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Paris, New Year 2004

K_ and I spent New Years Eve in Paris.

We borrowed a car from my co-worker Thanh in
Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He'd offered it when K_ and I were trying to plan a trip to Ireland. Unable to afford that, we'd been thinking of a trip to Maastricht instead.

The way things turned out, Thanh got the idea that K_ and I should drive to Paris. Maastricht is nice, but Paris is not so much further.... Thanh was quite familiar with Paris, and had great praise for it. He wanted us to go there.

K_ knew something was up, because I'd asked her not to plan anything without talking to me.

I asked her a couple of days before the trip, while we were in our favorite café, if she'd like to go to Paris. Of course she said yes; she's mentioned Paris before, and she'd never been there.

So we did that. We threw together a trip rather rapidly. I'd say the only thing we forgot to bring was the Manu Chao CD's that didn't end up with the rest of them.

We couldn't really plan, because we didn't know what it would be like. We had a route-planner that Thanh had printed out for us — but we didn't ultimately follow that, either. We didn't even bring a map. When we stopped by the house of an ex-foster-mother of K_'s in Arnhem, she gave us an atlas.

For some reason, we ended up in Brussels. I don't remember why. I do know that I wasn't mad about reaching Paris during the evening rush-hour, which we would likely do on a late start and direct route. The next day was New Year's Eve, and we'd still get to Paris for that.

We got lost in downtown Brussels. The ring road is very confusing, and we kept losing and finding it. We decided we'd probably want to stay the night, but couldn't locate a hotel.

We couldn't find a place to stay in downtown Brussels. We asked a guy at a petrol station who spoke Dutch, and he directed us astray. [I'll say one thing in favor of Americans — when you ask for directions, you can usually get good information. Europeans generally want to help, but will often give info that is wholly inaccurate. I don't know why.]

In the neighborhood where we found ourselves, we stopped and asked a couple of workmen who were unloading some things from a van. The guy who spoke with us listed the languages he could speak. They included French and Italian, but not Dutch or English — though he listed his languages in English.

We stopped for coffee, and for a bit of a walk around. Strange place. Kind of sober. Like a dour Netherlands, where they speak French and Dutch. People eat French fries outdoors, as in Holland. We found a cozy rustic little corner café crowded with people of all ages. The coffee was good.

We decided to drive to Paris, and had another extensive ordeal with that elusive ring road. We finally found our way out of town — and there was a "Formule 1" hotel. These are very cheap, basic hotels that Thanh and his girlfriend had told us about. We stopped there. Formule 1 hotels are very clean. They're basic, with shared toilet and shower facilities that are self-cleaning. Small rooms, minimal services — it's all a very simple "formula," standardized and inexpensive. €29.

Paris was great. We got in just after noon. We decided — Thanh and Nina's assurances notwithstanding — that it was kind of ridiculous to look for a hotel on New Year's Eve. Besides, and more importantly, we didn't know how the Metro works. (That's the underground trains.) Could we get to downtown? Could we get back from downtown? Until how late? K_ speaks some French, but not enough for complex problems like that. So we just headed inward, toward the center from the hotel-studded "Peripherique" — the ring road.

We parked the car, by good luck in a part of town where we didn't have to pay. (Don't ask me why — we were there because we were looking for a tobacco store. Parking meters only take a card that you buy at tobacco stores.) Well, we parked the car and left it there.

We had a small lunch in an informal little Arabic-owned restaurant. I had an excellent salad. I can't remember what K_ had, but we were both happy. We ate lots of bread.

We took the Metro to the Louvre, with the help of a friendly Parisiene. He explained to us how it works — you need to know your destination, and the name of the final stop. They all go in a direct line (however curved) from one position to another, and then back. [When I was there, it cost €1.20 for a ticket. After you buy a ticket you can change trains as much as you wish, as long as you remain within the system.]

The guy at the Louvre said it was closing in a half-hour. I didn't believe him. It was only late afternoon — and there was a fair mob of people waiting in queue. I kind of wanted to be outdoors anyway. I don't know whether or not K_ believed him, or how much she really wanted to see the Louvre in the circumstances. In any case, we left it. We saw the outside of the Louvre, a massive blond stone building; and we got somebody to take our photo by the glassen pyramid entrance.

We walked to the river and across it. I wanted to be on the "Left Bank." We spent the evening walking around, sitting in a cafe, and, later, a bar. We couldn't sit around much outside, because it was really pretty cold. There were a lot of people sitting outdoors at cafes, though. There was, in fact, vibrant activity outdoors. Crepes on a big round flatiron griddle. Well-dressed people with an easy, sophisticated way, relaxing. None of them seemed bothered by the temperature, which I found bearable only if we kept walking.

We saw the Eiffel Tower, and walked beneath it. Took some pictures, of course.

We brought in the New Year in a bar that shared its name with a drink that K_ had, something based on a Portuguese liqueur. I was drinking Guinness, and paid €8.40 a pint.

We slept in the car that night. We both slept well. We took pictures of each other upon waking.

It was snowing. We decided it would be a good time to go.

I discovered that the turn signals didn't work. I had K_ send Thanh a text message about that. K_ and I stopped and bought two baguettes and got back into the car. It was snowing big fluffy puffs of snow that were piling up on us.

We had about 20 euros. The tank was full. We decided against coffee, so that we'd have enough money for the toll (peage.) We might find a cash machine, but we might not....

We decided to drive. I kind of figured (thinking on our feet, as it were,) that of any day to drive without turn signals, New Year's day was one of the best. Not much traffic.

We came to a canal that we'd not crossed, right in the direction that I thought was toward the ring-road (Boulevard Peripherique, or BP.) So that was it for my idea. We found ourselves at a roundabout. All directions being equal — us not knowing where we were — I said "I'm stopping there," and drove into a petrol station.

K_ had observed that "brown people" are much more likely to speak English in France, and so she approved of the place I'd stopped. The guy hung up on his telephone conversation to talk with us. We asked for directions to Lille. He said get on this road right here, and go straight. It was just the road that we'd turned onto off the roundabout, and from which we'd turned rightward in order to stop at this petrol station.

We had found our way out of town. The cops pulled in behind us for a few blocks, the only police car I saw in France — but disappeared when I wasn't looking, as if he'd never been.

We didn't even hit the ring-road. Passed under it straight to the highway.

Just north of town, I started to worry about the snow. I didn't know what to do — maybe we should stop — and K_ said just make a decision. The snow was about three inches deep on the ground, though the roads were only wet. Then we hit a patch of slush, and the car didn't do well at all. I took the next exit. There was a "Formule 1." We extended our vacation by a day, and enjoyed it, too.

I got word from Thanh that evening that there was a red switch in the car that might reset the turn signals. Which was true. The snow had abated the next day.

We stopped in Lille on the way back, and had a cup of coffee in a very nice little cafe. Very French, and very good coffee. It was a sweet little break from the road.

That was a nice trip. Lot of good memories from that. I took some photos, though a lot of the night photos don't look so great. Maybe they can be improved, so I'll keep them. Funny thing is, Paris isn't very attractive anyway. I don't think so. But the people are great. Funny, isn't it? I would have thought it would be somewhat the other way around. I guess you never know....



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