Une Visite d'une Amie
Perhaps it has taken me a week to get around to writing this petite chronicle of a visit from my friend, Domenica, because I'm still recovering from the whirlwind of it! Or it could be because we had so much fun together and her 3-1/2 days here was certainly too short.
While I like to think Domenica would have come to visit me regardless, the impetus of her trip was the Paris-Versailles Grande Classique, a 16.2km (10-mile) race that begins at the Champs du Mar (Eiffel Tower) and ends at Versailles. Domenica and I are both displaced (and perhaps misplaced) New Yorkers who found each other in a running group in Sarasota a couple of years ago and "clicked." So when I signed up for the Paris-Versailles race back in March, I suggested she come run it with me, and six months later--voila!
Our itinerary, while not planned out, was jam-packed...
After several tribulations (including a strike at the Gare de Lyon), Domenica arrived mid-afternoon on Friday after flying all night from Miami. We met at a cafe and drank several glass of Cotes du Rhone upon her arrival. You'd think she'd be wanting a nap afterwards, but there was no time to waste...so after dropping her suitcase at my apartment and a change of clothes, off we went to wander the Marais before finding our way to the Atelier des Lumieres, a unique art museum (of sorts). It's difficult to describe, but basically it's a former steel foundry (huge!) that has been converted into a space that projects video of artists' work onto the walls and floors. It's quite immersive and mesmerizing. You walk around or find a seat on the mezzanine or lay on the cement floor and the images are moving over you, accompanied by music. There are three "pieces," the longest being the Klimt show; relying on visuals rather than oral narration, the show begins with his artistic influences and builds on those to show you how his work evolved.
Like I said, difficult to explain, but it's a unique experience and an original way to introduce an artist and his/her work to a contemporary audience.
By the time we departed the Atelier, it was dark and quite chilly. It had already been a long afternoon and evening, so we found a quaint little restaurant for some delicious Breton galettes and coffee and then made our way back--briskly!--to chez moi.
Race packet pickup! We had to venture out to some stadium out there at the end of a metro line and this is where we first saw the course map. Gulp! Note to self: if your race course uses the Eiffel Tower to help you understand its elevation, you might think twice. Or you might at least train properly. (More on this in "Sunday.") When you look at this picture of us the day before then--all smiles--keep in mind that we were still quite clueless of what lay ahead!
With race packet pickup out of the way, we were off to les grands boulevards--to a leisurely and substantial lunch at the Grand Cafe Capucines, a few hours of browsing at Galeries Lafayette and other cool stores in the surrounding areas, and pastries at Laduree (after long wait in the cold!).
This doesn't sound like it was a long day, but we left the apartment at about 10 am and didn't return until almost 9 pm. It's also worth noting that, given we had a 10-mile race to run the next morning, the night before we'd promised ourselves a couple of things: (1) we wouldn't walk too much; (2) we wouldn't drink any wine; (3) we would go to sleep early.
Um. Our feet covered about nine miles that day, we each had a glass of wine at lunch and we went to bed quite late--not that it would really matter since my neighbors across the way were having one of their Saturday night parties...think 20-something, drunk young ladies singing and shrieking till about five in the morning. Ah, to be young!
And then it was the day of the race. It's not like it snuck up on us. We'd known it was coming for six months. And yet...
Domenica was certainly more prepared than I--way more fit, for one thing--but we had both had injuries of some sort in recent months and we knew we weren't ready for 10 miles. What we didn't quite realize was just how much we weren't ready. Okay, so we'd seen the picture of the course the day before, but that was just a visual. After all, someone who'd run the race before told me, "There's a bit of an uphill stretch of about two kilometers at kilometer six, but it's easy after that." Alright, pas de probleme--we figured we'd just walk that part and run the others parts of the race slowly.
Because this is Paris, I guess, the race didn't start till 10 am, so we didn't have to get up at the crack of dawn as we're accustomed to for Sarasota races (Brooklyn, too). We got up early anyway (well, 7:30) and had coffee and croissants at the nearby cafe before taking the metro over to the Champs du Mar. Despite there being 25,000 runners, there were no corrals designated according to pace, etc., so all we had to do was drop our bags at bag check before 9:30 and get in line--didn't matter where or when. We were early. It wasn't even 9:00 when we got out of the metro, so we took our time taking photos and strolling very slowly toward what we thought was the race area. Suffice it to say, the area around the Eiffel Tower is quite busy and the race, as large as it was, was not the only activity. By 9:20, every runner we encountered seemed to be frantically searching for the bag check and we felt like we were already running in the race as we looked and looked--only to find it at the last possible moment.
Then we could relax. The day was a bit warmer than it had been the day before, so at least we weren't shivering (quite), but it was gray and clammy and rain was imminent. On the way to the start line, we saw a long row of men with their backs to us peeing into the hedges, even though there were outdoor urinals provided (yes, out in the open: a large, round, gray plastic structure the men could just lean into.) At 10 a.m., the race horn sounded off went the elite runners, not that we saw them; we were way in the back and with waves of 300 runners going though at a time, it would be a full hour before our sneakers touched the start line!
It would be another 2-1/2 hours before I saw Versailles. Early on--only shortly after kilometer 2!--I wished Domenica the best and started walking. The pounding on the pavement was proving painful to my lower back and we were still in the city and had 14 more kilometers to go. I'd actually been feeling a bit confident because I'd run a few nights previous on a "tour" that took you past the Paris monuments at night, and though we took many breaks for photos, etc., I'd covered seven miles slowly, but without much trouble. I figured once we entered the Meudon Forest, the beauty of it would invigorate me and I'd find more energy. And the forest was absolutely breathtaking! The aroma was fresh and intoxicating and it was pleasantly cool with the ocasional drizzle and mist.
But then, well, that "little hilly part" at kilometer six? I was in the back with the other sloggers, but Domenica told me later that even the super athletic types had to give up and walk part of the way up. To say the ascent was steep won't provide your imagination with the proper picture. I was walking (albeit briskly) and my glutes were whining! This was no hill--it was a mountain--and it didn't help my psyche that I saw a few people getting medical attention off to the side in the woods. At least one of them looked like the kind of guy who wins marathons, except now he was on the ground among the moss, wrapped in one of those silver foil blankets and getting an IV.
We weren't even halfway through the race yet. Even if I was truly enjoying the forest, there was a low chant in the back of my mind...what was I thinking?
If anything, I could let go of any beating up on myself I wanted to do about not training. Of course, had I trained, I would have been able to run more and walked less, but nothing would have prepared me for such hills. And yes, that's hills, plural, because while those two kilometers from about 6 to 8 were the toughest, they were not the only steep parts. To really put things into perspective, there's a bridge I run at home that I always dread, the top elevation of which is 18 meters. I might also mention the ascent is gradual and short (about a quarter of a mile). The summit in the Meudon Forest was 173 meters and it was about two kilometers long and it was %#&^*@ steep! On top of this, the hills near the end of the race were cobblestone--ancient, slick cobblestone.
Oh, there's so much more I can say about this race (picturesque villages, the dispensing of actual sugar cubes, the multilingual people who ran alongside you at the very end), but despite my "unfitness" for it, it was absolutely the most stunning race I've ever done. I wouldn't choose to do it again, but I'm so happy I did it once--and even more glad that I had Domenica along for the ride. I had no choice but to reach that finish line because she was waiting for me there, and "there" was the Palace of Versailles.
"I never lose. Either I win or I learn" - Nelson Mandela
We survived Sunday. We were not done making vows to ourselves, though, and after the trek back to Paris in the cold and rain after the race the day before, and a late night (10 pm dinner reservation) at a wonderful Moroccan restaurant, we were going to be kind to our bodies--at least to our feet--and keep the walking to a minimum this day.
Promises, promises. Because Monday encompassed all this: a morning walk from my apartment in the 3eme to the Jardins des Tuileries, then walking back to the 4eme for a visit of a few hours to the Pompidou, followed by a late lunch of falafels on the rue des Rosiers and dessert crepes at the Breizh Cafe, then back over to the Seine to watch the sun set and wait for the Eiffel Tower to sparkle at 8 pm. Oh, and if you think that's already quite enough for one day, you are mistaken! Because it was Domenica's last night, after all, and we needed to share a glass of wine for the road. Walking back along the river, we heard a cool jazz band playing along the bank and, conveniently, beside a bar, so down to the riverbank we went. Ignoring (or trying to) the chill in the night air, we each sipped rose from a plastic cup while leaning against the wrought iron railings, gazing on the beautiful lights along the river and listening to great music.
Alas, it felt as though Domenica had just arrived and here she was leaving already. 24 rue Meslay was going to be so quiet without her (although "quiet" and "rue Meslay" generally don't belong in the same sentence together!).
Before she left for the airport in the morning, we had one last coffee together at the Cafe Republique, which has become kind of my go-to hangout. Maybe Domenica was also tired, but she wasn't showing it. Granted, we had been in a 10-mile race, but we'd covered more than 42 miles together in just 3-1/2 days. We'd enjoyed champagne in the sun of the Pompidou rooftop and shivered in the streets of Versailles together. We'd eaten galettes and falafels and drank Moroccan mint tea. We'd swooned over macarons and chocolates at Galeries Lafayette and bought fancy French mustard and found the right purple Eiffel Tower for her daughter. More than that, we forged indelible memories and deepened a beautiful friendship. It was such a boost to have a visit from a friend and to be able to share so many wonderful times.
Domenica, we'll always have Paris-Versailles!