Backpacking Boulevardier

The 10:50 to...

...Bordeaux. There was, fortunately, nothing much to see out the window the entire way from Paris to Bordeaux. It was the kind of flat, brown and weathered green landscape that would have had Carolyn put away the camera and settle in for a good nap. For only a few dollars more, I’d bought a first class rail pass. The spacious, reclining seats would have been no match to beat Carolyn’s ability to fall asleep within the space of a single yawn.

The lack of scenery allowed me to do what I do best: stare through a window at moving landscape and daydream. The whir of steel wheels along seamless track served as my New Age massage music. I was in a trance for the entire trip.

The first thing you see when you walk out of the Bordeaux station is the thrusting spire of what is no doubt a majestic medieval Gothic cathedral dripping with architectural beauty and steeped in rich, historic importance. I was having none of it. The second thing you see when you step out of the station is a string of inviting outdoor cafes. That was where my interest lay, and after dropping off at my hotel the dead body I’d been hauling along with me on my back, it was to one of those inviting cafes that my now aching feet delivered me.

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I sought to sit with a bowl of onion soup and a bottle of Bordeaux (when in Rome, eh?) and happily watch the passing parade out and about on a gloriously warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. To imagine sitting across from an American train station and entertaining oneself with the passing parade would be more like making a day-trip to a leper colony. I’m not saying Bordeaux doesn’t have its share of life’s diminished survivors; for me it was more like a rich gumbo of all classes and types, scurrying, striding, loping, stopping, gazing and then moving on again, with just a small handful of unsightly unfortunates passing by. Those few were like the okra in a gumbo, unappealing to look at maybe, but still adding texture and color.

As I slurped and sipped from a front row table along the street, a diminutive Frenchwoman, a relic perhaps of the Age of Napoleon, shuffled past, muttering repeatedly, “France is merde.” She seemed to be actually dissolving into old age as she scuttled along. I wondered if she’d make it to the corner before disappearing totally into thin air like a dandelion spore. She was followed by two statuesque, maybe West African women, speaking French with such lilt and precision that their conversation begged to be set to music. Then came an orotund (the bass?) fifty-something boasting a T-shirt of Schrodinger’s Cat pronouncing “I am alive.” Two men and two women (the strings?) met and took off together. They had an aggregate age that had to approach three hundred. I liked to think they were total strangers who had just picked each other up for the evening. A man (oboes?) passed by with an oxygen supply in the design of a smart, handsome man-purse. Children (piccolos?) of all shapes and rants, and the backpackers (horns and brass) blaring meaningfully on their quest for the meaning of existence rounded out the orchestra composing this afternoon’s symphony.

Whew. That’s about enough of that lame attempt at verbal virtuosity. Back to the onion soup and the wine.

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One of the smaller goals of this pilgrimage (and the goals are all purposely small, if not microscopic) is my ongoing quest for the perfect bowl of onion soup. The standard was set on our honeymoon when Carolyn and I stopped on Rue Cler near our apartment in Paris for what we thought would be a light lunch of onion soup. If they could make automobile tires out of cheese, then the bowl served up by Cafe Centrale that afternoon came with a Michelin Defender installed over the top. Instead of a light lunch, I barely got down what was a heavy lunch, followed by a robust dinner and nightime snack, all in that same bowl. I managed to finish it (it was too good not to) by not eating the rest of the bread serving, which I never not do in a French or Italian restaurant.

One final observation on today’s entertainment. Unattached women all seemed to scurry by in an awful hurry, while unattached men saunter with apparently no place to go. I say, slow down women, and pick up the pace men and there won’t be the need for so many dating sites on the internet.

The travelers emerging from the train station across the way all seemed to act as if they were experiencing sunlight for the first time in their lives. At my cafe, a smitten couple eating Chinese are sharing from the containers, evidently after it’s already in in their mouths. Another pair flit in and alight on two chairs like sparrows on a telephone wire, sit for a minute and then flit off again. A man ordered a cafe, and then pulled out food he’d brought in with him. Between him, the Chinese takeout couple and the flitting sparrows, I don’t understand how these cafe’s stay in business. Especially with them all stacked up next to each other, as they are here. Yet you never seem to see one boarded up closed. I looked it up, and there were once more than forty thousand cafes in Paris; now that number is down to seven thousand, so I guess they do close down and in quite astounding numbers. I may have observed three reasons why.  

Well, this is about the time Carolyn would have returned from the cathedral; time to order her a glass and watch with her, as she swipes her phone and camera through what are dozens of photographs of all the cathedral’s beauty that I’d missed. Then it would be my turn to tell her all that I’d seen here at the cafe.

I’d also advise her not to order the onion soup.