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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Paris, part un! (Ricky Bobby edition)

The timing of our stops in various places along the way has thrust us into some interesting scenarios, and most of the time unexpectedly.  We spent New Year's Eve in Auckland, New Zealand, one of the first major cities to mark the changing of the calendar every year. Seeing as it happens every year, we knew we would have that experience while in the land of the Kiwis.

Our first surprise was being in Australia during the celebration of Australia Day.  At first, we thought all the decorations and banners on display and festivities being held were to welcome us on our trip.  We had heard Australians like people from the States and we are a pretty big deal.  But no, it turns out the Australians like any excuse to have a party and they threw one, which we enjoyed being part of in Melbourne.  That's also where we got to enjoy the vibe of the Australian Open tennis tournament.  We didn't go to any matches, but soaked in the excitement on the streets as well as cafes and restaurants.

When we were in Sydney, we happened to book a place in Manly Beach just north of the city , having no idea that the Australian Open of Surfing was going on right there.  We loved checking out the surfing action and being part of that excitement.  Then, when we got to Paris in late July, we arrived just in time for the end of one of the best-known sporting events in the world.

The timing of our trip to Paris was based entirely on the availability of a house-sitting gig through a friend of a friend.  The homeowners needed someone starting July 20th, which just happened to be two days ahead of the final stage of the Tour De France, which concludes with the competitors doing a few laps on the Champs Elysees.

I've paid little if any attention to the Tour De France over the years, even when Lance Armstrong was winning 56 in a row.  Wait, that was Joe DiMaggio, wasn't it?  Or not.  Anyway, my apathy about the TDF was worn away by the constant coverage on TV while we were in the south of France and on a few of the drives we took around there, we saw road signs with dates and times of the TDF, apparently when the bikers would be coming through where we saw the signs.  The closest town of any significance to our puppypalooza in the Pyrenees was Foix, and the TDF was coming through there two days after we left there, and preparations were being made as we headed out of that area.

When the bikers hit Foix, we were in Biarittz and watched some of the TV coverage of that stage, enjoying recognizing some of the places shown.  So as we headed toward Paris, we thought maybe we would try to check out the final stage on Sunday afternoon, in part because the weather forecast looked great. 

Kristin, who we would be house-sitting for, said that the racers would be hitting Paris around 4:30 Sunday afternoon and suggested going into town a couple of hours before that, getting a bite to eat while drinking in the atmosphere.  So, as per her recommendation, we made plans to check out the action on Sunday.

We arrived in Garches, just outside Paris on a Thursday evening.  Our travel that day began around 10am as we left the new love of our life San Sebastian, Spain.  The rental car office where I was going to drop the car off was open until 7, and when I had researched the drive online, it said it would take about 8 and a half hours give or take, and I figured with stops, traffic etc. the more likely scenario was that we would drive to the house in Garches that evening and I would take the car to the office the next day.

When we got in the car and punched in the destination in the GPS in the car, it said the drive would only take about 7 and a half hours, putting us in the Paris area around 6pm.  Hmmmm, maybe we could take the car back that night and not have to mess with it the following day. Sounded like a good plan.

The GPS estimate of our arrival in Garches was hovering around 6:15pm for the first two or three hours of the trip.  It was a smooth ride on a well-maintained major highway for most of the way.  The road had tolls, which put a little bit of a hitch in our giddy-up at one point.

I had noticed in the first two or three trips through a toll plaza, or peage as they are called in French, one or two lanes had the image of a card with a strip on it and the word Cartes above it.  I figured instead of having to dig out the right amount of money, the next time I hit a peage, I would use a card.

It didn't take long to reach another peage and I confidently pulled into a lane with the sign of what looked to be a credit card and again the word Cartes.  When I got to where you pay, there were two stickers of what I think was thought was the European version of a MasterCard and the other was a some other symbol I didn't recognize, and both had a red X marked through them.  I thought maybe my Capital One MasterCard would work, but it got denied.  I fumbled for another card that I never use on the trip because it has international transaction fees, and it also got denied.

By this time, two cars had pulled up behind me and I also happened to drop the ticket that you insert to find out how much you have to pay.  I was in the process of pondering the possibility of changing my name to Clark Griswold as I grabbed the ticket off the ground before it could be blown across the French countryside, which was very scenic by the way.

I clearly had no choice at this point but to do something very French:  admit defeat and turn around.  So I held up my ticket, gestured toward the car reading machine and shook my head and motioned to the drivers to back up.  I expected to be greeted with a hail of croissants and foie gras and shaking fists, but instead, both drivers calmly backed up, almost like it was something in their DNA.

I did get an angry glare from a man in an adjacent lane that took cash who had let a little bit of room get between his car and the car in front of him as he got his money together.  I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, so I somewhat aggressively took advantage of that opening and happily gave my cash to the attendant and sped north toward Paris.  We had a quick family meeting in the car and decided from that point forward, any encounter with a peage would be a cash-only affair.

That episode pushed the estimated time of our arrival back to about 6:30pm which I still figured would give us enough time to stop for gas when we got close to fill the tank up and get to the rental car office by 7pm.

Being the largest city in Europe, Paris has it's share of traffic and we ran into some of that as we got closer to the city.  It slowed down enough that the ETA on the GPS was getting closer and closer to 7pm.  It wouldn't have been the worst thing to happen on the trip if we got to the rental car office and it was closed, but we had invested enough energy and we were so close to making it that we really wanted to beat the deadline.

The address we had for the rental car office was near a major roundabout southwest of the city and the GPS was going to at least get us to the roundabout.  Which it did.  At about 6:55 after fighting through the traffic in Paris.  We put the kids on alert for the yellow Hertz sign as we eased around the roundabout, and before we had made one complete circuit, Marley spotted the sign we were looking for. At about 6:57.

Of course, there was no big yellow arrow saying "return cars here" and the only drive I could find had an arrow pointing out.  As I pulled in, the kids said, "dad, that's an exit" to which I replied I was making it an entrance for now.   Just a temporary thing, you know.  I jumped out of the car, (at 6:59) and saw a woman behind the counter inside the office.  She saw where I had parked the car and said I couldn't do that, and I said I need to return the car and wanted to know where I could do that.  She said it was behind us, just in front of the entrance to the gas station that was right before the Hertz office.

Fortunately in the course of our trip driving a car in New Zealand, Australia and Greece, I've become skilled at making illegal u-turns.  That experience translated well on to the streets of Paris, as I turned the car around, and got to where the Hertz clerk described going into a driveway and down a ramp where I could return the car. Mind you, no where was there ANY signage of this being the place to return a rental car.  And that trend continued once we got inside the garage.  At 7:00pm.

I stopped the car and asked a man who seemed to be doing some repair work on a car, and he pointed me back in the direction we came in.  That's where there was an office, not for Hertz but for something else and a man there, pointed me in the direction of the very end of the garage and then made a swirling motion in a downward direction.  Kind of like a flushing toilet, which is how I was starting to feel about this entire escapade.

I finally noticed the small Hertz sign with an arrow pointing to the left, that led to another pointing to a down ramp.  At 7:03.  We get to where there are some Hertz signs hanging over filled parking spaces and I see that there seems to be some sort of drop-off box, where you can leave your rental agreement at the keys to the car.  At 7:05, or two in the morning it doesn't matter.  You get a ticket from the parking garage automated machine when you enter, and that has a time stamp on it and you leave that with the keys and the paperwork, so they know when you returned the car.

At that point, it was pretty much like the scene from Stripes, when Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are going to the Army recruitment center ("we're not homosexuals, but we are willing to learn!) and they park their car in a no-parking zone.  Someone says, "you can't park that car there!", to which Murray replies, "We're not parking it, we're abandoning it."  I just wanted done with that car and that garage.  And at about 7:15pm, I was.

On our first Saturday night in Paris, a former co-worker of Annie's contacted her on Facebook and said she was doing a stop over in Paris.  Jennifer had never been there, so we offered up our limited experience in the City of Lights to show her around.  We met her at the Pompidou Center, and briefly talked about going inside and checking it out.  But I thought if you're doing a layover in a great city like Paris and haven't seen the sights, spending time inside on a beautiful evening would be a waste. What better place to start than the Eiffel Tower?

One of the most impressive ways to see the Eiffel Tower, especially for the first time ever is to view it from across the Seine just to the north.  We got out of the Metro at Trocadero, and walked toward the Tower which was not yet in view due to the height of the surrounding buildings.  As we got close to the area of the Palais de Chaillot, I told Annie to have Jennifer close her eyes before we turned the corner to see the Tower.  I got that from a tour guide we had at the Taj Mahal who took Ben and Marley separately to view the Taj and the did the same thing with Annie and I.

We got Jennifer in position and when she looked up, she literally gasped.  I was standing between her and the Tower so I hope she gasped at seeing the Tower and not me.  I have that effect on women, you know.  The smile that broke out on her face was one of pure joy and wonderment and gave me chills.

Jennifer kept saying how much she loved the city and she had only been there a few hours.  After getting the appropriate number of pictures with arguably the most recognizable man made structure in the world in the background, Jennifer was ready to see the Arc de Triomphe.

One of the many great things about Paris is that the Eiffel Tower and the Arc De Triomph are fairly close to one another.  From the viewing point of the Palais do Chaillot north of the Seine, it's only about a 15-minute walk to the Arc.

The roundabout that swirls around the Arc is amazing to watch.  There are no painted lanes and the Arc is the hub of traffic from ten spokes coming in from all directions.  I'd never had the chance to drive it, but I'm afraid I would put on a Clark Griswold-like performance.  Little did I know that due to a wide variety of random circumstances, I would get the chance to test my driving skills in that very roundabout before we left Paris.

Among the hundreds of cars we saw spinning through the roundabout was a white Lamborghini Gallardo.  That made Ben's night and set the stage for what we would do on our "boy's days" when the girls took their weekend trip to London the following weekend.

After checking out the Eiffel Tower and the Arc, we found a cozy sidewalk cafe and enjoyed a prototypical Parisian dinner.  It was great to be with Jennifer and see her excitement over being in one of the greatest cities in the world.  She, like us and millions of others, was smitten.

The following day was Sunday, the final day of the Tour De France and the weather was perfect as we headed into Paris to be there around two hours before the cyclists arrived on the Champs Elysees.  Emerging from the Metro, we were met with bright sunshine, blue skies and the sidewalks alive with people. 

We certainly weren't the only non-Parisians taking in the action.  People from many different countries were sporting their native colors in support of cyclists from their homeland.  Norway had an especially noticeable contingent on hand as we grabbed a tasty lunch as we waited for the herd of bikes to fly down the Champs Elysees.
Some of the support teams were making their tours of the Champs Elysees, with their cars and vans adorned with the logos of whatever their team sponsor was.  Many of them had people on top of their vehicles, clapping and dancing to the music they had blaring from loudspeaker systems.

Before too much longer, we joined in the crush of people up against the barricades as the cyclists drew near.  We could see the overhead TV cameras moving into position and finally, they were here!  A stunning splash of color sped by as the cyclists hit the home stretch and the crowds welcomed them with enthusiastic cheers.
We couldn't tell who was winning and honestly didn't care.  It was just a blast to be part of the experience and the excitement.

The urge to buy a Tour De France souvenir was quickly squelched when I strolled to a nearby van that was selling all kinds of things related to the TDF.  It was the color scheme that sealed the deal for my decision to not buy anything.
Everything--every single item, every t-shirt, hat, wrist band, key chain, booklet, even the set of playing cards had the awful combination of black and yellow.  Ugh.  Steelers colors.  I could never ever wear anything with that horrible duo.  I once bought a golf bag for 20 dollars from a friend that was yellow with black highlights.  I played two rounds with it before ditching it and giving it away.  I've thought recently that if I get to the point (hopefully much later in life) where I know the end is near, I want to be wearing a Steelers jersey, listening to country music and eating Lima beans so I will welcome the arrival of the Grim Reaper.

So anyway, we left the Tour De France with no paraphernalia, but great memories, which is all you really need anyway, isn't it?

The house where we were staying in Garches, just outside Paris, featured a Mercedes-Benz station wagon.  I had never driven a Mercedes before and I was honestly a bit relieved when Kristin, the homeowner, showed me the healthy scratch that was over the rear wheel well on the passenger side.  This car had patina, it was broken in and not in pristine condition.  I was not a big fan of driving a large vehicle through Paris and didn't really plan to, considering the ease of getting into town by way of train.

We did take a couple of trips outside of Paris using the diesel-powered MB.   The Palace of Versailles is only about 20 minutes southwest of Garches by way of some backroads.  The palace is beyond spectacular, with a thick coating of gold on almost every surface.

After walking down hallway after hallway into room after room, filled with sparkling glass and gold, you kind of get a nagging urge to revolt.  I'm not saying anyone necessarily needed to be beheaded, but it's just so over the top.

It just goes on and on and on.  The opulence is a bit nauseating after a while, and the only part I actually liked was the outside.  The gardens are beautiful and at least the area provides a home for wildlife.
The day we were at Versailles was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, one of the hottest days of the summer in Paris and much to our chagrin, (that's a French word for parched throats), there was no water for sale on the grounds of the palace.  Turns out there was a selling bottles of water from a cooler outside the gates, much like at Reds and Bengals games, but we didn't see him before going inside and he was gone once we got done.  So we decided to try to make a quick stop on the way back to Garches for some water.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of driving in the big blue MB diesel-powered station wagon (maybe I'll shorten that to MBDPSW the rest of the way), we spotted what looked like a supermarket to the right of the road.  The parking lot was very small, only about twelve spots and not much room between the cars on both sides.  I drove to the end of the lot searching for a spot, and couldn't find any.  I noticed the white reverse lights come on on a car to our right, so I decided to put myself in position to grab that spot, but it was clear that the driver somehow didn't see the MBDPSW and was heading right for us!  I put the MBDPSW in reverse and hit the gas, which turned out to be a short trip as I backed right into a mini-van with a fairly loud collision. 

Sacre Bleu!  I've managed to crash a car that I don't own in a country where I don't speak the language.  Super!  I got out of the car and was confronted by the driver of the mini-van, a fairly large man with shoulder-length kinky hair and two or three poodles, (probably of the French variety since we were in France), who were barking their little kinky-haired heads off.  The driver started barking something at me in French, so we had quite the tableau unfolding:  Three or four kinky-haired animals barking things at me which I didn't understand. 

Fortunately the bumper of the MBDPSW and the bumper of the mini-van were at exactly the same height, so there was no damage to either vehicle.  I know the phrase for "I'm sorry" in French is something like "Je suis desolee" but all I could come up with in this time of crisis was a string of French gibberish, something like "parle vous Inglais, au revoir, merci, croissant, foie gras" which i repeated over and over as I quickly got back in the car and on the road back to Garches.  A major international incident narrowly avoided.  That would be just the first of a few adventures in and around Paris in the MBDPSW.

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