May 10


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We didn't sleep much, thanks to jet lag. However, we decided that five in the morning was (a) really too early to go out and (b) not nearly enough sleep, plus (c) it was raining again, so we kept rolling in bed until we fell asleep again - this time until 11. One up and running Essan guided us to the quarter of Miguel and Randy (I am talking code here, people, so that I don't offend anyone). We sat for a wonderful lunch at the famous Place des Vosges, sitting outside under the arcades during the rain, me enjoying the "typical French" Chili con Carne and Essan her duck ccrêpe. Typical or not, it was great, with great service by a Miguel / Randy guy, truly in the spirit of the neighborhood.

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After lunch we teleported to the tiny little island Ile St. Louis, and to everyone's surprise, the sun peeked out. Everyone seemed to be welcoming the sunshine, the people in the cafes, the mandatory lovers in the streets, and even the traffic police. We slowly made our way to the Notre Dame; I am not a real church person but looking at it from a purely architectural perspective is quite impressive. It was reassuring to see that other than being a touristy attraction it also still serves the original purpose: fully in the modern trend with fancy glowing glass signs, the confessional has been transformed from a wooden box to a 21st century glass office where you meet the priest face to face for a discussion. You can even pick one of five offered languages.

Having satisfied our church needs for the trip we ventured on to the Arche de Triomphe. Illuminated or not, it was still daylight so that we could see it in full splendor against the increasingly darkening cloudy sky. Being true to my fear of heights I sent Essan to the top before the rain had any chance to start, while I stayed at the bottom. That was not all that bad actually: since it was the weekend of WW2 end celebrations, and the Arche is here to honor all the (victorious) French troops, it was only logical to see a group of school kids laying some flowers in honor of the fallen soldiers. Indeed, this brought flashbacks from my childhood in communist Czechoslovakia where we were once ordered to do just about the same at the memorial of the unknown Soviet soldier. When we - 10-year old boys - pointed out that we didn't actually want to be there, all hell broke loose and my mother has stories to tell about the aftermath. As you can see, honesty has a long history with me.

Once Essan returned from the top we posed for a picture by the Arche, as a friendly older lady from Alabama offered her services, not knowing that she would get a major workout from handling my camera. Still, her picture turned out to be the best volunteer picture of the trip. I also lived up to the promise and asked Essan to take a picture of me with Jonathan's lenses in front of this famous backdrop, to show that they made it all the way to Paris.

With the day coming to an end, we thought what better to do than to have dinner at the Champs d'Elysées, with style. As usual we picked a random restaurant and filled our tummies with pretty generic food. I would like to send the chefs to Prague for an apprenticeship... Nuf bitching, off to the hotel to switch to night mode and head to the Louvre - in time for Essan to catch the last hour before the museum closes, this time equipped with the 1D2 and 24/1.4 lens - good enough to take great pictures pretty much anywhere without flash. Meanwhile, I was camping around the square between the pyramids, catching the changing light - and even a star (well, it was Mars) peeking through the scattering clouds.

One of the problems with Paris is its location: even without daylight savings time, the daylight is not noon-symmetrical, and you can completely forget about it with DST on. So we waited and waited for it to get dark, and for the pyramid to light up. It did get dark, reasonably dark at least, but the pyramid didn't light. I don't know if lighting is triggered by holidays, weekends, visits of dignitaries, or cost of electricity; last time I was here was about 15 years ago, in the winter, on a weekday, and the pyramid was on, including the water fountain. Who knows.

With a careful eye on the watch we decided around 10 that it was time to pack up and make a run for the last destination - the Eiffel Tower, the top of it. Connecting as efficiently as it gets we ran together with a Russian couple from the subway station to the tower, only to find out that the top deck had closed 15 minutes ago. They lied when they said 23:00 - but then that would not be the only time that timely precision was not one of the local fortés. Still we managed to get tickets to the 2nd level, which is still high enough for my tastes. It seemed that even Essan was sufficiently happy with the view - the little bit that there was, anyway. We scored some pictures of the tower from the tower, of us on the tower, and so on. And when we weren't busy taking pictures for / of us, we were providing services for other visitors, who for some reason thought that we knew what we were doing.


Not to rub things in, but Essan's usual quest for a bathroom was colorful as usual: sorry, the bathroom is already closed, you need to go downstairs. Arrived there, to everyone's surprise the bathroom is not only closed but even gated off. The good news is that at this hour the park is big, dark, and pretty empty, so what the heck - 0.40 Euros saved. What's up with that, anyway? 10.40 Euros to get to the top of The Tower. Why not 10? 11? 15? I am sure that people would not complain any more about 15 than about 10.40. Or maybe 10.40 comes from 10 + 0.40 for usage of the "free" restroom at the tower; sounds plausible.

We observed the stroboscopic flickering of the tower (which happens every hour not quite at the hour for about 10 minutes) for one last time making your typical cheesy "awww" noises in the park, set up perfectly straight in the middle of course, so that the TS-E lens could do its magic once again. Once the flickering subsided we slowly walked back under the tower and back to the subway station. Once we realized that we just missed our train we came up with a different, simpler route back, heading in the opposite direction. A group of American youth were already waiting for the same train, obviously confused whether there even was such a thing as a next train. I pointed them at the posted subway schedule, showing that there are still two more trains coming - and eventually, at least one of them came.

At our stopover station we had plenty of time waiting for the next train, and so I decided to approach the vending machine and get some of my favorite German Haribo gummy bears. The price of 1.50 Euros was rip-off enough, but hey, I fed the machine two Euros and entered "40". I admit there were bigger surprises in my life than the machine's reaction, "make a different choice". Stubbornly I insisted on "40" and it stubbornly insisted on not dispensing gummy bears. So I asked for my money back, but the machine wouldn't budge. None of the three cancel buttons would spit out my coins, always just the same beep. So I chose a different goodie, and got my next surprise. The machine correctly subtracted 1.50 Euros but this time didn't even bother spinning the conveyor spiral. I am sure it happened to you before, a machine will spin but whatever you ordered just ah so barely didn't make the drop. Well, this machine didn't even bother to do that. This was personal now - it took money from me and didn't give me anything. What would a normal person do? Who knows, that's not me; Essan's reaction was very appropriate, loud laughter and a sigh of "oh no not again" when she realized that I was about to give the machine more money. The machine accepted it, and my input of "40" didn't serve me any gummy bears but a stick of Mentos. Yes, I just spent three Euros on a stick of Mentos - at Saturday's exchange rate about five bucks, baby. Happy about my moral victory over the stupid machine I proceeded to do with the Mentos as I would have done with the gummy bears - eat them all, right here, on the spot, very much to Essan's even more laughter about my rather pronounced toothpaste odor. There are worse things (and odors) in life.

Come time, come train - even if just the last one, and going only half of the line. As long as the new end stop is our stop, things are fine. And what better end to a long weekend in Paris than riding the last metro of the day to the last station. As always we were warmly welcomed at the station by the Temptations girl, happily glowing at the subway stairs right by our hotel.

May 11 - Flight Home

I made a wise choice when booking our return flight - of the four offered connections I picked the last one, leaving just after two in the afternoon. That meant that we could actually sleep in and calmly get to the airport. The decision to take the metro was also a good one, as the roads to CDG were blocked by demonstrators and striking workers, accompanied by police in riot control gear. It seems that wherever we go there are strikes. While I did operate the camera properly, there are no pictures of the protests - there was no memory card in the only handy camera, and it doesn't have a custom function prohibiting shutter release without one, unlike its bigger siblings. Oh well.

With luggage checked in we both devoured a ham sandwich and waited for the long (8:30 hours) flight to Chicago. Two Ben Stiller movies and three Powerbook batteries later we were landing in Chicago, tired, but with pictures processed and story written. The immigration line was more civilized than usual, and the immigration lady was even exceptionally friendly. I got to dine at the Panda Express - Gourmet Fast Food once again, just like months earlier when returning from Antarctica - all excited like a little boy. Panda was especially important since American doesn't feed the passengers on "short" 4:30 hour flights anymore. It's their own rule - any flight of 4 hours or more and you get food. When you read the schedule, the flight from ORD to SFO is 4 hours, 27 minutes. But when you board the plane you will be told that the flight is only 3 hours and 59 minutes long. What a coincidence! 4 hours and 25 minutes later we landed in San Francisco, and not much later got home and to bed.

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