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the big city (pontoise)

up the hillThe first time I visited Pontoise was last December. It was a brief trip–really only a stopover between Paris and Auvers. At the time, it seemd like a tiny little town, not much bigger than Auvers. maybe because it was New Years eve and everything was closed.

The second time I visited Pontoise was yesterday, and what a difference six months and a little direct sunlight can make.

rampartsApproaching from the train, my first view is the ancient rampart walls topped by old homes. But as the train draws nearer to the station, I see the walls are covered with graffiti. Since it’s in French, words I don’t understand, I think maybe it’s nice graffiti, welcoming visitors. The large modern ugly apartment complexes and throngs of teenagers in their uniforms of baggy dungarees with the crotches down the their knees (isn’t that passé?) indicate otherwise.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before, but the train station is huge, with many different tracks and trains all headed for different destinations.

Lordy, this is a thriving metropolis. Well, at least compared to Auvers.

Unlike Auvers, Pontoise has changed dramatically from the time the Impressionists painted it. The path up the hill that Pissarro painted is now a road lined with restaurants, salon d’ongles (nail salons), drug stores, travel agencies bakeries, boucheries, wine stores, everything except a Starbucks. Where do these people go for coffee? Do they (horrified gasp) make it themselves?


There are still narrow stone streets and old shuttered houses, but also a lot of newer, apartment buildings that take away the sweet old town effect. As I hike up the hill, my first beggars since I left Manhattan approach me, asking for money in French. I shrug and answer “je ne comprends pas”. There are advantages to being a dumb American after all. The other advantage is not understanding what they’re muttering under their breath as I pass them.

musee-pissarro-pontoiseAfter spending an hour or so in the Pissarro museum, I emerge famished. The streets are lined with bistros, restaurants, tea shops, sandwich stands, Chinese restaurants and sidewalk cafes and I’m frozen with indecision. Too…many…options. I wander the streets, utterly confused and finally decide on a quaint little tea shop when I almost faint with hunger in front of it.

As I stagger in, I notice the name of the place has the word “artisinal” in it so I figure it has to be good. It’s a combination café, tea and coffee store that also sells ceramic tea ware, fine chocolates and other gourmet goodies. It could easily be in Greenwich Village, except instead of college kids with pierced extremities, there’s a cute little old lady behind the cash register and another cute little older lady serving. I’m feeling younger and more energetic already. The menu is a choice of tarts and quiches with a salad compose. I‘m thrilled to understand what every quiche is made of. I order the chevre and tomato quiche and a citron presse (maintenant s’il vous plait, j’ai soif!) from the younger little old lady who scoots into the backroom.tomatotart

A relatively young woman enters the shop, looking much more stylish than anyone I’ve seen in Pontoise. She’s looking at all the items on sale and buying some coffee while she chats to the little old lady behind the counter. I hate her.

The little old lady notices I don’t have a drink and asks if I want one. I respond with “j’ai already ordered”. The old lady looks confused and the young woman translates “j’ai commander”. She then tells me her boyfriend is American. Her English is better than mine. I ask her where her boyfriend is from and it turns out he’s from New York City. He’s a theater director and is working in Paris. I ask if he misses New York and she tells me that he not only finds it an increasingly hard place for him to think, but that the rest of the population doesn’t do seem to do much thinking either. I love her and her boyfriend.

All in all, it was a lovely lunch. I bid them all farewell and head back into the street. After I’ve climbed every hill, explored the ramparts and the river below, I head back to the train station. I’m not sure which track to take or which train and a nice woman points out the Auvers train waiting on the tracks below. I run down and hurl myself into one of the back cars, next to two teenage boys who despite being sprawled out over the seats, look very nervous and not at all happy I’m there. They seem to be doing something they don’t want me to see.

Naturally, I’m curious and peer over to see what they’re up to. One of the boy’s hands are shaking as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and starts mixing the tobacco with something and re-rolls it, putting the filter back on. They light up and I smell the marijuana smoke in the air. I wonder why they’re smoking it in the train if they’re so nervous…wouldn’t a bathroom have been better? Or maybe behind some bushes?

Almost immediately after they finish the joint two really cute police officers enter the car. The boys sit up straight and look innocent. My heart is racing. I think to myself, well, now they’ve done it. Somebody’s in big, big trouble. I sure hope they don’t think that pot smell is my fault. Can you get arrested for breathing in second hand pot smoke? The officers proceed to enforce the law—they tell me to take my feet off the seat. I act very guilty and answer with “merci, non, bonjour” and take my feet off the seat. They continue their patrol and the boys return to their slouched positions.

Obviously I’m going to have to read up on French law.

One Response

  1. it is quite sad that most train stations these days are horrendously overloaded `

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