Thursday the 5th was difficult. We began by getting up too early because Dave’s iPhone had spontaneously decided to revert to Kiev time, after nearly a week in Central Europe. I could have probably used the extra hour of sleep. Leaving before 7 AM, we dropped Philipp off at his car and managed somehow to return the rental car in Berlin and got on the not-cancelled-because-of-strike Air France-now-called-Joon flight and up and down and at the gate.
At Charles DeGaulle airport, we got off the plane. The first sign of weirdness was having to go through passport control for our flight from Berlin, which was in the Schengen area along with France. The second sign was that the RER B trains, which one takes from the airport to central Paris, were on strike. After we finally were admitted to the country, we collected our bags and boarded a bus to Porte Maillot, cold, windy. I tried setting up Uber to take us the last mile, but it kept failing. They later explained that they don’t support Apple Pay in France. Now if they could make their error messages explain that, it would be much more helpful.
We ended up taking a taxi, which cost 8.30 euros, to the Hotel Boissière. The man at the desk remembered us.
When we got to the hotel, Ray’s mission was to buy tickets to get to Brussels to pick up our rental car three days later. We decided we couldn’t trust the trains, so we bought Flixbus tickets. We had tickets for a 7:30 concert, and I made it my mission to pick a place to eat before the show. Since 5:30 was early for Paris, my choice was between a brasserie or something ethnic, and I chose Le Cardinal, a brasserie not far from the venue. They featured platters of shellfish, and we ordered one which was just shrimps and whelks. (We were scared off of the oysters by one negative Yelp review.) The Algerian waiter was very friendly but also very busy, serving our entire end of the restaurant all by himself, so if we weren’t completely ready to order something, he would leave and come back later. People in the tourist trade like speaking Arabic to Hind. From an American, I think they find it a novelty. But mixed seafood platters; you can do better in France.
Doug had suggested seeing the concert, which featured Dhafer Youssef, an oud player. It was basically a straight-ahead jazz quartet, with piano, bass, and drum. The oud was the solo instrument, and Mr. Youssef also sung with a very wide range of pitches, including a few straight out of Yma Sumac. It sounded to me like he was using some electronics with his voice, but my friends doubted that was the case. The entire concert was exciting from beginning to end. All of the players were very proficient, and Isfar Sarabski, the 28-year-old piano player from Azerbaijan was incredible. Unfortunately this group hasn’t recorded yet, but I’ll get the CD when they do.
We were staying in the same hotel in Levallois-Perret that we stayed at for a week in October last year, from which I walked to the Avid office. This time, I walked back there for one more day of work. Meanwhile, Ray found the local laverie and washed all of our laundry. Later, we met Doug and Hind at Grand Coeur, the restaurant they’d picked out to celebrate Doug’s birthday, not far from the Pompidou Center. We had a table for eight, but there were just four of us for about an hour. Two of them were spending that time trying to find a place to park; the others were merely late. Everything was delicious, and Doug picked out a special Chambertin red wine to celebrate with.
Saturday we met up with Kris, an eclipse-chasing friend who’s been living in Paris, meeting him in “Chinatown” in the 13th. We found a restaurant that was popular with the correct ethnicities, waited in line just a short while, then had some duck noodle soup, fried rice, and a delicious eggplant “marmite”, the French version of a clay pot, with salty dried fish, and bacon morsels. We walked through the neighborhood for awhile, and all the outdoor cafes were completely packed, as this was the first warm day in a long time.
Eventually we said goodbye to Kris, and met Doug and Hind up near an exhibition showing the work of young photographers from all over the world, sharing space in a building with a vegan food expo, and some kind of dance event. People were breakdancing, doing yoga poses, and doing tricks with soccer balls.
The most memorable works included a guy who scuplted Aleppo ruins out of soap from that city, the world’s oldest well-attested soap (since then I have used no other). There was a vertical tasting of photos over the years of a pair of identical twin sisters, one of whom transitioned to being male at some point. Those are the ones that can be described. I guess you can get something from a verbal description of the man who concocted a fake army memory album from photos of soldiers adopting poses from famous artists from Degas to Yoko Ono. The Turkish journalist who is under arrest at the moment for photographing the sex parties and dog fights of Istanbul; as usual, no post cards of the bits that you want.
Hind is from Lebanon, and refuses to eat at Lebanese restaurants in general, which aren’t nearly as good as what she can cook herself. So we were surprised when she suggested we should go to Aux Delices du Liban. But they actually did make babaganoush which was up to her level. The rest of it was delicious as well.
On our way home, the TVs in the Metro said that the general strike planned for Sunday and Monday would shut down the RER B again. But it did not mention the Metro, so we became optimistic that would be a good way to get to the bus station. Especially because there was a marathon Sunday morning, which easily could have messed up Uber/Taxi traffic, much as it messed us up in Berlin six months earlier. And Sunday morning, we easily got to the Bercy station, seeing lots of runners on the train going to the starting point of the race.
But it seems that the bus station is blockaded. First of all, the area immediately around the bus station was surrounded by fences and white tents. It did not appear to be a refugee camp, because there weren’t any people cooking flatbread over trash fires behind the fences, just a few contradictory signs in front and tourists wheeling their suitcases up and down the sidewalk looking for a break in the siege.
When we got to the bus station, we found there were no cafes and that we were far from any retail areas. There were only a few vending machines to get water for the trip. We’d given ourselves plenty of time, so we waited around and finally got on our Flixbus and underway at the scheduled time (9 AM).
Arriving in Brussels was similar: we arrived at a deserted bus/train station, except that this one really did feel like a refugee camp. People on sleeping bags on mats sleeping, waiting, waiting…and there was virtually no information about what to do, no apparent way to get to the train station that would have taken us one stop down to the main station, which is where Sixt car was. The refugee camp didn’t feel particularly dangerous, just smelled like pee. (It turns out the ticket machines are easy to use, but they don’t accept my US credit card, and they don’t take bills, only coins.) By this time I’d gotten my Uber app working, so we were able to elevate ourselves above the situation of the refugees and get chauffeured through mostly parked traffic for a short distance in the center of Brussels, to Sixt.
Our car was not ready. Maybe a diesel minivan? No? OK, come back in an hour.
We found an ATM and crossed the plaza to a train station restaurant who had stopped serving waffles already for the day. The waiter was loud and funny and could have entertained us in ten languages, I feel certain.
After an hour sipping coffee and tea, we returned to Sixt; getting the contract turned out to be a long-winded task because “the system was down.” We had ordered a “BMW 1-series or similar”, which turned out to be a MINI Clubman. It reeked of some horrible disinfectant did not dissipate completely over the whole course of the rental. We also discovered that even though we were listening to my iPod, German traffic announcements would break in and interrupt it. And we couldn’t turn off that feature because Sixt had disabled the Settings menu. Sigh.
We got our car, slowly slowly, got out of town back the same way the Uber had come, slowly slowly, and drove to Köln.