Monday, October 31, 2005

Back in Paris

The more astute among you, Dear Readers, will have noticed that things have been rather quiet around here lately. For that I apologise, and will explain later. Suffice it to say for the time being that spending the last week in London meant that Our Man was not in Paris.
Well, this weekend being my first back, was one of contrasts. Yesterday was rather dull, and consisted of me catching up sleep, doing domestic tasks (such as washing my clothes, my floor and myself, and eating), then spending the rest of the day on Wikipedia wishing that I could summon up the energy, motivation or imagination to go further afield than the local shops.
Today, on the other hand, things were somewhat different. After bemoaning the fact the things I really wanted to do, and had been putting off for some weeks (such as buying a bike and signing up for sports at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris) could not be done on a Sunday (although, ironically, it would have been a lovely day for cycling, had I possessed a bike), I decided that enough was enough. It was a perfectly pleasant day, and I wanted to enjoy the extra hour that I had been given by the clocks going back.
Four years living quite close to Hyde Park in London made me envious of roller-bladers. Of course, one finds problems such as, "I wouldn't know how to do it", "I wouldn't know who to do it with", and, "I don't have the right equipment", all of which are fairly facile, and I could have solved had I put my mind to it. Today, I bit the bull by the horns [mixed metaphor, shurely?], and resolved to take to the streets of Paris on roller-blades.
A quick search on the internet revealed that there was a blade-hire shop close to the Place de la Bastille (above), which was a part of town I hadn't yet explored. Having been assured by the guy in the shop that, since I'd done ice-skating before, I would have no trouble as it was "très pareil", I completed the necessary bureacracy and left, with blades on and hand and knee protection to the ready, full of confidence. It was entirely misplaced.
What he had neglected to tell me was that there were two principal differences from ice skating. Firstly, ice tends to be flat, both in that the surface is smooth (quite unlike Parisian pavements), and there are no hills; I have never in my life been so aware of even quite slight gradients in the pavement. Secondly, there are no cars, and all the other people in an ice rink all know the risks involved before taking part. The Parisian passers-by had made no such commitment to endanger their lives. I'm not sure whether the greater part of the experience was taken up fearing my own life or those of others, but the net result was the same: I was terrified!
The other crucial detail I had forgotten was that during my days on the ice rink I had never mastered stopping. That's not to say I wasn't able to stop, but colliding into the barriers is not particularly elegant, and when roller-blading, is simply not an option. The next best substitute was trees and lamposts. "Thank God for the hand protection", was my only consolation, despite which, I still managed to inflict a stigmata-like cut on my left hand. I'm frankly amazed that I didn't do myself more damage.
The day wasn't a complete failure: I built up strength in my triceps, a muscle which is particularly useful for decreasing momentum with the aid of a lampost; I caught the bug of roller-blading, and despite being somewhat lacking in ability, I have resolved to take lessons and improve; and I also saw some nice parts of Paris on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
I finished the day by wondering around the Bastille area, which, amazingly (for Paris) has shops open on a Sunday, and straying for the first time into the Marais, the gay district of Paris. Frankly, a little disappointing, compared to Soho.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

La Tour Eiffel

Well, this was the one you were all waiting for... having supper on the Parc du Champ de Mars under the illuminated Eiffel Tower. Oh, so Parisian!
Tonight's mission started out as an attempt to watch the sunset from the Eiffel Tower; however, we didn't quite make it in time, and decided that it was a bit pricey anyway. Instead, we decided to chill out on the "Field of Mars", the former military parade ground beneath. After watching the lights go on at exactly 7.12pm, the official time of sunset in Paris, we decided to do something about our hunger, and wandered east onto the avenue Rapp towards a supermarket. As we were returning to the Champ de Mars, the Tower was illuminated by hundreds of bright, flashing white lights, giving it the over-all appearance of Christmas Tree on a tarts' night out. What were they thinking? Apparently, La Tour Eiffel sees fit to celebrate the hour in such a way - for ten minutes!

Before long, we had found a quiet spot to set up camp and tuck in to our supper of bread, cheese and wine. Quiet, that is, until our neighbours decided to share their rather dubious taste in music with the rest of Paris. Just as we had become accustomed to the gentle refrains of R&B (or was it D&B?), the next enduring disturbance of the evening transpired to be men of diverse origins wandering round the field trying to sell the most ghastly flashing miniature Eiffel Towers. They say Paris is a city of romance; well in this place that is, according to all the guide books, more Parisian than Paris itself, those wandering salesmen certainly managed to kill whatever romance there might have been with their foul tat.

As if the evening was not surreal enough, Dieter then gets out his camping stove and starts to make us all cup-a-soup. And most welcome it was, too, as it was getting rather chilly by this point. An absolutely superb evening all round.

Pics courtesy of Fab.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Montparnasse - A Big Cemetery and a Big Tower

After sleeping off "La Nuit Blanche", we decided to explore the nearby quartier of Montparnasse. Bracing ourselves against the crisp wind, we made our way along Blvd. St. Jacques to Place Denfert Rochereau, a pleasant little square celebrating the accomplishments of a Colonel in the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War next to the rather grand station of the same name. After stopping for a quick restorative crêpe from a pavement stall, we wandered towards the famous Cimitière du Montparnasse.
To our disappointment, we discovered that the cemetery closed at 6pm. At 5.40, the guard at the gate to the larger part of the cemetery seemed less than happy at the idea of us going in, so we went to have a quick look round the smaller, southern section instead. The tombs were impressively laid out on family plots in rows along the streets of death. A lady passing us on her way out seemed quite concerned that the guard knew we were in here, as it was about to close, so we decided to make our way out, and return for a proper visit at a later date. This turned out to be for the best, as the guard took our departure as the cue to lock the tall wooden gate and walk between the tombs blowing a harsh whistle. It wasn't clear whether he was trying to wake the dead, or simply warn the living that he was about to release the dogs on them if they didn't leave, but it occurred to me that the French specialise in unfriendly law enforcement officers in oppressive-looking uniforms. Usually armed, too. Indeed, only the French could see the need to guard the dead so diligently.
A rather pleasant street market on the Blvd. Edgar Quinet bore testament to Montparnasse's artistic heritage of the post-WWI era; with artistic treasures in a variety of media on display, this laid-back market is a nice place to look for gifts. However, with not a price-tag in sight, looking at them is probably all you'd be likely to do.
This led up to the Tour Montparnasse, charmingly referred to as a "startingly ugly oversized lipstick tube" in my copy of Lonely Planet. Not much to say about it, really: probably worth going up some day, but it was bloody windy, so we decided to give it a miss. To round off our travels, we wandered around the local area looking for a suitably affordable café for a well-deserved coffee, which we found as soon as we got round the corner from the tower. Montparnasse seems more like the sort of place to go in the evening, rather than the afternoon, with an interesting variety of restaurants and bars.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

La Nuit Blanche

La Nuit Blanche means "sleepless night" in French. Now it wasn't exactly like I needed another at this point, having gone to sleep at about 5am on Saturday morning, waking up at 9am for a day's Français Langue-Etranger (French as a foreign language). It was actually quite fun, wondering around our local quarter, the Butte aux Cailles (literally, "Hillock of Quails") following clues, collecting answers, and finding all about the revolutionary history of the area: there are bars in which communist songs are still sung!
After lunch at a bar on the rue de Tolbiac, we headed back to the classroom and discussed our answers. To finish, we did a written French test, which I had been dreading for some time, but actually turned out ok.

After catching up on a few hours' sleep, seven of us headed out to find a restuarant in the quartier that we had discovered that morning. After wondering around and disagreeing to the point of extreme hunger, we found a great place on the rue des cinq diamants, where we had a pretty classy 2-course+wine meal for around E20. Not bad!

La Nuit Blanche is essentially an annual festival devoted to voluntary insomnia; how appropriate that I am devoting my time to telling you about this at nearly half-midnight, when I should really be recharging my body for my half-eight lecture tomorrow morning. Organised by the Mayor, it consists of a variety of cultural activities, outdoor spectacles, and illuminated public buildings. We headed out towards the Ile de la Cité, past the Notre-Dame Cathedral (see picture), and on to the Centre Pompidou, the famously controversial 1970's addition to Paris's tradition of being a leader, rather than a follower, when it comes to architecture. With all its exposed glass and pipe-work, it struck me as a rather impressive building which was conceived before anyone had decided what to put in it; sound familiar, Mr Mandelson?

After queuing for some time (not wishing to waste this time, we spent it necking cheap French wine), we got into the cavernous building, and decided that there was no hurry, and we may as well enjoy our exploration of its vast chasms. On the way in, we had noticed the rather distinctive (the less charitable might say "ugly") six-story escalator on the front of the building, which we had decided would be our first port of call. What we encountered next I could only describe as French perversity - the descending escalator was in perfect working order, whereas every escalator going up was switched off. So, after climbing the stairs the old-fashioned way to the top of this wonderful modern building, we had a rather good view of Paris. Highlights were looking out towards the Sacre-Coeur, and the realisation of how stupidly tall the Eiffel Tower is!
The other major attraction of the Pompidou Centre that we experienced was going round a vast collection of modern art in the early hours
of the morning. It was probably busier than I have ever seen an art exhibition. Afterwards, we wondered round Paris for a bit; the city was, rather disappointingly for such a night, beginning to close down at 3am, and, the Metro having shut down already, we set about trying to find a bus home. We eventually got onto a jam-packed bus which got us home just after 4. All said and done, an interesting (but disappointingly sober) night on the town in Paris.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Two Nights to remember!

Well, I hope that this post will be more pleasing to those amongst my audience who would prefer my existence in this place to be a little more exciting, and for my online diary to be saucier. Perhaps you would like it to be more akin to the more sordid aspects of Big Brother, or some other similarly ghastly example of popular "entertainment"? Not enough debauchery for you? Well, don't say I don't respond to feedback.
On Wednesday, after diligently completing my post, I went to see the band "Beaubourg" who were absolutely superb! After starting an hour late, things really got going at 10.30pm. I am gradually getting more accustomed to the continental approach to soirées! Beaubourg is a seven-piece band (two of whom I believe are Télécommiens, i.e. from Télécom Paris) consisting of a guitar, keyboard, violin, clarinet, bugle/trumpet, double bass and drums. Their style is something like Fairport Convention meets Bonzo Dog, with a hefty dollop of French chanson thrown in for good measure, and the result was hilarious! At first, I thought it was just a joke, but then I realised that they were rather good, and I had to buy their CD. After they finished, I was invited to drink as much as possible, a task facilitated by the barman's rather relaxed attitude towards charging for drinks. I didn't get much sleep.On Friday, the Bureau Des Elèves (students' union) organised its first major party of the year. Free entry for members (I'd already paid my E80 annual membership subs), and an open bar was only really going to mean one thing: lots of pissed people and a wicked party! I spent a lot of time talking to various French people (many of whom preferred to reply in English, which was a little odd) and loads of Spanish and Italians, and ended up for the second time in a week not getting much sleep. Due to the same person both times, which is promising!
So, I'm sorry that it took me a whole eight days after arriving in a foreign country to get laid, but, as the French say, "c'est la vie"!