Toulouse/Paris 2009

After a night in Paris we took the metro to Gare Austerlitz, and wandered through the station looking for the Grand Lignes as they call them. Anyone who's not been in a Paris train station probably doesn't know of this experience. So many people take trains in France that the train stations are the size of small airports and Paris has 6 of them. They combine regional trains (Corail), High Speed intercity (TGV), Suburban (RER) and Metro (subway) trains all in a dizzying array of floors, escalators and shopping malls. My first trip through Paris I came via the tunnel under the English Channel. The gentleman in London's Waterloo station told me to take the C1 RER from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. I made it and to this day I have no idea how I pulled it off. I've retraced that path and it was sheer luck. I remember asking someone if they spoke English but they said no. Just getting from the TGV to the RER level through massive numbers of escalators, payment turnstiles, confusing signs etc. and then getting on the RER and getting back out of the RER system, to the right level in Gare de Lyon AND finding a booth to get my ticket was a miracle. We've traveled on many many trains, subways and suburban rail systems now and even with that knowledge I give myself ample time to transfer between transportation systems. It seems that when you exit the metro or RER you spend quite a lot of time walking down tunnels, up stairs, down stairs, through more tunnels and maybe get to ride an escalator or two and hopefully you don't tear your new cashmere sweater climbing under a barbed wire fence trying to save time. The Paris metro system is NOT handicap accessible (mental of physical)!

So the metro ride to the train station was uneventful but the walking down tunnels, up stairs, down stairs, through more tunnels and maybe get to ride an escalator or two and climbing under barbed wire fences was a little irritating. Scratch the part about the barbed wire fence, that's a different story. By now our bags are chock full of crap we probably don't need and are getting quite heavy. In addition we're carrying my 9x7 carpet that I bought in Toulouse and Natalya has her daybag packed as well. We do find the Grande Lignes and thankfully we'd printed our ticket in Toulouse the night before.

Not having had breakfast nor the time to find it we boarded our train. I stopped to ask twice about the ticket. In the French train system you have to validate your ticket by inserting them into little yellow boxes at the head of each platform which then stamps a time on them. It would seem that since most all tickets are only good for that one train ride that validating the ticket is a useless waste of human energy since after all you couldn't use the ticket twice. I've stopped questioning the wisdom of this since afterall it's a French thing and you just don't get anywhere by questioning the French. As much as I love the French there is the French way and then there's the logical way. Anyway our ticket was printed from the Internet and I could see myself folding it up and cramming it in the validation machine resulting in me removing the shreds with tweezers while the SNCF staff looks over my shoulder and complains in French. The alternative was to just board the train and pray to Napoleon that validation wasn't necessary. The fine for not validating your tickets is roughly $100 or in this case equal to the price of the tickets. After being on the train for a minute I exited and asked another conductor which said "It's not needed for this type of ticket". Still until the ticket man comes along and doesn't fine me I'm not off the hook.

After the train started moving I figured it was time to engage in the time honored French tradition of finding Croissants and bitter orange juice. Trains are hilarious sometimes because depending on the rails and or the car itself you may have a smooth as glass ride (TGV at 200mph comes to mind) or be practicing your bull riding for the local rodeo back home. This was one of those cars where if you were drunk you could probably walk a straight line. It was nicely finished but after walking the length of it I realize that the bolsters on the headrests are not to keep your drooling sleepy head from falling into the aisle but for people in the search for croissants from landing in your lap. The advantage trains have over airplanes is that you can go for a walk in the middle of your journey. It's a great mix because not only do you have the very natural act of hunting for food but you get adventure (jumping between moving rail cars) and you get to practice your swagger (and your pardons and excuse mois if you never quite get the rhythm down). The bar car as they say was where it always is - on the exact opposite end of the train from where you are. I'm not sure how this works but the people immediately next to the bar car probably cannot see it due to a vortex in the time space continuum and are forced to also trek to the opposite end of the train as well only to find the engine and as a result have to call off the expedition and return to their own car only to find as if by magic -  the bar car. It makes for an interesting time because the view from your seat during the journey isn't that much different than attending a runway show at Galleries Lafayette. The difference being that the steady stream of people walking the aisles on a train appear drunk, disillusioned and starved and the models at Galleries Lafayette only possess two of these traits. Which two depends on the model.

The French countryside is pretty but not amazingly so and resembles western Washington for the most part. What a lot of people don't realize is that most of France is made up of farms so about the time that you're completely engrossed in this idealist view of romantic French countryside full of vineyards and stone house you see a rusted tractor sitting in a field and a bunch of cows that don't look any different than what you'd see in America. France = farms.

We arrived in Toulouse at 2 pm. The market at St Sernin winds down at two and it will take us about 30 minutes to get there but we're still waiting on word from Jim about a hotel room. We really wanted to hit that market again and it only happens on Sunday. Jim mentioned that he'd let us crash on his floor saving us another $150. We walk by the Internet cafe to check the email and find that Sebastien and Jim have booked a restaurant and are expecting us and that we have a free room. At this point it doesn't make sense to go back to the train station to catch the metro or walk to the next station to catch it because then we'd only go one stop and will have paid $4 for that privilege so we hoof it. By the time we arrive it's clear that we're not catching the St. Sernin market so we drop our bags and go to lunch at the restaurants in the floor above the market at Place Victor Hugo.

The market at Place Victor Hugo is an interesting one because it's stalls of meat mongers with whole chickens, ducks, and other forms of animals along with ranges of produce and everything else you need to fashion a meal. To get upstairs you climb an unkept wooden stairway to the next level and as you open the door you realize you're onto something that the rest of the town already knows about as the entire floor full of various eating establishments are chock full of people eating. The food that you order here actually comes from down below. The duck probably had feathers on it a short time earlier. Even though we had reservations we end up waiting about 20 minutes. They're out of Magret de Canard so I take the menu.

The menu for those who aren't versed in "la French" is not the physical folded piece of paper with items on it as that's the la carte. If you order a la carte you're ordering off what we'd call the menu or literally "from the card". If you order le menu you will be surprised to not get la carte but a predetermined list of starters, main plates and possibly a dessert for a set price based on an unknown formula. However, if you choose the formulae you will get a subset of la menu (list of items form la carte) made of up items from la carte (the menu). Still with me? To make matters worse if you order a la carte and only choose an Entrée your server will remain at your table pen in hand staring at you and you don't know why. In France the entrée is the starter and the plat is your main course. The plat translates to plate so you're starting with the Entrée and ending with the plate. Sounds logical, that's sort of how I determine to stop eating in America too - when you get to the hard thing you're done. My menu included a salad with Foie gras, a steak called the onglet that's roughly equivalent to the American hanger steak fries. Yes, the French eat French fries....

The foie gras was average and the meat was tender but overall the meal was satisfying and definitely filling. Eating takes a long time in France and is followed up with a cafe (a cafe is not something made of wood and containing chairs and people waiting to take your order but in fact translates to coffee, how convenient you think that they'd serve coffee at a cafe), or dessert. With a meal you always get lengthy conversations about all things including the difference between shallots and onions which we never really resolve.

We drag ourselves back to our hotel and Jim who never seems to adjust to the time change goes to sleep. Natalya and I have to prepare for our return trip home and doing so venture out to our local Tunisian sweet shop to buy nut based goodies. We take a walk and return later to pack everything up. I'm not sure how we're getting everything home but it appears the best strategy is to vacuum pack the dirty clothes and carry the carpet in the dirty clothes bag. This would also mean we have too many items for carry on and will have to check a bag. For those of you who don't know my travel style I never ever check bags. I and my three kids can travel for months on end and never have more than carry on bags. This is an art form I believe but it keeps things simple. I've only checked a bag one other time and it's because it was over the weight limit for Virgin Atlantic so I had no other choice.

Nine-thirty pm brought a knock at the door which in turn brought Jim's smiling face. It's dinner time. If you're figuring out that the French spend a great deal of time eating you're right on the money. Natalya and I have chosen to return to a really great restaurant at Place St George near Place Wilson. The last time we ate there we had the most amazing mashed potatoes topped with caramelized shallots bathed in Sherry. This last item has haunted us since. We arrive in pouring rain and still sit outside. The French are amazing in this regard. They'll put up space heaters and whatever else just to sit outside. In Seattle if you put out a table on the sidewalk they turn their noses and and demand proper eating arrangements. I don't get it. Outside is less formal so you can show up wearing your pajamas and nobody will care. You can eat great food in your pajamas - what a concept! I tried ordering Squab (pigeon) again to no avail so I get the lamb shank. I'm told that there isn't any which my experience backs up. I've not seen one pigeon in all of Toulouse. Apparently they've "over fished" the proverbial pigeon waters.

So we're outside in the pouring rain under a canopy eating our foie gras. We at some point start getting horizontal rain and retreat to the safety of stone and timber. Our food arrives and there's something wrong - the shallots are missing. I ask about it and he brings me a small glass full of caramelized onions. Onions? Are we confused? Am I as an American not supposed to be able to tell the difference? I show them a picture of my meal since I photograph everything I eat and come to find out that they've changed chefs since then. I in turn insist they get the old one back and pronto which I'm sure doesn't please the new chef. Twice on this trip we've ordered something that was out of this world only to get a replacement or nothing at all - once in Paris at Le Square Cafe and now in Toulouse. How can you recommend a place if they keep changing the menu?

Having said all of that dinner was good as always and I'd be more than happy to have that exact same meal in Seattle even without the shallots. I do know however that I need to spend some time recreating the shallots. It's the only way. sigh..





Ah, Paris..... How I've missed you.

When I originally bought my tickets to Toulouse I figured I could go all the way to Toulouse then after I was done working I'd head to Paris and pick my plane up there. Air France on the other hand had other things on their mind. They said if I don't pick up my Toulouse leg I'd forfeit the entire flight and I'd have to buy another. This meant that if we were going to Paris it would have to be a round trip ticket. Natalya scoured the Internet looking for train tickets and like airplane tickets SNCF will raise and lower the prices throughout the day depending on availability. We got two tickets round trip to Paris in first class for 80 Euros which is half the cost of flying or driving either one. The ticket to Paris was on what I call the all night party train. This train officially called the idNight train is split up into thirds, one third is a lounge, the second is an area where DVD players and game machines are handed out and the third is called idZen which is for being quiet. Since it was an overnight train I figured being quiet was a good strategy and booked that ticket. I had every intention of checking out the rest of the train but fell asleep instead.

We arrived in Paris at 6:45 am and decided to go for a hotel on the Ill de la cite which is the island in the middle of the seine river only steps away from Pont Neuf. On arriving we are told they're booked as is all the other hotels they work with. Natalya and I took our bags and headed toward the Latin Quarter where we knew of Internet cafes. I figure either we find something on the way, we find something on the Internet or we stay in the hostel on the other side of the internet cafe. It seemed like a pretty good strategy with a decent chance of success. On the way in one of the little midevil streets we find a decent hotel with wifi for 100 euros. It's more than we would have paid if we looked further but we both needed food and wanted to rid ourselves of our ballast.

Our first order of business was to get on the Internet to see if Amber had left a message since we were going to meet her and Alex for dinner. She had so we set up a time and place (our favorite restaurant) and ventured out. Even though we've spent between 3 and 4 months in Paris there's many things we've never done like see the catacombs, Petite Palais, Grande Palais, Picasso Museum and many others. People who think they're going to "see" Paris in a 3 day stopover, or even a week or two or a month are all crazy. You don't realize until you get here that it would take you years to see Paris. There literally isn't any other place like it.

So breakfast appeared in the form of two pan au chocolates, two apple pastries and juice. We then proceeded to walk to the Grande Palais to see the Renoir exhibit. Renoir doesn't seem to have his own museum, we've never seen the inside of the Grande Palais and he's my favorite so off we go.

Paris is beautiful if you hadn't heard the news. I know there are places that aren't but for shear number of buildings, bridges and parks Paris can't be beat. I took pictures along the way. Upon arriving at the front door of the Grande Palais we find it closed and largely gutted. I then decide to do what I've felt like doing all morning - fall asleep on the marble stairs. Natalya after all has to deal with the stares not me since I'm asleep. She wore her fancy 1930s hat so I really think that's what people were staring at. Three ladies approached the door and gaggled back in forth in French and head off to another entrance. This Palace is huge so we think maybe they're on to something and head in the same direction. Actually scratch that, I woke up first and then headed in that direction. On the east entrance we find that not only is there a Renoir exhibit but an Istanbul/Byzantine empire exhibit so we go to both and both are decent. The photo to the right is the Petite Palais or the little one - it's petite, get it?. This gives you an idea how big the Grande Palais is. The fact that this is referred to as the small one gives you an idea of the scale of things in Paris.

After getting our fill of women who all look the same we head for E. Dehilerin near Les Halles. This is my favorite cooking store and I'm curious about what more I can cram into my bag if I for some reason lose my ability to reason and judge capacity. Les Halles is quite a ways from the Champs Elysees and the tourists are starting to get to me so we take the back streets and arrive in time to price the Staub Dutch ovens (too pricey) and carbon steel pans before being shooed out the door. Stomachs growling we head for Le Escarogot which we find is only serving cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. I won't even go into that. Tired of duck and knowing we're having it for dinner we eat at my favorite Indian restaurant near Pompidou Centre which has excellent Jalfrezy.

Dinner didn't come that much later... We arrive at our favorite restaurant only to find they've removed all references to duck from the menu. These guys made duck that was better than anything we had in Lang doc which is famous for it. Saddened we look at the other restaurants in the area and choose one. This was our neighborhood one summer and Le Square Cafe has been calling us back each year since. So much for that. I'm not sure why a restaurant would remove the one dish that made them stand out from the rest. I just don't get it.

Amber and Alex arrive and we head to the new restaurant. Amber's this cutesie looking girl that's sharp as a tack and a bit height challenged. I'd say that Alex probably has probably a foot on her in that department. I've not met Alex in person before but was impressed with him as he seems like a really decent guy and has a good sense of humor as well. Dinner was OK but a little disapointing because nobody had the Meg Ryan reaction to the food. sigh.

We split off and went two directions - Amber and Alex proceeded down a dead end divider in the middle of the street and we toward the Eiffel tower. I hope they figured out that going that direction was about 24,000 miles longer than the other way. I also hope they survived the traffic circle - those can be a tad dangerous when you're running across them in flip flops.

Our intentions with the Eiffel tower were to pick up more materials for Natalya to make earings out of. Unfortunately they only had the large keychains so we went home empty handed. We did pick up several flashing glass Eiffel towers though for gifts. A late metro ride returned us to the Latin Quarter were we preceded to speak Latin and get no response. I'm not sure the label is appropriate. It's Halloween (or alloweeen as the French say)  and the Latin Quarter is where the party people go so you can imagine the streets. I've never been more ashamed to be an American in my life. The streets were flooded by Americans being more obnoxious and rude then I thought possible. Thankfully we had triple pane windows so we slept immediately. Tomorrow we return to Toulouse.

Class is done.... We pack up our bags and head for the train station for Paris. We're going to Paris because Toulouse just doesn't do it for us and we're meeting a FB friend there for dinner. We were supposed to ship a box home to lighten our load but never go to it. Our bags are the most stuffed they've ever been. In addition we have a dirty clothes bag that makes me feel a bit like Santa Claus when it's thrown over my shoulder. Santa Claus delivering dirty clothes... We bought our tickets online and arrive at the train station to find out that it's an online only ticket and we can't retrieve printed ones at the station. We're told that we need to print them which isn't possible considering that we don't have a printer. After a quick search we find an internet cafe with a printer and we print our train tickets. Our tickets cost 80 Euros rount trip for first class for an overnight train. Natalya and I both last about 30 minutes on the train before we fall asleep. My next memory is of the train sitting in Bordeaux for a while before resuming. I remember nothing else. Our plan for Paris is to see the Renoir exhibit at the Grande Palais and meet up with Amber and her boyfriend for dinner. We have no reservations but I'm not worried.

Two Americans, a Moroccan, one Ukrainian, a Korean, eight Frenchmen and three Indians and a Brit enter a bar.... Sounds like the beginning to a joke. The class is having dinner together tonight. I've been riding the metro to work but got a ride home. Including my walking time it takes me about 28 minutes to get to work. Driving it took 45. Something tells me that driving isn't the solution. Dinner was in a small hole in the wall and was a great deal of fun. The French do things differently because dinner took over 4 hrs. There was a lot of mixed language conversations with half taking place in French and the other half in English. One Frenchman decided to pretend he couldn't speak French to the waitress, another accidentally broke a wine glass and then while trying to show how he did it broke another two. The waitress was not impressed but the rest of us were rolling on the floor. The food was good and the company was great. We got to see the inner workings of how other cultures live. This I'm thankful for. I'll have a video up later. We drug ourselves back into the hotel at 1am. Unfortunately the Hotel Albert was booked so Natalya moved us to the hotel Capitole during the day. The Hotel Capitole isn't as nice as Albert but still head over heals nicer than Hotel Junior. Tomorrow is the last day of class. The Parisians decide to go to a bar after dinner. I never see them again.

Today I went to work.... Pretty boring eh? Actually not so much. After leaving Hotel Junior and walking to the metro station I realized that I don't have the actual company address. I tried connecting to multiple INTERNET access points to get it but failed. At some point I was out of time and just decided to find it based on memory of the email I received. I've still not heard back from them on what time the class starts. Actually I've never been gien a security badge either. What choice did I have but to just go to where I thought it was and look around? I took the metro which was awesome and only took 10 minutes to get across town. I exited the Metro station and instantly was dropped into Lebanon or so it seamed. My immediate thought was "where in the world have they put this training room?". The answer to that I didn't know....

I remembered on Google maps a roundabout so I walked until I found one. I also remembered that the street was named after an American General. The roundabout listed an Avenue General Eisenhower so that was good enough for me. A ten minute walk later and I still can't find the company. I asked a security guard and he pointed down the street, said about 3 chapters worth of stuff in French (none of which I followed) and drew a square in the sky followed quickly by the company name. I figured he meant there was a sign so I took off walking. Another 10 minutes later I had reached my destination and without security clearance proceeded to the visitor lobby at which point I was met by the folks that had hired me.

The classroom had no computers, no white board and only a small weak projector. Those of you who've been in my classes know I last about 10 minutes without my teaching aids. Apparently they were thinking that it was going to be 40 hrs of Power point presentations? We russeled up markers for the giant tablet on easel and started burning LiveCDs for the employees laptops. This whole thing was crazy but I'm good at rolling with the punches. The biggest hurdle was to enunciate in such a way that a native

French speaker could understand me. This is difficult for someone who can't get native English speakers to understand me. By noon we had the students on Linux, I had markers and a pad and we had access to the Internet.

During which time Natalya checked out of the old hotel and into Albert 1er. The wifi didn't work so she used their computer to let me know she had arrived safely. We went to eat at a new restaurant on Place St. George which is a very pretty small quiet square not far from the Capitole. The Foie Gras was decent on a spiced toast and the duck was really good. The star of the meal however was this mount of potatoes topped with caramelized shallots that were to be honest phenomenal. This is jump up and down and shout Hallelujah good. I'm going to experiment with that when I get back home.

I knew I wasn't going to get a lot of site seeing in but I wanted to do two things while here - go to Carcasonne and see some prehistoric caves. Carcasonneis a small village about 40 minutes from Toulouse by train. It's also the home to the largest castle in all of Europe (maybe the world). It cost us55 Euros (roughly $80) by train which I thought was bit steep. On arriving we talked to the tourist information and they gave us a map. We were doing just fineuntil we were approached by this little old blond haired French lady who spoke a mile a minute and was all too enthusiastic to show us her town. She didn't speak a lick of English and was doing her best to help us get to the castle but she couldn't see well enough to read our map and we couldn't hear well enough to get what she was saying. She'd rattle off stories about the history followed by a quick "Do you understand?" at which point a drop of drool wouldfall from our lips and the blank look on our faces would resume. Between Natalya and I we were able to discern that she was 71 years old, had livedin Carcasonne her whole life and has a daughter in Washington but we don't know which one. Oh and the daughter watches kids. She then got out her keys and insisted on us getting in her car at which point my red flag started flapping and we declined. I'm sure she was just fine but up until this point this was going to be a great story to tell and I thought it best to keep it that way. Last think I want is a newspaper headline announcing the finding of a couple of American tourists in a canal somewhere. The one thing she did tell us though is to traverse the esplanade and take the small rue to the left. This we did which was a great tip because it led us across a foot bridge in plain view of the castle. Maybe she did have good intentions.

Carcasonne itself is a fantasy castle built by the Cathars a long time ago. The Cathars were a group of people that thought Christianity shouldreturn to a simpler time. That and they believed in reincarnation - don't ask how that works...The Catholics declared the Cathars patrons of the Devil or something and decided to exterminate them and eventually succeeded. By the 1600s the castle had fallen into disrepair and the French border had moved south lessening the need for such a bastion. Later the village moved out of it and settled in the valley below. Now it's been restored and the village inside the walls is filled with restaurants and shops. It's actually quite nice and not crazy like Mount st. Michael. The sheer size of it is impressive. The Moors (Muslims) holed up in it when resisting against French troops which is a great story in the area. It's interesting to hear about the Muslims as being the good guys and the Christians as the aggressors. Quite the change of characters.

We ate at the only open restaurant in the town (It was Sunday) and decided to try the other local specialty - Cassoulet. Cassoulet is a heavy white bean, sausage and duck parts dish cooked in a clay pot. I think it would grow on you but is definitely not something one would call fine food. Natalya was not impressed.

For our first dinner out we went to the Capitole square which has restaurants along one side. After perusing the menus (le carte) of each we decided to eat at Le Florida which had Foie Gras and Magret du Canard. The Foie Gras was excellent and the Canard OK. I'm afraid we've been spoiled by Duck Breast at Le Square Cafe in Paris. We returned to the Junior hotel and Natalya went straight to bed. I had to get ready for class and stayed up late to work on curriculum.

At 3:30 am the electricity went off so I fumbled around until I found my way to bed. The next morning the wifi didn't work (nor did the hot water) but it was already checkout time so I paid for another night. Needing electricity (who would have thought that important?) and wifi we spent the day looking for another hotel. The Hotel Sernin around the corner (also over a restaurant and facing the Church) was very nice but because of a rugby match and a marathon they decided to bump their rates by 30% which
didn't seem like a really good idea to me. We also went by Hotel des Artes which gets good reviews in Let's Go. They didn't have wifi nor could we see a room so we moved on. We landed at Albert 1er (pronounced Albert Premier) which turned out to be excellent for the same money as the Hotel Junior. However, their wifi was on the brink too. Since we had already paid we went back to Hotel Junior for the night and I prepared for work. For those who've never stayed in a French hotel
they're something else. The process for making a French hotel goes something like this. You take the standard human and draw a line around them in both laying and standing positions. Now you place both drawings next to each other and draw a square around them. This is your hotel room. The person standing is the area given to the bathroom and the person laying is the area given to you when sleeping. If the architect is particularly generous he may allow the door to the room swing inward.

My previous post was titled "And I thought I was going to France". I said this because this city is as if someone took France, Barcelona and a little of Mexico and blended it on high. The street signs are in Spanish (I think, it may be Catalan) and French. The recording on the Metro that announces the stations is in French and the second language as well. Not to mention these people can't dress themselves. Are we in France? I'm not sure.

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