Wednesday, 20 March 2013

I Love Paris in the Springtime: France, March 2013

Today's trip starts with an argument, as do all the best trips, I find. Mostly it's with your partner, or your sister, or your annoying colleague, but today it's a lady at my local Bureau de Change, who tries to rip me off for 5 Euros. I won't name and shame, since I've just read an article in this morning's Metro about how bloggers might in future be held to account for potentially libelous things they say - which is a shame as it means my scandalous revelations about Piers Morgan might have to go unpublished.

Anyway, I've used this particular Bureau de Change many times before because it always has the best exchange rates for miles around, although it starts to dawn on me this morning that there might be a reason for this.

"Hello, I'd like some Euros please."

"Sure, how many would you like?"

"Um, about 60 Pounds' worth please?", I say, politely.

"Here you go, two pounds change and there's 60 Euros," she says, without appearing to do any kind of calculations.

"Um, can I have a receipt, please?" At this, she looks somewhat nervous.

"Oh, er, yeah sure. OH! I forgot this, haha!" She hands me my receipt along with an extremely crumpled 5 Euro note, laughing anxiously.

I stare back and forth between the money in my hand, the receipt, and her slightly red looking face.

"What's wrong? The exchange rate's rubbish at the moment, it's taking everyone by surprise...", she offers.

"Yeah, it'd be even worse if you'd not remembered that other 5 Euros, wouldn't it?", I say over my shoulder on the way out, making a quick and pointed exit. Or as quick and as pointed as is possible whilst dragging a wheelie suitcase which is too wide for the shop's door and feels like it's full of breezeblocks. Sadly, I can't help but feel that my moral victory is slightly diluted by my Mr. Bean-esque departure.

The resemblance has been pointed out once or twice.

Funnily enough, the same case is a bit of a bugger to lug up the steps at Surbiton station. And again at Vauxhall. And again at Kings' Cross St. Pancras. I've not really thought this through, have I? Suddenly that 13th pair of boxer shorts and selection of board games isn't looking so essential.

On the Victoria line, there's a lady with a dog, which causes much confusion in my mid-morning brain. Are dogs allowed on the tube? I don't ever recall seeing one. Surely guide dogs are allowed, but this doesn't look like a guide dog - it's just a cute fluffy black one (that's what it says on its pedigree certificate, I'm sure.) Added to which, the lady isn't blind, or deaf. Maybe it's a smelling dog, to warn her in case there's bacon frying somewhere nearby or someone's aftershave is a bit overpowering. Actually, judging by the amount of attention she's getting from the guys sitting all around, there's every chance he's some kind of dating dog - smart move, I reckon.

I'm on my way to catch the Eurostar from St. Pancras International, which a couple of years ago was the A-star student of London stations, but is now once again the also-ran, since its big brother Kings Cross had the refit to end all refits and is winning all the awards at Speech Day yet again. Actually, this entire square half-mile of London is completely unrecognisable from when I lived here in 1996, with the gleaming new stations staring each other out across the street: classic Victorian architecture snuggling up against temples of glass and steel, with overpriced cufflink shops aplenty. Even the local street hookers have put a bit of slap on.

I am in no way suggesting that anyone in this photo is a street hooker.

Arriving in the Eurostar zone at St. Pancras, I print my tickets and head through security. Or, rather "security". Funnily enough, my laptop, my Kindle and 2 bottles of water remain inside my luggage without any alarms going off, without anyone wiping my bags down with one of those odd wands with the white cloth wrapped round the end, and without the need for any disapproving looks or lectures. Apparently it doesn't matter if bombs go off on a train - either that, or airports worldwide are deliberately trying to piss us off.

Actually in many ways, the Eurostar is so much better than the plane- you get much more space, it's easier to get up and go for a wee, they don't tell you you can't read your Kindle while the train is leaving the station (my efforts to convince British Airways Cabin Crew that it's the same as a book are still ongoing...)

I've previously mentioned my predilection for faffing about getting my things together when getting into an aeroplane seat, but today's faff is the faff to end all faffs. First of all, my place is the very first seat inside the carriage, meaning I block the way of everyone while I'm retrieving things from my bag- putting the pressure on right from the word go. I move into the next seat along so that people can come through, but of course the next woman in the queue behind me wants to sit there. I therefore have no choice but to back up and get into my seat with the bag- managing, in my haste, to wedge it uncomfortably between the table and my gonads. Eventually I manage to arrange all my bits and bobs on the table (no, not those bits and bobs), but I'm not done yet - trying to close the bag up quickly, the zips both get stuck in that annoying cloth-under-zip kind of way. Clearly I'm not putting my bag up on the shelf wide open, so I wrestle with the zips for several minutes, becoming more and more red-faced and muttering profanities under my breath.

The woman opposite me gets out a book to try to avoid making eye contact, and what do you know, it's "A Spot of Bother" by Mark Haddon, which I've just finished reading the previous day. And apparently this can't go uncommented on.

 "I just finished reading that book yesterday!" I exclaim, slightly too excitedly for someone with a bright red face and a rucksack crushing their happy place.

She looks at me as if I'm a bit simple. "Well... don't tell me what happens!" , she says, immediately bringing the book up in front of her face to avoid any further attempts at invading her personal space. Less than a second after the train doors close and we start to pull out of the station, she leaps up and scampers off down the carriage, coming back 30 seconds later to pick up all her things and take them as far away from me as is humanly possible.

Happiness is an empty seat opposite.

If you've made it this far, you might be wondering where and why the heck I'm going. Well, to be honest, I'm pretty darn tired and stressed out. I worked an extra 150 hours at the end of last year and didn't get much of a Christmas break either. Yes, I think I can just about hear the world's smallest violin -thanks for your personal, heartfelt sympathy. Anyway, where the heck I am going is to visit my parents in the middle of the French countryside. And why the heck I'm going is that, if there's one thing you can be guaranteed of in a hamlet in rural France, it's relaxation. The most stressful thing which is likely to happen is that a sheep might escape from a field and start eating someone's dahlias. That or the septic tank will need emptying.

I'm also rather hoping to use my week in the back of beyond to continue writing up the copious notes I've made on my other recent travels. I've been jotting things down pretty much every time I leave the house for about a year now, but as of yet they remain a series of disjointed, iPhone auto-corrected thoughts rather than anything readable.

A few samples:

Ice Skating is like porn.
All clammed up for dinner.
Treble weiner = three will be enough?

I'm rather hoping that at the end of this week away, I'll have some things that other people might actually be able to read. Maybe even some they'd enjoy reading - and maybe even people who weren't actually with me on the trips (but let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

The other big advantage of the Eurostar over the plane is that you can look out of the window and see something other than clouds. Admittedly, to start with it's only the Dartford Bridge and the marshes of Essex, but still. I put my giant headphones on, stick on some Goldfrapp* and stare out of the window until there's nothing to stare at any more. By which I mean that we go into the Channel Tunnel, not that the world ceases to exist - although looking at Folkestone, you could be forgiven for getting confused.

(*I appreciate that by mentioning Goldfrapp, although I think I'll come across as being hip and down with the kids, it's been 13 years since their debut album and I therefore probably sound like Alan Partridge banging on about Steeleye Span.)

Listen to this, it'll blow your socks off.

Whilst I eat my "free" "lunch" (a bread roll, a slice of chicken and a few bits of salad, with other peripheral inedible crap), I eschew the grey, flat landscape of Pas-De-Calais, with its Transformers-style electricity pylons, in favour of watching a documentary about an East End Geezer sent to be a cabbie in Mumbai for a week. It's hilarious, upsetting and heart-warming in equal measures, and gives me various ideas about my India travel writing whilst making me feel guilty for not having done it yet.

"Robots in disguise... " a really bad disguise, actually. They look quite a lot like robots.

Gradually, the countryside gives way to cubic concrete Hotel Formule 1s, faux-Native American Buffalo Grills,  and double-deckered commuter trains, and we know that we're nearing the graffiti-riddled suburbs of North Paris- never the most welcoming sight on approaching the capital, but then since when has Paris wanted to welcome visitors? Well, actually, since I stopped living here (coincidence, I'm sure.) When I briefly moved here in 1998, you would still get a snooty look for not being a local in most parts of town, and the very idea that someone would recognise that you were English and start speaking to you in your own language was akin to getting them to admit that we aren't actually that bad at cooking. I've been back a few times in the last couple of years though, and in the very centre of town I often have a struggle to speak French at all, so keen are the people I meet to try out their newly acquired language skills.

As we pull into Gare Du Nord, the spires of Le Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre peek through between the HLMs (high-rise, low cost housing) and we get the first glimpse of anything cultural that we've seen all day. It turns out to nearly be the last, too.

Someone should tell Betty White over there that she's about to miss her stop.
Also - hello Eurostar, 1994 called and they want their cutting-edge interior design back. Cheers.

Hopping off the train and heading purposefully for the Métro, as I'd reluctantly done with my stingy colleague 6 years previously, I pass a chauffeur holding a sign for "King's Family" and wonder which particular monarchy are travelling en masse on today's train. As I go, I keep my ears out for my favourite sound of French travel, the "SNCF Tune". If you've never heard it, you won't have a clue what I'm talking about, but you won't have had to spend more than 90 seconds in a French railway station to have fallen in love with it. It basically goes "brrrrrring!" and then a lady sings 'duh, duh, duh-duh' - and it's perhaps the most French thing in the world. In fact, here it is for you - it's only 4 seconds long, I bet you end up listening to it at least twice.

Arriving at the entrance gate to the Orange Ligne 5, I struggle with a folded-in-half Carnet ticket I have left over from months ago, whilst to my left and right, youngsters jump over the barriers with impressive upper body strength. Some things never change, evidently, and Parisians' reluctance to pay for their transport is one of them. The other is that the platform will have at least one tramp sleeping on a bench and the whole station will smell of sewage to a greater or lesser degree. One thing which has changed since my last visit, however is the trains, having had a more recent makeover than the Eurostar - no more is extreme wrist action required to exit the train, as the doors now slide effortlessly open. And there are huge windows, which seem really rather pointless other than better viewing of miserable commuters waiting grimly for their trains - until the track leaves the above-ground Quai de la Rapée, ducks back under the street just to mess with our heads, and then heads up and over La Seine in semi-spectacular fashion.

Parisian Commuter dude looks really impressed.

Arriving at La Gare d'Austerlitz, the first thing I notice is that there are sparrows everywhere. I was under the impression that there was supposed to be a shortage, and humbly suggest to the RSPB that if we ever completely run out, there are plenty to spare, both here and at Bangalore Airport. In fact, one swoops down and lands on the counter at one of the many baguette and coffee stands - and then another, and then another. I've got 90 minutes to kill before my train, so I make the decision not to eat here, and instead head out of the front entrance of the station, away from the river and to the nearest McDonald's, or Le MacDo, as it's often known over here. I wouldn't normally, but it's close by, there don't appear to be any sparrows inside, and I ate here several times when I lived nearby and had to spend a lot of time waiting for trains. In fact, it's where my favourite McDonald's moment of all time occurred, when a crazy woman decided to have a go at me in the queue for no reason.

She'd been walking around trying to tell everyone about eternal suffering, when she suddenly saw me, stood in my way and pointed.

"And you! You, who thinks he can cure all the evils in the world..."

"I'm just trying to cure my hunger, to be honest. Is it ok if I buy my hamburger?"

She looked genuinely confused, grunted in an especially French way, and moved along to berate someone else for consorting with fallen women, or touching a pigeon on the Sabbath or something.

Anyway, no such incidents befall me today, and I manage to order my Royale Cheese (no "with", Quentin, no "with") and Sauce Pommes Frites in perfectly good French, without the server resorting to English like she does with the couple in front of me. Well, as much as you can order a "Menu Royale Cheese avec Coke Zero" in French, anyway. I manage to waste a good 15 minutes of my 90 Chez MacDo , but eventually even the free wifi outlives its excitement and I decide to go for a wander.

McDonald's have really been working on their outdoor spaces.

Luckily, right opposite McDonalds (as it says in all the best guide books), is Le Jardin des Plantes, Paris's main Botanical Gardens, founded in 1626 (as it says on Wikipedia.) It's a lovely garden to stroll through, or relax in on a summer's day, when all the plants aren't dead, and you're not dragging an enormous suitcase containing 13 pairs of pants. It also contains no fewer than 4 galleries of the French Natural History Museum, including, right at the corner by the station, the Paleontology gallery (aka the cool one with all the dinosaurs.) I briefly contemplate a flying visit- but of course, it's Tuesday, one of the various days that things in France are shut for NO BLOODY REASON. It used to be that museums in Paris were all shut on Mondays, however to make things easier for tourists, they've changed it so that every museum is now shut on the day you want to visit it instead.

Still, the 10 square metres between the gate and the gallery are an amusing juxtaposition of 21st Century Paris, plastic extinct animals and plants of varying origins - the Woolly Mammoth statue standing proud in front of McDonald's, the Stegosaurus trampling some tiny ferns, and a sabre-toothed pygmy hippo type thing hiding underneath a Monkey Puzzle tree. At least I can see the top of the Diplodocus through the window.

At this point, it starts to rain, so I give up trying to experience Paris and head back to the station, to spend an hour playing a game I like to call "failing to buy a drink". I stand in Caffe Ritazza for 5 minutes, give up waiting to be served, sit at one of their chairs outside, fail to be served again, give up, walk off and then stand in a succession of queues at various stalls where I wait for a few minutes at a time before getting bored and joining an even longer one. Eventually I end up back at the front of the first queue I'd tried, and just as the lady greets me with "Monsieur?", a sparrow lands on the counter top right next to me. I'm too tired for hygiene (or apparently consuming anything remotely French), so a tea and a brownie are finally procured and I head off to sit down on the Intercités train down to Chateauroux.

La Gare D'Austerlitz is kind of crappy, to be honest. That's why I've taken a crappy photo of it.

Onto the train, and apparently I'm not the only one having a faff day. The 50-something-year-old guy in the window seat next to mine is faffing so much he ends up telling me (nay, ordering me) to sit there instead - which I do, but then have to repeat the whole bag-in-groin rigmarole of earlier. It culminates in me having to lift my bag up into the overhead rack without leaving my seat, since he's single handedly restoring my faith in the rudeness of Parisians with his grunts and hand gestures and there's therefore no question of asking him to move once he's installed in his seat. Besides which, he's immediately fallen asleep, anyway. He may be the most French-looking person I've ever seen, actually; ruddy-cheeked from one too many afternoon apéritifs, wearing a multicoloured neck scarf over a navy cardigan and a red sweater, and balancing from the end of his nose a pair of small, wire-rimmed glasses which are attached to a string round his neck.

By dozing, he misses all the fun, as a very prim and proper looking lady across the aisle argues with a late-comer about her being in his seat, whereupon it turns out she's actually on the wrong train. After we've both given our opinions on the situation, I end up playing a game of footsie with the guy directly across the table from me (who is definitely the Moroccan Bob Hoskins), the result of which being that we agree to each keep our legs on the left, "like in England".

The late-comer, who ends up sitting diagonally opposite me, seems really nice, actually, and I'm not just saying that because he's listening to Genesis on his iPhone. Or maybe I am a little bit. I consider striking up a conversation and then I remember what happened with the whole book thing this morning, so I slump down in my chair, try not to attract the attention of Monsieur Grumpy next to me and get back to my book. We're like a happy little family now.

The train speeds away from Paris, passing yet more HLMs and graffiti and even a little Gypsy shanty town. We follow La Seine  down, way further South than most tourists ever dream of seeing, into the Essonne region and past banlieue towns like Athis Mons and Juvisy where the unremitting concrete starts to give way to smaller, stone-built houses. Soon we're whizzing all too quickly past the unremarkable town of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois: Site of France's first Hypermarché, and also of Lycée Albert Einstein, the site of my first (and, thank god, last) teaching job, stories of which could probably fill a whole book all by themselves.

Shortly after this, the guard comes down the train checking tickets. He's wearing a grey flat cap and scruffy red tie which make him look rather like a Victorian street urchin - a look which surprisingly doesn't go very well with his slightly gothic looking jet black dyed hair and stubble. He argues a bit with Madame "on the wrong train" before giving up and heading down to our table, poking my neighbour to wake him up, and receiving an earful (of grunts, and 'Bah's) for his trouble.

Yes, I actually took a picture of the guard arguing with the wrong-train woman.
Genesis guy can't believe it, either.

Engrossed in my book, nothing much of note happens for the remainder of the journey. I look up every so often to see wind turbines going nineteen to the dozen, flooded fields and eventually a very full river with trees half submerged in it. Apparently, Spring in France has been just as cheerful as in the UK. Every time I look up, Genesis guy has moved onto different superb music - first the Pet Shop Boys and then Radiohead. I am convinced he is my new best friend.

Eventually we start to get close to Chateauroux, my final destination for today, and I have to get up, so I say "Excusez-moi" to my neighbour as politely as I can muster -  he turns and stares at me with scarcely concealed disgust, gets up as slowly as possible, lets me out, and then sits back down with a noise of the type I last heard at Rotherhithe City Farm when their prize pig got to the end of its feeding trough.

There's just time to visit the bathroom for a quick freshen-up, something which is made all the easier by the decor, which fools me into thinking I'm on a Scuba dive in the tropics rather than in a scummy train toilet in the arse end of France. Thanks, SNCF.

Stepping off the train, I gratefully meet and greet my parents in the station foyer, and sink into the back of their Dacia Sandero (Top Gear's favourite car!) for the last hour of the journey, into the depths of the countryside and finally to the hamlet of freshly made Choux pastries, flying marquees and mummified cats.

But those are all stories for another day...

Next time: Part 3 of my Scandinavian adventure -honest. Look, I took a week off work just to finish it. Let's ignore the fact that I just wasted a day of it writing this...

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