Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Oh, the places you'll go...

It would be remiss of me to dedicate an entire Blog to life in Paris without mentioning the places that make that this city the world’s most visited. So, here it is. Everything that I think you need to know about the sights of Paris, of course delivered with the customary hint of sarcasm that you've come to expect from this Blog. And, because the historical is quite often linked to the hysterical (in France at least), I’ve recounted stories of old when my research has led me to the bizarre.  
Paris is surprisingly small, its city limits delineated by a ring road (Le Boulevard Périphérique) that takes just 26 minutes to circumnavigate if you’re travelling at the 80km/hr speed limit (so, 15 minutes tops). Only the 2.2 million people living within the bounds of this dual carriageway are entitled to be branded as ‘Parisian’ in much the same way that Champagne only comes from the Champagne region. Applying this logic to the Parisian population thereby deems the 10 million people inhabiting the city’s surrounding suburbs as mere ‘sparkling wine’, even though it’s all just semantics to the rest of the world. So, given that the city boundary is pretty concrete (yes, pun intended) and that French law prohibits the erection of inhabitable dwellings exceeding five floors in the city, it is unlikely that the Parisian population will ever significantly increase. [Was that a worldwide sigh of relief I just heard?] 
Needless to say I consider myself extremely lucky to be living among the effervescent in one of the 20 arrondissements (districts) of Paris. Numbered chronologically starting from the centre of the city and spiralling clockwise outwards, these arrondissements leave a map of Paris looking ironically snail-like... 
...And, my, do they contain some spectacular sights:

Arrondissement I
  • Musée du Louvre – Please excuse the obvious start, but I am writing in order of arrondissement and The Louvre most certainly tops the list of sights in the 1st. The building, which began as a fortress in the 12th century, is a work of art without even accounting for the 35,000 masterpieces found inside the 60,600m2 complex. The most recent structural additions to the building are the three glass pyramids installed in the courtyard in 1989, followed by an inverted version (a fancy skylight) some five years’ later. These were gifts from the then French President François Mitterrand, who you’ll discover later wasn’t quite as transparent as his pyramids.  
Musée du Louvre
  • Rue de Rivoli – This street contains three Zara stores within 50 metres of one another... Need I say more?  
  • Les Halles – I include this as an example of an unspectacular place in Paris. Les Halles is a multi-level shopping complex, which should not be explored without first obtaining your Scout Merit Badge in Orienteering. The above ground component of this largely-underground shopping centre is an unsightly mess of green lattice garden arches, Perspex, and time-wasting teenagers who travel in from the suburbs to flirt with the opposite sex and steal from the occasional tourist. Avoid Les Halles with as much vigour as you would the Châtelet metro hub that lies beneath it, the place most notorious for pick-pocketing in Paris. 
Les Halles sits a-mess in an otherwise beautiful picture
featuring the Saint Eustache Church

Arrondissement II
  • Casa del Campo Bar. Forget Euro Disney, Casa del Campo is the happiest place on earth. Serving the best sangria and tapas in France, this bar is located at the quieter end of one my favourite streets, Rue Montorgueil. Casa del Campo holds many fond memories which, strangely enough, only tend to trickle back to me the following day. Perhaps it’s inappropriate to dedicate the only entry on Paris’ 2nd Arrondissement to a Spanish bar, but once you settle in for your first jug of sangria, you won’t be going anywhere until closing time. Say hi to Patrick for me. 

And dinner along Rue Montorgueil
Two of my favorite things:
Nicola Furness and sangria 
at Casa del Campo

Arrondissement III
  • Le Marais is a medieval district that spreads across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. You can easily spend a day wandering along cobbled laneways, browsing trendy shops, and marvelling at the patience of the 500 people queuing—for well over an hour—to taste what are apparently the best falafels in the world at L’As du Falafel.
  • Arts et Métiers métro station. Not content with a jam-packed 60+ museums, Paris has also transformed some of its underground train stations into works of art. Arts et Métiers is an impressive example. The platform on this turn-of-the-(20th)-century station was redesigned in 1994 to give you the impression that you’re waiting for the train inside a copper water-pipe. If only the train floated into the station on a river of chocolate, my Willy Wonka fantasy would be complete.    
Arts et Métiers métro station

Arrondissement IV
  • Hôtel de Ville – Don’t be fooled by the name and try to check in for an overnight stay in this building unless you fancy a romantic rendezvous with the Mayor; ‘Hôtel de Ville’ is French for ‘City Hall’. It’s also the site of the first public guillotining in 1792. Ah, the good old days. 
The superb Hôtel de Ville 
  • Notre Dame de Paris – The cathedral that inspired Victor Hugo’s famous novel is every bit as impressive as you imagine. Construction began in 1163 and took almost 200 years to complete. It takes what feels like a similar amount of time to climb the narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of Our Lady’s towers, so reward yourself with France’s best ice-cream afterwards from the Berthillon glacerie, located on the nearby and ever-so-quaint Rue Saint-Louis en l’île.  
Our Lady (Notre Dame) of Paris
  • Centre Georges Pompidou is Europe’s largest modern art museum, which is (call me architecturally uncultured) an absolute eyesore. To me, the 1970s-constructed building resembles what you’d get if you asked a three-year old to make a toolbox for Daddy using three toilet roll-tubes, some crazy glue, and the parts from the board game Mouse Trap. But inside, the museum showcases incredible artwork and modern pieces, with the view from the upper floor windows a work of art also, across the rooftops of Paris.
Centre Georges Pompidou

Arrondissement V
  • Latin Quarter – The Panthéon (a grand church-turned-mausoleum) presides over this oldest arrondissement of Paris, which boasts a ridiculous number of beautiful churches and educational institutions (Sorbonne included), as well as what I like to call the museum of the bleedingly obvious: La Musée de la Sculpture en Plein Air. As it is one of the more recent (1980) additions to the exhaustive list of museums in Paris, I can only assume that the Ministry responsible for naming tourist attractions (and with France’s love of administration, there is sure to be one) simply ran out of both French historical figures and creativity. I'm sure the conversation started off a little something like this: "Hey Pierre, what are we going to call that new museum where the sculptures are all outside in plain air?" And the rest is history.  

The Pantheon
Arrondissement VI
  • Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the most expensive district to live in Paris, so expect to pay more for your foie gras. But, as the liveliest quarter of Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is one of my favourites, despite the high concentration of tourists and a frightening incident with a busking clown earlier this year. Okay, so I’m scared of clowns, so what? I rationalise this as a fear of the unknown, the unknown factor being why grown men make the decision to dress up as crazy-clothed, face-painted idiots and make public spectacles of themselves. But, what I find even scarier is their unpredictability. Case in point: one of these nutcases used the old ‘jump and surprise’ tactic (which I presume tops the syllabus at Clown School) to scare the bejesus out of me as I was making my way to dinner, oblivious to him and his (unfortunately large) expectant St-Germain crowd. I’d probably not be fixed so rigidly to my soapbox right now if he had stopped the show right there. But, no, the crazy fool started chasing me as I ran away from him (it was no time for heroics). And don’t be fooled by the size of their shoes, those guys can travel! Moral of the story is: Despite the bozos, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a great place to be.

Arrondissement VII
  • La Tour Eiffel. Nothing new I can tell you about this ‘temporary’ construction for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Fair), except to say that its beauty is best admired from afar. I know, I know there seems to be a foundational human need to climb tall things and I get it, I mean, it’s the Eiffel Tower. But underneath there’s a hoard of immigrants hassling you to buy crap, along with enormous queues of tourists waiting—sometimes for up to two hours—to ascend the tower. This tackiness kind of takes the shine off her. Et pour moi, no view of Paris is complete sans the Eiffel Tower, so why bother? Just sayin’. However, seeing this 324-metre structure from a distance is just breathtaking, irrespective of how many times you’ve seen it before. Perhaps this is because it is just so recognisably ‘Paris’, or because it is one of the few monuments that don’t leave you thinking, ‘Oh, I expected it to be bigger’. Whatever the reason, a view of La Tour Eiffel continues to give warm and fuzzies to locals and tourists alike. And she’s even more beautiful at night when aglitter with 20,000 flash bulbs for five minutes on the hour every hour. Pure magique.

  • Hôtel des Invalides – Majestically stretching for 196-metres along the Seine, Les Invalides is yet another stunning structure that contributes—with its brilliantly gilded-dome—to Paris’ prominent skyline. Translated as ‘a home for the aged and unwell’, Hôtel des Invalides is Napoléon’s final resting place. Yep, I’d say dead is pretty unwell. Several members of Monsieur Bonaparte’s family are also entombed within the building, along with some French military officers who also fell into the ‘unwell’ category. Not just a glamourous cemetery, Les Invalides also contains museums and monuments relating to French military history for those wanting to know a little more than ‘at Waterloo, Napoléon did surrender’—although, for some reason, this part of French history tends to be swept over rather quickly. 

  • Musée d’Orsay is another magnificent example of 19th century architecture, built as a train station before being transformed in 1978 into a place to hang some pictures. Of course I jest with this modest description of today's purpose of my favourite museum in the world. Musée d’Orsay boasts an extensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces by Monet, Renoir, van Gogh and other artists that show more creative genius in their little fingers than the bright spark in the French Government who in 1970 approved to demolish this building to construct a hotel. Thankfully, this decision was overturned.  
The obsolete train station, thankfully now Musée d'Orsay,
was approved for demolition in 1970.

Arrondissement VIII
  • Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoléon after he promised victorious soldiers in 1805 that they would return home through arches of triumph. Well, clearly these soldiers took their time coming home, because the 50-metre-tall monument wasn’t completed until 1836 when, by this time, even Napoléon had died waiting.
    Honouring the country’s soldiers killed in battle, the Arc bears the names of all French victories (please note the plural) and military officials numbering some 660. This figure also quite possibly correlates to the number of car accidents that occur around the monument on any given day. The Arc de Triomphe stands in the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle, an eight-lane (but none of them marked, mind you) roundabout intersected by no less than 12 avenues. And, when you throw in the ever-so-logical Parisian rule of giving priority to traffic entering the roundabout while you’re already circling around it, you’ve got yourself an adrenalin rush that I plan on experiencing when I hire a car in the coming weeks. And, contrary to popular belief, car insurance remains valid amidst the craziness that is Place Charles de Gaulle.
  • Avenue des Champs-Élysées – Ignoring the global franchises, car retailers and ridiculously over-priced restaurants, this is the most beautiful avenue in the world. With the Arc de Triomphe regally awaiting your arrival, a walk down this chestnut tree-lined avenue is obligatory. Once. After your inaugural stroll along the 20-metre wide footpaths (jam-packed only with tourists), get the hell out of the area and you’ll discover that it’s just not Parisian to pay 7€ for coffee that is served to you by a waiter in a costume that appears to have been borrowed from a Venetian gondolier. 
  • Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées is surely the most beautiful exhibition hall in the world. An historic (aren’t they all) building between the Seine and the Champs-Élysées, the Grand Palais and the adjacent Petit Palais play host to numerous exhibitions, couture fashion shows and, last but certainly not least, the 2010 World Fencing Championships.

The Grand Palais exhibition building

  • Élysée Palais, amidst the high-end fashion stores of one of Paris’ most fashionable streets, is the residence of the French President. It seems that actually inhabiting the residence is optional, given that current President Nicolas Sarkozy prefers to live in wife Carla Bruni’s villa in the very posh 16th arrondissement. Former president François Mitterrand, during his reign from 1981 to 1995, only used Palace Élysée to hide his mistress and illegitimate daughter for 14 years at the expense of the State. And, how did the French react when his double life was exposed in 1994? Well, the major French newspaper ran with a headline of ‘So what?’, and a central quay along the Seine was named in Mitterrand’s honour. Only in France.    
Élysée Palais on Rue de Faubourg-Saint-Honoré
A quay along the Seine was
dedicated to François Mitterand in 2003

  • Place de la Concorde, the largest place (French for ‘square’) in Paris, was the venue for the public guillotining of many important French figures including King Louis XIV and Queen Marie Antoinette (boy, Prince Charles really got off lightly after that whole ‘Camillagate’ business). In a busy month, more than 1,300 people were beheaded here prior to 1795, when the guillotine was removed from the square (and probably passed on to the Bobbitt family). The guillotine was replaced with a 23-metre-high, 3,300-year-old Luxor Obelisk, gifted to the French in 1826 by the Egyptian Government. Weighing in at 250 metric tonnes, the obelisk was transported to France without its original cap which was believed to have been stolen in the 6th century BC (“Uh excusez-moi, Mohammed, thanks for the lovely gift, but this one’s broken. You still got the receipt?”). The obelisk is actually one of two bequeathed to the French, but the second remains in Egypt as it was too heavy and difficult transport with the technology at the time. The modern-day equivalent of such generosity would be telling a friend who lives overseas that you’re giving them a big-screen television, but that it has to stay in your lounge-room because it’s too big to freight. So, while I’m not convinced that it was ever theirs to begin with, France ‘gave’ the second obelisk back to Egypt in the 1990s, deeming ‘Egyptian giver’ to perhaps be a more appropriate expression than the widely-used Indian version.  

Place de la Concorde
Arrondissement IX
  • Palais Garnier is the original opera house of Paris and easily one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever seen. Take the metro to Opéra, and nothing will prepare you for the sight of this building as you ascend the stairs from the underground station. Constructed over 15 years from 1860, Palais Garnier was the setting for The Phantom of the Opera novel, films and musical productions. Take a tour inside and you’ll see a seven-tonne bronze and crystal chandelier hanging in the auditorium. In 1896, one of the counterweights from this chandelier fell and killed a member of the audience, but I’m guessing that if he liked opera as much as I do, this was considered more a stroke of luck than a tragedy.

The magnificent Palais Garnier
  • Galeries Lafayette is an historic 10-floor department store, so popular it even boasts its own metro station. While there are 63 stores around the world, the flagship store was constructed on Boulevard Haussman in Paris in 1893. And with more high-end fashion labels than you can poke a credit card at, you can do some serious damage at Galeries Lafayette. Perhaps more dangerous (for me, at least) is the presence of Le Bar à Bulles (The Bubble Bar), which sits among the clothes, beckoning you with the orange branding of your favourite French champagne. And a 15€ glass of Veuve Clicquot is sometimes all a girl needs to convince herself that she really does need that pair of Jimmy Choos.       
The bling that is Galeries Lafayette

Arrondissement X
  • Canal Saint-Martin is an artificial 4.5 kilometre waterway requested—let’s be honest, demanded—by Napoléon in 1802 as a means of supplying Paris with fresh water. Its current means is to supply Parisians with alcohol, because the area is now heavily dominated by bars and restaurants. Three cheers for Napoléon.   

Canal Saint-Martin
  • Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord are two major railway stations, constructed in 1849 and 1864 respectively. While both are architecturally-impressive, I recommend visiting them only on a needs basis, that is, you’re leaving Paris to the north or the east via train. Otherwise, spend too much time around these stations and you’ll want to catch the next high-speed train out of town. Around these stations is where you’ll witness the worst of Paris. Loitering in the streets are some very dodgy characters, who seem to think that a wink and a suggestive ‘Ca va?’ is enough for you to throw caution to the wind and head to the nearest hotel for a night of debauchery with an illegal immigrant wearing a muumuu. One afternoon, as I waited by the metro exit for a friend, no less than three of these shifty foreigners approached me and tried this very same tactic. One of them was a woman. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that.   
Arrondissement XI
  • Musée du Fumeur. Only in France would you find a museum dedicated to smoking. Oui, the Smoking Museum contains a collection of historical objects all related to France's favourite past-time (infidelity coming a close second, obviously) such as peace pipes, hookahs, opium pipes and snuffboxes. 

  • Cirque d’Hiver, or Winter Circus, is one of my favourite buildings in Paris. Constructed in 1852 as a permanent big top for the city, it remains a prominent venue for circuses, concerts and exhibitions. While my fear of clowns prevents me from venturing inside, feel free to step right up, step right up, and report back on whether the inside decor is as fun as the building's exterior.  
Cirque d'Hiver Bouglione on Rue Amelot
  • Oberkampf may sound like a concentration camp, but is actually another area of Paris enlivened with bars and restaurants. Perhaps I need to rename this post ‘Oh, the places you’ll go to drink’? 
Arrondissement XII
  • Place de la Bastille – This square marks the location of the ridiculously sombre, but now demolished, Bastille Saint-Antoine fortress. The prison was stormed by French Revolutionists on 14 July 1789 as it was a prominent symbol of monarchical power (but, in truth, it was because it housed a lot of gunpowder). Soon after, King Louis XVI admitted defeat ending more than 1000 years of continuous French monarchy, as well as the blood circulation between his neck and his head because he was eventually guillotined. Et voila, you have Bastille Day on 14 July, when the French celebrate the launch of their democratic republic by staging street parades of tanks, guns and military officers. Probably best to leave the kids at home for this annual humdinger.
The scariest parade I've never seen.

  • Gare de Lyon is more than just a train station; it is France’s answer to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Okay, that may be a slight overstatement, but I’ve never been a big fan of London, and Gare de Lyon is definitely worth checking out at night—you’ll be gobsmacked (the picture below just doesn't do it justice).

Gare de Lyon by night

  • Chez moi. Indeed, the 92 square metres that I call home are certainly worth a visit, provided you do so before 17 January 2012. Come any later and it won’t be nearly as spectacular, because I’ll no longer be there. :-(
My apartment building
  • Bois de Vincennes. Almost three times the size of Central Park in New York, Bois de Vincennes is Paris’ largest park and, given its close proximity to chez moi, my preferred running location. Bois de Vincennes was designed to mirror the English landscape, only with sun (easy shot, I know) and is home to a zoo, four lakes and little old men playing petanque. Quaint wooden boats and an array of birdlife paddle across the lake as families stroll, runners run and elderly couples snuggle on park benches, all enjoying this pocket of tranquillity in one of Europe’s largest cities.     
Autumn at Bois de Vincennes
Arrondissement XIII
  • Paris Rive Gauche is a modern business district on the left bank of the Seine that is home to 30,000 students and professors due to its close proximity to the best university in Paris, Paris University VII (biased, of course).

  • Piscine Josephine Baker is a 25m x 10m swimming pool afloat on the Seine. The pool was opened in 2006 to complement ‘Paris-Plages’, an event that sees 3.5 kilometres of the banks of the Seine transformed into artificial beaches for those poor Parisians who are unable to get away for their summer holidays.   
The Josphine Baker swimming pool (piscine) on the Seine.

Arrondissement XIV
  • Alliance Française one of the most prominent French language schools and one of my favourite places in Paris, which is fortunate given that I spent 200 hours there. Granted, I passed 50 per cent of that time banging my head against a desk, and the other half trying to wrap my Australian accent around the pronunciation distinctions between “deux heures”, “dix heures”, “douze heures”, “dessert” and “desert”. (Heads up, Aussies, they all sound the bloody same.) In all seriousness, after 10 weeks of intensive studies, I left this school with many fond memories (most pictured below), none of which unfortunately relate to French conjugation. 
The only Alliance Française class that mattered, our B1 class of 2011

Arrondissement XV
The contrastingly modern
Tour Montparnasse
  • Tour Montparnasse is the second-tallest tower in Paris, but doesn’t even come close to matching the beauty of its victor, the Eiffel Tower. In fact, the design (or lack thereof) and size of Tour Montparnasse were so greatly criticised that, two years after its completion in 1972, Paris banned the construction of skyscrapers in the city. The news isn’t all bad though, because the views from the building are said to be the most beautiful in Paris, presumably because it’s the only place in Paris where you can’t actually see Montparnasse Tower. Tourists can pay to take the elevator (thankfully) to the top floor viewing platform, while lucky office-workers enjoy the views daily. Be sure to hold your breath as you walk past the building though, because they’ve been trying to remove asbestos from it since 2007. Perhaps the office-workers aren’t so lucky after all.

  • Musée du Service des Objets Trouvés has me completely stumped. Brace yourself, kids, because this is the Museum of the Lost and Found Department of the Paris Police. Not surprisingly, the museum includes unusual items that have never been claimed by their owners. Although I thought this concept for a museum a little odd, I was prepared to go in with an open mind. That was, until I did a little more research and discovered that the people determining what is unusual are the very same people who don’t think it at all unusual to have a lost and found property museum that is—wait for it—NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Say what?! And although the museum is said to contain, among other things, an old fireman’s helmet and a lobster found at Paris Orly Airport (quite possibly detained after attempting to flee the beachless Paris for the sunny south), how do we actually know what it contains? And what’s the point of actually even caring if we can’t see unusual items. And why have I dedicated almost 200 words of this Blog to this ‘Museum’? Yep, completely stumped.

  • Centre Sportif Emile Anthoine is a sporting stadium that sits between the Australian embassy and the Eiffel Tower, offering amazing views of both as you’re running laps around the 400-metre circuit. The centre is free of charge, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a track with a more picturesque view while you're working off your morning croissant. And if you’re not a runner, the sight of the illuminated Eiffel Tower at night is sure to provide an extra incentive for you to turn the next corner. 
Running has never been such a pleasure
Arrondissement XVI
  • High society. The 16th arrondissement is to Paris as the Upper East Side is to New York. Home to the city’s most wealthy and well-to-do residents, the 16th arrondissement is also the location of Avenue Foch, the widest street in Paris and one of the most expensive addresses in the world. Debussy used to live here and the Onassis family still does.

Avenue Foch: home to the créme de la créme
  • Trocadéro is a very ugly place that you simply must visit. Why? Well, not to picnic on the cement and regard the unsightly Palais Chaillot that replaced the stunning 19th century Palais du Trocadéro in 1937. And certainly not to waste time waiting for the gold-painted statue people to move on the flanking podiums, because they’re actually real statues—they just look so horridly fake. No, you must visit Trocadéro to witness what is possibly the most photographed view of the Eiffel Tower. That is all. 
The view from the cement-y Trocadéro

  • Musée Marmottan Monet boasts the largest assortment of (surprise, surprise) Monet paintings in its collection of more than 300 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. Enough said.   
Arrondissement XVII 
  • Palais des congres de Paris. Okay, I’m really clutching at straws to find something remarkable in the 17th. The Palais de congres de Paris is really only rating a mention because it was the venue for the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest, which always makes me smile. It's also the venue for the Tour de France jersey presentations. 

Palais des Congres, proof that the French use the word 'Palace' a little too loosely.

Arrondissement XIII
  • Montmartre is a district named for the 130-metre Butte Montmartre hill that towers above it. Montmartre is symbolised by the widely-visible Basilique of the Sacre Cœur, the white-domed church that sits grandly on the hill summit. Because famed artists such as Monet, Picasso and van Gogh used to paint in the district, you’ll see numerous artists painting (mainly portraits of tourists for money) in the main square. 
    Each October since 1934, Montmartre has hosted the Fetes des vendanges (Wine Harvest Festival), an annual event attracting more than 300,000 people to sample the arrival of the wines of Montmartre. I stumbled across this event with friends last year, and at some moments we genuinely feared that we were going to be crushed by the sheer number of people. But, with free wine glasses, free-flowing French wine at cellar door prices, and fireworks blazing above, we would have died ridiculously happy.

The Basilique du Sacré Coeur atop Montmartre 

The charming streets of the Montmartre district

  • Pigalle is the red-light district of Paris, although I struggle to fathom why this area is such a tourist hotspot, because it’s certainly no Amsterdam. Sure, it’s home to the picturesque (at night only) windmill-adorned Moulin Rouge, but the district is otherwise littered (in every sense of the word) with sex shops, kebab vendors and groups of darty-eyed men smoking outside of these establishments. And don’t even get me started on the prostitute-ridden side streets. I understand that this street exists to remind us all that sex was, is, and continues to be an important part of French culture, but I can be reminded of that each time I pass Quai François Mitterrand, without the need for a post-coital kebab.  
The Moulin Rouge is a sight to behold at night.  
Arrondissement XIX
  • Parc des Buttes Chaumont is (well, was) Paris’ best-kept secret. The city’s third largest park, Buttes Chaumont contains more than five kilometres of walking paths and trails and its outlook over the city makes it my favourite picnicking spot. It is also home to one of Paris’ most popular bars where in summer you’ll often see a 150-metre-long queue of locals waiting patiently to grab a table outside on the terrace.

Le Parc Buttes Chaumont

Arrondissement XX
  • Père Lachaise Cimetière opened in 1804 and is today the permanent home of more than one million bodies. Famous residents include composer Frédéric Chopin, writer Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison of The Doors’ fame. Today, a waiting list exists for those wishing to snap up the few plots still available (just how keen are you to keep up with Les Joneses?). You can be placed on the list only if you have lived or died in Paris (I’m in, I’m in!). Père Lachaise is more like a village than a cemetery, with towering monuments and mini-chapels marking the resting places of many well-known people or families. Be prepared that you’ll again need your Scout Orienteering Badge to locate Jim Morrison’s grave, which would be impossible were it not for a home-made (presumably by a teenager) laminated montage of magazine cut-outs placed by his modest gravestone. 
Pére Lachaise Cemetery
  • One of the most interesting graves at Père Lachaise is that dedicated to French journalist, Victor Noir. Noir was shot dead by a relative of Napoléon in 1870 after delivering a message from his newspaper editor (‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ clearly not a common phrase back then). Such a public outcry ensued at the manner in which the 22-year-old was killed that a life-sized bronze statue was sculpted to mark his grave. The sculpture depicts a well-endowed (clothed) Noir laying in death, his top-hat by his side. Superstition suggests that kissing Noir on the lips, placing a flower in his upturned hat and giving his bulging nether regions a rub will bring enhanced fertility or sexual prospects. And so, in death, his lips and genitalia worn shiny from years of stroking from hopeful ladies, Victor Noir is living every man’s dream. 

Finally, snaking its way through the city, dividing Paris into the Left Bank and Right Bank is the beautiful River Seine. Anywhere along the river is my favourite place to be (yes, even by Quai François Mitterrand). By day or by night, the best views are obtained by walking the banks and bridges of the Seine. There’s no better place to witness the splendour, feel the magic, and get lost in the stories that make Paris the spectacular beauty she is today. The best things in life are free—even in Paris.

Joyeux Noël,
Bek xx

Friday, 2 December 2011

Learning more than just a language

Outside of the 20 hours I spend cursing French grammar each week, life in Paris presents numerous other challenges. And while none are as arduous as learning to conjugate 14 tenses in a foreign language, the out-of-the-classroom lessons have been just as helpful in assimilating me into Parisian society. And by ‘assimilating’ I mean avoiding habitual humiliation, food poisoning, bankruptcy (although, I’m nearly there) and deportation.

And so, you might appreciate the following pearls of wisdom, and even more-so when I tell you that most were acquired the embarrassing waythrough personal experience. While some were learnt through speaking with the locals, my personal favourites are those brought to you by the misfortune of others... 

  • Avoid walking over metal grates on the footpath while wearing a dress, skirt or kilt (Scotsmen, beware!) unless you want the entire street to see (hopefully just) your underwear while you cop a face full of dirty wind from the underground train (the métro). And to really ramp up your level of embarrassment to ‘mortifying’, why not make sure you're wearing a g-string at the time. [Hint: it's not quite as sexy as Marilyn Munroe makes it out to be.] 

There is even a restaurant
named in honour of pigs' trotters
...a delicacy the French can keep.
    • Don’t just randomly pick a dish from a French menu and hope for the best. Take this advice from someone who has ended up staring down at a steaming hot plate of pigs' trotters (oui, steer clear of ‘Pied de Cochon’ on the menu) when I first started learning French, and veal kidneys (‘Rognon de Veau’) when I knew enough French to know better. You only make this mistake twice, it seems, before you make it your mission to learn the meaning of every single food item likely to appear on a French menu. 

      • It is always wise to clarify who owns the dog that is trying to eat your entrée off the dinner table before you start complaining about it to your friends (in French), because it is highly likely that the aforementioned canine belongs to the owner of the restaurant. And that very same owner, who is topping up your wine glass while you’re bitching about his bitch, is incidentally the same guy who’ll be overseeing the preparation of your main meal. Bon appétit!  

      A furry little beggar.

      • Never ask a French person to taste some wine unless you’re doubly sure you’ve served it at the recommended temperature. My friends, you can’t imagine the look of horror you’ll receive if the French are subjected to a sip of over-chilled wine. Oh, the horror. 

        • Avoid taking the métro if you can walk. Paris is so small that you can walk from east to west in two and half hours. Believe me because I’ve hiked the radius in heels at 4am one very frustrating and slightly drunkenly morning, which reminds me...

        • Don’t walk home alone at 4am in the morning in high heels (drunk). Actually, girls, don’t walk anywhere at night in Paris alone—there are plenty of dodgy people out there and (surprisingly) none of them are French.

          • Don’t discuss state secrets (or mention the war) in your apartment building, because the walls are made of paper. I can actually hear the vibration of my upstairs neighbour’s mobile phone every time she receives a text message (and if it’s not her phone, she’s a pretty lonely lady). Parisian walls are so famous for being lean that there is actually a code of etiquette that prohibits the wearing of shoes inside your apartment. Presumably, this unspoken rule exists to prevent exposing your downstairs neighbours to a clumping noise over and above that already emanating from their French television station, which makes a nice segue to my next piece of advice... 

            • Don’t watch French television. Sure, it’s fun to hear French Homer in ‘Les Simpsons’, for about a minute, until you become saddened by the realisation that this entire nation of people can only ever watch English programs dubbed with dreadful voiceovers. Never will the French be able to appreciate the original vocal stylings of Stewie from Family Guy, which if you ask me is one of life’s greatest travesties. The remainder of French television content seems to centre on groups of (mostly) men—at least one journalist, one comedian and too many politicians—discussing politics, the economy and current affairs. Despite the ever-present comedian, there doesn’t seem to be anything funny about these programs, but I will concede that I’m not yet fluent enough to understand ALL that is being said. But I think I’ve seen enough to advise you to avoid the disappointment altogether and go out to dinner instead. 

              • Don’t buy anything that you see being cooked on the side of the road in a supermarket trolley. While this may sound like a ridiculously obvious piece of advice, you’d be stunned at the number of idiots I see munching on corn or chestnuts that have been ‘freshly’ roasted on an upside-down garbage can lid suspended across a shopping cart. If the garbage can lid isn’t enough to put you off, I’ve seen how these, often homeless, vendors rotate that corn and, trust me, you don’t want it anywhere near your mouth. 

                • When two kids come up and shove a questionnaire in front of you without saying a word, punch them in the face twice, in quick succession. The questionnaire is a mere decoy to allow these illegal immigrants to steal your wallet, phone or camera. The second punch is for me, because they stole my iPhone last year and (clearly) I’m not quite over it. Thanks. 

                  • Never try to pay for 6€ worth of groceries with a 50€ note even at a major supermarket, because ‘Are you crazy? We can't possibly change that!’ And if you’re unlucky enough to receive a 100€ note from the cash machine (ATM), you may as well just give it to a homeless person and make it their problem (because God knows they don't have enough). 

                    • Don’t expect to enter a supermarket with shopping bags. ‘Not so fast, Madame. Surely you’ll be checking those Zara bags in at concierge for your collection after you’re done shopping here.’ A cloak room for bags at the supermarket? You think I jest, but alas I do not. 

                      • Don’t save your all-important (wine) shopping for a Sunday, or a Monday for that matter. Very few shops are open. In fact, even the fountains seem to take the day off. 

                      Coincidence, or is there really not a drop to spare on a Sunday?
                      • Don’t assume that paying to use a toilet means you’ll receive all expected amenities (you know, like toilet paper and a functioning door lock). I’ve actually taken my 0.50€ back from the lazy b*tch at the front because she hadn’t done her job properly (which made two of us).

                        • Never mock the cheese. The French have a sense of humour about a lot of things. Cheese is not one of them. You've been warned.

                        • You can safely assume that you don’t pronounce the last letter of any French word. In fact, what the hell, just ignore the last third of most French words and you’ll be fluent in no time. It seems—as is the French way—some letters are thrown in just because they look pretty.

                        • Don’t feel obligated to tip just because the waitperson brings your change back on a little plate. It is not customary to tip in France, but the waiters hope that all English-speakers are American (for tipping purposes only though, be sure of that).

                        • Don’t lose your apartment key, as this is the Parisian equivalent of dropping 1000€ in the street. No, the keys aren’t made of gold; they just open a lot more than just a lock. Most apartment doors come complete with a locking system that spans vertically up your entire door, so losing that seemingly insignificant key means having to replace the complete door locking system and being firmly reprimanded by a very unhappy landlord.

                        Turn your computer screen anti-clockwise by 90 degrees and you'll (literally) get the picture.
                        [This blogging program won't allow me to rotate the image, sorry.]

                        • Be sure that your handbag and all body parts are well inside the doors of the métro when you hear the siren sound, because those doors aren’t stopping for anyone. We’re all in a really big hurry, you know, and I detest having to wait more than three minutes for a train (what has become of me?).

                        • Stand to the right on all stairs and escalators, so people in a hurry (like me; so busy and important am I) can walk past you on the left. This is not a request; this is an instruction.

                        • Don’t shop on the Champs-Elysees. In fact, there’s no need to even walk down this street unless it’s November or December and you want to see the most magical lighting display and the biggest Christmas markets (hot wine!) in Paris. Otherwise, the Avenue is just a street of global chains, car retailers and too many tourists pretending that they’re not disappointed by all the global chains and car retailers.
                        Why would you?
                        • When a random guy picks up a wedding ring off the street and asks you if it’s yours, ignore him. It’s some ridiculous scam whereby he tries to persuade you into taking the ring and then hassles you for money for it. I don’t understand the logic behind this, but I’ve seen two couples fall for it just to get the guy off their back. I’ve also heard stories where a second person steals your wallet while you’re being distracted by the ringbearer. It pays just to ignore everyone who approaches you in Paris. They’ll either want directions, money or your handbag—best to make like a Parisian and give them none of the above.

                        • Don’t go to the larger museums on the first Sunday of any month, because they are free for all and so, quite literally, a free-for-all. Do yourself a favour on this day and avoid the three-hour line-ups to the Musée du Louvre, Musée D’Orsay or Centre Pompidou (Musée national d’art modern) and head to one of the 60-odd smaller museums. Some of these house masterpieces that rival the major museums anyway. Besides 14€ to enter the Louvre, the world’s most prestigious museum, is a steal, so who cares if you have to pay or not. Visit on the day before the last Sunday of any month and you’ll have the place (including the Mona Lisa, and she’s not that small) to yourself. Also, if you enter the Louvre from underground, you’ll skip the outside line-up, but don’t tell your friends. ;-)

                        • Don’t take a photo of the French police (the Gendarmerie), particularly when there are 15 vans full of them outside the US Embassy. I’ve covered the reasons why in a previous post, so I’ll not bore you by recounting the story of my near-arrest. Ah, the melodrama.

                        Bek xx