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.

 

DSC_0186

 

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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20 thoughts on “Inga’s Travelogue: Pardon my French

  1. Great post, Inga!

    I haven’t been to Paris in decades but I can say 2 things are for the worse: there were clean streets and pavement, save dog shit (this was true everywhere I’d been in France and my ‘everywhere’ meant about 1/3 of the country) and no armed guards. Wow!

    • It was actually quite clean everywhere else – it was just the train station that was horrid. The military was quite intimidating, they were hovering around all the tourist destinations in groups of three.

  2. I was there in 2000. I had the advantage of my sister, who is fluent in French, guiding us around, but I remember people being friendly and we had a lot of pleasant interactions with people.

    I am hearing more and more stories like this from everywhere. People are getting more and more closed off from each other. It makes me sad.

    The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame are wonderous! I lol’d at your selfies by the Seine!

    The French countryside is about as beautiful as anything I have ever seen.

    Love your travelogues!

    • To be fair to the poor Parisians, we were only there two days – I’m sure there are plenty of lovely people about. I would looooove to spend some time frolicking in the countryside. The bits I saw from the train windows certainly made me squee a little….adorable cottages! Sheepies! Meadows! It looks perfect.

  3. Great post. When I crossed the channel a million years ago, the tunnel was still under construction, so I got to cross via 45 minutes on the LOUDEST, most vibration-y hovercraft ever. I was deaf when I came to France.

    Yeah, Paris would be a lot better without all the French people there. And Gypsies.

    I’ve been to the perfume factory in Grasse, and Nice is nice, and Monaco is just down the road, too. The south of France is a lot more mellow, with incredibly beautiful scenery. And? You can walk around on the beach topless.

    You gotta give that chick some serious cred for riding a bike in stripper heels.

    That last photo of you is so beautiful. Could be a profile pic!

    • Hovercraft?! Actually I think I saw a documentary about them once, I think it was the story of the last one being decommissioned or something.

      I wanna see all those places! Sigh, one day. Might keep my top on during winter though.

      Aw, thanks. I usually like to pull jacked-up faces in photos, so when I nice one crops up I’m pretty happy.

      • Re: hovercraft – it was the biggest one I’d ever seen. It could hold cars and freight and some 200-odd passengers. And the crossing only took 45 minutes as opposed to some couple-three hours by ship. But damn, that thing was a monster. You really had to stay in the stuffy cabin because it was SO noisy on deck.

  4. My parents were in France in 1953. They came home with my oldest sister. Hopefully you have much nicer souvenirs …

    (And their impression of Paris was about the same as yours, except there was still residual bomb damage from WW2 in the 50’s).

    • Er, I’m 90% sure I haven’t come home with anyone’s sister. Hmm. I just bought some postcards, I have enough pointless crap in my house.

  5. ‘gargling molasses’ and ‘excretable English’ …… you’ve missed your vocation as a Getaway presenter……or replacing Megan McCormick at Lonely Planet so she could come and help out on the farm.

    • I think drunk lifestyle show presenter should be a thing…”Don’t washte your time. Evershing here is shit. Enyots errywhere.”

      (There’s an adorable lesbian chick on youtube that makes a living filming herself preparing recipes and getting progressively drunker – I’ve found my niche!)

  6. Lovely all around.

    Yeah, that disappointment in cities is what I fear most – going to Florida is like that. I arrived on train there. What a shithole. You really have to seek out the special places there.

    I’m terribly jealous, I’ve always wanted to visit Paris. That is an especially stunning photo of the Tower. I can imagine it’s humbling to see it flesh and blood. And at night, very cool. I’m afraid of heights so I’d enjoy it from down here. I’m also claustrophobic (going UNDER WATER in a tunnel? Are you effing kidding me?)

    You’re absolutely right about speaking French, in fact it’s worse than that. I was fluent for a while (16 years old to about 2 years into college) and had a good friend from France. She would help me practice. But when she and her French buddies threw a big party, I discovered that they absolutely hate speaking to Americans in French. They feel like they’re giving a free language class and they will respond in English, every time. Emmanuel told me this was common.

    The only person at the party who would speak French with me was the guest of honor – he was a well known author from Africa – and he didn’t speak English. But he spoke French. Plus he was hot, so that’s okay.

    I love how fashionable people want to look while riding bikes in Europe. It’s quite an accomplishment. Here, you can be going to work, a party or some distant swamp and it doesn’t matter, you just slather yourself in suntan lotion, a helmet, lycra and sweat.

    I love that last photo of you.

    AND you got to shower in the Tardis!

    • Heyy, it does look like the Tardis! Wish Tennant was in there with me…

      Yeah I’m not great with heights either, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to walk up the stairs without having a big freak-out. We didn’t go up because again, the line was too bloody long. Paris really does have a special ‘feel’ about it, you should definitely go one day! (…after Melbourne, that is)

      That’s interesting about the French and their language. One of my close Aussie friends is married to a Frenchie, and he doesn’t like speaking French with her because it’s just easier for him to speak to her in her native tongue English. I guess it is difficult to communicate with someone that’s not as fluent as you in any language. Still, I’d like to gain a conversational level of French – I’ve been looking at conversation groups in Melb (you know, with all my free time… :-/ )

      • Haaa! I think I’d faint dead away if Tennant appeared in my shower……although I admit Matt stole my heart. After a while. I didn’t like him at first. Now I think he’s dreamy. I admit to having a bit of a girl-crush on Amy. She’s one hell of an actor, plus how great would it be to play the Doctor’s only almost-partner? *Faints*

        Yes I know, I must get to Melbourne. Or you to New England. Or maybe we meet halfway. How long is a trip for either of us, like 12 hours? I’d have to book a place for weeks. Maybe we go crash the London pubs……

        • You know what, I haven’t watched Dr Who since the 80’s, but somehow I always know the Doctors! I saw an interview with Matt Smith right before his series started, and there really is something quite attractive about him – it’s hard to put your finger on though.

          Somewhere in Africa is kinda halfway – aren’t there civets somewhere on the African continent?! You can do some field research and I’ll carry your equipment and mix cocktails.

  7. Awesome! Glad you enjoyed it. Will there be a similarly detailed treatise on my own fair capital at some point? I feel for you on the language front. I speak reasonable French, albeit with a dodgy Anglais accent, and I still get the bum’s rush.

    Par example (at Nice rail station with me mate): “Bonjour, m’sieur. Je voudrais deux billet retourner pour Monte Carlo, s’il vous plait*.”

    “Pardon…?”

    (Louder, through the glass partition): “Bonjour. Je voudrais deux….”

    “M’sieur. I theenk you should try spikking ze English, oui? I spik it much bettorr zan you spik French.”

    Really? Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? What’s my mate stood there sniggering about, the cheeky sod…?!

    Even when you make an effort and are grammatically good, if they pick up the slightest hint of a non-French accent then they’re instantly into look-down-nose-with-distain mode.

    Still, the way I look at it is if it wasn’t for the English-speaking nations they’d all be speaking German, so…

    * That’s, “I’d like two return tickets for Monte Carlo, please,” for the uninitiated.

    • Oh, definitely! Can’t guarantee it’ll be before December, but it’s coming! 🙂

      I don’t understand that attitude at all. I can’t imagine anyone in Australia ever going “oh, you don’t speak English that well. Let me speak to you in your own language”, unless they’re actually in the tourism industry. There seems to be a huge amount of pride in their language, which I guess is kinda refreshing given our general tendency to completely butcher English (I’m looking at you, facebook).

  8. My favorite incident in Paris was walking down the street through a shopping area and a jazz band suddenly happened. It was almost like a Flash mob. A person would walk up with an instrument, nods were exchanged, and they would just join in.

    • That sounds great! They had a couple of pianos along the river bank for anyone to play, and some really fabulous musicians came out of the woodwork.

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