All photographs by Tigger. Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.
I had set the alarm for 3:15 am but got up at 3. We were all packed so there were just last-minute things to do like putting out the rubbish. The bus was due at the Red Lion at 3:59 but we there in plenty of time. Just as well, as the bus was early.
We were surprised how many people were about at that hour – some buses coming from town were full. Our bus was nearly empty and stopped seldom on the way to Waterloo Station. The check-in opened only at 4:30 so we had time for an overpriced early breakfast: soggy cheese and tomato sandwich and coffee.
Checking in involved a security check – putting coats, bags and personal belongings on the X-ray machine and stepping through an arch – but we have been through worse: in Chicago we had to take our shoes off as well, and had had our finger prints taken and our eyes photographed. A bored official glanced perfunctorily at our passports and we were through. Then all we had to do was wait and listen to confusing announcements about who would board first.
In the event, boarding was just a typical British scramble. We found we had a table for two right at the end of carriage 12. Very convenient and intimate. At last the doors closed and we were off. I always find there is a special magic about travelling through the city in the hours of darkness with lights of all colours shining and twinkling in the blackness. This city does not sleep but at night seems to make room for dreams.
As we boarded, we noticed how many Eurostar staff were on hand to assist and advise, so unlike normal British rail services. In fact, the whole system seems modelled on airline rather than railway modes.
Our first stop was to be Ashford International, a station we know well from our trips to Margate, but now we watched as all other stations slid softly by in the darkness.
Suddenly we emerged from the city into the country with a full view of a beautiful red dawn sky.
Despite having had a soggy sarnie at Waterloo, we treated ourselves to a “Continental” from the buffet – a croissant with butter and apricot jam, orange juice and coffee – for £8.20 the pair. This was my first chance to speak French, as the staff were of that nationality. As we finished eating, we arrived at Ashford under a brightening sky. The fields were dressed in a blanket of mist.
The train manager announced that we would shortly enter the tunnel. With a whoosh we did and the Eurostar turned into a tube train for 20 minutes. Some people become nervous at this point, I am told, thinking of all that water bearing down above them. Do they think of this, I wonder, as they pass under the Thames on the Northern Line? However, I do understand their concerns while of course not suffering from them myself.
At 7:58 we emerged from the tunnel and into France. Of course, we had legally been in France for several minutes but it had not been obvious in the tunnel. As if to confirm our arrival, my phone jangled: a text from Virgin Mobile saying “Welcome to France” and warning me of the outrageous roaming charges that now apply. Enough to tempt you to switch the damn thing off. (Surely, not – Ed.)
Other passengers had been sleeping but I had been running on coffee and nervous energy. Now I felt sleepy and began dozing off, awaking with a start every time my elbow slipped off the window ledge. There was nothing for it but to put the seat back and have a snooze. I woke up after half an hour. It was then that I noticed the Missing Seats.
Our seats were numbered 11 and 15. That leaves only 3 numbers between them so how could they fit in the 4 seats opposite ours? The mystery deepened when inspection revealed that these were numbered 13, 14, 17 and 18. Where were 12 and 16?
Perhaps the original design had had 4 seats either side of the gangway and two had been removed to make more room for today’s bigger bodies. Someone somewhere must know the answer. If it is you, how about leaving an explanatory comment?
The day has become warm and sunny but the layer of mist remains, ghostly thin in some places, fog thick in others. Sometimes the lower parts of the pylons are shrouded in mist and their heads are clear of it.
I am feeling excited excited about getting out into the streets, shops and cafes and hearing and speaking French again. Announcements by Bruno, the train manager, whose voice resembles that of the old roué in the TV Cointreau adverts, have whetted my appetite.
Ah! On arrive!
So this is Paris. We are lucky: it’s a beautiful day. We make our way out of the station. Our hotel is in the rue des Vinaigriers which is fairly close to the station but Tigger has packed her street map. “Let’s get a cab,” she proposes.
We approach a suitably large taxi. The driver is absent but appears after a moment. “Vous connaissez la rue des Vinaigiers?” I ask. He begins to explain where it is. “Pourriez-vous nous y emmener?” I enquire impatiently but he’s already been booked. He explains again where it is and says it’s within easy walking distance.
We walk. It isn’t far and I enjoy the sights and sounds of France, reading out the shop names and even the notices in the windows like a child. Paris, at once familiar and strange. “I could live here!”, I hear myself exclaim in a paroxysm of happiness.
We reach the hotel. The desk clerk barely acknowledges me. I tell him my name but he goes on doing whatever he was doing when we arrived. Tigger roots around in her bag and finds the “voucher” we printed off the Web. I give it to him and he becomes marginally more interested. After fiddling with the computer for a while he gives his verdict: we do have a room but it isn’t ready. Well, it is rather early, I agree. “Revenez après une heure,” he says. In the meantime we can leave our baggage.
We have over 3 hours to kill before the room is ready. Tigger proposes walking round the block. We start off and are soon engaged by exploring. Tigger takes photos. I am taking it all in and still reading out notices, signs, bus destinations, what is painted on passing vans…
We find a park and sit for a while. I notice that the transparent plastic rubbish bags (marked “Propreté – Sécurité”) come in pairs, yellow and green. I look at them trying to work out the difference but fail. There is a little cabin with a man sitting in front of it doing a crossword.
I approach and ask about the bags. He is happy to explain that the yellow is for recyclables and the green for all the rest. On the lid of the yellow is a list which I hadn’t noticed. He has spent some time in England and now tells us, in English with occasional lapses into French, what there is to see in the area. He is interrupted by his mobile and we take our leave.
“What about a bus ride?” suggests Tigger. “We could buy a day ticket.”
“Where do we get those?”
“Dunno,” says Tigger. “You could ask in there.” She is pointing at a pharmacie.
Er, right… We go in and I apologetically explain to the lady behind the counter that we are newly arrived in Paris and need to know where we can buy bus tickets. Not fazed in the least, she explains: go to the ticket office in the Métro and ask for either for a day ticket or a carnet of one-per-journey tickets (a bit like our bus savers, I imagine).
We find the Métro but the booking hall is jammed with people. “Give up for now?” proposes Tigger philosophically. We emerge and wander down the road. “Time for a beverage?” asks Tigger. Yes, high time. We find a smart-looking cafe with a dour waiter. We order Earl Grey for Tigger and Ceylon for me. It is surprisingly good. The tea bags are made of a material I haven’t seen before.
They serve cups with tea bags in them and a teapot of hot water. No milk. I know Tigger likes plenty of milk with her tea though I drink mine black. “Un peu de lait, s’il vous plaît,” I say to the waiter. He brings it. Oops, it’s hot milk. Must remember to ask for cold in future.
I explain to Tigger that in France the lunch “hour” runs from 12 to2. “We could have lunch, then!” says Tigger cheerfully. Actually, it’s only 11:30 but I suppose that’s near enough midday. We saunter along looking at menus. We plump for the Tire Bouchon which offers omelets of various sorts.
Tigger has a pear and apple juice “cocktail” and I a “Limonade diabolo”: lemonade poured on top of a fruit syrup. I choose strawberry. It is delicious and the taste takes me back to my childhood. Well, this is the land of Proust.
We finish off with a crème brûlée with a delicious crispy crust and a small French coffee. Whenever I go to France, one of the first things I do is have coffee. French coffee is inimitable.
We can now saunter back to the hotel as it will be gone 1 pm by the time we arrive. I am not sure which way it is but Tigger has the instincts of a homing pigeon and we are soon there.
The same clerk is on duty, as phlegmatic as ever. “Rappelez-moi votre nom,” he says. He hands us the key, tells us breakfast is from 7:30 to 9, liberates our luggage and shows us the lift. An American couple want the third floor too so we invite them to share the lift with us but when it arrives it is minuscule: Tigger and I hardly fit in it by ourselves.
At last we are in our room. It is at the end of a narrow, dark corridor but when we open the door the room is bright with sunlight. “This’ll do,” I say approvingly.
We kick off our shoes, stack the luggage and flop on the bed, Tigger to doze and I to catch up with this blog entry.
What of this evening? We shall see when the time comes.
We went out again around 4pm. The plan was to investigate the “OpenTour” bus we had seen earlier. This is a hop-on-hop-off touring bus with 4 routes. You buy a one-day or two-ticket which is valid for all tours. They also give you your own set of earphones to plug in to listen to the commentary.
The only problem was that we didn’t know where to pick it up so I asked a few people and gradually homed in on the stop nearest the hotel. We then found that all the details were published in a leaflet that we had picked up at the hotel on the way but hadn’t read yet!
The bus, a roofless double-decker came and it was crowded. For a while we had to stand on the staircase. Then Tigger got a seat, then I got a seat, then we got seats together, then finally we got front seats.
We didn’t listen to the commentary this time but just enjoyed the views of Paris, and the sights and sounds of the streets. I knew that Starbuck’s had set up in Paris (predictably, the pundits said it would fail) but was still surprised to see, not one, but three in a relatively small area.
Despite it being a bank holiday (or perhaps because of it), traffic was very heavy. If you thought driving was chaotic in London, I can tell you it is a model of regulation and good manners compared with Paris. I was glad not to be driving.
We disembarked at about 5:50. We weren’t ready for dinner but felt in need of a rest (I nearly nodded off a couple of times on the bus). The solution adopted was the traditional one of coming back to the hotel for a cup of tea! Now, you probably know that French hotels, unlike their British counterparts, do not supply tea-making accoutrements so we brought our own! And we even remembered to bring adaptors so we can plug our kettle and phone charger into French electric sockets.
We are now at the hotel, drinking tea. I am blogging (as you can see) and Tigger is studying the “OpenTour” maps ready for tomorrow’s expeditions.
Later, we will have to face the delicious dilemma of where to go for dinner.
We went out again at about 8pm. The phlegmatic desk clerk had been replaced by a more cheerful and outgoing one. We told him one of the light bulbs over our bed wasn’t working and that there were towels for only one person. He promised to see to both straightaway.
I asked him about buses and was told a flat fare ticket cost 1.40€. We took the 65 bus to the Gare de Lyon so we could walk down to the river and the canal but first we looked for dinner. We studied a few menus then plumped for a small one-man bistro. It had a crêperie attached to it. We dined on crêpes and iced tea. I like these off-beat meals.
Afterwards we went down to the river and Tigger pointed out Notre Dame, silhouetted, black on black, against the night sky, and the Eiffel Tower, all lit up and sending out a sweeping laser light like a lighthouse. I have to keep reminding myself I am truly in Paris and seeing all this for real.
We caught the bus back to the hotel. We were not all that surprised to find that the dud light had not been repaired and no extra towels had been brought.
It has been a long day – from 3am to 10pm (UK time) – but an exciting and rewarding one. I am looking forward to tomorrow and a new lot of fun.