Paris Through a Window by Marc Chagall, 1913, by way of A.M.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Feb 17

Dear Friends, 

Today felt like a real day. Not a tourist day. The kind of day when real life really takes over and you have to work it. It started off smoothly though. We were on our way to the bank to sort things out with an ATM card that was not behaving as it should. Meaning we could not get at any of our lovely money we had so lovingly saved for this very trip. But we were confident all would be well once we stepped inside the good French bank that was the affiliate of our good friends at Bank of America back in the States, who had assured us there would be no trouble at all with the ATM card, that everyone used them now to travel with, and travellers' checks were a thing of the past. 

So we had nice cafe au lait with requisite croissant in very un-trendy neighborhoody brasserie. We had just met our landlord on the corner for a quick key exchange. “This,” she told us, “is the real Paris. No tourists come here.” We were up near the Gare Nord.

(I liked the hard-boiled eggs offered on the bar. After all, it was morning.)

We strolled into the bank we had been told to visit should any complications arise. One or two nice ladies behind desks. All looks as it should. Well, they don't speak English. I thought everyone spoke English here. I am always trying to ward off their English. But when it comes to banking they don't speak English. They couldn't help us at all. They couldn't provide a phone line for us to call our American bank. Non, non, non, good-bye. Wow. It was like they were living in a little box and we were asking them if they might be able to open a window and the answer was NO! But they wrote down an address on a yellow Post-it of a Bigger Branch of the Affiliate Bank a few blocks away where surely they could help us.

The Bigger Branch did look more imposing. That must have been some little neighborhood fly-by-night hole-in-the-wall branch. The Bigger Branch made you wait and enter the building one at a time through a door with a buzzer and all sorts of complications. We made it inside. Spoke to one woman behind a desk who also didn't speak English. No, nothing could be done. She looked at my ATM card and shrugged. We demanded a little more help and she went and got her boss, a pudgy young man who stalled for 45 minutes, did not speak English and ended up by just walking away from us. There was nothing, he said, he could do. No calls he could make. No, he couldn't let us use his telephone. Rien!

Now we are down to our last few Euros. And we have no phone. This is getting a little serious. Not to mention that it was Marta's idea to believe in the original bank's assurances that the ATM card would be fine, overriding Fred's concern that we'd get screwed when we got here. So the relationship is under strain to say the least. 

We come home. Marta collects some coins to try the local public phones (they still have very functional public phones here) but when she goes out nothing will work so she returns.

This is like a Kafkaesque nightmare where every door slams in our face. 

We fire off emails to friends in Woodstock: please put a little money in our other account, the one the ATM card does work for, we'll pay you back one day. Other emails to friends of friends in Paris: do you know anyone who can pick up a phone in this town and fix this? Then a last-minute call to our friends in Brussels, hoping they might have some compassionate European string to pull.

“Try the American Embassy,” writes back one of the Parisian friends-of-a-friend who was actually in New York it turned out. Despite Fred's intrinsic distrust of such institutions, we felt we had to give it a try. That's how desperate things had become. Would we ever eat again?

We took the Metro down to the Place de la Concorde and emerged into its foggy damp brilliance. There was the Eiffel Tower, today its top half disappearing into pale grey fogs. I had never seen the Place de la Concorde before. It is huge and glorious and probably many people suffered to create its splendors, probably much of it was built to celebrate wars and kings and other oppressive things, but it sure dazzles today. 

But I didn't want to linger and look even though this was Fred's old stomping grounds from when he was a shy and exploring teenager. We strode – or at least I strode while Fred kept looking at the beauty – over to the American Embassy, well defended by gendarmes. The man at the gate called inside on my behalf and put me on the line with a woman who said that they were just closing, but she could call the bank for me – make the connection – and then it would be up to me.

We stood outside at the little booth of the guard house – very unimposing – it could have been the entrance to a public swimming pool – and I spoke to first one and then a second and then a third person over in the States – you know how they pass you from one to the next to the next and you never know if anyone will come back and save you or not – and after 45 minutes they promised us everything was cleared up and we'd be able to get at our funds.

And then we walk, in search of a bank. Fred talks about how the police were watching us the whole time, with half a mind to arrest us as terrorist scouts. We are elated, but restrained. Will the card work? We find a bank...yes, yes, YES!!! And we bought a “traditionel” at our local patisserie (the long baguette) and all sorts of things for the kitchen – Fred was hoping for a big night out but Marta is still recuperating from her insane illness yesterday.

But you know, I am loving it. I feel like I have ridden the Metro all my life. I am loving watching all the faces, observing French life. I am hoping that tomorrow there will be more mindless, instinctive, unplanned exploring, and whatever I find I will share with you. Ciao.


  1. What a wonderful travel story, thank you for sharing your triumph!!

  2. Wow. You're getting all this disagreeable stuff -- illness, ATM/money nightmare -- over with, at least. That indifference in the people you met up with is really quite depressing, almost a cliche. Yes, Kafkaesque. The image of the top of the Eiffel Tower submerged in fog goes really well with the day you describe (sorry if that sounded like one of the comments someone would make responding to a workshop read-aloud, but come one, it totally does).

    Ok. The vacation gods owe you now.....

  3. Like Joe says you've got all that stuff over with and at least you won't get altitude sickness in France. :)

  4. oh, you guys are awesome! I just read this out loud to Fred who was out exploring streets in the dark while I typed. Yes, just like in the workshops, we like to read our work out loud to each other. Or I read his out loud & he reads mine. That works really well too!

  5. I'm loving this blog...learning a lot, like travelers cheques - at least a few - good!
    I feel like I'm in Paris for the first time!
    Better than a Liz Taylor/Van Johnson oldie!
    Looking forward to tomorrow's adventure. Glad your marriage withstood the day's festivities.
    Penny M.

  6. Oh my!! ROFL

    I realize it wasn't funny while it happened. But I was chuckling the whole way through.

    I'd say you have definitely been...what's that word?...initiated. (I was thinking inaugurated, but knew that wasn't it! ;-D )

    Looking forward to the next entry!

    ~carol :-)