Jeremy in Flatworld: Towers, pastries, and folk dance

I woke up this morning at 10:30, threw on my clothes, bought some credit for my Google Voice account and headed out. I saw last night on Couchsurfing.org that there was going to be a picnic on top of Gare Montparnasse in the Jardin Atlantique and so that is where I headed. First though, I stopped by my first french store and bought a small apple tart for the picnic. I also went to a bakery and bought a few croissants, which were utterly wonderful. They are unlike any croissants I had had in the US, crispy and in many layers. What a breakfast!
It was a beautiful, warm day and the train ride was nice. The announcements were in English more than French, which was surprising considering that the suburbs (where I am) don’t have too many tourists. I arrived at Montparnassee and went up to the roof to look for couchsurfers. Oh, did you know that there are different words for “pharmacy” and “place that sells all the non medical stuff that we find in pharmacies?”
Anyway, I had arrived a bit early, so passed the time people watching and exploring the garden. It is an amazing place, a ful 3.5 hectares and filled with green. There were tennis courts, playgrounds, ping-pong tables, parks, towers, and tables, and people were using them, even in the middle of the day. I wish that some of the US parks were used this much! It had past 12 o’clock and I still hadn’t been able to find the couchsurfers. After approaching a few groups that seemed likely, I gave up on that plan and set off to see the city for myself. I left the park, passing a museum dedicated to the Tintin books, and took a large glass elevator down to the street. I got off and before me stretched hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes and scooters.
The city is more motorbike and bike friendly than anywhere I’ve seen. They have a wonderful bike sharing program called Velib, which costs a membership fee to sign up for (day/week/year, 29/8/2 euros) but then rentals under half an hour are free. You can see the locals playing this game where they take a bike and ride 25 min. to the next station where they take another bike and continue.
Unfortunately, none of my cards were accepted in these machines which was really too bad. Luckily this hasn’t been a problem anywhere else. I decided that the first place that I would visit would be the Eiffel Tower, since I could see it from where I was walking it would be easy to navigate to. Interesting thing that I saw: gangs of kids with razor scooters, my first smartcar dealership, coin operated toilets on the sidewalk, three wheeled motorcycles with two wheels in front, and lots of dog poop on the sidewalk. As I was walking, I passed the Dome Cathedral at Le Hotel des Invalides, a huge gold-domed church with extensive gardens outside of it.
The Hotel was apparently where many war veterans were taken care of. It is also where a mob stormed the building, took 35,000 guns and went off to storm the Bastille. I went in to get a ticket and bought an audio guide, thinking that it was included in the admission. When I realized that I had to buy the tickets separately, and that it costs €10 for students, I decided that I would just take a stroll in the gardens and content myself with peering through the wide doors of the church. The garden was beautiful, with a 20 foot moat surrounding the entirety of the property. Some of the choices in constructing the garden I did not understand, such as the watering cans were placed upside down on poles throughout the beds of flowers. As I went to leave the garden, I passed a young girl standing by herself and playing with a yo-yo, saying they determinedly to no one in particular, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are!”
I bought several peaches and pears from a vendor and finally made my way to the Eiffel Tower. As with many of these kinds of things, I don’t think I realized quite how big a Eiffel tower actually is. It was apparently called an “giant metallic asparagus” when it first opened, which is an apt description. (It reminds me of how I think the performing arts center at bard is a giant metallic armadillo).The lines climb to the tower were staggeringly long, so I decided to come back another day and get there early enough so that I could not wait in line. The four legs of the tower were labeled with directions of the compass, each one with their own attractions and lines. Amidst piles of people directly below the tower I was approached several times by people representing the Deaf Mute Society of Paris asking for donations.

While I didn’t give anything, I was able to successfully have a conversation in ASL with one of the women. I find it sort of incredible using sign language as a form of communication in a country where I don’t speak the spoken language. I passed through the legs of the tower, past a guard with a machine gun and a carousel with lots of kids, and went to the set of pools and fountains directly behind it. I sat near the fountains and ate some of my tart.
I set out towards the Arc de Triomphe, buying a pate and cornichion (little pickles) sandwich on the way. Delicious! The Arc was pretty spectacular, with predictably long lines, mix of languages (Spanish is more common than i thought!) and incredible sights. It houses the tomb of the unknown soldier with an eternal flame. Having seen this now in several different countries it is getting me more interested in the phenomenon. I know I have read some writing on it, any anthropologists out there want to remind me?
Not having a map, I walked towards what I believed to be the Louve. It turned out it the exact opposite way. So much for that! I stopped by a little mall of small markets where i bought some more water and headed back towards the Louve, this time on metro. Fun fact: There is an FDR station in Paris! I got there and walked out of the station to see the giant inverted pyramid hanging down from the ceiling. Unfortunately, that was all I saw as the museum is closed on Tuesdays. What was open was an Apple Store, which are well known for letting you do whatever you want (like bringing in a goat)! I went in and looked up a map of Paris to reorient myself.
I left, passing the main entrance to the Louve, and walked down to the Seine. Thank goodness for the random accidents of travel! It turns out that during this time of year the city builds “beaches” on the banks of the river. Though you can’t swim (it’s too dirty) people lie out in the sun on imported sand, build sandcastles, eat ice cream and generally have a good time. They had these huge beach chairs, umbrellas, and water fountains that were free to use. (Rant: Two things that you shouldn’t have to pay for but do: Water and toilets!) I bought some ice cream, passed mimes on scooters lipsycing to a boom box, a huge sand castle with Micky and Minnie Mouse nearby, a game of Bocce, even a dirt bike course. Then I discovered one of the best things in Paris: free massages!
Apparently there is some movement to de-stress the population through free massages. People will bring a little chair down to this section of the beach and give you ten minute massages. While you can tip, they make it very clear that the main point is for the general happiness it brings. Awesome! It seems that this caring for the well being of parisians extends to many aspects of this beach. The next section had beanbags, chairs and other furnitcher that was free to use to sit and read. If you didn’t have a book, the would give you one in exchange for ID.
After getting stuck in a bridge during a brief downpour (we all passed the time watching a jazz band play) I wandered further until I found a free salsa lesson. Of course I had to stop and ticket, so I mustered up my best French and asked a woman on the sidelines to dance. It turned out that she spoke English, and we danced together for the rest of the lesson. It’s always interesting learning a new dance in a foreign language.
I continued my walk down the Seine, through a long tunnel and eventually crossed over the Charles de Gaulle bridge intending to head home. I got distracted however, by the huge botanical• garden next to the even huger Austerlitz Train Station. I passed through the garden as well as the paleontology museum and then headed into the train station.The size of the room where the trains entered was incredible, but the more important activity in the station was reading a book on the inspirations behind Tintin, and buying a map. Looking at the map, I realized that I was fairly near to another part road along the Seine, so I decided to check it out before going home. On the way there, I passed an ostrich in the zoo near the botanical garden. The choice to go to this little park turned out to be the best thing I did all day! It was right along the water, with little semicircular amphitheaters in which people had gathered. I was approached by a man in his mid-20s who asked me if I knew what Couchsurfing was and if I had a place for him to stay. Oh well I sat down to eat more of my tart, what sounded suspiciously like tango music started playing in one of the semicircles nearby. Indeed, I stumbled upon a tango lesson!
A woman in a wonderful, multicolored sweater sat down behind me and asked me what they were doing. I pulled out my usual “je ne parle pas francais” but told her that it was tango. I convinced her to join in with me so I would get to dance and so I got to dance on the banks of my second river in the capital city of a European country. The lesson turned into a milonga, and items with people from France, Russia, Miami, Iceland, Spain, Argentina, and Germany. Tango is such an international dance! I was dancing with the girl from Iceland (we chatted about what I should see if I go there on the way back), I heard some familiar music coming from the next amphitheater over. When the tanda was done I walked over to find a swirl of people all waltzing to “Flatworld” by English composer Andy Cutting. I quickly asked someone to dance and off we went. As the night went on we danced lots of waltzes, french folk dances, schottisches (which they insisted were called Scottishes), polkas, mazurkas, Scottish waltzes, and various other things. A few of the younger dancers there noticed that I knew all the dances but didn’t speak English and so we got to chatting. They were totally surprised that there was folk dance in the US, and we traded some dances over the course of the evening. I told them about my project and after making it clear what exactly i was studying, they were totally into it! I mentioned that I was going to St. Gervais, a folk festival in souther France, and they tried (unsuccessfully so far, unfortunately) to get me a ride there. We danced until 12 when I decided i should be getting on home. I bid farewell to my new friends and went over to the milonga to dance a last tanda. During the dance it started raining, and I was left as one of 3 couples dancing in the rain as tour boats with all decked out in bright lights passed and cheered. I then left to go to the subway and home. As I was walking, Julie, one of the folk dancers I met, ran up to me. “I’m trying to catch the last train!” she said. Now, I had thought that the trains ran until one, but we both ran into the station, where she gave me a ticket and we bolted for the platform. It turns out the trains do run till one, but we had a lovely conversation and plan to meet up again Thursday for more dancing. I took the 10 to Duroc station and then the 13 to Montparnassee where I caught my train home. It was then that i realized that I hadn’t eaten in far to long, so I made myself an egg and went to sleep. I walked a good 10km today and my feet hurt, how nice!
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About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
This entry was posted in Exploring, France. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Jeremy in Flatworld: Towers, pastries, and folk dance

  1. Mike Walker says:

    Loving the blog!

    Quick protip: if you have an American Express card, you can use that at the Velib stations, although that’s the only American credit card you can use (European cards are based on different tech — AmEx worked out a special deal with the Velib guys to get their cards to work).

  2. Jan says:

    Lots of familiar stuff here, including dog poop everywhere, ridiculous lines a la Tour Eiffel (still never been up), and sore feet from walking & dancing. Sounds like you had a great day.

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