The Old Countries

Dave in the Old Countries. Including but not limited to France, Spain, Denmark, Germany...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Paris III: Cheers

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came. So for me it was back to Le Village in Paris for the second time. I felt like some companionship, though not just that; I also happen to think Paris is a pretty wonderful city. And there was plenty I still hadn't seen.

My faith was justified when, on my first night back in Paris I bumped into Guy, from England, who'd been at Le Village when I was previously there. This wasn't all that unlikely because, while he'd changed hostels (to the preppy Woodstock), he was still in the Montmartre area and doing pretty much what you'd expect. He was actually returning to Le Village a couple of days after this, so this gave an instant sense of backpacker community.

The story of this Paris sojourn was mainly one of meeting people - Aussies, Canadians, Finns, Czechs, Brits, Americans. Mostly great, as you generally find in a good hostel. Though the second night there I didn't actually stay in the hostel, as they were booked out. Aaron, from Sydney, and I shared a 30€ hotel room so it actually ended up cheaper, albeit with no shower.

Also saw some more stuff. I suppose top of the list was the Louvre, though that was on my second last day there. I was really a bit dubious about seeing it at all, mainly because it's huge and I'm a bit museumed-out, but given that a group from the hostel were going there was no point staying behind. And it was good, it's beautifully presented and huge, absolutely enormous. Physically impressive were the large-format French paintings - these things are bigger than a house, and would surely take years to paint. Didn't see the Mona Lisa, sue me. The Crown Jewels were pretty nice, though the crowns themselves seemed a bit patchy. The ancient sculptures, including the Venus di Milo, are fantastic. And I'm sure some of the paintings were specifically good, but they all merge into one at this distance, unfortunately. To do it properly it would takes weeks with a well trained guide, I think - the lack of specific knowledge hurt my appreciation of it.

More bite-size, and so more enjoyable, was a Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Jeu Paume, which I saw with Aussie Greg. Cindy Sherman is photographer from the US, who counts among her proteges the wonderful Vic and Clare. A lot of her works feature chameleonic self-portraits, with her playing a wide variety of characters, though by no means all follow this pattern. The exhibition itself had some photos from all of her series displayed chronologically and fairly verbose explanations of each series. This gave us neophytes a great introduction to her work, and we both really enjoyed it, despite maybe missing the point of a couple of the series a little.

Also went up with Guy to some markets out past the periphery of the city, up past Porte de Clignancourt. These are reputed to the be the largest markets in Europe and they certainly took up a large area, though much was closed as it was a Monday - a quiet day in a quiet month. At first we only found the standard touristy crap that all markets in the world have, from ugly t-shirts to smoking paraphenalia to cheap jewellery to knock-off fashion. Moving past this we got to a section each person, rather than having a stall, had a cloth spread out on the pavement with a motley collection of items on it. One lady in particular had about six things: a box of cereal, two packets of spaghetti, a couple of tins, maybe a zucchini. It looked like nothing so much as the morning's loot from a little bit of robbery. As Guy said, in this area you could have your watch stolen and it'd be back on the street in minutes.

But we worked out way round and eventually found the more interesting sections, with permanent indoor stalls filled with antiquities; from postcards, books, magazines, stamps, up to furniture and metal. A lot was closed but we saw enough to know that when all running it'd be pretty mad.

Also saw a couple of movies in VO, Superman Returns and Wolf Creek; hard to know what the predominantly French audience made of John Jarrat going nuts, but they didn't seem especially impressed. As for Superman, well, it's pretty crap. The most interesting part of that day was heading out to La Defense, the new commercial centre of Paris. The architecture here is a big contrast to the rest of the city, being seriously modern - comparable in some ways to Federation Square, though on a way bigger scale. And we almost got arrested on the way home but it was all a big misunderstanding really. French cops are quite scary though; not sure if it's the guns or the berets or the steely glint in the eyes.

I realised during this visit that Paris on a Sunday is desolate, like many European cities. It seems like a great European city should be 24/7, but I'm continually surprised by the lack of life on the Sabbath. Realised as well that the heatwave had well and truly broken; it's raining in Berlin as I type and it rained in Paris most days and nights. The beautiful terrace at Le Village was barely usable. Not sure what Europe had done with my promised summer, but moderation woulda been nice, less 40° days as well as less rain. Next time.

So then to Strasbourg which is practically Germany really, and goodbye to Paris for the last time.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The French Lorne

La Rochelle is a bit further up the coast from Bordeaux, almost due west of Paris, so it's a nice easy four hour train trip. It used to be a major port in the days of trade with the New World - now, it exists for tourists, mainly French natives. (Though it also has a pretty solid university, apparently.)

The classic image of the town is of the thousands of boats in the marinas spread up and down the length of town. When I was there there were mostly clear skies and warm days, and the sun setting through the masts of many boats is a nice image. What the town is missing is beaches; there are a couple which are nice enough but nothing compared to those at San Sebastian, or of course anywhere in Oz. And because I was travelling on my own, it's a bit of a production to swim safely, so that didn't happen.

La Rochelle is a nice enough place but my stay there coincided with the mental nadir of my alone-travelling time. It can be a lonely thing, and this was exacerbated by the hostel, a big, soulless place full of groups and French speakers, with barely a person to speak to. And the facilities were the worst of any hostel I've stayed in. So I felt a bit desolate and rang some very nice people in Australia who condescended to talk to me for hours about nothing. (Vic and Mum, of course.)

But I got over it and by my third day there I was better able to appreciate the city for itself. It does have the feel of a beach town, like Lorne or even Noosa, with a large vacationing population catered for by all sorts of weird shit. A little dog riding a tiny bicycle is truly a special sight. Lots of pricey eateries, lots of souvenirs, a good but small flea market. Free bikes was a good thing; you can hire these bikes for two hours without paying anything, and then just a euro an hour after that. So I went for a nice ride up the coast, but failed to find any better beaches, it's all rocks.

Also saw another film, the salvation of a lonely English speaker. Going to see Tsotsi in VO, however, wasn't quite what I expected, since the film is mostly in Zulu and Khosa and Afrikaans. Yeah, it had subtitles - in French. But my French reading is apparently good enough that I could follow what was going on without too many problems. The movie itself was pretty good. It's the almost-cliched story of a hardened (though young) crim who steals a car with a baby in the backseat, then has his heart softened by taking care of the kid. But it's told well and Presley Chweneyagae in the title role has the charisma to carry it.

And then, well, that's about it for La Rochelle. Was feeling a bit lonely so decided to go home. Next stop: Paris.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Vin de Pays

Bordeaux is down in the south-west of France, not quite on the coast but on a big river. The hostel there, a big modern empty thing, was a significant change-up from the small, all-action Village in Paris. And the weather, naturally, got hotter again as well.

Most important was the first night's activity - football! Bordeaux playing Toulouse in the South-West derby, and I really hoped I could score a ticket. (For some reason, Ligue 1 hasn't caught up with all-electronic ticketing so you can only buy tickets in the town of the game. Very 20th century.)

I was surprised, though, how easy it was. Bordeaux are a big team, they finished second behind Lyon last season and are playing Champion's League this year. It was the opening game of the new season, a derby, and because Toulouse finished sixteenth last year (just safe from relegation), Bordeaux were seriously expected to win. But I basically wandered up to the stadium an hour or so before the game and paid my twelve euros for a ticket. Simple.

There were 30000 there but the stadium wasn't full; I imagine you could squeeze in almost 40k. My seat was in the cheap section, at the away end near the corner flag, but still with a fair view. It's a nice old ground, flat and pretty, and it was T-shirt weather even at 9pm so the perfect night for a game. The atmosphere was maybe a little lacking, not like in Britain apparently, there was some singing and pretty big cheers when the goals came but in between it was a low simmer. And the goals did come, in the second half, two for Bordeaux as expected. They didn't play especially well, I don't think, but the Toulouse keeper was good and Bordeaux were missing Johan Micoud and Vladimir Smicer, two walk-up starts, so not a bad sign for the club.

So that was one of my goals for the trip achieved, though more games would be great.

Went to the Musée des Beaux Arts with a German guy staying in my room, the usual assemblage of old paintings but very well presented and with a good written commentary (in French) on some of the more important pieces. Some context seriously helps the appreciation. Hung around for some of the time with a couple of humourous Brits, Ed and Steve, who live and teach English in Bilbao. We cooked a damn good meal in the hostel kitchen, tuna, tomato, beans, on rice. Excellent and cheap.

Bordeaux town centre is really nice, big and old and clean, and with a nice modern tram system which really made me feel at home. Another highlight was the great arthouse cinema, the Utopia, where I saw Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, in VOSTF form which means in English! The cinema, I have to say, had Nova cold, plush seats, ornate trimmings, small cinemas but big screens, and all in a building older than Melbourne. The movie itself was pretty funny, full of English comedy royalty: Steve Coogan, Dylan Moran, David Walliams, Stephen Fry. And Gillian Anderson in a bizarrely small role.

But Bordeaux only got a couple of days, and then closer to the beach, to La Rochelle.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Paris II: Return to Montmartre

Paris is a great city. I actually felt like I was coming home when, for the first time in my trip, the train pulled into somewhere a little familiar. I kinda understand the metro and know roughly the city plan, so sitting in Gare Montparnasse with nowhere to stay seems barely daunting.

No trouble to pick up a room at Le Village, a nice little hostel up in Montmartre. Sure, the area is as touristy and plastic as it gets in Paris, but of course it's barely a minute from a metro station. The hostel itself has a nice view of Sacre Coeur from the terrace, which is an unexpected bonus.

Part of my motivation in returning to Paris is to catch up with Rob and Mel, who're on their own Europe jaunt. They've just done a lot of Italy and are on their way to London; we have some dinners and a drink or three while watching the city go by. All very pleasant.

I decide that since I'm in Paris, I should see some things. One day is the Museum of the Middle Ages, down in Saint Germain. It's got a shedload of religious work (they loved that back then) and some even older stuff, and a bit on the history of France which I like. The Lady and the Unicorn is the centrepiece; an awe-inspiring six tapestries from the 15th century. The craft of it, the filigree embroidered detail, is amazing, and the symbolism (apparently) is pretty intricate as well.

A different type of impressive, with a nod to my heritage, is the Museum of Jewish Art and History. The Jewish people have had a chequered history in France, as in most of Europe, with rulers alternately expelling them then allowing them back in. This culminates with the second World War, of course, and the personal stories scattered around the collection from this time are moving even despite my poor French reading skills. The museum gives an overview of much of Jewish culture, with the overriding impression being how old all these tales are. I guess it's called the Old Testament for a reason...

Also, some more prosaic visits. The Magic Museum is good fun for an hour or two, with a real live magic show only slightly diminished by me not understanding his rapid-fire French, and by the hordes of school holiday kids filling it. And the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie substitutes for the closed-for-renovation Musée de la Musique, out at the Parc de la Villette. The Parc itself is a relaxed open space, rare in Paris, with architecture ranging from Industrial Revolution to hardcore Modern and even some grass! As for the Cité, it's just like Scienceworks, really, except with a big focus on all things Gallic. Lots about the European Space Agency, about Airbus, about French car makers. My four hours were enough to see about 25%, but that was probably sufficient.

And also some less cultural tales. The hostel was good fun, quite communal and with a good proportion of English speakers, so I met quite a lot of people. Spent some time hanging with Guy, from London, and was again amazed at the ease of European vacations. He'd decided to go to Paris 36 hours before, packed some things and hopped on a bus for 20 euros, and so had two weeks in France! Also met plenty of Canadians, Americans, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, even an Aussie or two! All of whom were good fun to hang around with; it seems sacriligeous to drink on the steps of Sacre Coeur until you try it. And singing Crazy by Gnarls Barkley probably doesn't make matters much better...

Paris II felt less like travelling alone and more like, well, first year college, I guess. Fun while it lasted. Illogically, next it was back to the south, to Bordeaux.