My connecting flight to ATL might have left Nashville late for weather, but there’s little reason to remember that now. Some time was spent on an airplane, and a bad film was played. First they pan-and-scanned it, then they stretched the edges to fit a widescreen television, making things look as if they were filmed through a bottle. I think it was about a hotel. For dogs. Blocked from memory, or so I tell myself.

The real fun for me — and I don’t mean that sarcastically — starts with trying to figure out public transportation. This is fun in a new city, and doubly so when I get to practice a rusty foreign language. In my case I still read French reasonably well, though I can’t listen fast enough to do much good. The train wasn’t too difficult, though, other than realizing that (1) American credit cards lack a “smart chip” that’s required by the ticket machines, and (B) the ticket machines at CDG only take coins. But (iii) there’s a change machine nearby. I took heart that a group of young German tourists was having the same problem as I.

Paris Metro

Many of Paris’ Metro trains run on rubber wheels. The track is actually a narrow strip of pavement or metal, perhaps 9 inches wide, and the wheels seem to have been stolen off a fleet of buses somewhere. They’re quiet, and there’s no click-clacking noise. And unlike the billion-dollar convenience shuttle the U.S. Congress built to get  from their offices to the Capital building, these tires don’t make a hellspawn squealing noise. (In Congress’ defense, I really have no idea what they spent on that rig. But the sound it makes is truly awful.)

Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais

Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais windowI got lost a few times looking for the hotel. First, I went looking for 72, instead of 12, rue Vieille du Temple, and then I turned around and walked right past 12 and ended up on a different street. (Some streets in Paris change names every block, it turns out. Maybe Nashville copied from their rulebook?) An old man saw I was confused, looked at the address displayed on my phone, and pointed back behind me. Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais was quite nice. It was a small room, but the windows (doors, actually, as is common in Paris) opened wide to the street, three stories up. (3rd floor in French terms, 4th floor by the American nomenclature.)

I soon realized I hadn’t had any real food since ATL, so it was time to forage. Remembering my friends’ recommendation for the falafel vendors up the street, I went and found those. There were at least four falafel windows, but I liked one the most because the guy was such a persistent hawker. I later wondered if he was only asking the female passers-by to buy a 5€ lunch. Regardless, it was very tasty, and it hit me immediately that Nashville needs a restaurant or truck that makes them like they do on rue de Rosiers.

Actual dinner came later, with a family friend from Nashville who now spends her weeks in London and her weekends in Paris. We ate extremely early (for Paris), sitting down at 7:30pm. There were literally no other customers for the next 30 minutes. We caught up on the past 19 or so years, noticed we’d gotten a touch older (I believe she said I was “grown up”), and generally had a very nice evening before seeing her off to get some sleep before her early morning commute back to London.

I then attempted to use the Vélib bicycle rental system, only to be denied by the payment machine. Once again, the smart-chip-free American credit cards failed, leaving all those intriguing rental bikes to the European tourists (and perhaps a fair number of actual Parisiens). (I discovered many months later that American Express cards will work for the Vélib system, so keep that in mind if you’re planning a trip.)

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Randomly selected things of interest from the weekend, provided mostly without comment:

The trip from Paris to London was via the channel tunnel train — fast, quiet, and comfortable. The tunnel itself was perhaps 30 minutes of darkness and high cabin pressure. To be honest, I was watching Breaking Bad the whole time we were underground.

In the push to get out of the train station, we forgot to stop for British Pounds, or maybe we just didn’t see an ATM. At any rate, the taxi we selected had a bunch of credit card brands printed on the door, so we figured we were fine. The driver couldn’t actually accept any cards, it turned out, because he was just renting the cab. The driver was very nice, though, and he defused what could have been stressful for a couple of tired travelers: he agreed to accept euros on the condition that we agree upon the current exchange rate. (It’s not that he was trying to bargain so much as that none of us knew the day’s rate.) We ended up paying 30 euros to cover a £22 fare, figuring that included a nice tip for being flexible.

Our room in the Luna-Simone hotel room exceptionally small, even more so than the room in Paris, and the doors all required a linebacker to open, a side-effect of the automatic closer devices they used. On the plus side, we didn’t have to listen to noisy scooters and trash collection all night long, and we were only up one half-flight of stairs. And on the down side, the hotel breakfast only ran from 7:00-8:30, so we never even saw what was offered. The breakfast in Paris ran ’til 11:00, which is entirely more civilized.

On Sunday morning, we met up with Peg’s friend Nikki at the hotel, then walked (with me navigating) 1.5 miles to Tom’s Kitchen, which sounded and looked great and was utterly full. Lacking a reservation at Tom’s, we ate nearby and had the fanciest eggs-on-toast (with smoked salmon) ever. (Defying the American stereotype of dreadful English food, the eggs were utterly perfect.) Peg and I then had a second breakfast at Tomtom Coffee House (no relation to Tom’s), since the fancy place portions were a bit small.

Hot chocolate at Tomtom Coffee House

Peg was off soon to watch tennis, so I handled laundry, which was almost too easy. I dropped off a duffel of clothes at 16:30, paid £9.20, and picked everything up folded and back in the bag at 17:30. In the meantime I went on a random walk that accidentally took me past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben and half a million (other) tourists.

Peg got home at 02:30 after three hours of hassling with post-tennis transport mismanagement. No trains (they’d shut down before the tennis promoters had promised), and far too few buses, taxis, and boats. I suspect all the hire bikes (rental bicycles) within a wide radius were taken, too.

On Monday morning, Peg went straight for more tennis, so I reassembled the Bike Friday and taught myself London traffic for a while. I didn’t ride very far, so perhaps I didn’t give myself enough time, but overall I felt it was a lot trickier than Paris traffic. It’s possible I just didn’t have enough time to switch my brain to riding on the left side. To my credit, perhaps, I managed not to get honked or sworn at by anyone, and I didn’t violate any traffic signals, at least not by accident. London’s signals are far better placed and more visible than Paris’. Better yet, they have the brilliant innovation of the red-plus-yellow signal that warns you they’re about to turn green. Essentially, this is the “rev your engines now so you can get a fast start” signal, and I really wish everyone would adopt it.

I’d had three museums in mind, but I spent so much time at Science Museum that to see another museum would have risked collapsing. I spent the most time sorting out old steam pumps and engines designed by people like Watt and Boyle; then propellers, feathering paddlewheels, and steam engines for ships; then WWII aircraft engines. All that was over perhaps three hours, and I doubt I saw even 25% of the total museum. It’s a free, no-guilt-trip museum, although I did donate £5 on the way in. Oh, and they had possibly the best mathematics-driven artwork I’ve ever seen:

Hyperbolic Swarf Drawing

Dinner that night was a 12 minute walk from the hotel, at the Thomas Cubitt in Chelsea. (I think it was Chelsea, but the neighborhoods are very small and basically borderless, so don’t quote me on that.) This was with Carrie, an old friend of the family (Nashville 1980-1990), and her beau, Mike. I last caught up with her in Paris three years ago; this time Peg got to meet her, too. The best moment during our chat was when Mike commented, on seeing how we spell “Duthie,” that it’s definitely pronounced “DOOTH-ee” and is Scottish. This corroborated our Scottish tour guide’s theory, three years ago, that someone before grandad’s grandad emigrated from Scotland to England, then changed the pronunciation so as to avoid discrimination for being a wretched Scottish immigrant. I’m fond of that theory, but I’m not changing the pronunciation back.

Tuesday’s lunch was at the almost entirely empty Slug and Lettuce with an online friend of Peg’s, a bit of wandering in the Islington Green area, first dinner at Le Pain Quotidien near Victoria Station, break down the Bike Friday again (the third time in 11 days goes pretty smoothly), and second dinner at Grumbles, the French restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Grumbles has been there since 1964, and another diner mentioned that he’d been going there since 1981 and it had always been consistent and good. I’d eaten there on my own Sunday night, and I had to agree with him. Plus I just love the name of the place. (This should surprise no one.) Had I heard about it before opening the repair shop, I might have used a different name…

Turns out if you don’t write right away about these trips, things blur together. So it is with the 3rd-5th days of our stay in Paris. I know that one day, we thought we’d go see the Picasso museum. If you’re interested, it’s probably great, but hold your trip until spring 2013. We did see the European Photography Museum (Maison Européenne de la Photographie) instead, since it was nearby. And we walked a lot, in part because I made a wrong turn in the underground hamster trail that is the Métro and Les Halles (a shopping mall).

After a long nap late in the day, we shuffled down to the Métro and caught the 12 all the way to Montmartre. Dinner was at a lovely little restaurant just outside the station exit (which requires climbing 90 steps, if you don’t notice the freight elevators). Ginette de la Côte d’Azur was the name, and it was named after the lady, in a large painting near the front, reclining in what I swear was a tennis outfit from the 1910’s. Peg suggested it was for swimming or ballet, based on the shoes. Either way, she was on vacation, and her restaurant was a nice one. After that, we pushed farther up the hill to Au Lapin Agile, a very old, very old-school cabaret. Reservations required, although it didn’t fill up the night we were there, and fully 75% of the audience were clearly tourists, like us. The fun is if you just play along and imagine you’ve walked into a bar where regulars are playing the piano and singing, goading the rest of the patrons to sing along. By the time we left, it was 11:30pm and I was about to fall asleep, which would have been rude to the performers.

Au Lapin Agile Cabaret

Wednesday was also thoroughly cold, by the way, so I didn’t do any cycling, although I did watch many tougher-than-me locals commuting by bicycle. Thursday, Peg and I split up after lunch, and I cycled over to the auto manufacturers’ halo stores up and down Avenue des Champs Élysées. Imagine Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz all building stores (not dealerships) up and down Broadway near Times Square, and you’d start to get an idea what these stores are. Basically they serve up some pretty concept cars, perhaps a current production car or two, a film, and a bunch of swag and miniatures to buy. Except Toyota didn’t have any swag, and the Mercedes store was just too full of people impressed by the brand. The French brands did a pretty good job, though, and Citroën was my favorite once again.

Citroën DS5

On Friday, Peg met up with an online friend, so after waking up a bit late, I hopped on the bicycle to enjoy the nicer weather. The bad news was that the really great bakery on Rue Vielle du Temple has closed. The good news was that I found breakfast elsewhere and ended up riding pretty much the entire afternoon. I made a point of visiting Bois de Vincennes, the large, wooded park at the southeast edge of Paris. I should perhaps have visited Vincennes itself at that point, but instead I tried to navigate myself “home.” Not realizing I had crossed the Marne instead of the Seine River, I ended up following the Seine on its right bank, as far south as Choisy-le-Roi. I’d actually realized I’d made a mistake when I passed a lock on the Seine, the configuration of which made it quite clear I was heading upstream (i.e. the wrong way). The biggest lesson learned on the bike today was perhaps that anytime you’re riding on a main road and wish there were more breathing room for bicycles, you’re probably just not looking hard enough. Today I made it about 1/2 a mile before noticing the bus/bike lanes in the middle of the large road. As far beyond Paris as I traveled, though, it never felt suburban at all. Either it takes a car to go that far, or it just never feels suburban here.

Public art in Vitry-sur-Seine

Tomorrow, we take the Chunnel train to London. It’s about a two hour trip. London to Dublin on Tuesday will be an eight hour trip. This seemed counterintuitive until I realized (1) Dublin’s farther from London than Paris is and (2) we’re taking a slow train plus a (fast) ferry to Dublin, so as to enjoy the scenery, or something like that.

Yesterday I mentioned something about not minding my lack of a portable, Internet-connected device while exploring Paris this time around. “Give me a decent paper map,” blah blah blah. So after realizing that the free tourist map the hotels give you was not a decent map, I bought a decent map.

Case in point: at the southeast corner of Parc Montsouris (mouse mountain!) is a street called Rue de la Cité Universitaire. But the free map says it’s Rue Gazan. Because the name changes two blocks from the southern end of the street. (Parisian streets change names as often as possible, presumably to keep occupying out-of-towners utterly confused.) The free map also fails to mention that Rue Gazan is one-way southbound. Ah well. I eventually got back to the hotel as desired, and Place d’Italie was quite the little adventure. (Unlike Place Charles de Gaulle (around l’Arc de Triomphe), Place d’Italie has some traffic controls in the middle of it. Whether those make it feel any safer is up for debate.)

Balloon ride

The biggest surprise today was the Ballon Air de Paris, which is essentially a balloon ride crossed with a little air pollution measuring station attached to the top of it. For ten euros, you get about ten minutes aloft, which is plenty when it’s cold and a bit hazy. The balloon is tethered to the west corner of Parc André Citroën, in the west corner of the 15th Arrondissement (basically the southwest corner of Paris proper, next to the constant traffic jam known as la Périphérique). The surprise part for me was simply that it was there at all.

The end of the day was a visit to Shakespeare and Company, a small, very cramped, very wonderful bookstore within throwing range of Notre Dame. It’s mostly books in English, some new, some used, including a library upstairs, notes from past visitors, the tiniest little writing room (with mechanical typewriter), and thousands of little surprises. And a no photography rule, which means if you want to see it, you’ll just have to visit. The hours scream wonderful: They’re open until 11pm every day of the week, but they open one whole hour late on Sundays.

The first time I was in Paris, I had an iPhone. It was a handy thing, what with having maps and GPS and actually working in Europe. This time, I have a “Droid X2,” which uses something called “CDMA,” which is meaningless and doesn’t work in Europe. So any time I want to look at online things like maps and routing software, I need a wifi connection. Which basically means the phone is staying in the hotel room like a good little paperweight, because hunting for wifi is tiresome on a good day.

That’s a very long way of excusing myself for getting lost roughly eight times today. Not really a record, but I’m sure the late-night walk home from dinner with an old Nashville friend/coworker was three times longer than it had to be.

And I really don’t mind at all. Give me a decent paper map and couple dozen hours to explore, and I may still get lost, but I’ll enjoy every single block traveled.

Four more full days in Paris, none of them planned. If you have favorite spots you think we should visit, let me know! We tend to avoid the usual touristy stuff, so suggestions for brilliant or unusual museums, stores, parks, and restaurants are very welcome.

Feeling mildly out-of-sorts, I took a drive in the convertible. Since it was raining gently all day long, I took a drive in the convertible with the top up, water leaking onto my thigh for the first few miles. The route was unplanned, and I wound up on the back roads of Williamson county: hilly and wooded, with virtually no traffic because, I presume, the holiday and the rain kept everyone home or on their vacations.

I like this, since it makes it easier to pretend I’m the only one out there for a while. My reflexes and vision stay with the road, but the higher functions of my mind go for a wander.

Lynnwood Way is the first road to take me somewhere different. The color of the man-made cliffs fills my vision — I know I’m still on Lynnwood Way, but the light feels like sunset on a clear day, as if the clouds and rain are suddenly gone.

Coming around a bend on North Berrys Chapel Road, I’m driving down an idealized road in northern Ontario in the summer. The weather is cool there, the light polarized by the latitude, the colors soft green and orange, the vegetation away from the road soft and marshy. I have no schedule, no destination, no worries. Just exploring new territory and feeling the climate there, new yet familiar.

Burke Hollow Road is where the real teleportation begins. I’m in east Tennessee riding around a mountain bend, then I pass a clearing and see fog enveloping the hills and I’m in Virginia, high in the Appalachians. The road narrows and a dirt road veers away, and I’m following the back roads atlas down a treacherous, rutted switchback, on a motorcycle not designed for such miscalculations. I shake my head a bit to get back on the pavement.

A deer is stopped in the road and it’s dusk on the Blue Ridge Parkway, over twelve years ago. Back in the present, I stop, waiting for the other deer to cross, as I know they will. I warn an oncoming car to slow down in case the fawn decides to cross the road to return to her parents.

I’m on all the narrow, rural roads I’ve ever seen in the rain, always in a good mood, never concerned with schedules or responsibilities.

By the time I stopped to refuel and have lunch, the spell was broken. I reversed course, and Burke Hollow and North Berry’s Chapel were normal, enjoyable roads in Williamson county. The car fought the wet roads in the curves, I corrected for a mistake or two and got a kick of adrenaline for punishment, and I found my way back into the city.