As many of you know, I was in Europe for the month of September leading bike trips through France, Belgium, and a bit of Spain and Germany. I have been leading these trips off and on for a while (I would say 20 years, but that would make me sound a lot older than I feel), and I have had the same approach to getting over jet-lag pretty much since the beginning: the plane lands in the morning after an overnight flight (on which I invariably never sleep), I make my way into the city from the airport on the RER, go to the company’s office in the Deuxième Arrondissement, sit in the office like a zombie until noon-ish, go out to the local couscous restaurant for lunch (with a pichet of rosé, bien sûr), and then head up to the apartment where I stay and pass out for a couple of hours (due to the jet lag, not the wine—I’m not that bad).
Well, this time around, there was a slight change of plans—once I got to the office, I learned that I needed to go to a Northern Parisian suburb and pick up a van that I was going to drive to Bruges, Belgium the following day.
No time for a nap.
Only time for a sandwich. And tragically, no time for any rosé. I needed to get the van, go pick up some suitcases from a random hotel, and then come back to the office to load up some bikes.
I really have no sense of direction (which is a decided detriment for a tour guide), so I did what anybody else would do.
The first leg was to occur by bike—I would then pick up the van, drive across the city, get the luggage, return to the office, and load up the bikes that I needed for the following day.
Well, as it turned out, a few people from the office convinced me to go lunch (although not at my favorite couscous place) and we indeed had a bottle of rosé. Or two.
And then I got tired.
So I decided to go take a quick nap.
Three hours later I woke up and I had a scant 43 minutes to hop on my bike and make my way up to Saint-Ouen to get the van before the rental office closed. So instead of riding the whole way out, I decided to take the subway to the Stade de France with a bike, and then ride the remaining few kilometers to the rental office.
I actually only got lost once on the one mile jaunt and made it to the rental office with a good 15 minutes to spare.
First leg complete. Now, I needed to drive into the city and pick up the luggage.
Other than the fact that it was now 5:00, which meant I would be driving during rush hour in Paris–a city I had never driven in before. And I was driving a huge van for the first time on about two hours sleep.
Getting to the Seine (the river that bifurcates Paris into the Right and Left Banks) was actually rather easy, directionally speaking. It took forever due to traffic, but it was pretty much a straight shot: pass La Madeleine, then head to La Place de la Concorde, hang a left along the Seine, and then cross to the Left Bank using Le Pont Neuf. A couple turns and I would be at the hotel.
Well, I do not spend a lot of time on the Left Bank when I am in Paris. On the Right Bank, I am pretty familiar with most of the landmarks and I have a pretty solid understanding of where everything is. Not so with the Left Bank.
Throw in the fact that Paris is comprised almost exclusively of one way streets, pretty soon I was knee-deep in a bunch of merde. The GPS on my iPhone told me that I would be at my destination in about three minutes. Well, given the traffic, the lack of maneuverability of the behemoth of a van, my idiotic determination to take photos along the route, and my insistence to flip off each and every Parisian driver, it took me the better part of an hour to get to the hotel and grab the bags.
I did manage to see a lot of the Left Bank, however, which I guess was a bonus.
I headed back to the more familiar Right Bank, and within minutes of crossing the Seine, I felt a wave of relief of being back on familiar ground. Soon, I would be back in “my” neighborhood, and then I would only need to navigate the pedestrian streets Montorgueil and pick up the bikes from the tour company’s office. I have to say, I was feeling rather proud of myself, and let out a few self-congratulatory yells proclaiming “I Owned Paris” (there may have also been a few expletives thrown in).
Within moments, I was cruising down the Boulevard de Sebastopol and turned left on to one of the pedestrian-only streets that would lead me to the office (strangely enough, despite being “pedestrian only” it is not illegal to drive a vehicle on them).
Well, I soon realized that I had only driven on these streets with a bicycle–there was no way to get to the office without either going back out on the main road and circulating the neighborhood, or driving the wrong way down a short one-way street (I am still puzzled why a “pedestrian only” street even has vehicular designations, but that is for another post).
Unfortunately, I chose the latter.
As I approached the corner of the street where the office was located, a mere 20 meters from my final destination, I was pulled over. By a police Officer. Who was…
Yes, there was a cop there, dealing with a man passed out on the sidewalk, but he dropped the drunk like a bad habit when he saw me come along in the van. What ensued was a 15 minute conversation about driving the wrong way on a “pedestrian only” street and ended with a 90€ Contravention (a $120 ticket).
So much for owning Paris–now, I guess, I owed Paris.
Even though I was literally within spitting distance of the office, the cop made me back up and go back out on to the main road and spend the another 15 minutes circumnavigating the city to get back to essentially the same spot.
I try to love the French, but they are determined to make it difficult.
After finally getting to the office and loading up the van, I was directed to go and park it somewhere for the night.
“Where?” I asked.
The response: “I dunno, but you need to find a place to park it. We will be over at the wine bar around the corner for the next couple of hours. Stop by if you find a spot before then.”
Felling less than energized, I headed out, looking for a spot to park a 20 foot van. In Paris. On a Friday night.
Yeah, good luck with that.
After only 30 minutes or so, I came upon the Place des Victoires, not too far from either the office or the Louvre (for those of you interested in such things), where I would not have to parallel park the van (bonus) and parking was free (double bonus). The problem? All the spots, naturally, were taken.
Undeterred, I spent the next fifteen minutes circling the statue of Louis XIV as if it were a scene out of National Lampoon, waiting for a spot to open up.
At last, I saw a woman approach her car–this was it! My long Parisian nightmare would soon be over! I raced around the circle one more time, and waited for the car to back out of the spot. Just as it did, another car, who had just passed the soon to be vacant spot, slammed on its brakes, backed up, and put on its turn indicator–suggesting that it was going to take the parking space.
Non, non, mon ami….
I inched forward and honked my horn.
The female driver of the interloping car ignored me.
I honked again. Longer this time.
She glanced over.
What ensued was a 2 minute “conversation” of hand gestures–with each of us adamant that we were the rightful heir to the spot. There was no way I was going to give in–International Law states that you can’t back up once you have passed a space to claim it.
I was pretty sure of that.
Eventually, just as I was about to break out my middle finger, she did something very French.
(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
I raced back to the wine bar and found the group.
Maybe I “owned” Paris after all.