Sunday, August 30, 2009

Paris - Day 7

We spent our last full day outside the city, a wise decision given the heat and humidity. Our newfound Australian friends invited us to lunch at the Palais Royale in Versailles, a posh hotel on the edge of the famous chateau. Lunch was excellent although heavy for the weather. Afterwards we wandered over to a tea salon on the grounds, glimpsing sheep and horses in luxuriant pastures as we sauntered. It all seemed very Marie Antoinette.

A stifling train ride took us back into Paris. We showered, changed, and after a brief rest, went to the Comedie Française to see Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, a play credited with inaugurating absurdist drama. Even the brilliant efforts of the company could not persuade me of the script's merits. I understand its historical importance, but I still think the play is essentially stupid. Jarry originally intended it as a satire against a loathed professor, and Ubu Roi still smacks overly of adolescent rage at adults. So much potty-mouthed dialogue! And all the references to excrement! It made me long for Terence Rattigan . . .

That the Comedie Française managed to keep us interested for nearly two hours despite these shortcomings, not to mention the slang-heavy script, is the highest tribute. I've seen black-and-white video from the 60s and 70s of the company performing Molière and Racine, back when they were still doing "museum acting," a superannuated style more suited to the 19th than the 20th century. I read that the company had updated their repertory and approach; if last night was typical, then they have succeeded brilliantly. We adored everything about the production (with the exception of the script): the use of space; the vocal training and enunciation; the clever blocking; and the intelligent staging. The actor who played Ubu Roi, looked like Oliver Hardy from "Laurel and Hardy" fame, even sporting a rotund belly and little mustache. He maneuvered his bulk with the balletic grace one associates with the great actors of the silent film era. The smashing actress who played his evil consort reminded me of a French Marlene Dietrich. The supporting cast were excellent too. I can't wait to go back and see a classical production, perhaps a tragedy by Racine.

As I write, we are trapped in an aluminum capsule, hurtling 550 miles per hour toward Washington, D.C. Today has brought back the horrors of air travel in fulsome detail. While the French do an excellent job of managing their metro and rail systems, they need to do some serious work on their airports. Let me put it this way: Charles de Gaulle makes Washington Dulles look like a model of efficiency--no mean feat. Only one station was open for passport control despite the thousands of travelers departing on a Friday, normally the busiest day for travel. We encountered the same at security, which was also woefully understaffed.

United Airlines added to our woes. We left late; our seats (in business class, mind you) are filthy; our "entertainment centers" are broken; and a stewardess just dumped red wine all over a much-loved white jacket, perhaps ruining it. To say that I'm not happy with United Airlines is an understatement.

Coming on the heels of our recent voyage on the QMII has made this miserable trip, well, all the more miserable since we now know there is a much better way to travel if one has the time. Indeed, I've been puzzling over the economics of the respective voyages. The airlines are supposedly broke, but virtually every seat in this Boeing 777 is filled. United charges passengers in economy class for luggage, in addition to ever-higher prices for seats. In business we get a bit more leg room and a marginally nicer lunch, but these paltry amenities hardly justify the exorbitant rates. On Cunard, we were fed and watered for six days in luxurious surroundings. We had access to pools, a splendid gym, a beautiful library, and countless lounges. We could listen to jazz in the evenings or go dancing. And we could haul along as much luggage as we wanted--for no fee. And yet Cunard is profitable, even though an Atlantic crossing costs far less than a business-class seat. I don't get it.

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