Posts Tagged ‘French’

Paris: Comprenez-vous?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Sunday morning (17th of May) served as another major step in our adventure: the language barrier. After breakfast, we arrived in Pontoise with full intentions of parking and taking public transportation into Paris. Even the former was a new challenge; our understanding of French parking signs was far from perfect. The qualifications above our parking sport contained an ambiguous French word, sauf. Ziegler successfully defined the word’s meaning as either “except” or “death.” Parking there meant either that we should pay-and-display except on Sundays or that we would be killed on Sunday. I (Matt) instinctively hoped to avoid both fines and death, if possible. Transportation inspired more trepidation. We studied the train and bus station’s maps and ticket machine for such recognizable terms as cul-de-sac, soup de jour, rendezvous, or laissez-faire. After seeing our few minutes of failure, a timid young woman approached us and asked in halting English if we needed help. Oui. She generally explained how to purchase tickets on the RER train into Paris. As she led us to the correct terminal, she informed me that she was studying to be an illustrator. Still very cautiously speaking with limited English, she brightened when I told her of my graphic design minor. We thanked her profusely and I boarded the train with the broader awareness of the extent of our adventure. We were suddenly very foreign and very alone in a country that spoke very little of our mother tongue.

Upon leaving our final stop we chased the first recognizable structure, the Eiffel Tower. We circled beneath the monument and asked a random tourist to take the clique picture of us with the monument. The young man turned out to be a missionary kid from Utah, the first person we had met who spoke English comfortably. We moved on toward the Arc de Triomphe. It was a long walk past numerous buildings with illegible signage. We arrived at the famous arch during a curious lull in traffic and ascended to the top. Paris is quite the lovely city and the Arc serves as a hub for its numerous boulevards. We enjoyed the view and I, surprisingly, took several pictures before we purposed to walk along one such boulevard. First, we had to cross the roundabout encircling the Arc with its increased traffic. David informed us that the circle was the only place in France where fault was not defined in auto accident insurance claims. Instead, all involved drivers split the responsibility to avoid conflict. We decided to test this approach by making a mad dash across numerous lanes of traffic to the sidewalk. David had a showdown with a Mercedes-Benz and apparently some cops yelled at Shenk from a Police van. Still alive, we continued down the Champs Elysses boulevard to the impressive glass pyramids of the Louvre and then across the city to the even more impressive Notre Dame cathedral. Our hunger prompted a splurge on the exotic-sounding dish on a McDonalds menu, the Croque McDo. The woman behind the counter handed us a ham and cheese sandwich. Finding a train station, we returned to our camping spot for soup and sleep.

By the light of Monday morning, Dan discovered we were parked on one side of a stand of trees from a golf course; too bad we had forgotten our clubs. We drove back into Pontoise, bought some groceries (including croissants and Laughing Cow cheese), and parked the car at the station. We rode to the Louvre and ate a late lunch of our purchases before splitting up in the art museum. I could have spent two weeks in that building. Instead, we rationed our time in the three and a half hours until it closed at 5. I felt immensely torn between seeing as many works of art as possible and allowing enough time at specific works to appreciate them. As such, I had to continually remind myself that what I saw was not merely the subjects of my studies over many years but actually the pieces of art touched by the very artistic masters themselves. Da Vinci himself touched the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks. Delacroix touched Liberty Leading the People and not Coldplay. Some master sculpture chiseled Venus de Milo over two thousand years ago. Hundreds of brilliant artists had touched the art in the museum and made each uniquely beautiful. I emerged and met the guys at five, all of us slightly dazed. We walked across the river to Notre Dame but found it closed. On a brighter note, I finally made good on my aim to kick a pigeon and it helped me relieve some of the disappointment in missing the cathedral’s interior. The four of us began the journey alongside the Rive Seine and I tried in vain to ask where we could procure bagets, thin loaves of bread. I really fail at foreign languages and our French phrase book helped very little. To tide us over until dusk, we had some Expresso coffee and a croissant at a little restaurant. At the Eiffel Tower a little after nine, we discovered we were unable to climb the steps to the first platform at night as we had orignially planned, to save 3 Euro a person. I could have kicked another pigeon but we still took the trams up. Paris is even more lovely at night and from its highest point. We did the touristy thing and took lots of pictures. On the way down I realized I, the only single guy on this trip, had just passed up the most ideal opportunity to kiss a random girl. How could a single young woman refuse me a kiss at the top of the most iconic and romantic places in the City of Love? I even considered how long it had been since my last shower but I doubted it was much longer than for any true French young woman. On another note, we didn’t see any all red pickpockets like on the tower’s cautionary signs. Shenk, in his red lumberjack coat, was similar but thankfully kept his hand out of others’ purses.

By the time we returned to earth, it was after 11 and we had missed the last Pontoise-bound train from the nearest station. The feeling of being alone and foreign returned as four young men set out to either return to the car or find a place to sleep for the night. We trained to the central station and happily discovered the last train of the night to our destination would leave in 17 minutes. Naturally our debit card refused to cooperate in the ticket machine and anxieties began to rise. We tried to explain our situation to an employee and thought he explained that because of our predicament, we could just get on the train without a ticket. We hurried aboard. In our second encounter with the law, six police officers followed us onto the train and demanded tickets. Pale, we explained our position but the tense situation seemed rapidly leading toward us sleeping on benches in that station for the night. As exciting as that would have been, we were relieved when the head officer finally relented and we barely left on the last train to our car for free. Truly an exciting beginning in the foreign language step on this exciting journey.

Matt