May 20, 2009

Day 2 : Metallic lace

One of the few things I had done as way of preparation was to do some research about a global rail pass. As a result, KS had bought the passes for us from US which meant we could pretty much travel to any city within the 15 countries with a simple reservation charge for the fast tracks. So there we were on day 2, scrambling early in the morning to catch the train to Paris.

We all got ready faster than I had anticipated. I have never seen KS and ST lethargic so the two of them getting ready was no surprise. SS and AS also got ready fast. SR grumbled a little but the rest of the party was so enthusiastic that it didn’t matter.

By now we were veterans of the Zurich tram system that we arrived without any trouble at Zurich HB. Hauptbahnoff was an impressive building and could pass off as a tourist attraction in itself. As we hurried along to catch the Zurich-Paris high speed TGV, I caught a statue in the front and a quick glance revealed the name to be Escher. I paused mid-stride causing a minor collision, then recovered - THE Escher was not from Zurich nor was his name Alfred. Alfred Escher's statue though was at the right place as I later found out he was a railway entrepreneur.

We got in with about 5 minutes to spare and SR vanished for a few moments and reappeared with breakfast and lunch - sandwiches, bread and juices.

My first time in an European train; actually in any non-Indian train. The clean, well cushioned airplane style seats with proper hand-rests, tray table, cup rests etc. bode well. We walked around a bit and after a while settled in our various seats and got ourselves comfortable. KS, ST and PS were from the US and I could see jetlag hitting them. SS and AS also went to sleep on and off. SR was so wired - he didn’t sleep, walked about and was in general sharing observations about people and places. I sat by the window and watched the country side flash past. At a speed of 180 miles an hour at times, the TGV Lyria bullet train ride was remarkable.

Swiss landscape gave way to small towns and wide fields dotted with small churches and cottages. The German sounding town names slowly became more French without any indication of when I crossed the border. The land was tilled but I could not discern what was sown. It did not look like my idea of vineyards. Graffiti adorned almost every wall. I was repeatedly stuck by the lack of crowded big towns on the way - I realized after a while it was because I was coming from India and that the rest of the world is most likely like this.

I enjoyed a huge sandwich feeling slightly guilty since others were still asleep and let my mind indulge in a romantic ramble of facts and fiction - Goethe in Strasbourg, D'Artagnan journeying to Paris, Napoleon's retreat from Russia..

We arrived in Paris Gare De L'East around noon. I have this theory that you should never approach your dream city by road or train – An approach by air gives a majestic view of any city whereas when you approach by road or train you get exposed to the underbelly and gut too fast. But then I was not sure what I was expecting in a metropolitan city metro station.

The station was crowded and we got into the long queue and bought visit paris passes. I was delighted I could use a few French words I remembered from my high school and could make out most of the sign boards. We all had our backpacks and I lobbied to start sight seeing immediately. SR was vehemently opposed, rest were neutral. I persuaded everyone that we should try and see if we can go to the city. So, we caught the tube to the Musee station. I climbed out of the underground to a sunny afternoon.

I have this click in my head when my imagination and a scene in front of me connects. The click I heard when I stood in an almost empty LA business district surrounded by the silent looming skyscrapers, the click I heard when I went down hill in a cable car in San Francisco, the click I heard when I came upon the grand canyon all of a sudden, the click when I saw the buildings in Bath... I heard that click when I climbed up the stairs and saw the signboards. The understated metallic board that announced that we were standing in front of the Musee De Louvre.

We walked about gaping at the grand buildings – it was less crowded than I expected it to be and there was a certain leisure, quietude and lethargy about it that was unexpected. My imagination ran riot and waves of all the words I had read about the city's history and culture overwhelmed me.

We walked around and stopped in a small street near the Rue De Rivoli to have lunch. The young owner got us the vegetarian ware we wanted and we all sat down to eat our pasta. I was fascinated with the older well dressed man who was having his lunch. The glass of red wine next to him and the air of joie de vivre was unmistakable. The young man and old man talked and were joined by another young woman and the three of them continued on with their slow meal, enjoying their wine, as the quiet afternoon passed us by.

I was done! Forget the museums and art galleries! This was the experience of Paris - right there the vision of a lethargic enjoyable afternoon lunch with fine wine.

After the meal we walked about a little more on the various small streets just drinking in the atmosphere. I must admit our walking was also due to my inept guidance towards the right metro station.

Our hotel was in the outskirts at Velizy partly deliberate choice to experience life outside the town, partly because of the long weekend crowd. We caught the metro and then a bus – the driver obligingly showed us where our hotel was. It was still only four and the sun was shining that we decided to do more sight seeing starting with the Eiffel tower.

So far I had not caught a glimpse of the tower much to my surprise and even as the metro approached the stop I still could not. We got down and walked following the map and I was straining my neck to catch a glimpse all the while. And then we came upon it quite suddenly.

I had read of all the famous personalities who hated the tower including Maupassant and Dumas and how some Parisians thought of it as an eyesore. But one wouldn't believe that looking at the queue snaking all over the base. I stood patiently in the hour long queue, watching the loads of Indian tourist buses and hawkers, thinking all this might not have been there if the tower had been dismantled as it was originally planned or had been destroyed during WWII. Robert Langdon in Da Vinci Code calls it an apt emblem for France 'renowned for its diminutive insecure leaders'.

The intricacy of the iron structure was amazing. When I stood in the queue down, when I went up the elevator on the pylon to level two and when I went all the way up the top, the fluidity of it never ceased to beguile me. How could someone envision these rusty brown metallic lines crocheted together to a stunning structure such as this? Especially about a hundred and twenty years ago. What a fresh perspective it must have been then! It appeals to the mind not just for the aesthetics but for the science too with the material of choice and the wind considerations.

The view from the top was predictably marvelous. The sun shone and its rays bounced off of the river Seine and highlighted the tree lined boulevards and the monuments on both the right and left banks. The bridges across Seine brought me back memories of London.

The family in front of me was coughing quite a bit giving me some moments of anxiety about swine flu.

We got down, wandered a bit and caught the train and probably the last bus back to our hotel. I remarked how the streets were looking deserted and SR smilingly told me the time. It was already 9 p.m, the sky was still not dark reminding me of summer in lands much north to mine.

Channa Masala and Baguette is a great combination, I decided as sleep overcame me.

May 20, 2009