June 28th, 2008

Charah coffee

Tunnel: "All the way to fucking Paris" (1)

On June 5, Mag and I took the Eurostar from St Pacras in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. It was an uneventful two-hour train ride, so it wasn't really "all the way to fucking Paris", but hey, that line from Julian Barnes' "Tunnel" (from Cross Channel, his collection of short stories inspired by, ostensibly, the same Eurostar journey that we took three weeks ago) works for me.


The one thing that I will always remember about the 5 days I spent in Paris is that the movies haven't exactly been very truthful about the city. Like everyone else, I envisioned Paris to be romantic, fashionable, historically modern in a contradictory fashion that only a city like Paris, the Paris, is capable of being. Above all else, I honestly thought that the real Paris would be at least halfway like what the movies (of course, I'm referring to Hollywood movies that refer to or are set in Paris) have made it out to be.

It is not. At all. Paris is filthy, it is not as fashionable as you expect it to be (in fact, Mag and I agreed that Londoners dress better than Parisians), and if I'm being honest, I think its reputation precedes it. Have I mentioned it's filthy? There's graffiti everywhere, and I'm not talking about the sort that some argue is art; I'm talking about random scrawlings of French words that I obviously didn't understand, usually in only one colour - black, or very dark grey. We chose a surprisingly comfortable two-star hotel in Montmartre, right next to the red light district, and the roads there were littered with rubbish; wasn't exactly a very pleasant sight to behold. Also, seemingly every other person in Paris smokes, which was quite annoying for someone that absolutely cannot stand cigarette smoke.

London was like a dream I stumbled into without knowing where I was going, a dream I didn't want to wake up from; Paris, on the other hand, was me plummeting head-first back into reality - and trust me, I wasn't prepared for it. At all. In Paris I saw things that I didn't see (much of) in London: dirt, pollution, litter, filth, and above all else, poverty. Old women sleeping in front of churches like the Notre Dame and the Sacre-Coeur with a paper cup that barely contained any coins in front of them, homeless men putting bread on top of drain covers that surprised me with the heat that radiated out of them when I walked over those covers, an old man sleeping on a sidewalk cradling his dog in his arms, dishevelled grown men in sleeping bags outside three-storey buildings along a not-too-shabby road. In sharp contrast to all of that, Mag and I shopped (or tried to shop) along Champs-�lys�es on our first day, which is described by Wikipedia as "the most prestigious and broadest avenue in Paris". And indeed it was: the Louis Vuitton store there was this massive three-storey palace-like establishment, slightly ridiculous in its sheer grandeur and size. (We decided not to go in in the end for reasons which I'm sure aren't difficult to deduce.)

Paris embodies the highs and the lows of life and everything in between, like any modern city does. I'm sure London does, too; I just didn't wander far enough to see it. But my very first view of Paris was dirt-stained, nondescript street, location unknown, when I was going down a Metro escalator while changing trains to get to where our hotel was. My second view of Paris was...Montmartre. And Montmartre is hardly what I'd call luxurious or even stereotypically Parisian (i.e. what the uninitiated imagines Paris to be). It used to be the hang-out place for artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso; quite clearly, though, something went awry in the intervening years, because now, it's rugged and grungy, and during the time when day turns into night, it's even slightly seedy.

Case in point: I'm not sure which night it was, but one night, as it was getting dark, Mag and I were innocently walking back to our hotel. We turned left into the lane in which the hotel was situated, and walking towards us was some guy wearing a sweatshirt whom we paid no attention to...until he stuck out his left hand at us and just as quickly pulled it back. He held something in his hand and muttered something at us which I didn't catch. I also didn't see what he was holding. Mag and I walked on in constipated silence, and after a few seconds, we burst out laughing. That was when Mag clued me in to the fact that he was holding Euros in his hands.

Fucking sleazy douchebag OMG die.

Having said all that though, I must clarify that I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Paris. On the contrary, I enjoyed Paris tremendously. It takes some warming up to, especially after your silly delusions about the city have been shattered and blown into smithereens; but once you realise this is Paris and Hollywood is (as usual) full of shit, you begin to appreciate it for what it is.

I'm not really a huge fan of Montmartre, and if given the choice with absolutely no financial constraints, I'd choose to stay in one of the nice hotels around the Louvre or near the Seine, which is definitely my favourite part of Paris. Montmartre definitely has character, but for some odd reason, it reminded me of the Bugis area, like, in Singapore. It was lined with shops selling really cheap shit like clothes and shoes (ugly ones) at some ridiculous price of like, 3 euros, and it was also full of souvenir shops and kebab stalls. And of course, right next to it was the red light district; but hey, volenti non fit injuria and everything.

The area around the Seine, however, is absolutely gorgeous, and it's what the movies refer to when they portray Paris as this beautiful romantic city. Paris is only a beautiful romantic city because of that entire area (quite sadly I have no idea what it's called) with its charming old buildings (which are under conservation, I believe, but I may be wrong) and the river that runs through it. GORGEOUS GORGEOUS GORGEOUS. That whole area made Paris for me.

Because I'm lazy, I'm going to write the rest of this in point form.

1. The Louvre:

Yes, it's massive, and no, you shouldn't expect to see everything in one day. It's not only because of the fact that it's massive, but - for me, at least - it's also because of how tiring it gets after a while. Mag and I were there at about 10.30 in the morning and we started with the sculptures. After a while every single fucking sculpture looked the same and I got damn sick of looking at sculptures, so we went on to look at the paintings. We started with paintings from like, forever ago (like, you know, 1600s onwards-ish. Renaissance? I'm not familiar with art), and after a while every painting looked the same and I got damn sick of looking at fucking paintings. You get the idea, I'm sure.

And the Mona Lisa? WHAT THE FUCK???????? It was this small-ass smudge on the wall. Okay, I exaggerate, but it was puny. The first thing I saw when I entered the gallery was this huge painting that stretched from the top of the wall to the bottom. Then I turned to where a throng of people had gathered around, all holding cameras and clicking away, and I saw...the Mona Lisa. Compared to the huge painting, it was like an ant. It was really small and I've never been a fan of the painting (never saw the huge fuss over it) so I took some obligatory shots and left.

We also checked out the Napoleon III Apartments which was more of the same of the stuff at Versailles. My favourite part of the Louvre was probably...the outside. The pyramids. The courtyard. And the architecture was a piece of art in itself. (It used to be a palace until Louis XIV moved the royal family to Versailles.) From watching the Da Vinci Code, I was under the impression that the pyramids were on the roof or something, so imagine my surprise when we walked through an arc straight to the pyramids.

What I really didn't like about the Louvre was how admission wasn't free, which was still okay because not every city is London. But guess what? The stupid audio guides were not included in the price of admission and they cost about 6 euros. This was especially offensive because all the descriptions for the exhibits were in French - which, well, duh, since Paris is a French city. But if you're gonna have your exhibits in French (though what the fuck, is it that difficult to place an English version alongside the French? They do that at the National Palace Museum in Taipei), you really should not make your visitors pay extra to get the bloody audio guides. Mag and I were bitching about the Everything in French problem until we discovered that there were general descriptions of the various galleries in different languages...but they were in the form of placards placed in one tiny corner, so nondescript that we didn't bother finding out what they were. Until we got to our last destination at the end of the day and randomly picked up one of those things. So yeah, basically I had no idea what I was looking at, which wasn't really fun.

And um, I can't imagine going to the Louvre a few days in a row. First, I'd die of boredom. Second, I'd go broke. If it were free, sign me up (the boredom thing I could deal with), but alas, it is not free. In my opinion, there are also many better things to do in Paris than to visit the Louvre five times in one week. But mileages vary, so...whatever.

2. Palace of Versailles:

Huge, massive, gargantuan, crazy. Inside: So opulent, it became disgusting. Maybe it's just me, but looking at the marble and the gold and the ceiling art and the sheer opulence of the palace made me think about the French Revolution, of all things, and starving Parisians in sharp contrast to the bloody Palace. I mean...seriously. No wonder there was a revolution.

Again, maybe it's just me, but displays of the excesses of wealth have never really impressed me. It was something interesting to look at, but I wouldn't pay to see it again, sorry. When I was at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, I wasn't that impressed either. I'm just not a palace person.

Anyway, basically we looked at paintings of dead people, almost all of whom were unknown to me. I did like how the different rooms were coloured differently, and there was this Hall of Mirrors which was actually quite spectacular if you put aside your disdain for such things. I did, for a while.

Mag and I quite wanted to go to the Gardens at first, but when we finished touring the Palace and buying souvenirs and everything, it was close to three and we were both quite hungry. Besides, we caught glimpses of the Gardens from inside the Palace and saw that it was huge and stuff. It would've been nice to go, but I don't feel like I lost out on anything by not going so oh well.

Besides, admission to the Gardens is a separate 8 euros or thereabouts, so yay, we saved money.

3. Eiffel Tower:

When I first saw it, my immediate thought was, "What the fuck, why is the world raving and foaming at the mouth about a bunch of scrap metal?" It looked gorgeous from a distance, but at close-up, it really did look like a bunch of scrap metal glued together to form a tower.

The Eiffel Tower, hence, was simultaneously unimpressive and breath-taking. The latter part came when Mag and I were cam-whoring in front of it, by the river bank, after we had dinner (which was along the Seine! God, it was a great meal and we saw the sunset). It was about 9-ish, the sun had just set, and while taking pictures and going all excited, the Tower suddenly lit up in front of us. It didn't light up instantly; it was a gradual procession, starting with a slight glow that increased in intensity until it became a gentle, romantic orange glow that clothed the tower. It was really quite beautiful. Mag and I were all excited and jumping up and down...and then it began to sparkle.

That was definitely one of the highlights of the Paris leg of our trip. It was magnificent and, yes, breath-taking. We went up to the highest point of the tower that we were allowed access to (the really highest point wasn't available for whatever reason) and the night view of Paris was just...I have no words for it. It was one of those things that was so beautiful that it moved you to near tears, one of those things that made life worth living - and I'm not exaggerating at all. We attempted to take pictures but our cameras (we have the same camera) were shite when it comes to night/indoors shots, so we had to settle for whatever we could get.

Still, the magic doesn't lie in capturing it; it lies in remembering it, and remembering how it felt to be there, at the near-top of the Eiffel Tower, looking down at Paris illuminated by shimmering lights. Absolutely beautiful.

4. Notre Dame:

We took 3 hours to get to the Notre Dame - not because we got lost, but because we had to stop at every other shop along the way. It was lined with pastry shops (omg die) and quaint shops that specialised in papers and writing materials, and we had a light lunch at a Chinese restaurant because we missed Chinese food and I wanted to eat the fried noodles (not bad, but a bit too salty). We also bought cherry tomatoes which were absolutely DIVINE.

To be honest, I had no idea what I was queuing for when we joined the Notre Dame queue in the cold. I was genuinely under the impression that we were queuing to get inside Notre Dame...meaning the church itself. So imagine by surprise which quickly turned into horror when I find myself climbing these smooth steps along a spiral staircase...four hundred times.

It was four hundred steps to the top of the Notre Dame. Halfway through I wanted to cry. When we reached the top I wanted to die.

But the view? So. Fucking. Worth it. This was before the Eiffel Tower so I was all OMG THIS IS AMAZING - which it was. We were at the top of some tower or whatever and it was a circular (more rectangular actually) thing so we got to see Paris from all four side. Absolutely amazing. I spotted the Sacre-Coeur in the distance!

Going down was also bloody hellish. Same reaction as going up, except we were the last batch of visitors and they were closing the place, and behind me was this guy who worked there who had to close one of the doors behind me. I was REALLY REALLY REALLY slow because I was scared out of my mind, and I said to him, "Sorry I'm going so slowly. I'm really scared!" He was all, "It's okay, I'd rather you take your time than fall down the stairs."

YEAH YOU KNOW WHAT, ME BLOODY TOO.

5. Moulin Rouge:

It was a fucking windmill. It was a fucking windmill.

AND IT WASN'T EVEN A REAL WINDMILL.

This time, Hollywood REALLY FUCKING LIED.

If Moulin Rouge weren't a 5-minute walk from where we stayed, I would've been damn pissed that we went all the way there to see THAT. It looked cheap and tacky and it really wasn't anything to crow about.

6. Trip to and from Moulin Rouge:

Moulin Rouge is in Paris' red light district of Pigalle. Naturally, the two streets were lined with sex shops. There was one called Sex O, another simply called Sex Shop (wow, bring on the creativity!), and one called something along the lines of...I can't remember, something 'pussy' or other.

Notable story: I felt like eating ice-cream and there was a Haagen-Das near Moulin Rouge. I got myself a cup of pralines and cream or whatever it was, and Mag wanted a Nutella crepe, which we lined up for. The queue was quite long. We were queuing and I was eating my ice-cream, minding my own business...until some disgusting lecherous old man started staring at me. I caught his eye and he flashed me a disgusting lecherous smile and pointed at my ice-cream. I grimaced and quickly looked away, but that wasn't the end of it, oh no. He decided to harass me by making slurping noises at me.

I SWEAR IT SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME. Mag was one person away from getting her crepe and the people were taking damn long to serve their customers. I tried to ignore the old man, even went around to stand on Mag's right side to put more distance between him and I, but he kept making those noises! Oh my god I almost died. I told Mag that I was really uncomfortable and then we left.

Along the way back, nightclub bouncers tried to get us into their clubs. One of them hilariously whispered in my ear as I walked past, "I can show you big sex."

I have no words. I repeated those words to Mag and we quite literally laughed all the way back to our hotels, and our soundtrack? Random guys shouting "Ni hao!" and even "Wo ai ni!" at us, not to mention "Konnichiwa!" and whatever else. Absolutely hilarious.

Okay, I'm too lazy to continue so I'll complete this in another entry.