PARIS (part 2)

I was awoken by the shrill ring of the telephone. How does one answer the phone in Paris, France, I wondered. I picked it up and before I could come up with a French word that sounded like ‘hello’, a woman started prattling on in high-speed French until I interrupted her and said “I’m sorry, non parlay .. um … French. “

So she hung up!

I had no idea who it was or what she wanted, but a few minutes later there was a knock on the door and I was handed a tray with the longest bread roll I had ever seen  (french stick), accompanied by lots of butter and marmalade, and a big pot of hot coffee.

My tray also included the newspaper, Figaro, which gave me a giggle. It seemed like a lifetime ago – but had only been five years earlier –  that I had written asking them to print my letter in the hope of finding a penpal there.

I already corresponded regularly with about 20 penpals around the world, but there was always room for more. l received an avalanche of letters in response to my ad. Every envelope I excitedly ripped open contained pages of scrawled French. I never did get a French penpal.

There was also a street map of Paris and one of the Paris Metro on the tray. No doubt they figured that my inability to speak their language meant I’d become hopelessly lost. How thoughtful, but frankly, just looking at the chaotic Metro (underground railway) made my brain hurt after being familiar with the organized and simplified map of the British system.

After my delicious breakfast, I headed off to see the sights. With only one day to cover everything, I decided to book a Cityrama bus tour. On the way to join it, I stopped at a souvenir shop to buy an Australian badge to pin on my jacket to let people know I was merely an ignorant tourist and was not responsible for my mistakes, but they didn’t have an Aussie one. I thought promoting myself as British might be asking for trouble, so I opted for USA and it worked!  I occasionally got a smile when I asked “parlay anglaize?” Just a smile. Then a shrug and a head shake.

Chandris facebook memberJennifer Bowler worked in Paris as a waitress at the Sheraton Hotel and apparently didn’t have the problems I had making herself understood. In fact, she even taught one of the French waitresses to speak Aussie when a group of Australian ladies arrived for a meal. The waitress greeted them “G’day, Ow ya gowin?” The Aussies loved it and insisted on meeting the teacher, then promised to call Jennifer’s parents once they were back in Australia.

The 3 hour bus tour was expensive – 23 francs (about $2) but hang the expense, it was worth it.  Earphones provided  commentary in every language with the mere push of a button. Wow, talk about high tech! How I wished I had one of those wherever I went. It really helped bring Paris to life. I learnt that nearly everything here has something to do with Napoleon, and if not, one of the Louis’. It seems there were hundreds of those.

We had a brief stop at the Eiffel Tower, but were not permitted to leave the bus due to the light snow, so I could only take a photo through the window. I’m still amazed that the Europeans I’ve encountered so far all seem terrified of a little dampness! Still, I was excited to see it even from that distance, it was like one of my old swap cards had come to life.

We viewed the Palace d’Opera, the Place de la Concorde, Avenue Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe (which I’d already seen in all its glory last night ), but the rain and occasional snow prevented most passengers from disembarking for a closer look at anything. I was also excited to see Notre-Dame cathedral and tried to imagine Quasimodo swinging from pillar to post.

It’s a pretty city, although I confess I found some parts drab and uninteresting, and some too ostentatious for my taste.

At the end of the tour we were all presented with a voucher to collect a bottle of perfume. Whacko, Real French perfume! It smelt glorious, but of course, the bottle was so tiny that I dared not remove the cap in case the few drops inside evaporated.

I doubt some of the participants on one of Chandris member Neville Fenn’s tours smelt like French perfume.

Neville took some of his tour group on a trip through the Paris sewerage system! One has to wonder why, but according to Neville, they enjoyed it immensely, even when a large rat ran over one girl’s foot and her shriek echoed throughout the tunnels.Then, in Neville’s own words: “when the guide showed us the ladder that Louis XVI climbed to his execution at the Guillotine, I started to climb it. A couple of the girls made a grab at me and screamed that they were worried about the guillotine at the top. Of course, all three fell in. They spent an hour or more wandering around Paris wearing what was definitely not a Christian Dior perfume … perhaps more like Eau de Sewerage d’Paris … until they made it back to the camp and were able to shower and change their clothes.

Chandris facebook member Brenda Broad opted for something a little more glamorous than a sewererage system. In May 1979, Brenda was only 22 and travelling alone, so she chose the security of a Contiki tour. They visited the Palais de Versailles and she became so engrossed, she didn’t realize her watch was slow. She hurriedly headed off to re-board the bus, but could only stand and watch as it disappeared down the road.

Did she panic? Not our Brenda! In her words: “Using my limited school French, I asked directions from a French lady, a policeman, a bus driver and beautiful Dutch woman. I travelled by foot, bus and metro to the Champs Élysées, eating lunch on the way. I walked up to the Arc de Triomph where I ran into a fellow passenger who told me where to meet the bus later. I then had such a lovely time wandering down to the Louvre through the Jardin Drs Tuileries.”

I was brave, too … well, at least a little. After my Citirama tour was over, I dared to spend the afternoon walking around Paris alone, without anyone to guide me or translate for me. Apart from a quick walk around the block the previous night, this was my first time alone in a European city where English was not the native tongue! I headed in the direction of what I hoped was the left bank … and incredibly, I found it! Or perhaps it found me! For centuries this area has been home to philosophers, students and intellectuals, including writers Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Sartre and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. I was totally charmed by the cobbled streets, the open air markets and the quaint art-deco houses, their balconies adorned with pots of brightly-coloured flowers. It was still snowing lightly, yet people were in the streets, talking, laughing, hugging, even drinking coffee in open air cafes, fearlessly exposing themselves to the dreaded swirling snowflakes. This was the Paris I’d hoped to find.

Everyone seemed friendlier than in the more expensive part of Paris, and I was fascinated to see men kissing each other on the cheek 3 times on meeting! It was certainly not something men would dare to do back home and I found it utterly enchanting.

I fell head over heels in love with the policemen in their flat caps and capes, and when I asked one for directions, what a delight it was to hear him reply in English. He sounded like Maurice Chevalier and I almost expected him to launch into a rendition of Thank Heavens for Little Girls. 

My train was due to leave at 8.40pm and as I wouldn’t be arriving in Marseilles until 5.15am, I booked a couchette (2nd class sleeper) for 20 francs (about $3).

French Riviera … here I come! YAY!

Photo by Kay McEwen

You can read the ‘story behind the story’ in ‘Yesterday: A Baby Boomer’s Rite of Passage’. available at Amazon and all good online bookshops.