Monday, June 30, 2014

Just what is it about Paris?

The French. You either love them or hate them. Or love France and hate the French.

Just what is it about Paris that makes it flavour of the month for sea change (or country change) biographies and blogs? Why IS it the city of romance? Why does my local $2 shop sell hat boxes covered in drawings of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame?

Your roving reporter spent a week there earlier this month to find out.

Paris smells of pee. Mainly men, some dogs. Every tree along the Seine near the Musee D'Orsay and the Louvre has been anointed by a hundred penises. As it hadn't rained for a while, the smell was intense.

If you want to move to France, you'd better speak French. Unlike here, where all government paperwork is available in about sixteen different languages, French paperwork is only in French. French officials only speak French. Parlez-vous Francais? Non? Tant pis… va t'en!! And French officials are legends when it comes to being obstructive. Not that I have tried to move to France but in my travels I spoke to a couple of expats who told the same story.

The drivers are bonkers. I was insane enough to drive through Paris in 1988 and I wouldn't be game to do it now. We had three wild rides in taxis which had my right foot permanently jammed 'on the brake'. So as a pedestrian in Paris I took my life in my hands. Drivers don't stop for pedestrians at pedestrian crossings. You have to wait until the road is clear and hope a Vespa doesn't come screaming out of nowhere when you're half way across. Scooters, motorbikes and bicycles have a scant disregard for red lights, especially if they are making a right hand turn. So what if you have a green light to walk? They'll be inching closer, itching, just itching, to run you down. Don't ever look them in the eye; it might be all the encouragement they need.

Paris is full of crowds. Forget going up the Eiffel Tower, it costs a bomb and you'll be queuing for years. Especially if you're waiting for the lift. The Louvre and Notre Dame also measure their queues by the furlong.

The French love their strikes. While we were there the RER (Railway) was on semi-strike; some of the trains were running but not to the usual schedule. There was also a baggage handlers' strike at the airport, making us happy we'd come on the Eurostar.

And let's not forget the scam artists who prey on tourists in likely spots, e.g. the Quartier Americaine (the part of Paris on both sides of the Seine near the Louvre. It's not really called the Quartier Americaine. I made that up. But it should be. It's where the American tourists hang out.) They pretend to be deaf mutes and ask you to donate ten euros to them and sign their badly-photocopied Official Donation Form (bollocks to that!). And there is the Paris Gold Ring Scam; I had a couple of those tried on me. I was stupid enough to have my camera out of my bag at the time, looking like a tourist. A simple snarl of "Va t'en!" usually had them apologising and moving away. When I swear in French my accent is perfect.

We were also accosted by very well-fed and reasonably well-dressed beggars at Gare du Nord station; there seem to be more beggars around than two years ago. The French economy is fairly buggered but not that you'd know it from all the locals eating out at cafes every night.

And those were all the downsides I found. Not that I looked hard.

We lived in an apartment for a week, in the 11th arrondissement. It was up four floors in a 120 year old building with an original and worn staircase. I suspect the paint on the stairwell was original too!

The apartment is owned by a young guy who works in IT and we found it on  Our neighbours were all permanent residents, owning or renting their apartment. We were living like locals in a 50 square metre house with the tiniest kitchen imaginable. A two burner hotplate, a sink and a microwave inside the front door. Even the toaster and cutlery had to live in the living room. This is not atypical for a Parisian apartment; I think it's why a lot of people eat out at cafes.

Downstairs, on either side of the iron door onto the footpath, was a boucherie  and a boulangerie. We didn't buy anything from the butcher's - I was tempted as it all looked delicious - but got our daily fix of baguettes and croissants from the baker. Ask for a baguette traditionel and croissants du beurre to make sure you get the good stuff. And this WAS good, and a fraction of the price you'd pay at a decent Sydney bakery.

A block down the hill was the supermarket with an impressive wine section and big fresh veggie section - not to mention a huge cheese and pate section. Dinner sorted. The supermarket was small but had everything you'd need at a reasonable price. In Paris itself - within the route peripherique - you don't find big shopping malls and shopping centres; they are in the outer suburbs.

And across the road was a cafe where I'd head for my daily fix of coffee. Ask for un cafe and you get an espresso; a flat white is a cafe creme. I love the sharp taste of un cafe, drunk within a minute of arriving at the table before it turns bitter.

I got propositioned during my afternoon cafe fix one day at the cafe by an ageing roue.  He was a sweetie and didn't speak any English - not that you need anything except the language of lurve, non? So my pathetic French was well and truly tested and I had a great conversation with him.

When I wasn't walking - and I walked for about five hours a day on average - I was hopping on the metro to get to my walking destination. The metro is fab; trains every three minutes. You buy tickets, or carnets, in books of ten and it works out as about $2.50 per trip. Once you're in the metro you can swap trains etc on the one ticket. I had a morning's fun just riding around; I took the metro going in the wrong direction and had to change and swap over. All part of the Paris adventure.
The architecture is beautiful. I loved walking along the street - any street - and looking up at the apartment blocks, none of them taller than six storeys with an attic. Mostly stone, some brick, each with slightly different decorations. Paris is built on a human scale, and I love that. Peeking behind gates I saw courtyards with posh cars, old cars, smart tubs of fruit trees, lines of washing… as diverse as you could expect. Especially on the day when I got lost thanks to my iPhone app. I didn't realise that when I pinched it to enlarge the map swivelled around. I'd been aiming for the Seine. I ended up at Place de Clichy after a vigorous two hour walk through a very suburban, untouristy, pleasant but not overly opulent or rich part of town.

Even in the non-posh areas, such as the part I got lost in, there are joys and interesting sights around every corner. The shops are interesting; even washing powder and dishwashing liquid seems more exotic with a French label. (I have a vision of me bringing back a bottle of dishwashing liquid and getting pinged by Customs. "What on earth is this?" "Dishwashing liquid. Look, it's Pamplemousse scent, have a sniff. Mmm.")

The French have a sensible attitude towards animals and hygiene. Dogs are welcomed at cafes; outdoors as far as I know but possibly indoors too. There was a dog at the table next door when we had a farewell dinner at our local cafe and watched France wallop Switzerland in the World Cup (Mondiale to the French). Every happy smoker lit up like a chimney too without the slightest hint of being ostracised. And there were two very Parisian girls at another table who managed that casually put-together but magically elegant look that French women just do so well.
I could do an entire blog post - or more - on Parisian chic and how these women must have a gene that enables them to do magical things with scarves. Perhaps that's another reason Paris represents an almost-mythical place for some; the hope that somehow they will transform into a French woman.

And the French themselves, scarves notwithstanding? For the most part they were as delightful as my hopeful, would-be suitor, Marcel. Even though my French is execrable it got me food, drink and everything else I needed (including books! yay!) and most shopkeepers were happy to talk slowly to me once they understood I was from Australia.

I had halting conversations in French, some in English, and only found friendliness. I spoke to women who had the same breed of dog as I; there are quite a few about in Paris. I shared a table with a Parisienne near the Trocadero with a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower and we spoke in two languages about our countries; she gave me a great tip for an exhibition to go to.
And maybe that's the real key to the love affair people - me included - have with France. French is such a beautiful, if complicated, language. Things just sound better in French. That pamplemousse I mentioned earlier; it's grapefruit.

I learned French for one year at high school and enjoyed it but as my attendance record was so crap I gave it up. My Mum learned French and while she'd forgotten most of it could obediently trot out that staple sentence of 1940s schoolgirls: La plume de ma tante est sur la table (the pen of my aunt is on the table). I used to tease her with my own version: La plume de ma tante est le cul de mon oncle (the pen of my aunt is up the arse of my uncle). Being me, I learned the rude words first. I did two years' part time Conversational French study twenty years ago but have forgotten most of that too, worse luck. I can read French more easily than I can speak it or understand it when it comes at me rapid-fire.

After a week there, the longest time I've spent in Paris, it does have a magic for me. Could I live there for a while? Yes. Even though it would mean an apartment about one sixth the size of the house I have now and no garden save the obligatory pots of red pelargoniums on the balcony, should I be lucky enough to have one.  I do love the place, but I think I'll have to visit in winter one year to make sure my love isn't just a summer love. I love the metro, the bonkers drivers, the fresh and wonderful food, the phone deals which mean really cheap broadband and free international phone calls, the  flights of stairs and the French themselves.

I did have one beautiful moment though, when the legendary French Service With A Sneer reared its head. We were at Charles de Gaulle airport, wandering around before boarding the aircraft home, when I spied an elegant shop (below) selling macarons. I had been very good during my week in France - not a pastry had passed my lips, nor a macaron. I had five euros left and bought one each for G and myself.

The exquisitely pretty mademoiselle behind the counter (you can see her in the pic) managed condescension with such silence, and a mere lift of one eyebrow, that I realised here was the personification of the French that people love to hate. It wasn't just that I was a cheapskate. The guy before me bought about 90 euros worth of them and received the same treatment. My faith in The Superiority of the French was restored. It was the perfect ending to a fabulous week.