Journey to France (#2: L’hôtel and La Défense)

[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!!]

Journey to France (#1: PRELUDE and THE TRIP OUT)

PRELUDE

About a year ago, the company that I work for, Xylan Corporation (relatively small at 1,500 people or so) was bought out by Alcatel, a hundread-year-old French telephone equipment maker. It’s been a wonderful buyout experience so far, and one nice thing about it is that other groups at Alcatel have been interested in using part of our Java framework, which is good for us. However, it turned out that the very best part of working for a huge multinational company is that they might suddenly say to you, “You need to take a trip to Paris. We will pay.”

And here’s how great my boss Ron Traver is: It was originally suggested that we fly out on Monday, arrive Tuesday morning, take meetings all day Tuesday through Thursday, and then fly back on Friday, arriving home Friday afternoon. Ron had them check prices for alternative bookings, and it turns out that the arcane airline pricing rules are quite bizarre: for us to fly out and back Mon-Fri as originally scheduled would be $2,000 per person, but for us to fly out on Saturday, stay a week, and fly back on Sunday, was only $700 per person. And since the hotel cost in winter is only about $108 per night, this meant that it would save the company about $1,000 per person for us to stay the additional days. Of course, the down side was that we would be “stuck in Paris” for three additional days, with nothing scheduled but to be tourists. As you can imagine, we were pretty thrilled.

THE TRIP OUT

The trip to the airport was fairly uneventful, except that the van that my friend-and-coworker Larry Helmerich had hired to take us to the airport arrived an hour early, and our credit card payment information, which had faithfully been in their computer the night before when they called Larry to reconfirm, had disappeared from their computer system. The driver told us that they had just had a new system for handling reservations and payments installed, during Christmas week in fact. Why, you perhaps are asking yourself, would they do something so completely insane as dropping in a new computer system during their absolutely busiest week of the year? Simple: a week later, the calendar was going to roll over to the year 2000, and their old computer system was scheduled to turn into a pumpkin – it was absolutely not Y2K compliant. The new system wasn’t failing utterly, as the old one would have, but it still had plenty of bugs to work out.

One of the facts of life of modern business travel, especially on international flights, is trying to wangle yourself an upgrade to Business Class. While not as decadently luxious as First Class, it’s still pretty great, with seats that really recline! Of course, the airlines would have much rather packed people into the plane like sardines, so they charge THROUGH THE NOSE for this. There are various ways to get yourself an upgrade without having to pay, such as using your frequent-flyer miles, but there is also something magical that is available to business travelers for large companies, called a free Special Services waiting-list upgrade. There are various hurdles to jump through, because they’d really rather that you paid for your upgrade, but in the end, you may be a lucky winner.

Of course, balancing this is the chance that you may be stuck flying out back in steerage, packed like cattle, and indeed with at least the fear that livestock may be traveling with you, for a 12-hour flight. We had arrived plenty early (at 3:00 PM for a 6:00 PM flight) so as to be at the head of the waiting list, but it turned out that they wouldn’t actually be putting us in the list until about a little over an hour before the flight. Then, to our horror, we realized that one of our Vice Presidents was flying to France on an unrelated matter. It’s an unwritten rule, of course, that you get in line for your upgrade in accordance with your status in the organization, so he definitely got a free cut to the head of the line within our group. As time went on, though, the VP got nervous and ended up just paying for a Business Class upgrade on the spot – thousands of dollars, but you don’t want to be stuck back in steerage.

This business of waiting-list upgrades via Special Services is subtle and arcane, with many places that you can go wrong. For example, we had been warned in advance that if we somehow did not meet the approval of the airline personal at the gate, such as by not being dressed nicely enough, or just not looking businessy enough, that they would simply execute a pocket veto and suppress our upgrades – “Oh, I’m sorry sir, nothing became available.” We had taken this advice to heart – neatness counts – and they had happily stolen our tickets from us to be enqueued in the waiting list. So we were a bit dismayed when our boss Ron went up to check on the upgrades for himself and his wife, and came back armed with delicious upgrades, only to have them tell us, when we asked about ours, that “We’re not giving them out yet; just a few more minutes and we’ll see.”

A few minutes later, the gate person walked up to Larry and me holding both our tickets and said, “I have good news and I have bad news — one of you gets the last remaining upgrade. Take one of the tickets from my hand and pick the winner. Who will choose?” Larry had six months seniority over me at the company, so I felt like he should get to choose. And….(drumroll)….D’Oh!! He picked his own ticket. I hung my head in despair, and laughed ruefully and said, “Well, the next time this happens, it will be my turn to be the Chosen One. None of this picking tickets.” And suddenly, the gate person says, “Let me see what I can do,” and steals back both our tickets. A few minutes later she walks back smiling and says, “I just couldn’t leave you in Tourist with all your friends flying Business. Who’s got the best seat NOW?” And she handed me my First Class ticket. Heaven opened its gates and a company of Angels sang hosannas — all part of the service, sir.

Keep in mind that our VP had now paid about $4,500 for his Business Class ticket (because of his cash upgrade and the fact that he wasn’t staying over a Saturday), and I was sitting with a golden First Class ticket, cost: $700. He can’t have been too happy about it, but we all thought it was pretty darn funny.

I would like to take a moment to say that First Class on American Airlines on international flights is just fantastic. It is literally true that my feet couldn’t reach the seat in front of me, even if I extended them fully in the air straight ahead of me. Almost too much leg room, if you can imagine that. The seats basically reclined all the way down to fully-horizontal, at no inconvenience to the person behind you. If I hadn’t seen it in person, I simply would not have been able to imagine such luxury in a commerical flight. The other main difference was that they absolutely would not let up with the beverage service: “Oh, your drink is empty, sir, would you like another? Would you perhaps enjoy trying a different wine this time, perhaps the Premier Grand Cru?”

In France, at the airport, Ron talked to Avis about our pathetic luggage situation. When I had found out that Ron was planning to try to squeeze all four of us into a single “Large” rental car, I had immediately dropped down to using Sean’s smaller suitcase instead of my own quite large one. I didn’t think there was any way that we would able to get all of our bags into the car, but I wasn’t going to be the one who spoiled it for everyone else. Still, it looked grim: four adults, four full-sized bags, several smaller bags, and some carry-ons. When Avis asked us how big a car we would need, Ron pointed to our bags, now dominating the airport floor, and said, “Big enough to carry all those bags.”

They gave him a free upgrade to the next bigger size car, and as we were walking out with our luggage, Larry asked Ron, “So, what kind of car did you end up with?” “Well, it’s some sort of big BMW.” “Oh, you mean like a 700-series? Wow, that might actually work!”

Have you ever seen the little cars they drive in France? What would they imagine a “Larger” car to be? It turned out that they’d given us their “Big Car” in France: a BMW 320d. This is the smallest BMW that you can even BUY in America, other than the 4-cylinder two-seater sportser. It’s a full two series smaller than the 700-series. It is NOT going to hold our bags, but Ron is optimistic — perhaps there is a way. Larry and I found this such an outrageous claim that we immediately adopted a strategy of Open Mocking: while our actual boss was personally manhandling 70-pound luggage bags and trying untold various combinations, we were standing off to the side laughing, and bemoaning the fact that our cameras were packed away.

At least ten minutes later, and possibly fifteen, Ron hit upon the Golden Combination of bags: the two smallest big bags in the trunk, along with all of the other small bags, and the two largest suitcases in the back seat, sitting in there lengthwise (the most natural way to put a piece of luggage in the back seat), except that they were side-by-side, so that they both shared the middle of the car. Luckily, Larry and Ron’s wife Georgia are small persons, so they were packed into the back seat on either side of the luggage. Ron drove, and I was free to navigate in the passenger seat. Your own pitiful imagination can not imagine how full that car was — we actually had difficulty in the front seat hearing the people who were sitting in the back seat. Larry couldn’t see Georgia, Georgia couldn’t see Larry, Ron couldn’t see out the back window at all — he had to rely on Larry’s shouts. But, we didn’t have to take a taxi (astounding), and it was still better than steerage on the plane.

Next Installment: Paris!