Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Morning in Versailles

I thought I was being clever.  This was to make up for the fact that I was not clever last night.  Last night, I unintentionally locked the SIM card on my brand new iPhone.

Naturally, I panicked.  When I tried to unlock the SIM card, it asked for a code.  What code to put in?  The 4-digit code I used to use for the same card in my old phone, or the extended 6-digit one the iPhone made me create?   I put in the 6-digit one.  It didn’t work.  I put in again, no go.  Now I had one more chance before it locked up forever and I would have to change the SIM card and wipe out all my data.  Less than 24 hours as an iPhone owner and I was already on the verge of catastrophe.  Should I try the 4-digit? My SIM card’s existence was hanging by a thread.

Here’s where I made my clever decision.  I decided to go to Versailles.  In Versailles, aside from a famous castle, there is also the closest store where my service provider could help me with my SIM card problem.  Not only that, right next to the store there is a fabulous covered market where I could do my food shopping.  I put on a dress (I was going to Versailles, after all) and hopped on the RER C.  The car was empty, no doubt due to the fact that it was August (see previous post).  Where were the tourists?  The RER C direction Versailles Chateau is usually full of them.  Perhaps they were sleeping in. 

Seven minutes later I was in Versailles, a little surprised to see tour guides hawking their wares in the train station.  You won’t see that my sleepy suburb.  I also saw a clutch of soldiers in camouflage holding machine guns. They’ve become part of the scenery around here since the terrorist attacks.   I gaily pulled my shopping cart out onto the sidewalk and headed across town, past the enormous Versailles-esque city hall and across the gigantic boulevard that leads to the chateau.  Louis XIV was not kidding around when he decided to set up camp here.  The avenue de Paris is the width of the Champs Elysées and splits the town in half.  Two other boulevards head away from the chateau on an angle on either side, further chopping the town into wedge-like quarters.  Though Versailles is not small (some 85,000 inhabitants), those boulevards make it feel bigger than it is and deprive the city of a center, other than that massive palace at the end of every road.

This was one of the reasons that we decided not to live there.  The other had to do with the town’s reputation for being…well, a little snooty.  Yes, centuries after the last of the Louis had packed up his bags and had his head chopped off, the inhabitants of Versailles still see themselves as something special.  There is a prominent population of practicing Catholics, and a significant number of noble families.  I’ve since been told by people who live there that there is another part of Versailles where “regular” people hang out, but I’m still dubious.

So this morning I was pleased to see how much more charming the place was than I remembered.  The tourists (they had been in the front cars) all streamed off towards the castle and I plunged ahead into the quartier Notre-Dame, which was predictably empty.  I got to the store and low and behold, when I tried the 4-digit code in front of the nice lady, it worked.  My SIM card was saved.  I celebrated with a coffee and a croissant at a pretty café next to the market.  Which was remarkably quiet.  And this was because, as the waiter helpfully explained to me, the market was closed on Saturdays.

Refusing to be daunted, I decided to explore the quartier St-Louis, the neighborhood where the “regular” people supposedly hung out.  There was another open-air market in front of the cathedral.  St-Louis was an early effort in orderly urban planning on the part of Louis XIV, who was always eager to be a trend-setter.  As a consequence, the neighborhood is laid out on a grid, a little like a 17th century Manhattan.  Perhaps this is why yuppies accumulate here.  Anyway, when I arrived, the market was tiny and though the cathedral of St-Louis looked lovely, I hesitated visiting with my shopping cart. 


So it was time to head home.  The train was delayed so I ended up taking the bus.  And while I hadn’t really accomplished anything by going to Versailles I was glad I did, because it is a beautiful place, full of lovely cafes and markets (when they are open), and a great place to spend a sunny morning in August.

Friday, August 19, 2016

August in Paris

It’s August, and in the quiet of the Parisian suburbs that means there is not a soul on the streets.  What is normally just low-key is now silent, save a few lone inhabitants, aimlessly wandering the streets like survivors of a nuclear blast. There is nothing post-apocalyptic about the scenery though, which is a pleasant mix of cute little houses and boxy modern apartment buildings.  The best part is the greenery, which is lush.  We are just a few steps from a forest, and the neighborhood is dotted with some nice old trees, like the huge weeping willow on the corner, which is literally the size of a house. 

Most of the stores on the main drag, if you can call it that, are shuttered, with notes taped to the metal shutters announcing their summer closures.  The mini-super market is open, as is one bakery, to feed those few who are not on a beach somewhere, slathering the sunscreen and trying not to get stepped on by the hordes of fellow vacationers.

I prefer to stay on my deck chair in the back yard this summer.  When the sun is out, I can close my eyes and pretend that I am at a luxury resort on the Riviera.  After all, it’s the same sun beating down on my face, the same warm breeze caressing my limbs, the same quiet massaging my temples.  OK, I’ll admit that instead of the cry of seagulls I hear the twitter of sparrows and instead of the distant roar of crashing waves, I hear the distant thunder of the RER C.  But by and large, what I lose in pampering I gain in the relaxing effects of sleeping in my own bed and not needing to get to the airport. And it’s not like I could ever afford a luxury resort to begin with. 

Then I decide to go to the movies.  I waltz into my private screening room that the owner of MK2 Parnasse has so kindly opened for my personal benefit.  Or else it certainly seems that way—I am the only person at the 1:30 matinee and get to enjoy Florence Foster Jenkins without any one near me crinkling wrappers or munching on popcorn.


But the best part of my home-grown luxury vacation is the silence.  The muted calm that you pay for at a ritzy resort is a standard feature of any residential neighborhood in Paris after July 14.  In fact, Paris in August is what some evil-minded tourists dream of: Paris without the Parisians.  Be advised, however, while the Parisians might be gone, their places have been filled by thousands of out-of-town guests, who clog the arteries of every major attraction.  It may be a nice playground, but one you will have to share with the other kids, who might not want to play they way you want them to.  To them, it might be fun to scream or run around or push people.  

So beware.  Or be willing to strike out into the quiet corners and park benches where if you close your eyes, you could be just about anywhere warm and peaceful.