Sunday, June 8, 2014

Travel funnies 2014 - Paris
Torrey Orton
June 8, 2014

Travel funnies – where everything is of interest that can be a bit strange, unusual, as is Paris which I am visiting for the first time in 5 years or so and with the advance knowledge of recovering 100 pgs. of stuff I wrote in 1972 during the last four months of our 16 month tenure here.

However this expectation was skewered by a repeat of the Charles De Gaulle airport record holding performance in the race for slowest luggage delivery in most incompetently designed baggage carousel. They didn’t get as high as the previous 1 hour wait 15 years ago, but it was 45 minutes including trying to get through the crowd squeezed in by two carousels opposing each other across a 50 metre space handling 450 folks off the full A380 we had arrived on from Dubai.

This had been preceded by a definitely record breaking taxi of 29 minutes from touch down to arrival gate, none of which was spent waiting for others to get out of the way as happens at JFK in New York with regularity. We had the Grand Tour of the airport as far as I could tell…all over the place to get to the arrival from what appeared to be behind it!

Dog drenching disgrace

One of these historical knowledges was the great Parisian dog drenching disgrace. To quote a 41 year old perception:

“Where else in the world can a dog piss on so much history with so little effort? Paris - a city of great stone losing its nature under the impact of innumerable streams of piss. Paris – the animals’ pissing post. Paris – city of sidewalks paved in dog shit….Impression of a city with an unending wealth of little yellow springs …”

So I walked up (from the Seine) to our old stamping grounds in 117, Rue du Cherche Midi this morning (June 2) and found the sidewalks paved in old dog turds with a sprinkling of recent contributions and drying rivulets of piss running off the 17th to 19th century 6 story apartment buildings, much as 40 years ago. Pleasantly enough I tried a local croissant just from the oven and found it typical of the genre in the best sense of both words. And our old café – Le Chien Qui Fume – was still there on the corner of the Boulevard de Montparnasse and Cherche Midi but the neighbouring once best patisserie (“artisanale” variety) has declined into banality. On the other hand, much of the length of the Cherche Midi has been transformed into high end boutiques, in no obvious way impeded by the dog doings, and nor contributing to their cleaning up. The same is the case at Versailles and the more pretentious reaches of the Boulevard St. Germain, of which more later.

Aux Deux Garcons

Last night we revisited a favoured eatery known until recently as Aux Fins Gourmets. This was our favourite not-famous Parisian eatery from back in the days when a Fr750/month salary was totally consumed by rent (6th floor walk-up at Cherche Midi glorified by having both a loo and shower within).  Much later that year (’72) we discovered that 750Fr was the legislated salary for all foreign contract teachers at the time, which just happened to be the salary of the lowest paid workers on the Renault production line with the marvellously spun name of ouvriers specialise.

 The other Fr 750, provided by whoever was not paying the rent, was eats, cigs, papers and the occasional trip to Chez Hamadi for grilled chops and polenta at about 6.5Fr a head. Aux Fins Gourmets brought us into stratospheric reaches of 25+Euro dishes and similar priced wine (for balance’s sake, the wine we regularly drank was max. 2.5 Fr at which rate you just got a miniscule vdqs notification, and a glass bottle (or was that VOC – vin d’origine controlee? It’s been a while.). Doing this review reminds me that one of the skills in those days for drinkers of local plonk was to check for the notification of Algerian wine being used to get more mileage out of French labels (focussed on the 1Fr a litre wine market which was sustained by workers’ 1 litre a day, mostly at lunch, wine consumption in plastic bottles, so claimed an article in Le Nouvel Observateur at the time).

The Garcons of the name did a good job, but didn’t have cassoulet on - wrong season! Nor the remarkable collection of 50plus year old Armagnacs, each hand bottled, etc. Nor the overall uppermid priceyness of the precursors…which allowed an investment in a very credible Graves of recent vintage.

 Homeless Paris

Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, two of the flashiest coffee spots on the Boulevard Saint Germain were home to a homeless family (mum, dad and at least two kids, looking pre-school ) sleeping up against the Flore street awnings still at 6:45am when I walked by looking for a quiet side street to conduct some phone business with home. A small variety of clochards were wandering around my walk path the next day, leavened by a guy my age making way on a child’s mini-scooter. Not something I’ve seen in Melbourne.

 Paris unknown, and yet not

We both noticed in the first three days here that it looks and feels different from ever before and that this was an effect of the great French uniformity, the Napoleonic achievement of integrating the late medieval with the 19th century and a set of regulations which have kept the proportions that way (6 stories, etc.) and the facades indistinguishable, mostly. This ruler over every structure is then amplified by the sandy colour of the local stone and concrete look-a-likes. We have a fourth floor view up the Rue Des Saints Peres which displays the look-a-likeness of this area and contrasts it with one of the glaring modernist events of the last hundred years in old Paris – the Tour Montparnasse in its grey, near blackness of 50+ stories on the horizon, overwhelming in its confirmation that the anything at a right price part of capitalism doesn’t always win. Montparnasse is a show off. This uniformity occurs in every town of any historical substance which is part of the greatness of the country. Go anywhere and see Paris in miniature.

 I’ll take the historical over the modernist most days, but for once I am appreciating that the historical was often a bit colourless. Unless, you were among the great Louisian kings who produced the wondrous Versailles over a few hundred years and went bananas for colour on the interiors, at least the regal ones. Reminded me more of a baroque cathedral but for the bed rooms. Not a presentation I’ve ever liked but the expense is commanding.


How’s your day been…

There we were at door opening time (10am sharp) of Sephora on the Champs Elysees accompanied by 5 minutes of clapping and twerking or something to a noisy piece of pop by all the staff (around 25 I’d guess). After 5 minutes to find a particular brand of perfume we ambled up to the cashier, presented the item and as the cashier was turning on all systems I heard “How’s your day been…” in French, which I roughly understood, though not quickly enough not to be taken for foreign. As I seldom am, I was struck dumb that for all their linguistic preciousness (not an unworthy pre-occupation), cash and brand had deprived the staff of their standard French manners and replaced them with the faux intimacy of the Anglo world. I want to say “pathetic” but I so often encounter occasions when that seems appropriate I’m no longer sure of expressing anything by it other than my own irritated wonder.


Limbs may fall and such

Another piece of formulaic public language is that of warnings against this or that danger – usually the stuff of which a lawsuit can be made, or has been often enough to warrant the printing required to pre-empt suits of not warning, etc. I was ambling along Boulevard St Germain this morning before the Sephora incident and came by a miniscule public park planted next to the church St. Germain des Pres with a historical notification of its relatively recent origin in the work of an architect you won’t have known. A few metres along from the placard came another warning as follows: “In case of storm this garden will be closed” roughly translated, do not stay in this park if there is a storm but we aren’t exactly saying that. Immediately I was connected with two of my Australian favourites of the genre – “Limbs may fall” and “Overhanging limbs”– to be found on country roads carrying the unaware to notable destinations like Wilson’s Prom. At St Severin a version of the ‘overhanging limbs’ one popped up and it was hard to see the danger, as is usually the case in Oz, too.


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