Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...Lend me your ears!

I just got back from Christmas break vacation, and as always, it was a whirlwind. 3 days in Dublin, 4 days in Rome, 1 day in Nice, 3 days in Paris, 1 day in Zurick and 3 days in Engelberg. Talk about chaos! From New Years in Paris to snowboarding in Switzerland, it has been some good times. Unfortunately, I can't provide any pictures since my camera was stolen near the Arc de Triomph on New Year's Eve. That was right before we got tear gassed. More of that later. For now, you'll have to rely on my colorful commentary as a guide.

After laboring for days to find a train from Rome to Paris from several different train stations, I finally found a ticket that went to Nice. Unfortunately, the ticket attendant couldn't tell me whether there were any trains to Paris from there. So I gathered my lucky rabbit's foot, my tail of newt and the shoe that homeless guy gave me and set out for Nice. I arrived in Nice the next morning with enough sleep to healthily power me for 30 minutes. I showed up to the ticket counter with no clue whether I would make it to Paris or be stuck in Nice for New Years by myself. First train that day. Nothing. Second train. Nothing. Third train. Nothing. At this point I was sure that I would be stuck in Nice, but lo and behold, the next morning there was a 6:00 am train with one spot on it. So I kissed my lucky shoe and set out for Nice.

Nice is a beautiful resort town in France on the Mediterranean Sea. I'm sure there are cultural attractions too, but on a 70 degree day in December, the part of my brain that could handle culture had fried, and I headed straight for the beach. With my American historicentricism in full force, I never expected to be able to sleep on the beach on Dec. 29th, but that day I shattered any ill-informed Minnesotan preconception of the world outside the Great White North.

I was early to bed and early to rise to catch my train the next morning to Paris. First order of business: get cotton candy by the Eiffel Tower with Byake. Paris was a zoo. I think a quarter of the world decided to spend New Years in Paris. And far too many connoodling couples. No man should be subject to that much face-sucking. Anywhom, our accommodation situation was slightly complicated in that we had none. Byake had just woken up from a nap on a park bench, just to illustrate our focus on quality. We aimlessly wandered the town, and struck gold with a hotel for 55 euros. Unfortunately, they only had availability for that night, but at that point we would take anything. We soon found out that the reason our hotel had no availability was due to the fact that no hotel had any availability. For Byake, this wasn't a great difficulty because he flew out of Paris at 6:00 am. I, however, was in Paris until the 2nd. Figuring that the roses were just budding on the Spring of my youth, I decided to rough it until I could check into a hostel the next day.

That evening we were able to catch an evening service at Notre Dame. I think Notre Dame rivals the Vatican in terms of cathedrals. The atmosphere of Notre Dame is the polar opposite of the Vatican or anything that you'll find in Rome. Paris was a stronghold in the Middle Ages, whereas Rome was still suffering from its collapse until the Renaissance. Notre Dame, therefore, is perfectly Gothic. The interior is peppered with steep colonnades that guide the community upwards into the vaulted ceiling. The purpose of the austerity was to focus on the majesty of God rather than His personal nature, as you see in the smaller churches of today. The Vatican, and any other cathedral built during the Renaissance or Baroque period, tries to emphasize God's proximity to us. That's why it's more ornately decorated as opposed to the undifferentiated grey in Notre Dame. Even though the Vatican is monstrous, it was intentionally built replete with optical illusions that make the cathedral seem smaller than it is. It's only a personal preference, but I love Notre Dame.

Byake and I were talking before the service began until the organ silenced us with a deafening blast. Honestly, there's nothing you can say after you get silenced by a medieval organ. If I were a parent I would take advantage of that. Getting silenced by an organ is like having God and his choir of angels pissed off at you. The service was very nice as far as my French intuition can tell though.

We also were able to devote an afternoon to the Louvre, which was extremely rewarding. The Louvre is awesome. Sheer, unbridled awesome. It totally destroys the Vatican Museums or anything in Florence. David may be able to take down Mona Lisa, but not when she's surrounded by Winged Victory and Cupid and Psyche. It's huge too. Of course, there's the Venus De Milo, but there are also countless other ancient sculptures and artifacts. The Code of Hammurabi is there, which is remarkable. It's the first recorded set of laws, and it's all written on a large rock. I had a picture...of all this stuff...

Finally, New Year's Eve rolled around, but we had no clue what we were going to do. In true dude fashion, we hadn't planned a thing, but just assumed that the party would find us. Paris had their underground metro running all night for free, so we took great advantage of that. After scouring the town and finding nothing, Byake and I retreated to an Irish Pub in Montmarte to regroup around 8pm. The bartender recommended we go to Champs-Elysées, which is a wide road that leads to the Arc de Triomph. I believe it's the nexus of fashion in the world...blegh... Anyways, Champs-Elysées is the exact place that a few French guys told Byake he shouldn't go, because it's dangerous. So of course we went there. We arrived at Champs-Elysées around 11:15 and realized both why we should go there and why it was dangerous. The entire street was packed, body to body, all the way from the Arc de Triomph to the river, probably about a mile.

I don't know exactly when the ball dropped on the New Year, only the general moment based on the shouts and cheers from the crowd. There were people from all over the world. I think there were some guys in a mosh pit waving a Portuguese flag. After a quick shower in champagne to cool down, I saw a big group of guys come by chanting, "Bonne Annee, Bonne Annee," which means Happy New Year's. So of course the impulsive, unstable, thrill-seeking...stupid but yet so awesome, part of me decided to join in. It took me very little time to realize that their mosh pit of dudes was less of a celebration and more of a gang display. It took me very little time because I was immediately challenged to a fight by two guys. While confused as to why they would challenge me to a fight, another guy bumped me from behind and gave me a "Hey, my primal virility is superior to that of yours" look. Immediately after, I checked my pockets and realized that Mr. Primal Virility had evolved past the hunter/gatherer stage of development. Needless to say, it put a damper on the moment.

I didn't have much time to kick myself, because that's when the fun began. This was this point that I made the rational assent to anarchy as a detrimental form of government. I heard a loud bang, and turned to see that someone had thrown a dynamite-like firework into the middle of the crowd, and that it had nailed some guy in the back of the head. Mass hysteria. The crowds swarmed the sides of the streets, and then began the all-important competition: which side of the street can hit the other with champagne bottles. Bottles came raining from the sky and were breaking all over the street. And that's when the riot police began to futilely quell the crowd. They walked out into the street, fully equipped with body armor, leg and arm padding, helmet, club, riot shield and some sort of firearm, to clear the street of any vapid stragglers that had failed to realize that the sky was raining masculinity gone wrong. It wasn't the greatest idea, because they just became target practice for the champagne enthusiasts. Literally, people were marching into the street and throwing bottles directly at the police, and there was nothing that they could do, because they were outnumbered a billion to 12.

Now Byake and I wanted to be close enough to see the action, but far enough away to not get clubbed in the head by angry riot police. Fortunately, it wasn't me but the guy directly next to me that was clubbed to the ground. Despite all our efforts to not end up the center of the action, somehow we had stumbled into the hornet's nest. As I giddily stood watching, suddenly, tears began to uncontrollably stream from eyes, which was then followed by a complete inability to breathe. Forgetting about Byake, I blindly sprinted in the other direction. I heard Byake say, "what the heck was that," and grabbed his shirt as he led me out of the fray. No pity necessary though. I think there was a point where a I choked through my tears, "This is awesome." How many of you have been tear gassed? I win.

After we escaped, we headed up to the Eiffel Tower to pass the night away with a bottle of champagne. From about 1am to 6 we passed the time with a group of stereotypical Frenchies, a couple South Africans and an Arabic guy who's English extended to the high-five and no further. Topic discussions ranged from how how horrific Tony Parker's rap is to how if pitted against each other in a fight the Statue of Liberty would obliterate the Eiffel Tower. Needless to say we advanced each of our personal quest for the satisfaction of our innate, insatiable desire to beckon truth from the shadows. Nyer.

That morning Byake flew back to Rome to catch a connecting flight home. His salty wit and roguish charm will be missed. I was doomed to wander the streets of Paris until 4 pm when I was allowed to check into my hostel. At 8 am, I attended New Year's Day Mass at Notre Dame. I was really excited because I thought it was going to be a big ordeal. Unfortunately, the French lived up to the stereotype of their fervent religious dedication. The parishioners didn't even sit in the actual pews; they sat directly on the altar. In total, there were no more than fifty people. In a small, American church, fifty people is bad, but not unbearable, but fifty people in Notre Dame is like throwing a hot dog down a hallway. I bypassed my sleep in order to see La Chapelle de La Médaille Miraculeuse where the incorrupt body of St. Catherine of Laboure lies. It's a small, hidden church, but it's important because it is the place where St. Catherine had a vision of Mary, who told her to create the miraculous medal. The church is a popular pilgrimage destination, and the church sells blessed medals in bulk to visitors.

Unable to see the Rodin Museum and Napoleon's grave, I headed back for my hostel and collapsed around 7 pm. The next morning, I woke up at 6am to catch my train to Zürick, but because this post has put Lord Nestor to shame in its length, I'll save the story of Avram and I snowboarding for my next post. I hope everyone had a blessed New Year, and at least three of you made the New Year's resolution to send me cookies. You're all in my prayers.



Clear Creek said...

I notice both you and Father Avram have photos of snow-covered Alpine peaks at the top of your blogs -- they must have made an impression.

Your story of New Year's Eve among the Paris bon vivants is very well written and highly amusing. You are remarkably insouciant about the loss of the contents of your pockets and your camera. It is true that regret would be a waste of emotional resources.

I will remember to go to the Statue of Liberty for New Year's, rather than the Eiffel Tower, as I read somewhere that one should learn from the mistakes of others, as one won't live long enough to make them all himself!

Grandfather Brown

Clear Creek said...

Me again, entering the competition. I got a whiff of tear gas that made my eyes water, while riding my bicycle across the UC Berkeley campus in May 1970, on my way to seminary classes. Do I get points for not even looking for trouble, or do you still win?


lukeolson said...

Dang, I was sure I'd be the only one. I guess it depends on the scoring system. If the judges weigh maturity/ stability more highly, then the victory is yours. I don't know how you could stay on a bike after that. But if the judges value immaturity/spontaneity, I still think I win.