Today, we were off to Paris. My wife, two daughters, my father-in-law and myself boarded the high speed train in Chambéry and watched as the rolling countryside of Rhone-Alpes gradually gave way to the flat plains surrounding Paris. We arrived in Gare du Lyon, where we met Nathalie, another relative who was kind enough to guide us through our first hours in Paris. We boarded the Metro and set off for our hotel in Montparnasse. Nathalie immediately warned us about the busy metro stations and pick-pockets, a warning that proved to be prescient. We navigated through the Metro with relative ease and soon found ourselves outside the Best Western Nouvelle Orleans. I know, Best Western doesn’t sound terribly romantic, but this small hotel seemed to be well regarded on the various travel websites and it was actually quite charming and clean. The one thing we found interesting was the difficulty in finding rooms for a family of four. Rooms in Europe are quite small and in this case, we split the party in two, 3 in one room and 2 in the other.
After dropping the bags and freshening up, we reunited with Nathalie (who spent 30 minutes reminiscing in the neighborhood, as she used to live close by) and caught the metro to the Louvré.
This was the first Sunday in August, so admission was free. We waited in line for about 30 minutes to gain entrance (crowds were large, but not unmanageable) and then started with the Denon Gallery, where the main attraction is the Mona Lisa. We spent an hour or so wandering through the maze of galleries, looking at one incredible treasure after another. Even the building is a work of art. Finally, we came to the gallery were the Mona Lisa hangs. If you’re counting on spending hours, or even minutes, getting lost in her mysterious gaze and subtle smile, here’s a dose of reality. You’ll be lucky to catch a split second glance through the throng of people that constantly resist the guard’s attempts to move the crowd along. One particularly boorish and persistent visitor ignored 3 repeated warnings about taking pictures and was ushered in non-too-gentle fashion from the building. Unfortunately, visiting the Mona Lisa is one of those “seen it, done it, cross it off the list and move along” experiences. But take heart, this museum is absolutely jammed with less famous but no less breathtaking works. I highly recommend finding the Botticelli’s or spending some serious time in the large format French and Italian galleries. And if all else fails, just look up. The ceilings are works of art in and of themselves.
The Louvré was a little hot and the crowds were rather large, so it was quickly taking its toll on the family. We were overdue for a break and closing time was rapidly approaching, so we let ourselves be herded into the huge group heading for the exits and reemerged on the streets of Paris. It was a very small taste of all the Louvré had to offer, but unforgettable none-the-less.
After a quick walk up to the Opera House, we boarded the Metro and made our way back to Montparnasse in search of a restaurant near our hotel. And this was where disaster struck. On the metro, it just took a few seconds and an inquiry of my father-in-law about the current time to separate him from his wallet. We never even noticed until we got off the metro, found a restaurant and he went to pay. Luckily, he didn’t have everything in his wallet and his passport remained untouched, but it definitely put a damper on the evening. We headed back to the hotel just to make sure it hadn’t been accidentally left there, but no such luck. My father-in-law, Nathalie and myself headed to the nearest police station to make our report. By this time, it was about 10 pm, so it took a bit to find one open.
Here is where I had my first introduction to the efficiencies of the French justice system. We went up to 3 officers in front of the station and started explaining our situation. I was more than happy to give my 25 year old extremely limited high school French a rest and let Nathalie take the lead. I did know enough to sense that the conversation really wasn’t going our way. I was hearing a lot of apologizing, liberally sprinkled with shoulder shrugs and shakes of the head. I was quickly getting the feeling that this was not going to be a quick process. After a few minutes of rapid fire French, Nathalie turned to me and explained that they were really busy, that we were looking at a minimum of 3 and a half hours, and the strong suggestion was that we come back at 9 tomorrow.
With my polite Canadian upbringing, I was quite prepared to accept the explanation as fact and trudge back to the hotel. Nathalie, being much more familiar with the “European way” was not as quick to give in. She turned back to the officers are fired off several more salvos. My father-in-law, although not completely up to speed with what was going on, was getting frustrated with the lack of progress, and was increasingly concerned about the potential liability of having his ID in some criminal’s hands without an official police report being filed. After more heated discussion, Nathalie brought me up to speed with her progress. Apparently the original excuse of being too busy, with too many people ahead of us had evaporated and the obstacle in the path of justice was now lack of access to computers. We had to wait til the next shift before they could get to a computer. The next shift change was 2 hours from now. Aha, at least we had made 90 minutes progress in the overall duration. But Nathalie, bless her heart, was not too be deterred. Obviously tired, and not at all planning to spend the better part of the evening defending her poor Canadian relatives, she turned back to the officers (we had about 5 participating in the discussion now) and refused to take no for an answer. Surely there was some kind of form we could fill in, just to get the robbery on file. One officer thought there might be, but he’d have to go look for the form, and he couldn’t do that for 45 minutes.
Oh..I was beginning to get this. It’s like an auction, you just keep battering away and the time limit continues to drop. I sensed us getting closer to our objective, and I silently cheered Nathalie on. She was also sensing progress, and tried the tactic of repeating the same request over and over again. Finally, one officer realized it was time to give in, and said they could file the report right away. Nathalie had won! It was an inspiring performance. But apparently the room where the report would be filed was the size of a phone booth, and there was only room for 2. I happily let my father-in-law and Nathalie accompany the officer, while I found a convenient cement post in front of the station to sit on, trying to absorb as much of the Parisian way of life as I could in the surrounding few meters.
One more interesting observation before I pack it in for today. I was still atop my post when the shift change happened. The French custom is to kiss both cheeks in way of greeting on arrival, or to say good-bye. It’s not an actual kiss, but a grazing of the cheek, accompanied by a distinct kissing sound. It’s common between members of the opposite sex and with women, and if two men are quite close, than it’s also appropriate. It took me a little while to fall in step with this custom. At first, I was being a little too aggressive and actually planting the lips on the cheek. But soon, I got the hang of it (although the first male to male one still threw me for a loop) and was kissing up a storm. By the way, if you’re a man, hand shaking is considered essential upon greeting or departing. Failure to do so is quite rude.
I was amazed to see each of the shift members go through this ritual with the guard in front of the station, who happened to be female. It would be unthinkable not to observe this ritual, but apparently not a big deal to find every excuse possible to avoid doing your job. Ah..the French (or more accurately, the Parisians).
It was a long and interesting day. We trudged back to the hotel, found Nathalie a taxi to her flat after thanking her profusely, and proceeded to pass out.