[The story thus far: our heroes have acquired a rental car, perhaps the largest car in all of France, and have somehow packed themselves and their luggage into it.]
With Ron driving, we barreled along, shouting directions and cautions to one another (and seriously, we had to speak quite forcefully in order for our voices to be understood, what with the suitcase baffles that had been set in place — years from now, sound engineers will discover an ideal sound damping arrangement of baffles, and after a brief look at the new design I’ll be able to point back to the arrangement of those suitcases and nod knowingly). The Avis staff had offered Ron a choice of routes to the hotel: “The Somewhat Faster Way” or “The Much Easier Way”, and though he was strangely intrigued by the former, he wisely stuck with the latter, and no lives were lost.
Much of Europe had been covered by a terrible storm the week before – France had been particularly hard-hit. There were trees blown down all along the roadside from the recent storm. In some places it looked like whole fields of trees had been blown at least 35 degrees out of true, and it didn’t look like they’d just grown that way either, because they were nice, straight trees, just with this odd list to them. There were also many nice, straight trees that were lying uprooted on the ground, or already gathered in bundles. One estimate said that parts of France had lost 1 out of every 10 trees; it was easy to believe.
Our hotel was situated in the La Defense business district outside Paris, and we found it without trouble. It’s quite easy, in fact — if you’re coming into La Défense from Paris (or from the Peripherique highway, as we were) it’s the first building in on your right after you cross the Seine river. I’m aware that the previous sentence is probably
(much) funnier to me than it is to you, but you have to understand that everything in La Défense is built to a gigantic scale – it’s a bit like referring to the “first mile-high alien monolith on the right.” In fact, our hotel (Novotel) shares its building with Ibis, a different chain of hotels, so that things will be to the right scale.
I liked the Novotel that we stayed in. It was well laid out, with toilet and bath on the left as you entered, and ample clothes-hanging and folded-clothes storage on the right. Then double bed and additional convertible bed on the left, and on the right, additional storage, a TV, a Robobar and desk area. The phone had a jack in it for connecting your laptop computer to the Internet, and there was also a public Internet terminal in the lobby, which was pretty great except that it had an ASERTY-style French keyboard that approximately doubled composition time.
One unusual thing about the hotel room (to me, as an American) was that the toilet was in its own separate room, away from anything else, such as the bathtub or sink. Actually, to call it a room would be to be using the wrong word; I expect that European designers have a special word for it. Let me describe it: First of all, it was _exactly_ big enough to hold the toilet. Imagine your hall closet. No, imagine the hall closet that you had in the first, smallest place that you ever moved into after moving out of your parents’ house. Now cut that space down by 10% or so. Finally, add an optional head-banging feature on the inner door handle of the tiny toilet room door (which teams of designers apparently worked long hours to place at the optimal head-whacking angle and location). Also be sure (while you’re imagining this) not to add a lock to the head-whacking door handle — apparently you don’t want to be locking toilet doors; perhaps it’s a law. And at any rate, if you were actually in there, in the toilet room, it’s not as if anyone could have opened the door inward with you in the way, so there.
The washroom also had some features of interest (yes, a second paragraph about the bathrooms). The tub had a shower on a hose, which was a quite nice Shower Massage-type with the ability to be perched either low or high, but it required the strength of ten men to actually engage the shower: if you left it alone, you got a bath, or, if you brought a troop of strongmen into the washroom with you and got them to gang together, you could engage the shower. I actually have the strength of eleven men, and so was able to cope. Other members of our group may have engineered a system of pulleys and levers – I forgot to ask. And clearly there’s no engineering reason for this massive force to be required, unless perhaps because they decided to spring (ha!) for the Millennium Master Tub/Shower Valve to make sure that after the hotel has crumbled into dust, those springs will still be working. Or perhaps it’s a safety concern? Maybe they don’t want small children turning on the shower and perhaps spraying water all over their nice wood floors. (Yes, they put wood floors in the bathrooms!) The washroom door had no locks either – it may be that the first thing that European children try to do in that situation is to lock the door, turn the water to “Hottest”, engage the shower and begin flinging the shower massage wand around until the whole hotel washes into the Seine. A sobering picture, I admit, but nevertheless, it’s a bit hard to reconcile this apparent obsessive concern for washroom safety with the reality of most European bathtubs, which are uniformly un-recessed, meaning that if you forget to step DOWN! as you get out of the tub, you may spend the rest of your Parisian vacation in a cast. Finally, several of us reported spending some time trying to figure out the bathtub drain; I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader, so as not to spoil the Mystery of Paris for you.
The room’s decor had a definite IKEA aura to it (a large Swedish home furnishings conglomerate; see here for more details if you’re unfamiliar). Perhaps IKEA really does represent the current trends in European style? Or, more sinister: perhaps IKEA has already taken over France, in the same way that McDonald’s restaurants have overtaken the United States.
Ron and Georgia had nice views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower from their room. Larry and I got views of the La Defense business district, which is actually much more interesting to look at than the American equivalent. Some of my coworkers reported problems with their thermostat, which were fixed the next day, and also Larry’s phone went insane and refused to delete messages – a problem which the night guy was unable to fix, despite heroic efforts, although again it was fixed the next day. The staff were uniformly pleasant and helpful, actually. And really, I’m making a big deal about the bathroom (hey, I got to mention it in another paragraph!) but I’d happily return there.
La Défense is a business and shopping district marked by enormous buildings; my guide book said that zoning laws prevented large buildings from being constructed in most other parts of Paris. It’s designed so that there is always a fairly open space nearby, so you don’t get the claustrophobic feeling that you get in the large-building districts of most American cities. The central feature of La Défense is La Grande Arche, an enormous geometric arch that is actually an office building. Photographs don’t give you a sense of scale, but you could easily fit all of Notre Dame cathedral under the Grande Arche.
I’ve uploaded some photographs of the La Défense area, along with some additional descriptive text. It can be accessed here.
[Next Installment: Parisians!!]