Paris 2019: Getting frazzled in France

21st June 2019. I was experiencing a relapse of wanderlust and was on the brink of a tantrum having not long missed out on tickets for Aphex Twin’s London show at Printworks. What better time to find out that he would be headlining a music festival across the English Channel headlined by the Twin and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Cure? One self-pitying post on Facebook later, along with a link to its first announced performers, and my friend Issie came to the rescue.

Before long, we decided that we were going to Paris for Rock en Seine in August.

DAY 1: THURSDAY

Most of our language difficulties took place on the first day, and it was especially unnerving when it happened at the very first hurdle – buying our train ticket from Charles-du-Gaulle Airport to Gare du Nord. Unfortunately, the only ticket machine that seemed to work had no way of changing the language of the menu. We figured it out, but it was quite embarrassing to see the queue behind us forming.

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After a long RER train and grotty Metro trip to Porte de Saint-Cloud, it was great to see sunlight. The first thing we saw was the beautiful Sainte Jeanne de Chantal’s Church. Then we turned 180 degrees and there was a McDonalds. Due to my appetite at the time, I wasn’t sure which was prettier. There was also a café called So Crepe, which didn’t seem like a very marketable name.

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The next language problem came when we checked into our hotel, the Hotel Ohm, and neither the receptionist nor myself could understand one another. He had to turn to a colleague and Google Translate to ask me questions. We would learn over our time there that he was the only member of the rotating staff, at least who we spoke to, who didn’t understand English. We just got unlucky.

However, there was one recurring issue which I just embraced in the end because I found it so funny – the French pronounce my name very differently to how I would say it. For the next four days, when I was asked my name at the breakfast buffet I was no longer “NIK-oh-las POL-ard”. I was “Nikola Poy-arr”.

As for the hotel itself, it was good and I would stay there again. There are conflicting reviews online about the state of the air conditioning, but mine worked just fine. The breakfast buffet that they served until 10:30AM every morning was great. The bed was comfy. The shower worked just fine. It was everything that a little budget hotel single room should bet. Noticeably, you could tell that they were trying to give it a bit of quirky décor, but didn’t get much further than putting the same giant framed photo that read “I love art” in every single room.

By this point it was the early evening, and we didn’t feel as though we had time and energy to explore, but nonetheless we walked a short way to the Seine so that photographer Issie could take some photos (this would be her primary agenda throughout the trip, having brought twenty rolls of film with her). As we stood besides the river, we could hear a chaotic party, and at first we thought that it was private. However, I couldn’t resist investigating further, and I could see through a fence an open beer garden-like area, packed with people dancing and drinking. Could we get in there? A security guard asked us “are you here for the party?”. I stuttered. “Erm… oui?”.

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He ushered us through into the friendly madness. We had discovered Au Trinquet, a Basque themed bar and restaurant, that was having its weekly after work party. The vibe there was electric and we couldn’t resist staying for a while even though we barely recognised or understood the music that was being played (except Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’ and Modjo’s ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’). Considering the beautiful weather and the warm night, the conditions were perfect. It was a shame that this night was only held weekly, because it was great fun. Hopefully if I ever return, it’ll be the same way.

It was here that I had my sole exclusively French conversation as I waited at the bar.

Jolly stranger: “Hey, ça va?”

Me: “Oui, ça va.”

That’s about it.

Amongst my circle of friends, I am undeniably considered the most apprehensive, and they had joked that I might struggle to keep Issie under control, so to be the one to drag the self-proclaimed ‘sesh monkey’ into a party was funny in itself, let alone on foreign ground.

DAY 2: FRIDAY

Day 2 began rather strenuously, as we had pre-ordered three day passes for unlimited use of the Metro. Unfortunately, these could only be picked up from Gare du Nord station. It was a race against time to collect them and get to the Catacombs of Paris, where we had booked ‘skip-the-line’ tickets (so to avoid a three-hour queue). It turned out that this was a total waste of time, because even though the Paris Visite website said that this was the only way to receive our tickets, we could have bought them at any station in Paris. We made it by the skin of our teeth after getting held up in a queue to collect the tickets. Karma bit back after we held everyone up the day before.

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Issie and I each had our few places that we wanted to visit, but the Catacombs of Paris was the location that we agreed 100% that we had to go. I was fascinated by it. It would be a great opportunity for her to take lots of spooky photos. It was definitely a strange experience, and not only because we were surrounded by millions of bones, but because of how the tourist entry sections were built over the catacombs. One would walk into a modern area, only to turn a corner and for it to be 1798 again.

That said, the present day really was spattered all over it, with lots of stickers and graffiti around. The majority of it was on the ventilation and supporting pillars, but unfortunately some of the skulls had been defaced (no pun intended). My disrespect threshold stopped at taking a jolly selfie with one of the skulls.

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After that it was finally time to move on to the festival itself, headlined that day by The Cure. I won’t go into the details here, as I’ll save that for a live review.

DAY 3: SATURDAY

At the very top of Issie wish list was Paris’ abandoned railway, or Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture. Although it took us a while to find a way onto the track itself (we almost gave up), it was well worth looking around. Having gone unused for so long, it has become a blank canvas of sorts for graffiti artists, who have made the tunnels and platforms shockingly colourful for a location one would expect to be very shady.

Here in a tunnel we bumped into an artist called Alexey. The more I read that sentence, the less responsible it seemed, and to be honest, considering his offer of cannabis, things don’t seem much better. However he was very friendly, and we chatted for a short while about what he was doing (finishing his latest masterwork – a giant blue woman) and French rap music.

We then visited the Pere Lachaise Cemetery – a huge necropolis that contains the graves of legendary figures such as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf. One of the most striking things about the cemetery was the scale of some of the mausoleums. It was as though there were battles of egos, even in death. There were also a lot of family graves, including some prepared for many people. I say prepared, because some were even marked with the names of people who were still alive.

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We also tracked down the tomb of DJ Delphine ‘Sextoy’ Palatsi. More than anything, I wanted to find out how her grave had been marked. Spike Milligan famously wanted “I told you I was ill” etched into his grave, and it took several years and a compromise of it being written in a foreign language for it to be permitted. However, ‘Sextoy’ is actually in larger type than the Palatsi’s birth name.

Also, there was one particular grave that struck us as a little odd – that of a man called Henri Leglise. The tomb featured a life size bronze sculpture of a reclining man, which I can only assume resembled the man himself.

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If such an effort were made, it would usually be a reference to their hobby or profession. I looked up his name, and have found nothing. That pose, and the fact he’s holding a book, has ‘erotic novelist’ written all over it, but I’d like to know the truth.

Issie wanted to visit the Montparnasse Tour for sunset, but as that was a couple of hours away, there was time to kill. We decided that we would visit Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre. As if our feet weren’t shredded enough already, and we weren’t charred enough in the 34C heat (and that was outdoors, it was even hotter in the Metro) we ended up visiting the highest point of the city, which required us to ascend 300+ stairs.

Not only that, but we also got there by going to the apparently notorious Abbesses Station, the deepest station on the metro system, which at 35M, is substantially further underground than the catacombs were. The spiral staircase to freedom seemed to go on forever. It was the Parisian equivalent of accidentally turning into San Francisco’s Lombard Street. That said, it’s not the worst station. Do one’s best to avoid Chatelet. It stinks of eggs.

We were rewarded for our escape with entertainment from a busker who performed The Rolling Stone’s ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ and amusingly Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Lots of families with young children were watching, nodding their heads along with the music, while he crooned about how “you’re so fucking special”.

We walked 90% of the way up Montmartre to Sacre-Coeur before we saw that we could have taken a funicular train. Admittedly, I’m glad I took the stairs if only to say I did. The view over the city was phenomenal, Montmartre is a very pretty area (which I really wish we had had more time to explore) and the building itself is a sight to behold. It’s insane to think that my native Portsmouth’s equivalent is Mick’s Monster Burgers atop Portsdown Hill.

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Then on to a building that wasn’t so pretty – Tour Montparnasse. In fact, it’s actually considered the ugliest building in Paris, so why would we want to visit it? If you go to the top, you can see Paris’ gorgeous skyline without the skyscraper in it! It was a nightmare to find the entrance, but it even one-upped Montmartre. It gave a panoramic of the whole city, and we were there in time to watch the sunset. We also grabbed some food up there too, which was nice enough that we agreed that when we would return tomorrow that we should have lunch there!

Every hour, on the hour, the Eiffel Tower twinkles for five minutes, and it was great to see from afar. However, we decided that we needed to see it up close. We had less than an hour to get to the foot of the tower, and we just made it.

As wowed as we were by this experience, taking a seat and ogling the tower’s glory in Parc du Champ-de-Mars is inadvisable. I know that Paris is meant to be the city of love, but damn do some dodgy merchants want to make sure you know about it. Just to clarify, Issie and I are friends and nothing more. A man came over with a bucket full of bottles of champagne, wine and beer and he tried to sell them to us. We said no, but he refused to step aside, literally standing in his way. The sad thing? This actually worked. We dished out €15 on a beer, a bottle of wine and (best of all) his disappearance. Not that it mattered. Another four men tried the same trick on us within the next fifteen minutes, even though we already had drinks. Dafter still, as we left somebody thrust a rose into my hand as though it were free… only to shout at us after we made a couple of steps away. Apparently, we had now stolen it. I was able to give it back, and we moved on. After having that conversation with the graffiti artist, it was crazy to see that the shadiest figures were in plain sight at one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

DAY 4: SUNDAY

It was hard to believe that this was our last day, yet it was remarkable how much we had seen and done in such a short amount of time. And we weren’t done. We decided that we would shamelessly cram in a couple of the biggest tourist traps that we hadn’t yet seen – the Arc De Triomphe and Louvre Pyramid. We decided against going into the Louvre due to time constraints.

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Although these were areas that we could just stand and look at things for a while, that didn’t make it any easier. The 34C heat and 50% humidity was rather punishing. I was seriously tempted to re-enact the opening of Friends in the fountains around the pyramid. The bus journey that we had to take as part of the Metro Line 6 was closed was the most unbearable moment of the whole trip as we fried while watch people bathing in giant fountains near Trocadero. Why couldn’t that be us?

Then it was onto the festival one last time, for Bring Me the Horizon, Foals, Royal Blood and the very reason I was here – Aphex Twin. I threatened to throw Issie into a mosh pit if she didn’t agree to get right into the crowd for Aphex Twin. She obliged, although she knew nothing about him. I knew full well that we could have been against the barrier, and not have been remotely squashed. For the record, I loved it. Issie, not so much. I think she understood what was going on and why, but it wasn’t for her. I don’t think I’ll take her to Sunn O))).

Still, it at least brought a spectacular closure to a fantastic trip that I am really grateful to have made. Special thanks go out to Issie for her tolerance of me!

 

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