PARIS - HOW NOT TO TRAVEL
I wish I could brag that I'd been to Paris countless times but in fact I've only visited the city an incredibly impressive (ahem) once. I've seen the film 'An American in Paris' at least eight times during my lifetime which makes me considerably more familiar with he great Gene Kelly's hoofing than the Arc de Triomphe. Now this would be perfectly excusable if I lived on the other side of the world but this is not the case. If I was to step outside my house now and leap into the sea (which is rather conveniently close), I'd only have to endure 87 miles of dampness before I hit Dieppe and the French coast. * So 'Why', I hear you ask. 'have you failed so miserably to reinforce the Entente Cordiale by popping over more often?' Allow me to explain.
* To be honest, as a non-swimmer I'd probably make 10 ft at best before transforming into human driftwood.
Firstly I'd like to blame my school. Not that it was a bad you understand. Far from it. For not only did the French master introduce us to the music of Françoise Hardy and (swoon!) her photo on the album cover, he also organised the fateful 1971 'Day Trip to Dieppe and it's Castle'. Enthusiastically sold to parents as a wonderful entrée into French culture, this worthy notion was soon to collapse about our ears. Having successfully completed the cross channel ferry crossing, we marched in sweltering heat to the castle only to discover that our teacher had got the dates wrong and the 'chậteau' was shut. As a result, the cultural foray degenerated into competitive cake eating so impressive that even Marie Antoinette would have told us to stop. Sadly the shopkeepers all spoke English and didn't let anyone get further than a poorly pronounced 'Bonjour'. After considerable excitement and sugar overload, the ferry home degenerated into a French stick reenactment of The Three Musketeers. Formidable!
And so a curious connection had been made with disappointment. Disappointment that was only to be alleviated by repeats of Mireille Mathieu on TV , the all-too-rare triumphs of Team GB on 'Jeux sans Frontières' and french stick sarnies. This was to mellow over time but an increasing aptitude for sea-sickness made my return ever more unlikely. But then, a miracle! Surely the arrival of the Channel Tunnel would change things dramaticallly - or so one would have thought. For suddenly the previously unattainable Paris had shifted into becoming too easy to get to and the cry ' But we can go there anytime!' relegated it to my bucket list.
Until my Silver Wedding anniversary. Then off we went.
THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS
And so, some thirty years after my first encounter with a french stick, I finally made it to Paris. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect but my hopes were suitably high. I'd started to calculate my chances of bumping into Françoise Hardy during lunch but the serviettes provided on Eurostar were far too small for the immense numbers involved and we arrived at the Gare du Nord extraordinarily quickly. For those not familiar with the French chanteuse, here is a quick photographic guide to help you avoid any unnecessary confusion. Please note that I did not have a crush on Oliver.
Francoise Hardy by Joost Evers / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)]
Now I could jabber on about it all but I'm sure you'd much rather get a quick snapshot than an all-singing, all-dancing epic. So here are my three things to remember about Paris.
1. Splendid statues
Like most old European cities, Paris has more than it's fair share of statues. But apart from timeless classical bronzes and battalions of imperial generals, I also came across a smattering of rather more quirky subjects. Starting with the most obvious I couldn't resist the temptation to see Rodin's 'Le Penseur' (The Thinker}. I say 'The' but actually there are almost thirty identical thinking bronzes elsewhere in the world. This in turn leads me to think that Rodin certainly wasn't stupid and made a pretty good profit out of them. My snap, which was taken in the Musée Rodin, clearly shows the statue thinking about a) Why the lady isn't also wearing white socks and b) What that thing hanging from her bag might be?
Henri Jaquemart's Rhinocéros situated outside the Musée d'Orsay is quite clearly a very 'good thing' and extraordinarily spiffing. I mean anyone can sculpt a quick lion (apart from me that is ) and London is full of the blasted things but rhinoceroses are as rare as hens teeth. So well done Henri!*
* Did I mention his eight lions around the La Fontaine Place Félix Eboué? Ah well...
Stroll around the Jardin du Luxembourg and you'll come face to face with Louis Derbré's monumental modern statue Le Prophète. Apparently this is a statement about hypocrisy through the ages but I rather like it because it's a giant head. It's not that I don't want to muse about the true meaning of art but I can't help but reflect that enormous things are rather pleasing. A notion that Jeff Koons also seems to share. Personally I'd like to see a 'think off' between this chap and Rodin's masterpiece.
And taking of giant things, I was rather astonished to see this rather regal golden garden pot on top of a plinth by the Centre Pompidou. Le Pot doré by Jean-Pierre Raynaud was commissioned by Cartier and initially started out in - surprise surprise - a giant greenhouse. I have no idea whether it had a matching giant seed but on the day I saw it (well one could hardly miss it) no amazingly big flower was present. I can only assume that it was killed off by some giant frost?
I do wish I'd jotted down the name of this next one. It is probably worthy of deeper interpretation but it reminds me of a rather jolly magic trick. Clearly there is nothing up the magician's sleeves because - well, there aren't any. The body seems to be missing too and if there ever was a rabbit, he's hopped off. But perhaps that was covered in an earlier sculpture?
Finally, we came across Nicolas Buffe's rather charming, and prettily petite Pulcino the Elephant in the Parcours St Germain. If King Louis XIV had been into comic art and pachyderms, then this is the piece he would have commissioned. Sadly it's no longer there but it was charming whilst it was. Two years previously the artist produced a mechanical Pinocchio in the style of a Japanese robot. I can sense a theme developing.
2. epicurean delights
I think it's fair to say that Paris is a city where food is king. That being said they guillotined their last one so perhaps that's not awfully appropriate? I have little doubt that Paris has terrible food hidden away somewhere so perhaps I was didn't look closely enough? Either way I think it's fair to say that eating and cooking here has become a vital and celebratory experience, long surpassing the notion of simply tucking in for sustenance. I seem to remember a rather lifeless croque monsieur that had obviously 'croaked' long ago - but that was in a French style café in the UK which was definitely more style than substance.
Considerably more authentic was our luncheon at the pastry chef paradise, Ladurée. The rarified atmosphere was heightened by the surrounding confections. From the delicately coloured macarons to the spun sugar fancies, everything looked beautiful and and tasted divine. If you had been able sift away myself and other tourists, I felt sure that the normal occupants would have been redoubtable ladies with elegantly stiffened locks and pink pastel poodles. Being a tourist sans poodle, I simply put my head down and piled into the pastries. Albeit rather elegantly.
My next culinary foray was more extraordinary because it involved contact with a genuine French celebrity. Sadly no Miss Hardy to speak of but Gerard Deperdieu would soon enter my life under the most curious of circumstances.
3. not the mona lisa
I think I need to make a confession. I don't actually like the Mona Lisa.
I understand that this is tantamount to sacrilege and that I really should join 99.9% of humanity by falling affectionately at her feet but actually I think 'La Giaconda' is rather dull. I don't find her tantalisingly enigmatic, I'm not intrigued by her identity and I don't think she's one of Da Vinci's best works. I am however fascinated by the extraordinary populist pull the painting undoubtedly has on public imagination. Considering she was painted back in the 1500s , it took almost 400 years before she started to be championed by a handful of art critics. In 1907 Baedeker was calling it 'the most celebrated female portrait in the world' but his guides weren't exactly found in the pockets of your average working man. He was in effect preaching to an comparatively small elite. No, the Mona Lisa became iconic as a direct result of being stolen by an Italian workman Vincenzo Perugia and his chums. This extraordinary caper led to stories, songs and satires that elevated the painting to new heights and firmly planted the portrait in the public imagination. The public proved as keen to see the gap in the gallery as the 'masterpiece ' itself when it was returned to the Louvre in 2013.
So why did I wander the corridors of the Louvre in search of the Mona Lisa when I could have easily avoided her? Easy. I wanted to see her being seen. I wanted to photograph the adulation in action and spend my 15 seconds watching the average 15 seconds that people stand staring at her. It's an amazing sight. No wonder she can't help but smile.
4. Let them eat cake! (OR 'HOW NOT TO CELEBRATE AN IMPORTANT ANNIVERSARY')
Gérard Depardieu saved my life. I was going to add ‘metaphorically speaking’ but when I cast my mind back to that balmy evening in May, it’s clear that my wife was milliseconds away from easing me - reluctantly but justifiably - onto the tracks of the Paris Metro. Sauntering past the Palais de Justice earlier that day, I’d wondered whether its courtrooms could possibly be as grand as the gilded gateway now standing in front of me. A sense of foreboding settled on my very being. If things continued to go downhill at such an alarming rate,then I might soon find myself appearing as recently deceased ‘Exhibit A’ in my own sensational ‘crime passionel’. But I digress...
This particular trip to Paris had been planned as a special surprise celebration for our silver wedding anniversary. The delightful Hôtel del’Abbaye had been specially selected for its boutique charm (but possibly not the somewhat 'challenging' striped bedroom wallpaper) and ‘Chez Dumonet’ was a apparently a celebrated restaurant beloved by discerning local foodies. What could go possibly go wrong? Hmm. Perhaps I should have paused to remember that 1971 school trip to Dieppe?
Our day had started rather well. The legions of pickpockets so eagerly promised by every guidebook were obviously on strike or had become so fabulously wealthy that they were only accepting Cartier wristwatches. My euros were still crisply safe and sound and the only assaults we actually suffered were to our senses. Firstly from a piece of frighteningly avant-garde art in the Centre Pompidou (some people must lead very troubling lives) and secondly from the exquisite yet pungent Barthélemy fromagerie in the Rue De Grenelle. Even if you don’t like cheese - and I do - you get a free olfactory serving of particularly heady goat from about a block away. It is I imagine, the cholesterol heavy equivalent of working at 'Lush'.
There then followed a tourist-themed forced march that even the Foreign Legion would have baulked at. We traipsed off enthusiastically to marvel at the Eiffel Tower, and marvelled even more at the exceptionally grim queue. We then staggered down the Champ de Mars as the wind whipped up an delightful mix of dusty gravel and discarded cigarette butts into our faces. I might be wrong but Idon't seem to remember Gene Kelly having to tapdance through this. It was shortly after stumbling across the splendidly named ‘Rue du Capitaine Scott’ that I realised my feet had had enough. I limped off in search of a pharmacie uttering the immortal phrases ‘ I may be some time’ and Donnez-moi un blister plaster s'il vous plait'.
Thus returning 'half -plastered' to our hotel room, I eased out of my brogues and noticed a celebratory bottle of champagne nudging against the remains of our fruit bowl. As somebody with a terribly sweet tooth I’d never really developed a taste for alcohol but my wife recognised it as a good marque and a perfect 25th Anniversary tipple. Having a few glasses was going to be compulsory whether I liked it or not. This was a big mistake. When we awoke hours later the bottle was curiously empty and our bedside clock had raced well into the evening with 9pm looming dangerously on the horizon. To make things worse, my lack of experience with alcohol meant that the horizon itself was occasionally drifting out of focus. This probably wasn’t a good time to tell my wife that I’d forgotten to reserve a table at our restaurant but having gulped down half a bottle of champagne, I did.
Paris then taught me my second lesson. When you’re tipsy and you’ve forgotten your reading glasses, your ability to read maps on dark city streets takes a considerable dive. It was half an hour before I noticed that I was holding the city map upside down. Not a promising start. When we finally arrived at Chez Dumonet I could see that the game was well and truly up. It was small, it was full and it only had the one solitary sitting. A waiter approached us and the aroma of delicious food wafted ahead of him. I could sense his pity as he offered up sad 'Non'. He apologised to me, we apologised to him and I apologised to Liz. The hour that followed was a bit of a blur as we desperately tried to hunt down some celebratory tuck before Midnight. Our second choice was a long Metro ride away on the other side of Paris. I felt every second of the journey as we rattled our way towards what I hoped would be a potentially life-saving entrée. But yet again it was exquisitely tiny and well into it's final sitting. We were now desperate. A few fast food restaurants flitted past but Le Big Mac was grimly unromantic and decidedly off limits to my coeliac wife. Had Marie Antoinette been on hand to offer gluten free cake, she would have grabbed it.
As we left the Metro and headed towards the exit we only had thirty ‘Silver’ minutes remaining. Our hotel had no restaurant and I had no escape. I was aghast and yet there was a glimmer of hope. A light, if you will, at the end of the tunnel. In fact, it was a light at the end of the tunnel. Was this my salvation? A solitary vending machine sat temptingly, in the distance, by the side of the platform. Digging deep into my pockets I frantically hunted for small change, as from this minute onwards every second and every cent was going to count! And yes, a small handful of shiny coins emerged from the tweed-pocketed gloom. I carefully fed the machine all the coins it desired and soon netted a small chocolate bar, a bag of peanuts and a bottle of water. A veritable feast! The machine then jammed and spitefully kept our remaining money. But tonight - or at least what remained of tonight - we would dine! We ran all the way to the hotel (limp allowing) and were back safely in our shockingly wallpapered room only minutes before Midnight. As our final silver seconds drifted into the distance we feasted upon our spoils and shared a solitary sliced banana from the now empty fruit bowl. A truly memorable celebration that we were unlikely to forget.
The very next evening we finally got to eat at ‘Chez Dumonet’. The front desk of our hotel secured a table and in so doing, successfully lowered my blood pressure. The food was absolutely superb and the atmosphere delightful. Them something strange happened. Half way through the meal a massive leather-clad biker strode into the restaurant and stood menacingly by the side of our table. At this point I was waiting for the appearance of a shotgun and the deft removal of my remaining euros. But no. The burly biker speedily removed his helmet, threw his arms around the the waiters as if they were old friends and beamed a rugged smile right at us. Gérard Depardieu had arrived for his takeaway.