I was late getting into work this morning. Someone had… wait for it… set fire to the train! I sense a conspiracy! Anarchist pyromaniacs begin their reign of terror!
Having received the exciting news that my flat in Paris had finally been arranged, I proceeded to leave work early, about 19:00, so I could meet the landlord to have a good look at the place before moving in. With the meeting arranged for 20:00, this should have left plenty of time to travel there on the underground system. Unless of course someone sets fire to the train you are on. That phenomenon has been known to cause delays on trains from time to time. Not always of course, I remember one story a few years back where there was a fire in the freight train tunnel underneath the English Channel. The fire was started by a lorry that was already on fire as it entered the tunnel. This does not speak well for French customs officials. I can just imagine the exchange:
“‘Ave you anysing to declare?”
“Oui, c’est bon. Move along.”
But anyway, back to the night in question. Having the journey interrupted by an inconsiderate pyromaniac, I was pleasantly surprised by the response of my fellow travellers. The news was greeted with shrugs, gallic of course, jokes and a general movement toward creating car pools and taxi shares for everyone to get into town. No anger, no screaming at officials, merely acceptance. This does beg the question of how often this kind of things happens of course.
I ended up getting a lift from complete strangers who had been driving past and heard the news on the radio that there were problems. So they stopped by, picked up some people and took them to the centre of Paris, even offering an evening meal to my co-passengers and myself.
The apartment itself is lovely and I will be spending my first night there on Wednesday. I shall be sharing it with a colleague from Poland and one from Germany, so I’m sure it’ll be… amusing.
I bring you now the tale of Markyate, the village I currently live in. I’m only there two days a week, so I think it still counts as a travel location. Markyate is a very old village, the house I live in is three hundred years old in itself, all wooden beams and a large majestic fireplace that would have the romantics of the world going all misty-eyed. Words like ‘quaint’ and ‘picturesque’ might spring to mind. Obviously, I’m sure you’ve come to expect it, I tell you now of the downside. I begin with the doorways. Three hundred years ago people were even shorter than they are today, which is no mean feat. Hence, the doorways are so low that a limboing dwarf could still manage to get a heavy concussion, never mind people who are over six feet tall. The main benefit to these doorways is the humour value during house parties when that anguished “Oww! My head!” echoes through the house. Ah, the memories.
As for the wiring, I’m sure it was installed as soon as electricity supplies were invented and not replaced since. I’m considering buying light bulbs in bulk to cover my needs, they blow so often.
And the large majestic fireplace? It is gas driven, and although, this would still be nice, has been condemned and may not be used.
The village itself is incredibly small. It has one Indian restaurant, one fish and chip shop and five pubs. Some of these pubs are reminiscent of scenes in ‘American Werewolf in London’. Those who have seen the film will know what I mean, those who have not, ought to. All in all the biggest contribution to an evening’s entertainment in Markyate is the bus out of town, which can take you to the heady delights that are St Albans and will be described in a further episode. Stay tuned…
Friedrich Nietzsche once said of the Germans that “…this people has deliberately made itself stupid, for nearly a millennium: nowhere have the two greatest European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity, been abused more dissolutely.”
And who am I to disagree with the great man himself?
Many moons ago I lived in a village called Eisingen, in the Black Forest, in Germany. The village was quite small and, like many villages in the area, had it’s own vineyards. The wine was of a good quality, especially the rare ice wine. A warning to the uninitiated: Ice wine is pricey due to its rarity, and highly alcoholic.
The people in the area of Germany known as Swabia are even more anally retentive than your average German. Hard to believe, I know, but I swear it is true. There are regulations when and where you are allowed to wash your car or have a barbecue. Fifty year old women will wander the streets, apparently innocently walking their dogs, seeking out those evil -doers who would dare brake such vital rules. They will seek evidence of detergent on the roads to see if there has been any illegal car washing, or sniff the air like a dachshund, to determine if someone is daring to grill sausages on a day that this is not permitted on. If their investigations uncover such dastardly deeds, off they scurry to report the fiends who would so flagrantly poo-poo the rules and regulations.
These same women also enjoy leaning out of the window of their family home to peer out into the street, watching the activities of their neighbours. This can be quite uncomfortable, but fear not, they come prepared. A pillow is used to protect the elbows during this marathon act of blatant voyeurism.
Love thy neighbour? Sure, as long as they sweep the pavement in front of their home on a weekly basis, but do not do so on a Sunday.
As I sat in a restaurant seeking inspiration for the next instalment of this travelogue, my muse graced with a large family of American tourists on their first night in Paris. Having come to this city to see the sights, experience the culture and taste the cuisine, it was only natural that they come to the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. To watch them order was the first highlight. Despite the protestations of the waiter that he was from New York, the patriarch of the family proceeded… to … talk… very… slowly…and… en-un-ci-ate. Or maybe I misunderstood the exchange and all New Yorkers are mentally retarded? It might explain why the waiter also proceeded… to … talk… very… slowly…and… en-un-ci-ate.
My favourite part of the conversation that I was rudely eavesdropping in on, was the exclamation by the eldest daughter of the family, when she realised that Wow! They were in France and they were eating french fries! What a coincidence!
I nearly choked on my beer.
And so, without further ado, I present you with:
Paris – A Visitors Guide
1. Upon arrival you may wish to take a taxi. Go to the taxi queue and politely ignore anyone along the way who offers you a taxi. These touts operate illegally and make their money by picking up unsuspecting tourists and charging them triple.
2. Remember this simple axiom. The Parisian tourist board loves the money tourists bring in. Parisians themselves like the fact that they have work because tourists come to their city, but they hate tourists themselves. This will explain a lot of things you see.
3. Never wear sandals. Remember my story about the dog crap?
4. You will have a hard time as a vegetarian, even the salads have meat in them.
5. Unless you are rabidly anti-smoking, allergic to smoke and literally prone to dying from the inhalation of second-hand cigarette smoke always ask for a smoking table at a restaurant. They are the best tables and, in some cases, the only tables. Otherwise you will be stuck right at the back, next to the kitchens or the toilets or even, as in one case, asked to sit outside in the pouring rain. It isn’t worth it.
6. In the popular areas, although the waiters and waitresses speak English, they will pretend otherwise. So don’t speak to them as if they are idiots or insult them, they will understand you and make you suffer. I’m sure you can imagine what can be added to a cream of mushroom soup.
7. I have observed many American tourists blatantly ignoring what is on the menu and ordering what they fancy. Here some advice: You are not in Burger King. If the menu is hand-written, the chef has compiled it himself, based on what is fresh on that day and what he feels would be a good culinary combination. To ignore this and to order a variant or something completely different is to insult the chef. Remember what I said about the cream of mushroom soup.
8. Yes, the Parisian MacDonald’s does sell beer, they do called a quarterpounder a Royale, and they just call them fries not french fries. Get over it.
9. No, you cannot see everything in the Louvre on one day and the trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower is not worth it. If you want a great view go to the Tour Montparnasse instead.
10. If a local says or does something you disapprove of, fit in. Sneer at them. No more is needed.
The cafeteria, I would not grace it with the title of restaurant, of a large Irish bank in Dublin had a peculiar feature. The side dish for every single meal, regardless of whether it was a pasta dish, rice dish or, would you believe a potato dish was always… potatoes. Every single day. A peculiarity indeed, but not as peculiar as the looks of the servers when you actually tried to decline the extra helpings of potato with your potato. Had I insulted their first born I don’t think I could have offended them more.
It might not have been so bad had they actually been inventive with said root vegetable, but no. Potatoes were there to be boiled, fried or baked. That was it and any suggestion otherwise was treated with the same scorn as was awarded to the potato abstainers. Bon apetit.
What true travelogue does not speak of the culinary delights and disasters? My lunch today consisted of stir-fried beef in a red wine sauce, served with potato puree. Very nice indeed. There is little that can be said against the restaurants of large companies in Paris. Dublin, however is a different story. [Cue flashback]
Having just escaped a mind-numbingly boring meeting, I am reminded of the most boring meeting I ever attended. It was a three hour affair in a refinery in Rotterdam and was hosted by a man who loved the sound of his own voice. I’ll never understand why, since it was the most monotonous voice I have ever heard. After the marathon meeting I was told that I had given the impression of boredom. Apparently I had managed this by falling asleep and snoring loudly, but I did receive the gratitude of my colleagues, as this faux pas seemed to end the meeting quite effectively. Personally I don’t think I was asleep. My theory is that Mr Monotony had robbed me of the will to live and I was already in a coma.
Rotterdam itself is a nice enough town, especially those buildings that were not bombed flat 55 years ago, i.e. both of them. However I was not staying in Rotterdam itself, but in a suburb called Spykenisse. The main feature of this town was the 8 refineries that lit up the night sky with their flaming chimneys. I learned a lot about refineries in my six months there, especially their attitude to environmentalism. For example, plant managers love days of low cloud cover as they can then vent their toxic gases into the atmosphere without the local tree-huggers complaining to the environmental agencies. Encouraging, isn’t it?
Last week I did the unimaginable and went jogging. A truly dangerous escapade, not just for the risk of injury from the flailing elbows of my fellow joggers, nor even the fact that those who drink and smoke, like myself, are better off watching and deriding exercise than actually participating in it. No, the true risk in this activity came from the location; a lovely little park in the centre of Paris… completely surrounded by busy roads full of psychopathic drivers whose vehicles pump out so much pollution I’d be better off smoking. At least cigarettes have filters.
So there I was, jogging away, happy as a pig in poo, surrounded by hardcore health freaks. After a while I realised that the reason I was getting funny looks were because of the Guinness T-shirt I was wearing. If only they knew that I had only chosen that one because I don’t own one with a cigarette theme. The irony would have appealed to me.
Ah, Paris again. How I have missed the obstacle course that is a Parisian street covered in dog crap. Paris is certainly not the city for chronic sandal wearers. Nor a city for vegetarians, for that matter, as chefs in Paris believe the vegetarian option is a sprig of parsley on a nearly raw steak. You can’t really fault them for their priorities.