Sunday, August 12, 2007

Paris again...

I arrived in Paris on Wednesday about midday their time and 2:00 am my time. Although I'd slept on the flight, I was not necessarily in any condition to be in a country where I effectively didn't speak the same language as everyone else.

My train journey from the airport to the CBD was not marred by pickpockets or any of the other nastiness I'd been warned about. It was marred by my luggage, which was too big and heavy to move quickly. When I got to Chattelet-Les-Halles station, instead of changing trains to get to Pont Marie, I ended up stuck behind the luggage watching Chattelet-Les-Halles fade into the distance behind me.

I ended up at Notre Dame, which is only about 10 minutes walk from Erin's abode, unless you have giant baggage, in which case it's physically impossible to get there. I learned a useful phrase from the first taxi I flagged down, which I think meant something like 'P!ss off I am not driving you such a pathetically short distance'. At this point, the impending thunderstorm had broken and so had one of my bags, so I felt moved to reciprocate by teaching the taxi driver some useful Australian colloquial phrases. I hope they all come to pass upon him in the imminent future, with an especially large pineapple and a Rugby All-Black.

The second taxi driver was more helpful and I arrived at the Cite des Artes at about 5pm Paris time. As I said in my previous post, Erin's apartment was amazing - the location is beyond belief, she is about 10 minutes walk from everything and the block was just gorgeous.

Using her flat as a base, I explored the Ile-St-Louis, which is sort of like a very, very plush and much older Toorak, and the area around Notre Dame. I never did actually get in to Notre Dame on account of the terrifying queues, which stretched most of the way across the square (see the pix).

On my second day there, we went to the Louvre. The Louvre is every bit as amazing as everyone says. You can't see everything there and you'll go completely insane if you try - my strategy was to focus on a couple of areas that I thought would be interesting and to skim through, allowing things to catch my eye.

The building itself is a wonder - I think it's about 1km each side - and the craftsmanship involved at every level of its construction just defies belief. I found myself wandering around the mediaeval foundations of the Louvre by mistake (I was looking for the Egyptian antiquities wing, which I never found) and it was quite interesting to see how much work was involved in just keeping the edifice upright. The public areas were painted, carved, varnished, veneered and otherwise decorated to within an inch of insanity - all in superb taste of course.

Stand out memories:

Sitting on a carved stone seat on the servants' stairs. How did I know they were servants' stairs? Plain stone walls, no carvings, no chandeliers, no ornamental work - except on the seat, which had two perfect little lion heads carved on the armrests.

Seeing the Code of Hammurabi - the very first piece of written legislation and for those of you who remember your Bible, the origin of the saying 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. His Highness had a very literal sense of justice... He was also very into killing people for infringing the law.

Walking into a room which was deserted except for two 12-foot high Mespotamian Winged Bulls, dug up from the ruins of some ancient palace or other (my French wasn't up to the fine detail of the exhibit labels).

Laughing hysterically at a Classical carving of a Greek hero. An explanation is in order - as I understood the label, an Ancient Greek Olympian who was reknowned for his sporting prowess wandered into the woods one day, where he was unfortunately eaten by wolves. A famous French sculptor, moved by this tale, decided to commit it to marble. The end result is a sculpture of a very well-built gentleman being bitten in the ass by a lion. Said lion is about 1/3 the size of the athlete and it looks like the sculptor used his pet cat as a model. I felt that the sculpture perhaps did not convey the tragedy of the tale in the way that the sculptor intended.

Case after case of Mesapotamian cylinder seals with their impressions. These things are about 3,000 years old (or maybe older - again, language difficulties!) and yet they create such delicate, detailed impressions!!

A case with small Mesapotamian artifacts - a crude clay sculpture of a bed, happily occupied - on one hand, a sign that some things transcend history. On the other - what did it mean to the original owner? Was it a prehistoric version of Playboy? A religious object? Something you gave to your kids before they got married as an educational aid? Beside the sculpture, a group of the daintiest little ivory carvings of a cow suckling a calf. Obviously the image was important enough that some exceptionally skilled artists put a great deal of effort into reproducing it, but why?

Going through the Arab exhibits and realising that I could easily substitute most of my jewellery for that on display - seeing pottery that looked very contemporary - finally finding myself in front of an abstract human figurine that (I think!) was about 7000 years old.

Trying to find the bloody Egyptian exhibit!! I found a Sphinx in one of the crypts, but the rest of the exhibit eluded me.

Jumping up and down at the back of a very large room trying to see La Gioconda/Mona Lisa. The Venus di Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace were also very popular.

By about 3:30, I couldn't handle any more art so I wandered back to Erin's apartment. En route, I tried to see Notre Dame but was foiled by the queue again (and by the funeral of a Cardinal, which meant that the tourists had to wait until the service was finished). Instead I went to see the Crypte Archeologique, which is under the Cathedral - someone has excavated the Roman and medieaval ruins under the Cathedral -it is quite trippy seeing how the City has built up on itself, layer after layer, with the lower layers quietly biding their time in the dark under the ground. It was also trippy seeing how narrow the streets were! The main thoroughfare for transporting materials to the Cathedral site was a whole 7m wide (probably about the same size as a two-lane road or slightly less) - that was major thoroughfare territory in those days, sort of their equivalent of the Western Ring Road.

On Saturday, my mission was to see Kilometre Zero, the central point from which all distances in France are measured, and the Memorial de la Deportation. I also had a fancy to purchase some Florame skin products - sort of a French Jurlique, only all the ingredients are organic not just some. Slight problem, in France they do not have the concept of 'open 24/7' so everything was shut.

I managed to get to the Memorial at 11:00, just in time to stand in a queue. The Memorial is dedicated to the French who died in the concentration camps. The only way I can describe it is to say, think of a prison. Or look at the pictures. When you get through the claustrophobic concrete maze, you find yourself at one end of a tunnel full of little lights. There is one light there for each person who disappeared or died, and it looks like the tunnel goes on for ever.

I missed the Kilometre Zero, it is in the square outside Notre Dame so presumably some tourist was standing on it. I found Florame and purchased several products - unfortunately, I left them in my handbag, so French customs confiscated anything over 200ml. Luckily my plane was delayed or I'd have missed it while I was trying to work out what the hell was going on. My French is OK for simple things like 'Interdit' (Prohibited) and ne... pas (do not [do whatever]) but I wasn't equipped to deal with the complexities of whatever law I'd transgressed by having 200ml of cleanser in my handbag.

Lessons learned in France:

- The food is great, but you do still have to know where to go. And what to order - Erin and I went to a health food restaurant, where I scored a delicious chicken salad. Erin got an overcooked casserole with soggy rice salad. This might relate to point two...

- If you try to speak French, you really do get brownie points. I found everyone extremely polite and helpful, but I always tried to communicate in French and only used English when I absolutely couldn't get my point across any other way. Even Customs were reasonably polite and helpful - put it this way, I've still got a couple of bottles of cosmetics and I'm not entirely sure that I should have them!
In case I missed the lesson, I came across a small group of American tourists who were in a similar predicament to myself on my first day (missed their stop, trying to find their way back to their station). I mangled out some sort of explanation of my plight and got directions to a taxi rank. They communicated by shouting at everyone and were still standing outside the Metro station being rained on when I left.
- There are places in this world where a three room apartment (not three bedroom, three ROOM) is a pretty good score.

- Melbourne house prices are really insane, apartments on the Ile-St-Louis are about the same prices as premium Melbourne apartments (although they are possibly a bit smaller).

- Either French men have an entirely undeserved reputation for sleaziness or they have a better sense of self-preservation than they've been given credit for. Although I was on my own most of the time and identifiably a tourist (wearing jeans - big fashion no-no in Paris!), I didn't have any problems.
So much for my first experience of travelling somewhere where I can't speak the language fluently. It was nowhere near as scary as I thought and I reckon I'd be right to do it again. Although next time I'd like to speak enough French to ask the Customs for my bloody make-up back!!

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