Dedicated to British Expat Gardening Columnist and good friend, Mike Clark
The Obligatory Introduction: Caithness, Alaska
If Mike Clark says that he is late with his latest column, then I am even later.
Which means that my holiday was longer.
Which means that my year-end bonus from British Expat Ltd was bigger.
Shortly after receiving my cheque from British Expat around Christmas, I used it to purchase a First Class ticket to Barbados, bought a villa near the beach, and spent the following four months over Piña Coladas and fine books, and behind or on top of the local beauties.
The only truth in this are the fine books which I received courtesy of the incredible Ed, and which I have never really thanked her for, let alone returning the favour with some splendid articles. I am offering my sincere apologies.
I also lied about the beauties from Barbados. In fact they were from Tbilisi, Bucharest, Geneva and my current hometown, the famous city of Witten (don’t ask).
I haven’t written a single page for British Expat in almost four months.
Which is about the same time it takes to travel from my current hometown, the famous city of Witten, to the home of famous British Expat columnist Mike Clark.
Mike lives in Caithness. That’s in Scotland. Or so he tries to make me believe. I personally believe that Caithness is located north of the Arctic Circle, in Alaska’s Yukon territories.
I can find no other explanation for the £500 which British Airways want to charge me for an Economy Class return ticket Cologne-Heathrow-Edinburgh-Wick, or for the incredible total of ten hours of air travel.
When it comes to the British Transport System, a German columnist who writes for a British website feels like Christmas, Birthday and Thanksgiving have arrived in one day. His day for pisstaking has finally come. This is Judgement Day. And don’t mention the war.
The inventors of the British Transport System were inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Nowadays, as aeroplanes can propel us around the globe in roughly 48 hours, the British Transport System will make sure you remain stuck in the UK for the remaining 78 days.
Britain. In the perception of some in the Conservative Party still an empire. In the perception of British Transport Secretaries a country whose border is defined by the M25. London to Frankfurt in one hour by plane, or London to Paris in three hours on the Eurostar train. £80 return. But London to Caithness? £300 return. Five hours by plane (taking stopovers into account), sixteen hours by train. And don’t get me started on motorways. Even Poland has more of them.
The fact of the matter is that no government in continental Europe would survive even half a term if it provided transport services like the British. Add to that the NHS crisis (can a permanent malaise still be called a crisis?), and you might end up with government terms as short as those in Italy in the 1980s, when national election cycles were averaging around eight months. A law for last calls at the bar at 11 pm would lead to street riots in Germany. And if Scotland were part of Spain, it would have its own version of the ETA terrorist separation movement. But the Brits, and for once that may include the Scots, are a remarkably indifferent species.
Apart from that, the Scots are the better Europeans. But because I am exceptionally sober while writing this article, I will not share on these pages a pub conversation I recently had with a good friend and British (English) expat in Germany, which culminated in the proposal to pull England another 1,000 miles into the Atlantic and make it the 51st State of the Union, whilst tying Scotland to the European mainland and introducing it to the Eurozone.
But I would, any time, support Mike’s bid for the premiership of an independent Scotland. In that capacity, he would have to visit fellow heads of state in other European capitals, one of which I will introduce in this article:
Oops. Look for Paris on Google search and chances are you will eventually end up in the backyard of Dubya’s farm. Paris, TX, “the best small town in Texas” according to its website www.cityofparistx.com. Our imaginative friends from across the other side of the Atlantic, after calling seventeen towns “Liberty” and twenty-three “Madison”, seem to have run out of city names and gave the name “Paris” to twelve towns in the US.
The cynic that I am, I immediately tried Google for “Caithness, Alaska”. I was expecting it somewhere in the middle between Liberty 12 and Madison 14. But, surprise, surprise, there was no Caithness to be found in the entire United States, only a dog race by the same name.
So, Mike, chances are that once you are Prime Minister of an independent Scotland, you can invite Jacques Chirac over for a bottle of Glen Ord without having to name the state and county. And if Jacques ever returns the favour, here is the guide to the domicile of the French President:
Writing a city guide for Paris on an amateur travel site is about as useless as attempting to cover London, New York or Tokyo in an article of 1,000 words. Since the arrival of the internet, any such metropolis is the theme of fantastillions (© Hajo) of websites, only exceeded by the huge number of porn sites on the web.
Thus a new approach is needed. I will lead you through a selection of Parisian sights and districts in the footsteps of famous writers. I will let them speak for themselves, and will add my own remarks here and there.
Paris has always been a home and inspiration to famous intellectuals, artists and writers:
Victor Hugo made Notre Dame his second home and the scene for his works. Honoré de Balzac wrote his Comédie Humaine in his sophisticated quarters at Place Vendôme. Existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir took their coffee at the café Les Deux Magots on Boulevard Saint Germain. Françoise Sagan drew her last breath in her apartment on the Seine. And Georges Simenon’s famous character, Inspector Maigret, investigated murders around Place Clichy.
In the 1920s, the cream of American authors made their home in Paris, including Gertrude Stein and the group whom she named the writers of the “Lost Generation” – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound.
Two American authors have each written a book exclusively about Paris: A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway, 1960) and Paris (Julien Green, 1983). Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy (1966), however, deals less with this Paris suburb than with his own erotic fantasies.
Not to forget the British author Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, who in 1928 moved to Paris to live among the poor, material for his later novel Down And Out In Paris And London. If you read A Scullion’s Diary, his original work from which he later derived Down And Out, you will never want to eat in a French restaurant again.
A first glance of Paris with Victor Hugo
For a first impression of the city layout we consult Victor Hugo’s View from Notre Dame – from the Raven’s Perspective:
“At the centre the Île de la Cité, which we imagine as a giant turtle: under its roof-grey carapace it stretches its paws, the scaly brick bridges. To the left the solid, thorny trapezium of the Quartier Latin, as if made of one single stone. To the right the wide semicircle of the new town, relaxed by gardens and detached buildings. The three districts – Cité, Quartier Latin and new town, are veined by a network of alleys. And right through the middle runs the Seine […], filled with isles, bridges and boats.”
This quote is of course terribly outdated. Today Hugo would maybe compare Paris to a black hole which absorbs everything around it. Paris constantly expands, and numerous districts have been added, but his orientation still applies to the city centre.
The top of Notre Dame is indeed a perfect place to overlook the roofs of Paris. Other spectacular panoramic views can be enjoyed from Montmartre, Tour Montparnasse, and the roofs of both the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay.
Rather than exploring Paris from the centre, nowadays it may be more helpful to seek orientation in an east-west axis along the Seine, reaching from La Défense in the west (built 100 years after Hugo’s death) to the Bastille in the east, along the Champs Elysées and Rue de Rivoli. Add to that Place Pigalle and Montmartre in the north, and Saint Germain des Prés and Montparnasse in the south, and you have got your coordinate system for Paris.
Downhill from Montmartre with Georges Simenon
In his short story The Man in the Street, Georges Simenon takes us on a tour of the northern districts which lie below Montmartre:
“One detail struck Maigret: this exhausting ramble always followed the same course, through the same districts: between the Trinité and Place Clichy, between Place Clichy and Barbès by way of the Rue Caulaincourt, then from Barbès to the Gare du Nord and the Rue La Fayette.”
If you follow Inspector Maigret on his pursuit, this will lead you through the centre of Paris nightlife along streets filled with pubs and discotheques. Luckily he spared us Place Pigalle with its tourist bars, red light district and the cabarets like Folies Bergères, Moulin Rouge, and Casino de Paris which are now but a shadow of a frivolous past.
Towards the end of Simenon’s trail, you arrive at Rue La Fayette, which features Paris’s largest shopping centre, Les Galleries Lafayette.
Les Tuileries with Julien Green
Julien Green paints a dark picture of Le Jardin des Tuileries as he writes
“The Tuileries have been disgraced. Carrousels, a small railway for children, a large Bavarian casino, on the terrace of which a group of countrymen in leather shorts yodel to an audience of four guests. A little further, a loudspeaker blubbers a Mozart aria. […] The Boulevard is crowded with Sunday promenadors who apparently don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Indeed the area around the Tuileries Garden, Place de la Concorde and the Avenue des Champs Elysées is crowded by tourists and those Parisians who want to see and to be seen.
I have never voluntarily spent much time in this part of town. Business trips to Paris sometimes force me to attend meetings around Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, but once I get out I rush to the nearest Metro station and head for a more authentic place.
Le Quartier Latin with Ernest Hemingway
The southern shore of the Seine was Ernest Hemingway’s favourite hangout.
“I walked down past the Lycée Henri Quatre and the ancient church of Saint Etienne du Mont and the windswept Place du Panthéon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard Saint Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard Saint Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place Saint Michel.” (Just why does he use “and” so often?)
Hemingway’s route leads right through my favourite part of Paris, the Quartier Latin (Sorbonne university area), and the district of Saint Germain. Beside the great historical and cultural sights Hemingway mentions, this area is known for its bars, cafés, restaurants, antique shops, art galleries and small markets.
On Boulevard Saint Germain are the cafés and restaurants of the more expensive kind, drawing their image from the celebrity writers who used to frequent them. Although I usually prefer to go to less crowded places, I find myself at least once on every Paris trip sitting in Les Deux Magots, which used to be the favourite café of Sartre, Camus et al.
The small and cheaper restaurants can be found in the side streets, usually coming with an oyster bar. In France, oysters aren’t as exclusive a meal as elsewhere in the world, they are more or less a way of life.
Place Saint Michel is great to just stroll around off-season, but a nightmare during summer when it is as crowded by Interrail travellers as the stairs of Montmartre.
Just a few steps away is Paris’s largest park, the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I like to simply sit and read, or watch the children playing on the yard. To me Paris has never been a place to rush from one sight to another, but a place to relax, read, dine, and blend into the anonymity of Parisian life.
Having finished this article makes me long to do as Hemingway did:
“I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen Portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.”