After a brief flight over the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, with all the ski runs looking like cranial scars on the green-haired hills, we arrived in Montreal. It stands to reason that we found a cheap flight between Quebec and France, as one might expect a lot of interchange between people who like to complain about each other's French.
Montreal's airport has some quite spiffy new parts, but that's not where our gate was. Actually, my main criterion for judging an airport is the availability of electrical outlets, for charging my laptop battery. On this scale, Montreal scored at mid-range. We had to leave our gate area to find one, and while I sat charging, Annelie went off to find a bathroom and look around. This is normally not worth mentioning, except that in this case, Annelie must have lost track of time, because she did not show up again when they announced our flight, nor when they made the second or the third call. In fact, it was not until they were calling our names over the loudspeakers that she scooted into view, with wide eyes and "oops" grin.
A bit of what the French call "footing" and a few "désolés" got us onto the aircraft without problem, luckily. We were then able to settle down on the Airbus and wait for Paris to show up. The flight was perfectly fine; I watched ten minutes of Chicago, until I decided it was too awful to bother with, which was also pretty much the case with the food. But we didn't really care, because we were getting to Europe cheaply.
For me, a crucial moment in a trip to Europe is the one, after a "night" in which I typically get around twenty minutes of sleep, when the airplane breaks through the bottom layer of clouds and, in the usual case, a patchwork of green and brown fields comes into view. The care with which the buildings, the fields, and the roads are arranged, the red or black tiled roofs, the white walls, and the little rows of trees always look like an American's dream of Europe, so it's like waking up and falling asleep at the same time.
We landed at Charles de Gaulle and tried to get some informations, as they always say. We were quite nervous about the strike that had been going on in France for several days, because it was said that there was "massive disruption" of the train schedules, and we had only two days to get to Florence. We had figured out the cheapest way to do our trip: get a cheap flight over "the Puddle", and then go everywhere else by train with a Eurail pass. Please don't ask me about the company we bought our Eurail pass from, if you don't want me to get very angry.
At least the commuter trains were running on time, so we caught a train to Paris Nord and amused ourselves with the signs on the train.
Emerging from the train into the new addition to the Gare du Nord, and then emerging from the station into Paris, was a very pleasant shock. Paris is one of the most visually (and olfactorily, and aurally) interesting cities I know. For some reason, it causes me perpetual indignation that Paris really is everything it is cracked up to be. Personally, what I like about it, besides the French themselves, who I find unendingly charming and natty, is the way that every little neighborhood (or at least many of them) is laid out to a standard that is not complicated but results in an ideal urban landscape. Banks, shops, and administrative offices are interspersed with cafes, restaurants, and hotels, such that every little neighborhood seems not only complete in itself, but charmingly chaotic and pleasantly enough laid out that you want to sit outside and just watch the daily course of life. Of course, this is true of much of Europe, but I think the French do it perhaps better than anyone, damn them.
We had chosen a hotel in the 9th Arrondissement, one of my favorites (God, that sounds pretentious), because it was not too far from the center and also not too far from the Gare du Nord. Of course, with six bags, even a short trip can seem a bit long. We were very pleased to have gotten an economical rate--via the Internet--at a three-star hotel, so we were a tad surprised to find that our room was a bit, how shall we say, crappy. But I have stayed in many hotels in Europe and understand that crappy is the rule for anyone who is poor enough to carry his own bags, and the room had great big windows overlooking the street. And besides, there were soft, horizontal surfaces to sleep on, which in my jet-lagged state sounded like the best idea ever. Annelie, who is a real trooper, was very pleased to have a room with the smallest bathtub she had ever seen. She made me take a picture of it (not shown).
The funny thing about Le Modern Hotel La Fayette (that is the name; I suspect there is an "Ancien Hotel La Fayette" somewhere, or perhaps they wisely decided that "Le Crappy Hotel La Fayette" would not reel them in) is that when we inquired about reserving a room for our return to Paris, to fly home seven weeks later, we were told that we could have a room, but it would be almost double the price. Since it was in fact the price, not the stained carpet or the saggy beds, that attracted us to the hotel, we asked why we could not just have a room for the same rate. The manager explained that that was their special Internet rate, and their normal rate was much higher.
"So do you still give the Internet rate?"
"So can we get it?"
"No, not here."
"Only over the Internet?"
"Only over the Internet."
"So if I go to an Internet cafe and make the reservation, will I get that rate?"
"Otherwise, it's more?"
"Otherwise it's more."
I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to guess what we did.
In fact, it turned out that the nearest Internet cafe was run by a Swede. This made Annelie very happy, not because she likes to meet her fellow countrymen, but because the Swede asked me if I was Swedish. Apparently, I look more Swedish than Annelie does. This pleases her immensely, for some reason I can't quite understand. At least it's better than being asked if we're American, which is what usually happens. A couple of weeks later, a pair of Argentinians in Paris did ask us if we were Spanish, but that was probably not on the basis of looks, but rather on the basis of accent (I spoke to them in Spanish). I was very flattered, since I almost never get asked if I'm Spanish. The only time it happened in Spain was in Albarracín when one shopkeeper said, after I started talking, "Oh, I thought you were foreigners."
In Italy, no one ever asked if I was Italian. Believe me.