I KNOW. Standards of photography in Campbell’s Diary just get better and better. This one wasn’t easy, but when the going gets tough does your intrepid correspondent sit back and wait for next week? He does not. He seizes the hour, he grasps the opportunity. Does he push his way through the rush-hour throng and sit on the driver’s knee to capture the unforgettable moment when the Paris Metro pulls into the next station?
He certainly does, or something like that. I’m afraid I can’t remember which station it was. Somewhere along Line 1, which runs diagonally across the heart of Paris from Château de Vincennes in the east to La Défense in the west, travelling directly beneath the Champs-Elysées for much of the way. The remarkable thing about this particular line is that it’s automatic. No driver, so no driver’s lap to sit on. If you can get to the front, as Josephine and I did because the train was almost empty, you have a clear view down the line. Actually there isn’t much to see apart from a lot of black, just the occasional red and green light and oncoming trains about to whoosh past you. And of course stations as you approach them, as in the photo above. Time for an interesting fact.
Interesting Fact No. 1:
The London Underground tunnels were built to dimensions only slightly greater than the trains running through them. Underground users will be familiar with the hold-on-to-your-hat onrush of air as a tube approaches. This is deliberate. It’s in this way that Underground air is pumped about the system and doesn’t get too stale or warm. Paris Metro engineers took no account of this. The Metro tunnels are much wider, the air doesn’t circulate in the same way, coughs and colds spread so much more easily despite the monstrous extractor fans trying to ventilate the system. End of Interesting Fact No. 1.
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ALTHOUGH JOSEPHINE knew Paris quite well, indeed had worked there at one time, I’d only been once before, in 1988, and that was before I came to live in France. On that occasion our more than generous hosts had entertained us (‘us’ were my late first wife, son and friend) to a trip up the Seine and back again on one the famous river cruisers, the Bateaux Mouches. Everything was splendid, the balmy August evening, the five-course dinner, the wines, some of the great monuments of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, Notre Dame and so on, all illuminated by the banks of powerful floodlights mounted on the hull of the boat. We rounded the Île de la Cité and cruised all the way back again. Unforgettable. The Musée d’Orsay stuck particularly in my mind. Once it was a railway terminus. It’s now an art gallery, but on the wall facing the Seine there are still large stucco plaques with the names of the towns once served, names from the deep Midi that were magically magnetic to me then, Albi, Cahors, Rodez…
Interesting Fact No. 2:
The Musée d’Orsay hit the headlines while we were in Paris. There’s a national scheme which allows people on social benefits to enter museums and galleries at reduced rates or even free. A few days before we arrived many visitors to the Musée d’Orsay had complained strongly to the management that a visiting family of three stank so appallingly badly that others’ pleasure was being ruined. The management presumably had a confirmatory sniff, whereupon they asked the evil-smelling family to leave. When their entry money was offered back to them it was discovered that they were on unemployment benefit. Outrage. All political France, left, right and centre, was angrily polarised. The Musée d’Orsay put out a very polite explanatory notice, but stood its ground. What would you have done? End of Interesting Fact No. 2.
On returning to the Bateaux Mouches car-park that night back in 1988, our host Emile wondered if we might like to see Paris by night? As there were more of us than could fit in one car, I nobly volunteered to bring up the rear. What did I see of nocturnal Paris? I had wonderful views of the tail lights of Emile’s car. Not for a fraction of a second did I dare take my eyes off them. I stuck to them like limpets. To have lost Emile would have been disaster. Why, if I’d lost him I might be still there, swirled about helplessly in city traffic, in constant wrong lane muddles, flouting one-way systems and traffic lights . . . I did manage to lift my eyes once, just to glimpse the revolving neon sails of the Moulin Rouge, but otherwise my lasting impression of Paris by night was two red lights half a car-length in front of me.
And that impression lasted for 25 years. High time to redress the balance, wouldn’t you say? The opportunity came a few days ago when three Paris-based musician friends calling themselves the Hoboken Trio, gave a concert in the Salle Cortot, something like the Wigmore Hall in London. So we took off for the weekend, by TGV (Train grande vitesse, high-speed train), another new experience. The journey time from Montpellier – our nearest city, practically on the Mediterranean – to Paris took a little under 4 hours. It’s quicker than flying, if you count in the hanging about time in the departure lounge and travelling in from the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport into the centre of Paris.
Apart from that concert (which was excellent), how do you spend a couple of days in Paris? Maybe our priorities aren’t like other peoples’, so please excuse me if my immediate memories seem eccentric, or wacky, even.
*Wandering along the Rue Solferino (named after an obscure village in northern Italy, where following a murderous France v. Austria battle in 1859 a Swiss businessman called Henri Dunant was so horrified by the suffering that he took steps which resulted the founding of the Red Cross: never let it be said that Campbell’s Diary doesn’t give you the full info) we found an open gateway leading into a very beautiful courtyard. There seemed to be no entry restrictions, so we strolled in to admire the Napoleonic architecture. Shock, horror – the solid gate began to close automatically behind us! In the nick of time we escaped from what turned out to be the HQ of the Légion d’Honneur, in its upper echelons something like the Order of the Garter. Phew.
*In the Musée d’Orsay, a most imaginative conversion of a railway terminus into one of the world’s leading art galleries, everyone smelt just fine.
*We dined one evening in the Japanese restaurant next door to our hotel. (After all, why not? Living in France, we can eat at French restaurants every night of the week if we choose.) The proprietress apologised for the noise: she and her family were Chinese and were celebrating the Chinese New Year.
The Louvre, approached from the Tuileries Gardens
*The Louvre, housing even more paintings and objets d’art than the Musée d’Orsay, is vast, and crowds of Chinese, still flushed from celebrating the Year of the Serpent, Japanese and Russians swirled about in it, following guides with little flags. Most, it seemed, wanted to see the Mona Lisa. It’s really quite small, not much bigger than the screen you’re reading this on. We noted it in the distance.
Interesting Fact No. 3:
In the first quarter of the 20th Century an art movement called Dadaism developed. One of the movement’s leaders was Marcel Duchamp, and one of his products was his version of the Mona Lisa. He called it ‘LHOOQ’, which says something very rude indeed when you sound out the letter names in French, so you can see what sort of art movement it was. End of Interesting Fact No. 3.
Marcel Duchamp's LHOOQ
*We had a little spare time before catching the TGV back from the Gare de Lyon, so we broke our Metro journey at a stop called Bastille. When you surface from the underworld of the Metro you find yourself just outside the newish Paris opera house, a massive creation of glass and stainless steel, on the edge of a large square, the Place de la Bastille. There’s a huge gilded column in the middle of the square, and you might think it commemorated the Fall of the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution on July 14th, 1789. But no, it commemorates those who died in later revolutions, those of 1830 (when the French got rid of Charles X) and 1848 (ditto Louis-Philippe) at a time in Europe when those who’d put ‘king’ as their previous profession on the dole claim forms made long queues at the Job Centre. The outline of the original Bastille is marked in the paving stones of the square.
*We started to walk down the Rue de Lyon towards the station. The street had more than its fair share of something we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Paris, beggars, nutters, religious zealots. At least, it seemed so: a suspiciously earnest young man asked us in Spanish for directions. At overload moments like these our Spanish, never strong, deserts us. He was terribly impatient, asking other passers-by even while we were showing him on the map. We found it for him, but he showed no gratitude. Instead he took out a Bible from his backpack and we groaned inwardly. Did we come from Galicia? he asked. He seemed unable to believe that we were English. We wondered if he really knew where he was. He told us he was a Bulgarian preacher. It was good to reach the station and shelter instinctively in the herd of like-minded people, i.e. all those united by a desire to catch the TGV to Montpellier.
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I’M AFRAID we missed an awful lot of Paris, but it’s always good to leave something for another time. We’ll need to save up, though: we found it fearfully expensive. No quicker way to get rid of a €10 note (about £8) than to order Tea for Two, even if we sang the order. (Which we did, once, in a café on the Boulevard Malesherbes run by Bretons. Did I say nutters?)
But that reminds me. We often come across French media news items in which tourists complain how rude, curt, disobliging and unhelpful the Parisians are. The French take these reports seriously, wring their hands in despair and wonder what on earth they can do to make themselves seem more hospitable. Paris is the most visited city in the world, after all. Without tourist income the French economy, already desperately shaky, would be in an even worse way.
Well, we don’t agree. We found Parisian waiters, ticket collectors, taxi-drivers, policemen, newsagents and shop assistants universally polite, cheery, helpful. I think I know the secret. It’s something called two-way traffic. If you take an interest in them and put yourself on their level, they’ll respond. Especially if you try to do it in French.
To finish with, here’s a photo of the Arc de Triomphe. Well, it would have been, on the horizon, at the far end of the Champs-Elysées, if Josephine hadn’t stood in the way. And that halo’s real, you know.
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