06.01.2010: and so ends the first half of our france trip. in snow and delays of a fortunate nature. "it's bright this morning", there's a reason for that, the light from the sky is reflected in every surface. we're living in a mirror of white. perhaps it surprises the french, i don't know.
but these roads are treacherous, some impassable, be it slippy hills or trucks skidded across the junction. we arrive at angouleme trainstation lacking precious minutes, jumping from the van at the roundabout, dashing in to collect and validate our tickets that are about to become useless and unchangeable. damn those three red lights. but then comes that delay that i've already mentioned. fifty minutes of relaxing espresso and croissant and i'm no longer shaking with stress. next stop paris.
but first - the adventures of the new year, as told by laurence as he rockets north through the frosty french countryside, unable to look out the window because the woman behind with the annoying kids pulled the blind down (i put it back up, don't worry).
it's hard to imagine/believe how warm it was when we arrived here only a week ago, compared with now and where we'd come from. we were eating breakfast outside, sitting on a rainbow bench and staring out across the valley, the empty fields and rolling hills. that night i was hit by a wall of warmth whilst leaving one of the unheated gites, like the heaters they used to have above the doors in woolworths, heat pouring down from the stars (singular). i was in jeans and tshirt, and now it looks like norway whizzing past the train. well, no, but more so than it looks like france. still, i'd rather paris in the snow than paris in the rain. "we spoke of wintertime in france minutes passed with shallow words".
but it's been a nice and generally relaxing time. it's gorgeous out here in the middle of wherever. even in december. stoking the fire, endless cheese and croissants, scrabble and backgammon. being woken by the cat at random hours of the morning and night (revenge, for all those years, i'm sure). walking around, cycling around, getting to know the local area, my parents' new home. all these equally cute and odd villages. if not bizarre. all so very local cafes, it's a miracle they stay open. the legendary fountain, again. the johnny hallyday record we bought from the carboot sale as a cultural moving in present for my parents. fishing leaves and dead frogs the pool. playing old records out across the way, standing in the chilly doorway drinking tea, needing a pipe.
the 28th of december was all travelling. up before 6am, we didn't reach our destination until 5pm. landing in fog, three hour wait in the trainstation/airport, cup of tea for 4euros. "get your tshirts". then on the 31st, corey, ben and mim arrived. we cooked up a huge roast, got right proper merry. games and bullshit. it was extremely pleasant. and i only drank six bottles of leffe that night (if not rather strong bottles). they'd been up almost 24 hours by the time we hit the hay, unfortunately not literally. new year's day's activities involved walking around and through a marsh, half a pint of beer in one of the afor mentioned weird bars, and a night of magic mulled wine.
they left the next day. we dropped them off in angouleme (no rush this time), and spent the day there, walking around the town and eating their awesome pizza. that pizza had been a long time coming, after months of eating cheeseless pizza, and it came with a good inch of four cheeses spread thick across it's gorgeously thin base (acutal measurements may differ greatly). and of course la musée de la bande dessinée. what the world needs is more comic museums. you lose a lot if you don't understand french, but i found it all very exciting anyway. i mean, peanuts originals. i could stare at them until my eyes started to water. and the bookshop was beyond impressive (also their library). i could have spent hours (and a small fortune) in there, even with most of the books in french. in the library the books were ordered alphabetically by artist, not writer, that was refreshing.
then yesterday we drove out to visit a couple of arboretums, trudging around the woods, freezing toes, happy to find the ginko, even if it was kind of tiny and unimpressive. then making tofu & mozzarella burgers, eating dinner round nan's. i love how i can just pop next door and visit nan, watch some english tv or listen to russell watson way too loud. her cottage is done up just like her old apartment. it's cute and makes me happy.
and i didn't realise how much i miss my acoustic bass.
07.01.2010: arriving in paris was somewhat overwhelming until i realised it's just like london. except noone speaks english. everything with all its potential to confuse, but it goes nowhere. but this is what i loathe about about big cities, arriving with all your baggage and having to ride a packed metro to your hostel, hot and paranoid from dehydration.
where we're staying is right at the bottom of montmartre, the vintage hostel. we couldn't have picked a much better location. it's dark by the time we leave for the night, and we're drawn up the steps of montmartre to the giant glowing mass of la sacre coeur, to one of the best views or paris, dissipated into the hazy pink of the city's sodium glare.
we wander the cobbled streets, still pretty despite the tourist saturation. munching roast chestnuts. so many bars. we find our vegetarian restaurant for the night, after a hilarious exchange in a pharmacy whilst trying to find the correct street, but the place wasn't open yet.
we walked down to pigalle to see what was there, not expected all the strip clubs and sex shops. but nevermind. we walked through anyway, to see moulin rouge, just because it's there. it would've been equally disappointing, if only i'd been expecting anything of it. dinner was healthy, at the au grain de folie, if not a little cold and a little little. strange but pleasant owner. when i asked her if she could recommend any other vegetarian places she sighed and went on to explain how she'd been running her restaurant on her own for 25 years, and how she thought she should visit the other vegetarian restaurants, but whenever she has some free time there are things to be done at home. then she smiled again, and i told her she has a very nice restaurant, which was true, and she went back to rotating in her very tiny kitchen. in my memory the place is already warmer than it was, very cosy, and the little yellow sausage dog that tried to stop the draft coming under the front door will soon be twice the size and furry.
we ended the night in a bar that would have been boringly normal had it not been for the cross dressing guitar player singing bob dylan and numerous french songs. brilliant and friendly and made up for the total mess i made of myself at the bar, ordering "sort te". a third of a bottle of wine, plus a beer (with free nachos), and my french and danish collide in a tangled and incomprehensible disaster. i can't separate them. we've been speaking danish together, so we don't seem the typical shit english tourists, but it ruins my french. je suis en idiot, tak.
08.01.2010: i'm writing about yesterday, which was based on vague plans and a slightly morbid theme. so our first proper stop in paris was the cimetiere du pere lachaise. perhaps it's not typical, but they prioritised it on top model, so we did too. jim morrison's grave was of course disappointing, blocked by cheap metal crowd control barriers, cleaned of grafitti. just another stale and empty grave. even at 9:30am there was a flock of people. so we went deeper into the park, found oscar wilde, who didn't disappoint. his huge (and to be honest, quite ugly) grave is smothered in lipstick kisses, every shade of red and cherry. "the greatest man who ever lived". don't try and tell me this isn't showing respect. sandblasting away the love is nothing about worship or tribute.
we also found edith piaf's grave, by following footprints in the snow, and joseph spiess (who was the alpha to the hindenburg's omega). it's a lovely and dense graveyard, all the bestter for the light snow.
we took an early lunch from la bague de kenza, an algerian bakery, surprisingly vegetarian. also greasy. very sweet cakes.
it's hard to eat healthily here, with patisseries and chocolatiers ruling every corner like mcdonalds and starbucks do everywhere else. five minutes don't go by without passing a mouth watering chocolate extravaganza of a window display. the only way parisiens stay thin is through cigarettes and coffee.
the next stop will be the catacombs, if only we can find it, as if knowing the nearest metro station makes it magically possible to find the staircase that leads 130 steps below the city. it only took us a few minutes to find it, but only because the entrance is actually directly opposite the metro. magic, or something (finding a toilet was much harder). deep beneath the streets of paris are seemingly endless corridors of bones. skeletons mixed up and stacked by the thousands, walls of neatly arranged femurs and skulls. william t vollman said it best, when he said whatever it was he said.
back outside and in the sunshine, we could have been anywhere in the city. it was still early. we started walking, heading towards la jardin de luxembourg, where apparently they have over 700 species of apple tree - less exciting in the winter "unless you're really into bark". we wandered the streets, the posh shops, staring wide eyed at all the goodies behind the plate glass. we saw the st.germaine chuch, apparently the oldest church in paris, but i'm sure i've read that about other churches as well. nevermind. we managed to spend 10euro on a tea and a coffee. and if you want a tip, here's a tip - don't play metallica in a cafe that charges 5.60 for a cappuccino.
then we realised we were near the seine, so we crossed it, over the bridge with all the cute padlocks.
back again, and along the river side towards notre dame, which is just another church with an impressive facade, totally ruined by the enourmous christmas tree. this is where i realised that the clever scheme of using tickets on the metro isn't so clever at all. not with all these tickets littering the floor. fucking tourists.
but all this walking has been getting to my knees. all the steps. going up and down into the metro station was starting to hurt. like i'm getting old. fuck. the cold was seeping in. so we took refuge from it in the BHV department store. lovely escalators. then more random streets, more endless posh shops, led by julie towards galeries lafayette, the ultimate in department stores. by this time i'm too tired, dehydrated, anxious about my knee, etc, to do much but hobble around this bizarre temple of upperclass consumerism.
before we left for paris we wrote down a few vege restaurants on a scrap of paper, we looked to one of these now, since we weren't in a position to wander aimlessly for food. we crossed the city by metro, trying to bypass all the crowds, people roasting chestnuts in shopping trolleys. hustle and bustle. but our restaurant had closed down. we did a breadth first search of the area, some kind of jewish quarter, and settled for a cozy place owned by a mrs marianne. tapas for all our wins, and plenty of vege options. aubergine fritters, hummus, falafels, greek mushroom dises, artichokes in orange sauce, tabouleh, tzatziki, feta, olives, pita. and all of it excellent. and again we were luckily with our timing, the restaurant filled up minutes after we arrived.
back at the hostel the power was out, with a spanish girl stuck in the lift. one minute later and it would have been me. stairs are hurting me. it's pathetic. but the electric doors are still working, so we can get into our room and go to bed early. our neighbours party until 3:30am. my knee aches. dehydrated. then in the morning i have a cold shower. so i'm grumpy. i need rest. and i've lost my pen top.
09.01.2010: a bitter freezing morning in paris. ligament piercing cold. our plan was to take it easy, but how well would that go? we're in paris. our first objective was to find the tourist information, which was supposed to be somewhere near the arc de triomphe, so we went there first. and here is the theme for the holiday, things being bigger than you expected. it's not just another arch, it's oppresive in scale. across the road from it we're all being made to feel so tiny and insignificant. only anish kapoor could do better. under normal circumstances i'd have insisted on climbing it, but at nine euros, and with a busted knee, it wasn't going to happen.
we pointed ourselves towards the louvre and started walking. all the way down avenue des champs-elysees, against an icy wind, and there is no tourist office. we're pointed in all directions. my knees have frozen tight. we almost resort to a starbucks, for warmth and rest, but i'd need to be on the verge of death for that. we kept walking. the problem is that we're using so many different maps with so many different scales. distance has become indiscernible.
we ate crepes with maroon sauce in the cold of the louvre gardens. slipping on the ice probably does me some good. and i'm happily ignoring the beggar until she's being chased and marched out of the gardens by a car. it was too hostile, i'd have ran after her to give her money if i'd been in any shape for running.
the louvre, it is humungous. why even build somewhere that huge? most of it's pretty tiresome anyway. i'm sure most people only go there for about 2% of their actual content. mona pissing lisa. people see it because it's famous. it's self fulfilling. and i was actually surprised at how big it was. after so many people complaining it was small and disappointing i was expecting a postage stamp. i thought it was standard. nothing else.
this was pretty much the rest of our day. i suppose it's one of the "must dos" when in paris. the louvre. and they have no lack of stairs. what interested me the most were the many artists spread around the various wings making replicas/interpretations of the paintings. some of their work looked identical, maybe the others were works in progress. one woman was painting the raft of the medusa, it looked perfect except she'd changed one of the men into a woman wearing a nightie. and why do all these paintings have women with one breast hanging out?
halfway around we began to starve. of course the food here is all crap. all these cafes and a "restaurant" and all they have to offer is meat. all expensive. they had lentils, but with ham. we managed with a plate of fries, a bowl of salad (cheaper than a small plate, but stacked way higher than the french ladies manage with their plates), and a huge slice of egg custard. the spanish girls next to us all drink coke zero, but balanced it out with huge helpings of cake. and they didn't eat their carrot. like the girl later who eats apple slices by dipping them first in nutella. when she runs out of apple she finishes the jar with her fingers. but the food revived us for more boring art. napoleans room were a nice break, a bit like brighton pavillion but real.
back at the hostel, we found a supermarket and bought some bread and cheese, sat around in the social area. the kitchen here is a sink, a washing machine, a fridge, and a microwave. not even a kettle. we made tea by heating water in the microwave. most pathetic facilities i've ever seen. so we played some backgammon and i started feeling old. all these americans on month long trips. i felt like i was waiting to go to bed. needing sleep that wouldn't come. so fuck it, we dragged ourselves out and up montmartre to find a bar. we picked the first we found, but only after investigating five or six more. a cosy jazz bar with a band setting up. a bottle of red wine. the evening was very french, slightly new orleans. trumpet, piano and washboard. the singer sounded like a french louis armstrong. it was all a bit cheeky, very friendly, but unfortunately we couldn't understand a word of what he said to us. the tables slowly filled up, the waiter refilled our glasses, we left sometime after the band's first set, satisfied that we'd had an awesome night.
now we have our new room, private ensuite, with a kettle (we should donate it to the kitchen) and a bath and a balcony. after three nights in a shared room i really needed this, a place to relax. somewhere to watch tv whilst naked, to drink tea whilst pissing in the toilet.
last night's dorm air was thick and heavy. i slept enough, but with a headache. i woke up, before the alarm, full of sludge, slightly regretting that bottle of red wine, watching the clock tick down. i'd showered before bed, since the day before that water had been cold, so i just rolled out of bed for breakfast, then went back for another hour of non-sleep before we needed to check out. dreaming of breaking my knees.
we decided to first head to the museum of modern art, hopefully a very different experience to the lourve, which it was. hardly any people, no flash cameras, art i actually enjoy looking art. the permanent gallery is good, probably excellent, but most of the accompanying material is in french, so meaningless to me.
their temporary exhibition, deadline, was amazing though. the final works from artists who had all died in the last 20 years, how death or illness had affected them, each with their own room and in context. it was quite moving, what all exhibitions should be, not these random fragments of work tied precariously together. but with context and respect.
as it happened, we were just around the corner from the 'haute coutre street'. all these obscene shops. windows of clothes beyond my comprehension, too scared to actually attempt to enter any of them. intimidating stares from assistants waiting by the door to open it for you. the chanel store was busy enough for us to think we could have a look around, our jeans and wooly hats not exactly blending in with the stylish rich scum. we pretended to be interested in the clothes, whilst really just gasping at the prices.
so to mariage frères maison de thé, where we (well, julie) know what we're on about. all the employees in suits, hundreds of teas on the menu, how many types of darjeeling do you really need? and 500 euros for 100g? that's speciality. this is only place i've been close to spending 20euro on 100g of tea. but glace marron, it smelt incredible. we did well. and with a 100g on the house, because our server had misunderstood our order. very professional. they like good service in paris, shame you have to pay for it though.
so we haven't done much today, but it's been nice. a busy paris on a saturday evening. all the potential. but hanging out in our new lovely room is more than enough for me. so we have another supermarket dinner, bread and cheese, and drinking our grimbergen beers in peace.
10.01.2010: it's been a weird day. we were woken up by a door slamming out in the corridor. must have forgotten to set the alarm. but we still made 'breakfast'. then we tried to find the sewer museum, supposedly one of paris's great secret attractions. if only you can find it (no doubt why it's not in our guidebooks, they couldn't find it either). we walked around the area for fifteen minutes with no luck. how are you supposed to find somewhere with no street number? is it under the bridge maybe? no. down the road a bit further? no. we asked at the nearby train station but the attendant clearly misunderstood us, sending us in the opposite direction. we came across another touristy place so we asked a security guard if he knew where it was. he was one of the nicest people we've met yet. after finally explaining what a sewer is ("y'know, where your shit goes"), and learning the french word for it, he calls up the office on his walkie talkie to get us directions. he sends us all the way back to the train station and back across the bridge, "you know lady di? where she was killed":
but still nothing. so we ask in the subway and get sent back across the bridge. again. but now we knew the french name (of course it's not called "the sewer musuem"), and it's extremely easy to find 'des egouts de paris' - there's a huge sign right there. it's just a shame it's closed for our entire visit. so that was a fun hour.
to drown our sorrows we found a nice boulangerie, one with a long queue of locals and high prices. we bought a fig and walnut loaf, a salty olive bread, and a mille feilleu (because they're my mum's favourite. and it was the best one i've ever had, despite carrying it around paris all day). and then the eiffel tower appeared. i'm used to the cn tower in toronto, which you can see from absolutely anywhere in the city, so it's a bit disappointing that you can hardly ever see the eiffel tower whilst walking around paris. but there it is. and it's not exactly beautiful (would you call blackpool tower beautiful?), but it is somewhat spectactular. a spectacle, perhaps.
so, despite my knees being a complete nightmare for the last few days, we decided to climb the fucking thing. to save eight euros and for kicks. the top was closed due to frost and it's half price to climb yourself. it could have been disasterous, but we took it slow and it was worth it, climbing up through the skeletal structure, all netting and 2.5 million rivets. and halfway up the view is good enough. although it's a little frustrating when you can see the rest of the tower stretching up an extra 150 meters into the sky.
there's too many tourists, even in the winter. and why do they all wait in the long queue, when there's absolutely no queue for the lift up the other side? no reason. perhaps they just trust that the people infront of them know what they're doing. tourist dynamics, a disaster of recursion. and swarming around them is an army of guys pushing miniture eiffel towers for one euro a piece. they're all very dark africans. across the street they're all different races, but underneath the tower they're organised and hardcore. you can almost hear the boss taking in immigrants, "you work for me now, you sell towers". and noone buys them, so how do they make any money? at one euro each they can't make much profit. not even in summer.
but anyway, we're up there and a nice australian couple stop me and ask if i can take some pictures of them with their camera. "a lot of them", he tells me, "just keep taking them". and then halfway through he brings out a fucking ring and i nearly die, taking the worst photos i've taken since that time we nearly got arrested by the hungarian police outside the american embassy in budapest. all blurry snogging and whiteout background. if he'd set the camera up how i'd told him, they'd have crystal clear memories of their very special moment that they decided to share with a complete stranger. how embarrassing. don't get other people involved. it only makes things awkward. i still feel awful about the whole thing. they barely even said anything to each other. did they even get engaged? we'll never know.
luckily they don't check tickets on the way down, so we could take the lift. my knees were very happy about that. we walked up to the trocadero, past all the street sellers, tourists trying to take timed photographs of themselves jumping in the air infront of the tower (doomed to fail), and rows of classic american cars. stringrays, firebirds, mustangs, chevrolets, etc. but what to do now that all the must-sees have been exhausted? we couldn't be bothered with another museum, even though i'd love to see pascals machine. belleville and menilmontant sounded very nice in the guidebook, so we rode the long and convoluted subway across the city. unlike london, paris hasn't managed to decide upon a single tube map. there's the standard harry beck style map, but also a geographically correct one (which is completely useless). and whilst i'm ranting about the metro, people don't wait for everyone to get off before trying to get into the train, they just barge in.
anyway, we found ourselves in the chinese quarter, helping a woman carry her pram up the stopped escalator, and only dropping it once. we walked south, through all variations of ethnic quarters, to the point that i have no idea where we were, but it wasn't the small dainty houses and cobbled streets described in our guidebook. it may be an old book, but they couldn't have redeveloped it so severely in the last ten years. maybe they could. we had the same problem later whilst trying to find a posh restaurant in montmartre, it didn't exist anymore. we were dressed up nice and everything. our second restaurant choice led us to a crossroads beneath la sacre coeur - l'ete en pente douce, and they do tofu lasagne. we were totally sold on the rainbow coloured friendly vibes. we ordered a 2001 bottle of wine, some variation of pinot noir, one of their most expensive bottles, and it was marvellous. the food too. the pasta on its own was amazing. it was the perfect meal, simple but great. the dessert was apple strudel with cepes (wild mushrooms) and creme anglais.
on our way back to the hostel we stopped at a kiosk to buy a can of leffe. it was the freakiest place, with aisles so narrow you need a perfect bmi to shop there. there was barely 30cm of foot space between the aisles. it made my night. well, the restaurant made my night, the tiny shop just topped it off.
11.01.2010: montmarte is dead on a monday morning. sleepy paris. presumably nothing opens until 11am. or later. all those shops we'd been planning on visiting. take note. but there's a gorgeous misty view out across the city, a distinct lack of cats on the prowl, and we're currently taking tea and coffee under the orange glow of street heaters. it's perfect except i ordered "sort te" again, convinced i was speaking french and not danish. and i'm still embarrassed about the awkward and terrible marriage proposal up that stupid tower yesterday. it was almost candid camera, just without the punchline. it could only have been worse if he'd dropped the ring.
everywhere is still closed. why did no one warn us of this? i'm especially annoyed about the amazing looking comic shop that was open late last night but is now closed. apparently all the rules about france don't apply to paris.
i'm constantly being surprised by how polarised the quality of service is. people are either awkwardly (for me) polite, utmost profressional, or completely indifferent, to plain rude. i presume the difference is whether they're being paid for service or not. the waiter verses the checkout girl or hostel clerk. the contrast catches me out everytime, i'm just not used to it.
now we're waiting three hours at one of my least favourite airports. once through security there are no toilets or eateries. it has a ridiculous layout and horrible architecture. imagine living here for four years. shit.
sitting here watching a massively overweight woman eat mcdonalds. she has a large drink, a wrap, potato wedges and a burger. i feel terrible. i mean, we haven't exactly tried to eat healthy here, but from my limited experience it is very difficult. all these pastries and cheeses and chocolates. anything vaguely healthy is tiny and over priced (1.2euro for a banana), as if being thin means you can earn more money in paris, so you are taxed on your food. i'd almost believe it.
and i'm annoyed how we've seen nearly all the filming locations from amelie, except i didn't realise it at the time. i knew i should have checked that stuff online first. nevermind. next time.