Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paris, or Musings on Stereotypes of the French

Would it be a cliche to gush about how romantic Paris is? Because if it's wrong, I don't want to be right. Less frenzied than Spain, and sporting a much appreciated cooling breeze, Paris is brimming with fantastic sights, sounds, food and people. That's right, despite a somewhat tired national opinion that the French are stand-offish or snobby, we discovered firsthand that the French are *gasp* people, some certainly can be rude, but far more are nice, considerate, and very willing to help. If you just put in a little legwork, and learn how to say "Hello, two coffees and two croissants, please" and "I'm sorry, my French is terrible", first of all you will be eating the best damn croissants you have ever had the pleasure of melting in your mouth and secondly, the people will be charmed and eager to help you with whatever you need and are generally willing and able to split the conversation between French and English. ( By the way, those handy phrases go something like "Bonjour, deux cafes et deux croissants, s'il vous plait" and "Desolee, mon francais est tres mal.")

The next awesome fact about Paris? You can, nay, you are practically encouraged to walk down the street with an open bottle of wine in hand. One late evening, Robert stopped in a convenience store for some bedtime wine and cheese (not to be confused with breakfast beer and cheese) and asked the cashier for a corkscrew. Corkscrew was produced and the young man began to open the bottle, as his manager watched carefully from behind the counter. The way Robert tells it, the corkscrew was almost completely inserted into the cork when suddenly the manager leapt forward with a "Bah!" and a steady stream of irritated-sounding French, waving off his employee like a pesky fly and seizing the bottle from him. Apparently, it was a quarter turn too many and the shopkeeper would not stand for such heinous misuses of wine, going so far as to uncork the bottle himself, all the while apologizing to Robert and shooting dirty looks at the young man who had failed him so.

We arrived in Paris just in time to catch the last stage of the Tour de France, watched a herd of bicycles whiz by before an endless procession of sponsors parade up and down the Champs Elysees. It grew tiresome, and after purchasing a commemorative Tour de France umbrella (bright yellow, very smart) for my dad, we decided to saunter down to le Arc de Triomphe, whose grand scale and lavish carvings really gave a feeling for just how much Napoleon thought of himself. (Unfortunately, the umbrella was confiscated by airport security in Nepal, who seemed to be the under impression that they were running some kind of actual operation instead of standing around in Cub Scout uniforms in a building whose facilities had last been serviced when Nepal had a monarchy.)

Paris is filled with grand, beautiful buildings, immense in size and rich in history, and at every grand historical building (Notre Dame, the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, etc) we saw, there was a bum taking a leak on it. The combination if the highbrow and lowbrow sort of encapsulates the Parisian experience, the city is grand and romantic, but ultimately tangible and real.

But if I can return to the previously touched upon subject of "French People: Are They Actually Assholes?" for a moment...we were hopelessly lost and confused in the Gage De Lyon train station, arguing over what our timetable booklet said versus what the station boards said when we were approached by a very tall man with a kindly face. The kindly face is mentioned because people almost always wear their intentions in their countenances, and when this man walked up to us, I immediately felt relieved. He introduced himself as Victor and asked where we were trying to go. We said that eventually we were trying to get to Omaha Beach and he smiled broadly, extolling the beauty of the Normandy beaches and informed us that we would want to go to Bayeux. Okay, sure, Bayeux, bring it on. Victor put on a pair of half-rimmed glasses, the sort your favorite literature teacher probably favored, and glanced through our timetable booklet that had been provided to us along with the Eurail passes we had purchased the week before. He frowned and clucked his tongue,

"This is wrong, this is very out of date." He shook his head and then told us to follow him before striding off on impossibly long legs, leaving the two of us scampering in his wake like children. I fought the urge to shout, "Papa!" in my best childish French accent several times when it seemed like he might outpace us. Instead, we redoubled our efforts to keep up as he led us first to one counter, and when that teller had nothing useful for us, to another, more well-informed station.

All in all, Victor, who looked like he had somewhere to be in his navy pinstriped suit and black leather briefcase, took about a solid forty-five minutes out of his day to ensure that some scruffy little American backpackers would, in fact, reach their destination. Out of all the kind and helpful people we have encountered this summer (and there have been legion), Victor was the very soul of compassion, staying by our side until we reached the correct platform, tickets in hand, confirmed the train's destination with a conductor, wished us a "Bon journee" and then turned and disappeared into the crowd as abruptly as he had appeared.

I'm sure there are assholes who are French, just as there are assholes of every nationality. But people are more or less the same everywhere you go, most willing to extend a helping hand or return a smile. All in all, you get out what you put in.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An Ode to Grindelwald


Home of my forebears,
Who fled without reason


So lovely, so green,
Depending on the season


Wiry old folks trek
With embroidered socks pulled high


In the shadow of Mt.Eiger
Ripping through clouds in the sky

O Grindelwald!

Alpine meadows with
Lavendar scent so sweet


I am ever so grateful,
For at last we did meet

Zurich: Come for the Hookers, Stay for the Escargot

Let's get this out of the way, Zurich was somewhat of a bust. I wanted to be the dishonorable one, and bounce as soon as our rail passes had arrived to the first hostel that agreed to receive mail for us, but Robert felt it would be an affront to the hospitality we had been shown by the proprietors, a hospitality that had some limits as said proprietors proceeded to lecture Robert for not booking the correct number of beds for one of the dorms, even though we had explained our dodgy internet situation. We encountered this delightful national quirk of being sternly lectured by someone who felt that dumbasses like ourselves needed a brusque talking to again on a train, by an unsmiling conductor frau. I suspect it had something to do with being in the German-speaking portion of the country.

Switzerland is multi-lingual in the sense that French, German, and Italian are all spoken throughout the country, but each lingua franca is restricted to its' own section, so no one in Zurich could grasp my basic, not-horrible French, looking at me as if I rolled up speaking a language composed of clicks and chirps. (No one knew Spansh, so Robert's stock had decreased somewhat.) I guess this means that unless you are personally multilingual, you stay in where you're from or risk being taken to task by your own countrymen. As luck would have it, the German-speaking Swiss we interacted with also spoke English, an English clipped short and derived of any warmth or humor, but English nonetheless, so we weren't going to balk. (Alternatively, French-speaking Bern yielded very few English speakers and my ears, well-honed in the international art of eavesdropping, never detected any German.)

The dorm we were in was a mixed dorm, which meant, as in Barcelona, it would be four dudes and myself. Unlike Barcelona though, this crowd was a conservative one; there was a Canadian grad student in town for a biomedical conference, and unwilling to part with his life savings for a private room, an American financial auditor in his early 30s on a solo backpacking trip, and a young Sicilian man training to become a chef and looking for a job in town. The latter was incredibly friendly, and undeterred either by our inability to speak Italian or by his limited English. He and Robert became fast friends as they chatted in Spanish and Italian, finding the commonalities of the two languages and deciphering where the differences came into play. His charming company was easily one of the high points of our brief stay in Zurich.

As for the city itself, it was quiet and unassuming, modern with a few hints at a long-running past. The statues here were few in comparison in Barcelona, and certainly none of them were styled with epithats like "_____ the Conqueror" or other dynamic titles, reflecting the peace that Switzerland has maintained for over 500 years. Which is great for the Swiss, but rather yawn-inducing for the traveller looking to soak up some bloody history. Instead, Zurich has lots of very expensive shops, whether the products within were high quality or not, though most were, and street after street of porno theaters. We never saw a single non-porn theater, leaving us to wonder out loud if they were somehow unaware of the reason for the existence of the internet.

When night fell, we discovered the other side to the abundance of porno theaters coin in that the street we were on, and Zurich in general, boasts the highest number of hookers per capita. The unassuming hotels across and around us revealed themselves to be brothels come nightfall and the streets below our third story room are suddenly overflowing with working girls plying their trade, who looked at me somewhat askance when Robert and I walked down the street, holding hands. I can only assume they were trying puzzle out how it was that someone who clearly put no effort into her advertising could snatch up a client so early in the night. My rumpled romper, dirty flip flops, and total absence of make-up screamed "stoner college student" in contrast to the artfully applied creams, glosses and teetering high heels sported by my fellow gender. (Later we found out at the only reason anyone ever really goes to Langstrasse, the street we were staying on, was to pick up some intimate company, a fact that was completely omitted from our hostel's internet advertisement.)

Determined to redeem our decision to stay in Zurich, we resolved to sample what was touted as the national cuisine, fondue. Robert had never had fondue and as we had pretty much been living on cheese and bread for the prior week (and wine), we assured ourselves that we could not be disappointed. The first problem we encountered was actually finding a place that even served some damned fondue, trudging up one cobblestone street and up another, getting hungrier and crankier with every twist. (All streets go uphill in Zurich, almost as steep as walking to Park Guel in Barcelona. But we did that trek carrying all of our gear, so suck on that Crossfitters, P90X'ers and other self-proclaimed hardcore fitness program acolytes. That's right, come at me bro.) Finally, we found the one restaurant serving the stuff and threw ourselves into carved wooden chairs as merry yodeling was piped through the speakers. Feeling somewhat like we were in line for the Matterhorn at Disneyland, we decided to go big and order an appetizer of escargot, aka snails.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Seriously. They are delicious, succulent, and drowned in a buttery-garlic sauce that tasted very strongly of pesto. The only problem was that there were only twelve, I could have rooted out an entire garden by myself. (And no, despite what that steaming pile of a movie women of my generation inexplicably worship, Pretty Woman, might have you believe, they are served sans shell, robbing any horse-toothed hookers the chance to deem them "slippery little suckers.") We couldn't decide which fondue to order, stuck between the traditional savory cheese or Morel mushroom choices, and without any indication of serving size, were dependent on our rather delightful server's advice. She suggested that we could try both and so we did, only to be confronted with a huge basket of bread cubes and a small burlap sack of potatoes followed shortly by two bubbling pots of enough molten cheese to repel an invading force if poured from the battlements of a castle during a siege. When we remarked on the enormous quantity of food set before us, our server cheerfully agreed that it was a lot of food and that she was surprised we ordered all of it. Uh huh. Dear readers, we did our best, we really did. But barely an inch into our overflowing bread basket, we groaned and puffed against the constraints of our clothing, wheezing as we patted our sweat-laden brows with paper napkins. As is everything in Zurich, this bounty of bread, cheese and potatoes was shockingly expensive, and having both come from more modest means, Robert and I were determined to eat our money's worth before giving in to defeat, swollen and ashamed. "That was it?" He asked, "Just the bread and the cheese like that?" I was embarrassed, I had pushed for this dinner in the hopes that we could enjoy some beloved staples on our last night in a rather underwhelming leg in our journey and here we were, ready to ask for a very pricey check on a disappointing meal. But by this point, however, I was too out of breath and too delirious to try and spin the situation, and nodded sadly. "Yeah. That's it." He looked crestfallen and if I had any spare room in my being at that moment, I would have felt awful; but as it was, all I could think about was the thin mattress in our mosquito-ridden room at the hostel where I would drop my bloated body to sleep and, hopefully, digest. We woke relatively early the next day, wincing as some unprocessed cheese continued to slosh around in our guts, but managed to pack our belongings swiftly and neatly, eager to bid goodbye to a city that left us much poorer monetarily, if richer in mosquito bites. The nicest refrain we had for Zurich for the three days we were there was, "Wow, would you look at that river? That water sure is blue." And I think that about says it all.