Monday, May 31, 2010

Passing through...

“You’re beautiful.”
“Excuse me?” I blinked at the Egypt Air clerk confusedly; normally, I would have expected such a comment from the male populace of Egypt, but my general state of exhaustion and the chaos and emotions that accompany leaving left me somewhat vulnerable to predatory check-in attendants.
“You are beautiful.” He smiled at me, and I smiled skeptically back. He ran through the usual questions, and handed me my boarding pass, brushing my fingers as he did so. I rolled my eyes, grabbed my carry-on, and found a strong coffee in the eating area to jolt me awake until boarding and pass out time.
Oh, Egypt. I stood on Qasr El Aini Street, looking out over downtown mere hours before I needed to depart, and I breathed deeply—breathed in the pollution, the car horns, the smell of falafel and grease from the little stand around the corner, the playful breeze rippling off the Nile, the crescent moon hung like a pendant in the sky, and my favorite scent in the whole world—sheesha, fruity, intoxicating whiffs of sheesha-- from a café. It took me two years to discover true love, sustainable love—not the oriental, extravagant fantasies of my 20-year old self, gallivanting on horseback around the pyramids every other week, filling my room with baubles from the Khan, and dining in the ultra-chic Sequoia on a whim. That Cairo, although exhilarating, was a quick fling, a self-destructive satisfaction; my new Cairo is certainly less extraordinary—it doesn’t involve moonlight gallops on horseback or frequent trips to posh restaurants in Zamalek, but it is stable, replete with simple pleasures and new discoveries. It is sitting in an ‘ahwa with Christal in Maadi, sipping herbal tea, listening to the clatter of backgammon dice against the wooden board and the bubble of sheesha from the men sitting around us. It is trying different fooul restaurants downtown to determine the best, where to find the cheapest aish. It is waking up covered in a light sheen of sweat, my windows open wide to the shimmering heat of summer and the hum of neighbors’ voices. This is what I miss; oh, and I suppose the people too.
So it was with a melancholy heart that I left Cairo; not that I really remember leaving—I was pleasantly slumbering (snoring) before the plane even turned onto the desert runway. I blinked, once, ate the food being thrust at me, and woke again as the plane touched European soil in Amsterdam.
I am blessed with amazing friends—my roommate owns a flat in a French village outside of Paris, and the keys to it jangled in my pocket as I exited the airport, a week of French epicurean and sartorial decadency at hand. At the Eurorail office, I asked for the next ticket to Paris. “Ummm, not until 7, maybe 6:30?” It was not yet 10 am. “Errrr, ok. How much?” “133 Euros.” “Is it normally that much?” “Well, if you book in advance it’s cheaper, and it’s a holiday.” Rawr. I handed over my hard-earned Euros and napped on the floor of the train station.
I dragged my giant green monstrosity of a suitcase off the train in the Gare du Nord train station of Paris and lugged it down the stairs that lead the RER (suburban rail) and Metro, assuming this was the proper route to Chantilly, my final destination. After waiting in queue for about 5 minutes, I approached the ticket machine, typed in my destination, and got an error message. “Ummmm.” I turned to two French girls standing behind me. “Chantilly? Do you know where Chantilly is?” My French was still a bit rusty, and I had not slept in several days. They consulted each other. “I think, that machine there.” One gestured to an SNCF machine nearby. Seeing the clueless expression on my face, she said, “Come,” and found the next train to Chantilly on its screen, departing at 10:37. I inserted my credit card. DENIED. I tried my other one. DENIED. “You need, you need this special chip,” she said, showing me her credit card that did, indeed, have a symbol for an electronic chip. “Upstairs, you can go to a booth.” I hoped they were not merely trying to get rid of me. “Ok, merci beaucoup!”
Back I trudged to the upper world of the Gare du Nord. Ahhhh SNCF! I saw a long row of windows with ‘ferme’ signs in each of them. Closed. “Merde,” I muttered, glancing at the clock. 10:20. If I didn’t catch the next and last train, I would be sleeping in the train station for the night. Standing in front of one of the machines, frantically considering my options, I noticed a man at a machine next to me purchasing a ticket. Unlike my attempts, his yielded an actual ticket. I almost called him over, but I was still hesitant and he headed off in the other direction. 10:25. The man was coming back in my direction. “Excuse me? Do you speak English?” I asked in a tentative, breathless and slightly panicked voice. “Yes.” And he came over to my machine. I explained my conundrum and asked if I could give him cash if he would pay for my ticket. “Of course, no problem.” A few minutes later, my ticket in hand, I looked around the train station. 18 different platforms stretched across its breadth, none of them saliently labeled and several of them puffing ominously. “Do you know where this train is?” He led me across the station to the departures board. “Ah, there, 10:37, yes?” I nodded. “18, right over there.” I thanked him profusely as he rushed off to catch his own train and I slid into the doors of the Chantilly-bound train gratefully.
I leaned against the seat wearily and closed my eyes. “Billet? Bonsoir, mademoiselle.” I wordlessly handed him my ticket as he tried again. “Bonsoir?” “Bonsoir, merci,” I responded haltingly as he clipped the ticket. He smiled cheerfully and moved onto the next passenger. “Bonsoir!”
I descended in Chantilly and followed two people down the tunnel and up through the exit to Parc Hugo. Shadows and rustling trees, dark streets and a glowing moon filled the strange world around me. I hustled to catch up to couple ahead. “Umm, pardon. La rue de connaitable?” “Oh, you should have gone other way,” responded the woman, her male companion also pausing to interject. “But you can go this way. Take the next right. After two,” and he opened and closed his fists while I looked on helplessly. “Lights,” piped in the woman. “At the second light, turn right. Then left. There you are.” “Thank you!” I called as they turned off on a side street, leaving me alone in this strange world of leafy avenues, Baroque villas tucked behind lacy iron fences, and wide cobblestoned streets. All was quiet, not the Cairo quiet always suffused with the distant honk of cars and the hum of air conditioners and faulty wiring and bowabs shouting, but a quiet in which the earth itself seemed to exhale in the warm spring air.
A white, furry dog galumphed past, its owner several steps behind. “Ummm, pardon. La rue de connaitable?” “Bonsoir, mademoiselle.” He proceeded to rattle off in mellifluous French the route I should take. “D’accord. Continuer tout droit, tourner la gauche, au fountain, tournez a droit, et continuez.” “Ouais….Viens!” And so I was led to my street by a Chilean man and his frolicking white dog. At the start of rue de connaitable, he stopped and asked, I think, if I needed more help. “Non, merci beaucoup beaucoup!” He retreated. The street of Connaitable is lined, on either side, with creamy, connected houses, two stories high, tall, red shuttered windows marking the upper floors. Softly glowing streetlamps lit my passage into Marie Antoinette’s France. Bakeries, shuttered for the night, still wafted a faint scent of delicious bread into the street; restaurants with decadent offerings lay behind closed doors; an equestrian boutique advertising the nearby polo club displayed breeches and soft leather saddles in the window; and then, finally, number 76. I walked though the carriage house doors, through a small stone passageway into the courtyard in the back, cluttered with amorphous shapes sunk into darkness, relieved only by the faint glow from a nearby, curtained window. I turned the key in the lock, holding my breath. Click! Breathing an audible sigh of relief, I dragged my luggage through the aperture, up the very narrow staircase, and into the flat that is to be my abode for the rest of the week.
Although it was almost midnight, and not a soul stirred the quietude of the street, I threw open my tall windows and gazed at the moon I had seen the night before from a different continent and a different life. I rested my elbows on the low iron railing and let my soul exhale, slowly, in the balmy night, let my insecurities and stresses and troubles float into the cloudless night sky sunk into a cobalt blue sewn with tiny diamonds sparkling from the heavens.
This trip was never intended to be fraught with the bombardment of excitement that Africa was; it rolled along, languidly, whimsically, jauntily. On my first morning, I clambered out of bed and threw open my curtains to an increasingly cloudy sky, brooding clouds racing to gobble up the periwinkle vault above. Hmmmph. I clattered down the stairs and strolled (in France, one must, stroll, saunter, or perhaps sashay; walking is forbidden) down the street and into the nearest bakery where my senses were deliciously assaulted. For supper I ambled to the local supermarket and raided the meat and cheese section—ham and decent, European cheese. On a whim, I bought a bottle of wine, just because I could. That was the day of the Dreaded Paper, which I finished that evening. In celebration, I walked to the local Tabac and bought two bottles of Diet Coke. Very French.
Unbound by scholarly musings, I decided a Promenade was in order; I strode down the Rue de Connetable, chanced upon a flea market in the village square and spent a good hour selecting my first French outfit, continued past the Royal Stables resembling a Gothic palace more than a place to keep horses, under the stone archway restricting traffic to one-way inside Chantilly, past the glorious chateau surrounded on all sides by a small lake, and into the woodlands along a dirt path next to the palace grounds. Straight, smooth trunks reared up on one side of the pathway; the other side was bordered by an ancient, crumbling wall. Green light filled my vision, and the verdancy of the foliage contrasted with the leaden rain clouds drip drip dripping on the path. Half an hour later, without meeting a soul save an ornery snail, hearing only the whoosh of wind through wet leaves, I discovered a small village and lay on a bench in a little garden, reading.
To go to Paris or stay in Chantilly? This was the dilemma I found myself faced with the next day. I settled on Paris, and made my way to the train station. An hour later, I stepped off in Gare du Nord and descended into the Metro system, hopping on the purple line to St. Michel. I emerged into the watery light of afternoon and the bustle of Parisians rushing purposefully down the broad sidewalks. Ahhh, Paris. Without further ado, I spotted my quarry, Promod, only the world’s best clothing store. Emerging with a lighter wallet and an arm full of clothes, I did not feel yet like returning to the halcyon atmosphere of Chantilly. So I took a side street, found the Seine and Notre Dame, crossed the river, proceeded another 10 minutes or so, and then came upon another Promod. Half an hour and another shopping bag later, I decided it was time to return to Chantilly.
On Friday I finally penetrated the mysteries of the chateau and coughed up the 19 Euros to see the castle itself, the grounds, the Royal Stables and a dressage show. My pictures hardly do the chateau justice; someone told me it is famed for its elaborate, rather ostentatious façade, and I agree. As Akshaya, who will arrive in our story later this evening, said of its appearance, “And this is why the French Revolution happened.” Happily, I found the castle populated by two Asian tourists, French schoolchildren, a few old men, and me. There were no queues, no crowded rooms, just me and the ghosts of a doomed family.
Pass through the gilded gates and walk up the sloping ramp to the main courtyard; pause, and drink in the delicate, flourish-covered spectacle in front of you. A channel separates the palace from land, connected to the lake surrounding the chateau. Intricate stone figurines, florid shapes and fantastic imaginations cover the front of the castle; pass under the ominous iron grille and enter the inner courtyard; walk further into the castle’s mysteries and discover the marble-encased beauty of its halls, chambers, chapel, and corridors; priceless paintings and stone statues, stained glass windows and painted ceilings; sumptuous velvets and ornate antiques all attest to an époque of unparalleled luxury and unconscionable wealth.
But then walk outside, and marvel at the miles of gardens, lawns, and fountains on the property, the small hamlet where the Comtes could emulate a more bucolic life, the wallabie farm because the duchess wanted them, the Chinese garden full of burbling waterfalls and sinuous koi. We’re not done yet; walk across the field to the Royal Stables and enter its echoing hall filled with the soft grunts and whuffs of the show horses stabled in its interior. Although partly under renovation, it is easy to see the sumptuous world the dukes had created for their horses; indoor arenas, outdoor practice rings, large stalls for their prized equines.
While waiting for Akshaya (you may remember, she’s an ex-roomie from that first year in Cairo), I went first to a fromagerie, a cheese store, and had the proprietor select three savory cheeses for me and then to Café Noir (I love the prevalence of alcohol in Europe) and downed three glasses of wine while taking advantage of their wifi. Then, off to the train station at 10:30 to welcome Akshaya with big hugs and giddiness and laughter.
Akshaya was a Paris virgin before visiting me; I am happy to say I initiated her into its many splendors. Before leaving Chantilly the next morning, we chanced upon the Saturday market and each bought equally gaudy outfits to commemorate our French adventures. And then, off to Paris! Getting lost a bit in the bowels of the train station, walking everywhere, from Notre Dame to the Hotel de Ville where we saw an exhibit on human rights, to the Centre Pompidou and a horribly unfunny mime to the Louvre and the Seine and quaint side streets, through the Tuilieries Gardens and the Place de Concorde, all of which were overrun by fervent rugby fans with painted faces, flags, matching outfits and raucous cheers, up the Champs Elysees to the Arch De Triomphe and past the absurdly overpriced designer boutiques, back into the Metro, to the Odeon area where we bought candy and finally admitted defeat. She fell asleep on my leg that evening (I had no linens and my bed was narrower than a twin, so she was unfortunately relegated to the floor) while I chatted online and eventually settled her head onto a pile of clothes.
Though we had seen the Eiffel Tower the day before, and she had emitted a little squeal when she first saw its phallic thrust above the rooftops of Paris, we ventured the next morning to its base, where we frolicked on the lawn in front, took silly pictures, made disgusting faces at the love-stricken couples, and lay gazing at it in wonderment. Who knew, when we parted ways three years ago, that Paris would be our next reunion? That she would be in law school at Columbia, and I in grad school at AUC? It gives me hope for the location of our next rendezvous. It was Mother's Day in France, that day, and, as we sat on the Metro, we saw men rushing past with bouquets of flowers and men stuffing books and perfume into cute gift bags. Men, it seems, really aren't that different the world over; why not procrastinate when you can buy early?
We rushed to catch the train back to Chantilly, did a short walking tour of the city by daylight, packed our things, bid au revoir to the small flat that cradled my dreams for a week, caught the train back to Gare du Nord, arrived with 10 minutes to catch our departing train to Brussels, transferred to a train bound for Amsterdam, watched the conveniently placed red light district and the lingerie-clad prostitutes in Brussels flash by, shivered as the sun slipped from the sky, the canals and fields passing the train faded from sight, and disentangled ourselves at Den Haag, Akshaya’s home. After an attempt at taking the tram, we found the track ‘blocked’ by a car parked too close and would have waited several hours until a crane arrived to move it…cab it was. Short night of sleep, back to the train station (for me) the next morning, onto the airport, and home, finally.

1 comment:

MB said...

Hi Laura,

I'm Michael, fellow Minnesotan. I just want you to know that you write beautifully and that your love for Egypt somehow just illuminated my love for China. It's a melancholy love affair, one that's made both sweet and bitter by our almost permanent state of transience.

That's more big thoughts than I've had in a while. But I wanted to let you know, I get you.