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Monday, 23 September 2013

Paris and onward...

Arriving off the Eurostar in Paris is always a strange feeling. 2 hours from St Pancreas and suddenly there you are in a different city, country – a different world from London. Everyone smokes, women look and dress like women – even ‘borderline boilers’ have a certain ‘je ne se qua,’ here, which is the way things really should be. Men still look and dress like pimps, I notice. Everyone seems locked in intense conversations over tasty fresh food or expresso’s, and you can be sure the subject isn’t related to house prices, or who of their hapless colleagues are going to be applying for some awful middle management position in Barclays Bank.

I ended up avoiding the $250 a night hotels and getting a room in ‘le village’ hostel in Monmatre for about 60 Euros. I couldn’t complain at all about the location, just underneath the beautiful Sacre Coeur and with meandering roads, little squares with fountains and steps and little cafĂ©’s with views, in what I’m sure everyone thinks of the archetypal Paris of romantic dreamers, philosophers and writers. Sadly, there aren’t so many places in Paris like this, but still, it’s a nice place to be – I ate somewhere different every day and didn’t have a single bad morsel of food or glass of bad wine, although you're talking a good 40-60 euros for dinner and wine (Paris is possibly even as expensive as London, although better value.)

To the west a little is Pigalle, of Moulin Rouge fame. To be honest, it’s crap - nothing more than a pretty sketchy area with down at heel, clip jointy looking strip bars and sex shops, and the odd rubbish looking bar – a bit like Soho, I suppose, where no actual locals go, only perverts on tour, lost tourists, and stag weekends. After getting drunk one night I decided to wander round looking for anything reasonably interesting only to find lonely looking transvestite cabarets, and the only bar that had any sort of life was O Sullivans which, like a night out in Newcastle, was jam packed with British/American teenagers downing shots and dancing on the bar. I’m pretty sure most of them had a vague idea they were not really getting the authentic Parisian experience and they may as well have been in aery overpriced Birmingham, but hey ho, ce la vie.

It’s not so easy to give a general overview of a city like Paris in one post, so I’ll do a general comparison with London, Tokyo and New York later on. I think that would be interesting to think about…

…But back to Paris- what a lovely example of how a big city can be. Unlike London, it’s (just) walkable – most of the tourist sights go from the Eifell Tower in the South West, across to the Champs Elysees and the Arc De Triumph, then down through the Tolleries to the Opera and Lafayette (the most beautiful shopping mall you’ve ever seen) the the Louvre and Notre Dam are just a few hundred yards further east. La Defense is actually pretty boring if you go up there, it’s just as interesting from a distance.  Anyway, if you’re feeling lazy there are plenty of hop on hop off buses at all the main tourist sites (27 euros a day) The Louvre is doable in a day, no matter what guides tell you - it's not that big, and it's most likely you won't actually want to see all of it. I was focussed on the old Dutch and German paintings, for some reason my favourites, but there are some pretty mighty old French paintings in there. 

I think the funniest thing I saw on my whole trip was the hordes of idiots taking photos of the Mona Lisa - for the slapping the forehead, shaking your hear at the sheer lunacy factor, worth the 12 Euro entry ticket alone. The Mona Lisa is the first ever example of modern art. Its a quite average painting that some people said somewhere thats its amazing, even though it patently is not, and for that, and that alone, sub-human IQ snap happy morons come from the world around to look at this painting, which, yes, looks exactly like the picture you can google right here. Its just an average looking woman smirking. Smirking at you, Brasilian guy taking a movie of the mona lisa with your apple tablet, because you came halfway across the world to make a fool of yourself in front of other fools and in front a distinctly average painting of a woman smirking at you. You idiot.

On the crowds of snap happy morons subject, one thing that ruins a lot of the biggest sites are the sheer numbers of tourists. Notre Dam Cathedral is beautiful, yes, but there are actually quite a few lovely churches around Paris that are just as beautiful (and infinitely more serene, because half of China isn't walking around taking photos and talking loudly.)

But one thing I see about Paris is that its very liveable and on a scale that Prince Charles would be proud. The expensive neighbourhoods actually look expensive (unlike the soon to fall apart apartment blocks in the posh parts of London, which set you back a fair bit more than million quid at least.) The city does have a slight authoritarian vibe though, in the architecture at least. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of 1984 was filmed here…

For those of you who, like me, like to meet local people and play Poker, the Aviation Club de France at 104 Champs Elysees is the way forward. It's 150 Euros to join, but it’s a lovely poker club with good service, lots of rich gambler players, interesting people, and nightly tournaments. I played the 500 Euro entry tourney and the poker gods were kind and I won 4200 Euros, which actually covered my round the world trip, but really I wasn’t up against any more than good recreational players, and the cash game was even better, lots of guys with seemingly endless wads of money to throw in the middle and even a fish like me could win. The downside is of course that i’m going deep into Eastern Europe now with a good part of 8000 Euros cash on me, which probably wont feel too wise at the Trans Nestria border crossing if they search my bag… Anyway, there is another Poker Club just round from Pigalle which is only 30 Euros to join but they wouldn’t let me in without my passport (or was it because I was drunk) it looked a bit scabby though, truth be told.

So after 3 nights in Paris, just about enough to want to come back with some good company, I jumped on an overnight train to Berlin. Thinking I would be in a lovely comfy bed, I found myself in a couchette piled 3 bunk high and with almost no room to swing a cat. I was sharing with 2 dodgy looking Turkish guys who looked like they were jumping bail for rape convictions, so I scrambled on to the top bunk, put all my cash in my money belt round my neck, and went to sleep.

As we sat in Berlin Station the next morning, I was just getting my bags ready to find that one of the two Turks in the other bunks had stolen my toilet bag, which I’d left on the empty middle bunk. Nothing much but still, annoying. Anyway, even more annoying was that as I packed my bags up and searched for my contact lenses, the train started moving again from the station, and I was the only person on it...

With visions of spending 3 days locked in a train on a remote siding somewhere in the darkest suburbs of Berlin, I had no idea what to do – I had no way to communicate with the driver (in a separate coach that I couldn’t get into) so like an idiot, I had to pull the emergency cord…

The train stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere, and the driver walked through and found me standing like a fool, and of course started banging on about a 300 Euro fine but as he eventually stopped in some random station near Berlin and let me off, he seemed to forget about it, so all was good (except i had to find a hotel and a way to get to it) 

The truth is though, I’ve always secretly wanted to pull an emergency stop cord on a train, haven’t you? well, I can tell you it was kind of good fun, and after my win in the poker, I would have even quite ok with the potential fine…

So now after a nothing special day in Berlin, which included sausages and beer,  I'm getting ready to get onto an overnight train to Budapest. I’ve upgraded to get a proper nights sleep and not have to worry about random sleazers stealing my toothbrush again. The cabin even has a shower! I haven’t been to Budapest for about twenty years and to be honest I can’t remember much about it apart from the parliament looks like the UK parliament in London. Last time I was there, my friends and I were tempted to join an American religious cult – they were recruiting young people in the street, and were talking about free food, accommodation and easy girls – sounds on hindsight like a ‘hostel’ prototype. It as pretty tempting for broke hungry horny Scotsmen but then one of the girls turned up and she was a fat moose so we wisely turned it down…how different life could have turned out!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Wanderlust...London, Paris and Princess Douchesses

 The other day I woke up and realized it’s high time for an adventure. One of those adventures where you just walk out the door and don’t really know quite where you’ll end up, but that’s part of the fun, kind of adventure.

So, like Bilbo Baggins, I packed a small hand luggage bag, yesterday morning and walked out the door. First stop was the 4.5 hour train ride to London, where I stayed last night. Train (75 pounds first class Glasgow - London with Virgin) takes about the same time as the flight all in, is comfortable, has free wifi, coffee, cheese, dinner, free booze, and you are able to avoid the humiliating hell of places like Luton Airport (far and away the worst airport I’ve ever had the misfortune to visit I’m sure you will agree.)

It’s always nice to pass through London – It’s the city I really spent the most mis-spent part of my younger days, and I had many happy memories there (mostly because I barely did any work) But, beware of London, dear friends – it’s all an illusion. It’s amazing how someone somewhere managed to convince millions of people that living in a cramped room in a shared flat, overpaying for absolutely everything, commuting, shoved up like cattle for 90minutes a day, and working like a slave with little or no free time or money is in some way ‘living the dream.’ Mass hypnosis, perhaps?

 Ask anyone who lives here, do they love living in London and of course they say yes. Yes, of course, there’s nowhere else in the world to live, nowhere so alive, so happening. London is the centre of the universe….and in many ways it is. But like a spiders web, it traps its residents, and in time it becomes harder and harder to leave, and you wake up one morning, and you’re 48, living in a shared flat in Bethnal Green, having worked yourself into a semi-coma and have nothing at all to show for it. Shit! You think. You came here 25 years ago, ready to set the world alight, but for some reason, like 99% of the other people who come to London to ‘make it’, you didn’t, you just plodded along like a normal person, and while all your mates back in Leeds have detached houses and Volvos, you have a mild coke habit, cynical nature, and lots of regrets.  An even if you ‘make it’ its not much better – wow, you managed to save up 100,000 pounds. Your lovely wife is pregnant. So you have a deposit for a tiny 3 bedroom terraced house in a pretty mixed area like Hackney, and a million dollar mortgage round your neck for the next 20 years (and a house that would costs 50,000 pounds if it were in Leeds) Well done, Sir. You are indeed a success in life. 100,000 pounds incidentally, will buy you a self-sufficient dream in somewhere like Ecuador, or an income for life of about $25,000 a year if you buy 5 houses in Buffalo.

It is always interesting though to check out the modern day Nathan Barleys round the east end – I ended up out in a pub in Mile End, near where I used to live, and right in the middle of a roughish council estate. When I lived there it was full of cockney football hooligans, but now it was all 12 pounds for an organic hamburger and a ping pong table full of bearded freelance social media nodes cheering a bit too loudly, in order to draw attention to themselves. Imagine Russell Brands' little brother who never managed to get famous. I wonder when the crossover was made? Were these braying fools beaten to a pulp a few times by the West Ham guys before sheer numbers of fixy-bike riding twats annoyed the regular jims until they gave up and moved down the road to an even rougher drinking hovel?  

What I wonder though, is why London has a pervasive aura of deep sadness about the people here – did you ever meet anyone in London who was truly happy? I mean truly content with their lives?  I haven’t. Maybe they’re all too busy. Or it’s too competitive to be truly happy. Any semblance of a kind, bubbly personality, or gentle spirit, is soon bled dry with cynicism, as the reality of having to make a living (or, if you’re Russian) hitch a rich husband, hits. And as a result, here I am, on the Eurostar to Paris, glad to leave the denizens of the soul sucking vampire squid to their 8am sandwiches at their desks and their 3 pints in the Bricklayers Arms bitching about their boss after work on a Thursday. Leave, you fools, before it’s too late! Ditch your job and go to the beach and go and be happy somewhere!

Of course, due to my innate laziness I missed my booked Eurostar train. Actually the bus took 45 mins instead of 21, but hats off to Eurostar, I explained the bus was late and they put me on the next train for free. Bravo!  No free wi-fi on the train but that may be connected to the international nature of my journey….next stop, in 2 hours…Paris.  I wanted to go here again for ages, after watching Midnight in Paris. What a great film! I liked particularly how the very decent Owen Wilson characters’ nasty all American ignoramus wife runs off with the uber-douchebag. Made me think how often when you do meet douches, its kind of satisfying that decent girls also will be mentally noting their douchishness and so, as sure as the sun sets on the empire, they end up with neurotic prescription drug addicted princess douchesses.

When I was there 10 years ago, I remember Paris being a smelly dirty place with overpriced food, scabby cafes, pigs trotters for sale in butchers shops, and rude as hell brown people everywhere. And is it just me, or do all French men look like pimps? Lets hope it’s all changed, and my dream of this kind of inspiring, meandering city of beauty and romance isn’t shattered this time. There’s a decent 500 euro entry poker tournament on in the famous Aviation Club de France, on Wednesday so I’ll go there, and I suppose the Louvre, and spend the rest of the time wandering around randomly. I’ll avoid that nightclub that was in ‘IrrĂ©versible’ I think.

Today out of the blue, in London, I bought an ‘inter-rail pass’ – 240 pounds odd for 10 days of travel all over Europe – so a meandering 10 days across Europe ending up in Odessa is the next loose plan…then in October ill be back in the land of the warmonger. 

I can safely say nothing really beats looking out the window on some exotic new city, not knowing what insanity awaits out there…except now i'm sitting on Eurostar looking at fields.