Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we watch some sport, my wife goes to sleep in one country and awakens in another, and I take very few pictures.
09: One Last Night, then A New Day, a New Country
For our last night in Paris, we decided to have a walk around the Arene before going out for dinner. The Arene de Lutece has a park for kids, with swings and climby-things (this is the part our flat overlooks), and then a little twisty garden/forest part where the lilac is in bloom and the pigeons roost in the trees and coo and coo. And then there’s the arena itself (unfortunately, most of it is a reconstruction, but it’s an accurate reconstruction). We walked past the broken statue in the kid’s park, up into the forest, and down toward the arena. The place was abuzz with people coming out for their Saturday evening. Someone had wrapped one of the Roman statues in a toga of gold and orange tulle that blew in the breeze. The seats of the amphitheater were filling with locals—families, couples, groups—while down in the arena games were played. We saw two boys playing an odd form of baseball, several games of boules, and two pick-up games of football (that’s “soccer,” y’all). It’s not a huge arena, and the games overlapped territory, but there were no arguments. The football players understood when one of the old blades playing boules snagged their wayward ball and imperiously kicked it back their way. The two boys playing hit-and-catch with the baseball gave ground when a football play passed into their pitching space. It was an odd ballet, danced by diverse groups in half-metered time. We stayed there a long time, knowing that this was our last night and wanting to absorb as much as possible of the neighborhood. We wondered who among the hundreds of people there knew each other—it seemed that most were not strangers—and who were outsiders. We wondered if the pick-up football players came here every night, or if this was just a happenstance caused by the wonderful weather. In the end, we couldn’t know, so when the pick-up football game disintegrated, so did we.
Our intent was to have dinner in a brasserie, and we tried, but they didn’t serve food on Saturdays and Sundays. Then we tried to have dinner in a restaurant, but it was too early (Parisians have an entirely different food-clock, by which dinner-time doesn’t start until 7 or 8PM). We tried to get a cut of meat at a boucherie, but we were standing there for 20 minutes as the boucher held forth with his one customer, discussing All Things Political as he neatened up his stock—I mean, I understand that we’re not regular patrons, and I expected to wait in line while the vendor chit-chats with each and every customer, giving them the personal touch Parisians love and expect, but 15 minutes before he even starts cutting meat for this guy? Eventually I talked myself out of buying saucisson (sausage) at €15/kilo (which comes to $9.88/lb), and we left unattended and unprovisioned. In the end, we went back to the flat and I made omelettes with edam, comte, and mache. The baguettes were traditionale, of course.
Packing makes me grumpy, and failing to have a final meal out made me grumpier, so my wife retreated to her book while I fussed and fretted over how to get 15 kilos of crap into an 10-kilo bag. Eventually I succeeded, perseverance winning out over tactics. And then we were ready to leave.
The Eurostar leaves from Gare du Nord. In the morning, we called for a cab (Taxi Blu) and headed out. If Saturday mornings are sleepy in Paris, Sunday mornings are comatose. We drove past a quartet of young men who, based on their weaving, erratic path, were obviously not up early, but still out from Saturday night. We drove past Notre Dame and waved goodbye, then drove past the Hotel de Ville and the Tour St. Jacques—two sights we missed during our week—onward up past Gare du l’Est and thence to Gare du Nord.
After passing through customs and being quizzed as to our intentions in Britain by the UK border patrol, we walked out under the high steel arches of the Gare and climbed aboard. I expected the Eurostar to be all modern and Space Age, but it was actually pretty utilitarian and even a little threadbare. The literature said that you had to be there a minimum of 30 minutes beforehand, but that’s only if you know what you are doing. We were there 50 minutes early and we really needed all of it to figure out what line to wait in, what forms to fill out, etc., etc. We left at 8:13AM, on the dot, slipping soundlessly out of the Gare, out of Paris, out into the country.
The French countryside we passed through was covered with cropland, the bright yellow fields of flowering rapeseed alongside short crops of deep green and fallow fields of red turned earth. Small villages sped past, each with their single church spire rising above the red-tiled roofs. Copses of trees often had their round tops pruned flat, even though many were sometimes 30 feet tall, which seemed to me a lot of effort to go to for something that might go completely unnoticed by those beneath them. But all around us, from field to village to even the railway sidings, everything was neat, clean, and tidy.
We sped up to Lille and took a long left-hand turn (or right-hand, since we were facing backward) and headed to the coast. Can someone explain to me why the windows on trains and buses never line up with the seats? Not only had we unknowingly reserved backward-facing seats, but we’d also reserved one of the seats that was next to a bit of wall and not a window. If I tilted my head I could see backward out the window next to the guy opposite me, and if I craned my neck I could see forward out the window behind me. I happened to be looking forward as the terrain changed. The soil suddenly got sandy, the grass gave way to tufts of fescue, and then a sign flashed past that said “EuroTunnel” and bam, we were in the Chunnel.
We were in the Chunnel for about 20 minutes. My wife had worried about this bit, afraid she might feel claustrophobic. However, insofar as she had nodded off for a nap somewhere after Lille and woke up only when our ears popped as we rose toward the surface, it was pretty much a non-issue.
The British countryside was very different from the French. It was wilder, rougher. The trees were less uniform, round-topped, ragged. Scrub grew along the sidings. Only rarely did a spire rise up from the towns we passed and those that did were the flat-topped square Norman towers and not the elegant tapered spires of France. Instead of cropland, sheep dotted the hills. We stopped in Ashford first, then sped onward to London. We set our watches back an hour (zone change) as we pulled into St. Pancras station. Debarking, we stopped for a cuppa and then went to wake up the cab driver who was waiting at the front of the queue.
We were dropped at the corner of Oakworth Road and Hill Farm Road, just off St Marks Road, in the W10 (West-Ten) section of London. Our flat was at 50 Oakworth Road, but as we looked around we saw 51, 52, 53 in one direction and 49, 48, 47 in the other. Number 50 was simply not there. Children were playing in the garden on the Hill Farm Road side of the corner, some folks were out washing their car; it was a wonderful, quiet neighborhood, and it looked like the street was saw on Google’s Street View, but it simply didn’t have a number 50.
We called Philip, who owned the flat we’d taken for our two-week stay. I told him where we were and thought we’d been dropped on the wrong block.
“Can you hear some children squealing out in a garden?”
The girls were Boudicca and Juno, Philip’s twin toddlers, and the unnumbered house that opened up on Hill Farm Road was actually Number 50, Oakworth Road. Philip stepped out of the gate and greeted us warmly.
Philip is an ebullient Irishman who used to pilot jets and helicopters (his wife still flies for British Air). The room wasn’t ready for us, yet, so he put our luggage in the shed, and with the girls in tow (sometimes literally) he showed us around the neighborhood, pointing us to the Kensington Memorial Park and the High Street beyond, where we could get a nosh at a sidewalk bakery.
Our flat for the next two weeks is situated in the northwest corner of London, in an ethnically-diverse working-class neighborhood. There are delis, grocers, bakers, all who serve a bite out at tables set up on the wide sidewalks. The flat is literally two blocks from where Prime Minister Cameron lives, and also two blocks from where the terrorists responsible for the 7/7 bombings lived. It’s also fairly close to the Kensal Green cemetery, final home to Babbage, Thackeray, and Princess Sophie, among others.
But sightseeing would be for another day. This part of our vacation is for resting first, touring second, so our main task was to head up to Sainsbury’s (sort of a super-Target store) to stock up on food and a few items. The flat is somewhat different from what we expected: it’s a “mother-in-law” style daylight basement affair, set under the home of the owners above. It’s a “bed-sit”: one room, one bathroom, efficiency kitchen, but it’s done tastefully and solidly, with ample storage considering its small size. It has a pull-down Murphy bed which is pretty comfortable and the kitchen has all the amenities (though it isn’t very well-provisioned, cuisine-equipment-wise, since this is purely a rental and not a home). It will be serviceable for two weeks, though.
We slept the sleep of the dead, and today is our first full day in London, and we’re probably not going to do a damned thing except maybe go up to the gardens or maybe (just maybe) up to Kensal Green. I roasted a chicken last night, and we had Danish back bacon with our breakfast this morning; boy I’d love to be able to get that in the States. Philip and I are in agreement that Americans just don’t know how to do butter—”Fourteen aircraft carriers and no decent butter? What’s going on there?” he asks. We’re close to several bus lines including the key #7 bus that takes us from here straight out to Russell Square, so the London Phase of our vacation is underway, but at a decidedly slower pace.