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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!

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