A Tale of Two Cities : From London to Paris


Last Thursday, on the European Election Day it was both exhilarating and troubling to realise how close we are to France.  Since 1994, the British have been astonished at the idea of getting on a train and arriving several hours later in France and, in 2014, this astonishment has not waned.  The centuries have frequently reminded us how close we are to the French – the guns of Waterloo were heard in West Hampstead in 1815 and the roar of the Somme was registered in North London some 100 years later, but it still amazes us that France is as far by rail from Kings Cross as York.

Travelling by train into France is much more exciting and dynamic than forcing your body into the pre-heated and recycled air of an aeroplane, so much so that we have sat in Eurostar seats for 20 years exclaiming : “Look!  We can get to Paris in just over two hours – it’s unbelievable!”.  In the seats opposite our own on the 0831 train, where we sat under the duck egg blue Victorian eaves of St Pancras, a woman approached two students : “I’m sorry,”  she said.  “But you’re sitting in my seats.  I’m sorry.”  That wouldn’t happen in France, but its how the British mini-break; with seat allocations, with neatness, with apologies.

“Awl this facking abaht!”  The man was bearded, standing behind me in the check in queue at the station.  Furious, he was.  Off to Europe.  Couldn’t facking believe it.  He could have been at home, gruntling his way to the Orpington poll booth and voting UKIP, but no, he was off to Lille instead.  Bleedin’ hell.

At passport check in I make the most alarming discovery.  It turns out that I CAN SPEAK FRENCH.  No one told me this before but here’s how it seems to work : you are forced to sit GCSE in a damp, uncompromising gym at a minor public school on the edge of the M25 and you detest it.  You detest having to learn this language, because all you want to do is listen to INXS CDs and smoke cigarettes on wide Italian beaches with boys.  Of course, there are some desirable things that are French : kisses, manicure, letters, pen pals, but the reality of learning irregular verbs feels like someone is hairdrying your brain, and all this comment allez vous malarkey get sur la tits.  But your sponge-like beautiful brain knows or cares nothing for your stupid short-sightedneess.  It is a beautiful brain and does what a sensible PA does : it files it away.  And then, 18 years later, you pull it out, unbeknownst to yourself, on the eve of a city mini break and before you can tell you bouche from your derriere you’re clattering around the flat, chatting about taking your parapluie  and packing the dentifrice like nobody’s business.   But it should be in my brain really, shouldn’t it?  After all that?  (What is French for “school fees”?).  On the train we hunker down through Essex countryside, our reading material all about the vingt : 20 Best Parisian Bistros, The Time Out Top 20 Paris Patisseries, 20 Ways to Kill a Euro MP etc.

At Gare du Nord it is raining.  Great, thunderous, gun metal grey lashes of the stuff.   In the waiting hall of the Metro Station there all the machines are broken.    This means we have to queue an hour for our carnet (A tube ticket giving you 10 journeys).  Old fashioned and parochial, the metro train steams into the subway platform, and it looks precisely as it did during my first trip to Paris in 1991.   It was a shock to the system : in London we pour billions into the public infrastructure that is our underground train system.  In the last 15 years the changes on the tube have been massive and, despite the apparent British addiction to queuing, no one in London would queue for an hour for a tube ticket without resorting to violence.  In Paris, no one has spent money on anything for some time, and it is beginning to show.  Would things have been any different if they had won the Olympic bid on 6th July 2005 and we had not?  Would they have been embarrassed into pouring money into their ailing transport infrastructure to host visiting torch-bearing dignitaries?  Who knows.  What I do know is that the Paris Metro is a timewarp and our trip to the Marais was not helped by a strenuously dancing busker who insisted on jumping through the train carriage with a bombastic sound system whilst rapping loudly in French.

By the time we arrive at St Paul someone has turned the sun on and Paris hits you.  The sense of light, or uniform splendour of the buildings, the pace and psychic measure of the place, the smells of carafe and croissant, the magic alchemy that justifies the hotel prices.  Unfortunately I had managed to split the crotch of my jeans whilst hovering dangerously over Eurostar’s chemical loo a couple of hours earlier.  This means I have learned one of the great pieces of wisdom of modern travel : never travel without a sewing kit.  Visits to several pharmacies result in us finally being told that pharmacies in France don’t stock things like needles and thread.  Instead we are directed by a kindly seamstress to a shop called BHV, and as soon as you walk in you’re back in John Lewis Oxford Street.  BHV have an enviable embroidery section.

We walk and walk and walk – all the way down the Rue di Rivoli before collapsing in a bundle of bags and exhaustion at a rip off cafe where we stop for lunch.  On we go, through to the Hotel di Ville, for a restorative post-lunch espresso and cake, whilst watching an ancient homeless man feeding the birds that cluster on the pedestrian streets.  Finally, almost weeping with the combination of tiredness, over-caffeinated adrenal glands and the uncompromising pink grandeur of a Parisian twilight over the beautiful Seine, we cross the Pont Neuf to take advantage of the Thursday late evening opening (until 10pm) of the Musee d’Orsay.    We do the entire thing, vaulting from Belle Epoque Art, through Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism and somewhere in the 4th Floor, in the Toulouse-Lautrec section, I make my second, disturbing discovery of the day.  It turns out I can’t just speak French, but I can DRAW.  I spend twenty minutes having a bash copying the La Danse Mauresque, and a further few minutes bashing about my pencil re Degas’s La Classe de Danse.  My outline of a Renoir lady is nothing short of diabolique, however, and I am exhausted by Monet, so we go out, back towards St Germain des Pres for the standard, sickly tourist fare in Paris : poulet et frites washed down with table wine.

We are beginning to notice differences since our last trip here in 2008 : Paris has got more expensive, but paradoxically there is less money about.  The shabbiness of the city’s infrastructure is counteracted by the €6 coffees.  We arrive at Thursday lunchtime, but by Friday afternoon, our €300 is running out.  And we are speaking strictly omelette, chips and red wine sort of fare.  The money is disappearing faster than it could in London – or even Dublin – or even, damn it, Reykjavik.   At our €70 tourist chicken and chips with wine supper, we meet our waiter.  Recently returned from a 2 year stint working in London, he sings the virtues of our native city.  He spent three months at The Ivy (hated it), four months at Cafe Boheme (loved it) and another eighteen months at Hix in Brewer Street (adored it).  He came back to Paris for family reasons but his view was clear : in his line of work London offered not only better economic conditions (the French don’t tip much) but a far more innovative and robust business environment in which restaurants could grow.  When you couple this to the fact that there is more money in London and the downturn has affected the city less seriously than it has Paris, you realise, with a growing sense of sadness that so many European cities, including Paris are fighting tooth and nail to maintain themselves.  London is not only the centre of the restaurant world, but also the queen of distillation, taking the best elements of European dining and culture and converting it into its own language.

I noticed this pattern wherever we went.  The best croissants were not at the local village bakery in many cases.  They were at Paul, (a French company now familiar to all Londoners) or Le Pain Quotidien.  The best ice creams were from Amorino, an Italian company that has two branches here in Soho.   Twenty years ago it was unthinkable to consider London a better place to get an authentic pain au chocolat than Paris.  Now, it is unavoidable.

Ears ringing, feet singing, we repair to the Marais, finding out a lovely neighbourhood bar, La Favorite, which, with it’s white tiled loos and stripped back feel would make Russell Norman salivate.  We knock back a Cote du Rhone themed nightcap and retire to the hotel to bed.

On Friday morning, I know I’ve overdone it.  I can’t wake up.   We had a somewhat late start, an 11am breakfast at La Favorite, where I enjoyed soft boiled eggs and soldiers, then through the Marais Jewish quarter (a bit like Temple Fortune but with more dogs and narrower, prettier streets) before the hulking monstrosity of hoover attachments masquerading as a building – The Pompidou Centre – loomed and leered up over us.  I am so knackered that I unfortunately can barely walk around the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective, which is a shame, as it is alarmingly fascinating, and cannot be done in less than 2 hours.  This exhibition was our reason for timing our trip to Paris when we did, as the exhibition closes at The Pompidou in the first week of June, and the photographs were so special it would have been terrible to miss them.  But The Pompidou is an odd place.  It’s leaking for a start, and there are buckets dotted about.  The building is filthy, the escalators dusty, and the plastic hoover attachment which doubles as a five floor escalator viewing panel splattered with birdshit.  The toilets are original, ancient and stained.  It needs investment – and sharpish – not to mention a bucket and a mop, to be frank.

The exhibition is sensational – covering Cartier-Bresson’s work from the late 1920s to the 1980s – but it was so crowded that we felt permanently pushed on and cramped, much like we would on a rainy busy Saturday at The Tate.  But the Pompidou is wonderful in one way, as I finally manage to find a pencil sharpener in the shop (writing with non-sharp pencils is an irritant to me).  Okay, so the pencil sharpener is a complicated, knowing, Pompidou type of pencil sharpener in the shape of a vintage roll of film giddily unwrapping itself, but it’s still a pencil sharpener.  Unsurprisingly, whilst Mr Bluebird is still doing the rounds at the exhibition and is up to about 1950, I go to the coffee shop, eat a cake and fall asleep.  I wake up to Mr Bluebird returning from the exhibition, another coffee and a walk back through the Marais past some armed French soldiers strolling up and down outside the Pompidou.  We go to the hotel and pass out for an hour, before heading out for dinner towards L’isle de St Louis.

The guidebooks take us towards a tiny bistro where we quickly become the only diners.  We have coq au vin and share a tarte tatin before walking up and around to St Michel again, this time in the heaviest, sheeting rain, skirting between narrow alleys, avoiding the gleeful faces of the men standing outside restaurants shouting at tourists to entice them in.  We find a small wine bar and it doesn’t matter that I’m wearing open toed wedged shoes, not really because you’re in Paris, in the rain and you’re slightly drunk and you’re happy watching the world go by – and after 11pm on a Friday night it seems as if the whole world has converged upon the ancient streets of St Michel.  It’s like Dean Street but with better lighting.  We walk past Notre Dame,  head over to the Right Bank again, up back towards the Marais, and our final jolly neighbourhood nightcap at La Favorite before deciding it will be a good idea to go to Montmartre the following morning.

The following morning we sip complimentary Nescafe in the small hotel bedroom before deciding that Montmartre and the calf stretching steps of Sacre Coeur is not actually a good idea, with a slight hangover and a train back to St Pancras at 5pm.   Instead, we use the morning to explore the lovely Marais, have a brief espresso and croissant breakfast (€17) and wander the streets of this quietish, though thoroughly modish, region.  For lunch and tea, we took my brother’s recommendations, as he was in Paris last year, visiting the lovely Comptoir des Archives on Rue des Archives for a lovely lunch, before finishing up with probably the best chocolate eclair I’ve ever eaten, at the Patisserie Carette in the alarmingly beautiful Place des Vosges.  Only on this last day did something of the true essence of Paris seem to be slowly revealed to us, beyond the €8 carafes of house red and the relentless pursuit of the American tourist dollar.  Neither of us are Paris virgins, and Mr Bluebird especially has been there seven or eight times, including one three week trip where he was reduced to sleeping in telephone boxes before being taken pity on by some kindly Irish nuns who took him in (but there’s another story).  But as a trip, of course Paris is exquisite, and of course Paris has it’s individual magic, beauty and an almost infinite physical grace.  But on return to St Pancras International, London had never looked so modern, so monied, and so very clean.

Go to Paris, of course you must. Everyone should – frequently.  But take a lot of money in your pocket.  Prepare for outlandishly overpriced hotels and walk your feet off.  Try not to leave your nightdress behind (moi) or your reading glasses (mon homme), resulting in having to email the French hotel copies of your passports until they will deign to send them back.  But be prepared for a less modern city than the one you had come from.  Sadly, ashamedly, Paris is unhappier and more expensive than ever.  Economic malaise combined with over-priced cultural and tourist markets hint at a decadent city.  But then, would we want to go there if it didn’t hint at decadence?  Perhaps the most uplifting aspect of this is that its majesty is not truly affected by any of this, because Paris is unquestionably unique, having possession of that urban alchemy shared only – I believe – by two other cities – Venice and New York.  It can’t be bettered and it’s French so doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks really.  You cannot dampen Paris’s magic- because it’s magic is so defiant as to be undampen-able, even if it is raining very heavily on the Boulevard St Germain.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Our blog is updated every other Thursday so the next update will be on Thursday 12th June.  Au revoir! x

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