight kilometers uphill. I was dying inside. Every step made my feet, legs, and back ache just a little more. But I was determined to walk all they way to the Arc de Triumphe.

I was planning on walking up to the top of the Arc… but after seeing it had 147 steps… I thought it would be wiser to save my hips for when I’m in my forties. I headed back to the hostel, picked up some pastries and cigarettes for the night, and spent the evening reading while massaging my ankles.

Quick aside… while I’m typing this, the Bourn Identity is playing on TV, and I’m watching the Paris scenes thinking, “I know where that is!! I’ve been there!!”

After my cornflakes, I planned on spending my last full day in Paris in the countryside. I bought an extended Metro pass, and boarded the regional train to the Chateau de Versailles. After the forty minute train ride, I exited the station to find a heavy snowfall blanketing the Parisian suburb. I walked to the palace and was both amazed and a little dumbfounded. The palace of Versailles is magnificent. It is huge, and beautiful, and an incredible monument to the wealth and exuberance of the former royal houses. But at the same time… it was smaller than I imagined. It was big, yes… but I was expecting big on a modern scale, which it is not. Even stranger was an oversized green balloon flower made of glistening aluminum in the main plaza.

It turns out that the renowned modern artist Jeffrey Koons had an installation of his modern art inside the gothic nobility of Versailles. As I walked thru the rooms with floor to ceiling paintings and tapestries, surrounded by buses of Japanese tourists, to see this old-world European grandeur punctuated with a ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles… was one of those where-the-hell-am-I moments I have been finding myself lately. The stately gardens were closed due to ice on the steps, and all the ponds were frozen over. I hobbled back to the train station, gasping in pain with each strained step. By this point, I was really hurting.

I took the train back into Paris, and limped thru Montmartre and the Red Light district for an hour or so, followed by an extensive tour of Notre Dame. Next, I went north to the Cite des Sciences et de I’Industrie (Science and Industry Museum) located just beyond my hostel. It was a very nice museum, with great hands-on exhibits, but I just couldn’t get into it the way I normally would. I was just too tired and sore. I had been walking on cobblestones and side-streets for ten days straight, and my body had simply given out. I headed back to the hostel, picking up a ham-and-egg-and-cheese crepe along the way, and read while drinking coffees at a sidewalk café… watching the people go by.

My final morning in Paris, I limped along the canal next to the hostel, and enjoyed my final coffees and crepes. I folded my towel, packed up the full backpack, and set off to the Metro one last time.

People told me their experiences with Paris before I left. Some found the people to be rude and snobbish. Some thought it smelled bad and was too crowded. Me… I loved it. Trey gave me some advice, saying “No matter what you are doing, start every sentence with ‘Bon Jour’, and Parisians will treat you warmly.” And he was right! I thought the people were friendly, the street food was incredible, and it smelled a lot better than New Orleans on a good night. I’ve visited a lot of cities, and most of them I can say, “great to visit, but I couldn’t live there.” San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami… all good examples. But Paris… I could definitely live in Paris. Maybe one day, I will.

Found my ICE train to my last stop before leaving Europe… Frankfurt.

Frankfurt… I arrived after dark, and walked about fifty feet out of the Haptbahnhof before finding my hostel. A very tiny place tucked between a chicken house and the “World of Sex.” I checked in, and was told I was in luck, since it was all-u-can-eat-pasta night. Worked for me. I downed a few beers over a book and some dry tortellini, and went to bed. So far, by bunks were all very comfortable and roomy. Some were simply bunk beds, some were like train sleepers with curtains and nightlights. These bunks were leftovers from Alcatraz. Rickety and shaky, every time I tried to move, all the springs rattled. Worst of all was the horrendous metal bar under the mattress. There was no way my lower back could not be draped across it. By far, the worst night’s sleep I had the entire trip.

When I awoke at 5 a.m. to catch my train to the airport, by spine was shattered. From experience, I knew I had slipped at least one disc in my back. It took me ten minutes of arguing with myself to put the backpack on or to just drag it behind me. I left the hostel, cursing under my breath, and took the subway to the airport station. There, I paid for the return of my luggage, enjoyed my last bratwurst, and boarded my eleven-hour flight to Houston.

Europe was, for me, about as great as a trip as you can get. Traveling alone, backpacking for the first time, staying in hostels… it was all one grand adventure! The kind of adventure people my age tend to forget… believing that these experiences can only be achieved by the young turks. I met a ton of great people, and had some wonderful conversations about each other’s lives. I was mesmerized by the architecture and history and providence of it all. I ate some damn fine street food. I saw where Hitler started the Nazi Party and almost vomited in a science museum. I heard Amadeus’ choir and sang “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” to a bus full of strangers. I explored only the tip of Paris. I want more of Europe… and I will be going back soon.

Houston… It was great seeing my parents again! I spent almost three weeks in Houston, visiting with my family and friends. I wanted to do more, but I had to rest the first week to get my spinal cord to realign itself. I want to thank all my sisters who traveled to Houston to see me… that meant a lot. Also, my good friends who came down and let me crash at their place so I could catch up on my Shiner Bock consumption. But a special thanks to Mom and Dad for letting me stay at their place, feeding me six times a day, letting me use their car and phones… and just being really great parents who I miss very much… thanks.

Like I said before… all the pictures of the trip are up at

I’ve had a ton of stuff happen to me personally in the last three months, but I couldn’t blog about it until I had at least rehashed my Europe trip. Now that that’s taken care of, hopefully you’ll be reading a lot more of the interesting things going on in Doha. Here’s just a taste:

· I worked for the Supreme Education Council…

· I’m a soon-to-be-published-scientist…

· Buddy Tex demolished his Jeep in the desert…

· I almost won a trivia contest…

· I played a French mime in a silent movie…

I promise to tell you more a little later…

Take care…


No comments: