I wanted to go to Lyon. I’m rather a fan of Antoine de Saint Exupéry. Design me some mutton, etc, etc. KLM had reasonably priced fares out of Southampton for a time. It has always struck me as a beautiful city and the French is supposed to be clear and easy to understand. Alas, alack, the female-type parent pressured me to fly to Paris instead. Being of a generally cynical persuasion and worldly enough to recognise that major cities, especially on the Continent, are generally cesspits I was personally hesitant to go. In that eternal, infernal way, maternal pressure – however mild its application – proved to be extremely effective.
I flew from Southampton to Paris-CDG. I liked Southampton-Eastleigh. There are some 99 steps between the train station and the airport. I didn’t count, the airport used that as their slogan. Southampton, as far as airports go, is painless. I passed through security quickly. I flew with Flybe, Southampton’s main operator of flying peasant wagons. It felt like a peasant wagon. Flybe operate tiny regional aeroplanes. Fair enough. They also measure their hand baggage differently than most carriers. I have a small, standard-size 20-inch suitcase. It would have been problematic as they choose to measure from the base of the wheels to the top of the handle and use closed size check boxes. Having only wizened up to this after buying the tickets, I used my Heston by Waitrose bag.
I wasn’t terribly impressed with the flight to France. Nor was it a bad flight. The air hostesses were friendly and their charges weren’t outrageous. Still, I prefer the likes of Lufthansa or KLM: full-service carriers. I really didn’t like having a window seat. What made it worse was that the woman sitting next to me didn’t so much have something of the beluga whale about her as much as she had something of the blue whale that snacked on a gam of beluga whales about her. Upon arrival, the air hostesses had to find the largest available shoehorn and prise me out of the aeroplane window with it. My spirits were quickly restored, however. I witnessed a showdown of two of the most insufferable species: French officials and fu er dai nu ren, or the princess daughters of China’s nouveaux riches. Sons might be more valued, but their relative scarcity compared to those with the odd Y-chromosome means that they can be exceedingly demanding and temperamental. The French fell.
I spent a few hours wondering aimlessly around the 9th Arrondissement. This was not entirely intentional. For whatever reason, I could not use my map or internet apps. I had to try to find my way using the occasional map posted by metro stations. Paris is a singularly difficult place to navigate. The hub-and-spoke system of roads makes it extremely easy to get lost, even when one is geographically close to one’s destination. Finally, after over three hours of confusion I arrived at my hotel. As luck would have it, I had arrived in the middle of a major renovation. Brilliant, innit? There was no insulation, or very little, in the walls. I could hear everything me neighbours did. In fact, I could hear everything people on the floor did. The people in the room next to mine apparently possessed a fondness for beans that matched their very healthy libido. The construction crew, Poles and Czechs, started work diligently early each morning.
The hotel provided breakfast, albeit a very modest one. Jam sarnies, cheap pastries and coffee. Beggars can’t be choosers. Annoyingly, I had to endure the wretched noises emanating from a most social Spanish couple. Horrid people, that lot. I was considering giving up on life when relief came in the form of an animated Chinese couple who sat between me and the spawn of Castille. Joy! They drowned Portugal’s lesser neighbours out. Then a couple Italians came and started nattering away. The NHS has given me an appointment to meet with a hearing specialist in ten years. I fear I shall be deaf until then. This is one of the less appealing aspects of southern Europe. They’re so bloody loud. Why do they have to be so bloody loud? It seems as if the only time they’re not being loud is when they’re being deafening.
I beat a hasty retreat. I popped upstairs for a quick shower. As I stood in the lift on my way to join the urban fray outside, the doors opened and a Spaniard wearing nothing but knickers walked in. As is typical for his species, he wasn’t able to speak a proper language – even a proper form of Spanish – and I had to give him the directions to the shower room. I quietly laughed inside when the lift’s doors opened on the ground level and el Thicko was revealed in all his glory to a group of people waiting to go upstairs.
My first day in Paris started in a tolerable fashion. La Conciergerie was interesting. Seeing Marie Antoinette’s cell was poignant. The reliquary of the family of Louis XVI humanised the events that went on. There was little effort to either vilify or romanticise the events that took place at la Conciergerie. While some writers were clearly more sympathetic to the Revolution than others, the general tone was respectful to all sides. In my typical fashion, I timed things badly. The morning started out gorgeous and all Paris was treated to glorious blue skies. Had I visited Sainte-Chappelle first, it would have been a more rewarding experience. The sky grew increasingly cloudy and, while still stunning, there wasn’t nearly as much light pouring through the stained-glass windows as had only an hour earlier.
Its relative proximity made the Notre Dame my next destination. I was once again subjected to aural assaults by Italians and Spaniards. I grew so irked in the queue that I willingly parted with €8 to visit the archaeological dig site below the cathedral. It was interesting, but I still preferred o Sé in Lisbon. Notre Dame, once one gets through the queue, is a stunning building and the rose windows were worth the wait. I made sure to embed myself like a meerkat among felines in a group of Chinese tourists to ensure that I wouldn’t be tormented by France’s more vocal Latin cousins.
At this point I made a decision that has haunted me since. I walked to the Cemetery of Montparnasse. I wanted to pay tribute to Porfirio Díaz, the president of Mexico for over thirty years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I walked too far in shoes that were anything but sensible. They are perfectly comfortable for short 1-2 mile walks, but they were a catastrophic error for extended walks. I managed to strain my left foot and give myself a bad cramp in the right. Still, I enjoyed the visit. Other famous figures buried in the cemetery do not receive quite the same attention as Díaz. He turned Mexico from an international laughing stock, a bankrupt, dysfunctional nation into a serious economic power and exporter of natural resources. Like Salazar in Portugal, he was a necessity that overstayed his use – and his welcome. His reputation is mixed because he did not know when to relinquish power.
There was a disruption on the Paris Metro and I had to walk a couple miles to my hotel. My hotel wasn’t in a bad part of the 9th Arrondissement, but I had to go through some of the dodgiest parts of inner Paris to get there. I was followed and badgered by sex club promoters and Romanian scammers. Paris hadn’t heard the degree of ordering about in German as it did then since 1944. But that’s the way of Paris, isn’t it? It’s a beautiful city, a city with a certain je ne sais quoi but a city with so much that is dodgy among all the glory. I ate at a Vietnamese restaurant that night. The price was reasonable and the food was good. Unfortunately, I was treated to two exceptionally annoying examples of the Touristus Americanus. Yes, they did order ketchup, Coca Cola and “lots and lots of waderrrrr”.
The next morning, I travelled to Versailles. Well, it was morning when I left! As my esteemed co-charioteers will know, Paris is dealing with severe flooding. The relevant suburban train line was closed in most of the city. I had to run back and forth across Paris to finally find a place where I could get to the former palace. It took over three hours, but I made it at last. I was treated to a symphony of Americans and Spaniards on the train ride. I survived – just. I quickly found a herd of Chinese tourists to roam through the palace with. Sadly, I at times found myself without their capable protection and had to suffer through the screeching of Italians and Spaniards. It was an interesting enough experience, but not quite what I had expected. See enough monumental buildings and they all start to blur. I did, however, enjoy the Galerie des Batailles, the gallery of paintings celebrating France’s military triumphs from the Battle of Tolbiac in 496 to the Battle of Wagram in 1809. Feeling distinctly cheeky, I walked up to the guard to ask him a question. “Excusez-moi de vous déranger, pourriez-vous m’aider”? “Oui, Monsieur”. “Merci. Où est la peinture de la Bataille de Waterloo”? He just looked at me and walked away. Harrumph. It was a most reasonable question!
I preferred the Petit and Grand Trianon. They are more accessible and, in many ways, more human than Versailles itself. The kings and queens of France and those around them were merely human with all the foibles that entails. You get a greater sense of that there. Whereas Versailles is designed to highlight the glory and puissance of King and Country, the Trianons show more personality. I managed to get lost when I took a “short cut”. Instead of going to the nearest train station, I went to one further away. It still gave me the chance to see the town of Versailles. It betrayed some of the malaise of France. It is beautiful, but somewhat run down and lacking in proper care. There’s a hint of depression in the air. People try and do their best, but it’s clear that the place has been drifting for some time.
The next day, I took breakfast with a fellow Hun. Like me, she has spent much of her life outside Hunland and we discussed our frustrations with the place. She is planning to emigrate. She has work, being an IT expert, but she complained that Hun employers are very demanding while not being exactly generous with what they offer their employees. She also shared my concern about Hunland and its rapid decline. Whatever glowing news we hear about the economy, we both recognised the amount of poverty and underpayment. She, more than me, complained about how unsafe Germany now feels, how alienating the rapid – and overwhelmingly negative – social changes have been. She was slightly envious that I have found a niche in the UK. She was off to Lisbon to try her hand there.
I wanted to take one final walk in Paris. I alighted by the Arc de Triomphe and walked to the Place de la Concorde, otherwise known as the world’s biggest chopping board. It was pretty, but somewhat gaudy. Much like Piccadilly, Market Street (San Francisco), King Street (Sydney) or Ginza Hondori in Tokyo, it had all the same global chains. The shell was what it had always been, but it has seen better days. Only the wealthiest companies can afford the rents. The art deco arcades were beautiful, of course, and the art nouveau architecture is second to none so it was still worth a stroll. The Assemblée Nationale, Musée d’Orsay, etc. were also beautiful. Having made good time, I took a final trip to Sacré-Cœur.
Once again, I had to see the painful reality of Paris. The cathedral itself is interesting. However, one is almost obliged to walk through one of two narrow paths to reach the summit. On either, gangs of African men loiter in order to scam visitors. As they tried to engage me, I said “Messieurs, je connais bien Paris” and tried to push my way through. They then formed a circle around me and were trying to grab my wrists. I hissed “Laisse-moi en paix”. They were still trying to argue with me and I screamed “NE ME TOUCHE PAS”!!! With an air I developed in rougher California cities, one in which I instantly made all around me uneasy, it’s the “I will rip your heart out through your arsehole while defecating in your mouth as I laugh maniacally” act. They were utterly terrified and let me go. That ruined it for me, and I saw the bloody Gypo petition scam underway a few yards away. That did nothing to salvage the mood.
I managed to get to airport smoothly. It was painless. On the flight back, I was the only one without a neighbour. Yay! I felt lighter when, looking out the window, I saw the English coastline below. Things are really spiralling in Europe. Whatever its quirks and favours, Britain is a far better place to be. I passed through passport control fairly quickly despite having a pointed exchanged with the UK Border Force officer. I was able to make an early train and arrived far earlier than I expected, terribly unusual for me. Usually I have to wait because I miss trains.
I didn’t mind Paris so much. It has its problems, but all major cities do. Except for a few tense moments, I felt perfectly safe there. But I can’t pretend that I actually understand the French or why they tolerate as many things as they do. There were a lot of problems there that I never witnessed in London or even Hunland. In the UK and Germany, the police would be more proactive. In Paris, scammers and beggars acted with impunity. They knew that, short of killing someone or screaming “Allahu Akbar” while wearing a suicide vest there was precious little that the police would do. I would happily go back, the chances are that I will return to France in the future.