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Paul Ben-Itzak
Adventures Abroad
Special Focus
Paris, OT (France)

Travel lightly and carry a big thermos - The unbearable heaviness of leaving Paris

by Paul Ben-Itzak
July 11, 2009
Paris, OT (France)
LES EYZIES (Dordogne), FRANCE — Getting out of Paris — where ExploreDance.com and the Dance Insider had sent me this Spring to write about a 15+ shows — was a lot harder than getting in. My arrival had been almost perfect: Coming from where I live, here in the great Southwest, the debarquement point in Paris is the Gare d'Austerlitz. You know you're in old Paris as soon as you exit the station and look across the street at the ancient Jardin des Plantes, home of a natural history museum, lots of plants, flowers, a 250-year-old tree, the oldest metallic structure in Paris (a cupola at the top of the garden which looks out on the green tiled roof of the Mosque of Paris) and a fenced-in pond around which about 20 wallabees co-habit with a growing population of black swans (four at last count, plus one very ugly 'duckling'). And if I had any doubt, it disappeared when I crossed the Seine in a Metro car with a gentile older couple complimenting my well-travelled ("She's 20 years old!") Siamese cat on my left and a man playing unrequested vaguely recognizable soul songs on an unidentifiable loud percussion instrument on my right.

In theory (or as the French like to say, "En principe; 'En principe, your Internet connection should be working in five days'"), the trip back should have been divine. Upholding an ancient French tradition that nobody who's actually French upholds anymore, I'd planned my usual extravagant picnic for the 5h45 two-train return journey, starring a 5 Euro olive-roasted chicken from the rotisserie down the street on the rue Belleville and a 1.95 large button of goat cheese that was already well on its way to melting when I found it at 9 a.m. that morning chez my favorite cheapo market cheese stall, with various side dishes, all washed down by some of the 1.5 liter plastic bottle of traditional Breton troubled (that's what the label says) cidre I'd scored for 1.77. (All prices in Euros.)

I'd have been fine if all I had to carry was the picnic, one of my less elaborate (once I made an endive/roquefort/walnut salad 'live' on the train, cracking the nuts and slicing the endive in my seat), and Sonia, the 20-year-old Siamese-Alaskan cat, but for me, Paris is vide-greniers (neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, grenier = attic) and previously-read books, and while I'd restrained myself on this trip, I still could not resist three thermoses (one large blue, two vintage, with cork stoppers, no less) @ 5 Euros total, three mixer-babies @ 7 total (I had to get three because I wasn't sure which would fit all the mixer-baby attachments I had at home), several Georges Simenon Maigret volumes, a classic Pretenders record ("Mystery Achievement/Where's my sandy beach?/I had my dreams but they're out of reach.") "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" DVDs (2.67 total), 2 kilos of renal veterinary diet cat food, a couple of Italian porcelain plates with flapper women looking out on the Mediterranean, a circa 1960 ping-pong set with everythinng but the table (5 Euros), and several used Boris Vian titles, including one of his collected jazz critiques I'd bought from my bouquiniste pal Luc. (Bouquiniste = Seine bookseller.) (Novelist, trumpet player, song composer, critic, Vian was at the heart of the post-War Saint-Germain-des-Pres scene, almost singularly responsible for bringing Duke Ellington to Paris. This year is the 50th anniversary of his death, at the age of 39, while watching a film version that had been made, against his wishes, of "I'll spit on your grave," the racy book he'd written under an American pseudonym in which an "African-American" recounts killing two white women in revenge for his brother's being lynched for looking at one.)

If I've gone into detail here — I can hear my patient editor asking, "Aren't you on the train yet?" — it's to set up the first disaster of the trip, involving the suitcase I finally caved in and bought to carry all this, and which itself caved in as soon as I got outside the door. (About 20 minutes before, the guy at the bazaar store had warned me, "Sure, you can save a few Euros if you get a suitcase at the market, but the instant you make a wrong turn, 'ouf', there go the wheels." Ouf.) Gone was the plan of taking the Metro. Forgotten was the chicken. Hailed was the first taxi-cab, whose driver refused to let Sonia sit with me but insisted on putting her in the luggage compartment. "Don't worry, there's an air-hole." Thinking I was a rube — the new but broken suitcase probably didn't help — he took the longest possible route.

At Austerlitz, I briefly considered the humiliation of Monsieur Picnic having to buy an over-priced train station sandwich (even the 'special crisis sandwich' was hardly larger than a bite), but then I did a mental calculation: I still had the fresh scalloped potatoes, cornichons, peas, runny cheese, chocolate pudding, and Ajvar. (Pepper spread from the Balkans.) Then there was that 1.5 liter bottle of cidre, plus my old thermos filled with coffee ('arrosed' or 'watered' by one of the five tiny glass jars of my farmer neighbor Mr. Marty's eau de vie that I'd brought to Paris to share with my Parisian friends), plus the large blue with fresh mint tea (leaves 30 cents at the French Arab market)…. I was probably okay.

Well, it only took me six (long) paragraphs, but we've finally arrived at French train tip #1: Try to avoid the 'club' seats, which are more rubby than clubby, because you'll probably be knocking knees with the n'importe qui (whoever) sitting across from you. And if you've got a small animal… (In France, just because your animal has to pay his/her way — 5 Euros and change for a small animal, cat, or small dog, 35 for a large dog — doesn't mean they actually give him/her a seat.) Fortunately, my usual strategy for clearing out the seat next to me — dress down and make a big hullabaloo unloading the picnic things, thermoses, silverware in a valise, mixer-babies, and books — worked, as the lady who had a right to sit next to me found someplace else and surrendered her seat to Sonia and one of the thermoses. The woman catty-corner from me (so to speak), accepted my offer for a bit of cidre. I'd cleverly frozen it the night before so it would stay cold for the entire train ride. "It's rather glacial," said my traveling companion. As she was a recently widowed, new cat-parent person who'd decided to leave her small animal at home in the fear she'd freak out on the train, I permitted myself to give her train tip #2: Bring a water syringe for your cat.

As for this first leg of the return trip itself — from Paris to Limoges (an appropriately glittery train station, btw, for the home of porcelain — where that great Limousinian Renoir got his start painting it) — it's not that interesting in terms of scenery, so I'll just use it here as an excuse for train tip #3: If you're coming down my way from Paris and have a few more Euros in your pocket, instead of Paris-Limoges-Dordogne, try Paris-Bordeaux-Dordogne; the trip's a bit longer and the cost higher because for Paris-Bordeaux you get the high-speed train, but it's more scenic, starting from watching the Eiffel Tower recede as you leave the Gare Montparnasse. One wall of the Bordeaux train station is taken up by an old map of France and parts of the neighboring countries. On a windy day, you can smell the Ocean when you step outside the train station. And heading from Bordeaux into the Dordogne (take the train past Bergerac towards Sarlat; attention, it doesn't stop in my actual village if that's your destination), you start out with the vineyards, so you're effectively seeing Bordeaux wine at the source. You also drive through backyards in the Bordeaux suburbs, where you can see the occasional pet sheep taking his afternoon constitutional.

The action picked up considerably at the Limoges station. Hovering outside the doors of my Les Eyzies train — a sleek, space-age vehicle, as are most of the regional or TER trains now — and smoking a cigarette was, I swear, Pina Bausch. Or such the spitting image of her I found myself trying to remember if Bausch spoke French, which is what the woman, about 60, was chattering in. (Uh, this took place before Bausch passed away.) Finally, I realized by the younger woman with the even younger baby she was traveling with that this was probably not Pina but a mother-daughter-grand-daughter combination. Sonia immediately proved a hit with the hippy-chic daughter. ("She's 20 years old!") (The cat.) And the Carhartt over-alls, stubble, and Captain Haddock badge on the beret that had proved a deterrent with my seat-mate (the one who escaped) on the Paris-Limoges train proved an asset here. But first I had to contend with a couple of Americans. As soon as they opened their mouths to ask, in French, if this was the train to Les Eyzies, I answered, in American. (Americans in France, particularly tourists, tend to speak slowly, so I peg 'em right away. While my French is far from correct, starting out in Paris helped me to maintain a French rhythm, although I still have to be careful to articulate.) It turned out they were from Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area, my hometown region. They were planning to walk their way across my part of the Dordogne. The lady was worried because she'd left her pants at the last stop (er, her spare pair I mean). I told her a hat was more important because the Sun here can be brutal.

If I was still worried about starving because of the forgotten chicken, I needn't have; the hippy-chic farmer offered to share her baby's 'gouter' (afternoon snack), galettes or thin, Brittany-style cookies. This was the chance I'd been waiting for; I reached into my sack and extracted the large blue fresh thermos filled to the brim with fresh mint tea and served it all around. The baby proved herself to be already a gourmand, dipping her galette with delicatesse in the tea. Later, when the baby started to cry, I took out my flic (cop) puppet and put on a little show. Emilie, not her real name, explained that she and her ami (companion) had been living in a car until the baby arrived, whence they decided to take up farming, in a little town not far from Bergerac. I found myself tongue-tied, wishing for Cyrano.

… And also crossing my fingers that my pal Stephan had got the message to please pick me up at the Les Eyzies train station, as I didn't relish the idea of dragging the hobbled suitcase, not to mention the cat, the length of the 2 kilometer dirt path to chez moi. He was there, and couldn't stop talking about Emilie, who had bid me goodbye standing in the door of the train, baby in arms, with a radiant smile.

"She already has a boyfriend," I kept explaining.

"Ca fait rien!" ("That doesn't mean anything!")

When we arrived, Mr. Marty, the retired farmer across the path, rushed over to greet me. I conveyed my Parisian friends' compliments on his eau de vie. (A note on eau de vie which may disappoint you: Back in the day, people could make their own eau de vie from their own fruit; in Mr. Marty's case, grapes. That was before the government figured out they could tax it and voila, now you don't have the right. Instead, a specialist comes around once per year, you give him your fruit, he makes the eau de vie and sells it back to you for the same price you'd pay to buy it in a store.)

As I stood shooting the breeze with Stephan and Mr. Marty — Stephan was still going on about my new friend — I looked around at the landscape that encircled us: Tree-covered limestone cliffs where you can still see the pre-historic caves (I live in the land of cave-paintings and the first cro-mag discoveries), the field right next to the house where the corn was starting to 'push,' the clump of trees between me and the river. It felt good to be able to stretch my arms and breathe again.

Paul Ben-Itzak writes about French culture, politics, and society and life in rural France and Paris on France Insider.
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