I ended-up in France this summer for a short little while and to be honest I did not really want to go. I was told to attend a wedding and therefore, I did not refuse. The reason why I did not want to go is because I figured I can go see the Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower when I am fifty, they will not go anywhere and will not change. At this time, I would rather take a drive into British Columbia heading up to Alaska and enjoy the nature while camping, hiking, fishing, etc.
France did not give me a choice though and so by the ending of June, on a gorgeous summer morning (about half past eight), I found myself exiting Charles de Gaulle airport. I paused on the sidewalk and took out a Dunhill, sat on my suitcase and light it. I wondered about what adventures Paris and France would offer (for those who don’t know me, I can make shopping at your local grocery store turn into an adventure and that is without any such intentions – things just happen) and if my negative attitude about having to make the trip would change at all.
As I was day-dreaming and smoking my cigarette, I was approached by a tall and thin guy in a black leather jacket, perhaps in his early-thirties who asked me where I was going.
“Je peut t’amener.”
The price of seventy-five euros was not something I appreciated but I accepted to take a ride to Paris with him. When we crossed the street, I saw him stop by a motorcycle. It was some sort of Honda, cruiser type of bike – a big toy! It had “Taxi” written in white on the black gas-tank. I never knew that there were motorcycles as taxis in France; such things do not exist in Canada and I have never seen one before that day.
I guess he saw my confusion and dismay because he said in broken English with the heavy French accent:
“You okay with this?” pointing at the bike.
“Ahmm, ya but …” I didn’t really know what to say. I thought about my back-pack and suite-case too … By then, though he already grabbed my back-pack and put it one of the side-compartments; the suitcase he strapped-it in with elastic cords on the back of the bike. I was handed a helmet.
The ride was insane. Considering it was early in the day, leaving the airport and getting on the highway we came head-on with the traffic jams Paris experiences in the morning rush hour. My taxi driver did not seem to believe in traffic jams though, and I was soon to understand that nobody who owns a motorcycle does. He drove right in between lanes and cars, squeezing in and out of whatever space opened-up. He put on some music which my instincts of survival blocked-out and sped-on.
He said something … I did not understand, I was too busy paying attention to the side-mirrors of the cars which we were zooming by because a couple of times we came very close to them. He turned his head to me so I could hear him:
“Kanye West, you like?” pointing at the speaker.
“Ya, ya! I responded more worrying that any further talk might involve him turning his head to me again instead of watching the tiny holes he was squeezing the giant motorcycle through.
As we entered Paris I did relax a little, seeing that he was quite a good rider and that every other person on motorcycles or scooters was doing the same thing as he was. Parisians drive like their house is on fire and they’re trying to get there to save it. The strange thing is that I did not see one accident the entire time there! At the end when I got dropped off at my hotel the price of seventy-five euros for keeping me alive considering the circumstances seemed like nothing really.
The wedding I spoke about was in a small village, south-west of Paris. I had to take a train to the city of Laval where my sister and her boyfriend, Xavier picked me up. My sister’s boyfriend is originally French, born there and all. I was to stay with his family.
When I got out of the train station his father was there as well. We greeted each other and they told me that there was another person arriving in a different train soon and we had to wait. At a moment when his father was a little further away from us my sister’s boyfriend turned to me:
“Nice pants, I am sure my dad loved them.”
“The plastic pants you’re wearing …”
I am actually wearing them right now as I am writing: a pair of navy blue jogging pair of pants made of course out of sixty-five percent polyester. It’s the wind-breaker type of material. They are comfortable though and considering I was sitting in a train for an hour and a half I found them to be appropriate. I did not know there was a “dress-to-impress” competition all throughout France.
I did look around after and whether I was in a small village, a town or in a big city as Paris, I did not see anyone wearing any sort of track pants. I asked my sister’s boyfriend later what French people have against jogging pants.
“Little gangster kids wear them, not even grown-up ones – little kids.”
Damn, I had already walked all over Paris wearing them one day. Why was I not informed of this before? There should be signs all over the airport: “Please remove your track pants now or risk looking like a buffoon.”
His family was shocked when my sister and I were having cold-cuts and cheese for breakfast.
“We only have some cereal and perhaps fruits.”
“You’re weird,” I thought to myself. I am starving after an hour or so when I first wake-up, fruits will make me even hungrier and having just cereals (or even both) would leave me completely unsatisfied.
As we arrived at the small chalet where we were staying I asked Xavier about anything else I should know besides the plastic pants which I was going to change right away.
“When we go upstairs you will meet my family. There will be somewhere around twenty people or so there.”
“Out of curiosity, do you guys do the two kisses or three, on the cheek?”
“Four?! Are you serious?
Fair enough, after getting changed and going to the room where everyone was just starting-out on the dinner, I had to go through all sorts of uncles, aunts, grandmas and cousins, kissing everyone four times. There were certainly more than twenty people there and so I must have thrown-out at least a hundred kisses. I think I stocked-up on them to last me until Christmas for sure.
At the dinner table my sister advised me the order of the tables from which we were to take food. For example you cannot have meat before cheese, or cheese before potato salad. And at the beginning you have to go through about forty-five torturous minutes of chatter while eating nuts, chips (only the regular kind with just salt) and drinking wine.
After the wedding I returned to Paris and I had another near-death experienced in another taxi (this time it was an actual four door sedan type of car) leaving the train station, Montparasse when my driver cut-off an incoming police car with sirens on. We almost got T-boned! This time it was a very close call in my opinion but the taxi driver did not seem worried at all, neither did the police who just swerved around the back of the taxi and kept going. Drivers in Paris do not seem to care about ambulances or police cars which are driving with their emergency lights on. It seems to be the duty of those driving the emergency vehicles to slalom through traffic; nobody gives them the right of way.
French people seem to love their rules. There are rules for everything. When I was at the Pere Lachaise cemetery I met a younger guy from Los Angeles with whom I hung-out for a while. He ended-up showing me photographs he had taken from Musee D’Orsay. There is a big collection of impressionist paintings there so I decided to go visit it.
The following morning I went straight there. After paying the entrance fee, I headed towards the gallery rooms but I was quickly stopped by a security guard who pointed at a sign on the wall which showed that there were no bags and cameras allowed. He then, pointed to the coat-check which was directly behind me.
I was confused but obeyed. I checked-in my bag and walked in constantly thinking about the photos I had seen taken inside the museum the day before. How did that guy take them?
I looked around and saw that some people did indeed have bags of all kinds from purses to small back-packs. I walked through a couple of rooms and saw “Etude de Vetheuil” and “Femme a l’ombrelle tournee vers la gauche”, (two of some of my favourite paintings) both by Claude Monet. Then, exiting the second room I saw a short, middle-aged man, with an enormous lens mounted on his camera positioning himself in front of a statue in order to get a good shot.
I suddenly saw red. I was furious. This man could take photographs and I could not? That was not going to happen. I headed right back to the coat check and asked for my bag.
“You are leaving already Sir?” asked one of the younger girls working there who recognized me.
“No, I am taking it inside with me”
A second worker jumped-in:
“We don’t allow bags inside.”
“There are many people with bags inside, what’s wrong with my bag?”
“Your bag is very big, Sir.”
Calling me “Sir” is something that annoys me quite badly and I am sure it added to my madness, bringing me close to the point of rage.
"Keep calm" I thought to myself. “Okay, fine. I will just take my camera, a notebook and a pen out and you can keep the bag.”
“Cameras are also not allowed inside.”
“What are you talking about? There are tons of people in there with all sorts of cameras, snapping pictures!?” My voice gradually got louder.
One of the girls working behind the counter produced my bag and I began searching for what I wanted to take inside with me. Then, I realized I had a serious audience forming around me, after-all I was in a famous museum in Paris, in the middle of the summer, packed with tourists. I also noticed two security guards eyeing me suspiciously from the side and out of nowhere I was approached by a man who said he was in charge (of what he was in charge I am not sure) and asked me what the problem was.
“Look, I was told I cannot take my bag and camera inside but I was already inside and I saw people with bags and all kinds of other people taking photographs, some with small digital cameras and some with big photo-journalist types of cameras. At this point I don’t care, I am taking my camera, a notebook and a pen.”
The man in charge began explaining to me that people can go in with smaller bags but my back-pack was too big. I cut him off because I was in no mood to listen to what he had to say:
“Again: I am taking this camera, this notebook and this pen and I am going inside,” I said while holding the items in my hand.
He said nothing so I threw my bag on their counter, turned around and went back inside the museum where nobody else complained about me taking photos or anything else for that matter. Bloody rules!
For many other reasons which I do not have time to explain here I have one sentence to describe Paris after my time there: “Nothing is simple in Paris.”
France was shocking in other ways too, from the detailed architecture which riddles every town and city to the weird rules on what you can eat when and with what, it all amazed me. There are soldiers with machine-guns in subways, at the airport and I saw a couple walking around right under the Eiffel Tower. If that is not the beginning of a police state in the making, I am not sure what is.
To use a public washroom costs thirty cents (or whatever they are there – I don’t remember). You can only buy cigarettes from tobacco stores which are not very common, but you can buy a beer almost anywhere and walk around Paris drinking it and nobody complains. All business stores close by five and streets look deserted. Strange stuff …
In the end I am not sure if France shocked me more than I shocked it but I am sure the feeling was mutual. It was certainly a good experience and whatever negative feelings I had at the beginning of my trip, diminished quite fast. Maybe we will see each other again.
I just posted a few photographs I took in Paris as I am still trying to make sense of the twenty-one rolls of fim I used while I was in France.The third last photograph posted of the soldier standing at Charles de Gaulle airport was taken while I had the camera on my lap because they told me I was not allowed to photograph them. Of course as soon as you tell me not to photograph something or someone I am going to do just that.
There are no soldiers walking around here in Toronto so seeing them all over the place there was disturbing.