On the tube leaving London on Wednesday evening I saw a headline in someone’s paper about a massacre in Paris. I paused for a moment in my head, but assumed from the headline that whatever had happened was over and I continued on my way. There were a bundle of police outside the metro stop near my hostel in Paris. A fellow had a bit of a drunken talk at them, but I thought perhaps I’d chosen a bit of a rough area to sleep in. (I’m still not sure.) Then when I read my email at the hostel I had a couple of emails checking in on me. The so called free wifi at the hostel was only available during business hours so it wasn’t until the next morning that I read any news myself. I wanted to spend a bit of time catching up with blog posts anyway, so I took my time considering whether I needed to change my plans for Paris. In the end I decided that the risk that I’d get caught up in any possible police or terrorist actions was small enough, that if I was to stay inside now I may as well stay inside forever, and out I went.
Personally, I was pretty unaware of the rest of what happened until I got to Barcelona on Saturday night. I can’t tell how much it affected my experience of Paris. Whether the streets were quieter because locals had stayed in. Whether there were more sirens than normal. Whether everyone serving in the restaurants and shops was distracted by the news feeds on their phones and computers. I liked Paris nonetheless.
Lots of people have said to me that they think Edinburgh is pretty. Pretty isn’t the word I’d choose for Edinburgh, but for Paris, sure. It’s the wrought iron railings on balconies that makes the main difference. Calling a city romantic though might be a step too far! There were lots of trees, wide footpaths, people on bikes, women in berets, people buying baguettes and soldiers with guns.
On my first day I walked up to Sacré-Cœur and to Musee d’Orsay via the outside of the Louvre. I can’t really remember inside the Scare Cuere, one church is blurring into another, but it was one with no camera signs which were being routinely ignored. The rain wasn’t letting up so I retreated to a restaurant for food and warmth. The waiter chided me for coming to France and only ordering a mushroom omelette but he didn’t have a come back when I said I’m vegetarian. Entertainment was provided by a group of school students, possibly from Brazil. One of the girls had the waiter pass a note on a napkin to a boy sitting with his mum. Whatever it said, his chest lifted and he leant back and ran his hands over his chest. He took a napkin note of his own back to the table and pecked a girl on the cheek. Whatever I though, they’d decided Paris would be romantic.
I decided to head in the general direction of the Musee d’Orsay which I’d been told was more manageable in a short visit than the Louvre. I started off down hill, then after it flattened out and I took a few turns I was completely lost, several times. Later, I actually resorted to using the compass on my phone. I found myself in a strange world consisting almost entirely of stamp collection shops. I didn’t know such things still existed let alone a whole enclave of them. There were Christmas tree crumbs in the streets where people’s old trees had been collected from.
Musee d’Orsay has artwork from 1848 to 1914. Fittingly for my journey, it’s housed in an old railway station. There’s a hall of marble carvings of mythical humans with conveniently positioned drapes of cloth. I enjoyed most the exhibition of the new pieces the museum has acquired. One of the two most striking was of a newlywed couple in a forest beside a pool of water, watching a troupe of fauns and naked young women almost skip through the woods. I’m guessing the other was a scene from Paradise lost. One larger than life naked man had his knee in the back of another, teeth closed on his neck and the devil flying above looking on Dante and Virgil looking on in quite horror. The profusion of chairs raised the question of how does one tell when a chair is part of the exhibition, for staff to sit on, for visitors to sit on, or some combination. I saw one fellow glance at a staff chair when his son was talking about the much more ornate one on display.
On my second day I caught the metro to the centre of town and went to the Notre Dame and a Krishna café for vegie food before walking to the Pantheon and Eiffel Tower. A series of information panels about the history of the Notre Dame said that one set of extensions took less than 100 years to complete, as if this was impressive. Who now would consider starting a building project that wouldn’t be finished for 100 years, let alone extensions? The panels also said that changes had been made in recent years, new bells and remodelling a section. I liked that the building is still living, its character not set forever in the stone it’s made of. Another sign made me laugh at the stereotype that French people don’t like English people murdering their language. It was a line of translation to English that said a 12th century saint “teaches” at the University of Paris. That’s some saint. There were more translations scattered about Paris that were also not quite right, but that one stuck in my mind.
From the Pantheon I had my first view of the Eiffel Tower. No more getting lost. A park on the way included a huge water feature, pergolas that blended with the bare trees and two women sat chatting in the faint sun. Around the Eiffel Tower, at a distance determined by the push of security and the pull of hawkers, men jangled large wire bangles loaded with miniature metal towers. Under the tower, a snow dome like structure housed Christmas trees and reflected the tower’s legs, a bit like looking up its skirt. Across the river I ducked into a cemetery. It was quiet behind its walls, and getting dark. The caretaker or similar gently threw me out when it was time to lock the gates. I continued walking to the Arc de Triomphe for something to do. Restaurants opened but the streets were quiet. I sat and watched the traffic at the crazy round about for a little while. Watched cars stranded in indecision, several brave cyclists go round, and wondered how one actually navigates it when the street signs were tiny and in the dark. The noise and movement seemed unconnected to the stoney stillness of the arches.
That was almost it for Paris. On the train back to the hostel for my bags, I went one stop too far without realising it. The benefit was seeing the extent of the train station from the back. Platforms and light sprawled across the land. After I went back and stopped for a photo, I decided that the shapes behind the fence under the suburban train line I’d been on, were tents. Small and medium dome tents packed as tightly as sardines. Refugees? People from other countries hopeful for work? I don’t know and I certainly didn’t stop to ask. Nearer to the hostel, a thicket of men put me on guard. I tried to stick to the edge of them to get past. I don’t think it was their Middle Eastern appearance that made me uncomfortable. I think as many white men would too. But I wondered if their being Middle Eastern explained why there were almost no women around. Now that was the last of Paris for me, I was off on an overnight sleeper train to Portbou on the northern Mediterranean coast of Spain.