Wednesday, March 12, 2014

to Paris

Part 1: Brittany

With each day that you stay (live?) in a place, you add another layer of information. So often day two will correct the hasty impressions of day one. And then day three will make new adjustments. You think you got it right. And some things remain just so, no matter how long you stay. But, on day four subtle (or even not so subtle) adjustments will again be made.

On my last morning in Brittany, I wake up, as usual, late. I've been in such a hurry all these years, but in Brittany, I stopped being in a hurry and I make up in sleep for all the hours that I should have slept, but didn't. Years and years of missing sleep, indulged in here.

I had the morning programmed. You do that when you get older. Leaving things to the last minute inevitably means that you'll have left your passport on the nightstand and half your underwear hanging in the bathroom. So I tick off my list of essential tasks: pack suitcase, clean out the kitchen, take shower and ... what's this? The doorbell?

Ah, Madame Jo, mother of my original Airbnb home owners, is here -- presumably to pick up the key which I still hold, but also to pass on a satchel of fruit and a box of macarons. She hopes that when I come back to St Pol de Leon I'll give them another chance. Oh, I don't know. I've grown fond of the little house by the cauliflower fields, with the heat coming from the floors and the little pastry magnets all over the refrigerator. But, one never knows. The family of the original Airbnb surely has been supremely decent.

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And now, with most things packed, put away, cleaned, I set out downtown.

It's market day again! I've had a week here and it's Tuesday once more. How long ago last Tuesday seems! This time,  I give the market only a fleeting glance.

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(looking through used books)

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(always time for a few words)

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(crepes, of course)

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(oranges look good on a cloudy Breton day)

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(leeks -- so many dishes here call for them)

No buying, no lingering even. That ocean mist that again hides the sun makes for a cool day and the wind is whipping things around some. I head for my favorite bakery.

And I set up shop there. Meaning I take out my computer, intending to finish yesterday's post. It's a pleasant routine. It is my one "social" time of the day, in that I watch the comings and going of people who know each other, greet each other, and otherwise show their humanity by being concerned about the fate of the other and of the larger world out there.

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(the newspaper is passed around all morning long; his mrs. is off chatting with others while he reads)

As I half listen, half stare at my screen and of course munch on the absolutely perfect pain au chocolat...

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...I hear the owner, the terrifically nice Madame who gifted me the pastechou that first morning here, talking to one of the locals. Did I get that right? No, it can't be!

Yes, she is Polish. Her history is a variation of so many of our histories: she goes to England as an au pair, meets handsome Frenchman, they fall in love, move back to France and they buy this bakery-cafe in the town not too far from where his parents live. Their children are bilingual even as their dad doesn't speak Polish. She maintains ties to her family back home.

Like other Poles living abroad, she feels the pull toward her home country. None of the ambivalence that I've felt all my life: she feels solidly Polish.

We spend a good number of minutes chatting because, of course, we move from the status of stranger to friend instantly when we find that our paths have been so similar (even as they are in many ways completely different). I ask her about doing business in this town and eventually, as M. Pecheur comes in, I ask her about him too.
Oh, he's been coming here for years! Before we bought the place.
So, is he a fisherman?
No, not really. A farmer. Grows carrots, I think.
Well maybe, but a bully too. Insists on things his way. The paper, coffee, right away. A difficult guy.

And so I was wrong about him. Or at least I have this new layer of information, a different perspective.

Of course, I had been wrong about the owner of the bakery, too. She appeared to know everyone and be on friendly terms with the whole lot of them. And I heard her roll her "r" in the way that Poles do, but I heard other Bretons do the same. Bonjour here is often spoken with a tiny roll at the end. I attributed her accent to Breton rather than Polish.

So this is travel for you. People say that you learn a lot by being somewhere. Well yes, but I have to remind myself (and I've said this on Ocean before) that much of what you see and hear is not any less free of bias than if you were reading a book about a place. Your impressions may correct themselves the longer you stay or the more often you visit, but at the end of the day, they are only your impressions.

As I tell Madame Baker's Wife that I have to get going, she gives me a fresh loaf of pastechou. Oh, how I would love to eat it all day long, but I decline the gift. I know I wouldn't be able to finish it and so it seems a waste.  I buy instead a baguette with cheese and tomato for the train trip and we say our goodbyes. The cafe is busy now in any event. She needs to get back to her work.

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Pani Agnieszka

On the way back to my little house, I run into my landlord. She is just driving to see me. She is a woman of many words, spoken rapid fire and without interruption, but finally she does accept the fact that I am in a hurry. But can she take me just really quickly to her other little house that she rents out? This one is older and I gather that it once belonged to her daughter. In any case, she thinks I might like it for the future. It's a little less modern and therefore even less expensive. And the view! -- she tells me. Right to the bay! Well, maybe not so pretty today with the mist... She pouts a little. But a nice garden! And privacy. Your neighbor only comes here in the summer. He's a doctor from America.

So he lives his Brittany dream in this way? By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea... And does he miss home when he is here? His loved ones? Or do they come with him for the summer?

I thank Madame for all her help, tell her I'll leave the key under the mat and hurry back to pick up my suitcase and head for the station...

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(one last look at the cauliflower fields)

.... where I hope a bus will come to take me to Morlaix...

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(he waves to the train engineer)

.... from where I catch the TGV to Paris.

Part 2: Paris

I wrap my heating pad around my back, slip on my jacket and roll my little case along toward the station. My, but the pad is warm! The instructions warned that those over 55 (that's me!) should not put it right next to the skin. Well fine, it's over my shirt. Toasty warm nonetheless!

The connections to Paris are seamless. Bus only a minute late, plenty of time for the transfer, train punctually arriving at Montparnasse (station in Paris) four hours and seven minutes later.

And the metro ride is without issue. The heating pad and magic French pill do their job and carrying a suitcase up and down stairs is, if not easy, then certainly doable.

My hotel of choice is still closed for renovation but a sister hotel -- de la Sorbonne (so named because it is across the street from that university) has a good priced room and I settle in for a four night stay.

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(the moon shines brightly over the Sorbonne)

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(the hotel)

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(mirror in tiny room)

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(the vibe here is definitely of the university)

Initially I was to be in Paris only one day and so I was sure to reserve dinner at my restaurant of choice (Pouic Pouic) for this evening. And even though I am now here a bit longer, I keep the dinner in place. I like that I am coming back to a familiar world. I'm not much in the mood for anything new right now.

By now, they recognize me here -- probably because I always dine alone. Ah, here comes Madame Camic who can never find anyone to dine with in all of Paris! At Pouic Pouic (which may be the only restaurant I know here where no one uses restaurant voices) that's rare.

I eat their pumpkin soup, an escalop de veau, a lemon tart -- they're always well prepared. Always with clever twists but not fussy. The chef -- a guy with a thick, beautiful pony tail -- is visible from the dining room. Watching him prepare food for 32 people (the place is always full) is gratifying.

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(lemon tart with blood orange ice cream)

And so passes my first evening back in the city that has never once disappointed me. And that's saying a lot.