Cheese, Wine and Cigarettes, or, 4 Days in Paris

Wrote this a few days ago, but only just got my computer hooked up to the internet to be able to post it. Zen Buddhist retreat and Dublin (Part III) to follow – 
Paris, Paris, Paris, Paris, Paris.
Oh, Paris.
Paris and I have been on bad terms since 2002 (and I do mean the city, not the Hilton heiress. Though, come to think of it, I’ve probably been on bad terms with Paris Hilton since 2002 as well. Not that I’d say she noticed). From the moment I saw the Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe from a zooming, dark grey tour bus window, I’ve hated the place. Was it the fact that it had been built up by so many travellers (and French people) as the most beautiful, the most romantic, the most cultural city in the world, that left me inevitably disappointed? Was it the fact that I was yelled at by three separate French people in one single afternoon (the only afternoon I was in Paris)? Was it the ‘deaf and dumb’ Gypsy girl at the station attempting to get me to sign her paper, or the African men at Montmarte attempting to get my wrist, or the Arabic men under the Eiffel tower trying to sell me cheap, tourist crap? Was it that our hotel sent us up 4 flights of stairs with out luggage because the lift was broken, and then gave us the tiniest, limpest croissant and hardest cube of butter for ‘breakfast’ leaving us starving not 30 minutes later? Was it that all the people on my tour bus decided to spend their only free afternoon in Paris at the Australian pub? Was it that our second day in France was spent, not at Versailles, but at Euro Disney?
It was probably a combination of all these things. But, for whatever reason, I felt very much like Paris was not welcoming me in with open arms, baguettes, berets and roses, as had been promised, but giving me the finger and screaming ‘F*** You’ in my face (word for word what one of the Parisians yelled at me during my single afternoon in Paris), a reaction which I could not believe I deserved. The only logical retaliation was to return the favour, ‘fart in its general direction’, and relegate it to the bottom of my ‘Desired and Appealing Tourist Destinations’ list, somewhere below Tehran and Damascus, but still ahead of, say… Baghdad. But only just.
For years, I maintained that Paris wasn’t worth a damn, that the Parisians were the most unpleasant people on the planet, and only snooty, arrogant people wanted to learn French, or be French. On my next trip to Europe, I refused to set foot inside the country again, taking pleasure in flying over it to get to Austria. I was so determined to hate Paris that I maliciously forgot most of the few memories I had of the place, including, until recently, the fact that I had gone up the Eiffel Tower. But, just a few months ago, I got a vague image of an album with some photos in it of me at the top of the Eiffel Tower, the fence that stops people falling/jumping (don’t blame them) off the tower behind me, and beyond that, the incredible expanse of France’s capital city (just like everybody else who has ever visited Paris – go on, admit it, if you’ve been to Paris, you have these photos). I was so underwhelmed by that city and that view I couldn’t even remember seeing it myself. All I can remember is the photos.
I wouldn’t have returned to Paris, really I wouldn’t have, but two very good Australian friends of mine happened to be visiting France for 4 – 5 weeks over the summer this year, and it seemed insane of me to refuse to visit them simply because of the grudge I held against Paris.
Flying in on Wednesday morning, I was reminded of the huge sprawl of the city, and more than that, the horror stories people had told me about the maze that is Charles de Gaulle airport. I had never seen it before, and looking down on it from above was certainly intimidating. My friends had told me they would pick me up, but I had no idea, looking at the immensity of the airport, how they would find me. I had a feeling I was going to spend my 4 days in Paris circling the airport, attempting to find my way out again.
The plane landed, and the first signs that nothing had changed in Paris in 9 years were that a passport control man assumed that I was American (and treated me accordingly), and that a lady pushed right in front of me in the toilet line (the French do not love and respect queues in the same way the English and myself do). I was desperate to correct the passport man and punch the woman. However, the lady who eventually stamped my passport gave me a big smile, a friendly, ‘Bonjour’ and a heartfelt ‘Merci’ as she handed it back. There’s nothing like being in a country where they speak a foreign language (and you understand it, however little) that cheers me up. So, walking out to get my bag, I was optimistic about the trip. But, then I saw the inside of the airport.
For those of you who haven’t been to Charles de Gaulle airport, I’ll try to give you an idea of what it was like. I was in Terminal 1, which was a great big skyscraper, with a road seeming to spiral around it, with exits every few metres. I was near exit 26, and there were at least 2 more terminals next door, that I presumed were just as big. I had a number for my friends, but they had no credit, and I didn’t know that I had enough credit to call them. I had to find a payphone. Remember them? Back when no-one had mobiles or iPhones or iPads or Skype? I wasn’t even sure if they existed anymore. But, I managed to find a payphone AND free internet right next to each other. After a couple of mistaken attempts at calling my friend (and some completely incomprehensible French down the end of the line), I got through to her. “Where are you?” she asked, sounding a little worried. “Terminal 1,” I answered. “Gate 26”. “Ok, I’m at Gate 28,” she said as the line went dead. Gate 28? It seemed too good to be true. I followed a group of Eastern European orchestra members out of the terminal, and there was my friend, turning in circles, trying to locate me. It was a miracle! A modern-day, French miracle! I already liked Paris a great deal.
After a hair-raising drive on the ‘Prepherique’ (the Ring Road that goes right around the main part of Paris, inside of which live approximately 2.5 million Parisians, outside of which live the other 9-odd million, according to one of our travel guides), during which I decided that whilst I was considering changing my opinion on Paris the city, I still wasn’t crash-hot on Parisian drivers, we arrived in Montmarte, where my friends had been staying in an apartment for the past few weeks. We dumped my bags and headed up the hill to see the church and the view of the city. Sitting on the grass, talking to my friends about all the great times they had had in France, I decided I was ready to throw away my old pride and prejudice and embrace Paris again. Even if the single ‘deaf and dumb’ Gypsy girl was now multiplied 50 times over, with even greater force and audacity and even if the cheap tat was still for sale in front of every tourist attraction.
By the way, for those of you who haven’t been to Paris, I’ve been putting ‘deaf and dumb’ in inverted commas, not because I’m a heartless and inconsiderate so-and-so, but because these girls (and boys now) will come up to you with a sheet of paper with a little symbol of an ear on it with a cross over the top. They will point to it, then point to their mouths and shake their heads. They will then ask you to write your name on what looks like a petition. If you do so, they will then ask you for money. I hadn’t realised this is what they did, I had been approached by one on my last visit, and ignored her completely due to my ‘new-city’ paranoia. My friends explained the procedure to me as we watched all the gypsy girls and boys sit around and have a chat, making it kind of obvious that they were neither ‘deaf’ nor ‘dumb’.
We went out for lunch, had a rest, and then went out for dinner. For dinner we went to a chic little tapas restaurant, which had the most adorable waitress. I fell deeply in love with her. She had caramel brown 1950’s nerdy glasses, light blonde hair, a navy cardigan, long rows of small beads hanging around her neck, a small tattoo on the inside of her wrist, on top of which her slightly gaunt look and softly spoken voice made everything about her seem tiny and delicate. In fact, I fell in love with every Parisian I saw, as each seemed more stylish and confident and beautiful than the other. I saw very few overweight people (and most of them overweight people I saw were tourists), which certainly intimidated me, but it made for wonderful people-watching.
And, it was people-watching that we mainly did. We hopped to various bars around the place, ate great food and drank wonderful wine. The wonderful wine was made all the more wonderful because you could either order a glass, or, pay slightly more and get a little carafe of wine instead. You could get various sizes of carafes, going all the way up to the full bottle, and then you would pour it into your glass. There was something very stylish and classy about this – you didn’t have to see the advertising on the wine bottle. You could pretend the wine came from the vineyard out the back, which the beautiful, willowy French waitress had just wafted off to, filled up the carafe from a giant oak vat and brought it back to you at your table.

The other thing we did was smoke cigarettes. Yes, I smoked cigarettes. 4, to be precise. Which may seem like only a few, but was far too many for a non-smoker in a short period of time. By the end of the last day I couldn’t even stomach the smell of other people’s cigarettes, which was a shame considering it was absolutely impossible to get away from the smell of cigarettes in Paris. This was actually the reason I smoked the cigarettes in the first place. It didn’t seem possible to be in Paris, sitting at a café, having a glass of red and not smoking a cigarette. Certainly nobody else I saw was doing that. Talk about unconscious peer pressure.
(As a side note, apparently ‘French women don’t get fat’ – search it on if you don’t believe me – and I want to say, that if I was a French woman, or just a woman living in France, I would become an alcoholic, chain-smoking, cheese-munching 500lb heifer, if this last 4 day experience is anything to go by. Probably a good incentive not to move there).
We did also take a day trip to Rheims (pronounced kind of like ‘hands’ if you were attempting to say ‘hands’ as an 80 year-old emphezyma-riddled German woman who is having a whooping cough induced fit, and also in the first stages of lung cancer. If you get my drift), which is where they make a lot of champagne. A lot of VERY GOOD champagne. We wanted to do some champagne tours, but many of the places were too good to be bothered with tourists, and many others were too good to be booked on the same afternoon as when we wanted to visit, so we only got to see one. But, it was Mumm, so it wasn’t too bad. We got a glass of champagne, were taken 25km under the earth to see Mumm’s actual cellars (the temptation to take a bottle of partially finished Mumm champagne and slip it into my handbag was great, let me assure you), and heard all about the changing process of making the champagne over the years. We saw some bottles of champagne from 1893 onwards, which are kept so that the Master of the Mumm Cellars can come down and taste them now and again, to make sure that the Mumm taste stays consistent over the years. There were many interesting facts about champagne, which I had never considered before (how do they get the same, or a similar, taste year after year when the grapes and the conditions are always changing???), had been misinformed about (a ‘vintage’ year is not necessarily better than the ordinary champagne. If the vintage for a particular year has been bad, the Master of the Cellars is still limited to only using grapes from that vintage in the vintage champagne. The ordinary champagne can be made from grapes from across many years, to get the best taste, but not the vintage champagnes. For Mumm champagne, 2002 and 2004 were good vintages – little tip from me to you), or had simply never entered my consciousness (you can get a job at Mumm turning bottles of champagne in their cellar. It’s a highly skilful job, will take you 2 years to learn and you will spend your days turning the bottles between 15 – 25 degrees to the left, to the right, or up. You will then do it again and again and again until the champagne is ready. But be warned, if you get it wrong, you will ruin all the highly expensive and fancy-pants champagne and possibly end up angering many rich, fancy-pants people. Anyone up for that?)
But, Rheims itself was also very pretty, and very sunny, which made a nice change. The one thing that I still hold against Paris is that the weather wasn’t that much better than the weather in Ireland. It was cold, rainy or overcast most days, and again, very changeable. I went out to the shops one day, thinking, ‘Oh, lovely and warm’, walked inside, came out half and hour later and it was pouring down and freezing. But, nobody talks about how the weather in Paris is dreadful. The Irish are always talking about bad weather their weather is, whereas the French keep mum. Actually, on second thoughts, that’s probably a better idea. Its probably an actual policy of the French Tourism Board. That way, instead of people thinking, ‘Oh, I won’t go to Paris, its got weather just like Ireland,’ they’ll come to Paris and just think they were unlucky to get bad weather. Maybe Ireland should start up a similar strategy. They could do a ‘global warming’ advertising campaign in Australia, with pictures of sunny hillsides, saying: ‘Too hot in Australia? Come to Ireland! We’ve got the weather you used to have,’ and then, when the Aussies arrived and it was raining, they’d just think, ‘Oh, tough luck, we got the bad weeks’ (Global Warming Humour: Politically Incorrect? This whole random segue about Irish and Parisian weather: Too long in an already far too long post?)
The only other thing to say, if I still have your attention (and I hope I do), and if you’re still reading this far (and I hope you are), through all my parentheses (and other nonsense), is that whilst it has been wonderful seeing all these friends and family over the past two weeks, its also been incredibly hard. Every time I’ve met up with someone, I’ve had to say goodbye again a few hours or a few days later. I’ve been feeling more homesick and sad over the last 2 weeks than I have for a while (probably since Dad and Elizabeth visited). Having said that, I’m not at all sad I met up with everyone, just that I am homesick, and whilst I have loved many things about my time so far in Ireland, there are other things that have been very, very difficult. And, whilst I still maintain that there is a reason I’m over here, and planning on staying over here for the next few years at least, and that I may even be getting closer to understanding that reason, I still do miss Australia and my friends and family. I still think I’ll come back some day. But, we’ll see. No need to attempt to predict the future (says the girl who is always worrying about it. I’m at a Zen Buddhist retreat at the moment – more on that in the next post – so I’m trying to be very ‘in the present’. Its working tolerably well).

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