French flag colours on Sydney Opera House

Paris Attacks

Eiffell Tower
Eiffell Tower

Largely through my work, I’ve spent much of the day immersed in the terrorism attacks in Paris. On top of the professional, there was concern for a friend who lives in Paris (who I’ve yet to hear from in reply), and for another friend whose partner lives in Paris (everything is all okay).

Though there are obviously tragedies which happen all of the time, and indeed attacks like these happen all of the time in the Middle East (including Beirut this week), this attack has really “hit home”. I love Paris, and knew exactly when, where these attacks occurred. I also really like French people – they suffer with a bit of “bad press”, I think. Also, there’s clear evidence those involved were “under the radar” (digitally speaking), and so it has helped to bring home that we’re living in difficult times.

“This will be the century of terrorism and climate change”, I said to a friend in an email.

Here in Sydney, the colours of the French flag were projected on the Sydney Opera House, and there was a vigil at Martin Place. Particularly touching was the large group of expats who were singing in French.

MIchael Jackson and Bubbles by Jeff Koons on display at Versailles, France 2008

Michael Jackson at Versailles

“I’d like to know who approved this”, my friend David said today of the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Versailles Palace. “I mean, I quite like his work”, he added, but wondered why this world-famous building was deemed an appropriate space to exhibit Koon’s famous statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

“Maybe it’s because of the extravagance of the work. Or maybe he was influenced by Versailles?”, I wondered out loud, trying to understand myself. I mean there’s a certain extravagance in his work, and he uses a lot of gold leaf, but the works did seem kinda odd when exhibited against furnishings and art work with a definite eighteenth century feel to them.

As it was my final full day in France, David suggested we should visit Versailles. “Sure, why not?”, I thought to myself, recognising that deep inside I only had a knowledge of the palace because that’s where the peace agreement for the First World War was signed. Until I did some reading, I didn’t really know it was the home of the royal family for over 100 years, and that at one point in history, about five-thousand people had lived there.

With the memory of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in my head, I wasn’t prepared for the size of the palace and the grounds. Nor was I prepared for the huge amount of tourists who were there today. Thank goodness David knew some of the shortcuts to try, and we avoided queues all of the day.

After lunch we went on an English language tour of the royal family’s private chambers during the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. As you might expect, they were quite lavish, though not as outrageous as I thought they might have been. Our tour guide, who was excellent, also gave us an insight in the human face of these royal figures, and of their own idiosynchrasies.

The story, for example of Louis XV (I think) who failed to take communion for over thirty years because he didn’t feel he could because of his own infidelity was a fascinating one.

As was the story of the transformation of the royal guards from being made up solely of foreigners (because they had no allegiances) to being made up solely of French aristocracy (as a good PR exercise for the many different areas of France, and to help the French aristocratic families who were finding things financially difficult).

Unfortuntely, we couldn’t visit the private domaine of Marie-Antoinette, due to bad weather. As in Sydney, France had a terrible storm in 1999 which the authorities had failed to warn about. “Ever since then, they’ve over-reacted to any storm warning”, David told me, echoing the experience we have back home.

With the day cut short, David dropped me at the train station and we bid each other a fond farewell.

On my arrival back in Paris, I called in for a glass of wine to celebrate my final hours here. As I walked in to the nearby brasserie, my attempt to order a simple glass of wine failed. As in high school, when I elected to learn German not French, I’ve realised once again French as a language totally eludes me. I know the words, I hear the pronunciation, but everything just comes out wrong. So I’m back in the hostel, resting up and updating my blog.

Tomorrow is a really big day for me: I’m leaving to come home. I can scarcely believe my time is nearly up. A hideously long flight awaits me, broken up by a couple of days in Hong Kong, which I hope will be just the right medicine to ensure a smooth transition back to life in Sydney.

Great Views of Paris

“Just keep walking, it’s a scam”, I shouted to the young tourist couple, hoping they understood my English. I knew something was awry when on the approach to the Eiffel Tower, I saw a young girl approach them, pretending to have found a gold ring in the sand and asking if it was theirs.

Just a minute or so earlier, an identically dressed young girl had done the same thing to me. As she bent down, “discovered” the ring and came towards me, I knew something wasn’t quite right. With one hand raised I ignored her approach, and with the other held tightly to my bag. Looking around to the right, I saw a young man who looked quite similar (an older brother I assumed by his appearance) who was closely observing the situation. I glared at him, and he looked back at me, recognising that I wasn’t about to be caught by their scam.

And then I saw the same scenario being played out again just a few metres up the track, I knew for sure my initial feelings were right, and that’s when I yelled out to warn the young couple.

In fact it was just the scenario M-H had described in blog comments a couple of days ago, where the tourist is distracted by one person, while another comes along and takes their bag. I hope the young couple took my advice, though I didn’t stay around long enough to see if they did, concerned for my own personal safety. And besides, I was in a hurry to get to the Number 1 tourist destination in Paris: The Eiffel Tower.

Not only is it a hell of a lot cheaper to walk the tower stairs rather than catch the lift (4 euros, as opposed to 11 – though I was also only charged 3 for some reason), but it was also a really great experience to do so. Similar to climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in that you really get to see the tower’s construction as well as the magnificent views.

Even being a slightly overweight forty-year old, I didn’t find the walk too much. Maybe because I was so excited I literally bounded up the stairs. And I didn’t envy the people who’d paid a lot of money to be tightly squeezed into the elevator. Coming down, needless to say, was a breeze. In fact, a couple of young blokes had a race to see who could get to the bottom first.

In all, I guess I spent one-and-a-half, maybe two hours wandering around two different levels of the tower. I was extremely lucky too, since both the weather and the views today were spectacular. It was also great just to sit and watch people have a truly wonderful experience. Young families with kids. Couples in love. All having the times of their lives. And for a few of them I was “official photographer” of their wonderful moment.

The views were even better than those I’d had earlier in the day at Sacre Couer, the church not far from where I’m staying. There’s a lift there too, though it’s something I didn’t know about, and couldn’t take advantage of, since I was coming from the other direction. The view, though, is definitely the first thing you notice when you reach the top of the stairs.

And then you notice the beautiful church itself. And, since it’s a “working church”, a lot of people (including myself) took the opportunity for some quiet prayer in the midst of the tourist jam.

Outside on the stairs, it’s both peaceful and noisy. I first took a seat on the stairs near an American bloke playing classics such as “What A Wonderful World” and “American Pie”. And when that became too much (after about two minutes), I found myself another spot near a bloke playing the harp. He was good. Really good. And the harp also seemed to suit the scene a little more too.

I must have sat there for about thirty minutes (maybe longer) enjoying the peace, the solitude (well, kinda), and the views. And then a woman asked me if I would mind moving slightly so she could hold the railing to walk down the stairs. As I instantly recognised her French was as bad as mine, I replied, “No worries”. “Oh it’s so nice to hear an English voice”, she said to me. And when I replied telling her I was Australian not English, she told me that was just as good, and that her son was an Australian.

In some ways, it’s been a day of ticking off the tourist boxes of Paris, since I also paid a visit to Notre Dame. It’s just as touristy as everywhere else I’ve visited. And no wonder, since it’s a very beautiful church. Quite remarkable.

On the way there, however, I also discovered the great little “island” in the middle of the river. Well, discovered isn’t so much the word, as the island was full of people sitting enjoying the sun, reading, eating and drinking champagne.

And of course there was some romance too. There were some teenagers tentatively holding hands. There were a couple of gay boys with their legs gently touching each other. And there was a lovely middle-aged couple holding hands too. I thought it was great to see a couple who might have been together for maybe twenty years or so quite happily showing affection in public.

Well, that’s what I thought until they decided this beautiful spot was also the ideal place to go for the “big pash”. And by that I don’t mean, a tender, passionate, romantic kiss. Hours later, the sight of tongues and hands going places they shouldn’t go in a public place still haunts me.

Not only has this one single event absolutely confirmed my homosexuality, but I think it’s also put me off sex for life. “If that’s what I look like when I’m doin’ it, then I’m never doin’ it again”, I thought to myself. I hope I’m not sounding too much like a fourteen year old teenage girl if I say, “Ooooh gross!”.

Anyway, that’s not gonna be an issue is it, since I’m staying in a youth hostel? I have, however, been lucky again tonight. Once again, I’m in a four-bed dormitory on the top floor all by myself. I’ve nicked the pillows off the other beds, so I hope no one turns up at midnight. I’ve got the window open. There’s a gentle breeze. The sounds of Paris traffic can be heard gently in the background. Could life get any better?

Post Script: I wrote too soon. Three other people arrived to share my room at about ten thirty. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Sunday in The Marais

Minding a car space for someone I dont know.
Minding a car space for someone I dont know.

“Oh my God, she’s going to ask for directions”, I thought to myself when the forty-something glamorous woman with a suitcase called out to me today. “Oh my God, how do you say I’m a tourist?” I thought to myself, as she beckoned me to stop.

She quickly recognised I was an English language speaker, and explained to me her car wasn’t far away, and asked if I wouldn’t mind standing in the free car space she had found while she went to get her car. “Only two minutes”, she assured me. With nothing else planned, I told her it wasn’t a problem, wondering for just a moment if I was being secretly filmed for French television.

A simple good act of kindness seemes to have returned some good travel karma, since it looks like I have an entire dormitory room to myself tonight at the hostel. I won’t jump to conclusions too quickly, since it’s not yet nine p.m. and there’s the chance of later checkins, but I’m hopeful of having a huge room to myself tonight. And to having the windows open! Yippeee. I’m on the sixth floor with quite good views over Paris, and there’s a lovely gentle breeze.

That wasn’t the case last night, when I shared with a Dutch couple and a Japanese bloke. Surprisingly, they were all early-risers. I woke early myself this morning and then went back to bed for a few more hours. It was one of those grey days you associate with all of those romantic images of Paris.

After the heavy tourist orientation of the last few days in visiting monuments, chapels and castles, I was keen for another day of hanging out in Paris doing some serious people watching today. And I figured The Marais, which is a reasonably fashionable part of Paris was just the spot to do it.

In a Sydney context, it’s kinda like Paddington meets Surry Hills, with lots of cafes, restaurants, fashion shops, people dressed completely in black (and white – eew, I don’t get that) and lots of poofs. So naturally enough, as I looked around while having a baguette for lunch, I thought to myself, “these are my people”.

Sunday in The Marais
Sunday in The Marais

I spent a couple of hours later in the afternoon in a bar called the Central Hotel. It’s kinda central, hence the name, and has the rainbow flag hoisted loud and proud. I also liked it because the bar staff didn’t seem to mind me making a glass of wine last a few hours without re-ordering,

Upon sitting down I found myself sitting right next two four Australians: a straight couple and a gay couple. They were obviously here for a trade fair or something like that, as they were later joined by a couple of other people.

When the sole French bloke joined their party they told him how beautiful Paris was, and what plans they had for the future. And then they began asking him questions about travelling to various locations around France, which he answered politely. But then I saw a really weird – and totally understandable – look appear on his face when they started to ask him more detailed questions. I actually heard one of the four Australians ask… “What time does the train go to Champagne and from what platform?” WTF?

It’s also the bar where I discovered French men aren’t universally attractive. For every French man who looks like Phillipe Olivier (Kylie Minogue’s boyfriend), there’s at least one hundred who look like Gerard Depardieu. And remarkably, like Latvia, every gorgeous woman seems to be on the arm of an incredibly unattractive man.

So that’s how I spent the day, really, sitting in the cafes of Paris watching the world go by. Can life get any better?

Day Of Death

”Yes, it’s like this every day”, my friend David told me with a certain disdain on his face. As I looked around the carriage most of the other passengers seemed to have the same look on their faces, as a group of buskers started playing music in our carriage. Although it was the first time I’ve experienced it, apparently it’s quite common on the Paris metro to have musical buskers in your carriage.

I wasn’t sure, though, if the locals genuinely disliked their peaceful trip on the metro being interrupted, or if they just didn’t want to make eye contact with the buskers, just in case they felt obliged when the hat was passed around.

With well known tunes like “Take Five” and “Those Were The Days”, I couldn’t help but hum along silently to the piano accordian, the trumpet and the boom box which seemed to appear from absolutely nowhere. After the third or fourth time this happened, though, and as especially as the musicians got progressively worse and worse, I began to understand a little of the frustration many Parisiens must feel.

Deep down, though, I still think it’s quite charming. And I guess it says a lot of good things about the French that they would allow something like this to flourish, when in many other parts of the world (including Sydney and London), you’d have the transit police trying to stamp it out.

The other thing I noticed on the metro today, and commented to David about, was that I really like the informal way in which people touch each other. Back in Sydney, if you saw three young blokes sitting together on a train, they’d be at opposite ends of their bench seats trying to avoid any physical contact. Here, however, it’s not been uncommon to see young men have close physical contact with each other. And not in “that kind of way”…

We spent a fair bit of time on the trains today as we travelled from David’s village, which is located about eighty kilometres south of Paris.

First there was the car trip, though, through the glorious countryside, as we made our way to Fontainebleu to catch the train. Fontainbleu is the main town in David’s area with lots of shops, a national horse-racing centre, and what was once a French Imperial Castle. The castle is pretty impressive, and David couldn’t stop from commenting about how much work had been done to improve the castle’s inside and outside. As a place to visit, it’s really quite good, with terrific gardens which actually afford you a view inside the house into rooms you can’t otherwise enter.

Arriving in Paris, we came straight to Montclair where I checked into my accommodation. It’s a nice enough place, with the only apparent downside being having to lug my suitcase up six flights of stairs. And although fairly basic, it has a terrific view and it’s located in a really nice part of the city. I had to laugh, though, when I booked in tonight behind a young American woman who was travelling with six pieces of luggage (one backpack, one suitcase and four handbags). The bloke behind the counter was quite clear in telling her there was no way she could have that much luggage in a dormitory room. And, she’s also on the sixth floor!

After a bite to eat, a visit to the toilet (David went to what I labelled the Voulez Vous toilet because of the resemablance it bears to the cover of an ABBA CD), and a wander around a record store, we began our “Day Of Death”.

The first stop was the Catacombs of Paris where six million Parisiens are buried in a mass-grave underneath the city. “Are you at all claustrophobic?”, David said to me as we walked down the stairs and through the walkway. Although I do suffer a little claustrophobia, I hadn’t actually thought of it until he mentioned it, and then I began to have just a moment when I began to wonder if it was such a good idea to go under-ground to look at a bunch of dead Parisiens.

As you go under-ground, however, you begin to loose track of both time and place, and any sense of claustrophobia I had quickly disappeared. It’s as peaceful as any other graveyard you might encounter, except here you see literally millions and millions of bones and skulls laid upon top of each other. Everywhere you look there are bones, though I didn’t really feel any great sense of “death”, possibly because the bones are organised so neatly. Perhaps this was why so many people going through the catacombs were failing to recognise the space as the final resting place of real human beings? Or maybe they were just disrespectful?

We also went to Basilique Saint-Denis which is final resting place of most of the French Royal family, with many of those buried there dating back to the sixth century. Located within a “very Catholic” cathedral, you see the tombs of every French royal you might want to imagine.

And then late this afternoon, we went to the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte, Les Invalides. As it was late, we didn’t actually go in, but it was great to walk around the building and to enjoy the atmosphere.

Nearby there were lots of people walking around, playing soccer, and generally enjoying the sunshine. A great day.

And so here it is, my final Saturday night in Europe before I return home. Next Saturday night I’ll be in Hong Kong. And although I could go out and enjoy a bit of Paris nightlife, I can’t be bothered. At the end of this long trip, I’m feeling quite tired. Still, I have another three days in Paris, and there are lots of adventures still to be had. Tonight, though, I think it’s just me and my computer and a bit of French tele.

Loire Valley – Day Three

You know how when you travel you end up with a pocket full of coins you can’t do anything with. The exchange bureaus won’t accept them, and of course you don’t feel as though you can throw them away (they’re money after all). In writing this, I’ve realised I could probably give them to the poor and needy, though you don’t often see too many of them at the airport when you’re leaving. So I’ve found myself with a suitcase weighed down with half a dozen varieties of coins from countries which don’t have the Euro.

It’s a shame we couldn’t have used them yesterday morning as David and I found ourself in a roadside cafe hoping for a coffee and croissant this morning. We discovered we only had about three or four Euros between us as we found ourselves on the roadside in a small village without an ATM. “Ten, twenty, thirty”, we counted, until finally we discovered we could afford a coffee each, but only small ones.

David and I were on our way to Fontevraud Abbey. Amongst its many claims to fames is that its said to be the final resting place for the likes of Richard The Lionheart. I absolutely loved the abbey. It had a great peacefulness about it, as you might expect, and I felt the integrity of the place had been maintained through the restoration process.

After a visit to the abbey, we got some much needed cash and found a place for lunch.

“They are English”, a loud Frenchman declared pointing to David and I at lunch. “No we’re not”, David told him defiantly pointing out that he was French and that I was Australian. Even though I don’t speak French I certainly picked up the references to eating kangaroos that littered his conversation with his wife (?) and the waitress. He’s the only French man so far I’ve found who has lived up to the under-deserved reputation of his countrymen for arrogance.

Lunch was good, though, as I enjoyed a traditional French beef dish with tagliatelle. It was a really nice meal and the perfect way to spend a reasonably wet Friday afternoon.

And tonight I’ve had an even more traditional/authentic dining experience staying with David at his mother’s place. She’s a great cook, and her garlic potatoes are known far and wide. She also really appreciated the fact that I loving trying out new foods. In contrast to David who thinks goats cheese belongs in the garage, I thought it was excellent, slightly melted and served on toast. His mother seemed to agree as we munched into it with ear to ear smiles. Does life get any better?

People Of Paris

“Do you understand what she just said?”, the kind middle-aged woman asked me on the metro this afternoon. “Not a word”, I told her. She knew I didn’t speak French, because just moments earlier she’d asked me if I knew what was going on. She told me there’d been an accident on the metro and that we would all need to be patient.

By the time she told me what was going on half the passengers had already left the train. I’m guessing it was a suicide or something like that, since the train stopped suddenly just seconds after taking off. We all looked at each other with that knowing way.

I still wasn’t sure though what was going on. For a moment I wondered if there had been some sort of security alert, and that terrorists had maybe taken over the train. “Oh the drama of it all”, I thought to myself, and that’s maybe why I stayed on the train when so many others had left.

It’s been a day of independent sight-seeing for me. A day just to wander around, to get to know Paris and its people, with nothing specific in mind. That is, I wasn’t really interested in seeing sights. Rather I wanted to look at the people in the shops and cafes to see how they went about their daily lives, especially as summer is now officially over with today being the first day back at school. And so I bought a day pass for the transport system, hopped on the train with my map, and decided I would get to know Paris by foot and metro.

One of the things that really fascinates me about Paris is the large number of African people living here. Everywhere you go you see black faces, and while many of the people were obviously born and raised here, I also know there continues to be a steady stream of people from Africa moving to France.

I was also fascinated by the outward displays of affection between friends and family. And of course people in a relationship too. And by that I don’t mean inappropriate snogging etc, but just general touching and general closeness. It’s very nice. And of course, it was lovely to see quite a few gay boys walking down the street holding hands.

As if by homing-pigeon instinct, I stumbled on The Marais, Paris’ version of Oxford Street. Oddly enough, I found it far more cruisey than I expected, as quite a few men looked me up and down in that special kinda way. And did I mention French men are very good looking?

As with any major city, the people on trains tend to keep to themselves. But you don’t get that blank stare into space I found in London. Instead, people will acknowledge you when you smile at them, and the use of the word “pardon” is regularly used. This is also in stark contrast to Sweden where I knew two Swedish words for “sorry”, and used them regularly, though there were hardly ever used back.

About the only touristy thing I did today was head for a walk along the Champs Elysées which I found rather breath-taking. It’s a great walk, especially when you go through the main shopping area, approaching the Arc de Triomphe. As I walked along wearing my red t-shirt and fawn cargo pants, and saw everyone else quite well dressed, I was reminded of that section in the book, “Almost French” where the author was chastised by her husband for going to be bakery in track-pants.

The only thing that kinda disturbed me was that I am sure I was being trailed for a moment as a potential pick-pocket victim. Out of the corner of my eye I kept noticing a rather suspicious looking guy, and whenever I took a left or right turn, he was still there just metres behind. I’d been warned about pick-pocketing in Paris, and so maybe I was just being a little paranoid. But other times you just know that something is wrong, and I did on this occasion. And so when I saw some police near the Arc de Triomphe, I walked over towards them. The guy stopped following at that point.

And so now I’m back at the hostel going through my photographs and making some plans for the next few days. I’m meeting David at Fontainebleau tomorrow morning, and we’re heading off for a couple of days travelling around the Loire Valley. As much as I love the city, I’m still a country boy at heart, and I’m looking forward to getting a little dirt under my fingernails. Ewww…