Saturday, 7 February 2015
Got up at a lazy 9:00 in the morning and went for a shower, before double checking that I had everything. I had a bit of trouble with the zip on my suitcase last night, but I managed to get it working okay again. I’m amazed nothing has gone missing so far. The Eurostar to Paris I was booked on wasn’t due to leave until 11:30, so I had plenty of time to get ready. Got to St Pancras International Station after a detour through the next-door Kings Cross Station (literally across the road) to take a picture of Platform 9 3/4 and the trolley disappearing into the wall. I was still a bit early, so had to wait another 30 minutes before I could go through the ticket barriers.
Eventually the train started preparing for boarding at 10:30, and I got through the ticket barriers, security scans, and passport control like a breeze. The interesting thing about the Eurostar is that the French have an immigration checkpoint in the UK terminal at St Pancras, and the UK has an immigration checkpoint in the French terminal at Gare du Nord. This is awesome, because it means not having to travel to France (or the UK) only to be denied entry, which is something I was actually (albeit needlessly) worried about when getting into the UK from Australia given the checks are at the UK end, after you arrive, after traveling for 24 hours and 12,000 miles.
The train left St Pancras at about 11:30, and I’d estimate that 45 minutes later it entered the Channel Tunnel (near Dover), spent 30 minutes underground, before emerging into the French countryside near Calais, another 75 minutes from Paris. The journey from St Pancras to Gare du Nord is about 500 km, and the top operational speed of the Eurostar’s British Rail Class 373 fleet is 300 km/h. Not bad going for a train 20 carriages and 400 metres long.
When I got out at Gare du Nord, I was immediately overwhelmed. It is difficult to prepare for the shock of having to deal with French being written and spoken everywhere. It made me stop, stand out of the way, and closely examine the signs. I needed to do three things: get some cash, get a Métro (subway/underground) ticket, and find the Métro itself. I spotted the sign I was after and started trundling in the direction of the Métro.
Gare du Nord’s international platforms are very accessible. There are no ticket controls, and once you exit them you are in the station proper and can go out onto the streets. This means there are a lot of people in the immediate vicinity, which can be tough, especially for people like me who are generally not comfortable in crowds. As I walked towards the Métro, a woman with a clipboard stopped me and asked if I spoke English. I didn’t have to be anywhere, so I stopped to see what she wanted. She started a spiel about deaf and blind children. When she had finished, I asked her what it was for, because I still didn’t know. I looked at the clipboard and it looked like a petition. She started her spiel again. I ignored her and examined the clipboard. I realised that it was asking for donations — people had written their names and pledged 10 Euros. I said “No, sorry, I don’t have any money” and gave her an apologetic smile. She rolled her eyes and took the clipboard back. If she thought I was lying, she was wrong: I had just gotten off the train and hadn’t been to an ATM yet.
I found an ATM and withdrew some cash. It gave me two 50 Euro bills. That wasn’t particularly useful — I was hoping for a smaller denomination. Oh well, I thought. So I went to get a Métro ticket from the ticket machine, which only took coins or cards, and refused to accept my Visa Debit for some reason. So I went to the nearest shop and bought a bottle of Coke to break a bill and get some coins. The machine accepted my coins and I was able to buy a Métro ticket for 1.80 Euro. I took the Métro from Gare du Nord to Étienne Marcel (lots of Métro stations are named after people) and walked to the café/bar where I was meeting Pirates at 5:00 pm, arriving about an hour before the meeting.
After buying an overpriced glass of cola at the café, I tried to send a text message to François, the French Pirate with whom I was meant to stay. Unfortunately my phone decided it didn’t want to send text messages: I was out of credit and the only way to recharge was to get online. I whipped out my laptop and connected to the café’s free wifi network, recharged my phone and managed to get a text to François, who texted me to tell me that his brother Thomas (i.e. Thomas Watanabe-Vermorel, a spokesperson for the French Pirates) would meet me at the café. Thomas met me okay, and I sat through the meeting which had a decent number of people considering the French Pirate Party’s size is about a quarter of Pirate Party Australia’s. They had a presentation that was intended to educate the less tech-savvy about protecting privacy online.
After the meeting I decided to get dinner, realising I had forgotten to eat all day at it was now past 7:00 pm. I walked up to Réamur-Sébastopol Métro Station and got the Métro to Rue Saint-Maur, then walked the short distance to François’ house. François had a mattress and a lamp and everything set up in his basement, and it was surprisingly comfortable and warm. I’m very grateful to him for letting me stay!
Saturday, 8 February 2015
Woke up and headed out. I decided to have a more leisurely day today and set out to see the four sights I wanted to see: Place de la Bastille, Notre Dame de Paris, La tour Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. First I got the Métro to Marcel Étienne so I could visit Le Bon Pêcheur again because, although expensive, I liked it and wanted somewhere decent to sit and eat. I had a delicious Thai-style chicken curry with rice, salad, sliced baguette, a beer and a cola. For 23 Euro all up, it was worth it. I chatted to dad for a bit because I hadn’t really been in touch with him in a while.
After finishing up at Le Bon Pêcheur, I walked east to Place de Bastille, through Place des Vosges. The monument there is similar to Nelson’s column and other pillar-style monuments, and is in the centre of a roundabout. From the side I was on, taking pictures, I spotted “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) stencilled on a box nearby (the kind that is used for power distribution). I had actually been reconsidering my visit to Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre due to uncertainty as to what state Paris would be in, but generally Paris seems fine. However, on my walk to the Cathedral of Notre Dame I did spot three soldiers on patrol carrying automatic weapons. Walking to Notre Dame meant heading south for a bit along Boulevard Henri IV, across the bridge to Île Saint-Louis in the middle of the Seine, then walking literally down the centre of the island west and over a bridge to Île de la Cité on which the Cathedral is built. On the bridge were rollerbladers showing off some quite fancy stuff, which I managed to get some videos and pictures of. I got some good pics of the exterior of the Cathedral, but the line to go inside was insanely long — and as everyone who has read this knows, I hate long lines. The Cathedral is actually quite small compared to the minsters and cathedrals in England.
I got the Métro again, this time from Cité (on the island) to Montparnasse Bienvenüe where it was a really long walk to transfer to Métro Line 6 to get to Bir-Hakeim where the Eiffel Tower is nearby. On the Métro I was serenaded by some accordionists who were worth giving a few dollars to for the entertainment! As soon as you exit the Métro station at Bir-Hakeim you can see the Eiffel Tower looming over the city. The Eiffel Tower is impressive; it’s not merely a tourist attraction. I would say that it is much more striking than Notre Dame. A massive black lattice-like construction. It is an amazing feat of architecture and engineering, and it is easy to see its allure. I walked northwest across the Seine towards the Arc de Triomphe. I approached it from the side rather than the front, having it slowly revealed to me. It’s extremely well lit at night, a gold colour against the dark sky. I managed to get a few shots from the side, including a really cool long-exposure shot, and from the front, standing on a pedestrian island in peak hour.
I made my way back to François’ house at Rue Saint-Maur and they insisted on giving me dinner: pasta and pancakes. François’ mother had made the jam for the pancakes, and it was delicious. After a long day, I said goodnight and went to bed. Although I hadn’t had an awful time, I generally didn’t like Paris and was glad to be leaving for Antwerp the next day. I think the combination of an unfamiliar language, the dirt and grime and smell of the city, and the number of people had worn me down a bit so I wasn’t able to fully appreciate it.