Allez allez allez Versailles!

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I did not know what to expect from our sojourn to Versailles when we headed out on 13 July. I was not surprised that we left an hour or so later than planned, but unaware of any real consequences that might have. At this point I was learning that Frenchie’s adherence to schedules and attachment to timing was really something of national pastime, not really just an individual idiosyncrasy of hers.

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I was also surprised at how close Versailles is to Paris, so my being perplexed over a delayed departure seemed silly (although the “arriving-at-the-station-just-as-a-train-had-departed phenomenon was getting tired.)

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I knew that this was the hometown of my Frenchie, and as we rode out to Versailles and back in time somewhat for her, I thought a lot about what I would show this group of my hometown, were they ever to travel to the international destination that is Petaluma. It is hard to imagine really, I mean, their coming to Petaluma and the things I might choose to show them. Of course, Petaluma is not home to one of the world’s most famous palaces, so I might be forced to think a little harder. Though, truth be told, I think having the palace made it more challenging for Frenchie to really show us what her hometown was like, because we were all like, “Oh my god look at the palace!” the whole time.

Oh, and we were hungry.

No one wanted to admit it really, because no one wanted to be a pain in the ass, but we were hungry – and a hungry mob is an angry mob. Now we were arriving in Versailles to find out that a) we were too late to rent bicycles in town (which had been another of those plans I was unaware of) and b) restaurants were closing for their midday break… save for McDonald’s. Add to this, Frenchie really wanted to give us a peek into her life, one I know Nic and I really wanted to see. But things were not flowing smoothly. I knew that we were going to picnic. Tthe French, as you can imagine, have their own take on this. Frankly (see what I did right there?) it is actually a far superior take on a picnic than we have here in the states, because it is just so “whatever” (read easy). There is generally very little planning, whatever food is around is gathered up, and you eat somewhere outside. Viola! Picnic. I also knew that we would be seeing some fireworks as the Bastille Day fête would be on the eve of 14 Julliet in Versailles.

As we wandered around looking for a suitable place to eat like a heard of Goldilocks (not too fancy, not too expensive, not too closed, not too not-French, not too touristy, not too fast-food) we contemplated just picnicking – or at least I did because I was carrying quite a bit of weight on my back with our wine supply and wondering when the picnic was going to happen.

What I did not know was that what Frenchie had in mind was: get bikes in town, ride around and see her old house and haunts, get some lunch, ride around the palace grounds, sunset picnic, see Frenchie’s flat, meet our friend Fred (who was our neighbor in HK and a friend of Frenchie’s since school in Versailles), see fireworks and head back to Clamart.

What Frenchie did not know was: we would arrive too late for bikes in town and lunch, her pals would be worried about when they would eat, the palace (not the grounds) would be closed because it was a Monday, and the grounds would close, oh, right around sunset.

What we all would come to realize is, that regardless that “the best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry,” it all works out in the end.

We wandered hungrily around town before finally settling on a ‘too touristy’ place for lunch. But it was not McDonald’s, so victory was ours. I actually really enjoyed my lunch. This could have been because I was starving (see Eddie Murphy and the saltine cracker) or it is just the reality that the worst French food is pretty damn good. I had an excellent quiche and salad, which I may or may not have mentioned is something that food-wise that the French do not understand: greens and vinaigrette is all you are going to see for salad, they simply do not understand how to use and combine vegetables without creme or cheese. Still, yum. Frenchie ordered something of a classic French meal that had random animal parts and sauce. I passed on giving it a go. She loved it. Of course. This is an enduring theme of our friendship: we are a great team for sharing because we have nearly universally opposite tastes in everything. It is really both peculiar and convent.

As a funny side note, we found a dime bag of weed under the table. It was hilarious to us for some reason, and we were quite beside ourselves with laughter, and then: wait, what should we do with it? After going through no end of what ifs, like what if it were a test or a trap, or what if we put it in our pockets or our bags and forgot about it and got stopped at the airport, or what if we just said fuck it let’s smoke it and it was laced with some hideous drug we had never heard of, we left it on the table.

We would be roundly chastised for this later.

Now with our belly’s full (a hungry mob is an angry mob) we headed through town making our way circuitously to the palace. We saw where Frenchie had lived as a child. I liked thinking of her here is this town, on that balcony. I wondered if we would have been friends back then. We walked along streets she knew so well and it reminded me of the feeling I get when I retrace steps so familiar with the fresh eyes of others: it brings up a special kind of acknowledgment of certain things that have contributed to making us “us”, I suppose that is nostalgia.

As we made our way to the palace I was getting excited. Louis XIV was a rather BAMF enlightened despot and I wanted to see the place that he had envisioned that has inspired so much petty emulation by others like Peter the Great and any number of cheap Vegas McMillionaires. I would not see the castle today as it was closed, which was a bummer on one hand because, duh: BLING. But also a bit of a relief since I would have been the only one of our group who wanted to go in and so, now there was no decision to be made.

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Regardless you get a pretty real sense of the place from the outside anyhow. I have always found the story of the Dauphine (Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette pretty interesting and it was really cool to walk around and try to imagine what it was like for these kids to be ensconced in this place. And the gardens… wow.

We got bikes here and so that was one obstacle cleared, off we went.

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There are not really words for the afternoon we spent cycling around the grounds of the palace of Versailles except to say that it was pretty special.

DSC_7652Once back from our ride we decided we would have an hour or so on our one and then meet up to picnic. I was told to be back around 7:30, if memory serves, and so off I went camera in hand. In this time alone I really got to explore and have some time to move at my own pace. Being the timely individual that I am I was punctually headed back to our rendezvous when I saw Frenchie coming at me. This was unusual because, well, she was on time, early even. She was overly relieved to see me, so I knew something was up. What was up was that the park was closing. and we were going to have to get out.

Ha. I laughed, that would be funny being locked in the Palace of Versailles, wouldn’t it? As it would happen, Frenchie had already done that long ago when she had spent her summers working at the palace (helluva summer job, no?) and she “knew” a guy whose dad ran things or something… she was quite cheeky in her omission of details around said guy, so I am going to have to follow-up on that story at some point… And somehow they got locked in. Yeah, clearly more of a story there, no? Anyhow, at this point we made it out.

Phew. And in true hometown fashion, we got picked up by her mom to take us back to town.

On arriving back in town the elusive picnic was soon to be had. And in what turns out to be the French picnicking way, we rocked up to a sweet little bench and ate our food. Just like that. And it was, like the riding around the palace oddly, surprisingly, perfect.

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All along Frenchie had been trying to meet Fred and it was looking like that might not happen. But as we walked back towards the action in the town square, suddenly, it was not just Fred, but what seemed like our whole village. It was a moment that would frame so much of my summer… here I was, somewhere far away from anywhere I knew, and in the midst of the people who had, without thought or warning, helped to create my life abroad. To have friends that are like family in this way is a gift. To recognize it, all the better.

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And on this sparkly night in Versailles I was able to both along with my world wide tribe.

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Paris sans Plans.

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For the week of Bastille Day 2015 I found myself in and around gay Paris. We were primarily based in Clamart, although we would spend the night of Bastille Day itself in a sweet apartment in the 15th arrondissement.

In hindsight, weeks -no, months- out from the trip, it seems so simple, but at the time there were issues around planning, and coordinating and compromising. There are always such issues to consider when you are functioning in a group, but there were certain elements that I think made the adjustments a bit more challenging this summer: time apart, expectations, varied personalities. At the end of the day, we were four people in Paris, with everything we could possibly need or want, but in the moment, making decisions seemed really hard. The players here were three people who know each other well from living as friends and neighbors for years on an island in the South China Sea, and two siblings – one acting as a host and one as a fellow traveler.

Our first full day in Paris had us first meeting at a flea market on the north side of the city. Porte de Clignancourt is a well-known shopping area, known more commonly as Marché aux Puces. This is one of the largest antique markets in the world, which is impressive and also should make it totally apparent that I would have no idea whatsoever what we were doing here. I do not like flea markets or antiques, and I surely was not interested in adding to my neat and tidy >10 kilos of luggage for the next month with second-hand furniture. However, having not involved myself in planning, I felt like it was my responsibility to toe the line with those who had made their preferences clear. Plus there were some great photo ops. Sadly, I seem to have deleted the photo of the gigantic €500 wooden penis.

From the market, where in spite of my anti attitude towards shopping at that juncture I bought a scarf as I had lost my favorite one on the train to London, we headed to the Sacre Couer. Again, I felt like I was just bumbling along with my friends and felt myself wondering for much of the morning when they had made the plans they had, feeling simultaneously left out and relieved to not have the responsibility of possible people pleasing problems by making potentially unpopular choices. I wandered along with the group under grey skies towards what would be one of my favorite views of Paris.

It started to rain as we made our way up the steps, and I was bent on getting to the top, a choice I pushed for. I think everyone was glad they did it in the end.

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Following our climb to the top of the Sacre Couer we headed to Place du Tertre. Now it was sporadically sprinkling adding a sort of appropriate melancholy to this former artists’ district that was now an overflowing tourist attraction. We sat for drinks after looking at the art and my first few dozen looks at le chat noir du Montmarte. I noticed that Parisians love dogs – seriously there are so many dogs, but they seem to really prefer cats as a motif.

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From here we endeavored to navigate down Rue Lepic towards Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, because tourists. And frankly, I was shameless. I actually considered how I might react if Ewan McGregor came flying towards me in song.

Again, I found myself wondering, how did they plan all this and where had I been? And again, I was happy someone else had done the work to make it happen. The walk was really lovely – neighborhoods and areas that I thought were eminently livable. Except for the whole being-in-France part. But all joking aside, were I able to reside Paris, and it could abide the coming of another Americane, the 18th arrondissement would be for me.

We did some food shopping and made our way back to the hotel where Nic and her sister had been staying; a side drama that had been developing was that luggage had been lost and so there was understandably much ado about this – I would have been pretty buggered myself, especially on learning that the missing bag had reappeared some twelve hours before I was notified… but overall, there was much relief on learning that the bag had returned. As we deliberated next steps I finally spoke up. Looking at all the luggage that was now in our possession, and a good six hours on our feet I was heartily in favor of taking a taxi home rather than navigating the metro – or busses (Frenchie loves busses – definitely more on this later). I stood firm on my position and felt relieved to see that it would happen.

Back at Clamart we fixed a meal and had some wine and I think felt pretty satisfied all around with our day. To sleep we went, well, everyone except me. I had taken to using the late nights to send photos home so as to maintain memory on my iPhone – a strategy that worked well through most of the trip, and I could post photos then too without it being an issue in mixed company… I have always taken a pretty good amount of shit about my use of social media from these friends so I was being sensitive to that. [I do feel that they eventually saw the benefit of my strategy, and I even got them in on the Summer-of-Selfie™. #validation]

All in all as the day had shown, it is clear I did not do the preparatory work I would normally have done for a trip (which many people would already consider pretty lightweight) because I was relying (unfairly) on Frenchie to sort out France because, she’s French. Coupled with trying not to hurt feelings when people said/suggested things that others thought completely ridiculous, we eventually sat around a lovely table in the courtyard of our host’s home and talked in circles while having our morning coffee on our second full day as a group. There was far too much “I’m fine with whatever” from my side – because let’s face it, that is a lie. And there was frustration with collective indecision from Frenchie, our de facto hostess, who while French has not lived in France for more than two decades and is not from Paris. JM seemed to find the whole thing amusing, Nic wanted to make sure everything was perfect for everyone because she is ever the caretaker for us all – which must be tiring, and I fear not outwardly appreciated enough by any of us. [As an aside, I know that for all the years I lived in HK I felt so much better knowing that with my mom was on the other side of the world, I always had someone I could call on who would ably be there for me if ever I needed her, even though I was not her own… and if I never said it aloud Nic, I am saying it now.] 

The thing is, a week is simply not enough time in Paris. A fact Frenchie had made clear months earlier. Add to this that there would be a day trip to Versailles, it was Bastille Day, and we were planning on heading to the South of France in what suddenly felt like no time at all.

Frenchie suggested we focus on les classiques for our time in Paris. But even this was not consistently understood. As the only one in the group who had never been to Paris, I wanted different things, and I think I like museums more than most people… Again, as I sit here and reflect back on it, it seems so silly that there was any issue about accommodating people as we are all seasoned travelers and can manage whatever we want in most places. I think the issue was trying to please others got in the way – for (almost) everyone, and perhaps we should have been a bit more selfish.

Back at the table in Clamart, the conversation seemed adrift, but eventually some decisions were made. And as one might imagine, in the end most needs were met. And although I am still childish enough to pout about people/things that do not meet my expectations, I am proud to say I am adult enough not to put them all out here on the internet.

And really, all of this is just a big reminder about group travel – it is a unique endeavor.

Our decision for this day, July 13, 2015 was that we would go to Versailles.

 And so we went. 

Eventually.