Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bon Voyage, Grand Paris

10:13 am, Aeroparte 1, CDG
(sitting at one of the three workstations marked WiFi at Gate 12B. Except I am not using their WiFi ‘cause its not free. Am using this because I can plug in and sit down too. I know, I know, I am being selfish.)

Finally, my legs gave up yesterday after one week of very long walks. I went back to the “economy room” (cheap hotel lah) at about past 7 pm, thinking I would wake up about 9 or 10 and go for dinner at the restaurant across the street. I woke up about past 11.30 pm, decided it wasn’t worth getting up just for dinner. Woke up about 4 or 5 in the morning. Decided not to have the breakfast at the hotel (didn’t like the not so friendly staff). Left the hotel at Gallieni just before 7.30 am, took three trains to get to terminal 1. Hey, a father and son (I think from the Middle East) even consulted me about which train gets to which terminal. I must look like a seasoned traveller already.

It’s quite confusing, the sign at train station when you arrive at the CDG (Charles de Gaulle) Airport. You have to take another shuttle train to terminal 1. When I finally got to the check-in hall about 10 minutes before 9 am, the counter wasn’t open but a long line was already forming and overflowing into the common corridor. Why can’t MAS just let people queue up in the roped area instead of spilling over and blocking the people traffic?

After check-in, wanted to have light breakfast. Checked-out the bar near the MAS counter but didn’t like the fact they were using disposal cups. So, went through immigration and just right after that was a bar using reusable cups. And pretty cheap too, by Euro dollars. An expresso and a pastry for only 3.60 Euro.

So, here I am, reflecting on the pass one week of travelling. Everything was really good. No unfortunate incidences. A couple of surprises in Paris.

Actually, I went to two Parises in the last week. Did you know that Bucharest is called “Little Paris”? They tried to copy the design, complete with a replica of Champs Elysees. In fact, the guy in power at that time (can’t remember who) wanted to be better than Paris so he had the boulevard just a few metres longer than the one in Paris. The Little Paris, of course can’t compare with the big brother. Romania was very impoverished under communism and economically it is still behind; millions of people have left for places like Spain for work. I was told that a graduate in Bucharest can earn about 700 euro a month but in smaller cities it would be about 400 euro. Little Paris is very polluted; full of dust and smells of petroleum from the crazy number of cars on the road; the cars are parked everywhere including the sidewalks and pedestrian walks of the boulevard. This is despite the very good system of trains and underground metro and buses. Romanians are having a big love affair with cars after decades of pent-up suppression from consumption. But I love Bucharest though. I love the staff at the Opera Hotel. Always friendly, especially at breakfast. I actually shook hands with them on my last morning to say goodbye.

(Am looking out the window at the departure area; the plane is parked there; and the MAS crew are just getting into the plane. Its probably going to be on time. My wife is concerned; she was stuck at Heathrow when the plane didn’t arrive and they put everybody in a hotel, took them back to the airport early in the morning; and then delayed it a few more hours)

Back to Bucharest. I tried the trains (metro and regional) and they are very good. One of the staff gave me a ride to Sinaia (and I took a train back; 132 km), a mountain resort, the day before I left. He even walked me to the famous Peles Castle, reputedly one of the most beautiful in Romania, built by the first emperor of Romania. Pity did not get to see the inside ‘cause it’s a guided tour of about one and half hours. Surely next time. That area is famous for sking and snowboarding. Again pity I didn’t have the time to go up in the cable car. Along the way, I had a chat with Dragos and learned that some people have tried to promote tourism but discovered that the infrastructure is very poor; the huge jams leading out of the city during weekends, not enough hotels, etc, have deterred the business. I thought, hhm, if that was China or even Malaysia, they would just go ahead; and close both ears to the complaints; hoping things will improve.

Ah, but I did get to enjoy my very first classical music performance. Well, probably not the first. I remember going to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra performance at USM DSTP. That one was horrible. Sound and the “attitude” of some of the musicians (chatting away during the performance; or generally not attentive). The performance at the Athenuam (??) was moving; crystal clear sounds. I was rather distracted by the pianist (a Japanese lady); her body language was too distracting. So I closed my eyes and let the music moved me. The inside of the circular hall was splendid. The audience were however a little idiotic. OK, maybe it’s the management’s fault. They let people walk in and out during a performance! And when we tried to get tickets, they said there was only three tickets left. Yes, you guessed it. There were many empty seats. Can’t imagine people paying 50 lei (that’s about RM60) and not showing up.

Will I go back to Bucharest? Well, they have invited me back (verbally) so if we can agree on what I can contribute, I will definitely go back. I think they have a big challenge and they need some help. But sometimes, we also need to be aware of the politics. I don’t want to seem to be muscling in or disrupting vested interests. So, will see. I will probably learn more too.

Now, Grand Paris. And I am not making up the term. I was at the Eiffel Tower, looked at the tourist map and discovered I was just opposite the Architecture Museum. Why not? I could learn a thing or two. So, I paid 8 or 9 euros and started exploring. Level 1 was a lot of cast of Roman buildings and architectural details of old buildings. Yah, nice but not impressive. Then I bummed into an exposition of the current effort at visualising Paris in the future – the Grand Paris. It’s something like our Structure Plan exhibition back home. Except this was really elaborate with a lot of technology thrown in and very nice graphic designs. There’s even a booth with soft cushions on the floor where you can lie down and watch the presentation. I did that too. Guess what happened. I fell asleep. Damn, I was really worn out. Interestingly, just like plan exhibitions back home, not many “public” was there; mainly students from colleges (part of their studies, I am guessing). Tried to buy a copy of their plan but it was all in French.

So, what is Grand Paris. From my brief and lightning visit, very interesting. Post-Kyoto came out strong in the presentations. How to reduce carbon footprint with compact city design (yes, they use that term); they actually want to shrink the size of Paris. I saw images of taller buildings encircling parks (with existing skyline maintained; some increase one storey). And they imagine the entire roofscape covered with solar panels (I saw the image and I didn’t like it). I am sure if you search the web you will find some stuff on Grand Paris; but probably in French.

Ah, talking about the French and their French. No, the French are not snobbish (except for the ones I encountered at the hotel reception). The waiters are especially tuned in to tourists. Those I met for my meals are very nice and will speak to you in English. Hey, its their bread and butter.

And my surprises? Well, first off, Paris is nice. And I will come back again. I have already promised my wife. Paris should be a World Heritage City, way before George Town or Malacca.

My niece, PJ, had recommended (based on a friend’s recommendation) to me to watch Moulin Rouge, even though it is pricy. Some of you may have watched Moulin Rouge the movie. I did, and I think I probably fell asleep. Well the movie didn’t impress me. Now I know why. The movie about Moulin Rouge is all about the intrigue behind the famous Parisian cabaret. I was walking along Champs Elysee on the first day (all the way from the Louvre; hey that’s a very long walk) and saw the Lido theatre. So, I thought, same thing. I managed to get the cheapest ticket which cost 60 Euro. You sit at the bar and get two free drinks. A dinner included will cost between 120 to 180 euro. Multiply that with you partner, that’s about 1,000 ringgit or more for a night at the theatre.

So, the show started, very impressive costume, a little glitzy. Looked promising. Vocals, not very impressive though; kinda subdued. And then I thought I was seeing things. Hey, some of those dancers are bare breasted! Well, they all have hardly in clothes on in the first place(except the lead actress) but really, topless? Then it dawned on me. This must be the expensive “strip tease”. Well, they don’t do a strip tease. You know what I mean. So, all throughout the more than one and half hours of show, these bare-breasted women (the men don’t count, I think) came on and off, with other “fully clothed” dancers. Now I get it. That’s why Moulin Rouge the movie didn’t get to me. It missed out on the main intrigue. But honestly, the stage sets were very impressive. I wondered how they manage to move them around so effortlessly. And I think this was one of the intrigues in the movie. In between, there was some “acts” by men. No, no, not the acts you must be thinking about. There was a guy with a string and throwing spinning “tops” (not sure what to call it); he was impressive and got more cheers than the dancing girls. A couple of muscular men also did some impressive stunts with their muscles (saw it on TV once). All in, I thought the dances, dancers and vocals were very subdued (read as not exhiliratingly impressive). Expected much more energy. It was sort of like they were conserving energy for the next performance at 11.30 pm.

OK, so that’s the first surprise. The next day, after Eiffel Tower and the Architectural Museum, I took the metro to Pillage. As usual, I just wonder around. Saw a street with lots of tourist souvenir shops and lots of tourist. Looked at the map. Oh, yah, there’s a Cathedral nearby. Looked up at the hill and said, “no more climbing”. There’s a furnicular train, but maybe next time. As I wondered back to the main street, I started seeing whole rows of shops selling erotica stuff. OK, if you must know, “Sex Shops”, to be precise; and peep shows, table dancing, strip tease. No, this is not my first encounter with a “red light” district (hey, I am reasonably cosmopolitan). What really clicked was when I bummed into the real and original Moulin Rouge theatre. Right smack there in Pillage. Now I see. This must be like trade specialisation. And the caberet is the middle- or upper-class kick in the sex trade.

(It’s 11.32 am. The plane is supposed to take off at 12 noon. No way they can do that now. Seems there’s a huge jam at the immigration counter. Going to stop and continue on the plane. Am wide awake after the good night’s sleep and the shot of expresso.)

2.12 pm, on the plane, just finished lunch. Watching “Fast and Furious”, again. Multi-tasking. The movies are all the same, and getting tedious. Lunch was briyani chicken rice. It wasn’t bad but it comes in those sealed plastic micro-waveable type containers. After eating I turned over the container and noted PET; not so bad but still not meant for heating up food. Maybe I should add MAS to the list of “no fly” airline.

I was right. Departure was about half hour late but we will still reach KLIA ahead of schedule.

The other major highlight of my day yesterday was Eiffel Tower. Advised by my niece, I went early. But even before 10 am, there was already some queue. Headed for the entrance with the shortest queue. Guess what? Exactly what I wanted. The entrance for climbers. Paid the 4.50 euro and started climbing, expecting to climb a really long time. Got to Level 1, proceeded to Level 2. No sweat. No even panting. If you think its easy, Level 1 is like climbing 21 storeys and Level 2 is 42 storeys (668 steps). When I got to Level 2, I tried looking for the stairs to the top. Discovered that you can’t climb all the way (makes sense I think, since it becomes very narrow and would have been a safety risk). Debated whether to pay the 5 euro for the lift ride up. Usually, I get disappointed at the towers because you can’t see far because of weather. I decided they need my 5 euro more than I do. They have to paint the tower every seven years (they are doing it right now) and need some 60 tonnes of paint and lots of man-hours. The lifts are super fast. They have been upgraded several times to keep up with the technology. They have really good posters everywhere with interesting tidbits about Eiffel tower and one of them claims “sustainable development”. That attracted my attention. It claims that Gustave Eiffel must have unconsciously thought about sustainable development when he and his team designed the hydraulic lift system. Even though it has now been upgraded with the latest technology, much of the old system has been retained. Well, I don’t know much about lifts and mechanical engineering so I will leave it to the engineers to clarify this one day.

When Eiffel tower was being built there was some protest because that area was used by Parisiens for exercise. Now it has become the pride of France. One think that strikes me is that some of these old projects were conceived way ahead of the technology of their time. In this case, the design team had to overcome various hurdles, including designing a lift system. Reminded me of the architects of Chicago when they started building highrises.

Was it worth it, especially with the long queue for the lift from the level 2 to the top? YES, yes, yes. If you come to Paris, you must go to the top of Eiffel Tower. When you look down, you will appreciate the grand designs – the magnificent boulevards, the street patterns, the consistent roofscape, yet not monotonous; the old with the new. Remember that Le Corbusier was instrumental in pushing for monument skyscrapers; and it was his group of architects who advocated massive highways to embrace automobiles. Lucky for us, he failed to convert Paris to his vision. Paris is still very people and pedestrain friendly. And if you look down many streets, the perspective view is just amazing. The height of buildings are maintained; the façade of buildings are complementary though from different periods.

Finally, a word about the famous Louvre Museum, the one with the famous glass pyramid by I.M. Pei. Me? I am not impressed. The collection of paintings seemed unreal – I think many seemed to have been restored and looked too new to be old paintings. There’s only one reason to visit Louvre. Monna Leesa (ok, Mona Lisa to most of us, and Monna Lisa to the French). Even then, they keep you at a distance, enclosed with “glass” and protected by 6 or 7 secret service agents on site. You can’t get to see all the wrinkles on that grand old lady. Hey, I think they should send it back to the Italians. In case you are wondering, Leonardo da Vinci painted Mona Lisa.

It’s been a long post. Time to stop. Otherwise you’ll start giving me an F grade for long-windedness.

Stopped writing at 2.46 pm, Paris time; 10,000 m above the sea, traveling at 969 km/h, somewhere above Ukraine, another 9 hours to destination. And “Fast and Furious” is getting boring.

[uploaded at KLIA]


PJ said...

If you tell my dad what you saw at moulin rouge, he will say 'how come never go there when we went?' lol. Your reaction is simmilar to my friend's reaction. See below for extract from her blog:

Moulin Rouge
Honestly, I haven't watched the film yet. However with so much hype about Moulin Rouge, the trip would not be complete without a visit to the cabarets'. Watched the most expensive show in my entire life, and I think the show worthed every penny! (Oh the ticket came with a complementary bottle of champagne too. Haha). Your ditzy friend here made some really stupid remarks:
Me: Was it just me, or do you not think the girls' tits are all very perky? It looks as though they're not wearing bra...
The couple next to us looked at me weirdly.
S: The girls are naked...

Brian said...

wow dad.. fascinating trip.. though i think the moulin rouge visit must have been a bit awkward. XD