We arrived at the lobby of the Quatier Latin hotel after 9 pm. The hotel manager was sat, feet propping up the desk, reading what, judging by the off-white colour of the pages, was something a little more intellectual than Le sport De Dimanche. He was dressed like a physics professor; wearing brown corduroys and a green knitted jumper. The hair on his head appeared to be demonstrating chaos theory.
The lobby resembled a contemporary library of Alexandria; bookshelves and pillars jostling for real estate. Reclining on a large three-seat sofa were three men – also dressed as physics professors – gazing intensely at their laptops as if the earth would stop rotating if they diverted their gaze for even a second. In the far corner of the room were two other gents, locked in a game of chess. I couldn’t help thinking that we’d booked into the French branch of the Diogenes Club.
I was playing the part of a concerned diabetic in need of his next meal; my snack supply was all but depleted. The hotel Professor handed out some forms for us to fill in, collected them once complete, marked them, and advised us of the best places to eat; which should not, he advised, be the restaurant at the end of the street – it is, in his words ‘Ugh, disgusting!’
We settled for a small cafe across the street where the lady serving us spoke good enough English for me to negotiate my way into a large cheese and ham Broschetta. One and a half coffees later, which did nothing, we headed back to our room for Morpheus to have his way with us in the land of dreams. I slept like a baby.
As badly as coffee and orange juice goes together in terms of taste, they provide the perfect kick-start to the day. Fed and stimulated we embarked on our first EVA to the Panthéon. The Panthéon was originally built as a church, until someone suggested storing their honorary dead countrymen there instead. Foucault’s pendulum swings at the centre of a vast, domed room. It is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who conceived it as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.
Surrounding the pendulum is a Greek-cross layout with paintings and large statues of exotic women with hefty cleavages. At the far corner is a door leading down to the crypt; we would be in good company down there: Victor Hugo, Louis Braille, Voltaire, Marie & Pierre Curie, and Alexander Dumas reside there. Placed on the stone tomb of Victor Hugo was a page torn out of a scrapbook with a carrot drawn on it – and the words, ‘Dear Mr. Hugo, here is a drawing of a carrot’.
At Saint Sulpice church – which has taken 100 years to build and still isn’t finished, I studied a map that was specifically designed to render what we were looking for virtually impossible to find. We were looking for Montparnasse Cemetery, but even the GPS on my phone was making every effort to ensure that we didn’t find it.
Walking for over half an hour and making several course corrections, our persistence was rewarded by the appearance a street sign. Montparnasse Cemetery is the eternal resting place for many of France’s intellectual and artistic elite. It is a tightly packed mass of tombs and graves; each trying to out-do the other. I was expecting, at one point, to see conservatories and a water feature – maybe even a shrubbery.
For Ceri’s Birthday we took a long stroll along the river Seine, en route to Les Invalides; the place of all things military and home to Napoleon’s tomb – among other decorated war heroes. On display at the War Museum were army uniforms dating as far back as the 13th Century. I was impressed by the large portraits on the walls; they were not protected by a glass frame – and all the better for it because I could get up close and admire the fine details of the brush strokes. Fuck laserjet, these were awesome.
After looking around the museum we entered Napoleons resting place. Situated in a large hall his grand sarcophagus sits prominently under the Les Invalides dome. Napoleon’s family, and several military officers who served under him, are also to be found nearby; a number of Generals, Admirals and Marshals are stored in the vault below – even in death there is a pecking order, with the little guy on top.
Continuing our tour, we learned that the Russian Première was visiting Paris. According to the news, the French Government was holding a sale on warships – buy one, sink one free. The busy main streets were lined with traffic wardens and armed police; sporting thick knee pads, bulletproof armour and guns that didn’t need a translator to relay their intentions. Every so often there would be a buzz of activity, the roads would clear, and a fleet of black cars with blacked-out windows would come speeding past – the cars were all Renaults, of course.
Top Gear once proved claims that a Renault Megane could collide with a wall at 30 mph without the driver sustaining a single scratch. When you see the way the French drive, you’ll understand why they are built tough: French motorists assume that red and green lights adjacent to black and white stripes painted on roads are just part of the Christmas décor, and that pedestrian walkways are simply the moped equivalent of a bus lane. French cars are designed in such a way that the horns need to sound in order for them move forward.
Alas, our short trip soon found its way to a speedy conclusion. Before we had time to say, ‘Sonne Lemitina’, we found ourselves homeward bound. On the train we were musically serenaded by a wealthy looking busker, towing a trolley of albums for sale. Everybody on the train ignored him; not because they didn’t want to make uncomfortable eye-contact with a needy busker, but because his music was shit.
Airport baggage handling is the frontier where time loses all ability to conform to the natural laws of the universe and grinds to a halt. After parting with our luggage we stopped for a bite to eat; I tried fish fried rice for what will be the only time and Ceri parted with a preposterous amount of Euros for no less than nine crisps; packed in a bag so big that it could have doubled as a braking parachute for an incoming Soyuz capsule.
After a long days travel back to Ebbw Vale, and with a few days leave left, we ventured into the countryside for long drives, bathed under the newly found sunshine; stopping for meals that were equally as exquisite than anything our pallets had encountered in Paris. To be honest, I was not fussed on the French Food – and I could have sold my pancreas for a cup of decent tea.
Someone recently expressed their dumbfounded snobbery at the idea of us going all the way to Paris and not appreciating the rich, culinary delights. It became apparent while sampling the rich, culinary delights that there are no rich, culinary delights to speak of; none that come within a whisker of what the Welsh countryside has to offer: Roast beef, Cottage Pie, Cumberland Pie – and all the other pies – Cawl; Pork and Cheese sauce with cream-garlic potatoes and cauliflower cheese. Afters like Sticky Toffee Pudding, Welsh Cakes, Apple Crumble, Rubarb and Custard, Bread and Butter Pudding. Fuck Gateaux and Truffles; fuck them with a rusty bent spoon.
The tea isn’t half bad, either.