Monday, November 28, 2005

Paris bienvenue

The first French word you learn when entering arrivals at the Charles de Gaulle Airport is 'sortie'. The French word for exit.

This was of little use as we unsuccesfully tried to sortie ourselves out of the maze of airport shops at terminal 1 on our first arrival in Paris on 26 November 05. My first stop being the rather difficult to find bookshop, where I intrepidly bought a map of Paris, speaking only my very best French: “Bonjour mademoiselle, hmmm, excusez-moi, une carte de la de France, oui, bitte?, yebo, merci, au revoir, fok, vielen dank and bon appétit.”

Beyond me a 'Français de France' shuffled around restlessly with his Le Monde tucked under his arm. I paid and nervously wrestled myself out of the queue in pursuit of my lost cousin. She mysteriously reappeared out of nowhere. Then we travelled around the airport for a few times in the courtesy bus and the first half an hour of our sightseeing trip began with a car park covered in snow, a few hotels and the railway station. The hotel close to the airport ended up being literally on the edge of the opposite corner of the map, but hell that is okay. I am a boerseun and I just bought my first map in a bookshop without speaking a word of English, so I can go anywhere I want to. Then the confusion turn panic attack began and it is when we circled the terminals about three times that we started to realise that something (Paris?) is amiss and we found ourselves drawn to other means of transport, notably an annoyingly persistent taxi driver who offered us his bargain of the month.

I replied discerningly: “oh, just sixty-five Euro to Porte D’italy? So, where are we actually going to from here? Italy?" He did not take my sarcasm lightly and my first (and only) irritation with Paris crept in.

“Va te faire foutre,” I mumbled softly, walking away briskly to nowhere in particular. It appeared as if the rather heavily armed gendarmeries were following us too. Escape is made difficult, as we get trapped in the maze of the Terminal once again. Foolishly we went up and down in an elevator a few times. If we had bothered to ask at any of the almost non-existent airport information centres at Terminal 1, it is actually easily to get to Paris from the airport. Yes, the Paris Metro "Roissy-Rail" takes one straight to Gare du Nord in 25 minutes. It makes the long ride on the tube from Heathrow to Kings Cross seem like a trip on the Trans-Siberia. From Gare du Nord travelling on Paris’ overlapping (-laying) Metro and RER lines is a breeze and a great source of amusement for the Paris novice. We were at first greeted (or in this case ignored) by several gloomy faces that made me wonder if the people were on their way to a giant convention for manic-depressives. It occurred to me that the French might be an unhappy lot. Maybe it was all the political unrest; maybe it was just the cold.

Then I noticed something odd about Paris. I saw hoards of South African’s all over the city. They were all clad in bok jerseys, wrapped in bok scarves, bok beanies and waving bok banners. “Oh boy, these South Africans are just about everywhere in Europe nowadays. They’re inescapable. South Africa must be a wealthy country by now, with the other half of them now living in Paris or there must be a big rugby match going on today,” I reflected.

It turned out I was right. I first I thought I was set up by my cousin. She knows or thought that I am not too keen on rugby, but in all fairness she booked the flight a long time before anybody even knew there was to be a game. Such a strange coincidence meant one thing only: follow the sign; follow our true destiny. It was meant to be and so we have learnt from Paulo Coelho’s the Alchemist. We were not in Paris to visit the Louvre, Montparnasse and all the other wonderful sights to see. We were in Paris for the alchemy, the ever-elusive search for a proper green and the gold victory on French soil. And I, ignorant philosopher, lover of the arts and patron of all things non-sporty am going to watch a rugby game: South Africa vs. France at the Stade de France. All I hitherto knew about rugby was that the Blue Bulls were / are good, because Steve Hofmeyr said so; that the Hotel 224 is near Loftus; that there was a fly half called Naas Botha who looked like a character in Wallace & Gromit who could kick a ball right across Pretoria; and that SA won the Rugby World cup in 1994. Or was that 1995?

Getting tickets for the occasion presented a whole new challenge that included a very poor impersonation of a rugby player in the lobby of our hotel. A further 5 Euro was wasted on trying to browse the Internet in French. This was to no avail and we soon reached a dead-end: no more tickets available. A phone call did not help much either and I ended up having one of those foreign conversations during which you talk, sigh and affirm for a half an hour and end up understanding nothing at all. The next step was obvious enough. It would involve committing an heinous offence of sorts and buy a ticket illegally. Ticket touts are the most annoying of all people in this world. In normal circumstances, I would happily vote for them to be arrested and executed on the spot, along with telephone marketers, junk mail distributors and Jehovah witnesses, without blinking an eye. But we were under duress. A freezing Parisian boredom loomed on the horizon. We set off to find some tickets. We found the stadium. It was a colossal affair.

We bought some odd tickets on pavilion Z on the second last row among a crowd of raving Frenchmen as crazy as a box of frogs. It felt as if we were watching the game from outer space. The boks were little ants, scurrying around hopelessly on a small rectangular green patch over a crumb of bread. Of course, we had a few rounds beforehand in the packed pubs and restaurants in and around the stadium. Only South Africans would boldly drink beer outside where the temperature is enough to make a polar bear feel miserable with cold. Good thing alcohol doesn’t freeze all that easily, but brains certainly do. Especially after being soaked up in alcohol. That was evident from some Safa’s attempts to make them understood in French. There were also the usual conversations: “Hey, hoe gaan dit? Waar kom jy vandaan? Londen? O regtig. Waar kom jy vandaan? Londen? Baie nice, ek bly ook in Londen. En waar kom jy vandaan? Londen? Nee, Pretoria! Ek is Frikkie en ek het 10 jaar lank gespaar om hier te kom, maar my skoonsuster se niggie se dogter se kêrel se beste vriend bly ook in Londen!” Ad infinitum ..

The actual game was a bit of a disappointment, considering the adverse weather conditions that we had to brave. We shouted our lungs out, but I am sure the bokke did not hear us. I think they were too distracted by their freezing toes and bal .. I mean the freezing ball. In spite of my ignorance, I shouted for all it was worth. I knew that all of South Africa’s teams had to include at least one Toks, a Bakkies, an Os, a Kabous or a Gaffie. I realised that the racial profile of the bok team changed somewhat and I heard strange sounds like Jake and Habana! I only recognised Percy Montgomery who had been playing rugby as long as I could remember. So I shouted for them all. Who would notice my mistakes in a crowd of 80 000 where most were cheering Les Blues at about 30dB. And to my own amazement a bloke called Bakkies eventually came from nowhere and scored a try right below us. My heart leapt with joy! Oh, Beethoven! Ich war erfreut wie ein kind! It was a wondrous occassion. But alas, it ain't over 'til it's over.

We cheered to a bitter end! South Africa lost 20 to 26. My heart turned cold and my lips were blue. It was time to go home. It was time to dash home.

The next day in Paris was spent on seeing the Eiffel tower. What can I say about it that has not been said before. Millions and millions of earthlings have seen it in pictures, a few less stood underneath it and somewhat less braved its 1665 steps. It is an iconic (very large) piece of metal (in case you are one of those ignorant people who has never seen or heard of it or if live in a jungle in Borneo). And if you really have not seen it yet, there is a lit up version of it on the Web at:

The next stop on the rather chilly Sunday afternoon was the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.

Time flies when you're having a good time and we finally reach one of the highlights, the red light district of Paris at Pigalle Place or Pig Alley in Montmartre. This clean and scenic 'dirty' joint caters for perversions of almost any type and is also the home of the famous Moulin Rouge (Red Mill), home of cabaret and the can-can since 1889. The Moulin Rouge inspired artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and a similarly titled movie with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

For those in London it is absolutely worthwhile to go visit the Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Tate Britain.


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