Written by Kieran Murphy
Friday, 20 May 2011
The French. They love coffee, they love cigarettes, they love art, they love drinking in public places (same with urinating), they love stupid little dogs, not wearing socks, fine cuisine and they love love. We have spent three days in Paris and now we're hurtling through the countryside towards Nice at a speed that can only be described as 'ridiculous'. I am sad to leave Paris behind; once again my stay was all too brief, but before the peculiarities of this grand - and completely mental - city started to get to me, I am left with only the best of impressions.
Where to begin? Well, to start with, almost everything you hear about Parisian attitudes is untrue. They are, on the whole, a friendly, humorous and hospitable bunch of people piled high on top of one another and the rich history of a city heaving with artists, students, tourists, gypsies, the odd bare-chested vagrant and young lovers from across the world, who, like myself, are irresistibly drawn towards the promise of some type of inspiration so tangible you can just about jump into an ornate fountain of it.
I was keen not to make the same mistakes I had made the last time I was in Paris; namely being so timid as to not even attempt to use the Metropolitain underground. The Metro is the quickest, easiest and most daunting way to get around the city - a massive honeycomb network of stations, tunnels and connections that is apparently the second busiest underground rail network in the world. I'm not sure how they measure something like that, or whom "they" actually are, but having travelled on the New York subway and the London Underground, I'm inclined to believe this factual oddity. Though I was keen to walk along the banks of the Seine, through the Jardins de Tullieres, across the Pont Neuf and up the gradual incline of Montmartre as it peaks at the Sacre Coeur, we used the Metro from the very first 5.30am train to well past midnight; jumping from carriage to stations with those rich, beautiful names like Madeleine, Ecoile Militaire and Grands Boulevards. Although the smells sometimes sting the nostrils, and the characters range from the urbane to the homeless, there is nothing quite like the Metro.
The first time I travelled to Paris, I was in my early twenties. It seems like a long time ago; a digital camera cost around $750AUD for a 4.0 megapixel monster and wi-fi was a concept that sounded suspiciously like something from a Terminator film. Now, armed with my Macbook Pro and iPhone (thanks, Apple), I'm better prepared to deal with the language barrier (a disappointing and, for me, embarrassing footnote to my mostly single language education), the tangled web of Parisian streets and most importantly, keeping up to date with the things that really matter via Facebook…
It would be cliche' to say that French food is amongst the best in the world. Surprisingly though, even with all the baguettes, omelettes, poulets, fromage, crepes and escargots, the French fascination with Nutella is the most striking of all. They just love it. And I guess after a hard night on the vin or bouissons biers, a Nutella et banana crepe is pretty much the most amazing thing in the world. You can be spoilt for choice, but we are creatures of very simple pleasures. I did not - and I can't believe I'm admitting this here - dine out the last time I visited Paris. The combined effects of jetlag and sunburn conspired to have me tucked up in le chambre every night around 8pm. I didn't really see Paris by night. Thankfully, I did not make the same mistake again. Even though I was again jetlagged and sunburnt (you'd think after 32 years of exposure I'd begin to wake up to the fact that my skin was pale, weak, rubbish) I made the most of each evening, dining in style and ordering through halting French, hopefully providing amusement to the waitstaff.
Then there's the tower. Le Tour Eiffel stands at the centre of the city like a huge tourist magnet and everyone who walks past it turns their head ever so slightly even if they've seen it a hundred times before, because it's just such an amazing spectacle. It's shape is so burned into our collective psyche that even the pictograph on your snap-happy camera is likely to represent the tower because it is the very definition of landscape photography. Trying to photograph something like the tower is difficult for a restless amateur such as I, because we'd all like to think we're taking a photo the likes of which no-one has ever seen before. I have a pretty strong suspicion that since it was built in 1889, pretty much every possible camera angle has been used and re-used. It is quite possibly the most photographed landmark in the world (can someone Google that for me?).
So, as I sit here in 1st class (oh yes, dear peasants; budget airfares but top shelf train travel all the way for moi) I eagerly await the next part of the trip - Nice, Cannes, driving the French riviera into Italy and trekking the Cinque Terre. Admit it, you wish you were me right now don't you?