After all these years, Lady Barton St Mary managed to persuade me to visit Paris.
I’d visited Paris many years ago, when I was a skinny, long haired, unwashed student, in the company of an American flatmate called Dan. We’d taken the advice of another American who had ‘done’ Europe and booked a really cheap hotel in the Pigalle area of Paris. Now, our room cost 6fr a night and contained a double bed, an old wardrobe and a pot, presumably for pissing in. Sleep was almost impossible as a constant stream of customers stomped up and down the stairs to be ‘entertained’ by the professional ladies in adjoining rooms. We were both 20 years old; the constant thrumming of bedsprings and the appreciative grunts of the menfolk were not conducive to sleep. For those of you that don’t know, Pigalle is the red light district of Paris: full of sex shops, strip clubs with suitably seedy men standing outside inviting you in. I’ve always found this intriguing. Why put a greasy haired, anorak wearing, Jeremy Kyle Show candidate outside your establishment as an enticement?
Anyway, we saw things in shop windows and street corners that were completely new experiences. Remember, this was a long time before the internet. Our time in Paris was spent eating french bread and cheese down by the left bank. The locals were surly, impatient and very keen to take as much money as they could from us. The 2 hour grilling in customs on the way back (I was travelling with a citizen of the USA and UK immigration gave him a particularly hard time) made up my mind. Paris was not for me.
But, as you well know, Lady BSM is a persuasive creature. It was our 32nd wedding anniversary and her last visit on business to Paris for a while.
“Please – come and spend the weekend with me in Paris,” she asked, using her beautiful blue eyes and hypnotically soft, posh voice to persuade me. So I did.
I arrived late in the evening, straight from work, striding out of the airport and straight into the first taxi I was offered. Mistake.
“How much is it to the hotel?” I asked in my best French, which is crap. He waved his arm about a bit and said, “Don’t worry, normal fee”, which didn’t fill me with confidence. During the trip from Orly to central Paris, I exchanged texts with Lady BSM. ‘Pay no more than €30’, she texted. I sat back and listened to the PSG football game on the radio. I continued to ask with the vaguest of answers. My anti-Paris radar was pulsing, a faint dot growing stronger and redder as the journey continued. We arrived at the hotel.
“fifty five euros!” he beamed. I blinked.
“Where’s your meter?” I asked. He frowned.
“No. It’s standard fee.”
I proffered €30. He stared at it. I channelled my dad.
“That’s all your getting,” I explained.
“No. Give me €50, or you don’t leave.”
My dad came through strongly.
“Right, mate. Here’s 30 euros, take it or leave it, fella.”
He looked in my eyes and saw the angry cockney within. I don’t know what the French equivalent of a right hander is, but he suspected (wrongly) that I was capable of it. He took the money, let me out and roared off. At that point, it appeared Paris hadn’t changed.
I was greeted by the lovely Lady BSM and we ate in a busy restaurant just up the road from our hotel in the Bastille district. It appeared to be a popular haunt for students and young people, so we fitted right in, as you can imagine.
Lady BSM was already familiar with the Metro system. I was familiar with an app called ‘Citymapper’, introduced to me by one of its designers on a train to London. It’s brilliant; it helped me get around London and there is a version for Paris. You can get advice on where to travel from one place to another using this app. The Paris Metro system is also brilliant, but then, like other European countries, it proves how efficiently a nationalised public transport system works. We made our way towards the Eiffel Tower, but appeared out of the station slap bang in front of L’Arc de Triomphe. We stared at its magnificence. Some people were on top of it looking out. Did we go up and join them? No. The queue was enormous, so we trotted down the Champs Elysee to the Eiffel Tower. Another magnificent example of architecture and humans queuing. If you want to know more read my Rural Spaceman in Paris – Trailer.
The Louvre is a big building – Lady BSM visited earlier the day before, to view the Mona Lisa of course, but she enjoyed the other works of art. She was rather disappointed by the number of people taking ‘selfies’ with her.The Mona Lisa, I mean, not Lady BSM. It was almost like that was more important than looking at one of the most iconic and famous works of art ever produced. The Mona Lisa, I mean, not Lady BSM.
Sacre Coeur – a beautiful church adjacent to the aforementioned Pigalle district – allows views across Paris. Again the queues were horrendous, so instead we took a cute little road train that gave us a tour of the region, including Pigalle, which, since the advent of the internet, seems less motivated to show as many photos and images of human beings in various stages of coitus.
Notre Dame – Another queue, but this one was fast moving. Being a Sunday morning, there was a service, with a choir and all the incense waving. The music was quite captivating and eerie – a version of religious progressive rock. Lady BSM mentioned that the Notre Dame museum had a few amazing artefacts – a nail and a splinter of wood from the cross and, incredibly, the actual crown of thorns worn by Jesus. I paid my five euros to have a look. The splinter and nail are very small; the crown is in a closed box in a glass cabinet. I wondered whether I could ask to see it. Lady BSM was doubtful.
“But how do you know that it’s in there?” I asked her.
This is where the crown of thorns is kept, absolute proof of the crucifixion story. But obviously you can’t see it.
“You have to have faith,” she explained.
Musee D’Orsay – woohoo! Lady BSM wasn’t getting caught out having to queue for this venue. She’d bought advance tickets that meant we had priority to enter this famous art gallery. We skipped past all the losers standing to get in at entrances A-C, line upon line of tired looking tourists, staring at us with jealous eyes. We laughed as we made our way to entrance D. Whereupon we found line upon line of tired looking tourists, feeling our pain as we realised we’d been duped. Half an hour into our queuing experience, I desperately needed the toilet, prompted by the tannoy announcement informing us not to worry, once we’d actually queued into the building, there was a further 25 minute queue to get in. I skipped out of the queue and ran around the streets, getting more desperate by the second. A man hosing down the pavement didn’t help. I finally sneaked into a crowded restaurant to make my ease before returning to queuing duties. Finally, we got in. That’s when I discovered I’d lost my priority ticket. Don’t ask. We spent all our time on the fifth floor, looking at the impressionist paintings. The gallery closed at 6pm, but staff started to ‘kettle’ their visitors at 5.15pm and chucked them out at 5.55pm, unless they could extract more money out of you in the shop until 6.30pm.
Pompidou Centre – great design. We saw the outside on a bank holiday Monday, when it was closed.
Food and drink
The food was wonderful. Bizarrely, I ate quite a few burgers, which is unusual for me. I don’t mean the mass produced, brightly coloured globally marketed burgers, but French burgers. I also ate game pie, oysters, Lebanese food and cake. All lovely. As were the staff and people in general all over Paris. The beer was eye wateringly expensive – expect €7 or €8 for a pint of lager. Lady BSM’s cocktails and wine were about the same price.
One bar was a little cheaper but with its own appeal. An old hippy known as Cisco entertained the alcoholic regulars and homeless people sitting on the street corner, whilst the regulars did their best to encourage the various european customers to dance with them. It was just like a Saturday night in town back home.
Even the policeman, magnificent in full riot gear, who helped us to get from one side of the Place de la Bastille to the other. He was a very tall man, about 7 ft in his riot helmet, with vague resemblance Vladimir Putin.
“Notre Hotel est la ba,” I explained in my best Frenglish, “comment moi get there?”
“My English not a lot,” he explained, “wait here.” He strolled off, giving a cursory cuff around the head to a young, enthusiastic, flag waving demonstrator. We waited.
He strolled back and loomed over me. I blinked rapidly. He told us to move 200 metres up the road, where we would get safe passage. On return to our hotel, the taxi we’d ordered was stuck in the gridlock, so we were advised to take public transport. Again, it didn’t let us down.
My opinion of Paris has changed completely. Perhaps the long haired, unwashed youth wasn’t as easy as the grey haired, rather more hygienic old man. Viva la France. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Je suis European.
I’ll be back. But I won’t queue.