Monday, August 25, 2008

Un Jour Parisien

I must start this series of blogs with an apology. What follows will at times be a diatribe of blather, thanks to most of the memories being week-old by the time I actually got round to putting together the posts. Nonetheless, I hope there's something enjoyable about them.


For all of nine days, I had been building up to August 6th, the day I would first experience the apparent wonder that is Paris. True, I had driven through a rough section of the urban fringe last summer on the way to Chartres but this time, the true Paris waited.

Another dream of mine has been to “do” Europe by train, so shortly after 9am, we pulled out of Meldreth train station bound for the line’s terminus at King’s Cross/ St. Pancras Intl. After arriving in North London, it was a short trek to the Eurostar Terminal within the newly-renovated St. Pancras. Check-in was a reassuring breeze, little more complicated than putting a ticket through a set of turnstiles. I was beginning to understand the allure of train travel versus the human abattoir that constitutes the low-cost sections of Luton and Stansted airports.

The “departures lounge” pleasingly didn’t offer the plethora of duty-free junk seen at most airports, merely offering a coffee shop, sandwich bar and news-agent. Likewise, the lounge itself refrained from becoming a human cattle-pen, instead providing well-spaced seating, the same of which would be true aboard the Eurostar itself. Indeed, as we whizzed to Paris, arriving Gare du Nord in barely two hours, I only had one complaint. The luggage racks couldn’t fit much of anything in them, a small price to pay for the convenience of international train travel.

Gare du Nord itself greeted us with a whole-hearted, hot and sweaty handshake and by the time we managed to weave through its sprawling mass to the D-Line, towards Gare de Lyon, our knees were beginning to quiver, not purely due to the prospects of the city beyond that awaited us. After a similarly exhausting discovery of the maze that is Gare De Lyon, we basked in sweat-stained relief. Our hotel beckoned.

An urgent “fresh-up” was required but soon we were on our way with no real aim or direction. Intending to sample the famous Velido scheme of Paris, we instead trundled through la Musee de Sculptures en Plein Air. Eventually we ended up, via an aqualemon rest stop at the Centre George Pompidou with no real idea of what lurked within. I had heard that the centre was an architectural masterpiece. Although a very unique structure, it would be difficult to describe the Pompidou as masterful; Zany, most definitely but definitely not stylish.

This perception is in contrast not only to the immediate area, which is brimming with buskers and bustling cafes but also to the galleries and exhibitions of the Pompidou. The two most striking galleries occupied the top two floors, which also commanded fantastic views over Paris. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and other legendary, traditionalist sights were staring us back in the eye, an ironic experience to say the least.

The 6th floor exhibition contained the most contemporary of abstract, socialist-themed art. There seemed to be an emphasis on destiny for directions and guidance were nowhere to be seen. Highlights included a praying Hitler and a darkened room titled only as “Punishment.” My feet were shaking as a meandered back into the humid confines of the exterior escalator. Contemporary art can be awesome, immediately thought-provoking or dull, bland and cheap. The exhibition entirely fulfilled the former category but unfortunately parts of the gallery below our jelly-legs didn’t evoke that quivering wonder bestowed by its literal and metaphorical higher-ups. That isn’t quite fair – Miroslav Vichy’s exhibition was fascinating. To think that his photographs were produced entirely from homemade camera equipment shows the ingenuity and mastery Vichy possessed in regard to his discipline. Unfortunately those qualities were lacking from his gallery neighbors. Many canvases were merely splattered with paint. The awe of the more memorable exhibits could not, however, be damaged. My brain was raging right through until we arrived across the Seine in the Latin Quarter, in search of gelato. This was evident for we walked halfway to the Louvre, completely the wrong direction in other words.

Once we actually made it tour intended destination, the scents and sights of the Latin Quarter descended upon me. The smashing plates, the oozing crowds and the delicate food. I understood the hype. Still, tens of thousands of my fellow temporary Parisians also understood this concept for elbow room was hard to come by. After the gelato madness, we headed back to the Gare De Lyon, meandering along the vibrant banks of the Seine. I must admit to feeling bewildered upon arrival in Paris but by the conclusion of my 6 hours on the streets, I felt six months may have been a long enough period to begin to get a feel for the city.

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