Writing as catharsis

Picturesque Paris: Part 1 of Lachlan’s Exhilarating European adventure

Posted in Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on September 17, 2010

20/06/2010 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I got my first taste of feeling like an intruder in another culture in Kuala Lumpar. I passed an Islamic prayer room shortly before prayer time, and I was most certainly not welcomed with accommodating or appraising expressions by the faces of the assembled Malay Muslims.

21/06/2010 – Paris, France.

Roses in ParisWe arrived in Paris at around 6am, and were surprised to find how lax their airport security and customers were – especially in comparison to the obsessive paranoia of Australian customs. We decided to wander the Paris streets fairly randomly from our hotel in the Bohemian district of Montmartre. We came across a little sidewalk cafe in an alleyway off the main street where we ate our first Parisian meal – the national dish of steak and chips coupled with the most expensive red wine (30 euro) on the menu. The red wine was simply amazing, and we topped it off with one of the most amazing cappuccinos’ I have ever had the fortune of drinking. The waiter too, was charming, polite and extremely accommodating. ‘So much for the rudeness of the French’, I thought. This was perhaps the best possible introduction to Paris we could have hoped for. I wish we had actually taken note of where that cafe was as we would have liked to have returned to show our gratitude.

From there we walked the main streets, occasionally stopping for a beer or an espresso in one of the multitude of sidewalk cafes. I could definitely see their attraction for writers like Camus; you could enjoy a coffee and a cigar outside in peace without any pressure to move on whatsoever.

We stumbled across a Dali exhibition in a heritage listed mansion/house previously owned by a French aristocrat in the 1800s. To call the mansion opulent would be an understatement; the ceilings towered over us; each room was decorated with complex awnings, gold trim, large grandiose paintings, weavings… some rooms were adorned with gigantic artworks on the ceiling and marble sculptures and furniture. Most astonishingly was that each of the twenty-plus rooms were decorated in a completely unique style. The entire establishment boasted obscene opulence.

Upstairs in the separate gallery we were treated to a handful of Rembrandts and Picassos amongst fairly bland Romantic-era portraits. Disappointingly, the Dali “exhibition” amounted to little more than five pieces that were randomly distributed about the gallery – though admittedly two of the pieces were amazing, and I was also able to see my first Dali sculpture.

We wandered up to Napoleon’s epic Arc de Triomphe – a monument to his many victories (its completion was delayed or slowed when he started losing battles, Matt confided in me. “He wasn’t that great” he dismissed, clearly unimpressed.). On the way we saw St. Augustine’s Chapel. By the time we reached the Arc we were jet-lagged and exhausted, so we decided to head back to the hotel. It dawned on us that we had randomly meandered some 10km from our place of departure and resolved to attempt to use the French subway. The experience was brief and bewildering. It didn’t take long for us to cut our losses and opt to walk the long two hours home. Fatigued and in an ever-increasingly foul mood, we managed to get lost in the tangled maze of alleyways and backstreets near our Hotel du Lausanne, which was extremely frustrating. I collapsed, sleeping for 13 hours.

The Parisians we encountered were friendly, and the language barrier was essentially non-existent. So much for that myth.

22/06/2010 – Paris, France.

The dark shadow of the crow follows us to ParisWe woke up at 6am and grabbed breakfast at a nearby bakery for a mere 2 Euros. We walked to the Louvre before we irritatingly discovered that it was closed on Tuesdays. I felt qualified to say this much though; the new pyramid structure in front of the Louvre is an abortive eye-sore that should be torn down. It has no place amongst the majestic three-hundred year old sandstone fortification that surrounds it. Consider me not amongst its fans.

We took a scenic walk through the nearby gardens, stopping occasionally to relax and ponder. The sun was out and the weather was indescribably perfect; there was neither humidity nor scorch to the sun, and we were relieved by a light cool breeze. We eventually wandered up to the Eiffel Tower to be hassled by an endless succession of men selling tacky Eiffel Tower models and keyrings. Afterward we found a little tucked away alleyway that perfectly fit my dreaming of a typical Parisian lane; dotted with colourful cafes and clothing stores beneath classically French unit blocks, with most windows adorned with a simple and elegant red rosebush.

We ate a meal of Duck and Steak Tartar in a popular cafe, alongside the best Rose’ I have ever sampled. After that we resolved to get drunk; wandering randomly in the alleyways off le Saint to whichever bar or cafe looked nice for a beer. We caught the closing minutes of France playing South Africa in the World Cup. One cannot understate the general contempt the French have for their team. Their highly publicised team turmoil is widely regarded as a disgrace to the nation, and we were both surprised to discover the extent of this disappointment. Their perceived fall from grace far outweighed any sense of sporting patriotism. Respect is such a key feature of French society; it suddenly became very clear why the loud, brash engagement-strategy of most American tourists is met by a slight but cold offense.

By the time we had dinner across the street from our hotel in Montmartre we were half cut. The waiter was extremely friendly and went out of his way to ensure we were comfortable. We had escargot as an entree (which tasted of little more than butter and garlic), followed by a steak and a chicken pasta dish. We ordered a 60 euro bottle of Champagne – which was nice, but not as nice as the price should indicate. We left around midnight – quite drunk.

Most Parisian’s have a certain ‘look’ about them; thin, slightly tanned, dark hair and brown eyes – slightly effeminate. The rumours of the English/French language barrier – as well as the general rudeness and arrogance of Parisians – seems to be fairly unfounded (unless, like many Americans, you don’t show a basic level of respect and politeness, and at least a symbolic attempt to communicate in their language). We only knew some very basic phrases in French, and so far that has been more than enough to get us by quite comfortably without feeling rude, alienated or ostracized.

After being dwarfed by monuments, statutes, fortresses and buildings up to 500 years old for the first time one tends to get a little disorientated. It definitely affects the scale on which you perceive yourself, and with which you perceive general cultural history. It inspires a sense of awe and a slight feeling of helplessness.

23/06/2010 – Paris, France.

The horrif Louve motifWe started off this morning as we did the one before; with a few freshly baked croissants from a bakery a few doors from out hotel for a euro a piece – absolutely delicious and very kind on the budget. We moved up a few streets to quaff some unfortunately sub-par and expensive coffee (5 Euros each) before slowly wandering down to the Louvre. We stopped at a few clothing stores along the way and it didn’t take long for us to dawn on us that cheap clothing, sunglasses and footwear are essentially non-existent in Paris; you pay for the real thing or you go without. Style and authenticity are certainly an obsession.

The line at the Louvre was surprisingly small and fast-moving. Once more that horrid pyramid offended my senses as we paid for entry and started exploring Italian Renaissance, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The sheer size of the Louvre is obscene. One of the moments that stood out was the sheer sense of disappointment upon seeing Michelangelo’s Venus de Milo. The line around that most famous sculpture was substantial. As we worked to position ourselves I was quite surprised to see Venus’ large, malformed, ugly hips absolutely lacking in grace and her head several times too small for her body. It was essentially, a very poorly scaled piece in what should hark back to the perfect dimensional ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Once more, the reality clashes violently with the hype. Most buy it. Conversely, Matt and I were quite pleasantly impressed with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which was larger than expected. It had a strangely captivating air.

After racing around most of some of the Louvre we looked for lunch – extremely grateful to escape the throngs of braying chattel. We found a very nice little restaurant a few streets off the Saint; Matt enjoyed a superior Steak Tartar, at the completion of which he announced that it would be his death row meal, and he would refrain from ordering it again in France as the ‘standard was now set too high’. Admittedly, it was fantastic – I also had a fairly satisfying veal dish.

From there we strolled in the sun to Notre Dame, stopping on the way to buy some artwork off a very talented riverside artist. Notre Dame was the single most awe inspiring site of my life; it inspires the kind of awe that I think is worthy of religion’s ideals. The fact that the Gothic cathedral took 200 years to build reinforces the innumerable life-works and the pious dedication that went into its construction. As soon as we entered my mouth was literally left agape in reverence – and did not close until we left many minutes later. I did not even want to speak out of respect. I even considered speaking to a priest in private to peer into his mind, but thought the better of it in reflection of my own beliefs. We circled the awesome cathedral’s interior twice before resolving to return tomorrow to climb its summit. For at least half an hour afterward I was almost silent. That cathedral had a profound effect on both of us. We would return tomorrow.

We headed back to our hotel once more to sit across at the cafe we dined at last night. Outside in the sun we smoked a large cigar each – again, by far the best we have ever had. We spent the light hours of the evening slowly sipping beer and cocktails while reading outside, absorbed in a very contented sense of satisfaction and relaxation. I reflected that life is a hard and drudging affair when you’re placed in such an environment. I finished off Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, which contained no small amount of insight.

Later on we both lay on our beds while watching BBC News and CNN while slowly drinking a Boudreaux we picked up on Tuesday for 10 Euros. It is very, very easy to drink. Then Matt is snored excessively.

24/06/10 – Paris, France.

Great wine in ParisWell, that was our last night in a hotel – from here on out it’s nothing but hostels until I get to London. We got up early and did some laundry while eating croissants from the local bakery. At the Laundromat we met a middle-aged Australian couple who had been travelling all over Scotland and Ireland.

We did a little bit of shopping and I found myself a decent dress shirt (should we want to go out to any clubs or restaurants with a dress code). Our plan was to head back and climb Notre Dame, however we ended up fairly far astray in the sweltering heat. I guess it was only a matter of time until we had our first experience lost in another country.

For a few hours we tried to get a cab to Notre Dame or back home to no avail. A cab driver muttered something about a strike. We came across an enormous Socialist protest or parade at the government house, and then flustered and frustrated, we decided to brave the metro to get back to our hotel where we ordered a cab to take us to our hostel at St. Christophers. Being hot, irritable and exhausted it was a great relief to find everyone spoke English at the hotel – and that most were American, English or Canadian.

We walked up the river to find a little French/Jewish restaurant. We were the only gentiles in the packed-out dining room, and had a nice meal of assorted grilled meats.

I can see why so many people fall in love with Paris; the sheer joy of good food, wine and coffee is intoxicating. The sidewalk cafe culture is infinitely superior to fast-food, and the general quality of food and drink is much higher. The streets are filled with classy buildings hundreds of years old, and are uncluttered by street-lights and power cables.

What one also notices is the total absence of American styled invasive marketing. Even along the main strip there was barely an advertisement to be seen – what bliss. We could identify no major retail chains, nor could we find anything resembling a shopping centre. I love Paris. I will definitely return. Even the language is appealing. Not once did we encounter anything resembling “typical” Parisian rudeness.

Tomorrow we leave for Bruges, Belgium.


Lachlan’s Exhilarating European adventure

 

  1. Picturesque Paris
  2. Beers in Bruges
  3. Drugged and Damned in Amsterdam
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