Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pt.3 Death March to the Hotel, Let the Hospitality Begin!

  • To follow this account from the beginning, take this link to Part One
  • In Part Two, our directions and maps told us that we were very close to our hotel. But we weren't there, yet.
In this section, Paris opens its arms and bats us aside the head.

Part Three - Thursday, August 20, 1998

Learning from Le Metro - the Hard Way
Ok, we’re out of the airport — now what? Our directions at this point are sketchy. We get out, but the next train is going the same direction — we had to transfer to the yellow line, but where is it? Then we saw the yellow “C” That was it — we followed the sign — up an endless escalator that must have gone up at least three stories, then a long hallway, and follow the yellow C — More escalators — how deep were we, anyway? An escalator with a very powerful air draft — felt like they were using this station as a giant air duct. Perhaps the tunnels have their own weather patterns — depending on the prevailing winds. Suddenly, there it was! Another train. We got on, and almost as soon as we were settled on, we were at the next stop — I couldn’t read the entire sign, but I frantically looked at the map above the door, Joyce helped me read the signs, but at this point, she didn’t quite know how the maps worked either, and I had no time to explain what I had so far learned. I told her, if the next station is Maubert Mutuelle, we could be in some sort of directional trouble. Next stop — Maubert Mutuelle! Quick! Get off — we’ve gone the wrong way. How do we get over to the other side? We ran out the end of the hallway, up some more stairs, sometimes having to bump our suitcases up the stairs one at a time, if there were no escalators. Found another Yellow C, this time it was the right one. Down the stairs — down the escalators . We came down onto the other side of the tracks, and Joyce tried to ask a Frenchman if this was the right train. He wasn’t understanding what we wanted. I said “Tour Eiffel” — that he recognized. He pointed to the track we were about to board — we were on the right track. The stop we had to get out at was “Champs De Mars” pronounced “ShawmpDeMar” Then, we had to get out of the train. We never found out, but we had to get off the train, because they wanted it empty. Perhaps a shift change, taking out extra cars after rush hour — who knows? One thing certain, though, Les Invalides is not our stop. We asked directions, and although the conductor said a lot that we didn’t understand, we knew that in order to get to Champs de Mars, we had to go up some stairs, and find a train labelled ALMA — apparently even if it was a yellow C going in the right direction, unless it was named ALMA, it wouldn’t get us there.

We went up the stairs, this station even had video terminals telling us which train was coming next, and, sure enough, one of them was named ALMA. Les Invalides station was, after all, a beautiful place to wait for the next train — the train to Champs de Mars. The station was half-in and half-out of the ground level. There was a row of columns spaced about a foot apart, a concrete picket fence through which we could see the sun shining on a green courtyard, with many pigeons flying around in it. The fresh air felt good, it was still cool, and in the absence of trains, the stop seemed very quiet. We realized now that the underground tunnels are actually very hot places.

Sortie and Correspondence
There were two words that would have made our day a lot easier had we learned them earlier — Correspondence and Sortie. “Correspondence” means “Transfer” in the sense of changing trains. Each subway tunnel had illuminated signs at each end, listing he “Correspondence” and “Sortie” options of using that end of the tunnel. “Correspondence” listed all the trains you could transfer to. Our yellow “C” was listed, and that’s how we figured that one out. “Sortie”, means exit, and the word following “Sortie” was where you would be exiting - usually a street name, or a district name, if it was well-known. Once you Sortie, that’s it — if you want to get back in, your ticket may not work, and you’ll have to buy a new one. The standard marking for an exit, corresponding to the American red “EXIT” is a green illuminated sign with white letters indicating “Sortie”.

Ou e La Hotel?
The ALMA train took us what seemed a very short distance to Champ de Mars — our first ride on La Metro had come to an end. Now, what? Champ de Mars is similar to Les Invalides station, in that it is only partially buried. Across the track, daylight came down from a roadway about 15 feet above us. A few more hallways, and a turnstyle, and with one last climb up the stairs with our 200 pounds of suitcases, we were on the street, supposedly close to our hotel.

However, there were no street signs. We looked at our map, we looked at many intersections, but nothing was there to indicate the name of the street in front of us. Our hotel was on Quai du Grenelle. “Quai” means “Big Road”, like a main thoroughfare, as opposed to a “Rue”, which would be a smaller street. We started asking for directions. Nobody knew English, and all of our French could not convey the question, “What street are we on?” “Where the fuck are we?” I got into a glass-enclosed very modern telephone booth, got out my coins, but, there were no coin slots in the telephone. It would be a long time before I would learn to operate one of those. There was a credit card slot, but it didn’t accept my Visa or Master Card. We were walking against some sort of traffic, it was still early morning, about nine-thirty or so, local time. We were next to a four-lane road, which was fenced from pedestrian traffic. There was a sidewalk, next to a three-foot high wall of a park, an asphalt path, with some sort of white symbol on it, probably some sort of handicap designation, and a sandy area in between these two paths, planted with trees.

Death March
An artist was displaying pictures he had done, mostly scenes involving the Eiffel tower, selling for fifteen francs on up, all of them less than ten dollars. It was getting hot, and the handle on my suitcase was not staying in place, and occasionally collapsed, upsetting the other suitcase on top of it, sometimes toppling both suitcases. The adrenaline from the half-assed suitcase collapsing all the time kept me going. Joyce’s load was more stable, but still, she was having trouble catching in the sidewalk cracks. We were both very weary; for us it was half past midnight, and we were just the two tiredest people on earth, who didn’t know even which street they were on. The artist knew some english, we asked him where the Nikko hotel was. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might be to the west. We showed him the address. He motioned us to skyscrapers about a block away. We rolled our suitcases on the asphalt paths — this was much easier. Then bicyclists kept passing us by, almost running into us, some of them shouting something angry at us. We were on a bike path. The “handicap” symbol we had seen painted on the path, was actually some sort of picture representation of a bicycle. At the next intersection, we decided to get back on the sidewalk.

We made a left at the skyscrapers, and were about to walk down the sidewalk, when we were accosted by a group of artists who wanted to use us for a portrait — “just three minutes”, they said. We said no, they kept pestering, until we finally just ignored them walked our suitcases down to the skyscrapers. One of them was “Hilton”, and we decided, that, although we weren’t quite sure where we were, we knew that this was not the right street, because on the map, the Quai du Grenelle is a very wide street. This was barely two cars wide. A taxi driver told us that we had just been on Grenelle.

We went back the way we had come, and continued down Grenelle, but then, getting past the skyscrapers and not finding ours, we turned back to the place where we had tried the pay phone, back past the pestering artists, and the artist with the Eiffel pictures. The one who had given us directions was still there, and this time, he repeated the directions rather irately — we told him we had already been down there, it wasn’t right. He told us “Well, if you don’t want to go there, don’t follow my directions.” At the time it felt like all of France had told us to go back home. It was getting very hot, by now, the sidewalks all smelled like piss, and, did I mention, I was wearing a suit?

You Always Remember the First Time you See Tour Eiffel
The suitcases kept falling off the top, my suitcase kept collapsing its handle and falling over, tripping at the slightest variation in the pavement. Once again past the Eiffel paintings, and just about to head through the gauntlet of pestering portrait painters shaking our heads once again. As Joyce was re-adjusting her load, she turned around to face me, and then, pointed past me. We were a mere three blocks or so from the Eiffel Tower. “There’s the Tower we came over here to see”, she said. I wasn’t in the mood. I was surprised to see that it was brown. I said “Look at that damn rusty thing!”, and turned back around and started pushing the suitcase.

We were both dazed by the heat of the sun, and we headed out again, marching down Grenelle until we drop. I noticed some addresses on the buildings. The numbers were going up as we walked west — very very slowly — the buildings are very large, and the numbering system is very wide. We chased down our number, going through a courtyard where my wheel caught in the iron grate under a tree. I fell on top of my suitcases, and nearly didn’t want to get up again, but I did anyway. The sweat was soaking through my suit coat, and my tongue was so swelled from thirst that I could barely talk. We finally came to the Hotel Nikko, arriving around 12:00 noon. For some strange reason, the reception desk is on the third floor of the building. We entered, dragging our suitcases.

All They Want is Tips
The Nikko is a red-brick 30-story skyscraper, atop the first three floors, which are a tan-colored marble. Joyce told me to ignore anybody standing around wanting to carry our suitcases, because all they wanted were tips. Well, we got this far, we deserved to carry our suitcasees over the finish line. The inside of the ground-floor lobby has walls and floor all made of mirror-finish tan marble. All trim work was either mirrors or polished brass. Gray-carpeted waiting areas were filled with ultra-modern furniture. There was no distinctive smell which would forever remind me of the Nikko. Upon arrival on the third-floor, via the escalators (we had had enough experience with getting suitcases up to different levels) we were in the reception areas. The concierge approached to grab our bags. We curled our lips at him, and, as we growled slightly, he backed off. “Beat the concierge” was to become one of our favorite pastimes. He was a wimpy little tyrant in a bell-boy uniform, with a a stiff red collar. He spoke english with a british accent. The security guard pointed to a place we could leave our suitcases while we checked in. Check-in was uneventful, they took a print of my credit card, we signed in, the clerk knew enough english to get us checked in smoothly. Our keys were the plastic swiss-cheese cards for electronic locks. We were allowed to check into our rooms. An elevator took us to the 27th floor.

Our hotel room was in the northwest corner of the building. It had windows on two sides, and a small hallway with a desk in it. Bathrooms were the mirror-finish marble substance we had seen in the lobby. Joyce was in love with the amenities, especially the bathroom fixtures and supplies. We had soap, large hexagonal bars, not little slivers. We had body shampoo, hair shampoo, wash cloths, hot and warm water. I drank about a half gallon of the so-called cold water, and laid down on the bed, and disappeared, at 2:00 a.m. US time, about 1:00 p.m. Paris time.

Next: Waking up in a foreign country.

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