Friday, 13 December 2013

stinge-ing out in paris and london. part one

The creme de la creme of famous dangles

 We are no luxury travelers, but we have certainly not been down and out in Paris and London. Stinging out though? Yeah, a little bit.

Our journey from Chatellerault to Paris only cost us a few hours of slightly awkward small talk with strangers- we even learnt something. Did you know that 80% of France's power is nuclear? Neither did we.

We arrived in the city of love and, with our stingy hats firmly upon our heads, bought two children's tickets for the train to the 'burbs and our first night of Parisian couchsurfing. Which turned out to be more about celebrating the multicultural side of Paris than the 'stripey-shirted man with a croissant and a cigarette' side. We were staying with an Asian guy who lived with a family hailing from somewhere in Africa and we dined on Vietnamese pho (which was so good we were back in Vietnam for a minute).

We came round a bend on the river and saw this...

We had a far too brief 2 days in Paris and I'm sure we walked at least 100 kilometres in our efforts to see as much as possible (as well as, the metro is kind of expensive). And we saw a lot...of course the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee (which meant I had that song stuck in my head for far too long), and Moulin Rouge. Also the final resting places of Oscar Wilde (Egyptian themed and covered in red kisses), Jim Morrison (covered in flowers) and George Melies (unfortunately no magic tricks were to be found) in the too big to be believed Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise. It is a wending, winding, tree-lined 110 acres with over a million "customers", that has been a fixture in Paris since 1804. I don't know if this is appropriate in a cemetery but I had to giggle when we came across a huge mausoleum housing somebody called 'Stroggonoff".
Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise
 The fantastic thing about Paris is that you don't really need to know where you're going (excellent for us, as we will often study a map, decide where we need to go and head off in exactly the wrong direction) because there is usually something to see around every corner. On our first morning's stroll we stumbled upon the Notre Dame! (Though if you fail to see that whilst walking around Paris I don't may not have eyes). You will often be walking along a street, admiring the elegant old apartment buildings, and you'll turn a corner and be in front of a wonderful little park strewn with statues or a grand old municipal building or a shop window beckoning with its rainbows of macarons or, much to our literary delight, one of Ernest Hemingway's past homes.

For some reason, me kissing fish has become a theme.
We were walking along the river one rainy afternoon and as we passed the Musee D'Orsay we noticed an enticing lack of crowds so went inside and whiled away a couple of hours admiring Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rodin and lots of other people that aren't so famous and therefore aren't so easily recalled. Ahhh, Paris. They also gave us discounted tickets for the museum as we are under 26. It is actually surprisingly easy being in Paris with very little money (as long as you have somewhere free to sleep and can resist the very strong temptation to buy everything) because you can look for free and there are many, many things to see. Also croissants aren't very expensive.

As we made our way down to the Eiffel Tower on our first Parisian day we crossed a bridge covered in engraved padlocks, proclaiming the love of thousands of couples (it is called 'Love Lock Bridge', I later learnt from eavesdropping on two American girls of questionable intelligence- they were certain 2 days would be enough in Paris as there was really only 3 things to see: the Louvre, the tower and this bridge...). Anyway we posed for a couple-y photo and were continuing on down the river when Will, in nervous earnest, told me not to expect a proposal at the Eiffel Tower, as there were no engagement ring sized surprises in store. He must have been growing ever more anxious about how to avoid becoming engaged without hurting my feelings ever since we arrived in the most cliched romantic city of them all (indeed, we saw two separate brides posing for photographs at the Eiffel Tower). I told him not to worry- I wasn't interested in marrying him until he could provide me with a house, a car and 2.5 children.
Love Lock Bridge

So the city of art, love, shopping, food (pastries for breakfast and cheese and wine for dinner anyone? How Parisians stay so thin when there endless displays of incredible food everywhere, I have no idea.) and wandering...we did so much walking in our time there that my ankles actually swelled up and I was rocking some serious cankles for the next week. It was also freezing, freezing cold while we were there but this did nothing to deter us from our hours of exploring the streets. In fact, if you can handle the cold- which all the Parisians said was completely normal and not actually very cold at all- this is the best time to visit because the places which I'm sure are over-run with tourists in the summer are completely empty now.

The Sacre Coeur at Mont Martre

And then, abruptly, our little Parisian sojourn was at its end. We had morning bus tickets booked for London, our bags were packed and we were ready to go (physically, if not mentally). We said goodbye to our wonderful host Pierre, an incredibly friendly and open-minded man who couchsurfs around the world with his 3 children and spends his Sundays giving food and conversation to the homeless of Paris, and made our way to a bookshop I wanted to have a quick look around before I left. The famous Shakespeare and Company has been a fixture of the Latin Quarter since 1951 and is a literary institution. Unfortunately the shop only opens at 10 and we had to catch our bus at 11 so we could only have a very, very quick browse. This, as I should have known, was impossible. We found ourselves still immersed in the tiny corners and bursting shelves of this densely packed space at 10.20. Thus ensued an incredibly stressful and frantic race between metro stations all the way across the city to make our bus, our tickets for which, if we missed it, would not be refunded. As you have probably guessed, we missed the bus.

While this made for a stressful morning (and a realization that we would not be winning any sprinting medals any time soon) it actually worked out rather well for us. Thanks pretty much entirely to two of mum's good friends who happened to be staying in Paris as well. We had come to our last 20 euros and Pierre was in the country visiting his children, so if it wasn't for Christine and Melvin's incredible generosity we may have spent the evening getting to know the ins and outs of the Paris metro stations. As it was, we stayed in an amazing apartment with a view of Notre Dame. We also found ourselves with an afternoon of bonus exploring time which we used to watch bocce in the park, stare greedily at incredible chocolate creations in shop windows (and succumb to two of the best macarons I've ever eaten), admire expensive chess sets in a charming old toy shop and climb (i.e. ride an elevator) up the tallest building in Paris, the Montparnasse Tower. From here we could visually retrace our steps all over the city and I have to say, I was very impressed.

But the next morning we really did have to leave and in a responsible, grown-up manner we arrived at the bus station a whole hour early. The bus ride was very boring, as they often are. The two moments of anticipation came upon leaving France- we had stayed a whole two days over our allowed time in Europe and didn't know what to expect from the it turned out, they didn't even check our dates and I'm sure we could have stayed weeks over and they wouldn't have cared- and entering the UK. I have previously gone through a horrible barrage of questioning at UK border control and wasn't really surprised when the official at this border was less than friendly. I kept so cool under all his ridiculous questioning that he gave up and with narrowed eyes -I'm sure- and a sigh of resignation, he stamped me in. Will, on the other hand, was expecting to be welcomed in with open arms being almost English himself, and was completely thrown off by the manner in which Australians are now dealt with. It was only after 15 minutes of questioning, bank cards and phone numbers of English family members offered for inspection and a lecture about return tickets that he was allowed to enter, shaking his head in disbelief, the little island of cold.
Parisian dusk.

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