Saturday, August 8, 2015

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.

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