It’s been a while since I last checked in, but there’s a good reason why; Anna and myself have both spent a reasonable amount of time in Europe, I’ve made several trips here, Anna comes here two or three times a year and has lived in London for two extended periods of time, but for some inexplicable reason neither of us have ever been to France. Our first weekend living together in Germany was the Easter long weekend, so what better way to spend it than catching the train down to Paris and spending three nights down there? Sure, a common response from people who had been to France was “Don’t bother with Paris, go somewhere else, like Marseilles”, but this was just a weekend away, let’s eat, drink and be merry. Here’s how it all went down:
We had first class seats booked on the 8:45am train out of Köln, which is about half an hour out of Bonn. We caught a taxi to the station at Köln and arrived about half an hour early for our train, something that never happens. Regardless of how early we are for planes, trains, buses, boats, ferries, monorails, etc. we somehow always manage to find a way to make ourselves late. Always, but, for some reason, not this time. Eerie. Our three-hour train ride would take us up through Belgium and into France, stopping at our destination at midday. Our first impression of Paris? What an absolute shit hole! Upon arrival at the Gare du Nord, Paris’ main international train station, we were accosted on separate occasions by two of the fattest beggars I’ve ever seen. People that big aren’t starving. We had to take a 10 minute walk under grey skies, from Gare du Nord to La Chapelle station to catch the metro train that would eventually lead us to our hotel. I put my wallet and phone in my front pockets, clutched my bag as tightly as possible and we were on our way to the metro, doing the bum gauntlet as we went, dodging the homeless, the drunks and the greasy, be-tracksuited scum selling stolen iPhones and watches, in much the same way Pac-Man dodges ghosts. I would have loved to have taken a photo to show that side of Paris, the side that has forced the Japanese embassy to have a 24-hour hotline for people suffering extreme culture shock (more on that later), but I didn’t want my phone to be stolen. Eventually, we made it onto the train unscathed, but for the fragrant aroma of urine and cigarettes, despite neither smoking, nor pissing ourselves. Anna and myself shared a smirk that said “this could be an interesting weekend if all of Paris is like this, but, boy, I sure hope it isn’t…”. We emerged from the metro at Ternes into what was seemingly a different city, one where the sky was a lighter shade of grey, moustachioed waiters were bursting into song and the streets smelled like Chanel No. 5… well, at least that’s how it appeared in comparison to where we had just come from. Anna had booked our hotel on L’avenue de Wagram, just a block down from the Arc de Triomphe, but, upon arrival our room wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be for another hour and a half. No problem, we left our bags and went to grab lunch: Crêpes and escargot with a special local cider at Creperie L’Etoile d’or.
I’ll never understand people who make up their mind and form a completely unchangeable opinion based on perception, as opposed to experience. Case in point; Escargot. They are one of the most delicious things you could ever eat, but as soon as most people find out they are snails, their instant reaction is “Blecch!”. I’ve had them many times before, but these ones, cooked in a butter sauce with garlic were unbelievable! Our crêpes were pretty decent, too, and the cider was beautiful. Mine was a dry, Anna’s was sweet. After this little feast, our room was ready to check in. We’ve heard that a lot of hotels in Paris are painfully small, so we were prepared. The main problem, however, was the shower. This seems to be a continuing theme during our travels, but this was yet another occasion where we required instructions on how to operate the shower. Furthermore, the cubicle was so small that, when I showered later that night, I had to open the doors so I could bend over far enough to wash my legs. Oh well, first world problems. We went out again for a bit, this time to see the Arc de Triomphe. We decided to view it from across the road, as opposed to getting up close and personal for several reasons, the main ones being that we can’t read what is written on it, because neither of us speak any French, and there were just too many narcissists with selfie sticks to deal with. We viewed it from across the road and then went on a stroll in the drizzle down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Anna bought four Pierre Herme macarons, which are considered to be the world’s best, then it was time for dinner. We went to Brasserie Lorraine where we had swordfish soup, steak tartare and a platter of four different oysters, followed by an extremely large soufflé. What I said about escargot applies to steak tartare; Raw beef is delicious, it just gets a bit heavy after a while:
After all of this, we went for a few quiet drinks, but we’d been up a long time so we decided to catch a relatively early night. Let’s have more fun tomorrow.
We started the day with breakfast croissants at a cafe next to our hotel and then it was off to the Paris Flea Market. An old friend of mine, Saveth To, and her husband, Duy, were staying in that general area and was saying how horrible it was. Anna and I just figured it would be the same as La Chapelle. We were wrong. Dead wrong. We walked in the general direction of the Charles de Gaulle Etoile metro station, because it was closer to our hotel and in doing so ended up cutting through an amazing food market, however, we had no way of storing anything we bought and still had a couple of days remaining before we returned home to Bonn, so we decided to opt against purchasing anything. We found out about the Paris Flea Market from our friend, Pat Lee, who is a fashion writer in Singapore and as soon as we disembarked from the metro at Porte de Clignancourt station we could never imagine such a fragile woman entering a place like this. My first experience here was having a rather large man push me from behind through the turnstile so he could exit the station together with me to avoid buying a ticket. An elderly woman just crawled under it. We exited, held our valuables into our pockets and, once again, tried to avoid the gangs, the homeless, the junkies and the multitude of dodgy, dodgy people trying to sell us stolen phones and watches, as well as counterfeit designer goods. All of the people trying to make a buck there looked very, very dangerous. We grabbed a quick lunch at La REcylcerie, a funky cafe in an abandoned train station and then decided to brave it and wander in. What we originally thought was just your average market that sold knock-off belts, wallets and sneakers alongside t-shirts of Bob Marley and Che Guevara turned out to be the most amazing market I’ve ever been to. There are some cool stalls outside, but you need to venture inside to find the truly good stuff. A lot of what is inside is clothing, records and collectables. I couldn’t buy everything I wanted, but if I did I would have come out with a trailer load of stuff. Instead, all I bought were two Monster Magnet records, one of which turned out to be worth a lot more than the €22 I paid for it. All of this, except perhaps for the futuristic house, was for sale:
We braved the train ride back, avoided the junkies and relaxed in our room for a bit before going out for fondue at Le Brasier des Ternes with Saveth and Duy, then out for drinks to try to push the stress of a day spent dealing with the great unwashed to the back of our minds.
Our last full day here and time to get into the touristy stuff. It was Easter Sunday, Anna is a Christian, so it meant a lot to her to go to Notre Dame. We decided to walk there, as it was a nice day and Notre Dame is about 5km from where we stay. Plus, we got to see some more interesting sights along the way. Our walk began by going the entire length of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and down to the Seine for a stroll along the river. As we walked to the Seine, one of the first major structures we passed was the Grand Palais art museum. The queue to get in was endless, at least that’s what we originally thought. It turned out we hadn’t seen anything resembling a long line yet. Continuing along the Seine there was a market that ran for a substantial length of the river, but, unfortunately most of it was closed as it was a public holiday weekend. This market was mostly books, but it did have gramophones and human skulls. Seriously. They’d be a bitch to get through customs!
We continued down the river and noticed that several of the bridges, most conspicuously the Pont de l’Archevêché, were covered in padlocks. We had previously noticed them on the chain surrounding the statue The Flame of Liberty, which, it turns out, is an unofficial memorial for Princes Diana. There aren’t just a couple of these things, either, the are MILLIONS of them. A little research and I found out they are ‘love padlocks’, placed there by couples and lovers. And, naturally, there are people there constantly annoying you to buy padlocks off them. We forged ahead further upstream, past the Louvre, until we finally reached Notre Dame. Again, the queue was seemingly infinite, but it was important to Anna to go inside and the line moved surprisingly fast. There were two queues, one for those who were there for the service and one for the others that just wanted to go in for a look. We fit into the latter and, as long as you didn’t make too much noise, you were free to do essentially whatever you liked when you entered. It’s quite surreal being inside a crowded cathedral that’s almost 1000 years old and having a little girl ride past you on a scooter.
Following our time in Notre Dame, we headed out for another exceptional lunch, this time croissants at Laduree. Usually, I don’t take photos of food unless it is something exceptionally spectacular, but I have the opposite conundrum here; everything we ate was exceptional and I have to pick and choose which food pictures I post. I think I am doing a reasonable job. Our lunch was followed by a couple of hours of shopping in Le Marais, then it was on to the Louvre. We arrived at around 3:30pm and the museum was due to close at 6:00pm. There was yet another intimidating queue to get through, but why not? I love art, especially renaissance art and I’m not going to have many chances like this. Out the front of the Louvre are countless people trying to pose for forced-perspective pictures of themselves touching the top of the glass pyramids. Inside are some of the most timeless and priceless works of art, as well as some of the most narcissistic people you will ever encounter, with their selfie-sticks and trout pouts. When you’re in that type of environment, why would you want pictures of yourself? Maybe it’s just the generation gap showing, but this is something I’ll never understand as long as I live. I would rather take the oppourtunity capture the subject, as opposed to sticking my head in front of it just to prove to nobody in particular that I was there. Oh well. We moved on from the Louvre to Le Dome Du Marais for yet another astounding dinner. Again, I need to pick and choose the food I post in here, so I will skip this one and show tomorrow’s lunch.
Our train back to Germany was scheduled to leave at 5:55pm and it was a half hour trip from where we were staying to Gare du Nord station. This gave us a few hours to walk around and eat all the good stuff we could fit in that time. Rather than bore you further with the details, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking:
Once we were done eating it was time to brave the human faecal matter and jump on the metro to get to the international train station again. We arrived about an hour early for our ride, so we booked our tickets for our trip to Brussels in two weeks. When the train arrived, we boarded and watched as a drunk fell between the platform and a train whilst trying to retrieve a cigarette he could see in the gap, only to emerge bleeding and laughing. Our train departed on time, but we were delayed in Brussels for 40 minutes, due to another train being delayed. I guess that’s our reward for our constant punctuality on this trip. By the time we got to Köln we had missed our connecting train and would have to wait another hour for a train back to Bonn, so we took another €65 taxi ride and called it a night.
All in all we had a great trip and I would happily return again any day, even if it were just for the cheese.
Expectation vs. Reality
In my last post I mentioned “Paris Syndrome”. A man called Yoji, a former adult student of mine, brought this up in class one time and, having majored in psychology in university, it instantly piqued my interest and, although I am not Japanese, I wanted to see if it exists. Firstly, what is Paris Syndrome? Wikipedia describes Paris Syndrome as:
Paris syndrome (French: Syndrome de Paris, Japanese: パリ症候群, Pari shōkōgun) is a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals visiting or vacationing in Paris or elsewhere in Western Europe. It is characterised by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealisation, depersonalisation, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others. Similar syndromes include Jerusalem syndrome and Stendhal syndrome. Japanese visitors are observed to be especially susceptible. It was first noted in Nervure, the French journal of psychiatry in 2004. From the estimated six million yearly visitors, the number of reported cases is not significant: according to an administrator at the Japanese embassy in France, around twenty Japanese tourists a year are affected by the syndrome. The susceptibility of Japanese people may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealised image of Paris prevalent in Japanese advertising. Mario Renoux, the president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association, states in Libération: “Des Japonais entre mal du pays et mal de Paris” (“The Japanese are caught between homesickness and Paris sickness”), and that Japanese magazines are primarily responsible for creating this syndrome. Renoux indicates that Japanese media, magazines in particular, often depict Paris as a place where most people on the street look like fashion models and most women dress in high-fashion brands.
So why does this happen? If you looked at the Wikipedia link the main reasons given are the language barrier, cultural difference and exhaustion, but there are two more interesting reasons:
- Idealised image of Paris – it is also speculated as manifesting from an individual’s inability to reconcile a disparity between the Japanese popular image and the reality of Paris.
- Contradiction – the Japanese often picture Paris as a land of dreams, the land of beauty, culture and romance. However, they soon find out the contrary when they visit Paris for the first time. They find it to be a very regular place, the facilities are disorganized, many areas are unclean, and life characterized by noise, not like what was in their imagination.
In a nut shell, it just isn’t what they expected. Although neither of us showed physical symptoms, there were several situations where what we encountered wasn’t what we expected and several where we saw both sides. Let’s take a look at some of those here. In each case, expectation is on the left, reality on the right:
Buildings and the City
When people picture Paris, their thoughts more than likely resemble the opening scenes of Team America: World Police; A beautiful city where the Eiffel Tower is visible from every angle, mimes on each corner, children singing “Frere Jacques” while eating croissants. The reality is that most areas are rough ghettos of council flats. If you are not fortunate enough to find accommodation in the city centre you will end up here and you will not want to leave your hotel, as Saveth and Duy found out. The picture on the left was taken on the Pont Alexandre III, the one on the right was just outside Porte de Clignacourt metro station.
Firstly, this must be said: French waiters and shop assistants get an extremely bad rap. We found them to be exceptionally friendly, helpful and clean. The average Joe in the street is a different story. Sure, there are the people in stripy sweaters and berets carrying french sticks, but there is also a ludicrous amount of drunks and homeless people. Walk the length of any city block, whether it be in the most beautiful city street or the grimiest neighbourhood and you’ll see at least one vagrant. For some reason they all have dogs, too. This might sound horrible, but toward the end I started to think in some cases it might be a bit of a scam, as quite a few looked like they were using clean blankets, their shoes were a little too white, or they might have shaved a day or two previous. Just a point of interest – I took the picture of the inebriated man on the right as we were having breakfast at 10:30am.
This one is quite simple and applies to most countries that have anything that resembles a global icon; Go anywhere near it and you’re going to have people try to sell you something and 90% of the time they aren’t licensed vendors. Paris has many such structures so when you’re anywhere in the city, after you get tired of constantly saying “No, thanks” politely and eventually snap, a fun game to play is to count the amount of times you end up saying, “Piss off, I don’t want a ____ing keyring / postcard / magnet / padlock!” or something to that extent. It will surprise even the most mild-mannered octogenarian. These pictures were taken outside of the Louvre, however, the picture on the right, with the man trying to sell me an Eiffel Tower keyring, comes first, chronologically, just before I used one of the afore-mentioned phrases toward him.
The Mona Lisa
For a lot of people traveling to France, going to see the Mona Lisa is close to the top of their bucket lists. The staff at the Louvre understand this and let you take photos, as long as you stay behind a barrier. The problem is there is constantly a crowd about 50 people deep. This may have always been the case, but it takes an extremely long time to pass. In the past, people were studying the work, trying to link an emotion to the cheeky smirk on her face. “What is she thinking?”. Now, it is packed with throngs of people trying to get the perfect selfie or 10 in front of it. After I had finally made my way to the front and was walking away, Anna and I heard a lot of commotion. We went back and saw that some douche-nozzle had jumped the barrier and was dancing on the ledge in front of it for attention while the easily impressed, youthful onlookers took photos in awe.
In closing, after spending four days and three nights in Paris, although I did not feel the physical effects, I strongly believe that Paris Syndrome is alive and well.