Friday, December 13, 2013

in a fog

It used to be that a trip abroad could pluck you out of an awareness of world events completely. If you never purchased a paper, you'd be oblivious to anything and everything.

The internet changed all that. I read "the paper" every morning on my computer, just as I would back home. I'm informed. i know what's what.

Or do I?

When you rent an apartment, you're on your own. The back up wake up call wont happen. No one will tell you if Paris suddenly closed all parks or if a corpse turned up overnight down the street.

My particular apartment has a television. I had planned on watching local news to improve my vocabulary, but I can't get the remote to behave and my landlord is a busy architect away with clients and his maid/assistant is still mostly with bebe. Eh, it's not important. I ignore the television.


When I booked Paris for five nights, I just assumed I'd get out for at least one day trip. I faltered, because I am really quite content right now in the city, but Ed egged me on: go! You'll like a walk in the country!

He's right. But where to? It isn't obvious in winter. (In all other seasons, Giverny beckons.)

Today, Chantilly wins because it's the easiest to get to by train. Ed and I spent a night in the Chantilly environs in the first year we were together (so, some eight years ago). Our travels were so different then! I think I still fussed when he wanted to read the paper at breakfast! You could say that these days, we've grown comfortable with the caprice of the other, liking the idea that we can keep our own in place as well.

Chantilly is renowned for four things: horse racing, lace, cream and the chateau. The lace is history, we saw the horses and ate the cream, but we missed the chateau.


I wake up early and force myself to get going. There are trains and there is the commuter RER and they all run frequently during the rush hours and less so at midday.

So I'm out before the sun. (That's not so impressive! The sun rises now at 8:30 and sets at just short of 4:30.)

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I eat breakfast at the legendary Cafe Rostand (you've seen, for example, the film Paris, je t'aime? Gerard Depardieu plays a waiter at this place), mostly because it's close to the Luxembourg Gardens and I feel really odd not having visited these yet -- they truly are a favorite spot on this side of the ocean for me. And, too, conveniently, the Cafe is right next to the RER station. I can take a train and connect to one heading for Chantilly.

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The Cafe Rostand is staid. The proprietor stares at my dangling camera as I enter. I know what he's thinking: I have important regulars here. Please don't scare them away! He should know better. I'm very inconspicuous. No one ever knows for sure if I've taken a photo. This 'important person' (seriously in a cape, with a jeweled broach which you cannot see, and a dog of all dogs) never even batted an eye.

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I'm not a fan of staid places, but, I'm here just for a croissant and a cafe, as it happens, both fairly indifferent, and some post card writing (I still write cards to daughters and Ed when I'm away -- not so much to tell them what I'm doing -- God knows I do enough of that on Ocean! -- but to tell them about something in the course of a day that reminded me of how much I missed them)...

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...and, too, I witness something that truly counts as a new Paris experience: yes, people bring their dogs to cafes all the time, but a cat? That's a first for me.

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How does she even get her cat to sit perfectly still on that chair? Amazing.

I do get the benefit of a stroll through the gardens just as they open at sunrise. Special.

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I notice that the waters in the fountain are half frozen. Well that's right. Night temperatures have been dipping just below freezing, even as the days have remained comfortably in the lower forties.

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Time for the train. I take the line B, which normally would take me straight to the airport, but I know to change at the major hub -- Chatelet -- for the line D.

What's this? Everyone is getting off at Chatelet. Strange. Perhaps it's a limited edition rush hour train. To catch the excess, so to speak. I'd never heard of one like that, but there's a lot to Paris that will always remain a mystery, no matter how often I come here.

A lot of announcements on the loud speaker. Crowds, pushing every which way. I'm confused, but only for a moment. La greve. Strike!

I figure this out only when I finally do find a Chantilly bound train. I may not have gone had I known. A limited schedule is okay, but one that changes and places more and more limits throughout the day is not. And if you think you'll get info at the ticket offices -- no, you wont. Closed. On strike as well.

[I ask at the Chantilly Tourist Office if I can use my commuter rail ticket on a regular train if it comes to that. She tells me -- they're on strike! When they strike, I don't pay at all! Well now, is that a principled position, or one expressing frustration? I cannot tell.]

Still, it's too late now, I'm Chantilly-bound (it's a 45 minute train ride) and surely even if all trains shut down, I'll find my way back to Paris.


I look out the train window. A misty morning again! It looks like winter here -- chimneys throwing stiff clouds of smoke, everything gray, touched by a steely frost...

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I get off at the next to last stop on the line. Chantilly. My, but it's cold in the country!


I know the chateau is within walking distance, but I want to find the Tourist Office first -- to get a map, to ask a few questions about what's what. So I head downtown. That's about a twenty minute hike.

Did I mention how much colder it is outside Paris?! With the sun hovering behind wisps of mist, shaded areas keep their cloaks of frost all day long. Why didn't I bring my gloves -- buried in the suitcase the whole trip long?

I pick up the pace.

Downtown, I learn that the tourist office is right by the train station! Well now, how did I miss that? Back I go.  One hour in Chantilly and all I've done is a loop between the station and town.

But no matter. Walking in the country -- that was the goal, no?

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Equipped with now unnecessary maps and informational materials, I take a lovely path to the chateau (with a frozen moat doubling the Chateau's beauty in the reflection)...

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And at the Chateau grounds, I have a beautiful walk, too, in the park. The mist comes and goes. When the sun pushes it away, the forest feels warm. When the mist returns, it feels secretive...

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... in a magical sort of way.

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...With the Chateau never too far away.

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No, no! I'm not ready to go inside just yet! I'm enchanted with my surroundings: the quiet of the park, the rising mists from the waters...

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...the light as it changes on the stream with the movement of ducks...

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Walking here in winter, you feel as if the grand estate is arrested in stillness: with many of the canals and fountains (designed, like Versailles, by Le Notre) frozen or depleted of water, with monuments covered over for the season, it's as if the place is shuttered against a past that is no more.

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The Chateau Apartments, the Chapel, the library. Snapshots for you:

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It's always a jolt to see books from old private collections. Did anyone ever read for fun?


I've been walking without pause for three hours now. Time for lunch. Chantilly is a working town...

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(waiting for the weekend)

...but the restaurants count on a robust tourist business and on a cold December day, they wait for customers that never come. I pass one after another basically empty place. That's depressing. I'll feel guilty ordering something light in a large and empty room. That wont do.

And here luck is with me and I find a bustling creperie and though I wont eat the crepe because I'm too full of memories of yesterday's perfect one, I do order a delicious omelet with goat cheese and salmon.

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All warmed and ready to go back to Paris. A train does come and even on schedule and though we still get the announcement that train travel today is severely disrupted, it seems not to have affected me at all.

But, forewarned that this is a month of on again, off again strikes, I do go to the RER ticket office -- now open! -- and ask if the strike will again disrupt travel on Sunday. I rely on the train to get to the airport. The ticket agent shakes her head -- No, of course not! The workers do not strike on Sundays! Well now, I suppose if you're French, Sunday is sacred. You need your vacation, even from a strike.

Home again. I alight from the RER station by the River Seine. With the familiar view of Apple iPhones on the buildings under renovation.

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Evening dining is again a mass of confusion. I had emailed Patrick, my landlord -- asking where he liked to eat. A man of impeccable taste surely has a good handle on food in his neighborhood. I was curious what he'd pick. He tells me about a place just a few blocks down -- a place completely unfamiliar to me, and so I say an excited "yes!" He offers to call in a reservation. I then look closely at the Internet reviews. It's *the* place to go to if you like animal organs. Udders figure heavily on it. Pig nipples.

I eat most everything and anything, but I can't do this: I write an apologetic note to Patrick, canceling my interest and head out toward the more conventional world of bistro food.


I walk all the way across the left bank, toward the Eiffel Tower. A few snapshots for you: of a Buci area street concert:

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 ...of smiling onlookers (kids here often use these to get around the city):


...of a visit to a sweet shop:

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...yes, of the moon. Over St. Germain-de-Pres this time:

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...and of course, of the Eiffel Tower, which has been photographed so often, probably more so than any other structure in this world! I would post it upside down for novelty's sake, but I'm sure it's been done that way too.

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I pick this spot to dine in:

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It's beloved on the Internet and it has an energy to it that is sometimes hard to find in establishments that have been around for a long time here.

It almost receives the highest of praises from me. The atmosphere is relaxed,  the proprietor is young, friendly, the foie gras with cranberries is inspired!

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The main dish had a tiny bit of an issue but I restrain my American impulse to point it out, choosing instead to work my way around it. The proprietor is not fooled. He spots it right away, is incredibly apologetic and brings me a new fish, perfectly prepared.

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Apple cake with cinnamon  creme anglais is not too sweet and could be faulted only for the size of the portion (too much!).

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The walk back is long but beautiful. Paris has seeped into my bones.

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