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Sep. 13th, 2010

Yesterday, my dear wife and I boarded a plane for Detroit. Detroit you say? Why ever would you do that?

Well, it was the first leg of a much larger journey, and it is apparently the hub from which Delta/KLM flies you to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam, okay, so now we're talking. Off to Europe.

But not really to Amsterdam.

No, the trip really goes to Paris.

So, after many hours of flying, and walking through airports, and going through security and passport control, and getting a little public transit experience in Paris, how are things going?

I am going to say GREAT! Because every day of this vacation, without fail, is going to be GREAT!

We are, however, moving a bit slowly and are tired. So, I can, if not explain, at least, sum up.

We departed Baltimore-Washington International Airport at approximately 4:45 on Sunday. We have been blessed by the assistance of Laura's parents, who flew out on Wednesday to look after the kids while we are gone.

We flew to Detroit. A perfectly acceptable flight as these things go. Just a quick jump from the East Coast in the Mid-atlantic, closer to France to a place somewhat more distant. In the back of your minds just has to be the mantra, we saved $500 with this routing.

So, in Detroit, which has a nice airport with an interesting indoor tram system (which we did not ride because we wanted to stretch our legs), we had a short lay over and then onto the international flight to Amsterdam.

We had to go through passport control, run by the folks at my sister agency US Customs and Border Protection. The young man in front of us who told the inspector that he was a GW student, but he was going to study Islam in Jordan got a couple of questions. Laura and I got waived through. The plane was a huge and packed flight. We were somewhat back in the plane, but not so much that we had far to walk. We were in the center set of 4 seats, to one side, with Laura towards the middle and me on the aisle. They fed us, and that was okay. We had these individually controlled entertainment centers. The controls were fastened into the arm rests, where people's thighs tended to set off the call buttons. Bad engineers. On the other hand, the control could pop out and worked pretty well, although you had to be careful about the retractable cord, because it could whip that thing right out of your hand. I give a slight edge to the positive aspect for the engineers on that one, but I think we need to make the designers take a lot more international flights so they can think about what they have done.

There were a fair number of movies. Nothing great, but I picked one to get me through the dinner service etc. I watch Prince of Persia. Not wonderful in itself. Some striking imagery, but hey, where was the script (not to mention the fact that they did not seem to have any Persians, or Arabs or anybody really remotely from the Middle East actually starring in the movie). It passed the time, and then we tried to get some shut eye.

That worked okay, but to every person who steadied themselves on or next to my head as they headed to the bathroom (which was directly behind my seat), I hope something ironic happens to you in the future, because I had less than optimal (even making allowances for an international flight) sleep.

About an hour out from Amsterdam, they fed us again. The banana was good. I think I actually ate while we were over Ireland, but that went by fast as I watched the real time map of our flight.

In no time we were landing in beautiful sunny Amsterdam, which was a little out of character to my knowledge, because the city is supposed to be more like Seattle or Portland in its weather tendencies. We really only got to see the airport. A nice facility, in which we were immersed in a great deal of hustle and bustle and dozens of languages and dialects (oh, and the airport announcer who every five minutes was calling someone by name, telling them they were holding up this or that flight, and they better get on our their luggage was coming off; I kid you not, in the hour plus that we were there, it seemed like she called out two dozen or more passengers from almost as many flights; not us however).

We went through Dutch passport control. No big deal. Very efficient and courteous. Then back through security. I did have to take off my belt and take everything out of my pockets (metal or not), but I did get to keep my shoes. I have to say that this, to my mind, gives an edge to the Dutch as far as how pleasant it is to pass through. That, and the brightly colored multi-sized bins you get to sort your stuff into to be x-rayed. Almost festive.

So, amid people being warned that their luggage was going to be tossed off the plane (no doubt later to be blown up as a cautionary measure), and English, French, German, Dutch, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin and who knows what all being spoken at every turn, we passed our time quickly at our gate awaiting the final flying leg of the journey.

I am afraid that, despite the fact that I am going to have a GREAT time in France and Paris this week, I have to say that the Air France flight from Amsterdam to Paris was the least well organized, least disciplined and least comfortable of the three stages of air travel. First, they only had two boarding calls. First they called the first class/premium passengers, and then they called everybody else. No careful phasing, no staggered boarding according to some at least facially logical formula. Just, okay, now everybody else!

It was a zoo. And, they took our large carry-on bags away. We had carefully dealt with them from BWI to Detroit and from there to Amsterdam, but the polite but firm Air France folks said there was no way our bags were going into the passenger cabin of their flight. So, one attendant told us to leave our bags with her and she tagged them. As we turned to go, another rushed up, grabbed Laura's bag and told me to grab the other one and follow her. So, after I assisted in temporarily stowing the bags on a platform outside a restricted door from the jetway, we entered into the chaos that was the Air France flight trying to get "everyone" to their seats and stow their stuff. First thing I noticed was that, unlike in other flights, there was no enforced discipline as to what you put under the seat in front of you and what went in the overhead bins. Jackets, purses, all sorts of bags and other small items just went up. The flight attendants just had to try to find ways to put things up, and as time went by, the people who came later had their things stowed all over the place far away from where they were sitting. It was all just a bit silly.

The plane was older, with an interior design I had not seen before. I did find it useful that the back of the tray table had a hook for hanging a jacket and a fold down cup holder. The trip itself was fast, just a quick 45 minute hope with no change in time zone and we landed IN PARIS!!!!!!!!!

I noticed as we flew in all the fields, small towns and villages, water courses, wooded roads below. Most of that geography probably reflects land use from Medieval, or even older Roman or Gaulish times. It was just a little thrilling to think about.

At the venerable Charles de Gaul International, we offloaded through kind of spiffy glassed jetways in the brilliant mid-day sun. We got our bearings and joined a huge flow of passengers heading towards the baggage area. We did not have too much trouble retrieving our bags, and then we had to decide how we would get to our accommodations. We had decided on the trip to Paris to be adventurous and take public transit. Though we thought a beat about a taxi, we rejected that and headed for the RER train terminal.

It was packed, again with the polyglot masses that were coming and going. Laura remained with the bags while I ventured to effect my first transaction with a French automated ticket kiosk. I got at the back of a moderately long line (as it turned out, quite a slow moving, moderately long line). I tried, through my fog of fatigue, to watch how the machine worked. I belatedly figured out that, though I knew that it would only take coins or credit cards, that another set of machines next to these would change bills into coins. However, I was already committed to my line, with a wall of Germans waiting behind me. So, I figured out, pretty much, how the credit card reader worked, and I was actually able to assist the American woman ahead of me get her tickets. It was enlightened self-interest, of course. The sooner she was done, the sooner I could also be done.

So, armed with two RER-B tickets good for one way transit from the Airport into the city itself, we boarded the next train. Although we had plenty of room at first and did not feel bad that we and our bags were taking up a block of seats, it soon proved to be the fact that the RER-B is not some express for tourists going from CDG into central Paris, it is a working local train, and it was pretty soon packed. This could have been a problem, as we approached our stop at Gard du Nord because there was a significant number of people and other objects between us and the door. Before it filled up too much though, I did get for the first, but probably not the last time in Paris, felt a little bad as a young woman nursing her baby came through the car begging. No one (locals or travellers) offered her anything, and one flight attendant, who remarkably looked almost like the young beggar’s sister to me, gave her such a look of disgust it was a little shocking. Anyway, we weren't going to give her anything anymore than anyone else, but I did feel like this was the first time that I was having to be a heel, and I had not even got to do anything fun in Paris yet. Still, she moved on and the train car filled up to the brim.

Turning back to how we were going to get off the train, when we pulled away from the station before our stop, I got up, did my best to say "excuse me sir" in French to the first person in my way, who was very polite as we danced around each other to maneuver him behind both me and my bags so he could sit and let Laura by, and then, once we stopped, we somehow (with minimal application of the sharp elbow approach) got off the train.

However, once there on the platform, we needed to figure out how to transfer to the Metro. And it turns out that the crowds that take the Paris Metro are very much "Devil take the hindmost" as far as being resolute about where they were going. We had to dodge a fair number of folks to find a corner of the platform in which to get our bearings.

So, we exited the RER area and headed for the number 5 metro line. We had to get tickets and thought to buy some books of tickets for the trip. However, this time the machines defeated me and would not take any of our credit cards. We, fortunately, had some coins that Laura's cousin Jennifer had given her (left from the trip in June) and with these we bought two precious tickets.

Then, down the stairs with our luggage (and each of us questioning our sanity for not instead going up to the street to summon a taxi) and onto the Orange #5 line. A few stops later, we then transferred to the Brown line, #11 to get to our stop at Rambuteau. We barely made it into the metro car, with the assistance of a local holding the door for Laura and me. No sooner were we in, but the train lurched forward violently, almost throwing us to the floor (actually, had I not caught myself on the pole, I would have violently sat upon an older Parisian lady whose life, I think, flashed before her eyes; she might be the first Parisian who took an active dislike to me, but hey, it was the train operator's fault, not ME!). Having survived the takeoff, we went a few short stops to Rambuteau. We headed up in the busy and bustling stream of Parisians to find blue sky and high puffy clouds awaiting us above the Pompidou Center.

Now we just had to orient ourselves and find our apartment building. While doing so, a Roma whom President Sarkozy has not yet deported came up to beg coins (jerk moment number two for me) and I sent him off. We figured out which way we needed to go down Rue Rambuteau and headed off passing shops, shoppers, restaurants and the ever present hustle and bustle. We were pretty tired, but, Laura decisively took us in just the right direction (past, by the by, like 5 million pizza places) and we soon were looking at the entrance of the apartment building that matched exactly the picture we had from the internet. We followed a resident into the building since the security key box was not where the directions said it might be.

Just about out of energy, we showed the pleasant lady behind the building management desk our paperwork. She kindly called our landlord (or, as it turned out, a lady business partner). The lady, Annmarie from Amsterdam, quickly showed us how our keys would work to get into the building and what to do if we got locked out. Then, she took us up to our efficient little apartment and showed us all the features. It was a little warm and she opened the windows (oh, note about earlier transit, windows on the commuter train and the metro both open to let in breeze).

Our windows look in over the play yard, in the middle of all the apartments, that belongs to a day care center. While Annmarie was showing us around, it was empty and tranquil. She was very friendly and thorough with her instructions and advice. When she left, one of our neighbors began a gentle jazz riff on a saxophone. We were in Paris, with our little apartment, all paid up, in a beautiful and busy neighborhood, just off the Marais in the 3rd District (3e Arrondissemont) and we were ready to go.

That is, after Laura shot off a brief e-mail, ready to go to bed because we were dead tired.

Once we hit the mattress (nice, not too hard), reality further broke in. Hey, we are next to a day care, and some of those kids scream and cry.

A lot.

Well, this will be another good reason not to sit around the apartment, once we are rested, and get out, out, out.

Also, there is some construction going on in the building (RRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAANNNGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG goes a power saw or something), but, that also should be confined to the times we are out and about.

So, I got an hour of shut eye, but was restless.

So, I thought I would get first impressions down while I still recalled them.

This will probably be the most involved (though I hope not the only) writing.

I am full of nervous excitement to get out. To try to not embarrass myself with my pitiful and meager French. To eat some great croissants and crepes. To see world class art, architecture and culture and history of every sort.

So, my instructions are to wake Laura at 6 and off to sample some food and some evening/night life in the City of Lights. Wahooo!

So, I am expecting to have the most wonderful GREAT time with my one true love as we mark twenty years of marriage together.

It is and will continue to be GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!