At last, Paris, for last

Due to Internet limitations, the Senior Year Abroad blog has suffered. Some of that was also due to the author’s procrastination and lassitude. We will catch up on the crossing and London shortly. And add photos when I figure out how to get them back off the phone and into the computer.

But now we are on the the last leg of this trip and our entire Senior Year Abroad. Back to Paris, where it all started just 13 months ago.

After a lovely day and a half in London packed with sight seeing and friends meeting, we Ubered over to St. Pancras Station and the Chunnel train first thing on a gray morning. St. Pancras is an international station, so entry to the train platforms is restricted by train time. Fortunately, we had to wait only a couple of minutes to be let through into passport control and security. The process is pretty much the same as in airports–coats off, luggage loaded on the rollers to be scanned, phones and keys out of your pockets. (I actually forgot to take my British change out, but passed through the scanner without incident.)

Passport control is fairly serious, much more so than in the European countries. The passport officer gazed intently at me while holding my passport in his hands to make sure I was the same person in my photo. That never seems to happen in the Schengen Zone.

Sufficiently screened, we grabbed a cup of coffee and a croissant to wait for our train, and boarded without major incident or drama, except for my momentary move to the wrong car and Lynn missing our seats in the correct car, forcing us to swim upstream against the tide of passengers moving forward.

The Chunnel ride, like most European trains, is great. We tooled through the English countryside at some 280 kph and crossed under the Channel so fast, I didn’t realize we had done so, until Lynn pointed out that the signs were now in French.

Two hours later, we emerged into Gare du Nord in Paris to a confusing swirl of taxi hustlers trying to take us on an 85 euro ride to the Left Bank. Lynn sensed something was very wrong, as the cab “representatives” all claimed a strike of taxis against Uber was disrupting their regular departures.

First we walked downstairs under the station to an area where the reserved cabs are stationed, but felt extremely uncomfortable about getting into a black car with no cab sign on top. Then we went back upstairs to the main taxi line to be told the cab would be a flat 85 euro charge to go to the Left Bank. We declined that as well.

Neither the train information booth nor the police seemed to know anything about a taxi strike, so I hailed Uber. As we walked out of the station to hail an Uber driver, I saw a line of cabs right across the street. We took the first one, operated for the first time ever in my experience in France by a English-speaking driver. He knew exactly where we were going. The fare was 13 euros.

And he knew nothing of an anti-Uber strike. He explained that Gare du Nord has turned into a cesspool of taxi scams, as most of the arrivals are from England and don’t know any better. (Understandably–a cab to Heathrow from downtown London can easily hit 100 pounds on a bad day.)

At 36 rue Broca, Marie Forget, our landlord’s wife, greeted us at the door, grabbed Lynn’s suitcase and led us up the stairs to the apartment. All 61 of them.

Once she showed us around and left instructions on how to use the key, Marie departed, and we were home in Paris once again.

Lynn instantly detested the apartment.

After all the great luck we have had with apartments in Paris, Nice, Venice, Florence, Lisbon, Madrid and Barcelona, our good fortune ran out on rue Broca.

First, the VRBO web site spotted the apartment far from its actual address, which you don’t know until you have paid. According to VRBO, the apartment should have been but two blocks from our place last year on rue Laplace. Instead, rue Broca is many blocks away, though still in the Fifth, and not close to the river or Blvd. St. Germain at all.

But worse, in Lynn’s eyes, the apartment was unclean and unkempt. That’s a mortal sin. And it’s raining and cold.

Luckily, it’s only a week, and we will find good wine and good food and good times, regardless of the weather and the relative condition of our apartment.

After a quick, damp walk to a nearby alimentation for essentials (coffee, milk and wine), we trudged up the 61 stairs to unpack, charge up and settle in. Within minutes, Lynn had already found two promising restaurants steps from 36 rue Broca.

Maybe our luck has not run out after all.


First day at sea: exploration

Our first day at sea awoke to heavy fog outside, seas about 4-6 feet and chilly breezes about 15-18 mph. The Cunard TV channel 45 displays a loop of position and conditions, and channel 43 shows a bridge cam of the view forward. Not much on this foggy morning, as we steamed eastward toward the longitude of Nova Scotia.

It was easy to sleep in, as tired as we had been from the long day before. Besides, it doesn’t get light until late at this time of the year and latitude. Our stateroom in the forwardmost bow of Deck 5 gives us more ride for our money, for sure. The motion is gentle and subtle though constant. On the other hand, we have noticed that in the areas farther astern feel the engine vibrations much more, a constant, persistent low level vibration at your feet.

We barely made breakfast in the Britannia before they shut it down. Lynn’s Eggs Benedict was deemed excellent. My eggs were poached perfectly, although accompanied by tasteless Cumberland sausage. The croissants were quite buttery and flaky, not quite French but certainly passable.

We signed up for a small Internet package so we could have some basic level of e-mail. It’s expensive at $.75 a minute (Embarkation Special–$47.95 for 135 minutes), clumsy to log in and operate, excruciatingly slow to load (despite more than 800 hot spots around the ship), and we have to hold our stateroom door open to get on at all. Later the next day I learned that the system requires more than just a simple log-off, as our 135 minutes disappeared when I did not close down a browser tab properly, leaving me technically online, even though I had clicked the log off button. I understand this is a satellite based system, but in this day and age, you would think that 21st century shipboard online access would be cheaper, faster and simpler. It’s none of those.

(Special note: this is also the reason there will be no photos until we reach England and regular Internet access. I can’t download photos from my phone to drop them into this blog.)

Internet aside, our goal this first day at sea was to explore the ship from stem to stern, top to bottom. The bridge viewing area is on Deck 12, in a small space behind a glass wall separating the working staff from us passengers. Deck 12 is 41 meters (135 feet) above the waterline. The bridge crew of two officers and their quartermasters work four-hour watches, and the viewing area offers informative brochures about the operation of the ship and its technical specifications.

After our initial circumnavigation of the QM2 along the promenade outside Deck 7, we launched on our most important exploration of all—the quest for a Bloody Mary. No need to wait for Sunday.

The ship offers a number of friendly watering spots, including as the Chart Room, the Golden Lion, Carinthia Lounge, the Veuve Clicquot (figure out what they serve there), Sir Samuel’s, a pool bar at the indoor pool and a host of others. They all play some form of music all day long to attract passengers to stop in and sample their wares.

Since all your food is included in your passage, the only extra charges are for beverages. Prices are reasonable–$8.95 for a Bloody Mary and most regular mixed drinks, $4.75-6.50 for beer and $8-14 for wine by the glass. Our first Bloody Mary was in the Golden Lion, the British pub where a lively game of darts goes on all day long.

Verdict on the Bloody Marys—just fine, but require a bit of instruction to the bartenders for more Worstershire and less Tabasco. We will keep testing across the ship.

After a lunch at the sprawling King’s Court buffet restaurant that runs almost the entire length of Deck 7, we made our way back to the stern of Deck 14, where the indoor pool and hot tubs are located. The golf simulator is adjacent to the pool, and on the spur of a moment I signed up for the pitching contest. Some 15 of us swung away to a pin 90 yards away. Miraculously, I actually hit the green on my first shot and finally finished 7th in the contest, after being ranked as high as 4th.

Wednesday was the first of three formal nights on the ship, so we gussied up ion our best to join our dinner companions in the Britannia. The experience of wearing a tux and long dress to dinner is what the Queen Mary 2 is all about—elegance from another age.

Sadly, during the day, the QM2 experience is much like any other cruise ship. The uniform dress includes—even in early January on the North Atlantic—shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and tattoos. Brits do not dress any more elegantly than Americans.

We embark. And embark again

Travel day at last. Alarm goes off at 2:30 a.m., then again at 3:00 a.m. United Cab arrives at 4:00 a.m. With no traffic on I-10 and few people flying out at ungodly pre-dawn hours, we were through security and walking down the concourse to our gate by 4:40 a.m.

Concessions in MSY do not open until 5:00 a.m., so we had to wait a little while before Lynn could purchase coffee. Thankfully she had the foresight to make a ham and cheese sandwich in advance that we munched on while we waited for the plan to take off.

If New Orleans was foggy and muggy, New York was foggy, rainy and cold when we landed three hours later. The cab to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal cost nearly $50. Combined with a $42 ride to MSY, we spent nearly a hundred bucks in transportation before we ever boarded the QM2.

The Brooklyn terminal is a huge warehouse-like structure, staffed by very chatty, friendly officers who guided us through the security lines (much easier than airports), then to check-in to receive our guests cards, then guided us to a seat in a huge hall to wait on the ship.

Also waiting to board the ship were hundreds of “in transit” passengers .” These were people who boarded the QM2 in Southampton, sailed to St. Thomas, then on to New York and finally back to England. Talk about a Great Loop.

For the most part, the “in transit” passengers are ancient. Wheelchairs, electric scooters and canes are everywhere by the hundreds. One even collapsed while waiting, bringing out the EMT officers and finally being wheeled out of the terminal wearing an oxygen mask.

Our boarding number was 20, so we were prepared for a long wait to walk aboard the ship. In the meantime, I bought a hot dog at the concession stand (not bad but definitely not ballpark standards). Soon after, they called out numbers in large groups, so our 20 card was the third group called.

Actual boarding was uneventful and most well organized. Our group walked through a long enclosed gangway into the main lobby of the ship, where we were greeted warmly by the staff to direct us to our respective cabins.

Ours was the most forward on Deck 5, the last one before the crew’s quarters. Although nicely spacious, our cabin is smaller than the ones closer to mid-ships, and the port looking out over the Atlantic is small and round instead of large and rectangular. Nonetheless, we found it quite comfortable and spacious.

When we unpacked, we found some of the clothes in my bag a bit damp from leakage of rain through the zippered top. Two t-shirts and Lynn’s bathrobe needed a bit of drying. But more importantly, the wine was fine.

By now, we were extremely hungry, so off to the King’s Court buffet restaurant we went in search of a quick lunch. Seemingly, so did the other 2,500 or so passengers. The King’s Court is a multi-room affair offering everything from burgers and hot dogs to prime rib and sushi. We were glad to sample their salad bar (Lynn) and carvery (Tom). Our review was that the food for a buffet was not bad but not exciting either. Something tells me that will be our experience everywhere else too.

The mandatory safety briefing and lifejacket donning session was held at 4:30 p.m. Our muster station was located in the gym, and our muster teachers were all strikingly beautiful young British women. Turned out they were doing double-duty—these were the dancers in the show staged each evening at the Royal Court Theatre. If the ship goes down, I hope they jump into the same lifeboat with us.

After a short nap—remember, we had been up since 3 a.m.—we continued our exploration of the huge ship. Map in hand, we found our way to the Commodore’s Lounge overlooking the bow of the ship to view our embarkation. About 5:30 p.m., the bow of the ship slowly moved away from the pier.

Our voyage had begun.

And then the waiters closed all the window shades that looked out over the bow. They obscure the bridge’s view ahead so must be closed when the sun sets.

We retreated to our stateroom for a free glass of wine and view of the Hudson passing by through our porthole.

Since we had chosen the late 8:30 p.m. dinner seating in the Britannia Restaurant, we explored yet another bar, the Carinthia Lounge, where they specialize in Portuguese and Spanish wines (and Port, needless to say).

Then it was off to the Britannia to meet our dinner companions. And can you believe it? Sitting next to us were Conrad and Barbara Streuli, the parents of Stu Streuli, New York Yacht Club’s communications director. We had plenty to talk about. The third couple was from Cleveland by way of New York, and they too sail and boat. Cunard did well in our pairing. An auspicious start to the crossing.