The best thing for me about travelling, and life, actually, is interaction with other people. (I'm still learning not to overreact to any perceived offence. 'Maybe it's paranoia, maybe it's sensitivity...' Joni Mitchell said that. Love Joni.)
One interesting interaction was on the train from Munich to Stuttgard. We shared a six seater first class compartment with Boris and his daughter, Josie. (See, I'm so nosy I get names.) We initially started talking because we'd been double booked in the same seats. It I didn't matter, given there were four of us and six seats available. He spoke perfect English with a slight accent. His daughter spoke with a flawless clipped British accent. Then they slipped into their native Estonian - I think. However, they live in Munich and also speak German. Boris, having been born in Russia to a Finnish mother and Russian father, also speaks both those languages. I find that amazing, coming from a country where speaking anything other than 'Strayan' - as the word Australian is often pronounced - unless one is a migrant, is unusual. It was the first day of Josie's three month summer break from the international school she attends. Given that her mother had to work that weekend, she and Boris were attending a seminar in Switzerland. On quantum physics. As one does.
While Josie, a teenager, listened to music on her phone and sketched faces in blue ink in her visual diary, Boris told us a little about his life. A ship builder now, whose next contract doesn't start until October in Japan, Boris also did his time, aged eighteen, in the Russian army. 'It was bad,' he said, 'but not like prison.' He served on the North Korean border. The harshness was mitigated for him by his mother's insistence during his youth that he attend a music school. Consequently, he had learned the flute, having been 'no good, according to [his] teacher' at cello. Thus he played in the military band and was proud that he'd never carried a Kalashnikov during his military service. 'Only a flute.'
Boris, urbane and articulate, is a passionate ice fisherman. Said he is much happier if it's minus 30 degrees than anything over 25. 'You just drill your hole in the ice and it's wonderful,' he said. 'To keep warm you can drink some tea. I can stay out there - in Finland on the ice - all day. But the days are short.'
We shared the cabin for a couple of hours and the time flew. Sounds like I did some sort of interrogation but it wasn't like that. Boris was equally interested in our Australian lives and our travels.
Yesterday, we went in search of something of Paris as I remembered it from 1980. That was a winter holiday and I don't recall the hordes of tourists we've seen in the summer months. So we took the métro to Sebastopol and walked through the Montorgueil area. There we found an arcade, Passage du Grand Cerf, and wandered through it. This arcade has greenery hanging from one of those high leaded glass-like ceilings and was lined with shops selling beautiful handcrafts and jewellery, amongst other things. And not one other tourist. How can this be, so close to the Marais which is crawling with tourists?
Chantal, a shopkeeper I talked to, explained that there's Paris for the tourists and Paris for the locals. We had wandered into her shop - Le Labo + filf; Objets poétiques et créations lumineuses - looking for some unusual gifts. Chantal's daughter, Maud, designed the beautiful bags I ended up buying. Chantal was lovely and more than happy to chat with me in French, something I crave. She asked where we were staying and how we intended getting to the airport. She lives in the arrondissement where our apartment was and was puzzled as to why the tourism office had directed us to Porte d'Orléans as the nearest métro station. 'Cité Universitaire is much closer, just a walk through Parc Montsouris. And it connects directly with CDG airport.' She laughed a bit at this. We'd not only walked out of our way to catch the métro each day but the train loops through heaps of stations adding about fifteen minutes onto a journey that otherwise takes about five. Ha. At least we found the local supermarkets.
It was a fortuitous meeting, Chantal, should you ever read this, you greatly reduced the stress of our trip to the airport this morning. (Chantal and I did actually swap email addresses and I've already composed the email I'll send her as soon as we get back home. I haven't been able to send any emails while I've been in Europe, for reasons I don't understand.)
By the way, there was a four day haute couture fashion event during our week in Paris. Twice we've stumbled upon the glitterati and their entourages. The other day we walked along the red carpet being set up in Rue Montaigne. Yesterday we were amongst the buzz and press of the Jean-Paul Gaultier show. I know this from another of my sources, haha, a freelance photographer sitting outside a café near the mêlée. He was nice. I told him I'm a writer, of sorts, and he was keen for me to hang around and soak up the ambience. 'This is a big thing. You have Jean-Paul Gaultier. Use that as a label in your blog and you'll have more readers,' he suggested. 'And you have the fashions and the chateau here.' Yes, there was a chateau. Beats me if I can remember the name of the street we were in. (Perhaps I'd look it up if I wasn't up in the air courtesy of Etihad Airways.) Hard to see through all the posh cars with their tinted windows. At that moment an emaciated model fell off her six inch stilettos right in front of us. All caught by the nearby paparazzi. She didn't miss a beat. Picked herself up and continued wobbling along the cobbled path.
More interested in sausages than fashion, I moved on in my Target blue jeans, home-made haute couture shirt and running shoes.
Now Porte de la Villette sounded interesting in the Paris tourist guide. It's where two canals converge. It was almost at the end of the métro line it was on. No one else seemed to be going there. We emerged from the métro into a dodgy looking street, walked a bit, then crossed the road into an enormous empty 'parc'. Well, there was a science exhibition centre if you're into that sort of thing, which I'm not. We wandered over relatively modern - 1983 - cobbled pathways to check out the canal. Yep. Canal. Straight. Flowing. There was a sort of 'fun fair' but no one really seemed to be having any. A carousel was going around playing the Danube waltz. A guy was leaning idly on the counter inside the office of the unused dodgem cars. (I was slightly tempted, but then thought of the camping car and decided against it.) Quite bleak, really. A handful - six? - other tourists were wandering around with bemused expressions, like wtf am I doing here? (I'm perhaps being unkind about this place. Al compared it to Melbourne show grounds when the show's not on.)
I used - needs must - one of the grottiest 'bathrooms' since the back blocks of Vietnam. Two, let's call them ne'er do wells, male, were hanging around inside the unisex facility. The toilet wouldn't flush, no paper. Just a stench of old urine. (Not mine.) Suppose it could have been worse, I thought as I swabbed the backs of my thighs with antiseptic handwash.
Happily, the Champs Élysées is only a métro ride away. We came up into the sunshine and the glorious view of the arc and right into the middle of a great hip hop dance performance. You can knock your tourist haunts but this is where you can enjoy a bit of street entertainment, for free if you're a bit short on spare change. It was wonderful.
I'm on the plane now, having an early Chardonnay - it's 11.45 am Paris time - and I'm sure I've tested your stamina with such a long post. Thank you again for reading.
PS. Do you know how effectively writing passes time?