So much beauty out there

October 7, 2006

Paris 2004

Filed under: All,Travel — Josh @ 12:07 pm

Trip to Paris for some work, and then a trip to Sainte Croix for a wedding.

Mardi 8 Juin 

Flew into Charles de Gaulle, which thankfully wasn’t collapsing at the time. I did look for the bit that fell apart a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see it. I guess one pile of rubble looks much like another anyway. Even by the low standards that other airports set, CdG is particularly unprepossessing. The shape of the corridors is displeasing to the eye. The floor pattern is ugly and highlights the dirt on it. The ceilings are ugly. The shops are ugly. You can wander off through near deserted corridors as dilapidated and barren as a 70s UK office block. It can be blessed relief to be caught amongst a crush of people as it distracts you from the ugliness of your surroundings. The lack of variety in descriptive adjectives is deliberate. There is little so bad as to be “hideous” or “vile”, little so pleasant as to be merely “unsightly”, instead it settles for consistent, unremarkable, bland ugliness. I’m beginning to think that the 60 or so pounds I saved by flying rather than taking the train (at incalculable environmental cost) does not represent such a bargain. True, the Gare de Nord is also ugly, in a similar fashion, but the time spent there is much briefer. And the train offers a view of the unparalleled countryside of North Eastern France – unparalleled that is outside of nuclear test sites.

Given all this, I was not overly happy when I thought I was going to be stuck for the duration of my trip at the CdG railway station. I didn’t have enough euros to buy a ticket, there weren’t any ATMs that I could see, and I didn’t have enough sterling to exchange (funny how I immediately start talking like an economist when it comes to currency changing, I wouldn’t say sterling in any other context). There were ticket machines by the dozen, but none of them wanted to take my bankers card. I was beginning to wish I’d accepted one of those credit cards that say “Although you have little discernible income, we are willing to loan you tens of thousands of pounds (or sterling) and all you have to do is sign here…” with small print to the effect that “you may also lose your house, your car, your soul and be forced into slavery, as will your children and your children’s children, yea unto the fourth generation.” Anyway, finally I found a machine willing to separate me from my money and I got into Paris itself.

Or should I say the seventh circle of hell, a pit of fiery damnation. Fuck me, it was hot. Maybe I’m used to Welsh weather (what I wouldn’t do for a nice damp Cardiff drizzle), maybe I’m a wuss, maybe my idea of a reasonable temperature would make an Inuit mutter that it was a bit chilly. This may all be true. It doesn’t alter the fact that walking around in Paris was like being basted in my own juices.

Spent most of the day zig-zagging across Paris by metro. Partly this was due to my ditziness, forgetting all the things I needed and having to go back for them (no surprise at my being dozy, my brain was fricaséed within 15 minutes of getting here) and partly because the metro was just about the only place fit for human habitation.

I’m sorry, am I going on about the weather too much? Well, you’ll just have to live with it. Firstly, I’m British and thus think the weather is just about the most fascinating subject known to man; and secondly because the heat is all-pervading. To not talk about it would be like climbing Everest and then not mentioning the view.

Anyway, back to the Metro. The best line to travel on was 14, which is new and has, oh joy of joys, air conditioning. The downside is that it means changing at the MadeleinI always liked the name, Madeleine. It’s pretty, there is a great song by Jacques Brel called Madeleine, and the only girl I know with that name was very nice. But now I have to go to the Madeleine Metro station every day. And it smells. No, it stinks. It reeks. Even simply passing through makes me retch at the stench (anyone who has visited Port Talbot will have undergone a similar experience). I think it must have been built in the middle of the Paris sewage treatment plant. So, sorry Maddy, sorry Jacques, Madeleine now only has negative associations.
Finally got to the hostel and had a chance to lie down. Two hours sleep in 48 tends to be a bit draining. Thought about going straight to sleep, but couldn’t do it – going to bed at 7pm just seems morally wrong. Decided to shave instead – somewhat perversely given that normally I’m happy to be a scruffy hairy bastard and being in a hostel full of men with unkempt facial hair meant I wouldn’t have stood out. Perhaps it was the sight of so many dubious goatees that made me think that being clean shaven was the way to go.

Incidentally, speaking of dubious, apparently it’s almost exactly the same word in Portuguese as in English – “dubio” – and “peculiar” is exactly the same. I guess this probably means the Portuguese particularly associate the words dubious and peculiar with the English. Can’t think why!

Given all the dodgily-bearded men around, I got lucky with my room-mates: a couple of girls from the US, one a former Miss Teen Utah, though I reckon her sister was prettier, and another pair from Brazil (hence my sudden insight into the Portuguese language). The Americans arrived first, and I was vaguely amused that one of them was called Breelyn. What is it with Americans and freaky compound names ending in Lyn? Both seemed very nice. We chatted about Utah, which they seemed mildly impressed that I’d even heard of. Had I remembered at the time I could have noted that I knew it was the Beehive state, which I’m sure would have wowed them. Then the Brazilian girls arrived (also very nice) and there ensued a rather confused multi-way conversation, interrupted at intervals by my having to stare at the wall while some intimate piece of female clothing was changed.

The Americans went off to meet some friends and I stayed chatting to the Brazilians. They’d been over in Europe for nearly 6 months, but had spent nearly all of it in Dublin, leaving about a week to see the rest of Europe. However much you might like Guinness, this struck me as poor planning. It did mean they spoke excellent English though, fortunately as my knowledge of Portuguese is roughly on a par with my grasp of Xhosa. They invited me to go out with them which was tempting but my body refused to move – yeah, this is one of those stories where just as it seems something exciting might occur: “ooh, the narrator may hit the town with some mysterious latinos, who knows what might happen”, it doesn’t. If you’re looking for drama and thrills, look elsewhere.

Eventually got to sleep for a few hours, though I was woken by the Brazilians returning. No sign of the Americans though, probably because they stayed out beyond the hostel curfew. I guess there is a possibility that they were brutally murdered instead, in which case I might be a prime suspect.

“Alors, Monsieur, you shared a room with these women?”

“Yes.”

“And you say that after they left the hostel you didn’t see them again?”

“Yes.”

“I see” *strokes gallic moustache suspiciously* “Bien sur, you have an alibi?”

“Er…I was asleep”

“Asleep! At 9.30pm! A likely story. Jean-Marc, arrest him.”

All in all, best hope that they weren’t brutally murdered.

Mercredi 9 Juin

Realised that I didn’t have the lead for my laptop and thus will not be able to revise thesis while in France. More evidence that I am an idiot simpleton who doesn’t deserve a PhD anyway. Gave serious consideration to abandoning work for the week and being a tourist for a few days. Inexplicably however, I discovered a work ethic (presumably it had been hiding in a bunker with Lord Lucan, Shergar and Iraqi WMD) and dragged myself off to the library.

It was almost fully booked up, and the only way I could get in was to book a microfilm seat. Unfortunately I didn’t need to read any microfilms, so I had to steal other peoples spots when they were unoccupied and then moving somewhere else when they arrived to claim their chair. One particularly polite guy said “bonjour” as he sat down next to me and must have been rather surprised when I responded with a garbled apology in barely intelligible French for having taken his seat. He pointed out that actually his seat was the one next to mine and he was just being friendly. Hopefully the sunburn on my cheeks hid my blushes.

Worked all day, got back, wrote this. Not really sure what to do now…

…OK, back now. Just been walking around for a couple of hours. I’m not sure what it is about Paris that makes me love it so much. I mean, the area round the hostel isn’t that beautiful, and there’s not much worthy of particular attention. I doubt it’d warrant a page in the most detailed of Parisian guidebooks. Yet just wandering round it still made me happy. And then having the Eiffel Tower loom over me at the end, just great.

Actually, I think La Tour Eiffel (gasp at my mastery of French) is one of the greatest tourist con tricks around. It’s not beautiful, or even pretty. Sure, you get a good view from the top, but the same is true of the Tour Montparnasse and no-one gives a shit about seeing that. If the Eiffel Tower was a quarter size, everyone would call it an eyesore. Instead it just fools people through scale, people are too busy saying “Whoa, that’s like so big” to say “Whoa, that’s so ugly” (insert own penis joke here)(huh-huh, he said “penis” and “insert”). It’s the David Copperfield of Parisian tourist sites. Watch out, I’m probably going to stretch this metaphor to ridiculous lengths later on, comparing Notre Dame to David Blaine and likening the Sacré Coeur to Penn and Teller or something. I wonder what would equate to Paul Daniels? My guess is the Madeleine Metro Station.

To go from one tangent to another, apologies for the brief diversion into valley speak, halfway through the last paragraph. I’m sitting by the window of my hostel room and can hear every word of the Dude Where’s My Caresque conversation in the room underneath. It seems a little pathetic to be in Paris, one of the greatest cities in the world, and to be drinking in a cramped, ugly hostel room, bitching to your friends about how your parents won’t let you smoke dope. That said, it’s probably better than not drinking in a cramped, ugly hostel room, bitching to your (virtual) friends about your neighbours. And on that moment of clarity and self-awareness, I’m going to do something else.

Samedi 12 et Mercredi 13
I’m a lucky, lucky bastard.

I took the metro to Gare de Lyon, which thankfully wasn’t exploding at the time. There had supposedly been a plan for a Madrid style metro bombing in the days before the Euro-Elections, but these were foiled. (In case of confusion, Gare de Lyon is in Paris and not, as one might think, in Lyon. Although there probably is one in Lyon too). I was on my way to the village of Sainte Croix for the wedding of Lucy (a friend of mine from Cardiff) and Yvan, her French fiancé. “What’s the French word for fiancé?” I asked a few days ago. I’m not very bright. Sainte Croix is a little village in the South East of France, between Grenoble and Valence. I didn’t know much else about it, but I had reasonable hopes of being able to find it.

TGV from Paris to Valence. The TGVs are fantastic. It must be well over 200 miles, but it was done in 2 hours (British residents compare to London-Edinburgh). The non-smoking seats had all been booked, so I had to go in the smoking compartment. There are few places on earth more depressing than a smoking carriage. Partly its the atmosphere, the stains, the smell, and the fug that renders everything a little bit darker. More importantly, it is the clientele.

Not every smoker is desperate and pathetic, far from it, but those who use smoking carriages generally are. There are practically no young people, they haven’t had enough years to get so hooked that they can’t manage 2 hours without a fag. There are practically no women either, presumably they’d rather suffer the pangs of abstinence than suffer the pangs of the atmosphere. There are also hardly any old people. I think we can hazard a guess as to why that might be. Instead, the carriage is packed with middle-aged men. They rush to light up as soon as they enter the train, already gasping from the non-smoking rules in the station. A swift drag, a sigh of relief and then straight into the hacking cough. Lovely.

Bus from Valence to Sainte Croix. Its not a regular stop, so I have to pay close attention to the road signs to make sure I get off at the right place. We move through the largely flat and dusty grassland surrounding Valence into the mountains of the Vercors national park. It looks gorgeous, but I can’t fully appreciate it, must focus on the road signs. Through Crest, through Pontaix. Ah, Sainte Croix. Well, the Sainte Croix turning at least. It appears I have to walk a couple of kilometres to the village. Uphill. Carrying all my bags. Under a hot sun. In a suit. I was beginning to think that I could have chosen a better means of travel. My suit was definitely beginning to show the signs of a days travel, not to mention a week prior being spent folded in the bottom of a rucksack. Would vagrants be denied access to the ceremony? Who knows? Find out in the next exciting installment.

—————–

It was a beautiful area, full of tree covered mountains. I climbed up to Sainte Croix, which is a real picture postcard place, in size as well as appearance. Tiny streets, stone buildings. I arrived at the former monastery where I thought the wedding was, only to meet a small fleet of cars leaving there for the Mairie, where the wedding was actually being held. Had I arrived 5 minutes later, I’d have missed them all and been left wandering around the monastery wondering if the bride had called it off, and no-one had told me. Anyway, I cadged a lift and we arrived at the Mairie. The backdrop itself was awesome, but neither the Mairie as a building or the room in which the ceremony was held were anything special. In truth, that was kind of in keeping with the wedding itself – which was basically just legal formalities as the Mayor read out sections of the French civil code and made some “hilarious” jokes. This was all in French, so I may have missed some nuance to the humour, but I’d suggest that the Mayor should not venture into a career in stand-up.

Back to the monastery for the civil ceremony. This was much more like it. Held in the courtyard of the monastery, surrounded by a fabulous 11th century building, sunshine above and birds twittering romantically. It was really nice and the couple themselves looked made for each other. I did have to grit my teeth for the musical interludes though: Dodgy (of all the bands in the world, surely amongst the most banal) and bloody Imagine. Plus the birdsong became less romantic when its crescendo practically drowned out the readings.

To the Jardin d’Honneur for drinks at the back of the monastery. In an earlier entry I defended repeated reference to the weather with an analogy with admiring the view from Mount Everest. I now realise that a better comparison would be the view from Sainte Croix. I kept on getting distracted while talking to people and gawking over their shoulder at the scenery. Unfortunately I always skip passages in literature that describe landscapes so my vocabulary is inadequate for describing the vista. But it was dead good, like.

Given the travelling and the heat, I was particularly thirsty and thus began demolishing glasses of champagne as if they were fruit juice. By utilising my friend Helen as a taster, I was even able to eat some of the crudités. I thought that as a veggie herself, Lucy might have made the herbivorous food more obvious, but I guess you can only push the French so far. Perhaps the groom’s father put his foot down, declaring “OK, I accept that my son is going to marry a foreign girl, but vegetarian-friendly food at the wedding? Jamais!”

Because I’d been really slack about confirming that I’d get to the wedding, I hadn’t got a place at the meal. However, one woman had just split up with her boyfriend, so I got his space. This place was on a French speaking table, so I did struggle a bit for conversation. I could grasp the majority of what was being said, but I couldn’t really formulate any contribution to the conversation. The food was lovely though, and even eating around the meat I was still stuffed.

With various intervals for speeches, amateur dramatics and pictures of the happy couple as small children the meal lasted about four hours and well before the end I was away with the fairies, just letting the French discussions and bilingual speeches drift past in a well-fed, well-refreshed pleasant haze.

Which was rudely interrupted by the meal finishing, and being replaced by a disco.

In case you were wondering, French discos are much like their British equivalent, too loud and too cheesy. At least the French component of the disco had the merit of me not having heard them all thousands of times before. I tried to spend as much time outside the disco as possible, mainly chatting to the smokers when they nipped out to sate their cravings. I became much more pro-smoking than I had been on the train.

At one point I went out into the square in front of the monastery, which was far enough away from the disco that the music was at a reasonable volume. It was a glorious starry night and so I did some dancing of my own in the square (think Doug in Strictly Ballroom). I got back from this rather spiritual moment of appreciation for the twin beauties created by nature and humanity to find a conga line in the disco, singing “Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen.” Had it been a Will Selfesque conga line of buggery, I don’t think the contrast would have been any more pronounced. I listened out for the monks revolving in their graves but heard nothing.

About 5am the disco ended and most of the people still there went to bed. As I didn’t have a bed to go to, I persuade a handful of diehards to go to the garden and watch the sunrise over the mountains. We passed the time by singing Frére Jacques and various rude versions of songs that the women had picked up from the Girl Guides.

I didn’t really end up getting any sleep at all, before I wandered down to the bus-stop to head back home. I hadn’t bothered checking the bus timetable and was slightly peturbed to arrive and find that the bus was scheduled to have gone past 3 minutes before, and that the next one wasn’t due for 5 hours. But in yet another lucky break the bus was running late, so I managed to make my train back from Paris.

Since when, I have been mostly watching football.

When I flew back from Paris  the passport control guy asked me if I was travelling with the group of people in front of me. Withstanding the urge to say “Definitely not, and I wouldn’t associate with people who dress like that under any circumstances”, I said “No” and moved on. The next two people were a couple holding hands.
“Are you travelling together?”
“No, I just needed some help carrying my arm.”
Hehehe. Witty and disrespectful of authority. How dashing.

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