Monday, 5 August 2013

And now the train draws slowly out of Paris Gare du Nord, sliding through anonymous cliffs of office and apartment blocks, out through the banlieu and swiftly into open countryside. I look back to see where we've come from. Planes drift silently in and out of Charles de Gaulle to my left. Soon, we are crossing rivers, passing fields, the villages beyond huddling around their little mock-gothic churches.

This week has been an intense and rewarding experience. It is the longest time I have spent on my own, relying merely on my own resources, for more than a quarter of a century. Paris has changed a bit in thirteen years, but I found that I loved the city even more than I remembered. And I have changed too

 On average I walked about five miles a day, a total of about thirty miles in all. I used thirty one metro tickets. I visited twenty churches and seven museums, saw the rooftops of Paris spread before me from four different high vantage points, stopped for eleven espressos or double espressos, drank fifteen beers, ate nine sandwiches, bought nine books and five CDs, sent seven postcards, listened to two whole Wagner operas and three others in part. I set foot in sixteen of the twenty arrondissements. I visited three cemeteries, gave directions to two passers-by, saw one minor road accident, gave money to seven beggars, took 2,351 photographs, wore eight shirts, had sixteen showers, read two books (Requiem for the East by Andrei Makine and Parisians by Graham Robb) and ate eleven peaches.

I spent about 300 euros. I was very frugal. The most striking thing about coming back to France seven years after my last visit, although I did not go to Paris on that occasion, is how fabulously expensive it is now. I do not see how it would be possible for a British family to spend a hotel-based holiday in Paris without spending a fabulous amount of money. But not all Parisians are wealthy, goodness knows. As in London, there has been a marked increase in the number of beggars since my last visit. Many of the street beggars are from ethnic minorities, but in the metro they are almost entirely French, reasonably well dressed and standing with an outstretched hand or cup, perhaps with a sign saying simply 'J'ai faim - merci'.

About half a dozen times during my stay I watched as reasonably well-dressed people, each of them white, got into the metro carriage where I was sitting and, as the doors closed, began in a very loud voice 'ladies and gentlemen, I am very sorry to disturb you, but I have a sad story to tell you...' After recounting their misfortunes, they would walk through the carriage with outstretched hand. I suppose about a third of the people would put a few cents into it.

I was impressed by the generosity ordinary people showed to beggars. Several times I saw them bringing bread or coffee to street beggars. In contrast, the headscarved kneelers in metro passages seem to attract very little patronage. With the euro and the pound almost in parity, many items in supermarkets seemed fabulously expensive. How do people survive without an income? Yes, I know what you are going to say. London is expensive too. But the average French wage is half as much again as the average British one. I looked at the prices of flats in the 17e arrondissement, hardly central Paris. There was hardly anything for under half a million euros, and several of the flats in the Villiers area were going for well over a million. It reminded me of coming to France in the 1980s, when we were the poor man of Europe. It is happening again.

One beneficial side effect of my visit to Paris is that I appear to have got my sense of smell back. It happened on Saturday. I was climbing the spiral staircase from the bottom of the catacombs back up to the surface when the rapidly changing air pressure cleared my sinuses. For the first time since an attack of sinusitis back in November, I could smell again. I wandered around Paris in an olfactory daze, smelling bread, fresh fruit, women's perfume, sun tan oil, sweat, flowers, damp, exhaust smoke, cigarette smoke, coffee, stale beer, cologne, old books, grass and the water of the River Seine. This morning as I walked to Gare de Nord from la Chappelle I came down the Rue Fauborg St Denis, the heart of Paris's South Asian area, and the assault of spices, jasmine, incense and fresh fruit from open shop doors was an absolute delight.

 M Colignol's shop in Rue des Tres Freres

Five famous but still brilliant things about Paris: the Pompidou centre, the Musee de Cluny, the Eiffel Tower, the catacombs and the metro. Five little-known things I thought were worth recommending to anyone visiting Paris: the church of St-Merri, the concentration camp memorials in Pere Lachaise, M Colignol's shop in Rue des Tres Freres, the Gaudeamus cafe in Rue de la Montagne St-Genevieve just below the steps of St-Etienne du Mont, the bustle of the Jewish quarter in Rue des Rosiers.

And now I am sitting on the 1.30pm East Anglian from Liverpool Street, and it is "nearly done, this frail travelling coincidence", and I look forward to being home.

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