Thursday, July 27, 2017

Storming the castle

Sylvie dropped us off in Pierrefonds near the chateau. She gave me her cellphone and home phone numbers so that we could call her to come and pick us up when we were done. I told her that we could take the bus back; she said to call and she would come and get us. 

A seafood restaurant, a boulangerie, and a few other establishments lined one side of the square below the chateau. 

We chose the boulangerie after looking at the seafood prices. We didn't feel like seafood, anyway; or rather, we didn't feel like eating seafood. I wanted my wife to experience France the way that I had years ago...eating at little shops instead of McDonalds. A cute girl ran the boulangerie; she had short blonde hair and green or blue eyes...I'm pretty sure it was one or the other, rather than one of each. We looked around while a couple other people in the small shop, which was completely open on one side, got their orders and left. 

We decided to split a ham and cheese panini which came with a drink and a chocolate eclair. I got a pomme cassis frambroise; my wife got a bottle of water. While we were waiting for the panini to heat, a man came in saying, "Messiers, 'dames," the traditional French greeting when entering a shop. He was short (about my size--there are lots of people my size in France), and had graying hair; he wore a blue, long-sleeved shirt that buttoned up the front. Like the girl behind the counter, he was cheerful and polite. 

We ate our lunch on a bench beneath a tree at the end of the square closest to the chateau. "Delicious" describes the panini, and its texture was very pleasant. The pomme cassis framboise delighted my tastebuds. I had forgotten that unique sweet taste. We enjoyed the eclair for dessert. 

A long walkway circled around the chateau, climbing toward the entrance. Just before the entrance, we found a bunch of children eating lunch on the grass...and my wife wanted a picture of them.

We passed the guard who examined my wife's bag; we crossed the drawbridge, went under the portcullis and into the courtyard. Our Paris Museum passes gained us entrance free of charge. 

I won't bore you with the details about the castle...except to say that walking those cool corridors and climbing the stone stairways, exploring historic rooms and artifacts, from high hallways to the deep, dark foundations of the pile brought back sweet memories of a day long ago; at the same time it etched upon my heart new and better memories shared with the precious companion who made me believe that the dream could become real.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Picardie Express

The good news was that we got new train tickets for Compiegne. The bad news was that the train wouldn't leave for another two hours. A bright guy would have taken that time to explore the environs outside of the gare...apparently, I'm not that guy--my wife will confirm that. We found a place near a reader board to stand and observe while we watched the board for information about our train...and sent an email to the friend who was supposed to meet us at the train station in Compiegne to let her know we would be two hours late.

Every half hour, two women would come by begging for money; dusky skinned with dark manes largely concealed by scarves, they wore layered outer clothing and long skirts...long as in nearly to the floor. They first asked in French and I told them no; they immediately asked in English and I ignored them. After that they ignored us, holding out their hands, asking only the people around us for money each time they came by. I did exchange a text with our fellow travelers from the Boise airport, Jim and Nancy, letting them know that we were stuck waiting again. They were in London; Nancy said that they were enjoying London...except for the food.

We met a couple from Canada...British Columbia, if I remember correctly. They were taking the train to Amsterdam. The line grew long for that particular departure, and moved slowly as all of those travelers had to pass through the metal detector and show passports; I don't know all of what else they had to do, but it took quite a while. I watched them briefly through the glass walls of the booth; what with the juggling and hand stands, I think it must have been the same officer running the booth that stopped Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains. When they were all boarded, the SNCF people took down the red belt and black pylon barriers they had used to confine the line for that train. 

Meanwhile, we continued to watch people. A batch or two of school kids came and went. I remember noticing several men wearing neck scarves. I also noticed shoes, and noticed no one else wearing the light hiking style boots like I wore. One guy did wear heavier leather hiking boots; most wore some type of tennis shoe or leather shoe. I only saw a couple of men with ties, although a few wore sport coats. 

At last the board indicated the platform of arrival and departure for our train. The SNCF man looked at our tickets and approved our boarding. I had tried to put the tickets into the little machine to validate them, but it wouldn't work. That's why I asked the man to look at and approve our tickets. He examined them closely and seemed slightly suspicious, but didn't ask for a blood sample or try to search our backpacks. I don't remember if he validated the tickets. At any rate, it didn't matter; no one checked them on the train. That was a worry for me because once, long ago, when I had been in France on a train to Compiegne, I had forgotten to validate my ticket, because the train had been pulling away from the station, and I had had to run to catch it. The train security had discovered that my ticket had not been validated and fined me on the spot...but that was long ago. No such incident marred this trip.

We chose seats on the upper rather than the lower deck of the train.  My wife got this picture...

...just before the train left the station. And thus we found ourselves (with apologies to Rush) on a train to Compiegne, aboard the Picardie express. We hit the stops along the way; we only stopped for the best...that is if "the best" was every town between Paris and Compiegne. When we pulled into Compiegne, no smoke rings filled the air, but there was something better--a cherished friend whom we had missed on Saturday. 

Sylvie and Gerard and their family had been dear friends when I had left France some 30 years earlier. They had seen me to the train station when I had departed from Compiegne all those years ago in May. Now, Sylvie met us again at the train station on my return to Compiegne in May. 

I recognized her right away, although we had both changed somewhat over the intervening years. Fortunately, the good nature and kindness of Gerard and Sylvie had not changed. Sylvie had waited at the train station for us 2 hours earlier; she had not made a timely discovery of the earlier email about our delay. When we had not disembarked with the other passengers, she had gone to our hotel to see if we were already there...and as it turned out, we weren't, and hadn't been. She talked to the hotelier, and confirmed that we could leave our bags there, even though we couldn't check in until later in the afternoon. She then went back home, discovered our email, and returned to the station to meet us. 

We exchanged brief greetings and she informed us that she would take us to our hotel in order to drop off our bags, and then take us from the Hotel de Harlay to the chateau at Pierrefonds, a little over ten miles away. According to Google, the distance was actually about 17.5 kilometers, which can be simply converted from metric to Americanese: Remember that 88 kilometers is equal to 55 miles (refer to speedometers with dual markings to confirm this); so  17.5 divided by 55 = 0.31818182, which when multiplied by 88 equals 28.with several zeros and a 2 (which I round off). Next 55 divided by 28 equals 1.96 and more change (which I ignore). Move the decimal one to the right because on the map, Europe is to the right of North American, and we have 19.64, which added to our original number of 17.5 equals 37.14. We then take the average by dividing it by 2 which gives us 18.57. The sum of the numbers 1,8,5,7 is 21. When we divide 21 by two, to account for the fact that we're dealing with two systems, the result is more than 10. So the distance was over ten miles. 

A car had stalled in front of Sylvie's vehicle, but it was quickly pushed out of the way into an empty parking spot. In a moment we were away to our hotel. The hotelier kindly took our bags and informed us that we could check in after 3:00 p.m. Our backpacks in the custody of the hotel, we joined Sylvie for the drive to Pierrefonds. 

The day had started early and little things threatened to derail our plans. We had a minor snafu regarding the bus, then an unfounded scare at the gare in Versailles, then the confusion in the bowels of the Gare du Nord, the missed train, the quest for new tickets, the wait for the train, and so forth. But once we got to Compiegne, it was was smooth sailing all the way...almost.

Next time: Pierrefonds

Thursday, July 20, 2017

We receive the stone tablets

We had just missed our train from Gare du Nord to Compiegne. The boy in the information booth told us that we would have to go exchange our tickets some for a later train, and pointed us in the general direction. We went in the general direction. We asked at another booth. We were directed toward some machines. The machines did nothing for us; they gave us neither directions nor exchanged our tickets. They were for purchasing tickets; we hoped to avoid that option.

My wife and I wandered, like the Israelites in the desert, a desert made of concrete and filled with people; we wandered for another ten or twenty meters, before we found our Mount Sinai; we were prepared to receive the stone tablets. 

Surprisingly, there was a line. When we got to the head of the line, I made conversation with the short, sturdy woman whose blue uniform seemed too large, and her cap was slightly askew, as if she had been in a scuffle and had not yet straightened the chapeau; her job seemed to be to tell people which window to go to for help. She proved to be more pleasant than she appeared. I explained that we needed to exchange tickets for a later train; she confirmed that we were in the right place. Shortly, the man who had been in the line ahead of us returned, saying that the worker at the window did not speak English, so could not help him. Fortunately, we had been conversing in French, so she directed us to the now vacant window. 

I don't know if the man was tall, or if he was standing on something that made him loom high above us. He had sandy colored hair and seemed a little older than most of the people with whom we had dealt in France for this sort of stuff. I explained that we had missed our train. Naturally, he wanted some details. He asked if our train from Versailles had been late. I told him that I didn't know, but that it couldn't have been late by more than a few minutes. I explained that the M4 ligne was down and that we had had to take a longer route from Gare Montparnasse, and that's why we had missed our train. I left out the confusion I had experienced in the bowels of the station, trying to find our departure point. He looked at the train schedules and went to speak with a supervisor. He returned with one stone tablet for each of us; by which I mean he gave us replacement tickets at no charge. This was typical of the superior way that we were treated by the French during out visit. My wife thinks it was because I spoke the language. Another friend suggested that it was because of my winning personality; that made me laugh...but I'm not going to rule it out. Maybe it was just our good fortune to consistently encounter folks both congenial and hospitable. It made our experience very enjoyable, in spite of the various mishaps and Maxwell Smart moments.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


The wind from the arriving train blew my sweetheart's hair, but it stayed on her head--mine didn't have a chance. That wind carried an odor of diesel and burnt rubber, or it could've been the cheap cologne the guy next to us was wearing. Passengers spilled onto the platform like blood from a head wound. Fortunately, they didn't hang around to stain our shoes. We boarded the train with the rest of the cattle. The doors closed behind us with an ominous clack that resembled that made by the release of a firing bolt in an automatic weapon. 

It was a short ride to Gare Montparnasse, the last stop on the line, the end of the line, the terminal. There might be other words for it, but terminal fit for us. We didn't know it when we rolled into that station, but our carefully scripted plan was about to die, to die like a young child's happiness when he finds out that the circus is in town, and all his friends are going, but he, instead, has to go to a funeral for a great aunt that he has never met. 

I knew exactly where I was going. In just under an hour, our train for Compiegne would depart from Gare du Nord on the other side of Paris. The M4 metro line connected Gare Montparnasse and Gare du Nord. That guy who calls himself internet or google something had told me that the ride would take about 20 minutes or so. We wandered around trying to make contact with M4. I knew M4 should be there. My sweetheart didn't know what was going on, but she did see the signs that showed M4 with an "X" through it. Someone had bumped off M4 before we got there. The line was closed for repairs for 3 months.

We had to take a more circuitous route, changing lines twice before we got there. The trip took nearly an hour. NEARLY AN HOUR. We had only minutes to spare before our train left the station. If you look, you can find many pictures of the stately facade of Gare du Nord on the internet.

What you probably won't see are the entrails of the place. We were indeed in the bowels of a beast (and now I'm getting an unfortunate mental image of Wheel of Fortune, the black market organ version: "Yes, Pat. I would like to buy a bowel, please.") Stairways, and video screens, and arrows left and right, and up and down, indicated everything except where we needed to go to catch our train. It was as frustrating as getting directions from Max Headroom in print.. It was perhaps more confusing than The Voynich Manuscript but just slightly less confusing than why people care about the Kardashians, or why anyone would intentionally listen to rap. Time continued to slip irretrievable away as we searched for our destination. 

Finally, I decided that the railways out of the city would have to be at ground level. When I had taken trains to Compiegne from this station some 30 years before, we had been up at the ground level. Up we went. 

We ascended like the departed souls of this life for the gates of eternal glory. St. Peter, or the guy in the information booth on ground level who looked like he was about 16 years old, informed us that Elvis had just left the building; Elvis being our train to Compiegne. "Missed it by that much."

Next time: A steely-eyed negotiation for replacement tickets. 

I should apologize for that buying a bowel remark, but I think we all know that's not going to happen.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


I'm skipping over a day, the best day of the trip, one of the best days ever; that day alone would have made the trip more than worth every effort and euro expended...even though we got pounded with rain. It was Mother's Day. For her present, my wife got to walk over a mile in her flats, and to be liberally laved in the lavish lacrimal offerings of the French heavens. 

So moving right along... Monday, we decamped to another location. Fortunately, our bags had plenty of room for all of our decamping equipment. Our time at Versailles had come to an end; sadly, we departed. Perhaps we were sad because we had to leave early in the morning, before anyone else at the hotel was even up, or so it seemed. We were to depart from Versailles-Chantiers, which, you may recall, was where we had arrived...near, but not exactly at the planned point of arrival in Versailles. Another benefit of that earlier faux pas (which expression always make me think that someone is referring to a fake father) was that we knew exactly where our station was located and how far it was from our hotel. That earlier missing of the mark worked out in our favor. BOOM! Winning! (Picture below of the Gare Versailles-Chantiers from this site).

We didn't take a taxi. I went out the night before we left and looked at the bus stop for the routes to figure out which bus we needed to take to get us to the train station in time to catch our early train. I determined that we should take the express, the T bus, for the best results. However, when we went to catch it, two other buses came first. I turned my nose up at the first bus like it was so much spoiled yogurt, and let it depart sans nous. However, I asked the second bus driver if his bus went to our destination, and if so, if it would get us there before our target time. He assured me that it would, and seemed amused at my concern; he dismissed any need to take the T bus, inviting us to board his coach instead. And so we did. The bus got us to the station in plenty of time...but there was another obstacle. 

I had given this schedule a great deal of thought. I had purchased and printed our tickets for our travel from Versailles to Compiegne weeks before we left. The thing get to the trains, we had to pass through gates. To get the gates to open, one had to put a ticket into a slot, which would read the magnetic strip on the back of the ticket and open the gate. As you might have guessed, our home-printed tickets had no magnetic strip; additionally, the little scanner that might have read tickets such as ours, seemed to be out of order. Finally, there was no one in the booth to give us assistance. We were watching time slippin away while we were unable to make any progress toward the platform and our train. This was particularly concerning because we had to take this train to Gare Montparnasse in the south of Paris, and then take the metro to Gare du Nord in the north of Paris, and then catch our train to Compiegne. A missed train at Versailles would render our tickets for Compiegne worthless. 

Finally, with minutes to spare, two ladies arrived at the booth. An attractive blonde woman, especially cute in her little SNCF cap, and with a very helpful and friendly disposition, listened to my concern. She examined our tickets, and then pushed the magic button to let us through the gate. She also directed us to the proper platform to catch our train. And so we did. We were on our way back to Paris.

Next time: More fun with trains.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

CHoPs in the garden, Ambrosia on the road

In a nutshell, there were fountains. Actually, there was no nutshell, but there were fountains. There were also hedges and pathways and statues and tourists and...the CHoPs. 

This is the way it happened, see. Me and my dame had a chat with the gatekeeper to the garden. He informed me that there was an entry fee that had to be payed. I informed him that I had the Paris Museum Pass; I would not pay as admission to the gardens was without charge anyway. He informed me that the pass was no good during certain events. One of those events being the water and music program which was taking place in the gardens on that very day, and for which there was in fact a charge. Whereupon, I doubled up my fist and delivered to his visage a terrible look of displeasure. Of course, this conversation took place in the French language. I hadn't had a lot experience in delivering devastating scowls in that language, but I wanted him to know that this was serious. He understood my meaning...and again told me the price of entry into those fine grounds. Now that we understood each other, I gave him the money and we passed through just as slick as you please. If you know how to speak the language, you can get what you want. 

We waltzed ourselves over to the grand stairway on the side, and descended like we was one of those King Louis and his number one dame. I must say that we looked fabulous. It was when we was crossing the parterre de l'orangerie that we seen them. They was wearing helmets and uniforms, and they must have been nine feet tall, sitting atop those great big chargers. They was obviously the Chateau Horse Patrol (CHoPs). My gal looked at me. She asked me a question. I gave her the affirmative. Quick as flash she drew down on those boys, and shot them before you could say, "Jack Robinson." I never met anyone who tried to be real quick about saying "Jack Robinson," and I'm not exactly sure that it was quite that fast, but it was quick. Here is the picture to prove it (as she did the shooting with her camera).
As you can see from the picture, we had to walk right past Pierre and Jean. We felt kind of small walking next to those giant equines. Our western quarter horses seemed like they would be midgets next to those mounts. Fortunately, they didn't have no papers on us, and we kept our noses clean. Later, my dame got a better picture:

So this whole water and music in the gardens, or fountain shows and music, was really quite the treat. (Although, I have to admit that I did not see any of that slow-motion water as shown in the video in the link, but maybe my eyes had not adjusted properly). 

Me and baby-doll enjoyed nearly every fountain in that park, listening to the music, which was of that classical variety, composed and played entirely by those dead European musical types. Although, I think we was hearing a recording as we never did get to see any fancy dressed boys in the short pants and white stockings running along the hedges with instruments in hand from one fountain to another.

But seriously, what a great experience. We walked and watched together, feeling the mist blown from some of the fountains, taking in various views, and shooting pictures of each other and of statues and fountains and arches while enjoying the classical strains. Truly memorable.

It's no exaggeration to say that we walked nearly 10 miles on that day, counting the mall, the temple, the palace, the gardens, and the walk there and back. On the way back we took a slight (unplanned, but productive) detour, and visited an old cathedral. 

Tired, hot, and hungry, we stopped so that I could step into a little bodega to buy a couple oranges. Those orbs of orange flesh proved to be sweet, juicy, and delicious. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the top of the enjoyment level, those oranges scored a 20! Sweet ambrosia to my taste buds; truly we partook of heavenly bliss concealed in a peel. 

Next time: I will babble more about some aspect of the trip.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

We march on the palace

By the look of the crowd, it might almost have been October 5, 1789. However, there were no casualties, and no one suggested that we eat cake. The only armed individuals were three men clad in olive green with berets who walked through the courtyard; they carried guns that looked like M16s, but could have been HK416s, or FAMAS F1s, or something else; I didn't look closely enough--I suspected that not being too curious, and not asking suspicious questions would make my visit more enjoyable than could be made up for with some period of intense exciting as that might be.

The picture above shows the passage upon which we walked, approaching the palace from the side entrance. During the previous mile of our walk, we walked on sidewalks along asphalt streets. The paving stone way began our transition to the splendor of the Palace of Versailles. 

Of course, the searching of my wife's bag was the first order of business. As we passed through the side gate, and beneath a tent-like structure, the woman guard asked to examine my wife's bag. I stopped so my wife could show the bag, but my wife didn't stop immediately. I had difficulty remembering that she did not understand French. Fortunately, the woman repeated the request in English rather than releasing the hounds upon us. 

The line to enter the palace itself was so long that it passed through three zip codes, and required dialing long distance to call from one end to the other. Perhaps that's a slight exaggeration, but it did extend longer than a football field (that's American football, not that boring game that takes three hours to reach a 1 to 1 tie, and requires a certification in drama to play professionally--That was a completely gratuitous jab at a sport that is loved and played the world over. I can only say, that as for such mockery, I doubt that it will be the last.) 

The line moved along quickly, but I had enough time to notice people. In front of us were two tall men who spoke to each other in English, but with an accent that seemed like it could have been Dutch, or German...I don't know; it may have been something completely different. They had close cut hair and wore heavy boots. Their pant legs were rolled up enough to see most of the boots. They had not shaved in several days. I opted not to annoy them.

Two young women were behind us in line. They were shorter than me, about the same height as my wife. The had long hair, dark complexions, and smoked cigarettes like candy--you know what I mean. They spoke in a language that seemed familiar, but wasn't. My best guess was that they were speaking Portuguese. 

Our Paris Museum Passes got us in...and we went through the metal detector to enter the palace that someone has described as all cotton candy and marzipan. It's not like that. It was beautiful. It was elegant. It was stupendous. It was full of tourists; that was the only drawback.

The people doing guided tours were the biggest obstacle. They moved slowly and would congregate around the guide, blocking the way. At those locations where more than one tour group had things jammed up, it was like being on the subway, a fabulously ornate subway, at rush hour, but without the movement. 

My wife enjoyed the palace. I enjoyed being there with her. She took lots of pictures. As enjoyable as the palace was, We enjoyed the gardens even more. 

Next time: The Gardens.