Je Suis Étranger

The tasks at hand were simple but not easy ones; become lost in Paris and become Parisian.  I had two days in a foreign capital city with a foreign language and a foreign street system that was laid out like a four-year old’s drawing of their house.  Or family.  Rocket, elephant, anything.  You get the idea, pretty much South London with seven times the number of roads.  The first leg of the adventure was pretty easy, to go from my place to St. Pancras in the morning.  This was a journey I’d many similar experiences with over my life.  Jump on the London Underground, change once or twice and hey presto, a facefull of armpit, an elbow in the ribs and many nudges in the back later, one arrives.  Which also happened on that day and thankfully without any timely disruptions or delays on the way.  That meant I was, as I always am, early enough for a coffee at the Costa with a quick bite to eat of some vaguely warm pastry-type savoury containing a vaguely warm filling.  This was okay as I was preparing myself for some French cuisine later in the day and at least my stomach was now lined for that and also ready for the laborious two and a quarter hour stretch of train sitting. 

I could very easily bore you with the intricacies of the journey, the nuances of working out what several passengers do for a living, but I won’t.  So instead, I shall grace your eyes (or ears for the audio version) with the knowledge that my one meaningful moment away from my seat was at the kiosk, or kiosque, where I bought the expectedly generic brand of madeleine cake in the red and white box and a bottle of over-priced water.  I asked the lady who spoke fluent English, as she was indeed English, where was good to go in Paris that wouldn’t be on the trail of overnight visitors.  Her recommendation of the Palace of  Versailles resonated rather deeply within me.  It is, however, still on the to do list.  My arrival at Gare du Nord was nothing spectacular.  I wasn’t expecting dancing girls, a fanfare or even bunting but something would have been nice.  Instead I had a cold, faceless station with people milling around.  There was no sense of urgency or purpose; it transpires that this is Paris.  Unless you are the taxi driver that took me to my starting point. 

No amount of prior planning, preparing or postulating could have eased me into what I was about to experience.  Paris, Rue la Fayette, morning shift.  Luckily, I was not here on business otherwise my first time here may well have been an overwhelmingly underproductive day.  As it was, my itinerary was full, my phone battery (now 55%) charged and unfortunately my bag was fully packed.  At the first chance possible, I tightened the laces on my Converse and headed east.  At least I thought it was east.  Turns out that for most of my traversing through the Parisian back streets my maps weren’t always corresponding to the directions of the compass.  Becoming lost in Paris was complete in the literal sense although the metaphorical and metaphysical senses were only just about to begin.   

Rue la Fayette at Christmas time; nothing really to gloat about.  The stone fronts of the tall buildings merged into one with only balconies or railings breaking the dreariness of exquisite and intricate embellishments on the architecture.  As with London, the best views of the city are above the eye line.  However, from a pedestrian’s perspective each shop had its own character facing into the one-way street that I was now walking down.  It wasn’t long, two or maybe three minutes of wandering around and wondering where my first port of call was actually located, when I decided to try my luck in a shop.  As I strolled along the sullen, damp pavement taking in the foreign environment, I happened upon a familiar word; crêperie.  This was in fact a shop called Krêp where people would pop in for a late breakfast or a tasty lunch and sample the wonderfully eclectic selection of crêpes available to eat.  Or as seemed to be the stereotypical thing to do, at least in touristic Paris, sit for endless hours with a newspaper and a coffee.  But for me, there was the damaged cliché of so much to do, so I’d better crack on.  I looked a little farther down the road and noticed an elephant grey frontage of a shop that had a stream of people, streaming in both directions, through the doors like a mystical mirror into a different dimension.  It was a Tesco Express.  Except in France.  And called “Monop’”.  And stocked more like a Waitrose.  Wait a minute, next door looks like an organic shop, I thought.  Bit quiet, posh and not culturally diverse enough for my ensuing Parisian transformation.  Hence, into Monop’ I went; and lo, there was not much that inspired me at this stage of the day and besides, I still had the madeleine cakes.  My first shopping trip was a resounding failure, yet I continued my travels with resilience and a new-found confidence; being able to walk into a shop, browse, and leave as if I were invisible, was to me, today, a major step. 

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and with an unexcited acknowledgement put it back into my pocket.  The app I had downloaded and used to plan my time was already draining the battery and there were photos I knew I would be taking.  Yes, I admit, I’d bought a selfie-stick for the journey but not so much to put me in the picture but to snap views that I wouldn’t normally get to see.  588 photos in total I’d uploaded to Facebook upon my return.  Okay, time to carry on with not looking like an Englishman in Paris.  I had my grey, short-brimmed hat, my lightweight hoodie that survives both heated summer days and shivering winter nights.  I didn’t blend as such but at least I didn’t stand out; selfie-stick aside. 

December, as with London, and the big stores had their window displays all set up to encapsulate and entrap both adult and child alike.  As a devout Londoner, with Ibiza as a regular holistic holiday getaway, I hadn’t heard of any of the famous French shops around here.  Those along the Champs-Élysée are generally the generic brands of a certain standard, similar to Bond Street or the posh Westfield.  Galeries Lafayette was the first major store with a Christmas set up that I saw on my walk.  Located on Boulevard Haussmann the displays were festive, busy and with music occasionally being heard squeezed through the underpowered speaker in the ceiling above.  I wish I could say they didn’t have a patch on Harrods or Hamley’s but over the years, even our top shops have failed to raise the bar; in fact, even if they stretched they were far from reaching it!  But I was in Paris and I enjoyed the atmosphere of the children running up to the glass and pointing out to their parents what they wanted from Santa.  Luckily my two boys were at home with an Argos catalogue and YouTube.  I felt compelled to enter but didn’t feel the same compulsion when stopped by security for a bag check.  I mean, I did look more like a terrorist than a tourist. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt as pregnant mothers, the elderly and even wheelchairs weren’t immune to being searched.  It may have been overkill especially as I’ve carried out more thorough searches with my tongue looking for a lost TicTac in my mouth.  Inside the shop was like being in the French twin of Selfridges.  There was complete pandemonium.  People everywhere, Christmas decorations and candy-themed displays adorned every floor.  Goods that were once ridiculously priced had now taken seasonal discounts and were only slightly less ridiculously priced.  In fairness, I wasn’t there to buy, only to browse and soak up the atmosphere.  That was very easy to do.  And I must say, the staff were always polite, saying hello in either English or French and just letting me meander around their section, never once bothering me and yet always acknowledging me.  This I found to be at first unsettling but within five minutes it was actually very pleasant to be experiencing.  It felt like the good old days of department stores where nobody was there to sell, simply assist.  I even had a Frenchman approach me and ask where something was.  I say something as he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak French.  But it was nice to be asked. 

Within my first hour of being an Englishman in Paris, I’d been ignored, searched and asked for directions like a local.  My job here was done.  Je suis Parisien. Now to carry on enjoying the rest of my trip.  

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