Inga’s Travelogue: Pardon my French

Let’s talk about Paris. It wasn’t our first stop on our latest overseas adventure; we’d already spent a couple of nights in Kings Cross, imbibing the…er, atmosphere. But given my habit of never finishing any travel series I begin to write, I’m going to start with Paris because it presented the most fodder.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, bright and early one Monday morning. This pointy tube thing hammers through the countryside at 300km/hr, then disappears into a tunnel under the goddamn sea, would you believe. In an amazingly short period of time you emerge from the earth into some grassy meadows, and just like that you’re in France. Human engineering is astonishing.

If you’re coming into Paris by rail, do not expect your first glimpses of the City of Love to live up to even your most meagre expectations. Unless you were expecting it to look a Woolworth’s carpark in Footscray, you’re going to be disappointed. The housing estates leading into the station could’ve been transplanted from any middle-class suburb in Australia. The Gare du Nord station resembles a relic from a World’s Fair that should’ve been demolished before I was born. It’s a grimy iron dome, crawling with Romanian beggars, and assault rifle-wielding military dicks who will glare at you when you open your suitcase to fish out a cardigan. Once you leave the station, you’ll be wheedled by yet more beggars, and a couple of shady blokes asking if you speak English and whether you need a ride. The military men will continue to give you stink-eye, and the garbage on the street will get caught up in your suitcase wheels.

Look, I’m an independent Gen Y woman and have no issues doing most things on my own – but it’s places like Paris that guarantee that I will never be one of those women who travels overseas alone. EVER. I’ve never been so happy to get into a taxi with an angry man who speaks no English.

Our hotel was on a quiet side street, maybe a ten minute stroll from the Eiffel Tower. Our room had a view over the courtyard, a shower that I’d possibly choose over twenty minutes with Josh Holloway, and someone in the block of flats opposite who had an amusing time shooting a laser pointer at us for about half an hour one evening.

Each of those taps corresponds to a jet of water from the wall. Granted, one of them shoots you right in the face if you're 5'6", but it's worth it.

Each of those taps corresponds to a jet of water from the wall. Granted, one of them shoots you right in the face if you’re 5’6″, but it’s worth it.

Hotel courtyard and caretaker that doesn't give a shit when you say 'bonjour'.

Hotel courtyard and caretaker that doesn’t give a shit when you say ‘bonjour’.

 

Once you’ve escaped the ghastly train station, Paris is a fairy tale. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. It’s difficult to look at the Eiffel Tower without unconsciously sighing in awe – not just at its size (this thing is so much bigger than I ever expected), but at the surreal feeling of beholding a structure this iconic, of witnessing an image that’s so deeply ingrained in our global consciousness that it’s instantly recognisable the world over. It was unexpectedly humbling, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Nikki and I weren’t completely dry-eyed when we saw it for the first time.

Because the internet needs more pictures of the Eiffel Tower.

Because the internet needs more pictures of the Eiffel Tower.

At every corner there’s incredible architecture, amazing food, perfectly manicured people and a pervading atmosphere of deep pride and historical identity. All entrenched in a very thick concrete slab of snobbery.

My goodness, these people are ice cold. No smiles, no cheery bonjour!, no friendly corrections to my tortured beginner’s French. Interacting with anyone was a completely miserable experience. I feel for them; in Melbourne I’ve lost count of the number of times my mood has been lifted by a friendly cashier, a funny waiter, or someone that bursts out laughing with me when we both do the awkward “footpath side shuffle”. I feel like that stuff would never happen in staid, cosmopolitan Paris.

I tried to learn a little French in the weeks before we left, because the conventional wisdom from outsiders is that the French appreciate it if you make a token effort to communicate in their superior tongue. The conventional wisdom is dead wrong. They probably appreciate it more if you can pronounce au revoir without sounding like you’re gargling molasses, but generally they’ll stare dully over your shoulder and talk to you in English anyway. It’s really not an uplifting experience.

Despite this, the evening Nikki and I spent sitting on the banks of the Seine, “sharing” a bottle of French wine (yeah ok, I drank it all) and watching La Tour Eiffel blink to life as the sun went down will always have a special place in my heart (and liver, possibly – French rosé is lethal, y’all). We secured ourselves a comfortable spot away from the crowds on the riverbank opposite the Tower, and blissfully soaked up the magic of a Paris evening until a floating restaurant moored right in front of us.

Really, boat?

Really, boat?

In possibly the most stereotypical French display we witnessed in Paris, one of the moustachioed wait staff jumped off the boat and sauntered over to us, clutching a glass of red wine. At least, I assumed he was a waiter by his outfit – he could very well have been a well-dressed drunk stowaway. His English was as execrable as my French, so we heedlessly carried on two disparate conversations as drunk people with no shared language often do. After twenty minutes or so of profound gibberish, he swept up his wine and re-embarked his vessel, once again leaving Nikki and I to ponder the enchanting Paris evening and take selfies.

 

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I’m not sure I’d return to Paris. Its citizens are too polished, the proud grandeur juxtaposed with abject poverty is jarring, and French is bloody difficult to learn. I’ve heard that the rest of France is easier on the spirit, and the Parisians are a difficult breed to navigate even for the French, so some more exploration may be necessary at some point. Hey, if there’s wine, I’m down for anything.

Our first real, proper, dinky-di Champagne, purchased on board the train when we realised we were in France. It's 10am. And it tasted like arse.

Our first real, proper, dinky-di Champagne, purchased on board the train when we realised we were in France. It was 9am. And it tasted like arse.

Heels

Typical Parisienne cycling outfit. If I tried this I’d end up fracturing something.

This is obviously why everyone drives a Smart car in Europe.

This is obviously why everyone drives a Smart car in Europe.

Notre Dame, and the entry queue that stretches back to Australia.

Notre Dame, and the entry queue that stretches back to Australia.

We went here, too.

We went here, too.

The Bridge of Locks. Couples write their names on padlocks and fasten them to the bridge, until the weight threatens the structural integrity and the council has to take them down.

The Bridge of Locks. Couples write their names on padlocks and fasten them to the bridge, until the weight threatens the structural integrity and the council has to take them all down. Suck it, couples.

Pointy.

Pointy.

One for GOF

One for GOF

This is my exact face at a Savage Garden concert in 1998.

This was my exact face at a Savage Garden concert in 1998.

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Day-tripping with the geographically challenged.

I have an inexplicable aversion to GPS navigators. I’m one of those obstinate shits that maps out a route beforehand and navigates relying only on landmarks, street signs and a vague feeling in their waters. Of course, this often means I end up axle-deep in a logging track, or facing oncoming traffic down a one-way Melbourne lane, or performing several vehicular pirouettes around a roundabout, but my pride still won’t let me invest in a voodoo box that barks demands and chastisements at me in my own damn car.

So that’s how I ended up in Leongatha today. I awoke with a pervasive urge to escape suburbia, strengthened by the dawn of a crystalline blue sky that’s exceedingly rare during a Melbourne winter (two days ago it was hailing, even snowing in some regions, and the Yarra River had burst its banks). I was aiming for Mount Worth State Forest, but overshot it by 30 kilometres to the south, landing myself in Leongatha. Like many small Aussie townships, Leongatha looks like the kind of place you’d move to when joy and fulfilment are no longer qualities you deem entirely necessary. When the magic of life deserts you, and you want nothing more than to spend your remaining years waiting for Hawaiian parma night at the RSL and playing Keno, you move to a town like Leongatha.

Ok, I’m being harsh (probably because I still have my nose in the air after two weeks gambolling through London & Paris). Fortunately, like many small Aussie towns, there’s much more under the surface. There are ghost tours  and a Daffodil Festival, and this photograph of some women with their tits out by the creek. Also I’d highly recommend a visit to the Number 9 Dream Café to sample their raspberry and white chocolate slice.  I would’ve stayed for lunch, but I was a bit pissy at having failed to spot an entire FOREST.

After coffee and a sugar boost, I backtracked up the Strzelecki Highway and dutifully followed the brown signs to Mount Worth State Forest. An hour later I found myself back on the Princes Highway, having evaded my destination yet again. I gave up and pointed my bonnet towards home, but not before I’d:

–          Spotted a lyre bird crossing the road. The lyre bird features on our ten cent piece, but they’re so elusive that most Aussies have never even seen one. Seeing a lyre bird is a bit of a big deal in some circles. By which I mean my circle. They look a bit like a miniature pea cock, and will imitate everything they hear with almost disdainful accuracy. Here’s David Attenborough chilling with one.  

–          Almost died in a head-on collision. A ute came plowing around a wide corner on the wrong side of the road – he was doing about 80km/hr, as was I. Luckily I’d been paying attention and not gawping at the scenery, and managed to slam on my brakes and steer onto the grassy shoulder. I often mull over the fragility of human life and the series of coincidences which brings myself and my loved ones safely home at the end of each day, so that demonstration was seriously unnecessary, Universe. Ta.

–          Realised how much of a country girl I am, despite 13 years in a capital city. I don’t know how to mend fences or shear a sheep, and I drive headlong into every single damn pot-hole like I’m playing Whack-a-Mole with my $1100 mag wheels. But I still unconsciously lift two fingers from the steering wheel in the universal ‘country salute’ if I pass someone on a rural road, and when I’m squatting in a muddy baret waving handfuls of damp grass through an electrified barbed-wire fence at a highly suspicious cow, there’s really no place I’d rather be. 

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I’m not good at taking photos of things without other things in front of them. But how fluffy is this moo-cow?!

It's either a wombat or a bear.

It’s either a wombat or a bear. Either way, the poor bugger is very much deceased.

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Interesting erosion marks in the hillside as the mountain slides down itself.

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And some more.

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For one heartbreaking moment I thought this was the forest I was looking for. Luckily it was just any old forest. HAR.

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The Block 2015.

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Country roads, take me home, to the place I CAN’T BLOODY FIND.

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That dam isn’t muddy, it’s just completely covered in azolla fern -a floating aquatic plant. If you look closely you can see where it ends and where the open water starts.

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So high up…those dots on the hillside are full-sized moo-cows.

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A creek brought to life by the excessive rain (and possibly snowmelt – I dunno, my geography is knackered).

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The view enjoyed by the farm equipment in this shed is better than anything that’s ever happened in my life. Also I still can’t take photos of things without stuff in the way.

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So, did anyone notice the dogs in that photo?