Taking a break from some design work, it is both a little strange to be writing up my travel experiences which now seem so long ago, and a lovely way of reliving them. Rather than being in New Zealand this afternoon I can imagine I am back in Paris!
We landed in Paris on the 1st of August 2016, and the ladies at passport control never lifted their eyes from the desk; much less answer my cheery ‘Bonjour!’ It felt unlikely that within 10 minutes of landing we were through security and free, where was the heightened guard against terrorism that the media had led us to expect?
The long train ride into the city was a taste of the variety of Paris, the day was growing dark as out the window grey, graffiti-ed apartments flashed past. The assorted airport arrivals interspersed with a motley selection from all walks of life. A large German Shepherd sat opposite us in a muzzle, at the feet of a security guard on his way to work. Someway down the train distant trills of an accordion toting busker drifted against the background noise of the train. Paris is grime and poverty versus romance and wealth. It takes me a little time to see past the ‘beware of pickpocket’ signs.
While hordes of tourists queued for every famous attraction, we relaxed in the Luxembourg Gardens which are surprisingly large and free (rare in Paris). Radiating out from Luxembourg Palace are flower beds, wooded areas, ponds and long corridors of grass edged by rows of trees. One section of grass was for picnicking on, so we lay there, surrounded by Parisians in carelessly short summer dresses.
Doing our best to act as locals, we caught the Metro to the Marais area of Paris in the evening to meet a Parisian. Marais is an historic area in central Paris, now considered young and hip. There we spent a happy couple of hours sitting in a very typical Parisian scene; outside a little cafe, on wicker chairs, in a small tree shaded square where cigarette smoke and rain made a cosy atmosphere. We sipped wine and chatted, we learnt that this was obviously a cafe that saw a lot of tourists as the menu listed wine by types of grape (eg Sauvignon Blanc etc) whereas the French way is by region and colour only. Even in France the conversation quickly turned to Brexit (which was then just a couple of weeks old). We had heard little support for Brexit in the UK, and apparently the French reaction was also one of disbelief, they felt hurt and cast aside.
Not yet ready to head indoors in the warm evening, and with the rain eased, we visited the Eiffel Tower to see it light up. Perched on a small strip of grass littered with cigarette stubs we were surrounded by many hawkers plying their wares. The goods were primarily drinks; every few minutes another black man with a bucket of melted ice and bottles would approach: “wine, champagne, beer beer?”
At 9pm it had not been dark enough for the light show, but as 10pm approached the sky was inky and on the hour the majestic golden glow of the tower was interrupted by twinkly, crazy white lights flickering all over. When it started the crowd reacted as one, regardless of language “Ooooooooh!” The light show runs for five minutes starting on the hour. We got up and walked to see it sparkling from different perspectives. As we walked a police car stopped near some hawkers who were displaying their goods on a square of fabric on the footpath. Nonchalantly the hawkers stood up and pulled a string which lifted the squares corners turning it into a bag, they were ready to make themselves scarce! We had guessed that selling alcohol from a bucket was not legal – but it appears neither are knock off Eiffel tower models.
The light show finished and we walked along the Seine riverside towards Le Caveau De La Huchette, the famous Jazz bar. It lies down a very busy alleyway, full of people and clubs – clashing beats from each door. Le Caveau de la Huchette was very unassuming from the outside. We paid the €13 entry and found ourselves in a nearly empty bar. The bar tender turned out to be a real character; I said “Je Voudrais un Sauvignon Blanc s’il vous plait” and was met with a nod of understanding. Yet when my friend asked for a cider in the same manner he was met with a blank look and shrug. My wine arrived in front of me, but the bar tender then busied himself with other customers – pretending he didn’t understand. Eventually he supplied the cider with a big grin as if to say ‘wasn’t that a funny joke!?’ We paid and headed downstairs to the 16th century vault the place is named for. The jazz band was in full swing and already the dance floor was busy with Lindy Hoppers!
A young boy had taken position behind the piano, he looked to be approaching 15, yet he played with great confidence and gusto. His whole frame leaning into each pulsing note. It was thrilling just to watch and listen and dance – the energy of the music and the band was marvelous. Le Caveau de la Huchette has been a jazz bar since the 1949 when jazz greats such as Count Basie played this same stage.
The band went on break and the dance floor emptied, I went to find us waters (as we had been dancing so much!) and made the mistake of asking the bartender for them in English. He spread his hands in a shrug and pointed to a lone lady at the other end of the bar – clear sign language for: ‘ask her to translate’. She had been watching the exchange, she looked my age, confident and sleek in a slim, loose black dress hanging from thin straps – not flushed and sweaty from dancing like me! I explained I was after two glasses of tap water and she translated (in French far more fluent than my own) to the bartender who replied in perfect English “I don’t speak French” and handed me two waters!
I escaped back downstairs, the band struck up its final set and we danced and danced. The American lady from the bar came down and watched, I gave her a wave and she made a motion of a kiss into her fingers as if to say “beautiful!”
There had been a young man with slick backed hair, woolen ’30s suit and braces, an older couple pulling brilliant jazz moves and many more brilliant dancers. We had rescued a young Korean Lady on her own from the over enthusiastic attention of an older, drunker French man. And then all these people had faded away, leaving us with the dance floor to ourselves, while from various nooks and perches secreted away around the perimeter other punters watched, sipping drinks.
When band began packing away at 2am, I wanted to say something to them, but couldn’t think of the appropriate words in French. So instead we headed out of the bar, through tiny arched door ways and up stone spiral staircases. We emerged from the subterranean jazz cavern to find ourselves in a now largely deserted city. Litter blew down the street, taxis prowled. A few lonely walkers marched home, homeless and drunks lay in doorways snoring. The Metro had long closed for the night, so we began the long walk to the hotel.
We crossed onto the island Ile de la Cite, walked past Notre Dame, crossed more bridges, and chose our route based on avoiding dark and scary looking streets, picking whichever option seemed brightest. My feet which had been so happy dancing were now throbbing. But it was warm and at night Paris is quiet and calm.
Eventually we found our Hotel, without listening to the new reception man I asked “Parlez-vous Anglais?” He answered “I gave it my best shot” with an American accent. As we walked to the lift, I still needed to have it explained that his welcoming words had been in English: “Which room number? I’ll get you your key.”
We left Paris the next day, Paris had felt surprisingly safe, perhaps because I knew to expect hawkers and police with ridiculous guns, perhaps because I had imagined more fear caused by the recent terror attacks than there actually is. Paris still smells like a urinal, has more homelessness, cigarette butts and street con artists than I’m comfortable with. But the air is fresh (no black boogers like London), the Parisians are for the most part friendly (contrary to popular opinion) and the pastries are delicious.