Fred threaded our Paris CityVision van around double-parked trucks, pokey Peugeots, and parked Renaults down serpentine streets and back alleys. When I say “threaded,” I mean we wove in and out. Do not conjure images of granny painstakingly poking needle in lace doily. We flew like a Star Wars rocket might “thread” a narrow opening between cliffs, its pilot not hesitating for a moment as he avoids danger after danger.
Our van rumbled rapidly along cobblestone streets as we encountered obstacles like two different public demonstrations that diverted traffic. Fred detoured often, darting down whatever alley he thought might be faster. He changed lanes as freely as if riding one of Paris’ bazillion scooters, though never driving on sidewalks as scooters sometimes do. In fact, Harley-Davidson, Indian, Piaggio (Vespa’s manufacturer) and Honda motorcycle dealership signs whizzed by in our peripheral vision. If we’d been poodles with our curly heads in open van windows, our floppy ears would have sailed behind.
Even on the Île Saint-Louis, Fred barely had time to recommend Berthillon, the best ice cream in Paris, before we had blown past the shop. On one boulevard we and other tourists in our van noticed what looked like a cathedral, Gothic shoulders shrugged up skinny between two storefronts. I wanted to see its name, but only had time to read Venite Adoremus (Come let us adore Him) carved above the church door. Traffic moderated around the Arc de Triomphe so we could glimpse its carvings, and we stopped at a red light on a bridge that allowed us a nice view of the Tour Eiffel.
Another red stoplight in a densely populated neighborhood bought me a moment to notice a scene I might call typically French, because in my opinion, the French are good at relaxing in the midst of hard work. From the second floor of an ornately carved, triangular apartment building emerged a slender young man with ebony, chin-length hair. As he stood on an impossibly narrow black wrought iron balcony, he slowly dragged on a cigarette and exhaled in leisurely fashion. Lounging against the creamy limestone building, the man coolly observed pedestrian chatter, rubber-tired bumpy rumblings, and chaotic buzzing of life from his perch above it all.
Another scene Paris is famous for is embouteillages (traffic jams), and this was the first one I could marvel at from inside a vehicle. I had gotten to trust Fred’s living out his apparent dream of being a race car driver, so wasn’t paying attention to how the jam happened. Suddenly, at a major intersection, our van was in a mess of stopped cars. We were pointed toward a pont (bridge) over the Seine, and the four cars on our van’s four sides were perpendicular to us, parallel to the river. Maybe 20 cars were woven as tightly as bamboo strands of a bistro chair. It was a mystery to me how we would extricate ourselves. I don't remember hearing anyone honk a horn. Unflappable Fred asserted our van a few inches at a time, and the other drivers did the same—equally boldly. Calm chaos no longer seems an oxymoron.
And it really didn’t take long for all the cars to clear the intersection. Granted, an embouteillage is probably motivated by impatience and greed, rather than surviving wartime scarcity. But still, it reminded me of débrouillardise (resourcefulness) shown by World War II French Résistance workers when rubber became unavailable—they laid wine corks all around their bicycle wheel rims so they could still ride their bikes without actual tires.
Outside the city, our van rocketed out of gray- and sand-colored shapes and rumbling sounds to silently speed north through rolling green hills with vast fields of yellow colza (canola) flowers. Every vista included a curving stream or grand river. Fred said they were all the Seine River. Legend has it that the Seine loops lazily through the Giverny area because the river was so charmed by the countryside’s beauty, it devised a way to stay there longer. In fact, the river curves so often because the area’s soft limestone erodes easily as water flows through. Fred pointed out limestone cliffs in the distance.
On our way back from Giverny, Fred took us through the village of La Roche-Guyon, where Nazi field marshal Rommel headquartered in a castle on one of those cliffs just before D-Day. At road level, caves in the limestone cliffs were used to store military supplies. We wound through other sleepy villages, one even with a thatch-roofed house.
I was grateful for tranquil time in the country, including Claude Monet’s greatest masterpiece—his gardens—but soon we were back in Paris for another spin around the Arc de Triomphe rond-point (roundabout) and more fearless-flying adrenaline rushes. At 7 p.m., when Fred deposited us outside our apartment, we thought, “Now that wild ride was a grand tour!”