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November 27, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Milano Centrale

The last post in my Eating in Paris series described our meals in the short time we spent in Paris between arriving from New York and heading to Grenoble to see Joel. I still need to write about our meals on our return to Paris, which I thought I was going to do in this post, but I got diverted, so I’ve changed the title and have let it take its own course.

From Grenoble, we went to Venice, Rome, Florence, and Milan, completing our time in Italy on Gail’s birthday. I already mentioned a little bit about our short time in Milan in in one post or another: We got into Milan around 2:30 in the afternoon, checked our bags, found the subway, bought tickets, and headed to the cathedral. Then we walked past La Scala to the Pinacoteca di Brera — Milan’s principal art gallery, from which we walked back toward the center of the city, finding a taxi in front of La Scala, and made our way by taxi to Santa Maria delle Grazie in time for our 6:00 scheduled visit with Leonardo’s Last Supper. That’s worthy of a long post, if I ever write it. And then we walked back toward the city center, getting slightly lost as we searched for Trattoria Milanese without benefit of the correct address. It seems I was off by a letter and had found the address I thought I wanted, but it was a deserted block of office buildings. Fortunately, a little searching on my iPhone brought the error to light and the correct place was just around the corner on an almost-hidden narrow street. Our birthday dinner was among the best on the trip. It was long anticipated and did not disappoint. We walked back to the cathedral, it was only 9:00 PM, and after killing as much time as we could, we descended into the subway, bought tickets from the machine, and returned to Milano Centrale, where we re-claimed our bags and found ourselves with two hours before our 11:35 PM overnight train to Paris was scheduled to depart.

Let me suggest that if you are planning a trip to Italy soon, you not include Milano Centrale at 10:00-11:00 PM as part of your itinerary. It was cold, there was limited seating, the first class club room had closed at 9:00 PM, the pigeons had free run of the place, and it was just plain creepy. All in all. I did get to make a new friend. My dear friend Carol in Cambridge shares a birthday with Gail, so I decided it would be fun to surprise her with a quick call, all the more because she knows more about Italy than anyone else I know in the world and I suspected she would be delighted to get birthday wishes from us in Italy. Once I reached her, I gave Gail the phone so they could exchange mutual happy birthdays. But here’s the thing. The few benches available for seating had arms that divided the space into widths suitable for 1.7 people. Gail and I shared such a space. Then when a group of men left the nearby bench, we shifted and each took a 1.7-person space. Gail thought we shouldn’t and I assured her I could move if somebody came. So I give her the phone, I look up, and what do you know, some man is rolling a suitcase about 20 feet in front of us, African in appearance, and looking around. I gesture to him, indicating that he could sit in my bench, and I proceed to stand up so he can have the 1.7 space and I can squeeze next to Gail in the adjacent 1.7 space. He gestures back, no, don’t bother, no problem. But then he thinks better of it, turns in my direction, smiles, walks up to me, and asks if I speak English. I say yes, a little. He then sits down, so now he and I are squeezed into the 1.7 space, since I never did get up fully and move to Gail’s space. Our faces are inches apart as he shakes my hand and asks where I’m from. The US. He lights up. He loves the US. He asks if I’m living in Italy. I explain. Where am I from? Seattle. (He doesn’t seem to recognize it.) Where is he from? Nigeria. What do I do? Teach math. He is in the book business. He tells me how generous I am, apparently moved by my willingness to move so he can sit. What’s my phone number? Um, what? My phone number? Maybe he’ll come to the US. That’s his dream. And then we can get together.

Whoa! This is all happening a little too fast. I hate to be suspicious, but really, what’s the deal here? Should I extricate myself? If so, how? And won’t Gail stop talking to Carol so I can reclaim the phone, excuse myself from my friend, and talk to her? I keep looking her way. She seems oblivious to my situation, as she regales with Carol with stories of our travels. I suggest to my friend that he doesn’t need my number. If he does come to the US, he won’t come to Seattle. It’s a big country. He’ll want to be in New York probably. He isn’t as fluent in English as I may have suggested, and clearly he’s puzzled by what I’m saying. Finally we stop talking and sit in silence for a minute, or maybe a little more. I keep wishing Gail would give me the phone. She does. He gets up and wanders off. I tell Carol about my new friend. We talk briefly, say goodbye, and I suggest to Gail that maybe the train, though it departs at 11:35 PM, might show up earlier and we can board.

So we walk off, even though it’s still only 10:40. We go out to the platforms, study the board, see which train departure platforms are listed — not ours — and continue to stand in the cold, staring up at the board, waiting for our platform to show up. It does around 11:00, the train comes in from Venice, and we board. Privacy at last.

Privacy, and not much more space than we had on that 1.7-person bench. But that’s another story. Somehow we got into our bunks and eventually slept. I awoke at one point as we pulled into a station, pulled up the blind, and saw we were in Dijon. At 7:45, our attendant knocked on the door, waking up Gail, who had to get me (on the lower bunk) to wake up so I could open the door. He waited with a tray that contained awful orange juice, an awful croissant, a roll Gail passed on, and two coffees. I asked for tea instead and got something that tasted more like lemon water. In less than half an hour, we were rolling into Gare de Bercy, Paris. This is not your classic Paris train station. It’s something of a dump. It serves the night trains from Italy, auto trains, and I don’t know what else, but coming through was dispiriting. There was a taxi rank, but people were operating like they were in Italy — general chaos, no line — until some woman started shouting at everyone in French to get in line and get into the lane formed by a metal barrier. That worked, except for one recalcitrant couple that made a break for the next taxi to pull up.

No big deal. Within another 3 minutes we were in a taxi.

Except this was November 11, a national holiday, the observance of the 91st anniversary of the Armistice. And not your ordinary observance. Sarkozy had gone to Berlin two days earlier to participate in the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. On this day, Merkel was returning the favor. We didn’t know it, but they would be making a joint appearance at the Arc de Triomphe. And this meant that the Champs-Elysées, which they would be driving down, was completely closed to traffic. Of course, our hotel, Hotel Lafayette, is just off the Champs-Elysées, on Rue de Berry a one-way street that runs northward from the C-E. The normal way to get there would be to drive along the Seine, get to the Place de la Concorde, circle around it, get on the C-E northwestwards, and take it to Rue de Berry. I was pretty confused when our taxi driver, heading west on the left bank, passed the bridge that would have taken us to Place de la Concorde. And the next bridge too. He finally crossed over on a bridge that I realized made sense, as it would allow him to cut over to the C-E right about at Rue de Berry. Except as soon as he crossed the bridge, the road was blocked. He had to double back east to Place de la Concorde. And he made a full 360 degree circle around it to confirm that we weren’t going to be permitted easy passage toward the hotel. Another half loop and we headed north, to make a convoluted approach to the north, the west the south, and west again, arriving at Rue de Berry north of our hotel about 50 meters, which was pretty darn good under the circumstances. Our fare, of course, was at least 10 euros more than it would have been via a normal route. But what can you do?

Fortunately, our room was ready, so despite our early arrival, we could go straight up to the room. And now, at last, I can tell you more about eating in Paris. But maybe in the next post. Sorry about that.

One more thing. We headed out at 11:30 AM to begin our day in Paris. And discovered that the C-E was closed not just to cars but also to people. We weren’t allowed to cross from the north to the south, which we needed to do in order to get to my sister’s place. Barriers were up, people were lined up along them, looking down the street more out of curiosity than any apparent excitement. And then, what do you know, a motorcade came by with a Citroën limousine. After a half minute, another motorcade came by. Was this Sarkozy and Merkel? I would guess so, though we never found out. I would imagine they had a ceremony at 11:00 AM, the time of the Armistice (11th hour of 11th day of 11th month). And by 11:30, they would have been ready to move on. So, how about that? We were there for a moment of history. And then we found the stairway to the George V metro stop, descended, walked through the passageway under the C-E, climbed back up the other side, and had made it across the street. We were off to eat and see my sister. More to come.

Categories: Transportation, Travel
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