Sunday, February 26, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman


One final post from J.S. Bankston before he boards for Paris.

___________________

--Sunday--2/26--
I leave for Paris tomorrow afternoon. Twenty-four hours from now I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic, ideally sawing logs. I am still packing, but wanted to dash a few thousand words off before I left.

I went with traveling companions James and Nyssa to get some last-minute items, including my second and third set of comfort insoles (the first one was a bust), and two extra pair of what I call my "purty black panties," black lycra shorts which James said should minimize chafing while I walk all over Paris. I wore a pair for the first time last week, and I don't believe I've ever had on a piece of clothing more uncomfortable and constricting in my life. I am a boxer-short man all the way. But if it helps me walk better....

We almost had a major trip snafu Friday. J&N have a very cluttered house (think "Grey Gardens"), but they try to set aside important items like passports, stick them in ziploc bags, and thumb-tack them onto their walls, seven or eight feet off the floor (think "Everything is Illuminated"). Well, Friday James discovered Nyssa’s passport was missing. There was no way in hell they could get a replacement by Monday. She rushed home from work in the middle of the day and they tore the house apart before finally finding the passport. It seems when they got back from their last trip last May (from the South of France), Nyssa just tossed her still-packed suitcase into a secret cubbyhole and never thought of it again, and that’s where the passport was.

Nyssa said had she not been able to go that James should still have gone. We all have discounted, non-transferable tickets, so there was no use forfeiting all that money for nothing on both tickets. James said that had it just been me and him going, he would’ve tossed his agenda and followed me around for a week, until I finally beat him to death in an attempt to finally get a little privacy.

J&N say I'll probably be alone about 50% of the time, though I expect it will be more than that, since our agendas, budgets, and traveling strategies differ so much.

J&N always like to sit in the very last row of a plane, even though the seats don't recline. James explained he did this because he goes to the bathroom once an hour on flights and doesn't like to have to step over people. But that doesn't explain the last row thing.

I know when we go to movies they always like to sit in the very last row and stick plugs in their ears against the supposed noise. but I'm uncomfortable back there. I like to go to the movies alone and sit in the third row or maybe the second, dead center, because my eyes and ears are bad, and I enjoy not having people in front of me--it makes me feel like I'm in a private screening room.

I think I hurt James's feelings a bit when I said I was less interested in sitting with him than I was in being comfortable on that long flight, so I arranged to get in the row ahead of him on the aisle, in a reclining seat.

James asked me if I was going to join the "Mile-High Club" during my first flight. I said since I’m not taking a date to Paris that would probably just have to involve a wank in the loo.

J&N got their plane and hotel deal together as part of a package. He kept warning me that every week I put off buying a ticket it would get more expensive, but as it turned out I got my tickets for about the same price as he paid. But I didn't want to pay what his hotel was charging me for a single. James suggested we talk one of our friends into coming over and sharing the room with me, but I didn't like that idea. I decided to find my own hotel.

J&N plan to stay in their hotel a lot. But I'm not paying tons of money to sit in a fucking room and stare at the walls--I want to see Paris! I just need a room to sleep , shave, shower, shit, and store my stuff in. That's it. I'd like to stay in a fancy hotel, but I really don't need to. This is one area where I am willing to cut costs.

I researched this matter for weeks and worked myself into a frenzy. I haven't been so indecisive since I was apartment hunting two years ago. J&N are staying in the Latin Quarter. It would be more convenient if I stayed near them, and there are lots of cool things in that are. But then I started pricing other hotels in other areas....

I narrowed it down to three hotels in the Latin Quarter--The Esmeralda, the Marignan, and the Hotel du Commerce--all of which were just a few blocks from J&N at the Hotel Abbatial St. Germain. I was also looking at a hostel, the "Young & Happy," about 15 minutes south of J&N. I figured that since I am neither young nor happy a week in that place would generate tons of stories. Plus, I want to meet people--Parisians, young travelers from all over the world.

James and I are both huge germaphobes, but our conditions manifest themselves in different ways. He hates spending money, but has stayed in enough bad hostels that he refuses to do it again, regardless of the savings they provide.

I had suggested we rent an apartment. The total for three of us would've been cheaper than it would've been at hotels. James said they normally do that if they stay more than a week, but that he'd already reserved their hotel rooms.

What was throwing me was reading the online reviews of these hotels and hostels from former guests. (This also slowed me up when I was apartment-hunting.) James said if a hotel got a bad review, it was no doubt written by a complaining sore-head. He was more likely to believe a bad review of a hostel, and added that if a positive hostel review contained no specific details, it was probably a puff piece written by the staff.

My first choice, though, was the Hotel Esmeralda, which was built in 1640. Some guests think it a filthy dump, while others regard it as romantic, like an artist's garret. It's about five minutes from the front door of Notre-Dame (some people use the chimes as their wake-up call), and a block from Shakespeare &Co. Chet Baker stayed there, as did Terrence Stamp and Sophia Loren, and Serge Gainsbourg nailed Jane Birkin there, so that's plenty hipster cred for me.

The problem is that "The Guardian" profiled this place some time back, so now it's gotten popular, and all the websites and guidebooks warned that you needed to book a room three to five months in advance. I didn't have that kind of time, but I was hoping the fact I was traveling in the off-season would help me, along with the fact the riots in Paris have been scaring off tourists.

So I finally decided to call. I haven't been so nervous about making a phone call since that disastrous time I asked that girl out to senior prom, 24 years ago. (This was only my second overseas call.) I tried the number, only to be told I couldn't bill it to my number. I needed a calling card, which I don't have. Eventually the operator connected me, and I forgot my lines: "Bon jour, monsieur. Parlez-vous Anglais?"

But I conveyed to the desk clerk that I wanted their cheapest single room (about $41 a night, with a sink in the room and the bathroom down the hall, but no view) for seven nights. He told me to fax him the request and my credit card number for security. I did that later in the day, and had the guy leave me a message on my answering machine as confirmation. (I think they have internet access in the lobby for guests, but the hotel doesn't have an e-mail address.)
I just hope I don’t freeze my ass off. The weather report for the next week forecasts colder weather than I’ve ever had to deal with down here in the tropics.

I've written down all the hours for all the sites and shops I want to visit, using the most up-to-date guidebooks. (I have about a dozen.)

But as I've been saying, it sounds like J&N and I aren't going to spend a lot of time together. One problem is that they apparently have an aversion to French food, based mainly on one bad experience in Paris a few years ago that didn't taste very good. James also refuses to eat any beef in Europe, out of fear of contracting Mad Cow Disease.

James regaled me with horror stories about rude waiters, and being forced to sit in the tourist sections of restaurants and order off the shitty, over-priced tourist menus. "You've never been intimidated until you've dealt with a French waiter." When I heard this I laughed and said, "First, the French have never pitted their national will against that of Bankston, and second, that's a moot point anyway, since the French and I are gonna get along great. Apart from their hairy-arm-pitted women and their aversion to bathing, I think the French and I are quite simpatico."

And if I don't eat out in the restaurants of Paris I see no reason to bother going. James says, "We just prefer to save our money for museum entrance fees. You know--cultural things." To which I replied in horror, "French food IS French culture! You can't know France without knowing the food!" So I will probably be eating alone.

Also, Nyssa apparently likes to sleep ten hours a night. James sleeps eight, retiring an hour after her and getting up an hour before. (Now at home I like to sleep as much as I can, often more than ten hours, but then again, I have no reason to be awake.) So I guess for her to get up at 7am, she'll have to retire at 9pm, which pretty much kills the idea of going anywhere at night. (I think she's willing to make an exception for the late hours on Wednesday at the Louvre.) and James says that the longer a trip goes on, the more tired they get and the later they sleep.

Generally, James gets up early and goes to the corner grocery store and buys food, they eat in their hotel and make sandwiches for lunch (or for lunch they'll either get paninis from a street vendor or eat at a fast-food place like McDonald's of the French chain "Flunch"). They go see one main site in the morning, then go back to the hotel at noon, go out to see a site in the afternoon, then go back to the hotel, and really don't do much in the evening other than look at what they acquired that day, and make plans for the next day.

This will not work for me. I plan to sleep no more than six hours a night, get up early and watch the sun rise over Paris, maybe take in a Mass at some cool old church. For the week I intend to make myself a regular at my neighborhood cafe, and have my coffee and crossaint, and read the paper and chat as best I can. I will probably get out and start shopping and sight-seeing a lot earlier than J&N--if nothing else, the churches open a lot earlier than the museums--and will likely meet them at the first big attraction of the day.

He does want to still go to the Buddha Bar for his birthday, but it sounds like the absinthe pub crawl is off. He wants to buy a bottle and drink it in his room. I said that pretty much kills any chance of my getting an article out of the absinthe quest, because drinking in the hotel room is boring to me.

So most of the nightlife end of this trip will also be done by me alone. I may or may not go to the Opera, but I will probably hit a few jazz or chanson clubs. There are at least three movie theatres in my neighborhood that specialize in showing old classic films, one of which used to be managed by Francois Truffaut, and another located just a block from my hotel. And there is to be a performance on Friday at St. Eustache Church of Mozart’s "Requiem." That’s be a great way to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday.

Transportation seems to be another problem. J&N like to walk everywhere, saying that if you take taxis or the Metro you often miss the shops and sites and photo ops you encounter when on foot. I said that is a good point, but if it comes down to it and I have to choose between walking and possibly seeing cool, obscure things and missing key sites, and taking cabs or the metro, missing the obscure things, and seeing the major ones, I'll go with the latter.

James wailed, "But every time you step into a cab it costs you $20!" I shrugged, "I'm used to that. Every time I get into a cab here it costs me $20, and that only takes me to fucking downtown Austin. At least a cab in Paris would take me to some place cool!"

God, I hope we don't fucking kill each other over there. James says that he and Nyssa have a rule, a blanket amnesty policy that extends from the Austin Airport on the way out to the Austin Airport on the way in. They know there will be set-backs, problems, tempers losts, ugly words, and so forth, but whatever happens in Europe stays in Europe. I said that sounds like an excellent policy, since I'm already so prone to be an asshole anyway.

I voiced my concerns to James one day as we ran errands. He said he was mostly pulling my chain, that he often vows that he'll spend his vacations taking it easy, but he never follows through. He also said his mother-in-law got onto him, telling him to stop playing up my fears and worries (like telling me there's a 100% chance I'll get diarrhea from the stress of traveling). But I don't know what to believe. I still think I'll be going it alone much of the time.

I had never been to a travel agent before this trip. I was waited on by a delightfully opinionated British woman in her 30s (much too old for me), and we had a great conversation about performance art, and some of the stranger artists around today, like Damien Hirst. She talked about going to a museum and seeing a piece of art (I think it involved feces flung against the wall) that caused her "to fall to the goddamn floor," though I am unsure if this was because she was laughing, or horrified, or made ill, or what. Her "mates" had to pick her up and help her outside.

My only quibble with her was that I stated firmly and categorically I did not want to pay more than 50 or 60 Euros a night for a hotel room, and would gladly take a hostel or a hotel with the bathroom down the hall, if that's what it took, yet she still kept mentioning places that were pricier. I said I wanted to save my money for shopping and the French food.

Afterwards, I told James that although she had been to Paris before and I hadn't, I got the distinct impression I knew more about Paris, it's layout, hotel, restaurants, etc., than she did. "But after all," I added, "I have no job. All I've been doing for weeks is reading Parisian guidebooks and studying maps."

She recommended pain au chocolat, a sort of chocolate-filled croissant, saying, "It's perfect for elevensies." James and I were giggling about this outside: "Elevensies?! I only thought hobbits ate elevensies!"

Anyway, I took the plunge and bought my plane tickets. I've never been on a plane before, and apparently this is such a long trip it'll earn me all kinds of frequent-flier miles.

James said he's found it fascinating to watch me prepare for the trip. He prepares for a trip hardly at all, his wife and mother-in-law prepare somewhat more, but he's never seen anyone prepare on the scale that I have. He says I seem to be researching not only the places I want to see, but all places, so I can know what I don't need to see on this trip. I said I just want to get it right, and leave a lot of room for spontaneity, but that I didn't want to be like the school-marmish, kill-joy travel guru Rick Steves (who someone on a message board once brilliantly said is so dull and white bread he makes Ned Flanders seem like Scott Wieland). Steves is the kind of guy who has a rigorous schedule, yet advises travelers to "Set aside a couple hours every day in your schedule for spontaneous fun."

If my plane is shot down out of the sky by the "tare-ists," think of me now and then and send a few bucks to a Basset Hound rescue organization.

Bonsoir.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

This is not fiction. J.S. Bankston is headed to Paris.

----------------

Contes d'un Grand Homme de l'Interieur
The other day I was awakened in the wee hours of the morning by my dog Fred, who was standing over me, staring anxiously down, cheeks puffing in and out, preparing to vomit. I tried to sit up and at least get out of the way, but his toenails were stuck in my T-shirt, and every time I tried to sit up I was pulled back down.


Finally I extricated myself, and lowered him down to the floor. He was in a delicated state for the rest of that day.

He was genuinely sick that day, but for the last few weeks he's been acting oddly. He's been brooding. He's been annoyed. He knows that something's up.

At the end of this month, I, who seldom leave my apartment if I can help it, who even puts off checking his mailbox most days, am stepping outside, getting into an airplane for the first time in my 42 years, and am spending a week in Paris, from February 28th to March 7th. See, I'm not a hermit and a recluse after all--not really. I just have to have a really good reason to go anywhere.

My friend James recently sold one of his domain names for a tidy amount, so he wants to celebrate his birthday in the City of Lights. I am about to run out of the savings I've been living off of for the past year, and I would hate to think that I spent all that money only within a half-mile of my front door. If I have to go back to being broke and working more dead-end, spirit-crushing jobs that have nothing to do with my writing skills, then by God I at least want to have some memories of the Good Times. So a trip to Paris seems the thing to do.


But I took a great deal of convincing. My mom, for instance, will shit a Miada if she ever learns about this trip, so I've somehow got to keep it a secret from her. A friend told me that taking this trip was a bad idea, at least until I get a few job-related business trips out of the way first. But everyone else I know has encouraged me to go.

A few of my former students went to study abroad last August, and one is still over there. He's based out of Barcelona, but he's also been to Madrid, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, and Paris. His e-mailed accounts of his travels really whetted my appetite.

And then of course there's my former Citysearch copyeditor, Seth Sherwood, who's a big shot travel writer for the Washington Post and New York Times now. He's based out of Paris and I envy the shit out of his lifestyle.

James and his wife Nyssa go to Europe every summer for about a month. Her parents usually rent a house or an apartment over there. They did the south of France last year, Venice the year before that, and Paris in 2003. When J&N arrived at the airport, her parents, Howard and Tharelyn, who had arrived a week before to set the house up and establish a beach-head, greeted them by saying, "Bankston would love it here. We'd never be able to drag him away." I do not doubt it.

(Now James is trying to talk me into going with them to Rome in May. They've already bought their tickets, and the rental apartment, located by Santa Maria Maggiore, reportedly has a terrace. I said if I did go to Rome--I don't know how in hell I could afford to do that too--I would stay with them about a week, at least long enough to attend a Wednesday Papal audience, then take off on my own across Europe, at very least hit Paris, see my Dutch friend Tobias in Amsterdam, then fly out of London. But I'm not holding my breath that I can do that. And I guess Venice, Vienna, and Berlin will have to wait for another time.)

Of course my chief worry is Fred. He's 14 and we've spent less than 14 nights apart in the 10 years we've lived together. We are deeply, co-dependently attached to one another. He has a fit when I'm away for more than eight hours at a stretch. He began pissing the rugs in annoyance in 2004 when I had a part-time job.

I have tortured myself imagining how Fred will take my being away for a week, afraid he'll forget me, or feel so depressed he'll give up his will to live. But everyone has assured me it'll be okay, that he'll handle it well. I was going to leave Fred with my vet friend Tree, but she's not always home. Fortunately my friend Jennifer works from home, and has two Border Collies she keeps inside and walks and plays with frequently, and she's willing to take care of Fred. I am sure he'll enjoy getting to play with some other dogs for a change--I just hope all goes well during the week.

Of course the reunion on the night of the 7th should be something to behold. It'll be like the slow-motion ending of a "Lassie" movie.

Yes, I am 42 years of age and have never been in an airplane. Many people assume that this is because I'm afraid to fly, but actually, it's because I've never had the opportunity. When you're a kid you travel where your parents go, and my parents weren't big on traveling and my mom was afraid of flying. And after I left home I never had enough money to go anywhere.

I am not so much worried about the fact I'm a citizen of the most hated nation on earth, a nation that's too worried about being politically correct and not offending anybody that it won't do searches of suspicious-looking people at airports. Nor am I worried I will be hurtling thousands of miles above the ground in a highly-flammable tin can. No, the things I'm sweating over are the long-ass flight, in tight seats, and getting to the right place in the airport at the right time. I'm very worried about dealing with baggage carousels and losing my luggage. I plan to take one carry-on on the way over, though I expect I'll have to buy another bag over there for my purchases.

So on Monday, February 27, I'll drop off Fred, leave Austin at 1:41pm, arrive at O'Hare at 4:16, leave there at 6:05, and arrive at Charles DeGaulle on Tuesday the 28th at 9:20am. I'll probably take the Metro into Paris, find my hotel or hostel, shower, then go out to greet the city. I'll leave Paris on Monday, March 7th at 2:25pm, arrive at O'Hare at 4:50, and will ideally get through Customs in time to catch my 6:32pm flight which lands in Austin at 9:20pm, soon after which I will re-united with Fred.

We will have exactly seven days. J&N did most of the touristy things the last time they were in Paris, but they want to take it easier this time, even though there are places they want to revisit. James is saving his money for over-priced drinks at the Buddha Bar and other hip joints. He also wants to seek out some absinthe. I might write an article about the latter and try to shop it around.

James says his big thing to see in Europe is churches, and they usually devote the rest of their time to historical museums and art museums at a 50/50 split. James says I would dig the catacombs tour, but strangely enough, I would rather check out the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysees. James is not a big cemetery-goer, but I intend to go see the ones in Montmartre (Truffaut's there, along with Nijinsky and Careme) and Montparnasse (Baudelaire, Sartre, Beckett, Cioran, Cortazar, Duras, de Maupassant, Henri Langlois, and Serge Gainsbourg are there), then Pere-Lachaise if there's time (to see Balzac, Proust, Oscar Wilde, and the Lizard King).

James has no interest in the Pantheon, even though that's right by where we're staying, but I'll have to go in and pay my respects to Zola, Hugo, and Dumas pere. (Okay, I just got off the phone with James and he's willing to see Pere-Lachaise. He was a little surprised I have an agenda for the cemeteries. He just thought I'd walk in and look around, whereas I actually want to look specific people up, maybe put flowers on their graves, and so forth.)

Okay, here is my Paris travel agenda:
--Tuesday--February 28th--
Arrive, go through Customs, take the Metro into town, check into my hotel, shower, then hit Notre-Dame, St. Chappelle (noted for its walls of stained glass), Shakespeare & Company bookstore, St. Julien-le-Pauvre, maybe the Pantheon, and a few other sites in the Latin Quarter, then get to bed fairly early. (We're going to be based in the Latin Quarter, but in separate hotels.) There's a concert commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Michael Haydn, brother of Franz Joseph, at Notre-Dame at 8:30pm, but I don't know if we'll make it.

--Wednesday--March 1st--
Get up early, go to the Ash Wednesday Mass at Notre-Dame, then spend the day at the Louvre, since it's open until 9:45pm on Wednesdays.

--Thursday--March 2nd--
We are unlikely to get to all the things on today's agenda, but I have so much wiggle room during the other days I should be able to see all these things sooner or later. We'll go to St. Sulpice Church and (more importantly for me) the religious antique stores nearby, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, walk past the Graceland of France, the graffiti-covered home of Serge Gainsbourg, then go to Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides and maybe the War Museum there, the Eiffel Tower, the Musee de Homme at the Palais de Chaillot, and maybe the Balzac house museum (where I should be offered a job as a tour guide because of my resemblance to the great author).

--Friday--March 3rd--
I expect we'll start at the Musee d'Orsay to see the Impressionists, then go to the Arc d'Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees, maybe tour La Madeleine Church and the old Garnier Opera (where the Phantom hangs out), stroll through the Place Vendome, then cut through Beauberg and the Marais neighborhoods, before winding up at the Canal St. Martin. We'll probably have dinner up there.

--Saturday--March 4th--
We'll hit Eglise St. Augustin, stroll around Montmartre, tour Sacre Coeur Church, the Montmartre Cemetery, check out the Erik Satie apartment museum (one room--reportedly the smallest museum on earth, so that shouldn't take long to see), and rue Caulaincourt (where a lot of the action in "The 400 Blows" takes place), then maybe take in the Art and Crafts Museum, which has lots of models and gadgets showing how things work. Since J&N don't like modern art, I may spend the afternoon alone, checking out the Musee Picasso and the Pompidou Centre.

--Sunday--March 5th--
I'll try to find a church with a really great musical program for the morning. After that I want to go to Montparnasse Cemetery. James wants me to go to the Catacombs. Then we'll go to the grand Mosque for some mint tea in the garden. I may also go for a sauna and massage there, since the "hammam" is open to men that day. And anyway, after all that damn walking I will certainly be sore, so I can think of no better cure than to let a Middle Easterner in a pair of Joe Namath slingshot briefs have his way with me for three or four hours.

--Monday--March 6th--
J&N are not big cemetery people, but are willing to go with me to Pere-Lachaise. After that I may hit the Jardin Des Plantes, the zoo, and the Natural History Museum. This should be my big mop-up day, where I'll try to catch up on anything I missed. I have a feeling I'll be getting a lot of taxis this day. At night we're going on one of those cruises of the Seine, which are admittedly touristy, but also beautiful.

And of course there's the nightlife. James wants to celebrate his birthday at the Buddha Bar. I'd like to hit some jazz and/or chanson clubs. Our first night in town is the last night for a Robert Wilson production of "Madame Butterfly" at the Bastille Opera, and "Rigoletto" is playing there most of the rest of the week. There's several restaurants I want to try, including one of the famous literary cafes--most likely the Deux Magots--and such country French eateries as Chez Denise and Chez Robert et Louise.

I'd also like to go to a movie, ideally at the legendary Cinematheque Francaise, although it's recently moved from its old home in the Pallais de Chaillot to a Frank Gehry building over in the east part of town. And my old Citysearch copywriter, Seth Sherwood will be busy writing (just coming back from the Middle East and on his way to the US), but he promises we'll have a big night out.

And let's not forget the shopping. We all want to go by the Muji stationery store, as well as the trippy Deyrolle taxidermy shop.


I've never been to a Virgin Megastore, so I want to go to the one on the Champs-Elysees, and I'd like to check out one of the huge old department stores (La Samaritaine is closed indefinitely for repairs), and the old "passages" that Walter Benjamin found so fascinating, that were the forerunners to today's malls. And of course there are the bookstores: Shakespeare and Company, Le Hune, Gibert Jeune, the Red Wheelbarrow, 7L (Karl Lagerfeld's place), and the WH Smith by the Louvre.

(In the next installment, I settle on a hotel, planning, technique, and scheduling problems emerge, and delightful discoveries are made.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

No. 19: Name that celebrity

submitted by tj1972

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