I know this is Paris, but €367 is a bit steep for an Indian meal isn’t it? Paris, France, September 19-24

8 Oct

I GINGERLY fish a discarded cardboard coffee cup out of the bin at the side entrance to Gare de l’Est train station and struggling to contain my mirth, place it on the rain-sodden concrete at Nic’s feet. He has cocooned himself inside the elasticated waterproof cover designed to protect his backpack and is curled up between our pile of belongings and the station’s very cold and tightly locked, metal gate.
20121007-195005.jpg Homeless in Paris

It’s our last night in the city that for years has been almost compulsively hailed for its charm, prestige and ability to bring out romantic tendencies in the most pragmatic of hearts, but the only romance we have witnessed during the last six days has been that between a bucket of fried chicken and the regular customers at our local KFC restaurant. (Free Wifi at KFC for the win.)

It’s true that this night in particular had been a comedy of errors, our visit to Paris culminating in a film-worthy dash down the train platform complete with wailing followed by panting as our escape route to Munich slowly chugged away out of sight. It was 8.22 pm, our train had left without us and there wasn’t another until 7 am. We were so organised, how could this even happen?

In planning this trip, I was determined to tick off as many of the sights and attractions that had earned Paris its bountiful reputation as I could. People watch at a cafe on the Champs Élysées, the guide books said. Spend time with your lover in a park over a baguette and a bottle of wine, stroll along the Seine, mingle with creative souls in Monmartre, admire the work of the world’s great artists at the Louvre and of course, climb Le Tour Eiffel… We would do it all, I thought.
20121007-195820.jpg The illusive Eiffel Tower

Upon some good advice regarding queue lengths, we headed south-west from our bed and breakfast (B&B Chambres de la Grande Porte in the 10th Arrondisement, toward the metal asparagus early on our second morning. We had intended to skip the lift and walk to the top, some 1665 steps (we had climbed a lot of things lately, including the Arc du Triomphe’s insane spiral staircase, so we thought we could handle it). As hoped, the line for the only open entrance out of four was short, with only about 20 people in front of us. After being barked at by a security guard for something to do with our daypack, we looked up at the information screen above the cash desk to read ‘Top Closed.’ Well, we had not come half way across the world to spend €13 each and not get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Never mind, we had four more days to tick this one off the list, so we ducked out of the queue and went off to look at some art, or something… (We were later told that just because the three metre long LED information board states repeatedly that the top of the tower is closed, it’s actually most probably open, but hey, that’s Paris for you…)

I’ve gone off on a tangent, but it’s all relative, because by our last day in Paris, we still hadn’t fulfilled our quest to summit Eiffey and ended up heading back for a last ditch effort at about 5 pm, (remember, train leaves at 8.20 and our bags were being held for us at the B&B) dramatically crushing a €12 box of macaroons in the exit gate while trying to get onto the Metro for free. The queue for the single operating entrance was now about 200 metres long.
20121007-200508.jpg Macaroons, pre-accident.

Complete fail, give up, let’s go for Indian instead, we said.

Somehow it’s now 7.40 pm and our dinner down Little India alley (Rue du faubourg Saint Denis) in the 10th Arrondisement has only just arrived at the table. I’m a bit nervous but we are both strangely blasé about this train catching thing.
20121007-200755.jpg Indian meal was delicious – I would recommend Rue du faubourg Saint Denis if you can brave the neighbourhood! Just kidding!)

So that’s the story of how we missed our train to Munich, on non-refundable tickets and how our eventually tasty €30 meal ended up costing €367 (new train tickets) and a night in the cold and wet, involving a live cockroach in my Coke at Quick Burger on the Champs Élysées, for which I received neither apology nor refund, security staff instead trying to make us leave because we had received our meals after 1.30 am, even though we had ordered before 1 am, rendering Quick burger not only slow and useless, but also unhygienic.

Take note travellers – nothing in Paris is open 24 hours, not even McDonalds.

In between all this Eiffel tower hysteria, Nic and I carried on in vain trying to live out the cliche. One day we caught the Metro to a stop within walking distance of Eiffey with the intention of stocking up on a Baguette and fillings and lazing about under his/her? mighty presence for a while… until we realised there was not one Boulangerie (bread shop) in sight… so no baguette for us. We ended up eating our cheese and ham on doughy, processed white sliced bread from an overpriced supermarket. The whole thing was actually quite enjoyable until we were approached about six times by gypsies, first wanting us to sign their dodgy petition, then asking for money, then a sandwich, then actually trying to reach into our picnic to take food. There are Roma Gypsies absolutely everywhere in Paris and I would like to hear from anyone who has been able to enjoy any kind of peace in a public space in that City.
20121007-201138.jpg Sneakily taking a photo of the gypsies in the park

Another day, we thought we should check out the Mona Lisa and of course I wanted that tokenistic photograph in front of the not so ‘invisible pyramid’ that forms the famously recognisable entrance to the most visited museum in the world. It was raining and Nic doesn’t like taking photographs of me a the best of times, so we were already off to a great start.
20121007-201442.jpg Louvre, tick.

Inside the Louvre, Nic ordered a coffee from cafe chain Paul (€3.30, tiny cup) and we waited about 10 minutes to sit down so we could make sandwiches. The high volume of visitors to the gallery dictated that we were soon joined by an elderly man who happily munched on his €12 Waldorf salad, while we spread Nutella on leftover sliced bread with our plastic cutlery and Nic drank his half-filled coffee. (Screw you Paul, worst cafe chain ever.)
20121007-201700.jpg We thought we were lowering the bar by bringing our packed lunch to the Louvre, but €3.30 for this coffee?

When we eventually reached old Mona, we were underwhelmed, but had been told to prepare for it, so it was fun just to watch the 15-deep crowd clamour for a peek inside her diminutive frame. There were camera flashes firing, a lot of nudging and a general buzz of excitement in the room, but was anyone actually looking at poor old Mona? And was she even worth looking at? There was a nice postcard print of her back at the souvenir desk that looked just the same.
20121007-202255.jpg Moshing for Mona

We left pretty much straight after that and ordered steak-frite and hamburger-frite for €10 each at a nearby restaurant, just to stay dry.

Surely, Paris is to be commended for the impeccable grasp it has on its tourism PR, or perhaps travellers like myself were too busy watching episodes of Sex and the City (Carrie and Big, Season 6, I know, I’m ruining my credibility here) or drooling over the seemingly picturesque French landscape (and Lycra-clad manscapes) during Tour de France TV coverage to actually research the place properly prior.

To be fair, Paris has some beautiful sights and some impressive monuments, relatively untouched during War. There are a lot of stylish women and even more unflappably stylish middle-aged men (wow!) who could easily draw a crowd to their morning coffee and croissant ritual, even with three day old stubble. But these things have been covered. In detail. And then over again. But Paris also an equally pervasive flip side.
20121007-205420.jpg View of Eiffel Tower
20121007-210535.jpg One of Paris’ manicured gardens
20121007-205841.jpg Champs Élysées from the top of the Arc du Triomphe

As mentioned, we stayed in the 10th Arrondisement, Republique, in a first floor apartment on Rue de Petit Ecuries. The tenth is known equally for its concentration of North-west African immigrants and the dozens upon dozens of hairdressing salons (mainly located along Rue Strasbourg) that they run. The area around Rue Strasbourg and Rue St Denis (we used Strasbourg-St Denis Metro stop primarily) is also crammed with sign upon sign showing Boulangerie (bakery), Boucherie (butcher), Patisserie (cake shop) and Fromagerie (cheese shop). There are also a lot of homeless people chilling out on the corners and in the metro stations of the tenth. In fact, there are more visibly homeless people (and more gypsies) in Paris than anywhere I have ever seen, confirming in my eyes a strongly unhappy dichotomy that exists there.
20121007-202721.jpg Gypsies going through the bins for food

Nic and I were sitting n the second floor of KFC near the Republique Metro stop one day bumming some free Wifi. A Brazilian street parade was progressing down Boulevard St Martin and a homeless man who we had seen a few times, recognisable by his bald head, calf-length, scarlet leather trench coat and robot-like gait was making his way along the pavement. He must have tried to cross the road, as less than a minute later he had been skittled into the middle of the road by a car, which did not stop. He got to his feet eventually, cars still passing around him, and holding his arm, shuffled away and crouched down at the top of the stairs to the Metro.

Among the other homeless people we saw was a couple with a young baby and a man with a dog that had just given birth. The five or so puppies were suckling their mother on a blanket on the side of the road.

As the days of our stay in Paris wore on, more and more often I wanted to take a giant eraser and rub out all the black marks that had formed over the perfectly painted pictures of Paris that I had in my head, which looked strangely like the ones that the dozens of artists hanging out for kilometres along the Seine were peddling to tourists each and every day.

None of these paintings depicted the food wrappers and other general waste strewn along almost every street. They did not convey the noticeable waft of urine that hits the nostrils every hundred metres or so (presumably due to the lack of free or working public toilets anywhere) or the beer bottles and large household items jutting out of monumental fountains.
20121007-203644.jpg Junk in the fountain at Sacre Couer

One morning we woke up to be told that while we were out the evening before, a group of Africans protesting the performance of a Congolese singer had started a riot at the Jazz club right opposite our bedroom window, requiring riot police to attend and eventuating in our street being blocked off for a number of hours. The owner of the B&B had had to close our balcony shutters to avoid damage to his property and to block out the noise.
20121007-203811.jpg Jazz club opposite our apartment. Posters for singer Barbara Kanam are defaced and torn

All of these observations aside, we had an awesome day out in Monmartre, watching street performers like freestyle footballer Iya Traore at Sacre Coeur, ate beautiful crepes at Josselin in Montparnasse district, watched the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the night sky from a vantage point at Metro stop Trocadero, locked our love onto the Pont des Arts and had an equally excellent, albeit messy night out in bar district Bastille, with my cousin who lives in Villemomble, in Paris’ suburban outskirts.
20121007-204343.jpg Iya Traore performing at Sacre Coeur
20121007-204833.jpg Sacre Coeur, busy on Sunday
20121007-204623.jpg Eiffel Tower by night from Trocadero
20121007-205206.jpg Love padlocks on Pont des Arts

Meeting my French relatives again after 23 years was the day that really made the Paris visit worthwhile for me. They live about 25 kilometres north-east of central Paris in Villemomble and Bondy and the opportunity to be reunited as well as seeing how non city-dwelling Parisians live was really special. My cousin and distant uncle, who I am told plays a mean game of Pétanque, took us to a gorgeous suburban bistro close to Villemomble train station, where we tried l’escargot soup (snail), charcuterie (assortment of dried and cured meat), followed by, of course, steak-frite. I love a good and bloody steak and this dish was no exception.
20121007-210722.jpg L’escargot!

Later, in Bondy, my uncle’s sister had prepared a gorgeous tart with pears picked fresh from the tree in the back garden earlier that day, as well as a pot of Turkish coffee, a nod to their Armenian heritage. They are all really lovely and hospitable people and I feel thankful to have met them again after so many years. Perhaps this was the Paris I had been looking for? Perhaps central Paris was the exception and suburbs like Bondy and Villemomble were the rule. I hoped so.
20121007-211524.jpg Home made pear tart
20121007-211540.jpg Family’s home in Bondy

BED and BREAKFAST
Chambres de la Grande Porte, Rue de Petit Ecuries

Pros: included breakfast of bread and croissants with preserves, tea, coffee and juice. Our room was nicely decorated with a king sized bed. Well priced for Paris – cheaper than a six bed dorm in some hostels and we had a shower and vanity in the room.

Cons: Not the best neighbourhood in town. Not a great opportunity to meet a lot of other travellers. No wifi.
20121007-211556.jpg Our room at the B&B

Time spent so far…
In the air: 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time: about 58 hours

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One Response to “I know this is Paris, but €367 is a bit steep for an Indian meal isn’t it? Paris, France, September 19-24”

  1. alison wetton October 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    Enjoyed the reading I can’t really remember the smells as strong, but I know public conveniences were few and far between and not cheap. But in England when I was growing up you had to put a penny in the slot to use a toilet. Having said that I can remember a “wc” in Le Raincy that was just a squatting hole!! Looking forward to hearing your next news. I will keep skype open but your dad closes everything off!

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