Amsterdam had been the plan. A friend and I had discussed going there for a long weekend during August; we’d immerse ourselves in arts and culture during the day and debauchery after dark. As usual, I did a lot of research into accommodation (budget hotels, botels on the canal, gay hotels, S&M hotels) and was really looking forward to going. I’d never been to Amsterdam before, but I’d enjoyed a school trip to other areas of The Netherlands during my teens.
Unfortunately my friend changed his mind due to his financial situation, but I still needed to get away from my life for a few days. In the end, I decided that the easiest and cheapest option was to go to Paris again. I sorted out return tickets with Easyjet and contacted my friend Claudette* to let her know that I’d be around. Although I’d stayed with her in the past, I was tempted to book a hotel for the freedom and personal space. However, Claudette insisted that I stay with her, so I accepted her offer. Unfortunately, when I arrived I discovered that Claudette was feeling unwell, so although she was quite welcoming, I felt a bit awkward about being there.
Anyway, I was set on visiting the Eiffel Tower (I’d seen it from a distance in the past), and as per Claudette’s instructions, on the morning of my second day I took the metro to Iena Station. When I exited the station I looked around, expecting to see the tower in view, but instead I discovered a lovely market. It was quite a varied market, with everything from clothes and jewellery to fresh fish, flowers and an African food stall.
One of the sellers gave me directions to the Eiffel Tower, and so within a couple of minutes I found myself gazing at it across the Seine. I crossed the bridge and joined the massive queues. I went all the way up to the 3rd floor and saw some wonderful views of the city; it was definitely (and literally) the high point of my trip.
I was quite surprised by the number of young men who were all trying to flog the same tacky Eiffel Tower replicas and scarves around the tower and on the way to Trocadero station. They were especially in force at the exit from the tower, where you had to run a gauntlet to escape more than twenty of them.
Later on I wanted to visit Galleries Lafayette (a large department store), but after a quick walk around I ended up at the Food Hall where I picked up some Madeleine cakes and Lindt chocolates. I carried on walking around Boulevard Haussemann and the surrounding areas and found the Academy of Music, which I’d seen on a previous trip to Paris.
After taking a break in Starbucks (I know!) I came across Surcouf, a great computer store. I have never seen such a collection of netbook cases in an assortment of colours and designs – I almost wished that my MSI Wind hadn’t come with its own case so I could justify getting one.
Although I was flagging from all the walking around, I had to try to keep myself amused until at least 5.30pm, when Claudette returned home from work. I wasn’t feeling so great that day, so I definitely regretted not booking a hotel to retreat to.
When I finally got back to Claudette’s place, I found out that she’d seen her GP, who’d given her a sick note, so she’d been home all day. She’d wanted to take me out to a French restaurant on the other side of Paris, but as I was tired and in some pain I asked if we could stay closer to home. She seemed really annoyed about the change in plans, but in the end she made us some pasta, and we stayed in and watched dubbed episodes of Bewitched (Darrin Stephens is called Jean-Pierre, but Samantha and Endora kept their names!). I felt guilty for being a difficult guest.
As she wasn’t going to work the next day I was able to sleep in a bit (though honestly I found it difficult to sleep there — the walls seemed really thin as I could hear the neighbours on both sides). She seemed quite eager to get me out of the apartment, so I ventured over to Bercy Village. I visited some shops there, but enjoyed strolling around the nearby park too.
Then I went to the Maison Europienne de La Photographie, which had some great exhibitions featuring work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ferdinando Scianna and Gabriele Basilico. Unfortunately, I was kicked out before I could see all the exhibitions due to an electrical issue.
I found a Chinese restaurant where I ate a late lunch before I went to meet Claudette nearby. She took me around Marais, an arty and diverse area with Jewish influences. After leaving Marais we found a touristy area where I got some souvenir t-shirts. As I was a bit tired, I suggested going to the cinema; the only English movie (with French subtitles) was The Ugly Truth. I knew that it’d had bad reviews, but I just wanted a break from all the walking.
After the movie, Claudette took me to a creperie. She was really eager to get me to try some of the pancakes. When we got there she explained that you’d normally start with a savoury pancake, then follow with a sweet one. I tried the savoury pancake, but couldn’t finish it as I didn’t like the taste (I’m a really fussy eater). I was still a bit full from the Chinese meal I’d had earlier, and wasn’t really interested in any of the sweet pancakes, so I finished off with a mug of tea while she had hers.
I tried not to show my annoyance at the way she kept on telling me to try a sweet pancake, insisting over and over that I’d regret not having it. (I didn’t.)
At the end of the meal I offered to pay for both of us, to say thanks for her hospitality over the past few days. I took out my purse and discovered that I only had a couple of euros in change, and my credit card. I was baffled as I knew that I hadn’t spent all my money.
Claudette said that I must have spent it all, but I knew that wasn’t true. I paid for the meal with my credit card. Then she asked me if I had enough money to get to the airport…
On the way back to her flat I started thinking about all the things I’d bought that day. I’d started out with €180, and spent about €110 during the day. I couldn’t account for the rest. Then I thought back to the cinema; I hadn’t had enough change to buy a drink, so I’d broken a €20 note at the kiosk and got about €17 back, plus I had a few more €20 notes in there.
Then I remembered that in the cinema before the movie started, I’d gone to the toilet and left my bags with Claudette. I couldn’t believe it, but I finally concluded that Claudette must have stolen my money.
I didn’t think that a pickpocket might have done it, as they would have just taken the whole purse – they wouldn’t have taken the time to open the purse, remove the notes and put it back. I might not have noticed a note or two going and would have assumed that I’d spent more than I thought, but taking everything was just too obvious.
I decided not to confront her about it, as I didn’t have real proof, but I felt violated and very disappointed in her. An 11-year friendship down the toilet. The next morning I left for the airport with a heavy heart, but I was looking forward to going home.
Even without that experience, for much of my time during this trip I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. Whenever I visit another city I feel like I’m almost auditioning it as an alternative home, in case I ever decide to leave London for a while (my short list includes New York and Tokyo).
I encountered some minor racial prejudice in Paris, and while it happens occasionally in London, it occurred quite frequently during my four days in Paris. Several times I noticed shopkeepers watching me like a hawk, and women suddenly clutching their handbags tightly as I walked past them. While I was out with Claudette I noticed that staff in shops and restaurants would acknowledge her and completely ignore me. I don’t remember experiencing similar prejudice on my previous trips to Paris, but I chalked it up the right-wing establishment and socioeconomic factors.
I’d like to go on another trip again before the end of the year, maybe to Amsterdam, or a creative retreat or on the wolf-tracking holiday to Romania that I keep on thinking about…
Here are a few pics from my travels.