France memories: I came to Paris to say hello!

May 2002: We all do crazy things in our life’s but when it comes to making rash decisions like I did, sometimes regret comes into mind, sometimes pleasure or the wow factor. I had all three. After months and years of exploring England, little bits of Wales, Scotland and a few family holidays to the islands of Majorca and the Canary Islands, I wanted to get out there. I wanted to travel on my own and start an amazing lifetime adventure. Whilst working at the time on the train between London and Edinburgh, staring out the window, I wanted an adventure. It was a Friday afternoon, passing Darlington station in the north of England, making my favourite drink, a cup of tea with a biscuit, thinking that I had the whole weekend free. No work, no overtime, so with no plans ahead, I wanted to do something crazy, something I never done before. A few weeks ago when working the York to London service, I met a French girl named Daphne and after helping her with her luggage onto the train, we got talking whilst the train was passing a few dull places on the East Coast Mainline, Doncaster, Retford, Peterborough to name a few, and at the end of the journey, I managed to get a few details like address and telephone number. Daphne was quite tall, thin, glasses, blue eyes and long straight black hair (to add in a few details), we got on like a house on fire. I promised her that I will come to France one day and look her up.

France, Paris
My scooter parked at Calais Frethun train station in Northern France

Well, with the most barmy last minute idea, I decided I would go straight to Paris that very evening after working a fourteen hour shift after doing a trip from London to Edinburgh and back. It’s one of the craziest ideas I have ever done. I had my passport, I just got paid, so why not. I wasn’t that prepared but I had a rough idea of how to get to Paris. Just go to Calais, drive down and it’s somewhere in the middle of the country. It couldn’t have been that hard to find. After all, I know no French, never been to France, and I needed an adventure to make myself feel alive again. I had my Yamaha 125cc scooter parked at Kings Cross station in central London and decided I would go all the way to Paris on it. My mechanically minded brain wasn’t up to scratch and was a bit bemused that some of my colleagues on the train said that a 125cc scooter would not get all the way to Paris. One said Paris is a long drive when you get off the ferry at Calais. I really wanted to prove them wrong. It was 20:00 hours, and I left my colleagues at the car park outside the train station. I heard shouts of, ‘You’re not going to make it!’ and ‘You are a fool Daniel!’ I shrugged and rode off into the night.

France, Paris
Calais Frethun train station

It was the middle of May, the weather quite warm and pleasant for this time of year. All I had on me was a French phrase book, a road map of France, some money, passport and a printed ticket for a return day trip on the ferry (which I booked earlier on in the day). I was allowing plenty of time to reach the ferry port at Dover, which the ferry departed at 04:00 during the night. This would enable me to get some sleep at the port. I still had a ‘learner’ plate on the back of my scooter which means that I am not allowed to ride my scooter on the motorways or drive in any other country, so I slapped a ‘GB (Great Britain) sticker over my learners plate and I was off. My journey to Dover was quite slow and took a long time but it was pleasant during the middle of the night. Fighting my way down Southampton Row in London with all the night buses and crazy car drivers, going down the Old Kent Road, where a fight outside a nightclub broke out, with loads of police and their cars flashing the blue and red lights, going pass Bexleyheath, Dartford, the Medway towns, and Canterbury on the A2. This was the first time I rode into the county of Kent, where most of my family was brought up, so I had a sense of excitement in me.

 The cold wind blowing into my eyes when I lifted the clear plastic protector up from the helmet, watching out for the rabbits who loved to run out in front of me and play dodgems, to which all were successful apart from one, where a rabbit ran straight out in front of me, his body went straight into my front wheel. Well, I won’t describe everything  but the head of the rabbit was on one side of the road and the body left lying in the middle of the road. I was so angry! Not because I killed a rabbit but the amount of blood and guts left on my front wheel, which meant I had to pull into a service station to get a pressure hose to clean my wheel with water.

I reached my destination, the ferry port of Dover. After checking in, I rode to my designated lane of queuing for the 04:00 crossing. I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to use my motorcycle jacket, turn it into a pillow, lie on the ground and try to get some sleep. It was warm at first but by the time I woke, the sea air turned the area cold and I was shivering like a cat coming out of the bath. Standing there in the middle of the ferry port, looking at all the other cars and vehicles parked alongside me, with most of the people inside sleeping, keeping warm, all I could think about was getting on that ferry and having a nice cup of tea. I was having some doubts setting into my mind, thinking it’s not too late to turn around and head home but I am not a quitter, and before I made a final decision, I was actually strapping my scooter safely into a hold in the ferry deck. I am on the ferry now, no turning back. Quickly running upstairs, I was the first person in the cafe to grab a cup of tea and a continental breakfast.

France, Paris
White Cliffs of Dover in England (a view from the ferry)

Standing on the upper deck, outside receiving the fresh early morning sea air, I watched the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ getting smaller as we pulled away further into La Manche. I loved it. Leaning against the railings, watching the seagulls fly overhead, the sounds of the waves crashing against the ferry and watching the sun rise from the east. I have never experienced anything like this in my life and nearly had a tear in my eye. It was one of the most beautiful sun rises I have ever seen and I won’t forget this in a hurry. For the rest of the journey, I sat down on a chair, the only soul on deck, looking out to sea, waiting for France to come into view, thinking and deciding that I have made the right decision and to enjoy the adventure, whatever happened.

 The one slight problem which was nagging me before I rode off the ferry when the ferry docked at Calais was my scooter. Remembering what my colleagues said to me back in London that the engine wasn’t big enough to reach Paris, that I was still a learner (on paperwork of course, I know how to ride a bike with an engine!), that it was a long way to ride and that I wouldn’t be able to ride to Paris, explore, then ride back to England in less than twenty-four hours. That was my plan. I doubted my decision about riding my scooter all the way to Paris and decided to find a train station where I could get a train to Paris. Riding off the ferry, straight onto the Autoroute and in search of the train station. I was an idiot. I knew no French and couldn’t think back to my school lessons when I was younger to remember what the word was for a train station. In fact, I knew no words apart from bonjour and au revoir. I couldn’t even stop and ask someone for directions, well, I would be surprised if there was anyone walking the Autoroutes at all as that would be plain stupid. I didn’t go into Calais as I knew the main train station wasn’t in the main centre of the town and that it was on the outskirts. Why I know this, I don’t know but I was riding around for thirty minutes and saw no train station or railway lines.

France, Paris
The beaches of Sangatte and Calais comes into view

I kept seeing signs for Gare TGV but thought no more of it until I remembered that Gare meant train station and TGV was the fastest intercity trains in France. This amazed me and I really must thank my French teacher for lodging something into my brain which might come in use in the future. Following the signs, I was riding further and further away from Calais and the ferry port and riding through a village called Frethun. Beautiful cottages painted white with thatched roofs stood alongside the road and right in front of me was the main train station. Why build it all the way out here?

Within ten minutes of waiting on the platform, looking out to the countryside of flat lands, green grass and birch trees in the spring sunshine, the headlights of the train approached. This was to be my train, the fast TGV which will take me all the way to Paris. It has come from the direction of the Channel Tunnel, which is a railway tunnel linking France and England. The train turned out to be a Eurostar service from London! I was so stupid at the time. I could have caught the train from London and just gone straight from A to B.

I laughed to myself whilst boarding the train, thought to myself, well, I took the scenic route and we all learn from our mistakes. I took it as a learning curve, kept my chin up, boarded the train with anticipation and looked forward to the next stage of my adventure.

 The train pulled out of Calais Frethun and I took my seat next to one of the train doors as the carriage was packed full of passengers heading to the French capital. I wanted a bit of peace and quiet, to regain my energy for the day ahead and to listen to some music on my CD walkman. Looking out of the window, everything just flew by as the train was reaching speeds of 186mph. The view was just fields, green grass, oh, a city, must be Lille, green grass and then the suburbs of northern Paris. It was a bit boring but it did give me a chance to rest.

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Paris 

Paris Gare de Nord is such a wonderfully built old fashioned French train station, which reminded me of some of the stations back in London, with a huge curved roof overlooking the long platforms and concourse full of passengers. The place was buzzing and very busy for 11:00. I stood in the middle of the concourse to feel the atmosphere, to listen to the announcements in French and most of all, to get myself ready for the challenge ahead. For now, I am stuck. I had my French phrase book and managed to grab a street map of the local area. I also pulled out a piece of brown paper which Daphne wrote her address down and pointed on the map where her accommodation was. Rue St Petersbourg. It didn’t look very far to walk. Right, deep breath and walked straight into the busy street outside the main entrance.

 Typical French buildings lined the streets with big red neon signs of cafes and restaurants, green and white buses passing by and taxi drivers summoning me to jump into their cabs. I walked on, across the street and passed some pretty side streets with old men sitting outside on chairs with a table and a chessboard in front of them, to which both of the players were in deep thought. I felt something underneath my feet whilst walking on the cobble streets. Nasty, dog waste! Lesson One learnt in Paris: watch where you are walking and try to avoid the brown stuff! The place is full of it. Don’t the owners of the dogs have pride in their city? Everywhere I walked there was dog waste on the ground. So for the next twenty minutes whilst walking to my destination, instead of having my head held high and taking in the sights in the glorious sunshine, I am looking at cobble stones and dog poo! Not the first impression I have of Paris.

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Daphne at the Arc de Triomphe

Rue St Petersborg is a short walk from one of Paris main landmarks, Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Paris, commonly known as Sacre-Coeur Basilica. I recognised this landmark and a few others from scenes of the film ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain’ which was a huge success not only in France, but in England as well. I remember watching the film in my local cinema back in Stevenage. I never watched a film in a foreign language before, or watched a film with subtitles. The film caught my eye and I was rooted firmly to my seat. Audrey Tautou is a brilliant actress and played the role of a single Parisian girl very well, whilst solving other people’s problems. The film was set in various places around Paris and after watching the film (as I loved the film so much at the time), that I will visit all the places where the film was shot in the future.

The Sacre-Coeur overlooked me from high up the hill it was built on, overlooking the city. A splendid church and I hoped I would have time to visit it later on in the day. First thing was to get into the apartment where Daphne was staying. Standing outside a huge door with a locking system, it was the entrance for several addresses. No answer when I pressed the doorbell. After a few minutes I gave up and sat down on the kerb on Rue St Petersborg (minding the dog poo), and left staring down at the cobble road. What to do now, my mind was thinking. I came all this way and now my friend was not here. Had she moved on? Was it a fake address? If she wasn’t here, I just go into the centre of Paris by myself with no idea how to get around the place.

France, Paris
No need to tell you what that tower is!

Just before I gave up, a middle aged large lady with a purple dress came out of the door, I quickly stood up, approached her and showed her the brown piece of paper with Daphne’s address on it. She just let me in without a word and found myself standing in the middle of a courtyard with apartments overlooking the small garden from all sides. I found a staircase which says on a sign that it will lead me to the address. Walking up (and down) the staircase, I couldn’t find the door. At one point I knocked on a door which I might have thought is number seventeen and a young male with a towel wrapped around, all sweating open the door. He didn’t speak English, and I showed him the address on the brown piece of paper. He told me to go right to the top of the staircase but I said there was nothing there apart from a cupboard. Then a woman’s voice in the background shouted something at the man and before I knew it, my nose was sniffing the paint of the door. Lesson Two learnt in Paris: never stand too close to doors unless you want to sniff, lick and feel them!

At the top of the staircase which I was here a few minutes earlier, is a door. The ceiling is very low and in anybody’s eyes, the door should be the entrance to a cupboard or a storage room. No, because as soon as I knocked on the door, a reply from the other side answered ‘oui?’ It was a female voice and I replied back saying ‘Daphne, it’s me, Daniel from London’. The door opened and it was Daphne. Her face gave an almighty shocked expression on her face with also one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. She invited me into the broom cupboard. My friend who is over six feet tall lives in an apartment barely over six foot in height and surely has to bend down a little bit to walk around comfortably so her head doesn’t hit the ceiling. Lesson three learnt in Paris: French people love low ceilings, so broom cupboards could also be apartments!

France, Paris
Chilling out near the Sacre-Coeur

The apartment was so small. Three small broom cupboards put together. The main room, the size of a bus shelter, is the living quarters with a bed, television and a cupboard (a cupboard within a cupboard) and in the small corridor from the front door was a small room, which was the size of a phone box which was the bathroom and toilet (how can you sit on the toilet with your knees rubbing against the walls?) and the next phone box next to it was the kitchen. It was all very cramped and to be honest, I couldn’t live here. The room was feeling to close in on me now but luckily Daphne said to me she had a few hours free and that she would take me around, before she had to go back to her studies later that evening. She put everything on the line for me as she didn’t expect this surprise visit. I didn’t really expect this, I just came for a chat, but before I knew it, I was walking down the staircase to the nearby metro, ready for my first of many metro rides of the day around the Ile-de-France.

France, Paris
Paris

Dull green colours seemed to be the norm of the metro. The station’s walls painted in some depressing colours which depressed me somewhat and its trains on rubber wheels, making a funny noise when rolling on the rails, which at some point sounded like when I have a flat tyre on my push bike and making that rubbing sound. So annoying. Young children played violins inside the trains and begged for money which Daphne hurried them on instantly.

The first of many of the wonderful sights in Paris to be explored in the short time I had in Paris, as I found out my last train to Calais Frethun was at 16:00 (which left me with about three hours in the city. Note to myself: allow more time when planning trips!) was the Arc de Triomphe. To be honest, I wasn’t that much impressed as it reminded me of the similar arch building of Marble Arch in London and who would have thought of building an arch in the middle of a five lane roundabout or to build a roundabout around an historical sight so tourists have great difficulty reaching the monument by having to cross the road? Then we found a subway, so all was fine and not risking having to play the game of chicken to avoid oncoming vehicles! Within minutes of standing next to the roundabout, I observed a car going straight into the side of a tour bus while the vehicles were trying to change lanes. Daphne pointed out that no vehicle is insured if they have an accident on this particular roundabout. Lesson four learnt in Paris: motor insurance is useless when driving around the Arc de Triomphe! Too many crashes & the insurance companies are total idiots!

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My first viewing of the Arc de Triomphe

Back into the metro and heading to the most famous landmark of them all in France, La Tour Eiffel. I noticed in the metro that if another passenger bumps into you, they smile at you. What are you smiling about? You pushed me so hard whilst I was drinking a bottle of water that the bottle neck has gone down the back of my throat! I learnt very quickly that if you or someone else causes an accident, you just respond by smiling (and saying pardon). Does this work if you just rammed your car into the side of a tour bus on the roundabout going around the Arc de Triomphe? I started to find French (or Parisians for this instinct) people have such a strange way of life. Smiling. In England, it would be a full scale argument and a few punches involved!

Check out my first timer’s guide to Paris post here

France, Paris
Arc de Triomphe

La Tour Eiffel or the Eiffel Tower in English has stood strong, proud and elegant over the city of Paris since the late 1890’s and is the main landmark or symbol of France. The queues to go up this huge black climbing frame was long and as we didn’t have the time, we decided not to bother to queue up and see the wonderful views of the city. The only problem for me was the Algerian’s and Moroccan’s approaching me, trying to sell tacky souvenirs like Eiffel Tower key-rings and postcards. If I wanted to buy a cheap tacky thing to weigh me down, I would have handed you some money by now and please learn the words, go away and leave me alone! This was such a problem. This wasn’t the France I had imagined. So annoying! We escaped by going back into the metro and a few stops down the river Seine, we arrived on an island which has the Notre-Dame.

France, Paris
Eiffel Tower

The Notre-Dame is a beautiful cathedral with its two towers poking high up into the sky, and it’s sculptures and stained glass show the heavy influence of naturalism in France (which Daphne described to me but I still haven’t got a clue what she was talking about). I also found out that the Notre Dame de Paris was one of the first Gothic cathedrals built and its construction spanned the Gothic period (whenever that was?). I wondered if Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo from the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ was going to jump around on the roofs and ring those bells. I wished!

France, Paris
Paris

A quick look around Musee du Louvre at ground level was next in our rushed tour of Paris. The largest and most visited museum in the world which is built underneath the Louvre palace. The museum which hosts Leonardo’s Mona Lisa portrait. I would have to leave this museum for another time but the glass pyramids on ground level (which is also the entrance to the museum) looks amazing. I just sat on the side of a water fountain, relaxing, while the heat of the May sun took its toll on me. Back into the metro and back to the Montmartre area of Paris, which Daphne lives. Time was wasting away, but before I headed back to Gare de Nord we walked up the hill towards the Sacre-Coeur where Daphne said she wanted to sit down on the grass. With the cathedral overlooking us, we were sitting on the grass, overlooking the delights of Paris, all its buildings and landmarks can be seen for miles, other people chilling out on the grass, which to me were mostly young single good looking girls which I couldn’t keep my eyes off and other people just sun tanning or reading books. The smell of crepes was in the air, the bells from the cathedral ringed out, which signalled the time for me to head back to the train station for my train. It was such a shame, as I was really starting to enjoy myself and wanted to find out more about this fantastic city. Back at the Gare de Nord we said our Au revoir and I was back on board the Eurostar heading for Calais in Northern France.

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Chilling out near the Sacre-Coeur

 Sitting on the train, Paris was totally different to how I thought it would be. The city is similar to London with its historical monuments and dodgy people selling cheap tatty goods on the streets. Some of the people I met during the day were fantastic but told me to get by in France you must speak the language. This is what I started to do on later visits and after numerous visits to France, I got better. I also managed to take a trip up the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, took visits to La Defense and walks along the river. Paris is an amazing city with so much to do, so much culture and so much I still need to do. One thing I have always said and learnt during my time here is that – don’t go to places like London and Paris thinking that the city is the country. England is not just London. France is not just Paris. There is so much more outside the cities, so many different people and ways of life and that is what I intend to do.

France, Paris
Paris

I love France and still want to travel all over it. Since my first trip, I have worked and stayed in Paris and Lille a few times and I now have a good understanding about the French way of life out there and can get by on the language. The one thing I really hate is the paperwork the council officials like to do a lot of this and waste a lot of people’s time. It is so bureaucratic and takes such a long time to resolve issues. I also can’t understand why the English hate the French so much. They are lovely people, slightly misunderstood but to me, have a more relaxing way of life and very competitive. I have been to France around a million times now and still love the place but I still want to adventure into the beauty and heart of this large country in Western Europe. The first trip to Paris has spurred me on to see what other countries and it’s people are like in Europe. This was the springboard I needed and I now have more hunger than anything to travel. Also, I never saw or spoke to Daphne after my first visit to Paris ever again (not sure how we lost contact, Daphne, if you are reading this, say Bonjour s.v.p) and my motor scooter was still safe and sound at Calais Frethun car park.