PARIS – January 26-February 2, 2020
(Written in Cafe Richard. I’m the only woman. All the men are standing at the counter, some reading the daily newspaper, others – construction workers judging by their garb – gulping down quick espressos before heading back to work in the drizzling rain)
“I feel as if I’m in a jigsaw puzzle.” So began my journal of a week in Paris, January, 2020. Not long ago on Boxing Day Anna had messaged me “by the way, if I accept this new job I’m thinking about going to Paris for a little a while. Would you be interested in meeting me there or would you rather I come to Hebden Bridge?” And so the journey was planned. Anna’s been to Hebden Bridge a few times now, and has seen my new apartment so there was nothing new to see and do here, but at the same time I felt that if we just zoomed around the tourist sites of Paris I would miss out on having ‘time’ with her just to sit and chat and be together. On the other hand I’d really enjoyed our tip to Staithes together in the summer so we both started to make lists of things we’d like to do in the city. And I dug around and found some hilarious photos (from slides, of course) that Colin and I had taken in 1984, the only other time I’d ever been to Paris. Anna, on the other hand has already visited the French capital 3 times and had therefore ‘done’ many of the ‘must see’s. On my previous trip we’d both ended up with terrible food poisoning and I’d spent all my afternoon at Versailles throwing up in the toilets, the same at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and had ended up rushing out of a cafe bar in the Place Pigalle to throw up in the gutter – sorry, no reflection on the quality of Roxy Music soundtrack in the bar. Perhaps because of these associations I was apprehensive. But then, I’m always apprehensive before a trip of any kind. It’s almost to the point that the day before I want to call off the whole trip because I’m just too afraid. Too afraid of flying, of misplacing my travel documents, of finding my way to the hotel, locating the correct train at Charles de Gaulle airport, of having to spend a couple a days in the city by myself, eating out alone etc. You’ve got the idea.
I took a taxi to Manchester airport. It was foggy all the way through the flight so I didn’t get any view at all. The train station wasn’t easy to find at the airport but once on the train I began to relax. The journey into central Paris was very much like the train from Frankfurt to Wurzburg that I had taken last August. But then, I reasoned, that’s not surprising because that was the last train journey I’d taken through Europe since goodness knows when . . . 1999?
Last night I had dinner in an outdoor cafe – the only person dining alone. Despite the chilly evening the overheat heaters made sitting outside a pleasure. Obviously I’d managed to find Hotel Aida Opera. It was quite an easy walk to follow on my GoogleMap once I’d found the best exit from the huge Gare du Nord, with its multitude of police in full combat gear brandishing machine guns – just a regular security patrol but it startled me for the instant. I’d asked for assistance from the info desk and it was given. Excellent. Our room was on the 4th floor overlooking a street of 4 and 5 story apartments. I noticed immediately that it didn’t have a kettle. I asked the concierge if I could have one but no, no kettle. However, he did come back with a thermos flask and since there was boiling water in the lobby 24/7 I could drink my tea to my heart’s content.
I had a well-needed cup a tea, nibbled on some pretzels provided by the hotel and in less than an hour I set out to explore the neighbourhood. I just couldn’t believe how many people were out in the streets. I mean, this was 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon. The narrow streets, some no wider than passageways were crammed with people, bicycles, crazy scooters, cars. Everyone appeared to be in their 20s or 30s and often in groups. Even in Sicily the passeggiata didn’t start so early. I headed towards the Seine and soon found myself in Les Halles. This is a large open square and garden with a Westfield Shopping mall opened in 1979 at one edge, and the 16th century church of St Eustace with its impressive flying buttresses at the other.
In the eleventh century, a market grew up by a cemetery to the northwest of Paris in an area called the Little Fields. It was mainly a dry goods and money changing market. In 1183, Philip Augustus took full control of the market and built two market halls – halles – to protect the textiles. He also built walls around the market, including land which had recently been confiscated from exiled Jews. When he then built walls around the city, these embraced the market, which quickly became the city’s largest.
The market would have ups and downs over the coming centuries and was rebuilt more than once. Over time, an increasing number of halls were built explicitly for food, but the dry goods market remained central to the (increasingly cramped) space. The market was dismantled in 1971 and one of the glass and wrought iron pavilions was re-erected in Yokohama, Japan!
I pressed on, eager to get to the river before dark. I’d forgotten that since Paris is on Central European time it would get dark one hour later than in England. I have no recollection of all these cobbled streets in Paris. Stockholm, yes! From the Post Neuf, Pari’s oldest standing bridge across the Seine, I could see La Tour Eiffel in the distance. The bridge was constructed in there 1570’s and was inaugurated by Henry lV in 1607. His bronze statue, in full fighting regalia astride his horse, stands proudly, providing the perfect resting place for the pigeons as they searched for the perfect spot to roost.
In 1862, Édouard Fournier traced its history in his lively two-volume Histoire du Pont-Neuf. He describes how, even before it was completed gangs hid out in and around it, robbing and murdering people. It remained a dangerous place even as it became busier. For a long time, the bridge even had its own gallows.
This did not prevent people from congregating there, drawn by various stands and street performers (acrobats, fire-eaters, musicians, etc.). Charlatans and quacks of various sorts were also common, as well as the hustlers (shell-game hucksters, etc.) and pickpockets often found in crowds – not to mention a lively trade in prostitution. Among the many businesses which, however, unofficially set up there, were several famous tooth pullers.
I elected to eat rather than have my teeth pulled out, however, and soon found a street overflowing with wonderful bistros with outdoor tables. I selected one that looked busy, with crowds of people spilling out onto the sidewalk. My table was the perfect spot to people watch for an hour or so while I tucked into a delicious Italian thin crust pizza and a glass of French Chardonnay. I was trying to replicate my late night adventure on the night I arrived in Sicily, and though this was much earlier in the evening it had the same vibe. From time to time a car would somehow manage to negotiate its way along the street forcing everyone in its path to dive into shop doorways.
What a lively place! The biggest craze in town appears to be the motorized scooters which can be rented from machines and then appear to be just left anywhere. These, and the ubiquitous bicycles are a nightmare for unsuspecting pedestrian tourists who rely so much on hearing a vehicle approach rather than seeing it.
My route back to the hotel took me past the glitter and glamour of the Rex cinema on the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle and then quite by accident I found myself at the Folies Berger but it appeared closed at this early hour. Anna had selected our hotel. It was fitting that as a family we had seen a live performance of Aida at the Roman amphitheater in Verona in 2000. Can that really be 20 years ago??? Each floor of this hotel was decorated differently and some intriguing lighting made the hallways look as if they were lit up by streaks of sunlight. Our room had splatter painted discs decorating the walls, and what I had taken for a mirror filling the entire wall turned out to be a TV! I only realized that when I discovered a remote control on the bedside table. My English speaking TV choices were between CNN discussing Trump and BBC world news getting their last little breaking news pieces about Brexit which will happen on Friday. I think Alan Beswick on Radio Manchester is much more entertaining night cap!