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La Défense: the view from our eight-floor apartment
The owners of the house in Crest had warned us that they would need to use it for the two weeks of Christmas and New Year. So on December 18th, Cameron and Joss had their last day of "school" before Christmas vacation, and we spent the remainder of the day packing some of our things, storing the rest of our things, and tidying up the house.
Our first destination was a timeshare apartment just outside of Paris in La Défense for Christmas week, found by Russell's sister back home. So we hit the road at 11:00 AM on December 19th (our original goal was 10:00 AM, but we overslept) for the estimated five-hour drive on France's magnificent autoroute system. Stopping only for toll booths, gas, and cold sandwiches at a roadside aire (rest stop), we managed to arrive at the Paris bande circulaire (ring road) just as the evening rush hour hit.
La Défense, a suburb 3km west of the Champs-Élysées, has nothing to do with national defense; it's named after a statue erected here in 1883 to commemorate the Franco-Prussian War. The name, however, has understandably caused some distaste and confusion (a visiting Soviet general once expressed admiration over how well all of the military installations were camouflaged). Today, La Defense is known as Paris' skyscraper district, with its ultramodern architecture and tall buildings.
We crossed the Pont Neuilly bridge into La Défense just after 5:00 PM with Gail driving and Russell navigating, directions and map in hand. Unfortunately, we ended up driving aimlessly around the area for an entire hour looking for the timeshare. This was due to several reasons:
After an hour, we had Russell driving and Gail on the verge of a nervous breakdown (and Joss about to die from lack of food). We finally found the place when Russell resorted to stopping the car in front of every building, running in, and asking if this was the "Résidence Kléber" (not easy to do on city streets in the middle of rush hour). Our confusion was understandable due to a slight misspelling -- the directions and contract called the place "Résidence Kléber," but the place was actually called "Pierre & Vacances." With some instruction, we parked our car in the underground garage -- coincidentally, it is on a side street a block away behind two sets of unmarked plain white doors.
The weary and worn worldtrippers settled into our new home for the next week: a tiny one-bedroom eighth-floor apartment. The kitchen has a microwave and range top, but no oven (Gail can touch the walls in all directions with her hands outstretched). When you close the WC door, there is just enough room to sit on the toilet (but your knees hit the door). The boys are on a sofa bed, which actually expands into two trundles so they aren't kicking each other all night. But the price is fantastic (especially for Paris), and the place is just fine for us. After Russell ran to the nearby all-night grocery store, Gail cooked another amazing hot dinner, and we had a fairly early evening.
Our new kitchen, which can fit one person at a time
December 20th went much better, as we made our first excursion into Paris. The timeshare is a ten minute walk from the Métro (one of the finest mass-transit systems anywhere in the world) which is a half-hour ride from downtown Paris. We arrived at the Châtelet station in the center of Paris' first arrondisement (district) in midmorning on a beautiful sunny day.
Today's main task was to do some Christmas shopping for each other (we had discussed having a giftless Christmas, but Joss would have none of that). Our first stop was Le Forum des Halles, a huge underground shopping complex. We had selected this mall because the movie theatre here is showing the just-opened "The Lord of the Rings" in English. The entire family has been waiting for this movie for the last year (we are nearing the end of the second book as a bedtime story) and we were not disappointed. Joss thought that the three-hour film passed like nothing, and Cameron stayed glued to the screen through the entire end credits.
An impressive display for "Le Seigneur des Anneaux"
After a stop at FNAC for some more English books, we walked over to La Samaritaine, the French equivalent of Macy's New York Department Store, where we split into various pairs to do our main Christmas shopping. Dinner was cheap Chinese food on "restaurant row" on rue St.-Denis (Joss, who had chicken on a stick, called it "the best lunch I've ever had"). Our last stop was at a small florist, where we picked up a one-foot tall $3.50 Christmas tree to set up along with all of our other home-made Christmas decorations. (Another sure sign that it's Christmas time is that Gail let Joss buy Chocolate Frosted Flakes cereal at the local market.)
It was a full day and well after dark when we arrived back at our apartment. We asked Cameron what he thought of Paris so far. "I'm not in Paris yet," he replied matter-of-factly. "I haven't seen the Eiffel Tower."
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