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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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Paris – always a good idea

Said Audrey Hepburn. And who am I to argue with one so dainty and sophisticated?

So when I spotted a flight Madrid to Paris for 40 euro, at approximately holiday time, I snapped it up without a moments thought. Never mind the official dates of my Christmas break, they could be negotiated (or recuperated) later. Never mind that I already spent a good chunk of time in Paris last year, and it’s an expensive place to revisit just to ‘hang out and kill time’. Never mind that the only people I knew who lived in Paris weren’t going to be there…

Because plan or no plan, I knew it would be a great idea, and either way, it was en route to the rest of my Christmas vacation.

As it turned out, both of my ‘Parisian’ friends (well, Australian/French/Spanish semi nomads who’ve been there for some time) did end up being there, just. We managed to catch up, by the skin of my (their? our?) teeth. One left Paris (for Oz) the same day as me, and the other set off the day after. Lucky.

And how wonderful it was to properly talk, face to face, with old (and semi old) friends. To see each other after a period of time has elapsed, and then fill in all the gaps. Or at least attempt to. Inevitably conversation digressed with the pressure to cover so much in such a limited time. I’m still  a little hazy about some ‘essential’ details of which crucial things are happening in whose lives. But the important part was the laughs.

The only other vague plan I had in mind for Paris was to revisit what is possibly* my favourite bookstore in the world (*I’m still in the process of conducting research…it’s quite a task). Last year, the hunt for an English edition of Les Miserables led me on a wild and fantastic goose chase in search of English language bookstores all over Paris. It was a great way to explore the city, and I came across some real gems. Tea and Tattered Pages definitely scored points for it’s fantastic name (and salon de Té), but it was Shakespeare & Co. that ultimately won my heart.

This time I just couldn’t wait to spend more time there. The bookstore is an institution in Paris, and has been a popular hangout for writers, intellectuals, bohemians, and artists since the 1950s. Of course these days it’s swarming with hipsters and tourists. Call me either, I was more than happy to squeeze in and add one more to the crowd. (Compared to this thriving little joint, the Louvre is a haven of serenity).

Shakespeare & Co. is a quintessential antiquarian bookstore, with a maze of rooms and winding passages. Every square centimeter of wall (and sometime floor and ceiling) space is overflowing with books and eccentric decor. The ambiance is haphazard and cosy, and the windows are decked year-round with fairy lights. I’ve no idea how long I was in there for, probably a good couple of hours, as Paris drizzled away outside, another world away.  Inside the bookstore, there was a guy singing and playing the piano upstairs, whilst amateur theater took place in an adjacent room. And all the corners, couches, old rocking chairs, and cubby house were filled with people curled up reading.


Not long ago my friend and fellow blogger Bronwyn lamented on Facebook that ever time she enters a bookstore she’s “forced to confront the fact that as a mere mortal [she] will never be able to read ALL THE BOOKS.” Which perfectly sums up my own sentiments. Never have I so keenly been aware of the sheer, frightening volume of literature that is waiting me, than this past Sunday in Shakespeare & Co. It’s as if they’d had a sneak peak of my (barely dinted) 2012 reading wish list, and then artfully laid each of these books out for me in a row, in a cruel visual reminder that not this year, not any year, will I ever, ever have the time… and that’s just for the books that I’m aware of wanting to read. My list virtually doubled with curious new possibilities whilst I was in the shop… My 2013 diary is definitely going to need more pages.

And speaking of diaries. (what a convenient link). To check out the beautiful Christmas markets, I wandered into Bon Marché, one of Paris’ luxury departments stores. Like Shakespeare & Co., it had a similarly overwhelming effect on me. So many exquisitely beautiful, cleverly designed, clearly high-quality, frighteningly expensive things. I picked up one very nice leather bound agenda, thinking “well, I am in the market for something like this…”, and actually dropped it in fright when I saw the 200euro price tag. Lucky I wasn’t holding one of the gold dipped ceramic birds that had also taken my eye…..

Then, after a little more roaming, some beautiful Christmas lights and markets, randomly finding myself part of a peaceful upbeat pro-gay marriage rally,stumbling into (and staying to listen to) a concert rehearsal in an ancient church in St. Germain, eating delicious crepes from steert vendors and even better hearty home cooked food (thanks Sylvie), and taking a second squiz at Notre Dame (she’s still beautiful)… just like that,  my time in Paris was up.

That was a week ago… I wrote in Luxembourg and am posting from Antwerp. I think I might wait until I’m off the road to write about the rest of my trip, these crazy keyboards are driving me insane! (but at least the Dutch have exclamation marks…those Luxembourgers were way too serious folk).

In other news? Well I didn’t win El Gordo. But am still travelling happy, with Christmas markets and Glühwein galore.

Felices Fiestas

until the new year xxxx

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PARIS!! and some other bits of France

To: People on the old mailing list
Subject: PARIS!! and some other bits of France
Date: 23rd September, 2011
From: jean

Hola amigos,

Early (really early!) this morning I took a train from the South of France, across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Despite not being able to keep my eyes open, I kept my eyes open, because there was a glorious sunrise and I had walnut bread and chocolate for breakfast… then I fell asleep, woke up in Barcelona, and suddenly people understand me when I’m talking to them!

I’ve got a few hours to kill here (I can think of worse places) before I get an overnight train to Madrid, where the next chapter will begin. But as for the one that’s passed…

I’m not sure there’s much I can say about France that hasn’t been said, that won’t bore those of you who’ve already been, or spoil it for those who want to go.

But no matter how closely you stick to the touristic ‘tick the box’ route (I spose I can’t call it the ‘gringo trail’ in Europe), everyone’s experiences are different. And the further you stray, well, it’s amazing the variation in stories you hear at the end of the day in a hostel – given that you were all given the same map when you checked in.

PARIS: I started with a walking tour, which pretty much set the tone for the rest of my time in France. Our guide was a drama student/history buff (perfect combo) from NZ, who had such incredible knowledge and infectious enthusiasm that I resolved to re-read Les Miserables, in order to fully immerse myself in Paris’ fascinating history (the first time I read it, I’d never heard of the French Revolution and thought that Waterloo was just an Abba song). So the rest of the day was spent hunting English language bookstores, getting lost, learning to navigate the subway and read my map, and fortunately finding what I was looking for.

The next few days were a little more structured, as I wanted to get the most out of my museum pass and ‘only’ had a week there (which I guess was luckier than some poor sods who claimed to be ‘doing Paris’ in two days). Generally I was up early with a plan of attack – visiting galleries, museums, sculpture parks, catacombs, cathedrals, gardens, palaces, flea markets, and cemeteries. I even did a tour of the Paris sewers, a la Jean Valjean (but instead of carrying Marius I was carrying Les Mis, which ended up being pretty heavy too).

Another highlight was catching up with my friend Eliza, who’s been in Paris for two years, and has developed an admirable command of French, French waiters, and the Parisian bar/cafe scene. (I hope to put my time in Spain to equally good use!)

other places.

DIJON: was perfect for some time out. It’s the home of mustard, funny little gingerbreads filled with honey, medieval streets (still decked out in medieval banners), and a stone owl in a church wall that brings happiness and wisdom if you rub it. This was a bit less kitsch than Juliet’s statue in Verona, so I gave the owl quite a lot of rubs. (how many is enough? can you have too much happiness or wisdom? do I rub it clockwise or anticlockwise? or perhaps should I just give it a pat on the head?). Not quite sure when it’s all due to kick in, but there was DOUBLE RAINBOW on my last afternoon in Dijon, so that and the mustard made me pretty happy.

LYON: was next. I crashed with a delightful kiwi who I’d met in Florence, who was lovely enough to show me the sights and take me out with her uni friends. Lyon has a huge student population, giving the town a really lively vibe (though it has so much going for it already, it would be a happening place either way). From Lyon I visited a friend from Newman who is currently living in SEYSELLE: a very pretty, very sleepy little town on the banks of the Rhone, which has the endearing quality of having a different mayor for each side of the river. Again it was lovely to catch up with someone from home, and a good excuse to visit one of the smaller towns that isn’t in the guidebooks.

MARSEILLE: is a pretty grotty city, despite soap being a major export. It reminded me a bit of Naples; similar colouring, a smelly port flanked by fortresses, and lots of steep winding streets full of shops that were closed even during normal daytime hours. I’d hoped to visit the Chateau d’If, the prison island where The Count of Monte Cristo is set, but unfortunately it was too windy. But this wasn’t such a bad thing, as I also chanced upon a ‘festival of the wind’, and got to see hundreds of kites flying over the beach. They were from all over the world, and some were competing in a competition that was sort of like synchronised swimming or figure skating, but for kites. I was so engrossed I actually managed to get sunburnt, which until then I’d thought was impossible under the comparatively gentle European sun.

TOULOUSE: is predominantly built from red brick, and therefore known (or self proclaimed?) as the ‘Rose City’. How lovely. We have some grubby rose alleyways in Melbourne too.

Much prettier, I thought, was ALBI: the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, my favourite impressionist painter. It’s about one hour from Toulouse. The town is quaint and rambling, yet dignified and grand at the same time. It holds a stunning exhibition of T-L’s work, as well as having some beautiful gardens and arched bridges and I highly recommend a picnic lunch followed by a walk along the riverbank if you happen to be there for the whole day…
SOME THINGS I FOUND CURIOUS AND/OR IMPRESSIVE:

1st and 2nd century ILLUMINATIONS: in the Louvre. Done by very clever monks, when they weren’t making Frangelico.
CROQUE MADAME, followed by a trip to the Aquarium: best hangover cure ever (in the absence of a couch to watch DVDs on).
THE IMMORTALS: Apparently, in the Academie de Paris (I think that’s the name, anyway, it’s a big grand old building) there are forty very special men whose job is to preserve the integrity of the French language. They have to come up with French equivalents to stop English words seeping in (ie l’ordinator instead of ‘computer’), and decide on the gender of all new inventions (it took them three months to decide that the iPod is masculine). It’s a very distinguished, very well paid position, and there are only ever forty, so an immortal (ha ha) has to die before another one can be admitted.
PARIS’ SECONDHAND BOOKSTORES: two of which, Tea and Tattered Pages, and Shakespeare & Co., are now possibly my favourite shops in the world.
HOT FOOD: everything is properly hot. Not a luke-warm meal did I encounter. And FLAVOUR: it was all so full of flavour!
NOTRE DAME: Elegant without being ostentatious (like the frilly Italian cathedrals), impressed me not just because of her beauty, but her austerity. So perfectly gothic. Imagine what has passed within those walls, with all those wars and revolutions! Baron Haussman (who redesigned Paris) wanted to have her torn down, prompting Hugo to write Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) to generate support for the Cathedral. Nice one Hugo.
MY HOTEL IN DIJON: cost the same as a hostel in Paris. And I had an attic room. And it was in the Antiques quarter, near the owl.
MOSAICS: with tiny tiny tiles and all the detail of a painting, but with so much more… strength?
‘ARTISANS’: Why be a baker, when you can be an ‘artisan baker’? or a hairdresser, when you can be an ‘artisan hairdresser’? or a butcher…  they are such an artistique people
KITES: I feel a new hobby coming on…
A FILM SETS AND MINIATURES EXHIBITION: in Lyon. Eight levels of costumes, props, photos, and miniature backgrounds from famous movies. Exquisitely detailed and life like. One of those fabulous things you just wander into unexpectedly and end up spending a whole afternoon there, because you’re travelling, and you can… life is good
BREAD: enough said!
THINGS WHICH DID NOT IMPRESS ME: (okay here she goes)

VENDING MACHINES: inside Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur
OSCAR WILDE’S TOMB: which has been defiled in lipstick love hearts and graffiti, and now looks like a high school toilet wall.
HOSTEL DIRECTIONS: just stating the suburb is not quite enough.
THE PRICE: of everything in France! Even supermarket food, and especially transport.
IDIOTS WITH CAMERAS IN GALLERIES: The Mona Lisa has such a knowing grin because she’s watching the crowd and thinking (in Renaissance Latin) “Don’t they know the flash is just reflecting in my glass, and there’s plenty of natural light anyway, so they don’t actually need a flash, but they can buy a much better postcard for one euro in the gift shop? And when they get home they’ll realise their photos are shite, and regret they didn’t actually look at me properly when they had the chance?”
IDIOTS WITH CAMERAS IN CHURCHES: I can’t believe the number of people who lean back and take cheesy happy snaps of themselves, with bleeding crucifixions in the background. Tasteless.
IDIOTS WITH VIDEO CAMERAS: Who seem to experience their entire holiday through a lense, even when they’re stuck in queues, walking down the street, their kids are having tantrums, and the waiter does not want to be filmed… Do they actually then go home and watch it? What boring people. And I don’t want the back of my (very unwashed) hair showing in their family movie.
MACAROONS: I queued at Laduree, the fabled macaroon store on the Champs Elysees. My friend Anna’s are better, seriously.
MY FRENCH: is so bad, it’s embarrassing. I got by with English (which I hate doiong), and could read a bit, but not being able to reply when people spoke to me was so frustrating, I felt like an idiot, all the time!
FRENCH FOOD: I thought I was fearless, but I’ve met my match. It’s not that it’s particularly gross (I agree with eating the whole animal if you’re going to kill it), but it’s just too rich for me. There were cheeses so mouldy I couldn’t spot any cheese, and everything is unbelievably fatty (lard isn’t a dirty word), and as for foie gras – well that’s just cruel and I won’t go near it.
BATHMATS: or lack thereof. If I ever ran a hostel, I would advertise it as having bathmats. My feet are looking amphibious.

Umm, what else? (‘Not more!’ I hear you cry!)

FRANCE, on the whole: France is incredible, no doubt about it, but I don’t think it’s really ‘me’ (whatever that means). Though I’m totally smitten with the history, art, and literature, the actual place itself didn’t smite me in quite the same way. I think I’d rather live in Spain, which is a relief!

As for moi, I’m well!

I’ve literally as well as figuratively lost track of time, ever since I threw my watch out a three storey window whilst shaking out my beach bag. As I’m also phoneless, I’ve been waking with the light, sleeping when I get tired (which is always and never), and getting lots of practice saying ‘Quelle heure est il?’, to which I can never understand the reply. (I don’t get their numbers! Four times twenty plus ten is ninety? Talk about over-complicating!)

But still no major disasters to speak of. Beginning to worry I’m overdue…

And I’m looking forward to some vegetables, and staying in the same place for more than a week (preferably with bath mats and real towels).

And I would love to hear some news from home, any news… write me, people!

Much love and best wishes to you all xooxxx

jean