No option but to walk on Sunday, so I dug my way into le Musée des Égouts de Paris, i.e. the sewer museum. It’s in a real sewer, including some parts that are still in use and smell less than pleasant. Why is this interesting? Simply put, without sewer systems, we’d all be dead of plague and cholera by now, and modern, urban society owes more to the invention of sewer systems than most anyone remembers. It’s easy to forget, since it’s almost completely hidden behind the walls and under the streets.

On a trip to Monoprix’s grocery section a couple days earlier, we’d accumulated a bottle of wine from Bourgogne (Burgundy), some potato chips in the flavor of roast chicken and thyme, a hunk of cheese, an apple, some toasty things, Nutella, and some very thin slices of meat. All were things we wanted to try and figured we’d eat in the hotel room between meals. Well, we didn’t really keep the pace up, so dinner Sunday night involved packing all of this into a shoulder bag, borrowing wine glasses and the corkscrew from our hotel room, and walking down to the Seine. Île Saint-Louis, a short walk from the hotel, has a sort of promenade circling the island about 20 feet below street level and 10 feet above the river, and pretty much every night we saw dozens of people congregating, drinking, talking, and playing music. We figured we’d put on our best act-like-locals guise and head down there ourselves, for as perfect an impromptu ending to our week in Paris as we could possibly have planned. We were perhaps 10-15 years older than the average Parisian along the river, and no one much seemed to care.

Île Saint-Louis

Saturday was laundry day! Sounds dull, yes indeed, but this is another of those things I enjoy, up there with figuring out the local public transport system. It seems that French (or at least Parisian) laundromats have only one machine that accepts money, and every machine — washers, dryers, and the dispenser of miniature soap boxes — all follow orders from the one cash machine. It took a friendly local to help us out with it. I suspect he just couldn’t stand to watch us fumble around for so long!

Laundry day!

Later was a revisit to le musée des Arts et Métiers, where I learned that the section of the museum with the Leyat propeller car was blocked off for a reconfiguration, and not because I’d gotten there too late earlier in the week. I could see it from the bottom level, teasing me from three platforms up. One more thing to the list of “revisit next time in Paris.” (Note from 2012: I forgot to do this in 2011. Ah well.)

Saturday was also “sell the bike back to the store” day. I’d considered asking them to disassemble and box it so I could take it home, but eventually I decided this would make my travel day more trouble than it was worth. I tried to make up for it, though, by keeping the lock, buying a similar bell as a souvenir, and getting a dynamo and headlight, which I will install on another bike at home someday. Next time out, I’ll be sure to trawl for a bike so interesting I can’t help but take it home with me. (Note from 2012: Instead, I bought a Bike Friday folding bike, so I always have a good bike to ride as soon as I get to the hotel.)

After something of a struggle a couple days ago, I was finally able to find a rental car in Paris and convince the system to let me pay for it with an American credit card. Hertz won the bid, if only because we figured their good customer service would survive the hop across the Atlantic. (I’m happy to report that it did.) What did not survive the trip are features like “unlimited mileage,” but no matter.

Every overseas trip I take, I try to schedule at least one driving day. I enjoy seeing how differently things are done, from signage and exit ramp design to the sorts of junk food available in the highway gas station/rest stops. France did not disappoint. I had chocolate crepes and espresso at one, and a decent sandwich and fruit at another. And lots of Orangina. (Aside to the folks at Orangina: stick to the original, orange flavor, and skip the “Red,” “Indien,” and all the other crappy flavors. Also, please please please stop the ad campaign with the “sexy” deer-woman-thing sitting on a giant ice cube, wearing a bikini, and sipping an Orangina through a very long straw. What hell is that supposed to mean?)

Exposition flyerDeciding where to drive is often the toughest part. Sometimes it’s a lucky encounter with a New York Times article (Noto Peninsula in Japan one year or Ben Nevis in Scotland another). This time, it was Google Alerts and my alert that looks for news about the Lane Motor Museum. Turns out that the Lane had commissioned a Leyat propeller car reproduction, and they got mentioned in a French article a few weeks ago on the topic of a Leyat exposition (a small, short museum installation of sorts) in Meursault. The week of the expo was the week of our trip, and Meursault was an easy, three hour drive from Paris.

What I hadn’t realized until literally the day I got to Meursault was that Jeff Lane would be there to operate the controls of the Hélice reproduction to show visitors how it ran on the chateau grounds. I got a personal tour of the vehicle and much of Leyat’s history from Claude Gueniffey, who formed Les Amis d’Hélice (Friends of the Propeller Car) and organized the exposition. I also got to chat with Jeff for a bit, and Claude invited me to stay for a piano concert by a woman who had learned to play from Leyat himself. Leyat had created a unique musical notation system, and this former student of his is likely the only remaining person on earth who really understands it and still uses it. There was a lecture explaining it, but again my French listening skills are barely up to par for a reading of Petit Nicholas, never mind a musical/technical discussion.

Chateau de Citeaux a Meursault

The drive home was uneventful, which is pretty amazing — with limited reliance on the GPS/maps in my phone, I managed to navigate all the way back to the Hertz lot without making a single wrong turn. Turns out the signage for Orly is pretty good.

Outside Meursault

Another 45 minutes by train and I was back at the hotel by about 10:30pm, time enough to get dinner at Chez Janou, which had been strongly recommended by our friend Suzy, who’d spend a month in Paris a couple years ago. Chez Janou was well worth it. If they accept reservations, by all means get some. We were lucky to get a table for two, even at 11pm.

I must say Claes Oldenburg gets around. This time it was Parc de la Villette way out on the northeast border of Paris. Arguably this is four sculptures, individually of a giant-sized bicycle wheel, pedal, seat, and handlebar, but if you stand in the right place you get a Planet of the Apes feeling, realizing that the rest of the bike is buried, and you’re seeing only what’s still exposed to the elements. Oldenburg remains one of my favorite artists. (A bit of research tells me the sculpture, Bicyclette Ensevelie (Buried Bicycle), was a joint effort with Coosje van Bruggen.)

Bicyclette Ensevelie (detail)

Next on the agenda was La Défense. Technically it’s outside the city limits of Paris, which is what allowed them to build skyscrapers. I had expected to like La Défense, but the more I explored it, the more frustrated I became — it was too spread out and huge to be pedestrian-convenient or -friendly, yet there were too many steps to be bicycle friendly. Simply finding a way to get to a street to get out of there was a major ordeal. (I may well have found my way in on emergency-only pedestrian paths.) That said, the architecture is interesting in a future-dystopian kind of a way, and they do have an extra large Alexander Calder sculpture on display.

La Défense

 

Morning and early afternoon involved a late breakfast (as usual), some walking about (ibid), and a marathon tour of BHV, Paris’ everything-for-everyone department store. You can buy furniture, paint, art supplies, clothes, books, and hardware all in the same store. (I actually forgot to visit the basement for the hardware section. Pity.) We ended up with several cheap fountain pens (they make kids’ fountain pens, how cool is that?), a stack of French pop CDs (et al), some tea, some fancy ingredients from the kitchen section, and probably some other stuff I forgot. After four floors of commerce, we were too worn out to “finish” the store, so we had to save floors 4-6 for a later day. (And I guess floor -1 for another trip.) I’m leaving out the off-site portions, like BHV men’s, bike, and pet stores across the street from the entire-city-block main store.

Riding for the day involved heading to the top of Montmartre, best known for being the big hill with Sacre Coeur church on top of it. As on all of my Paris rides longer than 2 km, I got lost several times on the way there but eventually made it. After a fairly serious hill, I decided it was time for a break and had a couple beers in front of a small bar. (2012 note: further research shows I was at Le Petit Café de Montmartre — “the little cafe of Montmartre.”) I could probably spend an entire day just watching cars and scooters and cyclists go by, but I managed to peel myself from my chair and walk for a bit.

Bar on Montmartre

I returned to the bike and finished the climb to the top. Not sure if the police officer was staring because he thought I was stupid to ride that bike up that hill, or if he was just making sure I had a headlight and bell. Not being one for church tours, I looked at the outside of Sacre Coeur, managed a photo of a just-married couple (or perhaps a wedding dress model and groom stand-in?). The ride down was bumpy at first, but when I got to modern pavement it was great fun. I swear I didn’t have to pedal for at least three miles.

Behind Sacre Coeur

Apparently I was in the mood for hills, since from here I headed (indirectly, since I kept going off-route) to Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which my guide book claimed to be the least touristy park in the city. I’d been kicked out of it once already (bicycles not allowed) but figured I’d go back and walk around. A city park with views like this, trails both steep and level, and a waterfall is quite a thing. It’s nowhere near the size of Central Park in Manhattan, but it covers a huge array of geography in the space it’s got. (2012 note: This photo has been the desktop image on my daily-use computer for three years.)

Parc des Buttes Chaumont

Tuesday afternoon gave me time for riding, plus a late visit to the musée des Arts et Métiers (Arts and Industry). Turns out that they close off most of the museum at 5pm (and close outright at 6pm), but that you can check out part of it for free if you wait for 5:15pm. That was enough time to gawk at Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s steam car of 1771, which is considered to be the first self-powered vehicle ever built. From a modern engineering perspective, the thing was incredibly wasteful of energy, slow, and difficult to control. It also had no reverse gear, an undoubtedly fussy throttle, etc. But it worked, at about 2.5 mph, and I enjoyed reverse-engineering it for a while.

Cugnot steam car

Peg had caught wind of an operatic treatment of Cyrano de Bergerac playing at Théâtre du Châtelet that week, so we went to the ticket office earlier in the day to see about getting seats. Not surprisingly, Thursday and Friday were sold out, but they still had some seats for tonight. They called them mauvais (unfortunate), which in old Tiger Stadium-speak would have been “obstructed view.” Théâtre du ChâteletThey were nonetheless perfectly fine seats in the very last row (top level, back row, seats 27 and 29, if you can pick them out of the seating diagram model in the photo). Our only quibble was that the bowing and applauding and bowing and applauding (etc.) went on ridiculously long. We discovered later that this had been opening night, hence what would otherwise have been most excessive self-congratulations. I will say this — the sets were amazing. Act I opens to what appears to be the backstage of a theatre. Partway into the act, they open the curtain and start the show (within the show), and sure enough, there was a theatre on the other side, watching the show we were seeing from behind. Downright metaphysical. Act II’s set was a kitchen that put to shame the one from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Culturally-speaking, my favorite part of the play may have been the intermission. I was struck with how quiet the mezzanine was, despite how crowded it was. It was easy to hear your own conversation and be heard without raising your voice — quite a contrast from a typical room in the U.S. full of tipsy theatre-goers.

Monday was big, because it meant the used bicycle store was open. I browsed a bit, then decided to check the competition. After much walking, I discovered there was no competition in the used market, and so I went back and bought a Union bicycle for 250€, plus a 52€ chain to keep it from getting stolen. I also had them upgrade the bell, which they did for free. I practiced my French, the store employee practiced his English, and eventually everything was settled. (I did return later to have him adjust the seat height, re-upgrade to bell to one that didn’t jingle with every bump in the pavement, and confirm that the steering was screwed up but not easy to fix.)

Au Réparateur de Bicyclettes

My first destination was the Grand Palais, site of the 1900 Universal Exposition. It’s one of the last such buildings in the world, built to bring thousands of people together, indoors, prior to incandescent lighting (hence the glass roof). The Gaylord Opryland hotel’s gigantic, glass-covered atriums pale in comparison. Built for the arts, its current task was to hold a triennial exhibit of French artists and artists working in France. Being a fan of modern art and especially sculpture and large installations, I couldn’t possibly have been in a better place than the Grand Palais this particular week (the last week of the show). One work included many thousands of photographs, a four-story scaffold tower, an equally tall, rotating stack of large-format photos, and a dozen kitchen knives inviting you to slice off a piece of said photo stack. I hope to experience more of Wang Du’s art in the future. (Photos, ironically, do it no justice.)

Grand Palais interior

Next up was the Champs-Elysées and Plaza d’Étoile. That’s the famous road with all the fancy stores and heavy traffic, followed by the gigantic plaza that circles l’Arc de Triomphe. In theory it’s crazy to ride a lap of that plaza on a bicycle, but really it was the only proper thing to do. (I have since met other cyclists who did the same — something about the plaza calls to us, perhaps.)

French boating seems to involve getting a rather large, old river barge and turning it into what must be 1000 square feet of living space with a low ceiling. We later saw a few of them with cars aboard, so apparently a lot of the docks have hefty ramps to help you load up your cozy river home. One of them took this a step further by sticking an Amphicar on the stern deck. I guess if the river boat sank, they’d have a handy way to power down the river to the nearest ramp and just keep on going.

Amphicar on river barge

Peg arrived today, having spent a week and a half in Prague, just in time for dinner with another old friend. This time the reservation was for 8:00pm — still a bit early, but that was okay because it let us change a two-person reservation into a three-person table with no particular trouble. A night of amazing food and wine commenced.

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