Paris; Colours, Urine and Tourists

July 23, 2010 Paris by Steve Martin Edit

Colours:

Paris is grey & I don’t mean the sky. I mean the city itself. Standing on the top of the steps in the early morning light at Sacre Coeur the view of the city is clear and crisp. The stone used to build many of the old buildings is a creamy grey and when viewed from the top of the hill, with the intense density of four and five story buildings sitting higher than the street trees, you can see almost un-interrupted grey

This is not a criticism. Grey is just the colour of the place. London for example has more trees poking through and a mixture of stone and brick. Edinburgh is a deep grey thanks to the local stone. Paris is light creamy grey with a chocolate pink tower as the centre piece.

I have come to Paris for three days on my own. Jo did the same the week before and loved it intensely. She has pushed me to do the same before we are all tighter again stuck in the caravan.

If you have only ever been to an Australian city it’s very hard to imagine the size and scale of a place like Paris. The buildings are mostly 4-5 stories, but they stand shoulder to shoulder. The surface area of the Melbourne CBD is miniscule compared to a place like this. Paris is, and feels, 10 or 20 times larger than Melbourne or Sydney. Brisbane is a country town in comparison and Ballarat a mere village.

Almost everyone lives in apartments which also means they congregate on the streets and in the cafe’s and in the bars for their socialising. The city is just alive with people standing, talking, drinking or smoking. Every corner has a restaurant. Every street a Bar/Tabac. Every community has so many cafe’s it’s hard to keep track. The colours on the street are very different to the view from the hill.

Set amongst all this are the tourist sites like The Eiffel Tower, the Arc De Triumph, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur and the Hotel Des Invalides. [these are just some of the ones I visited, there are dozens more!] All these things bring on gasps or nervous twitches in the average tourist, but the locals walk by unconcerned. These places are almost part of the furniture.

Urine:

I noticed it first at the basilica. Standing at my vantage point against the railing all I could smell was stale pee. So I moved. The next spot also smelt.... plus when I looked I could see the stains. When a looked around a little more, I noticed there were also beer bottle tops and wrappers from chip packets and the like. It seemed this may be a local spot to hang out.

After that I started to notice wee smells everywhere. Each good vantage point where the view is good had the same familiar smell along with some evidence of food and drink. Each spot on the street where you could get out of the flow of foot traffic to check a map came with the odour of stale piss

The smell is even in the grass around the Eiffel Tower. Jo noticed it first when we were looking for a picnic spot. We ended up opting for a bench in the Champ Du Mars rather than risk the grass.

Thankfully the Parisian legend of streets littered with dog poo is no longer applicable. They appear to have replaced that with urine smells and stains. [it’s ONLY in Paris... nowhere else smells like wee!]

Tourists:

They are everywhere. We, of course are not tourists, we’re travellers. We are not in this country for a few paltry days. We are here for months to soak up the city and the local culture and to get away from tourists. Well it seems like I’ve come to the wrong spot for that.

Walking the streets of Paris every accent is on show at some point or another. I’ve heard Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, English and some dialects I just can’t work out.... most of those I assume to be Scandinavian.

I’ve heard English in all its forms especially Australian. “Is that a bus stop?” the wife questioned. “ Nah.... bus lane, mate!” replied the husband. The lovely nasal twang is music to my ears. As for other English speakers, Americans are loudest, the Welsh the most emphatic, and the English seem to like whispering in case anyone is listening.

At one point in while exploring the Military museum at the Hotel des Invalides a man walks in front of me and says, just before he passes, “Pardon”, rather than “Excuse moi”. I can tell he’s a foreigner by the way he’s dressed. He’s wearing the sort of shirt, shorts and hat that ageing Australian rock musician seem to favour and I’m guessing he’s a fellow countryman. It’s all confirmed when he speaks softly to his female companion. There it is! The gentle twang! He’s as Aussie as I am and so is his partner.

A short time later while looking at Napoleon’s favourite horse, the same Australian couple approach again. The horse is preserved in a glass case and is clearly showing its age. The couple haven’t heard me speak yet because I’m alone, and because the sanctity of the museum doesn’t exactly encourage me to strike up pleasant conversations with passers-by. So I wait and look at the horse in the glass case.

When the couple are standing beside me I quietly turn to them, smile, and say in my best strine “She’s not quite Phar Lap!” The look of surprise at my accent and the light laugh it gets is worth it. They understand the joke when just about no-one else in the museum would. I spoke not another word to them. I just quietly slipped away and went off the see the rest of the exhibits in amongst the tourists.