Journey to France (#4: Qu’est-ce que c’est «l’autocar?»)

[The story so far: Our Heroes have secured snug transport, scary and delicious food, and comfortable lodgings at Novotel in the La Défense section on the outskirts of Paris.]

Monday morning Ron and I got up early (6:30 AM local time) and walked through sector 1 of La Défense, basically walking to the Grande Arche and back.  Explored the storefronts, most of which were still closed, of course, and bought some items from one of the many bakeries that were opening up.   I swear, we only walked about 1 kilometer as the crow flies, and we hit three bakeries, all packed with Parisians.  Everything that I tried was wonderful — hot and fresh and delicious.

After our walk, the four of us regrouped at the hotel for the buffet-style breakfast, which I didn’t really need after the bakery goods, but which I bravely enjoyed nevertheless.  Apart from the bacon and soft-boiled eggs that were available as a nod to the English and Americans, it also featured an assortment of pastry, an assortment of bread and jam, and an assortment of cheese, as well as orange juice, grapefruit juice, Danone yogurt (our “Dannon” yogurt is their subsidiary), and something called fromage blanc (“white cheese”).  And, of course, plenty of Café au lait.

To my surprise and delight, the toaster that was set out for our use was a Dualit! I’ve always had a secret lust for this toaster, but at $459 for quantity one, it remains firmly outside my reach, unless I can snag a used one for a reduced price on eBay.  You can see the Williams-Sonoma catalog listing here.

So, imagine my joy at seeing it awaiting my every command.  Sadly, my first command was apparently, Brulée le pain! (“Convert the bread into ash.”)  While the bread didn’t actually catch on fire, it was an incredible simulation — certainly good enough to suit everyone present.

We’d paid good money for a extraordinarily large motorcar, and thought we’d better get the use of it and drive ourselves to Versailles.  The results were mixed, although not actually tragic.  Later we found that we could have gone straight there by taking one of the R.E.R. outskirts trains — there was even an R.E.R. station at the Grande Arche.

Still, it was fun, even exciting, to drive.  Most exciting of all were the roundabouts (the traffic circles).  I’m sure that you’ve heard about them, perhaps you’ve seen them in Boston or London.  I can’t remember what they were like in those other places, but the ones in France have no lanes; you simply head in (people who are heading in have a tiny bit more right-of-way than people who are already in) and then you move forward, edging people out and being edged out in turn.  The tiny cars were a clear advantage here.  A coworker later told us a story about taking a taxi in Paris and watching in terror as the taxi driver drove straight into the roundabout (actually perpendicular to the other traffic) until reaching the innermost border, then following that border around the circle, then heading straight out again, again completely perpendicular to the rest of the traffic in the roundabout.

At any rate, Versailles is only 15 to 25 miles away from Paris, so it wasn’t long before we arrived at the town. Yes, Versailles is an entire town — at one point, during the height of the palace construction effort about 300 years ago, there were over 15,000 workers who were employed to create the palace and its grounds.  The palace is easy to find, however – once in the town, you simply follow signs that point to the “Chateau”.

We found a large self-park parking lot, with a sign that we (or indeed, anyone) could almost entirely translate: “Parking reserved exclusively for «autocars».”  Now, “automobile” in French is la voiture, and “bus” is l’autobus — this autocar business was, seemingly, some other way of saying the same thing.  There is quite a bit of this in French, especially where an English or American word has crept into common use, even though the Académie Française does not approve.  We looked at one another and said, “Surely we are in an ‘auto car’?” and drove into the (entirely empty) automated self-park.  As we were getting out of our car, we noticed several other cars parked in a different lot, further away.  Hm.

Versailles, it turned out, was closed — they’re always closed on Mondays.  We had, at a conservative count, maybe ten guidebooks to Paris between us, and no one had thought to check.  Well, we could perhaps still examine the grounds, which are unbelievably lush and enormous.  Alas, it was not to be — the grounds were closed for repairs due to damage from the recent storm.  We took a few photos and walked back to the car.

When Ron went to the parking lot’s vending machine to get a ticket that would open the gate and let us out, he was horrified to see a sign demanding 180 French Francs – that’s $30!  I found out later that an autocar is exactly the same as an autobus (they even use the same vehicles for both), except that an autobus takes you around within a town, and an autocar takes you to another town.

Woof, thirty dollars for thirty minutes of parking! Plus, the machine was being truculent about accepting paper money.  Have you ever tried to come up with $30 in coins while far from home?  Take my word for it, it’s a challenge.  We were darn lucky that all of us had exchanged a bunch of dollars for francs only the day before — we were able to pay the ransom and make good our escape.  For the rest of the day, Ron was driving in the bus-only lanes, figuring that he’d paid his dues.  (Well, just the one time, actually, and it happened by mistake, and he only drove in the lane for the one block that he was trapped in it, but that’s how we like to tell the story.)

You can see some photos of Versailles (the one tiny part of it that we could see) by clicking here.

[Next:: “Cherchez Les Truffes!”]

Journey to France (#3: “Parisians!”)

[The story thus far: our heroes have navigated their way safely through the minefields of car rentals and viciously-designed European washrooms and have emerged: washed, tanned (we’re from California), and hungry – above all, hungry.]

We met at 7:30 on Sunday night and strolled through La Défense, making our way up to La Grande Arche.  For some reason it was not lit up during our stay — no one was sure why not, although we didn’t ask anyone who actually worked there.  From there, we turned around and walked back through La Défense 1 and across Pont De Nuilly into Nuilly itself.  We could have taken the Metro, of course (in Paris, you’re never more than 1/2 kilometer from a Metro station) but we felt that the exercise might help combat any jet lag, and anyway, it’s fun to walk through Paris, even on its outskirts.

We stopped at a restaurant more or less at random, trying to avoid any apparent chain resaturants or any foreign cuisine.  On that night, we wanted French food!  The one that we selected, like several others that we saw later, had both a “bar/pub”-like area, and a more formal “pure restaurant”-like area.  We sat down in the bar/pub area and asked for a menu, and were immediately confronted with the fact that none of us knew French, even though I took four years of it at school and have been studying it again recently.  It turns out that names of foods are not high on the vocabulary list of words that they teach you in school, despite their importance in real life.  After our waiter felt that we had struggled with the French for a decent amount of time, he offered us the English Menu, which was admittedly a great help, but which you have to be careful of relying upon, because it often has fewer and less interesting items on it.

I had already decided that I would try The Scary Foods while in France, and so tonight settled on the Boeuf Tartare.  If you’ve never had it, it’s a raw hamburger patty (by which I mean completely uncooked – grind up your meat, and you’re done!) mixed with a raw egg, various spices, etc.  Larry Helmerich had had Steak Tartare back in the states, back when you could get it here, and pronounced this one to be superior.  Yes, I know, I was taking my life in my hands, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about Mad Cow disease swimming over from across the Engish Channel, unless, of course, there were illegal pirate cows being dumped on the European market – that does give one pause.  It was pretty tasty, actually, but not something that I imagine that I could develop a craving for, at least, not in the same way that I crave Hot Fudge Brownie Specials from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shops.

As the bar/pub area became full, some Parisians were seated at our table with us.  Even though I’m somewhat shy, or perhaps because I am, I liked this – it’s a great way to meet new folks, and to have an excuse to talk to them, even though they’re stangers.  They said hello very pleasantly, and later on, when Larry noticed one of them using the same nerdly personal digital assistant that the three of us from Alcatel use (the Palm V), we chatted with we them about that for a bit.  As Larry observed later: no rude French people so far.

For dessert, I ordered crème brulée (a custard that has been scorched with a blow-torch — it’s become quite popular in America in the last 10 years or so).  Although it was extremely good, and subtly different from the American versions in ways that I cannot describe, I almost immediately suffered from Buyer’s Remorse when I saw that one of my tablemates had ordered something called Profiteroles, which I can not describe adequately, other than to say that they involved pastry, chantilly cream, chocolate, and being super-delicious.

Actually, because we’re all on the web, I can point you to a web page that has a nice picture them, along with a recipe for the pastry:

    http://saveurs.sympatico.ca/ency_8/cacao/regional.htm

The text reads, in part: “Henri IV had, among his favorites, a mistress named Profiterole. To please her, he invented a light pastry, filled with chantilly and sprinkled with hot chocolate sauce.  Nowadays, the pastry is often filled with vanilla ice cream, but that recipe is not original.”

After a short stroll back to our hotel, we retired to our rooms and slept uniformly well, and awakened easily.  Where was the fearsome jet lag that we had heard so much about?  It seemed that this would not be a problem — and how wrong, how horribly and foolishly wrong I was, to think this.

[Next Installment: “Qu’est-ce c’est l’autocar?”]