Monday, September 14, 2015

An American Family in Europe: Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

(See also: The Introduction)


After months of planning, it was finally go-time.  And by "go," I mean, of course, sit in a cramped space in an airplane for 10 hours.

We began our family's trip to the fabled lands of France and England by flying on Virgin Atlantic from Los Angeles to London. I had not been impressed with Virgin Atlantic's customer service up this point, but I was pleased that the flight left on time and arrived a little early.

We got only a small amount of the sleep on the overnight flight -- so we arrived at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 3 a bit groggy. The airport must be used to sleep-impaired travelers, because ample signage guided us easily to the Heathrow Connections bus we needed to get to Terminal 5 for our flight to Paris.

Part of the wonder of travel is discovering that things can be different in other places. Not necessarily better or worse -- just different. This became apparent in Terminal 5, which looked a lot more like a high-end shopping mall than the American concept of an airport terminal.

Stores like Cartier, Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton filled the crowded and buzzing terminal (we found almost the same thing in Terminal 3 on our way home). Frankly, if I was looking for hand bags, liquor, Rolex watches or jewelry the last place I'd look would be the airport, but I guess this has to do with duty-free shopping, a concept I've never understood.

While overflowing with products you don't need in an airport, the terminal strangely seemed to lack the things travelers do need. There were zero ATMs and surprisingly few places to eat. After some searching, we eventually did get a few sandwiches and snacks from a food stand.

We each napped on our next flight, which helped keep us going as we arrived in Paris around 5:30 p.m. local time.

Our entrance to France at Charles De Gaulle airport came with a bang -- or, more accurately, a lot of shouting. There were two lines at Passport Control: One for residents of European Union countries, including France, and another for everyone else. We went to the second line, which -- woohoo! -- was much shorter than the other.

Ahead of us, in our line, a French woman apparently didn't like the idea that she had to wait in the longer line to enter her own country and started shouting at the officer in the passport booth. The passport officer was not content to simply say something like "I'm sorry, you have to go to the other line." Instead, she switched her "open" sign to "closed," left her booth and came out to engage in a shouting match with the traveler. As it was in French, we couldn't understand what was being said, but it was loud and animated  to be sure. Welcome to France!

I wanted to get some Euros, and buy Museum Passes and subway tickets, before we left the airport. I thought it would be convenient to do so at the airport, neither task proved as easy as I hoped. After some searching, and asking for help, the only ATM we could find was well-hidden in a basement passageway. Sure, why make it easy for travelers to get money?

Museum Passes and subway passes are sold at Tourist Information desks in the airport, but we found the one closest to us was closed, so we had to go another terminal.

Finally, with cash and passes in hand, we caught a cab to central Paris. My wife and kids snored in the back seat, but my eyes were wide open to see for the first time this city that has been the center of so much history and culture. As we neared the center of town my first impression was to think of San Francisco -- dense streets of older buildings -- and Portland, Oregon -- plenty of green trees even in the urban areas.

We had rented an apartment through AirBnB in Paris' Marais district, and soon our cab pulled onto a narrow cobblestone street barely big enough for a car and in front of the address that I recognized from Google Streetview.

This was our first use of AirBnB and I feared that something could go awry and we'd be stuck without a place to sleep. But the code for the outside door worked and we found the hidden key inside. We put our bags down in our temporary home, then headed out for some fine French vittles.

We'd heard that French dining was a slow, time-consuming experience where you sit at a sidewalk table sipping wine and watched the world go by. Your food might show up the same day you ordered. Frankly, I hated this idea -- I go to a restaurant to eat, not idly sit around -- but I was ready to lower my defense shields and try things the French way.

We found a nice-looking pizza and pasta place with sidewalk seating (not exactly a rarity in Paris). We ordered some pizzas and salads, and settled in for the long wait. Except it wasn't. Our food was on our table in less than 10 minutes (and good, too).  Our longest waits for meals would come later in the trip -- in England.

Finally we took our jet-lagged bodies to bed for a much-needed sleep.

Next: The Louvre and Notre Dame

The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home

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