Paris – France
I apparently only live 392 miles from Paris yet I’ve never been. I’ve visited Tanzania three times, I once went to New Zealand for six days. So what’s my issue with France and its hyped up capital? Quite simply, my Dad hated the French, I’ve always felt the French hated me, I was always told that Paris was filthy, and ultimately it’s on my doorstep and I figured it will be an easy place to visit once arthritis and senility set it. After all, for the past two years all I’ve heard from the media is how France keeps closing its doors to the British out of fear of spreading mass death and destruction, and so it was with great trepidation that I headed to London St. Pancreas armed to the teeth with all the paperwork and Covid apps that any one person could ever need. Turns out no one gives a damn with only face masks onboard the Eurostar being enforced. On arrival in Paris, it’s no different to anywhere in the UK, other than mandatory face masks on public transport everyone is kissing, eating, drinking and watching the rugby together as though it’s 2019.
Getting off the train in Paris, one could be forgiven that one had never left London and if we are honest with ourselves, the British and French have as much in common then not. The streets undoubtedly have a continental European style with wide chaotic streets, cycle lanes and trees, yet there is also an incredible familiarity to it all. My immediate impression of Paris is that it is as though a French delegation headed off to London to see what it was all about when brainstorming ideas for the construction of Paris. When they returned to Paris they built London, but better, with more space above ground, more space on the underground metro, dare I say grander builders, and most importantly; plenty of space to sit out on the street. No matter the weather, no matter the amount of traffic noise and pollution, the option to sit out on the street is a given right to anyone living in a city, at least as I see it. And this is exactly what we did on our first night in town. Only we chose a cafe with a big chalk board menu that was easy to point at something vaguely recognisable as a hearty meal and where the waiter could deliver a couple of French beers without too much trouble.
Stumbling around Paris the following morning with a hangover, the first attempt at breakfast at an old backstreet cafe failed tremenedously due to our lack of confidence to talk in either French or English, but this is France and two of my great loves are easily available on every street. A freshly baked baguette and cheese with a bit of ham for good measure got the morning back on track and fuelled our pilgrimage down to one of the world’s many pointless structures, the Eiffel Tower. Pointless it may be, but there is no doubting its stature, dominating the skyline for miles and intimidating anyone who approaches it, the Eiffel Tower is certainly worthy of the attention. Although we had no intention of joining the queues and riding to the top, we instead made the most of a warm, sunny, spring day to lay down on the grass and stare up at the numerous lifts going about their business hauling an endless procession of tourists up and down the tower. Only the sound of people flogging champagne and Heineken to anyone found lying on the grass kept me from falling asleep. After spending the best part of the day walking through Paris from the beautifully sited Sacre-Coeur to the ridiculously large and pointless Place de la Concorde we opted for the metro back to our far from elegant hotel to watch Italy beat Wales in a sublime game of rugby.
Rugby was our reason for being in Paris, to see France play England in the final game of the Six Nations and with a dismal England having nothing to play for and a fantastic French side with everything to loose, it promised to be a night to enjoy. I love nothing more than watching the French loose and especially to the English but there is no doubting how good the French are right now and they are by far the most exciting team to watch and so as an English fan, I approached the Stade de France for the first time, excited to be part of the atmosphere and not having to worry too much about England loosing. And what an atmosphere it was with not a single person under any illusion of what the outcome would be, although the tension through the first half was entertaining as the English put up a good fight. The second half was a different story with momentum only ever going one way as the French cruised towards a grand slam championship.
From the moment we arrived in Paris we were met by nothing less than nice, welcoming people; from locals down the bar to waiters and rival rugby fans. This was something I didn’t expect in my wildest dreams. My previous one-time visit to France, skiing, was met with people not having the patience to let me attempt speaking French yet were pissed off because they had to speak English, all in a fog of arrogance and it was this experience that I had held onto ever since. Fortunately, it is not true of Paris. Maybe it was in an earlier time, but not now. The people were great and the second half of the rugby was full of banter with two French fans sat in front of us as they took great joy in beating us on the field, but with good humour. As the match itself headed towards the final whistle the atmosphere in the stadium built and built into something that almost resembled a carnival. I hate to say it, but the French are much better rugby fans than the English with far, far better chants and songs. We have one, which drones on and sounds similar to a herd of elephants farting in unison, while the French have several bouncy chants to hand that make everyone unnecessarily overconfident of success. I suppose that sums us both up; the English forever pessimistic bastards, the French with never-ending optimism for greatness no matter their failures. Being stubbornly English/British (I don’t really know these days) does mean that no matter how much Paris impressed, it can never beat London with her hidden streets, multitude of cultures, pubs, and the fact I can get around the whole of London with the tap of my debit card. Buying a ticket to use the Paris underground, what’s that all about? Once again, the French are a step behind the British! It may not always be true, but every win counts.
After years of being told almost every country is afraid of tourists, it has been wonderful getting back on the road in an almost ‘normal’ environment. And with that injection of confidence, I will jump onto a plane to South America next week with a spring in my step and slightly less fear of letting a cough slip out on the flight!