It’s raining. I’m slouched in a damp, half-size deck chair under the small awning of the Jardine de Tuileries play-park. Not quite the chic sophistication I was expecting. But at least, I console myself, the pigeons look more miserable than me.
A weekend in Paris: doesn’t it sound exciting? Who can resist the draw of culture, patisserie and really good bread? Of course, the reality of this dreary Saturday in September was not quite the day we’d imagined.
The Day so Far… Paintings, Pasta and Social Experiments
We’d spent the morning in the Louvre (no open top bus tours for us) which became, as the day went on, much more of a social experiment than a museum. Why is there a queue twice round the courtyard to get into the Louvre via the pyramid in the rain, when you can get in a shorter dry queue underground? Why is there a hoard of struggling people and flashing smart phones around a tiny dark painting, when the picture on the opposite is the size of the wall in gloriously bright colours? I think her smile’s more smug than enigmatic anyway.
What kind of a person buys 500g of French-monument-shaped pasta in a gift shop? Is it really necessary to have a gift shop inside an art gallery inside a museum, just because you’ve walked out of a room with a famous painting in it? And why exactly can you pay takeaway price at an overpriced cafe, walk to the other side of the corridor and sit in a free seat? Baffling.
But, philosophical questions aside, we soon got fed up of the business and endless corridors in the Louvre and headed outside. It’s really impossible to do the whole lot in a day and I don’t think you properly appreciate what you’re seeing if you try. No matter how much I love Egyptian archaeology, I couldn’t help my mind wandering to what on earth it was like to live in the Louvre as a palace. It is too huge for words.
Brides, Umbrellas and Gate-crashing Cowgirls
Anyway, outside it was sunny. Momentarily. Enough for us to be waylaid by several men trying to sell us bottles of water, since umbrellas had just gone out of fashion. We walked all the way down the Concorde to that obelisk they’ve pinched from Egypt and cemented into France.
As we watched a bride, groom and rainbow of bridesmaids pose for wedding photos the clouds came over. The heavens opened and we dashed into a bus shelter, but only stayed long enough for me to confuse a poor lost Spanish lady with my bad Spanish. We’re staying with a French family and I’d been trying so hard to suppress the Spanish to grapple at the French, it must have been barely understandable. Still, the Notre Dame is so large, I like to think she found it.
The bus shelter dripped, and there’s only so long you can stand like awkward foreign sardines without catching a bus. We ran for it, out into the damp, then down a flight of steps to a pedestrian bridge… straight into a film set. Well, a mini camera crew and a group of middle-aged women dressed as sort of hippie-punk-cowgirls filming a dance routine. No. I have no idea either.
Backing swiftly out of the Spice Girls reunion, we ended up back in the Jardine de Tuileries just off the Concorde, in a patient haze of damp deck-chairs and denial. It’s not supposed to rain on holiday. It would probably clear up soon.
Good job we British are used to the rain. The downpour was torrential. It started to ease after about an hour. We were on the point of losing our deck-chairs to other loiters when, as if we’d thought about hanging the washing out, down it came again. But there’s no point in wasting a holiday moping with the pigeons. The next thing that looked even remotely like a gap, we went.
Unsurprisingly, the Metro was crowded. Like everyone else, we were heading out of town to the higher (if not fairer) climes of Sacre Coer and Mont Martre. Okay, not everyone else was going there particularly, but it was rush hour and everyone was on the way out. Jumping off the Metro at the right stop, we decided to pop into a bakers to continue our balanced French diet. That is, baguette in each hand.
The steep climp up cobbled streets rewarded us a gap in the rain and a gorgeous view over Paris in its late evening glow.
Finding the Native
No sooner had we arrived, though, we were on our way again. As I’ve said before, we’re staying with a French family whose son we know. He’s about my age, speaks very good English and is very French. Let’s call him Jacques.
Jacques wanted to show us round Paris today, but he had to help with an event at his university. Instead he agreed to meet us afterwards and show us his favourite parts. This is easier said than done. Texts from French phone to English phone and vice versa seem to travel at different speeds. You can receive responses to texts sent ten minutes ago, having already responded in a different way.
After much confusion and French texting, we are on our way back to Notre Dame on the Metro, agreeing to be there 15 minutes ago. Luckily Jacques has waited for us. He’s pretty easy to spot in his scouting uniform. That’s where he’s been: at some big meet-up of all the scout groups in the area. At least, that’s what I think I understand.
Night-lights by the River and the Infamous Cheese Crepe
Either way, he looks quite the part for our tour-guide. As the lights go on in Paris and the sky goes dark, we follow him through the winding streets of opening night life. He leads us on to his favourite creperie and has a long chat with the owner, who seems to know him well. A regular customer, perhaps?
Now, as far as I’m concerned, a crepe is a giant continental pancake and should be eaten with lashings of golden syrup and sugar. Poor French people. Imagine my surprise when I not only discover that golden syrup isn’t on the menu, but that you cannot even buy it in France.
Instead, I’m recommended the cheese crepe. Savoury pancake: interesting concept. But, I try it nonetheless, politely turn down the offer of salt (what?) and we all proceed down the tow-path beside the river. This is when Jacques starts boasting about how the crepe man always gives him extra cheese because they are good friends.
It is so cheesey I literally cannot finish it. And let me tell you, I am not the kind of girl to leave food on her plate (or in this case, in her paper napkin). What an embarrassment. Fortunately, chivalry isn’t entirely dead, and one of the boys eats it for me…
Night-life on the Champs-Elysees
Scout Jacques continues our tour through Paris and French history. We are treated to an in-depth commentary of the revolution, the resistance and some random modern art on the side of the bridge. Did you know that the Eiffel Tour was meant to only be up for a matter or weeks or months? It’s an art installation that they never got round to taking away.
We end up at the Champs-Elysees, the fanciest street in Paris. The shops are sparkling, the bars exclusive and the price tags extortionate. Luckily, they only put the prices in tiny writing at the bottom of the shop window display, to stop the unsuspecting by-passer from fainting. It is under a mile of unashamed decadence.
So Jacques decides it’s a great idea to invite us out for a drink. We politely say no, no thank you. But he persists. He’s paying. It’s his treat and there’s this one really famous and expensive bar he’s always wanted to go into.
He takes us over to an ostentatious looking bar, guarded by men in black-tie and an exclusive air. They haughtily eye us up as Jacques, with his wide eyes and big smile, speaks to them in French. They look him and his scout uniform up and down. They tell him that they don’t have any room and send us on our way. The place is almost empty.
They’re not exclusive enough to have tinted glass windows, but I suppose the idea is to be seen as much as to go. It’s times like this when I think that not much has changed since the decadent balls and parties of centuries ago.
Jacques is surprised. Almost stunned. That was definitely not part of the plan and he can’t fathom why we’ve not been let in. It might have something to do with the uniform, but he can’t see why. But, having too many times been the filthy wet hill-walker in the gastro pub, I think it has everything to do with it.
Cocktails, Mocktails and an Awful Lot of Running
Undeterred, we find another eye-wateringly expensive establishment and settle down at a table. Two litres (litres?) of cold beer and a bright non-alcoholic cocktail later, we are engrossed in chatting about where our lives are and where they’re heading. In fact, we are so engrossed that we completely forget what the time is.
Then suddenly we realise. It’s gone midnight.
All of us have been students and this, usually would not be a problem. Not at all. I guess that’s why we didn’t notice. But Jacques house is in Zone 3 and the trains don’t run direct all night.
Actually the last one’s about to leave in 5 minutes.
We throw down the money as quickly as acceptable in an extremely fancy bar and do a runner. The metro station is only just down the road, but as we run down the stairs, we realise our day tickets probably aren’t still valid. I can’t remember if there weren’t any gates or if we jumped them, but when we arrived on the platform the train was just pulling away. Gone.
But we haven’t been defeated yet! None of us want to walk home and Jacques’ got an idea about the night bus. It’s pretty cheap but not very regular, if we can only get to a bus stop. A quick stop hop on the metro main line and we are running down the road to the roadside lollipop.
Then we wait, hoping we haven’t just missed it too.
On the Way to 1 am…
After 10 minutes, the bus arrives (late as usual?) and we clamber on, scrabbling for French words and the right number of euros. Running for the back of the bus like teenagers, we sit down laughing in relief that our silly adventure is coming to an end.
At the next stop, a bunch of 18 year olds get on and sit in front of us. They’re clearly having a great time out, but there’s one thing very different about them: not a sound passes between them.
No, they’re not psychic. They’re all speaking in sign language, buoyant, ecstatic sign language so unlike to anything I’ve ever encountered in a classroom. It was fascinating. And so, via the medium of a mobile phone screen, we all got talking.
They were four friends on their way back to someone’s house for a sleepover. Two of them had been deaf since birth and they’d all been friends since primary school (or the French equivalent). They were interested to hear that two of us were English and wanted to know what we thought of France.
We carried on this unusual conversation until the bus pulled in outside Bourg-la-Reine train station. Everyone got off and we waved goodbye, calling au revoir as we walked away. We’d forgotten that of course they wouldn’t hear us. Or we thought the wouldn’t… when one of the girls called back. Why did we assume that they were all deaf? After all, sign language is just that: another language.