Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Bridge in France

I have finally parked myself somewhere long enough to start posting video again. This is just a brief moment on a bridge high over a series of lakes deep in the Rhone Valley of France. A perfect day, perfect scenery, perfect peeps.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

So Far So Weird

ON BOARD TRENITALIA 530—VERTIMIGLIA, ITALY TO ANTIBES,FRANCE—Repacking my luggage for the trip to Perugia, I realized the wooden-boxed bottle of wine from Paul Jaubet winery in Rhone wasn’t a good fit for my luggage. I bestowed it on clerk Frederick, much to his surprise and delight. Without missing a beat, he disappeared into an tiny anteroom and re-emerged in seconds with a leather business card holder. I actually really needed one!
So when I returned to the hotel at the end of the day, he was only too happy to find me a hotel room on the busiest day of the year.
The Aston Hotel, tucked into a passageway just off Rue Cite Bergere, around the hotel from the Hard Rock Cafe, may just have been the smallest hotel room in Europe. About six inches of space separated the desk and chair from the bed, and if I opened the door and leaned into the hallway just a little, I could pull open both the adjoining hallway door, and the elevator.
The elevator? It fit me. Or my luggage. Not both.
When I arrived, the clerk instructed me to go up to my floor, and wait for my luggage, which he would send up on the next shuttle flight.
It was there in that tiny hotel room that the serious industrial-strength jet/train/taxi walking lag kicked in at full strength, and I fell on to my bed for a nap at about 7:30 p.m., not to awaken until the next morning.

Back to the Gere du Nord station, scene of my earlier triumph. Determined not to miss the train, I headed directly for the platform. My ticket read “Coach 2, seat 71.”
“Go to the first car,” a conductor told me. Um, that would be the last car from this end, and European Rail trains can stretch on for a hundred yards or more.
About three coaches from the front of the train, a bell sounded and I leapt aboard.
Read this next part carefully: I placed my garment bag onto a rack, as I looked for coach 2. The coach I was sitting in was labeled “Coach 2” on the outside, and a paper label denoted it as “Coach 12.” And there were several seat 71s.
I left my garment bag there, found my proper seat a few cars forward and settled in to a spacious and comfortable air-conditioned seat to enjoy the scenery.
“You’ll change trains for Milan in a few hours,” the conductor had told me, one of many confusing directions I was given during the weekend. It’s an interpretative thing. What he was actually saying was, “This train will release several coaches behind this one, at a station in the Alps a few hours away from here, and your garment bag that you put on that rack will be lost forever along with your cowboy boots that you got in New York City in 1985, your two suits, including your new one, and that tan blazer that you got at Target in Pasadena that you love.” That’s what he meant to say, I’m pretty sure.
On to Milan.
But first, some very important information about riding trains in Italy, and probably Europe: Your destination is probably not the name of the train, especially if you’re making connections. You want to go to Ville-Fromage? You take the Ille d’Canard Train and transfer at Croissantbourg to Ville Fromage. There is likely no train called Ville Fromage. None of this will be explained to you. By anyone.
So, trying to figure this out at 11 p.m. on a Sunday evening, left me with a ticket to Bologna with a transfer at Tortolla (?) On the massive schedule in the center of the station, there was no Bologna train listed, because of course, Bologna is a stop on the Mayonaisse train, which is leaving...right now.
And that’s how I found myself sitting on my luggage all night in the empty and cavernous Milan Station until the first train in the direction of Perugia would leave at 6:30 a.m. be......

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Mexican-American in Paris. So Far.

A Mexican American in Paris. So Far.

ON BOARD TGV EUROSTAR TRAIN 9247, PARIS-MILAN—Oh, gentle readers, where should I begin?
It’s been a memorable week, he said, in his own understated way.
But what a weekend.
Let me rewind to fill you in: I am on a journey of a few months time, seeing France, Italy, Spain, and perhaps England. Over the past five days, the trip has been organized and sponsored by the good people at Atout France, the French Tourism agency. During that time, we visited the Rhone-Alps area of France, heading from Lyon south to Nyons, and the La Drome region, with hotel rooms and restaurants arranged and sponsored.
I’ll cover that in the formal magazine story (Arroyo Seco Journal Travel Issue, October 09).
But since Friday, I’ve been in Paris on my own, armed with a cell phone that doesn’t work here, and a schedule of trying proportions. The immediate goal? See Paris, and then get myself to Perugia, Italy, at the end of the weekend, a distance of about 1000 miles. I’ll be staying there with a friend for the month of August. And that, dear readers, is its own drama.
So let’s start with Friday.
Imagine you are in a brand new city, and you don’t know the language, and no one speaks yours. Now imagine you dont know where you’re staying. Imagine you have serious Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, which kicks in full throttle under times of excitement or stress. That’s the basic scenario.
So it’s Friday afternoon, and we (a group of five American journalists and a coordinator from Tourism France) have arrived at the Gere de Nord station in Paris, where our trip began and will end. From here, we’ll go our separate ways.
We’ve planned to rendezvous after the train, but unable to locate them during the trip, I’ve lost contact, so I head for a taxi. The station, the largest in the City, is exhilarating, crowded, sweaty and overwhelming. As a perfect aside, I have a broken suitcase. The handle that allows one to wheel it along, has wedged itself shut. I can barely get my fingers around it to pull, if I lean over. I have that, a shoulder garment bag, my guitar, and a small valise. (I’ve planned to be here a while.)
The distance from the train platform to the taxi stand is about 200 yards—two football fields. I slowly maneuver and negotiate through the Parisians, the tourists, the beggars, and the armed soldiers on patrol.
I park myself outside the main entrance to gather myself. That sweaty little jaunt has freaked me out a bit, and I like to think of myself of pretty cool under pressure. In this case, though,I feel a bit like a cub scout asked to lead an expedition with a broken compass and a secret code that no one explained to him.
The Taxi stand is over there, about fifty yards. But......where is my hotel again? Another person would have it written down, but well, you understand. For a moment, as the pressure begins to soak in, I close my eyes to just glide for a moment. As I knew it would, the address suddenly floats into my head. 7 Rue Navarine.
I make the trek across the open plaza to the line of taxis.
“7 Rue Navarin, Si’l vous plais.”
He looks at me through the rear view mirror like I just ordered fried chicken and then asked if his sister was available later that evening.
It’s a pronounciation problem. Once we both determine the proper pronounciation of the ending “vin,” we jet.
He speaks some english, which helps.
I ask him how he learned, and he said, “Oh TV, of course. American TV. ‘Prison Break,’ he laughs. “And BBC and CNN.”
Ah, of course.To the hotel, Abraham,
He moves swiftly and gracefully through the traffic. If even only through a car window,the city of Paris is breathtaking when you first see it. It would be stupid and typically American to say it looks like a movie set, but, um, it does.
The rich European architecture is everywhere, and history lives on every block. Quaint (There’s no other word) cafes dot nearly every corner, and the streets pulsate with an tangible though subtle excitement. And nothing, I mean, nothing is in English.
My hotel is perched on a hill top in the Moulin Rouge/Opera district, and the desk clerk, Frederic, is smooth and personable.
I had planned to park in the hotel room to work, but seeing city photos online on one of the journalists’ Facebook page (“Posted 20 minutes ago), I had to get out on the streets.
Like a dork, I asked Frederick the directions to the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, which felt a bit like arriving in LA, and asking where the Hollywood sign was.
The Pigalle Station on Line 2 to the Charles de Gaulle Etoilé station.
And there, as you climb the steps out of the station, is the towering and impressive Arc De Triomphe, built as a tribute after the Allied victory of World War 1.
Set in the middle of Charles DeGaulle Plaza, the Arc is abuzz with visitors on this cool Friday afternoon. We take each other’s pictures, and a crowd of tourists stare at me, as I do my “Camera on a Stick” video reports. (
Throwing dignity to the wind,I asked one of the visitors if he knew where the Eiffel Tower was, and suddenly realized it was sticking out of his head. About a mile away, it stuck up jauntily somewhere.....over there.
That afternoon, I walked along the Seine, stood under the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, and comported myself like a real tourist.
But that, gentle readers, is not the thrust of this particular story.
There was still the matter of getting myself to Italy over the next 24 hours.
Atout France had provided us with first-class four day, four country Europe Rail passes to be used as we extended our stays. Okay, easy enough, right.?
Not so fast, Popsicle. In order to get on one of the trains with the pass, you have to make a reservation, which was not explained to me.

It’s midnight Friday. I want to leave Saturday. Searching the online reservation system is fruitless. The system does not recognize “Paris” or “Milan” as destinations. An American friend gets on the phone from Planet America, and talks to a live American. I think his name was “Sanjeet.”
After at least 30 minutes of button pushing and holding, the verdict is in: There are three sleeper seats available and it will cost $120.00 Americain for the overnight ride. Without enough credit on my card at that moment, I have to wait until the next day to make a reservation. In person. At the station.
Thus begins my Saturday adventure.
The closest station is Gere du Nord, somewhere at the tip of a circular loop near the hotel. Frederick gives me sketchy directions, and I start to walk through the movie set. About a half mile later down Rue de Clichy, our hero pokes his head into a Starbuck’s for more instruction.
“That metro across the street to Bercy station, the Gere du Nord,” says the barrista/explorer.
In fifteen, I’m in the vast expanse of the station. The distance through a tunnel from the Metro to Gere du Nord is about a half mile underground, and once, there, the layout is like an M.C Escher painting, the one you thought was so bitching and original when you were in college. Multi-levels of the station are connected by various staircases and escalators, none of which is the one you need at that moment.
After some Magellan-esque exploration, I find the proper line. Thirty minutes later, it’s not the proper line.
“Downstairs, Monsieur, international trains.”
There are two lines for trains downstairs. One for travel within France, and the other for international trains.Guess which one I stood in first.
Go to the head of the class, Popsicle.
Once in the proper line, after a total wait time of about two hours, I found a reservation on the train to Milan. Tomorrow. And there was no extra charge for an overnight sleeper.
That means I need to find a hotel room in Paris. On Bastille Day weekend.
Back to the hotel to check out and pay the bill.
Once there, I parked my luggage and headed off to the Western Union office at Gere du Lyon. A bank transfer I had made before leaving still had not cleared, and I needed to pick up money wired to me. I had already attempted to pick it up during my first visit to the station, but I needed a confirmation number which was in my e-mail.
Back to the hotel.
Confimation number secured. Off to the station.
Adriana, the Colombian clerk in the Western Union booth, remembered me.
“Confimation number, Mr. Rivera?” As she tapped out the transaction, a group of Africans behind me began berating a drunken man who stepped into the middle of the line, apparently because there was a line there and he was near it.
“Your address in Los Angeles, Mr. Rivera?”
“Hmmm. Are you coming over?”
“i could be,” she smiled. Oh, those Colombians.
OK, back to the hotel to perhaps find another room reservation. Somewhere. In Paris. On Bastille Day Weekend.
My new best amigo Frederic came through like I knew he would.

I’m all over the place.....this is to be continued.