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.
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.
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.
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.
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.