After my post about getting lost, I thought I’d share another little challenge of finding one’s way in France.
There is a little game we play in this country. I call it, ‘Find the entrance’.
I discovered this when I arrived in Paris in the 1980s during the midst of a terrorist wave. The main entrances to many public buildings were barricaded by police, with access strictly controlled through a side door. The Alliance Française was one of these high-profile buildings, a hotbed of foreign nationals plotting to conjugate French verbs. I learned to never assume the front door was the entrance, and to always carry proof of identity.
When we moved to Lyon some years later, the plot thickened. Lyon is known as a secretive city and filled with many very old and winding streets including the famous ‘traboules‘. How well I remember going for my first prenatal appointment at Hôtel Dieu in Lyon. (The hospital has since closed and is undergoing renovations to be rebirthed as a luxury hotel and shopping complex). It felt oddly reassuring to be giving birth in such a historic place, always assuming that the medical inner workings were a bit more modern than the exterior.
The magnificent Baroque façade of this 17th century building on the Rhône river took up several city blocks. I walked the entire length of it without finding the entrance. Twice. There was a driveway labelled ‘Urgences’ but that seemed to be reserved for ambulances (although later, when my daughter was born, we used that entrance to access the maternity department). There were several large and looming doorways with rounded arches that were closed and without handles. Finally, on my third approach, I noticed a discreet sign saying ‘Entrées hôpital de jour’ (which I later learned means ‘outpatients’).
My little game continues to this day, though we live in a more remote corner of the country.
Imagine you have an appointment at la Mairie to get your passport renewed. You know where the city hall is, of course, as it’s usually one of the more obvious buildings in town. Often it has a large clock tower and looks rather like a church, with a sweep of steps and a stately set of wooden doors. Do not be fooled into thinking you should try to open them.
All those gorgeous doorways you see in photos of France? They are not the entrance. Nine times out of ten those doors are locked and only opened on state occasions or emergencies. The real entrance for le public is usually around the block or on the side, through a set of ugly modern doors that slide open, sometimes even with an elevator or a ramp for handicapped access. Practical, if something of a letdown in aesthetic terms.
Even when you find the door, you may not be able to get in. You may need a code, or an appointment, or be outside the official public opening hours from 13:45 to 16:15 (that’s 1:45 to 4:15 pm for North Americans). I exaggerate, if only slightly.
Finding the entrance in France is so much more than getting yourself to the right door. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Sometimes the exit can also be challenging. You have gone through so many sets of doors, corridors and stairways to reach your destination that you may have a hard time remembering the way out. I still get the giggles when I remember my husband, having just blown his stack in a public building following an interminable wait, turned on his heel to leave in a huff. Only he found himself standing in front of two glass doors that were locked. Sortie à gauche, we saw too late. Dignity intact, if slightly bruised, we exited stage right.
Oddly enough, it dawns on me that our new house, the one we had built here in France two years ago, has the front door in the back. Maybe I’ve been here too long…
What about you? Ever have trouble figuring out where the entrance is?