Friday, 18 May 2012

France, Day 1: Perth to Paris

 28 April

Perth, Western Australia, to Paris, France, all the way with Air Mauritius, with an eight hour stopover in Mauritius thrown in for good measure. Distance:  8,865 miles, or 14,267 kilometres for those of us who prefer bigger numbers.  Flying time: 17 hours and 44 minutes, give or take 15 minutes, so just call it 18 hours to neaten things up.  Let’s add in getting to Perth International Airport a couple of hours before flight departure time, and you start to get the idea: it was a lllooonnngg trip. 

Comfortable lounge at Mauritius Airport
But do you know what? As that aircraft approached Charles de Gaulle Airport and I looked out the window and got my first glimpse of Mr Eiffel’s superb tower, those 28-odd hours were as nothing. Okay, I admit, from Mauritius to Paris we were in first class and so we had enjoyed French champagne, foie gras, and a long, lovely sleep. But even so, any effects of being picked up on one side of the globe, confined for hour after hour after hour in a pressurised cabin, and then deposited on the opposite side of the globe, were immediately dispelled by that view. I had lived for years in Europe when I was younger, but this was to be my first visit to that lovely City of Light. Goosebumps, people, honestly. 

Different section of the lounge.

As I write this, I can tell you that we have been to France five times, and never once have we had the same experience on arrival. For this trip, we walked off the plane, straight through to the luggage collection area, picked up our suitcases and walked out – no customs, no immigration. Was that perhaps because our suitcases came rolling drunkenly through about 30 minutes after every other traveller had collected their luggage and gone, while we stood there, too unsure of our halting French to go and seek assistance. And so we waited, and waited, and waited, and as we waited the immigration and customs people, it would seem, simply decided that we looked harmless. Either that, or it was time for steak frittes and a pichet of Bordeaux. Whatever the reason, they had gone, and so did we. 

We had booked a shuttle transfer from the airport to our hotel. I can assure you that the driver was not exactly thrilled with the delay caused by having to wait so long for our luggage. His other passengers were already waiting in the minibus, tapping their fingers and toes impatiently, wanting, understandably, to just go. As it was, we weren’t able to sit together in the bus, and so I scrambled over legs and into the back row of seats while my man sat up front with the driver. Actually, I think I got the better bargain as our driver was one of those who seem to be in a constant state of warfare with all other road users and to be in that front seat next to him, all the while waiting for the screech of brakes and the crunching, grating sound of metal on metal, is not for the faint-hearted.  

Beautiful even through the window of
a speeding taxi in the rain.

Now, here’s one of life’s amazing coincidences. A few years ago I worked on a project related to the investigation into a fire on board a Royal Australian Navy vessel, the “Westralia”, in which four young sailors lost their lives. As I’m sure you know, there are, sailing the seas of the world, hundreds and hundreds of vessels which have had their names changed many times. The “Westralia” was one such vessel. In a previous life she had belonged to the Royal Navy and had been called the RFA “Apple Leaf”. So, here I am, just arrived in Paris, sitting in the back of a minibus being driven by a homicidal frustrated formula one driver, and I am sharing the seat with an English couple, the Doyles from Manchester. How the conversation came around to the “Westralia”, I have no idea, but suffice to say it did. Well, can you believe it, Mr Doyle said he knew the vessel well as he had served on her when she was the “Apple Leaf”. Forget “of all the gin joints in all the world”, this was a coincidences extraordinaire!  

Anybody who has been to Paris knows exactly what I mean about the crazy traffic. Death defying motorcyclists flashed past our windows, weaving between the lanes of traffic, sometimes even darting at right angles between motor vehicles, always on the lookout for the advantage to save a couple of seconds.  But nothing I had ever read prepared me for the insanity that is the Grande Point, the huge roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. Just in case you aren’t aware: there are no lanes, it is a case of just take a big breath and go for it; vehicles entering the roundabout have right of way – yes, that’s right, they have right of way when entering the roundabout – but that should be no cause for you to actually slow down as they shoot out in front of you; should you actually hit another vehicle, your insurance company will not cover you as there is no insurance cover for vehicles on this bit of vehicular lunacy. It is so crazy there is only one thing you can do and that is just to simply laugh. Let’s face it, everybody is moving and nobody seems to actually collide with anybody else, so enjoy this trip to the other side and just be glad you’re not driving. 

Before we knew it, our minibus was pulling to the kerb in front of our hotel, the Emeraude Louvre Montana, on rue Saint Roch (more about that particular street later), our driver was dumping our suitcases outside the entrance, wishing us a “Bon nuit” and departing at high speed for his next drop-off. 

We looked to the right and there, just a few short steps away, we saw the Tuileries Gardens. All around us were beautiful Haussmann buildings. Tiny Smart-for-2 cars were parked with bumpers nuzzling each other in the night air all along the street. From a florist shop a couple of doors away wafted the sweet smell of spring flowers. I wanted to cry. Honestly, I really did. I wanted to stop my watch, stop the world, stop everything, because I felt at that moment that life just could not get much better. How often do dreams come true, really? 

View from our window - no,
not taken at night; the following morning.

Summoning our courage, and mentally going over the French phrases we had practised, we opened the glass door and entered the small lobby of the hotel. A charming young woman was seated behind the reception desk. She smiled warmly and welcomingly. I opened my mouth and heard myself somehow manage a passable. “Bonne nuit. Nous sommes une reservation. Je m’appelle …” I think I did alright, actually. Phew, first hurdle over.  

Within a very short time we had done the necessary re passport numbers etc, and were given our room key and shown the elevator. Hm. Did you say you had been to Paris? Do you know what I mean when I talk about really, really, really small elevators? This beautiful little elevator, so perfect for a British television period drama, offered us a choice: both go up to our room in it, and leave our luggage behind, or make a couple of trips with one person and one suitcase at a time. I entered the elevator, pressing myself against the side wall to accommodate one suitcase and a carry-on bag. The ornate wrought iron gate was pulled shut, and up we went, the lovely old, carpeted spiral staircase winding around us like a sleepy serpent.  I waited by the lift until my man and the rest of our baggage arrived. 

We opened the door to our room and entered what was to be our home for nine days.  Everything was just as it should be, just as it had been on the hotel website. The bed was huge, there was a little refrigerator, there were tea and coffee making facilities, there was a bathtub – always heaven when on holidays – there were places to sit and read, or chat, or sip wine while planning the next day’s adventure. There were also two large windows – French windows, you could say – which, when opened allowed us to lean out over the window boxes of geraniums and, looking to the left, gaze at the lovely gardens or, looking to the right, spy, just a couple of hundred feet away, the fantastic Eglise Saint Roch, the church where Yves St Laurent’s funeral service was conducted. 

After a total of 30 hours, we had arrived in Paris. We had left Perth just after midnight one day, and we had arrived in Paris in the evening of the same day. Was I a day younger? No, I was years younger, and ready to revel in it. 

See you tomorrow.

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