Sunday, August 23, 2015

Se reposer

The rain feels like an old friend I haven't seen in years.

Three weeks ago now, I left home. On Sunday morning after a tough Mt. Tam Double, I unhitched the Waterford and put it in the padded case. Said goodbye to Bella (on the bed) and Danny (at the curb at SFO) and loaded myself, the clumsy bike blob, and a red duffle into an aluminum tube bound for Paris. No small project, that.

The idea was to get there early and get over jet lag which seems to take forever now. And significantly, figure out if, if, IF a person who can't ingest gluten can even survive in France.

In short, to get my bearings.

The first two weeks sped by, working from a "hot desk" in the Paris office. Yes, working! I felt like a flame-eater, juggling projects on fire and timezones and jet lag, until I was choking on my own effort. Trying to be a good Airbnb guest, trying not to get too lost, trying not to get sick from food (or anything else). Succeeded at all these things...mostly.

The third week was Paris-Brest-Paris. Which is literally one thing after the next. From landing in the western suburbs on Friday afternoon, to taking care of all the administrative stuff, to riding from control to control, within the time limits. Without crashing. Or eating gluten.

Oh, what a circus!

Danny arrived, and we decamped to Burgundy for a couple of days. I slept in the car. Then we headed for a B&B in a remote little valley near Grenoble...

...where it happened to be raining. Real rain, wet stuff coming down for hours. We did not feel it was ruining our vacation. Rain has been rare lately in California. Beyond hydrology, rain does this great thing.

It says slow down, be patient. Do not charge up a mountain pass on a bike, or on foot for that matter. Do not explore historical ruins, or picturesque villages. Do not seek adventure. The world does not need you to move around right now. Stay put!

And that's what happened. We had a rest day. We stayed indoors, in our comfortable and beautifully renovated room, gazing across the field at a rock, and the changing light. The only sound was the rain coming down. We read, and took a nap. The only thing on the calendar was dinner (delicious and gluten free).

Try doing that in Paris, or during a 1200K. Or at home.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The more it slips away

The more you try to control something, the more it slips away
   -Jorge Aguirre, personal trainer and former Marine

Marly-le-Roi is all traces and outlines now. A study in negative spaces. They say nothing here, not any more.

At the end of the path and up the hill, that flat spot is where the chateau used to be. Lavish all-night parties. Over there were the guest cottages. Ponds full of fish. A pool just for horses, where they could lean down to drink then wade right in. Over there is the sculpture garden, what's left of it. The sculptures are too white and too perfect, because, well, they're copies. The originals are in the Louvre.

There is something that draws me to ruins. Maybe it's the stories they have to tell. Maybe it's a fascination with failure, which we hardly ever talk about. Yet there it is, the physical evidence of some human ambition, no more. Hard to deny. It took planning and desire, time and work and money. And it ended up falling to pieces and revealing all its secrets. How exactly does that happen?

Marly is a good place to ask this question, because of Louis XIV. He was at its center and we know a lot about him. The king had a system for everything; nothing left to chance. Absolute power. A highly-structured religion. The manicured, scripted expressions of art, architecture, horticulture, and music at court. The hierarchy of titles in the nobility, along with wealth, appearance, reputation, gender, lineage. A system of protocol for human behavior, rigid and unforgiving.

French, a complicated language that was not widely spoken. Even in France.

Everything you saw here, every interaction you had, reminded you of the king. So much control! If you received an invitation, it meant you had an in with him. You had mastered the complicated layers of systems, as a member of the aristocracy you spoke French well, and so far anyway, you hadn't been caught conspiring against le Roi Soleil.

Today anyone passing by can just step over a threshold. No invitation, no hard work conforming or scheming, nothing like that. Anyone can have the silence and solitude and bird calls. Free, unfettered, temporary. The sky is wide open, for your thoughts to run wild.

For some reason, it gives me faith. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

All fall down

What is this...a European beech? That would be my guess. A shallow, spreading root system, multiple trunks with scaly red-grey bark. It's been growing here a long time and each tree is unique, making it hard to say for sure.

It is an old tree, from the roots and bark and height. Its genus and species may be uncertain but its origins are not. This tree and all its neighbors were planted and cultivated by human beings starting around the year 1670. Which means it can't be more than 350 years old.

If it is a European beech, it has found the perfect spot: a steep slope overlooking a humid valley. While individual trees have lasted for 300 years, their normal lifespan is more like 150-200 years. It's likely a descendant of an original tree that was a seedling in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Happily for me, traveling the shady paths on a summer afternoon, the trees of Marly-le-Roi are flourishing. Of the human beings who used to live and visit here there is barely a trace.
Dans les années 1670 Louis XIV a fait construire un château non loin de Versailles à Marly-le-Roi. Son intention était d'avoir une demeure où il pourrait se détendre entouré seulement de quelques courtisans loin du faste de Versailles. Bien sûr, comme à Versailles le château était entouré de bassins, de statues et de fontaines majestueuses. Aujourd'hui il ne reste plus que le parc et quelques statues, le château et les bâtiments annexes ont été entièrement détruits. 
It was the private bolt hole of Louis XIV, the seventeenth century monarch who did not share my socialist worldview. He built a luxurious, exclusive theme park full of statues, pools, and sculptures. Not to mention a small chateau.

Louis discovered Marly and bought the estate in 1676. Work began the following year. He was tired of Versailles, which was full of noblemen and official French values. He wanted a retreat for himself and a select few whom he favored with an invitation.

Originally, it was a deep valley and a swamp. There was an abundance of ground water, even drinking water for the royal table, something that Versailles lacked. The location was secluded, and the estate as it took shape was on a modest scale compared with Versailles. Buildings and pavilions and pools and gardens were distributed across the property, not concentrated in one area as a display of wealth and power. The bald patches I saw in the clearings are the footprints of former buildings.

If you want to read more about what Marly was like, check out this blog post from a boutique architecture firm in Paris. If you want just a quick snapshot, in 1724 the estate looked something like this:

You can imagine the size of the crew tasked with maintaining the grounds and buildings! So many projects were going on day and night that visitors imagined fairies must be roaming the estate, transforming it:
Where I left a lake, I find a grove and a bosquet; where I left a forest, I find a large basin, into which some thirty admirably beautiful carp will be released this evening.
   -Madame de Maintenon
Some of the trees and plants were grown on site but many were transplants, brought in from elsewhere. Almost everything, including the carp, was imported (except water). There must have been a steady procession of delivery vehicles coming through the gates.

Louis spent copious amounts of money; Marly cost at least as much as Versailles. The complete reworking of a landscape was costly and complicated to maintain. The method of selecting guests was complicated. The custom machine for moving water around was complicated. At the end of the day, it could not be sustained.

Ruines d'une terrasse dans le parc de Marly, c. 1780 Hubert Robert
During the summer and fall of 1789, instead of fairies it was starving, angry peasants who were roaming the countryside near Paris. Versailles was heavily guarded, Marly was more vulnerable and already in decline. The buildings were pillaged and left to ruin. Many of the statues were removed to Paris as a defensive measure (where they ended up in the Louvre). A few years later the chateau was sold to an industrialist. He turned it into a cotton mill and then a factory for making bedsheets.

When the factory failed, the entire chateau was demolished and its stones and lead from the roof and any other materials of value were sold. The following year, Napoleon Bonaparte bought the property on behalf of the state. When that empire dissolved in 1815, Marly was abandoned to the elements. Nature transformed it from a fabulous retreat to a set of ruins to a walled garden to a wall. Only the trees were equipped to survive.

The workers who planted them and changed the bulbs in the flower beds daily and swapped the giant carp from one pond to another at the whim of the Sun King, do you think they knew this was coming?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

An open door

Suppose you were pushing a bicycle up a big hill on a warm, sleepy afternoon and saw this. What would you do? Would you press on, or put a foot down and investigate?

To tell the truth - and the truth is important - this isn't exactly what I saw. It was the view from the other side of the wall, the street side. A motorized scooter parked on the cobblestone entryway, just out of sight, inviting me in. Essentially pointing to the open door saying 'people can go in here'. The stone wall stretches for at least a kilometer, delineating something. It might very well be private property but there's that open door.

Across the threshold, paths and greenery and open space in all directions. Where trees meet the sky, a definite horizon. There's no kiosk at the entrance, no admissions fee, no parking lot. There are no buildings at all, no cars or humans. Am I dreaming? Is this really the outskirts of Paris?

It's that dead time between noon and 2pm. This door is probably not the main entrance and somewhere out of sight its guardians are enjoying a fabulous lunch on a terrace. I move forward cautiously. A bounded space that's not entirely wild, not tamed or manicured, tended but apparently not owned. What is it?

The Waterford handles itself with grace on the paths, which lead through the trees from one clearing to the next. It steers nicely around a few humans out for a walk. With hardly any loss of traction, it bears me with speed and security to the heart of this massive, understated park. It almost feels like cheating to travel in such an efficient way and I fully expect a shout of outrage from an authority figure. But none comes. This is France, land of the bicycle. It appears to be completely legal.

A clearing gives a view of a small lake, with two or three clusters of picnickers sitting at the edge. There are intermittent bare patches in the grass, all rectangular in shape. There's a sculpture garden with classical, stone figures.

It's enormous and beautiful. I spend a lovely hour, wandering and reading signs. They are in French, which I'm grateful to be able to read, with a hand-drawn map that makes absolutely no sense. The chateau? There's no chateau here...

This is Marly-le-Roi. Never heard of it. The town on the other side of the door had the same name. I do find a museum (closed until 3) at the edge of the property, at the main entrance. I leave happy, but confused as hell.

On the other side

Word to the wise: do not just hop on your bike and ride out of Paris. The city itself is plenty bike-friendly, after years of effort. The suburbs, not so much. Really not at all.

And don't try to escape with just a smartphone. What if it is Saturday morning and you've been jet-lagged and starved for exercise all week. A Garmin (which you don't have) is mandatory. Better yet, a train to carry you past all the bad stuff to the outer reaches of Gotham.

Otherwise you'll be miserable, somewhere like here, in the no man's land past La Defense. No end in sight, scared, and incurring the wrath of drivers as they swerve around you in the narrow lane.

Never mind the Parc Vexin, wherever it is in this mess. How am I going to make it back to the apartment safely? Not by this route! So how?

Finally a sign for an RER and Metro station. Blue block letters in a blue circle. Huge relief. This one says it's Maisons-Lafitte; any one will do. I'm almost in tears, I'm so relieved. Yes, yes. I'll train it back into the city. No need to do that thing again. No need to figure out what went wrong, either. It's a kind of urban mercy.

The next worry: my phone's battery is draining fast. Google Maps shows some green space up ahead. I'll ride in that direction, holding onto the bearings of the train station. Just being able to spin and relax, it feels good.

The green space turns out to be St-Germain-en-Laye. Well really, this:
Les jardins du chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (La Defense in the background)
The formal gardens of a very old chateau.

Not being a cathedral person and not a castle person either, whenever possible I steer clear. (In California, this is easy.) For example, never been to Versailles. Couldn't care less about Louis XIV. All that splendor and corruption comes tumbling down eventually. You think you're so great and then, dust underfoot. Just wait long enough.

The same goes for formal gardens. All that control...who wants it? I long for the unruly nature just beyond the boundary. My eye is drawn there, and then I follow.

It is definitely quieter here, more peaceful. There is a calming force to arranged beauty. It's orderly! Taking a moment of respite in the green space,  I wonder about its stories. Who else rested here, how did this manicured thing with trees all in rows come to be? It took a lot of human labor to do all this.

(That's another thing - the people who invested their energy in building these places did not get to enjoy them.)

There is more than one reason places like this exist. Ego, for one. You need a really big open space to show off your really big wealth. Yet it also feels as if whoever decided to build a compound here might have needed something calm and apart. An antidote to the crowded urban center. A blank canvas where they could express themselves more freely than back there across the river.

The rest of today's accidental route will usher me past not one but two more massive royal estates, Marly-le-Roi and Versailles. I'll never be completely on board; for me the exaggerated display of luxury will never be magical, like Disneyland. I still won't pay to go inside the castle. My heart will be with the people who had to plant the trees.

But now I kind of get why they're here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Body and soul, partie 3

A crowd of people roams along the river, migrating in a pack toward the Ile de la Cite. People of scattered backgrounds, destinations, interests who have never met. Our paths nevertheless overlap. It's both warm and dark, the richness of summer in a northern latitude.

In Paris, when the sun goes down things are just getting started. Anything can happen... the night is young! This is the time when the workers of Silicon Valley normally scuttle back home, cozy up in a media room, and fire up the electronics for an evening with Netflix, or Amazon Prime. When Danny and I go for a walk at night, the streets are quiet and lonely except for the dog owners. The houses are dark but sometimes a window is glowing blue.

You have to come to Paris to be with fellow humans. Along the quai, we are illuminated by streetlamp, and starlight. We wait at intersections to cross, en masse. Pass a narrow footbridge over the river where a band has set up, playing with sincerity and without artifice, for tips. People cluster around them. It feels very basic and right, almost primeval.

A guy bumps into me from behind, and apologizes nicely. He blames looking down at his smartphone. I smile, why not? Practice my French, which is just starting to come back. I work for the company making the software for the smartphone that caused the collision. And I'm not proud of it, but my hands go down to my purse to make sure it's intact.

It is.

Thus begins a friendly conversation. French people talk a lot. So much! It's dizzying, rapid fire in English and French. It's that weird language duel where both of you are determined to show off your skills. And this guy has way more practice. I hang around introverts, engineers. We're trying our best to be invisible. We're trying not to know each other. In France, conversation is a competitive sport.

About 10 minutes in, I realize my talkative companion is rather focused on me and this might not be a random encounter. No smartphone in sight. This lovely man, who spends his days wheeling handicapped travelers around Aeroport Charles de Gaulle and his evenings apparently giving informal walking tours of the Left Bank. Yes, he is out for a casual stroll on a summer night. But he's also thinking, the night is young.

He likes to dance. Would I like to dance by the river? His hand goes to my arm and gently whirls me around. I'm off-guard and it's the most awkward twirl ever. But my purse is safe and it's dark and no one knows me here. Still I feel deeply embarrassed, like the geeky girl at the school dance. Everything else about this scene might be different, but I'm still me.

A few minutes later, I let him go. It makes me smile from the inside, and go on smiling, an endless secret smile in the dark. What a cheeky, harmless caper! And how unexpected, a stranger's gift - the gift of being seen in a crowd.

Body and soul, partie 2

This is the truth, what she really looks like, the Seine at dusk. No retouching, no magic wand, no beauty aids. 

It is evening, early August. Outside the air is just the right temperature for strolling without a jacket. Many people are doing just that; walking along the river, across the river on the Pont Neuf or one of its sisters. Some of us finding the stone stairs right down to the water itself, where you can pass close to the houseboats and the floating bars with terraces, their chalkboards listing the offerings du jour. 

The open decks look inviting. Most of the boards offer libations; they all look good, but I'm burning off the wine from dinner. Another reason to walk: the thought of sitting alone, with a view fit for a king or queen and no one to share it with. 

The river draws a multitude, but no one from my life. It feels really strange to be alone. On the other hand, the apartment is off-limits tonight. Jean-Baptiste is throwing a huge bash for his girlfriend's birthday. It's a bacchanal, with food, drink, loud music, strangers. The excess shows that he loves her, or maybe that they're so young. I'm staying away.

After a few minutes, I find a worthy spot and sit there on the edge of the Left Bank, watching the dark river. Watching the light of the day fade slowly, slowly. On the quay there are families with kids, couples, a few singles. Many languages being spoken. But there's no tourist queue to grow old in, no sweaty and unruly crowd to wade through, no gaudy souvenir stands with stuff made in China (Le Chat Noir! Le Tour Eiffel!).

The soul of a place can't be bought and taken someplace else, taken with us. It is not a thing. These few moments watching the river, watching the sky and the buildings between river and sky, this might be all we have. 

The word exists in French: passe-temps. The Romans who settled far from home in the boondocks of Lutetia, they must have done this simple thing. The peasants who wrought their fury in the Revolution, the artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many whose names are known only to a few, maybe only to their families. All of us.

The sky gathers colors and transforms. Sightseeing boats drift by, several per minute, quickly, as if they have someplace else to be. The larger ones look like they might have casinos and dance floors and other luxuries. All are lit within, giving a good view of the people on deck and at tables in the dining rooms. Some of the boats have external floodlights that they shine on the river banks and the undersides of bridges, even at us. 

The lights swing around, the people change one position for another on the boats. We sit there in the almost-dark, part of the backdrop. We sit there taking it in.

Body and soul

On Day 5, I feel somewhat human.

Until now I've been staying close to home, wearing a groove in the pavement between the apartment and the office. It's at most ~300 meters, 100 as the crow flies.

In Paris, the neighborhood streets radiate like bicycle spokes from a central plaza, the local hub. It's the classic design. In this case, the plaza was the Place d'Estienne d'Orves. A real mouthful!  I managed to avoid invoking its name. And chaotic! Its crazy traffic and busy intersections were something to avoid; I traversed it only when strictly necessary.

Luckily, crossing the Place d'Estienne d'Orves was not required to get to work. From the door of the building where I was staying, it was a simple route.

You crossed the street and tacked left to the corner near the Bistro des Deux Theatres, skirted the side of the Ecole des Garcons, curving behind the Eglise de la Trinite. Then you crossed on the diagonal, tacking left on Rue Clichy toward the bistro Vert Tulip (watch the cars), turning hard right again onto Rue de Londres.


Parisians have their well-defined routes. I felt validated on the way to and from the office, observing other humans doing the same crazy zigzag tango. They walked quickly and purposefully, head down, in that way, giving it a certain grace. Sometimes I recognized a fellow traveler. Bon!

Having mastered the routine, and now (mostly) sleeping at night, it was time to venture forth. I felt up to it. Feeling adult, I left work at 6:30, walked to the Metro, bought a token, got on a train. I texted my niece Laura. That place, the restaurant we went to in 2007 with the group. You know the one. Is this it?

A text came back: mmm maybe. Then, bless her heart, a few minutes later she found the real place. Chez Fernand. It was early; they fit me in. One for dinner? No problem.

Chez Fernand is easy to mistake for a classic French bistro. Visually, it's a dead ringer: ground floor with vaulted ceilings, red-checked tablecloths, convivial ambiance. The menu is in French (English on the flip side). The food is fresh, stylish, delicious.

Yet just like last time, as I look around the dining room almost no one is actually French. The service is so accommodating, so warm, that foreigners seek it out. Stumble with your French? No problem, we speak English. Need to know if there's flour in the sauce? No problem, we're savvy to gluten-free.

You can see why this is the place I chose for my first real night out.

I order the beef and a glass of Crozes-Hermitage (in French). If I had failed, used the wrong verb form or tense or something, it would have been OK, no shame.

They bring the food; marvelous. All week I've been dining chez work and the simple places around the Place d'Estienne d'Orves. At home I would be raving. Now all I have to do is sit here and eat solo gracefully, pretending the world is my oyster.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Blé noir

Paris in August is hot and crowded. I swore I'd never do this again.

Not only here again, but 2 weeks early...why is that? Not for vacation, nor the privilege of mingling with hordes of tourists. To tell the truth it feels a little weird. It feels weird carrying a laptop bag around the streets of the 9th, and stopping at a tiny supermarket for provisions on the way home. Just like one of the locals (not).

Two weeks to learn how to eat here. When my manager heard what I was doing, he said "France, isn't that the land of bread? Bakeries? Sandwiches?" He wishes he could work out of the Paris office, he's a little jealous. But no one would wish this project on themselves. La baguette, la quiche, la sauce, la brioche, le croissant, la crepe. Gluten free, and mostly dairy-free? Nearly impossible.

I need something in my favor and that thing might be the system. There is a formula to many things in France including food. This was a lesson from touring in 2003 and 2007. If a town was just big enough to have something, it would have a little Cocci market or Petit Casino. If it had a place with tables and chairs, here's the order of likelihood: a bar, a pizza restaurant w/a little of everything, a creperie, a real cafe. 

Since I don't know where I'll be when hunger strikes, and hunger is a constant for cyclists, the project is to figure out how to eat in as many of these institutions as possible. In advance, not when hungry and tired. 

The closest store to the apartment is the little Franprix on Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. It has a happy orange banner with its name out front. I do my best to look normal. Except I'm reading labels. Scanning the ingredients of prepared foods, looking for dinner. Looking for those patterns. 

It is tedious and uncertain work. French already has a lot of words that mean similar things. There is a forest of words for wheat and flour and glutinous grains like épeautre (spelt) and boulgour (bulgur).

Then after only a few minutes, a hit!
Unbelievably, these crepes don't contain any wheat flour! Just the blé noir, farine de blé sarrasin, buckwheat (which is gluten-free).

Can't believe my luck. Thanks to some pesky invaders of the 9th century this package is coming home with me. And creperies are on the map! 

Hey, Paris

She was always the popular girl that everyone loved. She's so beautiful, so romantic, so well-dressed! Everyone loved Paris except me.

What I saw was copious traffic and snobbery. Wealth and power. Tour buses, armies of tourists. Dirt on the buildings and dog poop on the sidewalks. The smell of pee. Hypocrisy, noise, smog. The occasional tree choking under tons of pavement.

I don't exactly remember the conversation. How or when I told my manager that I'd be working from the Paris office for a couple of weeks. Like the rest of the arrangements for Paris-Brest-Paris, it just kinda happened. I registered on the last possible day. I bought a plane ticket (with trepidation, because Air France). I looked up the office location on Google Maps and found a place nearby on airbnb.

Need time to get over jet lag, I said. Need to learn how to eat gluten-free in France (of all places). All true.

Need to flee a thing at work that no one can talk about. An acquisition of sorts. With consequences and politics and stress. Feelings of helplessness. Need lots of exercise, a change of scenery. Naturally, riding Paris-Brest-Paris for the fifth time. At least it's good for my brain. At least I can control the bike. It's better than being here.

Something else has to be said about Paris. It's a fabulous place to escape to. Once you remember some French. Once you stop waking up at 3am. Taking melatonin, then sleeping like a dead person until 10 or 11. Using the shower to get conscious. Fumbling around to get dressed. Stress testing the coffee machines at the office. (Ceramic espresso cups!)

After a plane trip the hangover goes on and on and on. Hey, a party girl needs a place to crash.