paris part deux

At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.

King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?

Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.

Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.

setting up shop

The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.

Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).

As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.

The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.

We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.

Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:

The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:

Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.

smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)

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through the roof – underground

The Tube is, simultaneously, the thing that I most love and most loathe in London. It will get you anywhere in the city, but will, at various times do so at its own leisure, cramming you into a completely packed metal pipe full of sweaty people (sweaty drunk people at any time after, say, 9 p.m.), and leaving you to twiddle your thumbs (if, hypothetically, you can get both hands in front of you) as the powers-that-be sort out everything from more commonplace signal failures to what Transport for London frequently refers to as ‘track obstructions’ – jumpers. Published figures are hard to come by, but estimates range anywhere from 50 to 150 people a year.

roundel

gloucester road

One becomes quickly accustomed to the ever-present crowds, the teeming masses that clog the Tube seemingly at will, at the oddest times of the day. Think the train going into London will be empty at 3 in the afternoon? Think again. From the platform to the lifts to the surface, the crowds come early and stay late. However, by the same token, some trains will be eerily quiet and empty, and precious seats can still be had without having to resort to hockey-style checking antics. It’s about as unpredictable as the weather here: going from packed, hot, sweaty and terminally late to quick, clean, and efficient in a matter of less than an hour. It’s a grab bag.

chancery lane

The London Underground has the distinction of being the world’s first subway. Opened 10 January 1863, the Tube (as it is widely known) originally consisted of cut-and-cover style tunnels that now comprise parts of the Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City lines. The system underwent a series of large expansions, helped by the development of the tunneling shield, which led to the boring of deep-level tunnels that could be built with a minimum of disruption on the surface. 3.4 million people use its trains every weekday, making it third in the world in ridership behind Paris and Moscow. Farringdon Road was one of the first stations built, and the original platform on the upper level lines (Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City) feels like it’s just as old as the 18th century buildings surrounding it. The deep level stations, like those on the Northern and Piccadilly lines, have their own distinct smell…something like a combination of burnt clutch, damp concrete, and old coffee. It gets kind of endearing after a while.

no service

Once you’ve made it on the Tube (assuming you’re not being molested by the creepy guy pushed up next to you), there is an unwritten code of conduct to abide by. Don’t try to strike up conversation, as this comes off as quite odd. Pick up a copy of Metro (in the mornings) or the Evening Standard for free outside any Tube station. Read about footballers and their flings or the latest planned closures affecting the train you’re currently on. But as you’re enjoying some of London’s fine journalistic tradition, please, whatever you do, don’t hold the doors open. It will irk the locals (and indeed, even the non-locals) to no end, and will only make you look like a complete novice. On the way out of the station, kindly stand to the right on the escalators if you’re not walking up them. You will make everyone’s day six million times better (scientific fact).

intent

It’s been said that the Tube will get you anywhere in London…eventually. Even though it’s plagued by closures, delays, and strikes, the Tube gives London something incredibly valuable. Without it, London would be a clogged, gridlocked mess of cars and lorries all the time, with traffic so foul no congestion charge could help it. Thankfully, it’s here to stay…except on weekends and when there’s ‘planned engineering works’, or when it snows. Never really understood why the whole system shuts down when it snows…it being underground and all.

More tasty morsels of photography here.