Paris (again!)

This is just a little appetister…. an artist at work in the Place de Tertre in Montmartre.

I have to admit, I had some fairly serious concerns about this latest trip, based on the state of play in France currently, but the very worst thing that happened to us in our three days?? No ice cream at the kiosk at the end of Les Jardins des Tuilleries.

I am currenly almost brain dead as I got home just after 1am today and was up to teach this morning, so a more comprehensive post will have to wait.

But coming soon:

Montmartre and the artists’ square

Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame

Musee D’orsay revisted.

….and maybe more.

Watch this space

Paris scams and cons

Like any big city, Paris has its fair share of beggars and con artists. I find it obscene that any city in the prosperous West can allow such extreme poverty as I have seen. Paris is no worse than any but I shall never forget walking along the glittering Champs Elysee a few years ago, passing Louis Vuitton at the same time as a barefoot beggar, walking along oblivious of both the glamorous surroundings and his own rags. His feet were splashed with filth and his hair could have hidden a nest of rats. Shaming for any civilisation but the setting couldn’t have been more contrasting.

Paris swarms with beggars, most of them illegal immigrants desperate to stay alive and out of the courts. Some of the souvenir sellers are potentially violent and aggressive and the police do little to move them on. The trick is never to make eye contact and never engage in conversation or you will be pestered half to death.

A common scam is someone who comes up to you and asks if you speak English. If you agree you do, a letter and a photo of some wide-eyed children is put into your hand. The letter is a sob-story about escaping from Bosnia and leaving children behind. The beggar is almost always a young woman, sometimes pregnant or with a baby in arms. Walk away. It broke my heart. While you are talking, someone else may well be lifting your wallet.

A clever scam that I’d heard of took place here, just outside the Louvre:

You can just see the scam artist sitting on the wall waiting for a victim. She made a mistake trying me. The scam goes like this; a heavy gold men’s wedding ring is dropped in your path and as you approach, someone(in this case a woman) comes forward at a split second moment and picks it up and asks if it is yours. The idea is then someone rewards them for their “honesty” (haha) and gives them a substantial sum just to gain possession of what they think is a valuable gold ring. It isn’t; it’s made of brass and is worthless. The principle is that you can’t cheat an honest man. I said, “Not mine,” and walked on. Had I been alone, I might have suggested we take it to the Palais de Justice, not far away and hand it in. I’d probably have had abuse hurled at me if I were lucky…

Another scam for the unwary is the souvenir seller who ties on a friendship bracelet and then demands money. It’s usually tied so tightly it’s impossible to remove easily. Yet another is trying to kiss the hand of a lady, under pretext of gallantry and while doing so, removing her rings. This happened to my boss, but her rings were too tight to slide off. I never wear anything of any real monetary value when I travel, for this reason. Costume jewellery is easily replaced and has the added bonus of pissing off the thieves later!

The beggars who stand on the bridges and just simply hold out a hand are hard to avoid, and upsetting because these are usually the old and frail. I’d give money but it’s almost certainly never theirs to keep. There are gangs who “run” beggars and who take all but a tiny pittance of their earnings.

I seldom see such barefaced begging in London, because the police and the soical services make a big effort to deal with it, but I have seen rough sleepers in the mornings.

Poverty in the west is often linked to crime, organised crime at that. It saddens me that it happens but what can I do?

The Pyramids of the Louvre

Under this arch, a young man played the flute so hauntingly I dug out my purse and put a few euros in his hat…

It’s astounding the detail you miss by just marching on, eyes ahead.

Parisians were ambivalent about the Pyramids but seem to be happy with them now. But then Napoleon had a real obession with Egypt so maybe it’s in keeping after all…

Sunlight sparkled on the clear shallow water and made it unbearably inviting on a hot, hot day…

Excuse the pasty white pins!

Note the rows of shoes…..

Coming soon: Paris scams and beggars’ tricks.

Paris- the dead centre of France

 

Paris- the dead centre of France

 

When I went to Paris last week I confidently expected that I might die there. The heat was due to be quite extreme and indeed it was; hotter than predicted, the day time temperatures reached 39 degrees C(that’s 102, F) and because Paris is not only a city but a city built largely of white/beige limestone, the heat reflected back on itself like a series of energy mirrors and made the streets unendurably hot.

 

However, there was one cool place to be and that was underneath the city. Unregarded by most, there are hundreds of miles of tunnels beneath the city formed by the quarrying of limestone. Leaving aside those used for sewers and water, there are also the catacombs. I read up before I went, but I don’t think anything really prepared me for the experience. It blew my mind and that of many of the kids I took with me.

The background is this. In 1786, it became clear that the city was running out of land and especially that of the cemeteries. As a fairly ancient city, the scale of the problem was immense and not knowing quite what else to do, the order was given to exhume the remains in the many cemeteries and re-inter them in the tunnels beneath the city. This was done with steady speed and over some years the bones were dug up and transferred to the tunnels, paying no regard to keeping skeletons intact. Piles of bones six feet high were set up in alcoves in the tunnels and then mortared in place to keep them there.

Many were placed in macabre patterns and carved plaques of quotes in Latin and French were added to some to make various moral and philosophical points. The lighting down here is low and flash photography is forbidden, hence the poor quality of my pictures. Our bags were searched as we left to ensure we had stolen no gruesome souvenir. While the remains of between 5 and 6 million individuals are stored here, it wouldn’t be long before the bones started to become less if people were allowed to take them away.

Stepping out into the heat again, I was struck by the contrast between the silent cool beneath and the seething, noisy infernal city above and it stayed with me all day. Our bones are what our bodies leave behind but what do our souls, our spirits leave when our bodies are no more?

 

Next- my impressions of The Impressionists

Facing Fear

I’ve always been scared of heights. Even as a small child, I remember having a great deal of anxiety walking down the narrow cliff path from the hotel in Wales my family stayed at a few times. It was the only way to the beach and so several times a day I had to endure it.

The thing about this sort of fear is that it goes deep and it goes beyond logic. I thought I had mostly overcome it some years back when I found myself able to stand on the roof of a carpark without wanting to hug the ground, and later to walk around the summit of Glastonbury Tor without getting vertigo. Or being able to go to the top of mountains and not feel unwell.

But at times it returns as if it had never been away. I had a bad attack of vertigo at Tintgael Castle in Cornwall some years ago and on occasions since.

So you can understand why I was reluctant to tackle the Eiffel Tower. I’d evaded it last time I was in Paris because one kid was too unwell to go up so I stayed firmly on the ground. This time, I made the decision I would get as far as the second level and then decide if I were going to the very top.

Now the Eiffel Tower is over 300m high. That’s ludicrously high.

I went up in the lift to the second level with my eyes shut and my body shaking. I felt dizzy and sick when we walked around. But I decided that how much worse could it be to go right to the top? So into the little final lift I went, along with some of the kids and up we went…. My eyes were shut tight and I was trying not to hyperventilate. At the top, it’s all enclosed by glass which makes it feel a lot better than the middle section which is only enclosed by wire mesh and the breeze comes in.

So I relaxed a little and took photos:

As you can see, it’s very high!

Then we made our way down again in the lift. It takes rather a long time but we were back to the second level again. I was feeling a bit sick, but then the group I was with decided to walk down from the second level to the ground and that for me was when the trouble started.

It wasn’t so bad with someone immediately in front of me but pretty soon the kids lost me and I was faced with the stairs ahead of me. One foot in front of the other, but there are over 1600 steps…and it’s open to the air. You can’t hurl yourself off it; but it still feels as if you might slip and plummet to your death. Every time I loosened my grip on the handrail my body thought it was the rail giving way and I felt a massive surge of fear shoot through me. It takes at least 20 minutes to walk down. I think it took me half and hour. The group were waiting for me at the bottom and I smothered the urge to throw up in the nearest bin. I was shaking for the next half an hour, and I had a thumping headache too.

But despite being completely shit-scared (excuse my French) I’d done it. No one can take that away from me. And next time, I know I can do it again if I have to. I can choose not to, but I know that it’s not because I am being controlled by my fears. I’ll be back in Paris in late May but I haven’t a clue yet about my itinerary. If it includes the Eiffel Tower, I will be OK with that.

If I could only manage to cope like that with my other fears, I’d be unstoppable….

(for more info and a virtual tour, visit: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/teiffel/uk/ or the wiki site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eiffel_Tower )

Under the Eiffel Tower

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I understand that it is said that the only place in Paris where you can’t see the Eiffel Tower is under the said Tower.

It’s not true.

You can’t help seeing it even there. I spent two hours nearly waiting below the tower, with a sick student who was unable to ascend, for the rest of the group to get back.

I had a cup of very bad coffee and got chatted up by a very offensive American. I got accosted by beggars.

But I could always see the tower.

Another myth busted.