Sunday, 27 April 2008

Off the Boil in Paris

Just back from a tenth anniversary trip to Paris, the tenth anniversary, that is, since I first took my daughter to the self-styled 'City of Light'. Actually, there are several cities that call themselves that, including Springfield, Massachussetts, which, far from being light-filled, must be one of the most benighted cities I have ever set foot in...But I digress.

Paris to me now is more familiar (and therefore infinitely less exotic) than Prescot, the uninspiring Lancashire town where I was born but haven't set foot in for nearly forty years. I suppose, once you start becoming jaded with and cynical about Paris, you are sliding dangerously into a state where you are royally pissed off with life in general. I'm not quite there yet . For instance, I don't feel like that about London. But London has an energy, a buzz, a sense of moving forward. Paris seems stuck in a time-warp, which, I suppose, is part of its eternal charm. It is beautiful, yes. Who could sit on the quais on the Isle Saint-Louis on a balmy April afternoon and begrudge the overwhelming beauty of Paris? But for me, this time, the real beauty was in the unexpected and unfamiliar sight of the Canal Saint-Martin, a newly boho-ed (or Bo-Bobo-ed, as the French say - an amalgamation of bon chic bon genre (posh) and boho (bohemian) gentrification. Walking a few blocks east from the seedy Boulevard de Strasbourg, where we were staying (conveniently close to the Gare du Nord), we came across a newly landscaped city park bearing the sign, 'Paris respire'. And this was certainly the case, with the evening sunshine playing on the cleaned-up waters of the canal, beside which young people, purposeful and energised, were sitting and drinking. If I lived in Paris again (and I have lived there three times in my current limited lifetime), I would seek out a base near the Canal Saint-Martin in what used to be the horribly un-chic tenth district. My daughter, of course (bless her), is still captivated by the sights of the fourth, fifth, seventh and first - Notre Dame and the Pyramid du Louvre and the blocks around the Jardin de Luxembourg and University. The joy for me, this time, was seeing Paris through her eyes, my own having lost the rose-tinted specs. I hope she gets to live there too one day. Everyone should have a shot at living in Paris, even if it's only for a month, even the month of August when they surely must place a restriction on the number of tourists entering the museums. It is still only April, and still we would have queued at least an hour for tickets to clock the Impressionist jewels in the Musee d'Orsay. When I first visited Paris, some forty years ago (God!), the big tourist groups crowding out the Mona Lisa were mostly Americans and Japanese; now they are Eastern Europeans, Russians and Poles and Romanians, all having their shot at Paris. And best of luck to them, too.

The only real downer was the lack of hot water in the hotel on the evening we arrived. But were offered a free breakfast (not much of a compensation, given the bread and jam nature of the French petit dejeuner), and the water was hot again the following evening. I made do with boiling water in my trusty travel kettle (a must in France - in fact, France is the only country it gets to visit these days) and splashing my muckiest bits, my irritation with the antiquarian plumbing and the rubber ham and croissant quickly dispelling as soon as we were out on the boulevard where there was an utterly surprising and captivating number of wig shops. (Why? For the Afro-French ladies living in the district? For the filles de joie of Saint-Denis? ) Sod the hot water - we were in Paris.

BAD Boys in Sofia

From Terry Webb, a cautionary tale about getting lost, locked out, and legless in the Bulgarian capital. This makes travelling abroad with Saga (for which the BAD boys - all officially 'retired' - should qualify) look like a trip to the garden centre. It also gives Stanley and the rest of the Barmy Army on their eternal cricketing junkets a very fair run for their money!

"The apartment was splendid. A generous size with all that
could be wished including a bar, DVD player, satellite TV and splendid views to
the snow covered mountains.. Very warm and comfortable on the fourth floor
of a block built in about 1920. The lift proclaimed: “I am 73 years old.
Please treat me with respect.”
We did our shopping in the little local store just across the
road. No one spoke English but mime worked quite well until we ran out
of toilet paper. To avoid an international incident, at this point, Brian
did resort to providing an (unused) sample. The couple who ran the store
were most helpful. The request for tea produced an armful of speciality teas
from which to choose.
On the first day we did what we normally do. Set out to find the
Tourist information office which was listed in our guide. We spent all
day from 10.00 am ‘till 6.00 pm but failed. The map we were given showed
the English translation of the street names. The street' signs were in
Bulgarian Cyrillic text. Even the locals could not show us where we were on our
map. Asking at up market hotels where we were fairly sure there would be
English speakers failed to help with all saying that there was no tourist
information office in Sofia. Even when we showed them a picture in our
guide! However the efforts were rewarded by our working up a ravenous
We resorted to sampling the local beers. The evening
passed pleasantly enough visiting the local bars. Back at the ranch we watched a
DVD of Blot on the Landscape which I had brought with me. It ran for almost
an hour before breaking down. Still, this allowed us extra drinking
time for which we must be grateful.
We woke up to the fabulous views from our windows gradually disappearing.
Scaffolding was being erected around the building. By lunch
time the view had disappeared completely as the typical sheeting with
pictures, common on the continent, was hung all around. However, this
saved us having to draw the curtains for the remainder of our stay.
The following day we resolved not to be beaten and set off
once again on a mission… to find the T. I. office. Yet another day of
failure. Resorted to bars and beer to raise our spirits. A good meal at the
Irish bar. Good to feel at home for an hour or so !
Day three. Off to find … yes.. the T I office. Determined not to
be bested. This time with the benefit of transport on the trams and
buses as we had at last managed to find out how and where to buy tickets.
Also we decide to try to arrange a train or bus trip to Plodiv, the second city
of Bulgaria. By lunch time we had still not found the T I but we knew we
were very close. Gerry and Brain decided that the impressive building nearby
would house someone important - English speaking and intelligent. Ten
minutes later they returned having been held at gun point, X-rayed, frisked
and searched. The impressive building turned out to be the National Courts
of Justice ! However as predicted there was intelligent life there and
they directed them to small office half hidden by scaffolding and the
ubiquitous sheeting with pictures and … success the tourist information office!
It wasn't worth the three-day search. They were of little
use to us but very keen to give us enough guide books to fill a coffin.
Clearly they had had not customers for a month and had to reach
targets, which they did in just ten minutes with us. Amazingly they even
objected to us taking photographs of the office to prove that it did exist. We took
one anyway.
Flushed with success, we decided to push the boat out and eat
in “The Russian” restaurant that evening. However we upset the head waiter
by refusing his suggestion that we should start the meal with a vodka AT £20 a shot!
“But is the Russian tradition," he insisted.” Not aT £20 a shot we explained politely.
The meal turned out to be less than memorable after that rejection, with noticeably poor attention from the
waiter, who then proceeded to remove one glass of wine from our bottle,
“because it was next to the cork”, and placed it on a table across the
room. Brian succeeded in retrieving it, without getting caught, so we had
the full bottle in the end and free entertainment (Cossack dancers). A good value experience, in the end.
Next day we set out to find the main rail and bus station which we
had been told shared the same site. We took the tram no12 as instructed
and found ourselves about ten miles from the city in a rubbish ridden
derelict factory site having missed the correct stop. It was good to see the
other side of Sofia.
We retraced our steps and arrived at the main train and bus station
turned out to be a massive new build but empty. The result of European
cash without the local infrastructure to man or service it. The old stations
nearby were still in use. Confronted with twenty queues all headed by
indecipherable place names we headed for the “Information Desk” only to
be greeted by No English! No English” Nearby two American students with
back packs were similarly bemused. “We have travelled all over the world and
nowhere has it been so difficult to find our way around” they said.
We were relieved that that it was not just us. - We were beginning to think that we should not
be let out on our own. We gave up on getting to Plodiv which would not
have been very exciting anyway and decided to book a taxi to take us to the
mountains and a ski resort on Sunday our last day and something really
exciting to look forward to.
The following day we did touristy things like looking at the
national centre for culture, which turned out to be an indoor market,
and some churches . We also found a real ale pub with its own brewery.
Things were really beginning to shape up!
That evening on the way out the lights on our staircase had
failed so I went back for a torch. There were very loud knocking sounds coming
from the lift, but it was 73 years old, so we were not unduly concerned. On
the first landing there was a head of a young lady at about floor level in
the lift and she seemed to be quite friendly and was shouting greetings in
Bulgarian and waving us goodbye. On the next landing were some feet at
about ceiling level, so we discretely averted our gaze. Most impressive
just how friendly some of the Bulgarians seemed to be.
A good hour was spent trying to find bar listed in the guide
book as having nine different beers on tap. But it was packed smoky when we got there, and both Brian
and myself decided to give it a miss and return home without Gerry, who was determined to stick it out.
On our return, we found that we had both sets of keys and
Gerry was left with none, but given that there was a door entry phone at
street level did not concern ourselves unduly until around 11.30, when there was a knocking
on our door. An angry Gerry had been out side in the street for over an
hour. The door entry phone was not working as it was on the same
circuit as the stairway lights! He had rung my mobile but it was in a jacket
pocket in my wardrobe. Brian’s was, as usual, switched off to save the battery.
Next day a Saturday, I gave my keys to Gerry as if anyone was
going to stay out it would be him. I reported this to Brian as we left
the apartment. Gerry locked up and followed us to the street. On his
arrival he reported that he could not double lock the door. However, as Gerry had
not used the keys before we decided not to trudge back uo four floors to
check as we knew the door was self locking.
We arrived back at the flat at about 7.30 that evening and
found that we were unable to get into the flat. The keys which Gerry had did
not seem to work. I asked Brian for his keys to try. But he had not brought
them with him ! Only one thing to do in these circumstances. Have a beer! No
Passports. Very little cash. No flight tickets for the return early on
Monday morning and just a Sunday to sort things out. While Gerry and
Brian checked out the beer I walked to the office of the rental company only,
not unexpectedly, as it was Saturday evening, closed. Plan A, B, C, D and
E were discussed and all rejected as they all involved a considerable
degree of discomfort. We decided to place ourselves in the hands of anyone who
a) spoke English and b)was sympathetic to three grumpy old men. Not
something we felt too confident of finding. Most unusually, we were wrong ! Our
saviour came in the form of a restaurateur we stumbled upon in just 5
minutes only yards from the bar.
We found ourselves in pleasant hotel 2 miles from the centre
and had a splendid meal (I think) and plenty of beer and
wine. Much phoning back to Hazel at back at HQ and with her very able (what
would we have done without her?), help made arrangements for a locksmith to
meet us on the following day. (How sensible of Brian to save his
phone batteries for emergencies.)
Sunday arrived and so did the locksmith only an hour or so
after the promised time; and he took just two hours to get in. Brian had left
the other set of keys in the door. This is a common problem in Bulgaria we
were told. So not our fault after all.
This delay resulted in the planned trip to the mountains by
taxi being aborted. However it was very hot and sunny, so it would not have
been a good day for a long taxi ride. Also the ski resort would have
probably been crowded!