Friday, December 29, 2006

Pieces of Downtown

Outside Easy Street Records, Queen Anne

The Space Needle and EMP

Pike Place in the rain

How To Travel Around France

I have a neurological condition, one of the symptoms of which is that I fall asleep almost immediately upon closing my eyes. Anywhere, any time. But for some odd reason, when I tried to go to sleep last night, my brain wasn’t ready to shut down. It insisted upon thinking about traveling around France this past summer, and I started formulating a list of lessons I learned during that frantic three weeks. Without further ado:

Lessons learned traveling around France:

  1. When in France, expect to speak French. When in Paris, expect to have everyone respond to your faltering French with smug English. Yes, they are trying to imply that they can’t stand the sound of you butchering their precious language.
  2. Everything, with the exception of train stations and restaurants, is closed on Sundays. Groceries stores, drugstores, everything. Plan ahead.
  3. If traveling to more than four cities in three weeks, RENT A CAR. If your traveling companion, who is a poor schoolteacher, insists that it’s too expensive, IGNORE HER. She does not know what’s best for you.
  4. While figuring out how much time you’ll have in each region and how long it might take to travel by train between regions, try to remember key traits about your travel partner. For example, if you’re going to be traveling with someone who takes 2 hours to get ready in the morning and doesn’t believe in “roughing it,” give yourself lots of extra travel time. Expect to miss at least two crucial trains.
  5. Traveling France by train is fairly cheap. There is a reason.
  6. If you are traveling by train, and you are planning to buy your ticket right before the train leaves, bear in mind: there is a three cashier rule at all train ticket windows. Even in the summer, at the height of the travel season, even at train stations with 15 ticket windows, even when the line to buy tickets winds back and forth like the line for Splash Mountain and moves slower than molasses, only three ticket windows can be open at any given time. If a fourth cashier comes on duty, DO NOT GET YOUR HOPES UP; IT IS A TRICK. It simply means that one of the other cashiers is due for their 45 minute cigarette break. Plan accordingly.
  7. Even if you have nowhere to leave your luggage, do not take suitcases with you to a medieval city. Tiny suitcase wheels and ancient cobblestones do not mix.
  8. Mosquitos in Provence are flesh-eaters. Wear heavy-duty bug spray at all times, on all parts of your body. They can bite you through clothing.
  9. By “heavy-duty bug spray,” I mean the stuff that the soldiers used in Vietnam. None of that weak stuff you buy at the drugstore. It will do you no good.
  10. The beach in Nice is not nice. It is not made of sand, but of cobblestones. Ouch. The beaches to the north and south of Nice, however, are sand.
  11. If you’re going to take an hour-long hike up a sheer mountainside, try not to do it during the hottest part of the day.
  12. If you’re going to take an hour-long hike up a sheer mountainside during the hottest part of the day, bring LOTS of water.
  13. Also, put deodorant on every inch of your body. You will sweat in places you didn’t know could sweat. I’m talking eyelids, here.
  14. If you tell a train ticket cashier that you would like to travel to a certain city and he responds, “Quelle idée!” (trans: What an idea!), this is a bad sign. You should probably skip that city.
  15. When choosing which cities in France to visit, do not include Limoges. Trust me. It has a really cool-looking train station, but that’s it.
  16. If you insist on seeing Limoges, and you are traveling there from Nice (not advisable), try to make it to the train station in time to catch the train to Toulouse. Nice to Limoges via Paris is just a wee bit out of the way. I have generously drawn a lovely, very high-tech map as a visual aide:

  1. The other thing Limoges has going for it, other than the pretty train station, is an amazingly good tarte shop. I have no idea where it is or how to get back there, but Man, was it good! Some of the best food I’ve ever consumed in my life.
  2. “Going on strike” is the national sport of France. It is an especially beloved pastime of train employees. Don’t be surprised if you show up at the train station and there is only a fraction of the normal amount of trains in service. Whining will get you NOWHERE, so take what you can get.
  3. For the most part, strikes are planned and last only one day. For the most part.
  4. Do not be afraid to rearrange your travel schedule. Even if you end up “wasting time” sitting in parks or wandering around cities you didn’t plan to see, just relax and have a good time. You’re in France, for crying out loud!
  5. If you’re hitting up the Loire Valley, don’t overlook Amboise. The castle is alright, but seek out the little wine shop in a cave, buy a 5 euro bottle of wine (about $7), head over to Leonardo da Vinci’s mansion, and consume said bottle of wine in his huge backyard. It’s totally fun. There’s even a playground to drunkenly play on.
  6. If you go to Tours, and you feel like doing something that no one has ever done before, don’t get in a huge, cataclysmic argument with your sister on the streets of Tours, because that’s already been done.
  7. Don’t miss Dinan or le Mont St-Michel (they’re way cool).
  8. The Louvre is boring. The Musée d’Orsay is better (in my humble opin).
  9. The Eiffel Tower is awesome. Don’t be afraid of the insanely long line. This one’s worth it. It’s especially enjoyable if your travel companion is afraid of heights or big things.
  10. While waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower, keep a close eye on who’s in front of you. One minute you’re right behind a guy with a black backpack, the next minute there is an elderly Asian couple between you and Black Backpack, the next minute a large group of Asian Americans greets the elderly Asian couple and thanks them for saving them a spot in line. Your spot in line.
  11. If you’re in Paris and it’s nearly midnight, and you’re catching the very last commuter train into the suburbs, and all the ticket cashiers have gone home, and you can only buy tickets from machines that take only coins, don’t spend your last coins in a photo booth. It’s not worth the two minutes you’ll feel like Amélie.
  12. If you spend your last coins in a photo booth and can only buy one ticket for two people, DON’T PANIC. Simply cheat and squish two people through the turnstiles. It takes a bit of coordination, but it can be done.
  13. If you’re feeling overwhelmingly guilty for having cheated, and you’re worried you’ll get thrown off the last commuter train of the night, feel free to confess to the first train employee that you see. This is not necessary, however, as he or she will simply shrug and mumble something about being off the clock. They’re French; they couldn’t possibly care less.
  14. Do not, under any circumstances, insult a Frenchman’s mother. He will not hesitate to head butt you in the chest.
  15. He will not hesitate even if he is the MVP and he knows he will get thrown out of the game.
  16. Even if it costs his nation the World Cup.
  17. Even if he has already announced that this will be his last World Cup, and his last chance at being an immortalized national hero. (Besides, he knows the French people will respect him all the more for having head-butted you in the chest. For crying out loud, you insulted his mother!)
  18. Also, bear in mind that these people don’t bat an eyelash when their fellow countrymen go on rampages burning cars. Rioting and car-burning are viewed as no big deal. So, try really hard not to upset them.
And there you have it. My extremely useful tips for traveling in France. I should totally write guidebooks...

Monday, December 11, 2006

More Nerd Humor

The Mathematics of Love (or at least dating):