Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ou est la Eiffel Tower?

I almost never made it to Paris.

Tired and not a little hungover I committed the cardinal sin of travellers: I left home without my passport. Honestly, how can you leave for a foreign country and forget the one thing that guarantees you'll make it across the border? It boggles the mind. So, after rushing home to collect it and being driven "Notting Hill" style back to the coach station by my host mum and kids I had managed to miss my bus, and was staring straight down the line of a completely disastrous weekend. However my host mum convinced me that throwing money at the problem until I got what I wanted was the way to go, so I paid £179 for a train to Paris.

Admittedly £179 is a huge amount but, as Sian told me, if I didn't pay the money then in five years' time I sure wouldn't be £179 better off, and all I'd have would be the memories from the weekend I either went or almost went to Paris. And it was the best decision I could possibly have made. Oh Lord, how can I even begin to put into words how much I loved Paris?

I arrived on Friday night and, after having to call on my host family to save me for the second time that day by providing directions to my elusive hostel, I went for a stroll through Montmartre in search of a beer and some late-night Parisian watching. As I wandered I found myself surrounded by an ever-increasing number of sex shops, and just as I began to consider whether it was particularly safe for me to be walking in the red-light district alone at night I caught a glimpse of what looked like the arm of a windmill. Sure that there couldn't be more than one fluro windmill in Paris I quickened my step and found myself stumbling upon the Moulin Rouge. If nothing else had happened that whole weekend I think that moment alone would have warranted my train ticket. It was such a surreal moment - I could hardly believe this was actually my life. It was awesome.

The next day I jumped on a train and went out to Versailles. As it turns out, being young and living in the European Union has some perks, because instead of having to pay €27 to visit the Palace I only had to pay €8, which (irrationally) made me feel better about paying extra for the train.

Versailles is even more breathtaking in reality than in the photos I'd seen. There is really no way for the scope and beauty of the Palace to be conveyed in celluloid. It is phenomenal. The gardens are immaculate, replete with dozens of fountains and statues hidden within a giant hedge maze before morphing into literally miles of well-kept parkland, all of which leads you to both the Grand and Petit Trianon. Of all the places within Versailles, the Petite Trianon is most irrevocably linked to Marie-Antoinette. The area was gifted to her by Louis XVI, and it is the only part of Versailles ever to be seriously marked by the personal tastes of a single Queen.

The inside of the Palace is somehow even more amazing than the outside.

 But despite - or more likely because of - all the beauty Versailles made me feel slightly sickened. The place is enormous. The ceilings are so tall, and covered in massive murals. Every room is papered, carpeted and decorated to the nines. The furniture is priceless. And everything - EVERYTHING - is gilded. There is so much gold in that place that I don't even know what. The French revolution was admittedly a bloodbath, and a mostly ineffectual bloodbath at that. But if I had been a starving Frenchman in the 18th century and I'd seen Versailles I would have kicked off too. The ruling class just had too much. And although Versailles is so close to the centre of Paris, it is so easy to forget there's anything at all outside those big gold gates. It's like a world of it's own, where it probably seemed ok to spend all your money on clothes and food and parties, and where "let them eat cake" would have been a perfectly reasonable answer (whether or not she actually said that). But seeing Versailles I completely understood why the masses were baying for blood.

That evening I went back to my hostel and met Angele, a French-Canadian girl who was staying in the same room as me for the weekend. She asked if I'd like to come with her on a pub crawl and naturally I said yes. At the Metro station we met up with three other people from the hostel who were heading to the same place, so we all made our way into the city centre together. When we arrived at the supposed first pub there was no sign of the group we were looking for, so Angele used her super handy French skills to ask at the bar. As it turned out the pub crawl was totally bogus. But, not to waste an evening, we all went to the supermarket and bought bread, cheese and wine, and headed for the Eiffel Tower. While searching for a corkscrew we made friends with two Texan girls, and the seven of us sat under the Tower and had a quintessential French wine picnic, before heading back to Montmartre.

The hostel I was staying at had a 2am curfew, which was really unfortunate because by 3am the group had become fragmented, and I found myself cold and exhausted wandering around the streets of Paris alone when some guy came up and started talking to me in French. I managed to conjure up enough high school French to say "Je ne parle pas Fracais", at which point he switched to English before kissing me. I wasn't sure if I was totally ok with this turn of events, but I was too tired to fight it, so I just went with the flow until he asked if I wanted to come home with him. To the 14th arrondissement. Montmartre is in the 18th arrondissement, and there was no way I was going all the way to the 14th, so I turned him down. He seemed unfazed by my refusal and just led me into a side street instead, where he started taking off his clothes and trying to convince me to have sex with him there. Which I didn't. Even in Europe I feel there should be some lines I don't blithely wander across, and having sex with a stranger in a Parisian alley seemed like a pretty good place to stop.

Eventually I made it back to the hostel, and after about 4 hours sleep I went out into the city again. I don't think I could have had a more touristy day if I'd tried. And believe me, I did try. First up I climbed the Eiffel Tower. And I mean climbed. There was no way I was taking the damn lift.

Then I walked across the Seine to the Arc de Triomphe, which I also climbed.

And then I took a walk down a busy street, and realised I was hungry. Since I was on such a well-known French street I decided to have the most well-known French dish I could find. For the record: escargot are DELICIOUS! Ooooh I loved them.

Finally I went to the Louvre. I had hoped to visit Notre Dame afterwards, but I'd underestimated how much time I would spend at the Louvre. I wandered through the whole museum, saving it's most famous room for last. When I did finally make it to the Mona Lisa I was... well. I had heard people complain that she was too small, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a normal, portrait sized painting in front of me. But while I understand the need to protect such an important artwork, I feel like the Mona Lisa is protected to the point of detriment. It's hard to really see the painting from a foot away and through such a thick pane of glass. Still, I can now say I've seen what is possibly the most famous portrait in the world, so that's something.

On Monday I woke up early and walked around the corner to the Sacre Coeur before checking out of my hostel. Then I bought some more bread and cheese and had a picnic by Montmartre cemetery. Which might seem like a morbid place to eat my final meal in France, but it's actually a really beautiful place. And it's where a bunch of famous French people are buried, soI was in good company.

I was really very sad to leave Paris. It's easily one of my favourite cities, and I didn't even come close to doing everything I wanted to. I can't wait to go back.

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