NASCAR: the Game – Paris Version

Normandy

Normandy

Why Perk and I decided to rent a car in Paris to drive to Normandy with our Colorado family was a flash of foolishness at best. We could have rented from Hertz somewhere on the Peripherique, the beltway of Paris. Instead we found ourselves in a real-life video game with heart-stopping action!  As in an arcade, NASCAR: the game – Perkins Paris Version begins simply, then escalates with challenges…

Level 1: Searching for Dante.  Push your way through the crowds at Gare du Nord to find the Hertz office (along with other rental agencies) in a subterranean catacomb. Take an elevator further down; descend a flight of stairs to find your car wedged in a stall with 2 inches to spare on either side. The lighting is dim, the cavern walls damp. Crawl across the gear shift to the driver’s side, wriggle the car out of the space, trying not to ride the clutch. You have completed the novice qualifying round!

Offer the keys to your son-in-law who has spent the last week driving a stick-shift through the Spanish Pyrenees and has a fearless attitude. He accepts the challenge and agrees to complete the course.

Earn 500 points

Level 2: The Corkscrew. Follow the exit signs to a circular ramp with such an incredibly tight screw that, for five levels, walls on both sides are scarred by the paint of past vehicles trying to escape: black, gray, blue and blood red scrapes reflect the screaming curses of previous drivers.  You creep out unscathed amid cheers and adulation from the passengers in the back seat!

Earn 1000 points

Cumulative Total: 1500 points

Street Market

Street Market

Level 3: The Street Market.  Debouche (we’re practicing French!) into a traffic jam; make a wrong turn and end up in the middle of a market.  The sliver of street has parked cars on one side; stalls of fruits and vegetables, handbags and scarves on the other. Vendors hawk their wares in strident pleas.  An elderly woman, back bent into a question mark and wearing a frayed pink cardigan staggers in front of your car while pulling her trolley of groceries home.  You do not hit her!

Earn 500 points

Cumulative Total: 2000 points

Cars, bicyclists and motor scooters clog the road. You try shortcuts, have no clue where you’re going. Your co-pilot pulls out the GPS.

Rose at the Roadside Rest

Rose at the Roadside Rest

Level 4: The Peripherique and the By-ways.  Take advantage of the straight-away and catch your breath.  Six lanes of organized traffic bring your heart beat back to normal. You stop for lunch and to smell the roses at a roadside rest. You dawdle through beautiful small towns in Normandy. It’s easy driving. Where’s the NASCAR challenge?

Lose 500 points

Cumulative Total: 1500 points

Level 5: Pick Up Speed. Resume the challenge when you return to Paris on the Peripherique. You need to buy gas or pay a $225 fee to Hertz.  Catch a glimpse of a gas pump icon on an exit to Place de la Porte Maillot– zoom across five lanes of traffic and swerve on to a city street. Brake quickly as you find yourself in the Bois de Boulogne, traffic inching along in stodgy lanes. Old men sit on benches; children squeal in the playground.  It is rush hour, but no one is rushing in the Bois. No gas station is to be seen.  You do not lose your temper!

Earn 500 points

Cumulative Total: 2000 points

Level 6: Pit Stop.  Circle back to the Place. Ask a gendarme for directions to the gas station. He says to go straight on and then descend into an underground parking area that also vends gasoline.  Miss the turn, circle back … plunge down the chute to the unvented parking garage filled with gas fumes. Fill the tank, then realize that the exit is a 45 degree uphill plane. Slam the car into gear, flatten the gas pedal and pray. You spurt out into the oncoming traffic that miraculously swerves around you!

Earn 1000 points

Cumulative Total: 3000 points

Level 7: Final Triumph.  Shoot along the Avenue de la Grande Armee. Undisciplined traffic bucks and plunges alongside the rental car as you circle the Arch of Triumph, holding the inside like a good racehorse. A bicyclist looks scornfully at your hand-held GPS as he dares you to hit him. Dodging scooters and delivery trucks, you dare a purple Mini Cooper to challenge your progress; she backs down with a look of dismay at being bested by a tourist.

Arch of Triumph

Arch of Triumph

Your breath becomes quick and shallow; you focus on speed, crevices in the traffic, and screech out of the circle – the exit to Avenue de Friedland, the final straight-away to Gare du Nord and the Hertz return.  You cruise through the last stretch. After a quick left and then an immediate right into the station, the checkered flag is waved!

Earn 2000 points

Cumulative total: 5000 points!

The Winner and CHAMPION with no scrapes, no dents, no penalties, no deaths!

(Next time we’ll go by train!)

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Cheers! A Toast to Wine Glasses

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur from Our Apartment

We are ensconced in our apartment in Montmartre, with its incredible view of the Sacre Coeur and the rooftops of Paris. At night music and cigarette smoke drift through the open balcony doors from the Square de Willette seven floors below.  Like Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I am quite sure that Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Sartre are driving about the streets, and I will run into them around the next corner!

The apartment is everything that it was advertised to be on the Vacation Rentals by Owner Website (VRBO). We have two bedrooms, a separate water closet, a dishwasher, and even a washing machine! But what we didn’t have was an extra supply of wine glasses for entertaining our family. Since the apartment had been recently refurbished with IKEA home design, we decided to buy some matching glassware. The nearest IKEA was in Roissy, at the Parc des Expositions. We felt very global – Americans searching out a Swedish store in France. But getting there without a car was the challenge!

From Hemingway to Hamlet

We consulted the Website for public transport directions: first a Metro, then a train, then a local bus.  We’re Metro pro’s now, so we were soon at Gare du Nord, one of the major train stations. Buying a train ticket presented the first predicament – the automatic machines took only coins, and we had bills. After fierce negotiations with the official at the Bureau de Change whose job, he reiterated emphatically, was to exchange foreign currency NOT Euro’s, we emerged victorious having traded our Euro paper for Euro coins.  We popped our money into the machine, and out popped two tickets.

To Go … or Not to Go?

Looping our way through the throngs, we arrived at the designated platform. A train was waiting … but was it ours?  As we puzzled through the list of stations searching for “Expositions,” the warning bell rang. To go … or not to go… that was the question!

Passengers crowded forward.  The bell rang again, and the doors began to close. We shrugged, and with inches to spare, we leaped aboard. What did we have to lose? If the train wasn’t going where we wanted to go, we could just get a return ticket at the “unknown destination.” Or, if the unknown destination turned out to be fun, perhaps we would buy a toothbrush and stay there for a day or two!

The train interior was utilitarian, with plush seats worn to a hard glaze. Outside, the cinder track beds ran alongside each other; power lines rusted overhead. I thought of black/white movies of troop trains going through a gray and rain-soaked Europe, but the houses along the track had colorful window boxes behind the hedges and shutters thrown wide to catch the afternoon sun. I wondered how they had looked when my uncles were part of the liberation in 1945.

How Do You Say IKEA?

IKEA at Roissy

After screeching stops at various stations, the train surprisingly halted at Parc des Expositions! We scrambled out of our seats and on to the platform. The Website had suggested bus number 640 or 23; each had its own bay and we settled uneasily between the two, ready to board quickly when one or the other arrived. Bus 640 rolled in and I approached the driver, “Est-ce quec’est  l’autobus du magasin …?”  I hesitated.  How do you say “IKEA” in French? I substituted. “…du magasin de la Suede? …Does this bus go to the store from Sweden?” The driver grinned. “Oui, madame. Cet autobus va EYE-KEY’-AH” . It sounded like the IKEA in Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, and probably in Sweden as well! He made sure we got off at the right stop.

Cheers!

Far more confident and many Euro’s less, we returned by bus, train and metro to the apartment … bearing wine glasses and other impulse purchases. We were impressed with ourselves – especially with our spontaneous decision to jump on the train to nowhere at the last minute! If we had ended up on the Riviera or in the Dordogne Valley, we would have bought toothbrushes. We have all the time in the world … or at least six more weeks!

We filled our glasses, stood on the balcony and saluted the Sacre Coeur with a good chardonnay!

Bourgeois, but Still “Adorable”

“You ride the Metro?!”  Parisian friends had been aghast that we would be so common, but then fearing they had offended us quickly modified their stance. “Well, I guess it works very well for tourists and students to get around Paris.” It also works very well for those of us who have decided to live the life of a Montmartre local for two months.

Anvers Metro

Friends also advised us that if we were determined to live local, we should buy a month’s metro pass which allowed unlimited rides. Key to its purchase was an “official” photo taken in one of the kiosks at a train station; the photo instructions were very clear: we were forbidden to smile, wear glasses, have any hair over our faces and we MUST look straight at the camera. The result was a true mug shot (missing the ID numbers) and worthy of a “most wanted” poster hanging in US Post Offices of yore. Perk looked particularly degenerate in his picture (I realized that I rarely see him without a smile!)

Worth 10,000 Words

With photos in hand we stood in line behind 30 or so others at the ticket/information booth at Gare du Nord .Only one attendant was on duty; we marveled aloud at his patience as he sold train tickets to London, answered questions about Metro connections, explained the value of Euros, sympathized with a couple who had missed their train to Amsterdam.  The blonde university student behind us in the queue listened to Perk and me chatter, and then asked in broken English why we had the photos. We explained about the month’s pass.

As the queue wound slowly forward, Perk worked with her to figure out which would be the most economical package for her three-week stay in Paris. (You know how he LOVES numbers!)  She decided on the month’s pass, but needed to get her picture taken. At least thirty more people had joined the queue behind us. She pondered. Were the savings worth losing her place in line?

“You get your picture taken, and we’ll save your spot,” we volunteered. The students behind her agreed to the plan and she loped toward the nearby kiosk.

Inspector Clouseau

Soon she was engaged in an argument with a uniformed agent. He kept shaking his head forcefully, “No, No, NO!” She kept arguing, gesturing toward Perk and me.  “Yes, Yes, YES!” The uniform eyed us suspiciously as she kept talking. What was she telling him? Why did he keep looking at us? Did he think we were smugglers, terrorists?  Had he seen Perk’s picture?

Perk’s Paris Metro Pass

The ticket line moved forward as they argued. Only two groups were ahead of us. Finally he shrugged, and she dodged into the photo booth; the uniform continued to watch us closely.

Within minutes and pictures in hand, she jumped into line behind us. The agent grimaced and moved away.

“Thank you,” she gasped.  “The kiosk attendant wanted to work on the machine. He said he would take 30 minutes. I said, ‘No, I must have my picture taken NOW.’ He argued.

“I said, ‘My parents are waiting in line for me. See, they are over there. I must hurry.’ He still didn’t believe me. ‘They will be angry if they have to get out of line after waiting so long. If you don’t believe they are my parents, go ask them!’”

“I know it was not nice of me to say such a lie. But I knew you would help me out. You are so gentille.”

“Adorable” in the US. “Gentille” in France. Either will do.