Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Wow, what a weekend! Last weekend, I joined about a hundred other Télécommiens (students from my School) on the first weekend abroad of the year, organised by. In traditional fashion, the weekend started with aperitifs in the foyer des élèves, whilst we waited for everyone to assemble on Thursday evening (it was actually a long weekend, thanks to a jour férié on Friday). And in usual style, and despite the best efforts of the lovely people from the BDE (bureau des élèves), the two coaches departed an hour late. The journey would have been fairly tedious, had it not been for the fact that the discomfort of the coach united us in a shared misery. This expressed itself differently in different people. The Italians and Lebanese sang. Loudly, out of tune, and in English… opposite my seat. Others somehow managed, presumably through some pact with the devil, to get to sleep. The fact that the coach wasn’t equipped with toilets didn’t seem to matter too much, as we seemed to stop every two hours for a fag/toilet break that lasted at least half an hour. The highlight of the journey was undoubtedly climbing the Pyrenees towards the Spanish border. I woke up at about 9am (after about two hours’ sleep I managed to sneak in) to the sound of cameras bleeping. I think my subconscious mind must have told me that there was something worth waking up for, but unfortunately, by the time I’d got my camera, I’d already missed some stunning views.

Crossing the border was relatively painless, since there was no passport control; it simply involved slowing down as we passed by one of a row of huts on the motorway.

We arrived in Barcelona at about midday, after a seventeen-hour journey. Upon disembarkation, debate raged amongst my four room-mates as to whether the highest priority should be given to food, drink (another dilemma: caffeine or alcohol first?) sleep, hygiene or sightseeing. As events transpired, they all took their due place, with personal hygiene from a can, and sleep (albeit brief) being postponed until after a spot of sightseeing.

In the afternoon, we took a walk through “Las Ramblas”, the main thoroughfare going from the city centre to the seafront. Despite the best efforts of the confounding sign-posting, we eventually managed to find the Picasso Museum which was well-hidden in the back streets of the winding medieval layout of the Gothic Quarter. The Museum was much as I remember it from my previous visit to the city (in December 2002), that is moderately interesting biographical information (in Catalan, Spanish and, thankfully, English), some interesting works from the early years, followed by some crazy stuff from later in his career. The highlight of it for me was the room displaying some of the forty-plus studies he made of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”. I am becoming somewhat more open-minded about twentieth century art as I find out more about it, but – and call me old-fashioned – I do prefer to be able to recognise the subject matter.

After visiting the museum, we had tapas and beer in a suitably old-fashioned looking café. As well as enjoying sensibly-priced food and drink, this also gave us the first proper opportunity to practice our Spanish. I am currently at the stage at which I have a reasonable working knowledge of classroom paraphernalia, and can ask how many people live in Chile or the name of a popular dish in Mexico, but we haven’t covered such essentials as “two beers please”, and “I’ll have the one with no meat in it, please”. Oh well, necessity is the mother of invention, as Plato said.

After heading back to the hostel for a nap and a shower, we hit the town. After having a wonder round the Barri Gòtic, we found a popular wine bar that had a reasonable selection of tapas, an impressive array of wine and abysmal service. We then headed on to a very pleasant restaurant where we had more tapas and wine. We then continued to follow the typical pattern of a Barcelonan soirée: we’d taken our tapas (in more than one establishment), we’d taken a stroll, and now we were about to go clubbing, although it was still a bit early, at only midnight. Our first experience was a bit of a disaster: a rather characterless place on the roof of a shopping centre in a large waterfront complex called Mare Magnum. The only saving grace was that we were given vouchers entitling us to free entry and one shot. After a bit more wondering around, we decided to check out “Razzmatazz”, a sprawling complex offering a choice of music in different rooms and reasonably-priced drinks. At about 3.30am, two of us got bored and decided to call it a night, while the other three partied the night away, getting back in time for breakfast at the hostel at 8am after catching the first Metro.

To be continued…

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Friday saw the Télécom Paris Club Cul' spend the evening at the Musée du Louvre. Unfortunately, I didn't know this, since they only sent the e-mail the night before. Fortunately, a group of us wanted to go anyway, and by complete coincidence, we had decided independently to take advantage of the Friday evening free entry for young people on the same night.
Whilst I had been to the Louvre before (when I visited Paris for three days five years ago), I forgot quite how vast it is. The idea of transforming a former royal palace in the centre of a wonderful city into a vast art gallery was rather reminiscent of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace. Even to one who is not an expert in the history of art, the magnificence of the architecture cannot fail to amaze in either case.
The Louvre, apparently, was considered untouchable, in architectural terms, for fairly obvious reasons, until François Mittérand had the gall to construct a prestigious new entrance, in the form of a pyramid in the Cour Napoléon. It is said that Paris has seen more "grand projets" in the late-twentieth century than most European capitals on account of the vanity of its Presidents in wishing to immortalise themselves. On this particular innovation, France was divided, but I rather like it.
For the sake of those in our party who had never been before, we headed straight to the Mona Lisa, which had been given a suitably prominent new home since I had last visited. Once again it struck me how small the painting is, compared to those which surround it. And once again, I had to wonder whether its status as the most famous painting in the world couldn't have been partly the result of some amount of hype on the part of art-lovers. Anyway, what would I know? I'm only a mere engineering student.
Due to getting there quite late, and not yet having eaten, we did not have a huge amount of time in the museum. We did a whistle-stop tour of a few Italian Renaissance paintings, brushed shoulders with some Classical statues, and then (partly for the benefit of my Belgian friend, Lieven) we "did" Flanders.
I must confess, I felt somethings of a cultural bandit. Yes, to a certain extent it almost feels like the only benefit I derived from the evening was something to put in my blog, but I would like to think that I will try to become more informed before my next visit, which I shall endeavour to make more purposeful.
We finished the evening by wondering through the streets of Paris with the Club Cul', contemplating the difficulty of finding a restaurant with 20 places at 10.30, before deciding to take our own path towards a rather pleasant restaurant called "La Petite Provence" on the rue du Pot De Fer (5eme arondissement). On enquiring what the vegetarian option was, I was told that it was basically a bit of everything on the menu that didn't contain meat. It actually proved to be a lot of everything, and was possibly the largest main course I have had here in Paris. After leaving the restaurant at about 12.30, we stayed up for several hours, watching DVDs and drinking. All in all, not a bad evening.


Having finally conquered a moderate case of inertia on my return to Paris last Sunday by going roller-blading (albeit with questionable success), I thought that I ought to get into the habit of regularly doing something more energetic than shirking the lift to climb the eight stories to my room (having said that, taking the stairs is now recognised as an “Everyday Sport”). I am the sort of person who loves physical activity; indeed, when I’m actually out there, doing something energetic, I feel great. The problem is that accessing good exercise seems to take more motivation and organisation on my part than actually doing it! Take, for example, my efforts to join a table tennis club – when I went to the “Freshers’ Fair” here, it turned out that all the foreign students had been told the wrong time and that we’d missed it. The words “piss-up” and “brewery” sometimes spring to mind in this place. Nevertheless, we were invited to put our names down on a list, and we would be contacted; I heard nothing.

Prior to my return to London, I had decided that I was better off looking further a-field, namely the sumptuously appointed Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, where one can obtain an annual pass for three different activities for EUR115. That is, after procuring a medical certificate to the effect that one is fit to practice such sports, and being told that “we don’t do sports passes anymore, you’ll have to go to the Stade Charlety, but they’re not open at the moment”, and finally finding the office at the Stade open. The three activities I chose are swimming, table tennis, and, inspired by my recent experiences, roller blading (for beginners). I was intending to go for "la musculation", which I had understood to mean the sort of bright, airy, welcoming gym with assorted cardio-vascular and weight-lifting machines that those of us who have wasted good money on will rescognise well, until I peeked inside the salle de musculation to find that it was full of guy in vests heaving hunks of metal around, making Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a girl guide. I later found at that musculation translates as "bodybuilding". Hmmm... always read the label, Sam.

I had already become accustomed to the stringent hygiene requirements of French swimming pools (i.e. trunks, rather than boxer shorts, for men, and obligatory caps for all), and purchased the requisite equipment from a sports shop; the two things which struck me most about the pool at the “Cité U.” were how most of the lockers and changing cubicles were broken, and the limited hours that the pool’s available for “free swimming”. Having said all that, I have managed to go today, yesterday and Saturday. Unfortunately, I haven't made it to roller-blading, due to lack of appropriate insurance (more bureacracy!), a pair of roller blades and a helmet. Absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it's on at 9am on Sundays.