2.  Tickets, Money, Passport

In general when I travel I like to have a reason for the trip—whether it’s on-site study of a city I’d consider relocating to (I’m always on the lookout for that), a history-themed excursion to explore impressions of a place in context, or simply sightseeing, it helps to not feel at a loss for activity and direction. Once I get somewhere, I’m happy to play things by ear, but the overall trip’s approach can make a big difference in my outlook.

This trip, I knew in advance (after the Swiss Eurail glitch hit my planning’s Reset button), was going to be about wandering to places I’d never been and about just having some time away from my many Seattle ruts. It wasn’t much of a theme or target, but it was enough to get me to stop worrying about the trip in advance and concentrate more on relaxing into its start instead of having a severe and tense break from my office routines and workload.

For the most part that worked out. But the trip’s beginning posed some unusual challenges, starting at the airport in Seattle. I had a 7:30 flight (and I am NOT a morning person), so after very little sleep I took a taxi to SeaTac and let my mind drift out of synch a bit, and thanks to empty roads and a quite swift driver I got there with plenty of time to spare. Checked in electronically (which hitherto hadn’t been an option for international flights and sped things up considerably), using the credit card with which the tickets had been purchased, went directly to my gate at the North Satellite, decided it had too much noise (TV monitors, children, cellphones) and moved on to the waiting area of a gate not currently in use, and tuned out a little bit more.

Lingual Shift

From this point on in this tale, I will be referring to many places by their local names rather than in English terms; for the non-francophones reading this who find such language-mixing alienating or annoying (as with subtitles on foreign films), much as I’d like to simply say “tough titties, deal with it,” I’m going to try to be accommodating here.
For starters, I’ll provide phonetic transcriptions of the names of most of the various cities I mention, although these are off-the-cuff and shouldn’t be considered authoritative by any stretch. Also, there are a number of standard place-naming words in French which will appear again and again here that can be covered thus:

  • gare (pronounced “GAHhr,” with a breathy “R” at the end, a loose representation of the French “R” which will be shown throughout these pages as an “hr”) = train station
  • place (“PLAHSS”) = plaza or intersection
    rue (“hrOO”) = street
    boulevard (“BOOL-vahrr”) = boulevard
    musée (“myoo-ZAY”) = museum
    parvis (“PAHRVEE”) = plaza/square in front of a church

I have tried to use local place-names with appropriate context so that it will be fairly obvious that a place is a train station, a museum, or whatever.
Some Germanic names come up in this tale, but I shan’t attempt to provide pronunciation tips there (for reasons which will be obvious at those points in the story).
A final clarification on this subject: except where noted, all interactions from this point on (until my return to the U.S.) took place en français, in French; I am sufficiently fluent in French to have done this 2-week trip without speaking English or resorting to a dictionary. For which I have Nelly Lelaquet Smith to thank, it should be noted (emphatically).

As I did some slow, light stretches and popped my back on the carpeted floor there, I gradually became aware that one of the three credit cards I had been carrying in my pants pocket was missing. It says something about the successful near-Zen detachment I’d reached by this point that I didn’t freak out, that on the contrary I very calmly considered the situation for awhile, still flat on my back and detached, finally concluding that 1. the card in question was probably the one I’d used to check in (it was), 2. I’d probably left it in the checking-in station without noticing (I had), 3. the card would have been found by the next person to use the station, a person also travelling somewhere from SeaTac on United and possibly even my flight, who would likely give it to airport/airline personnel to be returned to me at my gate, because of course they’d be able to determine pretty quickly which flight I’d be on. And in any case, 4. I could report the card as Lost by telephone when I changed planes in DC if it didn’t get back to me at SeaTac.

As the flight’s boarding-call time approached, I returned to the appropriate gate’s waiting area. A few moments later I was paged to the podium and handed my credit card. I thanked the staff and made a mental note to keep this incident in mind throughout the trip when confronted with adversity or when unwisely complacent…a curious reminder of dangerous fallibility, but also of impermanences, adaptability, and the unwisdom of reliance.

After that there was nothing of interest until I reached Paris, actually; this was the ninth time I’d flown from the U.S. to Europe, and while I’m not exactly blasé about the flights it’s true that the thrill is somewhat less engrossing after enough uneventful trips…although I must note that one element of eastbound-overnight-transatlantic flight that has never failed to delight me is the time when the planeful of passengers is awakened to the new morning hour by the gentle increase in activity and the scent of coffee brewing and pastries warming: window-shades are raised one by one, randomly around the cabin, a sense of refreshed anticipation (and challenge, for some) occupies the waking minds, and the whole scene begins a process of concentration that first intensifies at the sight of either sunrise or land and then seriously focuses (among those capable of doing so) with the descent as the plane approaches the destination airfield’s runways.

Similarly, landing at Charles de Gaulle airport is only exciting if it’s your first time (or the first time in a long time) or if you flew within sight of Paris on the way down (which we didn’t this time, at least on my side of the plane). Knowing it would still be some time before I saw the “proof” that I’d reached Paris—the Eiffel Tower—and that I had a not-terribly-inspiring bus ride in from the airport ahead of me, I simply continued to be placid (and a little tired after the temporal disorientation as a day was lost to the overnight flight) and looked forward to some train travel.

I’d booked one and only one hotel reservation in advance, leaving the rest up to chance and whimsy, and that first one this time was NOT in Paris but rather in a city far removed from anywhere I’d ever been in France: Clermont-Ferrand, in the Massif Central. (More on that later.) Thus my arrival in Paris this time was to be only a fleeting one, a technicality, and I didn’t expect to even see more of it than the Métro trip from the Garnier Opéra (where the handy RoissyBus from the airport drops you) to whichever train station served Clermont-Ferrand (I’d forgotten to check, which was an odd oversight on my part). There was nobody meeting me, which was another good thing (I do prefer to travel solo and to arrive and depart the same way—Kipling’s “Cat Who Walks by Himself” in many ways), and no timeframe except that of having the hotel reservation waiting for that night.

I began to recognize bits of the city as the bus eased through the outlying suburbs and neighborhoods (the banlieux) of the north side of Paris, because I’ve previously done a fair bit of wandering around those zones on foot, and the 17th arrondissement’s minor landmarks, and my mood took on a little color of happiness amid the gently dawn-warmed grim greys and dingy early-morning shopfronts. When I stepped off the bus at its terminus behind/beside the Opéra, however, it was a complete change: as if someone had suddenly turned on the lights in a shadowy room—suddenly I was alive, AWAKE, and home in my actual life. As if I’d just awakened from a long, unpleasantly repetitious dream of mundane routines and complete absence of life force. Suddenly here I was, home, alive, completely alert, and going about my daily business as though I’d been doing it (happily) for years.

The walk over to the stairs and down to the Métro station, the purchase of a carnet of tickets (a set of ten), the quick trip down stairs and corridors to the trains and onto the one that arrived as I reached the platform, the emergence at the Gare de l’Est, it was all so absolutely natural and effortless…I was both fascinated by my transformation and supremely calm at the same time, with an undercurrent of deep satisfaction and contentment that felt like it was going to bubble to the surface at any moment. I was here, in my city, and I was so ALIVE. Seattle was just a bad dream. This was real, this was really my life, and it was where I was and would be…even if I was about to leave town.

At the Gare de l’Est (which I’d chosen as an initial destination because it was a logical connection to the country-wide rail network on the #7 Métro line which runs through the Opéra station) I determined that it wasn’t the station for trains to Clermont-Ferrand, but I also knew that I had plenty of time to get to whichever place I should be, so I got my Eurail pass validated (the crucial first step to using one) and got the necessary directions from the nice guy at the ticket window (who wished me a genuine “bon voyage,” smile and all). I drifted through the Métro routine to the Gare de Lyon, at times helplessly smiling as I recognized familiar Métro station elements (the announcement chimes, the Bastille station’s architecture, the blithe nonchalance of the passengers, the rich-yet-natural cultural diversity [such as in which I found myself the lone white American at one end of a somewhat-crowded car among a beautiful array of black skin colors and most notably standing beside a 7-foot-something gentleman with plum-black skin wearing some pale-purple outfit of African tribal cut…the effect was stunning to say the least]), verified that I had an hour or so to kill before my train’s departure, and strolled out to see what color the Seine was in April.

You see, I’d experienced Paris in August, September, October, November, December, February, and March, but never the classic “April in Paris” of song and nostalgia. Most times I’ve seen the Seine, it’s been a silver ribbon the color of the late-autumn cloudy skies getting ready to rain…a color I do love and one which suits the city well and even diffuses the gentle amber of the predominant building color to something closer to ivory. Is the Seine ever blue? It would be in April, I figured, if ever. So, despite being laden with my bags (two, of unequal mass and weight), I crossed the Seine via the Pont d’Austerlitz and found there a mixture of brown, green, blue, and grey, reflecting elements of the surrounding riverbanks and sky in fine Impressionistic form.

After a quick look at the Left Bank end of the bridge (and the long-term tent encampment there beside the roadway) I returned to the Gare de Lyon, bought a sandwich at a fast-food booth there from (and shared a big smile with) an unusually amused girl (the staff, all pretty young, had just been laughing about some internal joke when I arrived), composted my ticket (see the sidebar on the following page), and got on the 11h45 train to Clermont-Ferrand.

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