Thursday, June 22

Week 3

This past week was a very good week. We went to Paris and Versailles and saw the sights. Then we returned and went to a French military testing facility where they bored us to death on Monday.

For the second time, I rode on a TGV, train a grande vitesse. They're France's high speed train, reaching speeds up to 200 mph. However, it sounds fast, but they stop too often to really save time, and they have to be on the track just for them or else it's too dangerous to share the tracks with normal trains at that speed. Also, people think that you'll be on it for shorter so they don't have to make it very comfortable. On a TGV, it takes us 5 hours to get to Paris, coming back, we rode on the fastest, express-type normal train. They call it the Teoz, and it's got periwinkle colored interior, cushy cars. Since we always book at least 6 seats at a time, they put us in the group that sits facing each other at a table so it's fun. Besides, coming back from Paris, it took about 6 hours and about 12 stops. I'd prefer to go on the express train, although it takes a little longer. Our car even had a standing area, which is nice to stretch ones legs.

So then as we were coming into Paris from the southeast, if you craned your neck around and leaned as far as you could, you could catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Up until that point, it hadn't really hit me too hard that we were going to Paris, the city of lights. After we got off the train, we navigated to the subway to drop off our bags at the hostel.

Let me tell you about the subway. I've only been in four: Washington DC, London, Toulouse, and then Paris. Paris, by far, takes the cake for grossest. It's like the above ground is so pretty, they have to stick the ugly somewhere and it's all in the subway. All of the subway smelled like sewer in the background with an occasional strong whiff. In some of the stations, the ceiling dripped. When the train pulls up, 95% of the time, it's standing room only; not that there aren't seats, it's that people are piled in like sardines. The entire time we were on the subways, I'd have my left hand on my wallet in my pocket, my camera around my neck, and my right hand on the pole.

Also, humans drive the subways in Paris. On most of the subways, you have to push a latch from either the inside or outside that opens the door once the train stops. Then, as people are still getting on and off, the driver pushes a button which starts the door closing process with a ring of the buzzer. Sometimes the doors are only open for a few seconds. It was strange to get back to Toulouse, where a computer drives, because the doors are open for, perhaps, nearly 30 seconds at a stop. All of us, after being to Paris, are thinking "Let's get this show on the road".

So once you've managed to find the right subway and squeezed onto a car, and managed to be still unpickpocketed, you get to stand millimeters away from 10 other people in the sweltering subway heat. Also--I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining--the subway jerks up and down, side to side, while squealing a horrific metallic scrapping sound. You'd figure that after 10 million runs, friction would have taken care of what ever is causing it.

We then eventually made it to the downtown. The first thing we saw was the Ill de Cite, the island in the centre of the river that was the entire city in Roman times. We walked past the Palace of Justice, which is what the French call courthouses. From there it was a few blocks, still on the island, to Notre Dame. We went in. Whoopee Catholicism!!! My people! It's crazy to think how old the things are here in Europe. Wisconsin is coming up on 160 years, next year, Jamestown turns 400 and this place is older than 800 years! Well, I guess Paris is from Roman times, so 2,000 years is a good approximation. I know it's nothing big, but people live in houses that are hundreds of years old! It's like that saying, if walls could talk.

I'm pretty sure that Notre Dame had gotten run down over the ages and especially from the French Revolution until Victor Hugo wrote the Hunchback of Notre Dame. They did a fine job of fixing it up. From there, we went back to the Palace of Justice and stopped by a chapel from the 1200's. It too was Gothic. It had tall and narrow stained glass windows and the ceiling was painted dark blue with those golden pointy clover symbols that seem to be the symbol of France.

Paris is amazingly beautiful. I guess the best comparison I could make is to Washington. Going around Washington, all of the buildings in the downtown, mostly government, have big carved stone exteriors. Paris is like that but, obviously, in a different architectural style. And whereas downtown Washington is pretty much within a few blocks of the national mall, Paris is for miles and miles. Another comparison is Washington looks even better at night when the lights are on the buildings and monuments, Paris looks absolutely amazing.

It's also a pretty neat moment when, after going around and seeing the sights, you begin to realize how the buildings and monuments are all laid out. Everything comes together really nicely. For instance, there's the Champs E‰lysees that starts at the Arc de Triomphe then runs east to the Plaza du Concorde and the obelisk, which intersects the line of sight of Napoleon's tomb, continuing on to the Louvre at the other end.

The Eiffel Tower is a very appropriate symbol for the city. Really, what is the point of it? They eventually found a purpose as a radio broadcast tower, but it's art. It doesn't do much; it's just art. That's what Paris seems like. The entire place, of course does business and makes stuff, but it's so pretty. It truely is the center of Western culture.

There were several times that I thought, "It's good to be the king", if you've ever seen History of the World, part I. I think that I, too, would impeach the king if he built gi-normous palaces for himself. The Louvre is freaking huge! It's at least four floors, has a giant courtyard and two wings that are longer than a mile. It's impossible to take a picture of its long side from any angle.

Before becoming an art museum, the Louvre used to be a palace. From the 1500's to the end of the 1800's, the kings allowed artists to live there and make art. When they took the king to see Dr. Guillotin in the 1790's, it was only natural that it should become an art museum so it did.

Then on Sunday, we visited the Chateau de Versailles (I learned that chateau is French for castle). It is also very gi-normous. On the map they give you, the palace is just some little rectangles on the bottom, although it is very large. I though it was ironic that of the king's many chambers, he has a 'war-drawing room' and a 'peace drawing room'. Then we went into the Hall of Mirrors, which is under restoration so we saw a part of it. It's the room where Bismark established the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War, and where the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI and set in motion the causes of WWII, was signed. I just realized that it's ironic that the most important room in German history is in France.

Anywho, Versailles is where the king built the huge gardens and artificial canal. The palace sits atop a hill which slopes down in the back to fountains and then the canal. The other end of which is 3.5 km away from the palace.

Besides the subway, the only thing about Paris that left me disappointeded was that I didn't see any mimes. There was one guy on the corner on the opposite side of the street, Saturday evening when we were waiting in line to go up Notre Dame, but he was talking so it wasn't true mime. There also were no robot guys. Very disappointing.

After being spoiled by Paris, the rest of this week has been rather quiet. On Monday, we had a technical visit to CEAT, where they commenced to bore us to death. They can do pretty much any test that can be done to something that flies which would have been really cool except mainly, they took us around and read off of a sheet listing statistics of their various instruments. I think, because they showed us their stuff here as well, on the tour of ENSICA, that normally, people must just be floored by their stuff. Like that time they showed us their high-tech microscope here. The whole time I was thinking in my head "I can't hear you over the buzz of our four scanning electron microscopes at Madison". A good time was had by few, if any.

Another development this week is that there are several study abroad groups here in Toulouse. The other American group, from Colorado, I think, are spending this week here at Ensica. They are very annoying. Sitting in the cafeteria, we can't even talk across the table because they're so loud on the other side of the room. I guess, normally, I try to blend in when I go somewhere.

Americans kind of have the stereotype of being loud, over here. It's true, but we're not really that loud, it's just that Europeans are quiet, even whey they're talking to a group, which makes tours interesting. When I'd be in Paris walking around or on the subway and I'd hear people say stupid things in English without an accent, I thought "stupid tourists". It's funny, I think. I feel...more international, because I can see the faults committed by my own countrymen in a foreign country. I guess that'd happen, especially since I haven't been in the US, even a place that speaks English, for 26 days now. But, I mean, I enjoy traveling and I feel like my perspective has expanded greatly.

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