France: Paris


Arriving in Paris on the 5th of July 2011, I had to readjust to ‘normal’ prices of things again. Spain and Portugal had been so cheap that everything looked far too expensive in Paris, although I admit it wasn’t nearly as pricey as I expected. The bus from the airport to the main train station cost nearly $9, and then I had to buy a train ticket. I got to the house of my couch surfing host, Remy, at about 9pm at night, and after the usual introductions we walked the five minutes from his house to see the Eiffel Tower. Wow. I love all things that sparkle, (yes, that’s the feminine side in me), and the Eiffel Tower was stunning. Lit up like a huge kind of Christmas tree, it was even more impressive in person than in photos. We timed our arrival just right too, because every hour, on the hour, until about 1am the light twinkle for ten minutes or so. I was in awe, and felt every bit the happy, impressed, excited tourist that I was. I can’t believe that people live so close to this tower, and can see it everyday. That still amazes me. Remy pointed out that we have the Opera House, but I countered saying it doesn’t sparkle like the tower, nor does it seem comparable in size or beauty. Maybe that’s just how you feel about your own countries sights, I don’t know. Admittedly, the tower wasn’t as jaw-dropping during the day without the lights on, however it was still a memorable sight.

Having heard all the stories about people in Paris being rude and unfriendly if you don’t speak French, I was curious to test the truthfulness of this in the morning. I went first to a nearby market, and was delighted to find every French person I spoke to either spoke English or tried to. I saw a dress I liked and was looking at them trying to figure out what size I’d be – a three, four or five… The stall holder approached and spoke to me in French. After establishing that I only spoke English, he asked where from – England or America? “Neither”, I said, “I’m from Australia”. “Ahh, Australia”, he crooned, “Sydney?” I laughed as I told him I was from Melbourne and he looked a little disappointed that he hadn’t guessed correctly. He turned on his sales pitch, and in English pronounced “Beautiful dress for beautiful girl” and beamed widely.

I was going to buy the dress anyway, for €5 it was a bargain, but I let him do his thing. He decided to choose the size for me, and after looking at a few labels he started to frantically sift through the remaining dresses while loudly repeating “Oh my god, oh my god”. I figured he didn’t have one in my size, and was correct, for he emphatically stated “Stay here” while he ran off to find another dress somewhere else. I waited, feigning interest in the other clothes available, until he triumphantly returned with a size three dress. I tried it on over the clothes I was wearing, and he announced it was perfect. Not having a mirror was a slight hassle, as I couldn’t tell if it was perfect, so he ran off again and returned soon after with a mirror borrowed from another stall. The dress did look good – as much as I could tell with my other clothes underneath – so, still laughing, I paid him the €5 and asked for a photo with him to remember my very funny introduction to people in Paris. I bought another dress, a t-shirt and a pair of shoes at the market for a total of €16 – so I no longer believe that Paris is completely expensive!

I returned to the Eiffel Tower, only to find the lines to buy tickets to get to the top of the tower snaking endlessly out of sight. I wasn’t going to waste half my day standing underneath the tower waiting in line, so continued on my exploration. There were huge buildings everywhere, and I even saw a woman walking three huge dogs – I have no idea what sort of dogs they were, but they stood as tall as her waist. Paris therefore seemed to epitomise all things large.

Walking along Avenue des Champs-Élysées I saw all the boutique shops that Paris is known for, including Givenchy, Bvlgari, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss and even recognised the Crazy Horse Bar/Theatre. There were jets flying in formation above the Avenue, practising for their National Day, Bastille Day, on the 14th of July. Along with the huge buildings – apartment blocks, museums, shops and monuments – there was a lot of gold everywhere. I imagine it was gold leaf, however it really stood out and made you pay attention. There were gold statues atop of towers, gold domes on buildings, gold decorations on fountains and even gold features on the lamp posts at the entrance to the Jardin des Tuileries.

That park/garden was particularly nice with heaps of chairs and seats amongst the gardens and lawns, that overlooked the statues and large ponds with water features. At the end of the large gardens was the Musée du Louvre (Louvre Museum), which I didn’t visit but heard you could wait in line for up to three hours just to get in. I crossed over the Seine River and walked to the Musée d’Orsay (Orsay Museum) but arrived just as it was closing. After six hours I was nearing the end of my self guided walking tour of Paris, and just had another hour or so to walk back to the house where I was staying. I stopped at a tourist shop along the way, and was chatted up by the male store attendant, so tried my luck and got €5 off my total purchases.

I stuck my head in a few pastry shops, and was impressed with what I saw. Large slabs of all kinds of chocolate, cheese and fruit cakes and slices were on display, along with mouth watering tarts, eclairs and fruit flans all neatly laid out to entice those passing by. When purchased, the item was individually wrapped and presented to the customer as one would a gift, to be treasured and consumed with uttermost care and contentment. Prices were reasonable, and I’m just lucky I wasn’t hungry or I could have easily filled up on all kinds of sugary goodness.

Close to my destination I came across the UNESCO building, and forgetting my tired and aching legs I was impressed to discover a picture from country imaginable lining the fence surrounding the building. The picture for Australia was of the Great Barrier Reef, or as written in French ‘La Granda Barriѐre, Australie’. If I wasn’t so tired I’d have circled the whole block to see every photo, but my legs wouldn’t permit it. I saw the first lot of overflowing rubbish bins in Paris that night, amusingly on Avenue de Suffren, although there was a bright multi-coloured plastic sheet amongst the rubbish so it didn’t look as miserly as it could have.

That night I was treated to a work dinner of my CS host, at a fancy French restaurant with a glass of wine to accompany each of the seven courses. The colleagues of my host included a Spanish woman, Miriam, as well as (all men) an American, a Belgian, an English, a German and another French. They all spoke English, although with the various accents it reminded me of living in the jail house in Bondi when I worked on the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. It was a good night with excellent food and wine, however I was well and truly ready for bed by the time dinner finished at 1am.

My host got free phone calls to Australian land lines as part of his phone and internet plan, so I utilised this and called my mum, my grandparents and one friend who I knew had land lines. It was nice to speak to them without having to think about the cost of the call, and the welcome reception when they discovered who was calling is always a nice feeling.

Montmartre, Bastille and the Eiffel Tower

I decided to visit a different area of Paris on my last day, one that the French girls in Rome had told me about – Montmartre, or the 18th District. I’d also avoided the districts they’d said were bad, namely the 19th and 20th, on the North-East if you’re looking at a map of Paris, and had happily chosen a CS host in the 15th District, a nice area by all accounts. Montmartre was an alternative area that included the Moulin Rouge, along with an assortment of ‘Supermarche Erotique’ sex shops and ‘Spectacle International’ strip clubs. I watched a man park his car by actually bumping into the pole in front, and the car behind, his allocated space while attempting to manoeuvre his vehicle into position, and was not surprised when I saw the condition of the remainder of his car.

Off the main streets, Montmartre was an arty district, with artworks for sale in shops and at street stalls, some with artists completing works as you watched. There were restaurants, patisseries, biscuiteries and delices, selling ice-cream and sweets, and cafes with rows of perfectly lined up tables and chairs. Many had chairs that faced only towards the street, so rather than people passing by watching those eating, the tables were turned so to speak, and those that ate did the watching. The tourist shops all contained magnets of baguettes, and there was a clown entertaining kids (and scaring Japanese girls) in the street.

Passing the Sacré-Cœur church I was approached by one of the numerous black guys selling nick nacks and the like. This one had thread to make a bracelet and I’d seen them at work before. They make the string bracelet on your wrist then demand money for it. I wasn’t interested and said so. He kept following me even though I ignored him, then he reached out and grabbed my wrist. I couldn’t believe he’d actually grabbed me, so I turned around and growled “NO!” and jerked my arm free. I walked away shaking my head – the nerve of these people shocks me.

Back onto the main street and amongst the sex shops and strip clubs you could feel the atmosphere change. This was not the pretty, upmarket Paris I’d recently been introduced to, this was a dirtier, downbeat, sleazy area. Almost as proof, the streets were littered with papers and small amounts of rubbish, there were guys who openly stared and whistled as you walked past, and long term drunks on street corners muttered incomprehensibly to themselves. The population demographics were visibly altering as I walked toward the Gare du Nord train station, in this area were younger, darker skinned Africans and the shops changed to suit the population. The fashions displayed in the windows were in brighter colours, often with gaudy designs and fabrics. There were many more African hair styling salons, and even a poster advertising a civil wedding celebrant. The area didn’t feel as friendly, nor the streets as safe.

I hurried to the train station and there witnessed my first incident of international domestic violence. A woman was standing with a pram containing a baby of just a few months old. She was quite pretty, of mixed race, about my height and was nicely dressed. She was being yelled at by a tall dark guy, presumably her boyfriend and father of the baby. Although I could not understand what he said, I, along with everyone who was in the nearby vicinity, understand the meaning of what he said, and he was not happy. She said something to him and he suddenly lunged at her, grabbed her around the throat and pushed her violently against the advertisement board she stood near. She cried out and began whimpering, tears streaking her face, and the baby started crying. I was pleased to see four men standing nearby move to help her, but the boyfriend let her go and she waved the help away. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered by this stage, and the boyfriend grabbed her arm and shoved her and the pram ahead of him while continuing his tirade of abuse as they left the station.

Everyone shook their heads, and the men who went to help her were being consoled and/or held back by their friends, and I thought, sadly, there isn’t much point going to help her. She has obviously been with him for at least twelve months already, if not more, and I dare say this is not the first time he has abused her. What saddened me the most was that she stays with him. I understand there are great psychological games played within domestic violence relationships, and once you choose to stay after one incident it becomes even harder to leave later on. However, I don’t understand why we, as a supposedly civilised Western society, are still raising women with such low self esteem. How can we call ourselves ‘civilised’ when so many women think so lowly of themselves that they opt to stay with men who abuse them? How can we expect the children of those relationships to grow up and perform roles that are any different in their own lives? Why is more money, time and effort not put into raising children’s self esteem and ideals so that girls don’t enter into abusive relationships and boys don’t feel the need to abuse others in the first place? How and why do we let each successive generation down so badly and when will it stop?

Rattled by what I saw, and with the questions above running through my head, I got a train to Bastille to see the monument that is made particularly important on each July 14th – Bastille Day, the National Day for France. An announcement in French was heard on the train, and I only understood what had been said once the train passed by the station I wanted without stopping. Not minding the extra walk to clear my head, I dodged intermittent rain drops on the way to the monument. By the time I arrived dark clouds had gathered and made the gold statue on top of the monument stand out even more. Rain started to fall more heavily then, and I made my way to Ile St-Louis to find an ice-cream shop some French girls in Rome had recommended I try. I managed to find the shop, and it did look fancy, however I was still full from having eaten a large slice of fruit crumble earlier in the day, so didn’t taste the reputedly fantastic ice-cream.

I walked past the famous Notre-Dame, and came across a bridge where couples place a lock with their names and date on it, attached to the fence and railing of the bridge. It was the same concept as I saw in Florence in Italy, however the number of locks here covered the entire length of the bridge. There was a bride and groom having their pictures taken with the locks in the background and, with the incident from the train station still fresh in my memory, I wondered what people do with their locks if that relationship ends… Do they remove the lock or simply cross out that name and inscribe the next partner’s name below? Interesting concept, although not one I’d voice to a newly married couple!

The lines to go up the Eiffel Tower were still long, so I wrote some postcards while standing in line underneath. I met a couple from Newcastle in NSW and we talked whilst waiting the hour in line on the ground, then another 45 minutes on the first level to get the lift to the top. From various comments they made I don’t think they were concerned about money at all, and they kindly bought me a glass of champagne when we finally reached the top of the tower – one glass cost €10 so I certainly wasn’t going to buy it myself! The views were nice, and it was just as the sun was setting (10pm) that I got to the top, so I saw the city lights come on, just like Sydney appears from the top of the bridge. I was just back on the ground at 11pm when the lights on the Tower start to sparkle, and I was once again impressed, and decided the Tower had more of an impact when looking at it from the ground up than from at the top.

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