Saturday, November 21, 2009

Day One: Jet Lag and Too Many Photos

If you watch closely, in the hallways and waiting areas of any major airport, you can discern three major classifications of travelers.

There are the business travelers, those for whom this is just an extension of the workday. As such, there is no magic, no excitement, just humdrum routine and a vague wish to be Somewhere Else. And, perhaps, a tinge of frustration, being surrounded by all of these vehicles that are designed to go to any number of Somewhere Elses, and instead knowing you're just on your way to or from another meeting.

Then there are the vacationers, whose perception of vacation is that it starts after you have finally arrived and checked in at your hotel. All of the in-between steps, from locking your front door to navigating the airport to entertaining oneself mid-flight, those are just annoyances, and often they blossom from annoyance into outright stress and misery. These are people who know they are soon to be Somewhere Else, and that soon cannot come quite soon enough.

And, last, there are the vacationers who consider the entire process, from the moment that front door closes at home, to be part of the adventure. They're not necessarily giddy or unruffled throughout the process, because mishaps and frustrations occur no matter what the mindset, but they're more interested in the moment and seem generally to be less stressed and harassed by the intervening steps between home and Somewhere Else.

We, we being sisters Kate, Sarah and Mary, and mother Pam, have always tried to fall into that third category of traveler. We none of us have flown so often that the experience of lift-off or the hours in the air have become routine, and we all try to remember that if you have to go through a certain process to get to your goal, you might as well figure out how that process is interesting, if not outright enjoyable.

I tell you what, it is a lot easier to place yourself into that category when the process goes as smoothly as it did on Thursday.

We met at JFK Airport in New York City - I was coming from Boston, meeting Mary, Sarah and Pam from upstate New York - and it was just one of those instances of cosmic perfection in terms of timing. I had to leave my house around 10:30 in the morning, to catch a city bus and then a Jet Blue flight to get me to the Air France desk, and they met at Pam's house and drove from there. I called as I was waiting to disembark from my flight, to find out their dinner plans, and they were just pulling into their parking spot. We reached the check-in desk within seconds of each other.

The overseas flight was delightfully uneventful. We were on a 777, which means that in our non-fancy-seats section, there were three seats, an aisle, four seats in the middle, another aisle, and then three more seats. We were placed in those middle four seats, which means we didn't end up in uncomfortable proximity to any strangers and I was able to seamlessly snag an aisle seat - a not unimportant maneuver, considering that I am five months pregnant and need uncomplicated access to the bathroom.

The only truly odd bit came to us courtesy of the little TVs attached to each seat. There was a good variety of channels, in both French and English, all pre-recorded so there were no concerns about losing the signal mid-show. And, as I've seen on other flights, as well, there was a map which pinpointed our current location and showed information about estimated time of arrival, time and temperature in the destination city, and so on. It would show, presumably for perspective, a smattering of other cities around the world, and there was a certain randomness there: New York, Boston and... Abilene, Texas? Really?

But, fine, great. Nothing worth noting... until we got over the ocean. We noticed it was still showing little dots with labels next to them, and soon we realized what they were:

Noteworthy Shipwrecks en Route

OK, that's a little weird. I couldn't decide if it was just morbid (especially because that was the only other item on the map: just cities and sites of mass watery graves) or if it was meant to be congratulatory, like, "Hey, good for you! You chose to fly instead of taking a horribly dangerous ocean liner!" (There were not, it is to be noted, similar map entries for sites of plane crashes.)

We were also seated across from a 20something couple who might have been on an engagement trip. She was wearing a diamond ring big enough to weigh down her arm, and in the airport they were fairly snuggly - bordering on inappropriately so - so one might assume that all was well between them. But upon boarding, the young man was delighted to discover that they had their little block of three seats to themselves, and announced, "Oh, good, we can keep this empty seat between us now!" He was consistently loud in a way that thoroughly illustrated the concept of the Ugly American, with obnoxious comments and an astonishing level of self-focus; he was never overtly offensive or insulting, just consistently annoying. And his choice of in-flight entertainment consisted of an alarming variety of skin magazines, which his fiancée seemed to blithely ignore.

Happily, they are not staying in our hotel.

Which, the hotel? Is just fine. It's called the Opera St. Georges, and is located within a short (but steep) walk of the Sacre Coeur and Pigalle... thus combining picturesque religious architecture with risqué-and-beyond forms of entertainment, all within a few short blocks. It's small, and simple - not a fancy place by any stretch of the imagination - but it offers free wireless Internet access, free breakfast buffet, free boxed lunches, clean bathrooms and doors that lock soundly. Just about perfect, for our needs.

Traditional French windows, big enough to let in lots of light and thick enough to block out most of the traffic sounds

We landed in Paris around 9:00 in the morning, and between one thing and another it was about 11:00 before we arrived at the hotel. I have vague memories of the drive... a series of strange sculptures, ranging from a multicolored disembodied hand giving the world a thumbs-up to a pair of pink-clad sumo wrestlers lifting a storage truck... trucks with odd labels and too-long phone numbers... rush hour traffic... lots of small but intense naplets...

The stated check-in time is 1:00 in the afternoon, but when I gave them my very best impression of a pregnant woman who is several steps beyond exhausted and more than a little pathetic, they very graciously allowed us to settle into our rooms a bit early. I had reached a point of beyond-tired such that sleep was imminent and inevitable... my only aspect of control in the situation was where that sleep would occur. Happily, I was able to stretch out in a bed, instead of curling up in the hotel lobby. Mary collapsed in her own bed, and the next few hours evaporated in that dead-to-the-world way that only severe jet lag can bring on.

Our hotel keys have these fantastic, thick tassels... thoroughly appropriate given the Red Light District locale. My mother can spin her tassels in opposite directions!

Sarah and my mother were feeling more energetic, and they took a walk around the neighborhood, climbing the hill to Sacre Coeur and finding a few bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau wine (my mother's stated reason for wanting to return to France, and for choosing this particular weekend: it's a wine that is only released once per year on a certain date in November, and she wanted to be nearby when that happened). They also found several dozen pâtisseries in the area, so once I regained consciousness I was greeted with a delightful array of croissants and chocolates.

We headed in to see La Tour Eiffel that evening, and took the requisite 4,000 photos from every conceivable angle. This is my third trip to Paris, and I still can't figure out just what is so compelling about the Tower... and I can't seem to stop myself from taking far too many photos of an already ridiculously over-photographed structure.

Of course this isn't all of the photos I took... I deliberately take a lot so that I can choose my favorites. But this isn't even all of my so-called favorites, there are a ridiculous number more in the Flickr set, and I'm sure I'll take even more before we leave. I just can't seem to help myself.

From there, we headed - at my request - to Le Bon Marche, a large department store which just happens to contain a satisfyingly extensive yarn shop. I had decided, like before, that my primary souvenirs from this trip would come in the form of yarn, to be made into sweaters and such after returning home.

There are probably better yarn shops in Paris... but I know where this one is, and am delighted by the novelty of a yarn shop inside a department store.

The walk was significantly farther than we anticipated, even with the help of a map, due (I think) to the intensity of our jet lag and unfamiliarity with the area. And so I picked out enough yarn to make scarves for my travel companions, as a way of saying, "Thanks for not killing me in Paris."

And then it was back to the hotel, for more of that really deep, dark jet-lag-enforced sleep. Bon soir!


hokgardner said...

I look forward to following your journey. Ma mere has offered to take me to Paris next spring, and I think I'll be taking her up on it - if only to go to a yarn shop within a department store.

LeeAnne said...

Oh, Kate, I am so enjoying reading about this trip! Please keep the updates - and the photos - coming! Have a wonderful time!