Backpacking 201-Paris

The first thing I see in Paris at  Du Nord station is a woman begging. I do not have the energy to notice if she could be East European or a generic looking French woman. I had boarded a train at 5.30am at King’s Cross Station and was too sleepy still. The second thing is what seems like a quarrel or argument between a passenger and those organising taxis for the new arrivals. This tall French African man, who was on my train and in the queue for taxis, suddenly gets out of the line and starts shouting Monsieur, Monsieur as he rushes towards the front of the queue. What followed was beyond my comprehension. Loud voices talking in French. Maybe it was just a normal conversation.  I mean we Indians and the Chinese gesture and talk loudly. Does that entail an argument? The third thing is the taxi ride through the streets of Paris. The shops are not yet open and it looks like Mahim the day after Novena at St Michael’s Church. My taxi driver changes lanes nonchalantly almost banging into a man on a scooter who then confronts him at the lights. C’est le Paree.

YHA offers a special package in Paris.  Two nights, three nights or four; free entry to various museums and a single ticket across all public transport. I have booked three nights at the Cite Des Sciences hostel. I reach the hostel at 9.30 the first morning and am told I cannot take my bag to my dormitory because the cleaners are in. I can only go there after 2pm. Yup in France the cleaning process goes on between 10am-2pm. So I go to the Louvre with two thailis – bags and leave my suitcase at reception.

I cannot add anything to what has already been said about the magnificence of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is mysterious and myth adds to the mystery. She is just a tad too pale. The sculptures, the paintings, Napoleon’s apartment…it can all get crazy. I did not see it all and I would not recommend seeing it all in one day either.

When in Paris visit the Eiffel Tower. That is taken for granted. One evening I stand in a long line forced to listen to two yakkety American women go on and on about Parisienne women and their elegance. I thought the women in London dressed better than those in Paris. Quirky, individualistic fashion rather than enslaved to haute couture. It is always fascinating to listen to other people talk and on my way down from the top I try to understand what the Italian women are gossiping about. The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is priceless (or 12 Euro).  My YHA package gives me free entry to Arc de Triomphe and a ride on the Seine.

My hostel is in a suburb called Hoche. It could be a busy suburb in Egypt/Morocco/any North African/Middle Eastern country instead of Paris. Very multicultural and full of different hues of brown skin. This is not the Paris sold to the world. This is the Paris that France has ignored. It is like these people live in France but are not French and the French do not want to acknowledge anything that is ‘not French’, whatever that means. The world is sold the myth of old Paree but that is a lie. On my first evening in Paris I travel to ‘China Town’ of which a Chinese student on the subway has told me about. There is none of buzz of Chintown in London or Melbourne and actually not even on the Paris map. The few ‘Chinese’ restaurants are run by Vietnamese. It takes me a while to figure out why Vietnamese. Because Vietnam was a French colony! D-uh! Back in town a bunch of French-African krumpers and poppers pump up the jam on the street. We never get to see these cultural titbits as ‘French’ do we?

But then I am in Paris because it a romantic city so I am not disappointed when I visit Montmartre. It is quintessential France. Just out of Abbesses station are cobbled streets, beautiful houses, cafes and old American gentlemen playing jazz music. I have a chat with one of the jazz players. Richard Miller plays the cornet and does the vocals for his band. He is a well travelled man and ‘too old to ask you out’, he says to me. Up the hill is the Basilica, the permanent Dali exhibition and streets to wander in. As I finally feel ‘paisa vasool‘ (got my money’s worth) I hear snatches of an old Hindi film song. It is surreal.  ‘Itni Shakti Hume Dena Data‘ from the film Ankush (1986) playing in a French Cafe. Curious, I hang around and have dinner. The French owner/manager downloaded it on his i-pod because he liked the song. We have a conversation about Hindi films and I recommend a few. If there is a place in Paris I want to live then it is Montmartre. I am snobbish that way. No ghettoes for me, thank you.

The Paris subways are different from the London Underground. The trains bounce,  creak and squeak as they turn around bends as if they could derail anytime. The stations are quite beautiful though and have artwork all over them. From the tiles to the paintings…Abbesses station has stunning paintings all round the stairwell. These subways are the place to see the people of Paris, I reckon. All colours except white. There are many Bangladeshis around. The first one I talk to is selling roses to commuters. I ask in English ‘Are you from South Asia?’. He does not understand. So I ask in Hindi, ‘India se hai?‘ He says ‘Haan’, yes. Kidhar se, I ask. Where from? Bangal se, he says. From Bengal.  Something about his accent makes me suspicious. Bangladeshi, I ask. Yes, he says. Imagine a Bangladeshi going bonjour…bonsoir to passers-by. I can’t help but ask the man, legal hai ki illegal? The man glowers indignantly. Legal, he says. (Yeah right, I think.)

I cannot fathom how France considers itself a world power or anything of import on the world or even the European stage. If there is one thing to learn from the French then it is how not to deal with migrants, particularly coloured people. And of course Muslims. Just how Sarkozy is dealing with the hijab/burkha is to be noted. Then the other thing is the work force and labour. I go to the post office one day to get a stamp so I can send a postcard to my father. It takes more than an hour to get one and would have taken longer if I had not done the Indian thing of just breaking the queue. France was almost annihilated in the world wars (if my history is correct), stupidly tried to sink the Rainbow Warrior…Napolean was so long ago…sure there is the storming of the Bastille and concepts like liberty etc. There were Foucault, Lefebvre and other thinkers…but what about the world now? France is a permanent member of the U.N Security Council but cannot deal with its own people who are ‘not French’. It does not gel. I mean no country has got it completely right and democracy comes with problems but they cannot be hidden under the garb of sophisticated ‘Frenchness’ ya? Maybe I am plain stupid and don’t understand complex world issues. Still, I would love to visit France again. Maybe I will see something new?

The Algerian, who runs the internet cafe down the road, and I have interesting conversations in my broken French whenever I go down there. He wants to know where I am from. Je suis Indian, je ne parle pas francais je parle l’anglais. But I am from New Zealand. People get confused. So far on my entire trip, I have been mistaken for a generic South American to Mexican and Maori-only because I said I am from New Zealand. Never Indian.  I don’t mind at all. It reiterates my deepest thoughts to me-that I can live anywhere in the world and do anything I want.  People are people and you are bound to find like-minded souls in this universe. So it will be in Berlin.

Backpacking 201-London

My flight from Shanghai to London was via Frankfurt. Michael Field, journalist and very-travelled man advised me that the route went over the Gobi Desert so I should ask for a window seat. And sure enough it was a spectacular sight from many miles high in the air.  Lots of red land rolling on endlessly. The rest of the journey was quiet. There was no in-flight entertainment and the red haired, unshaven Chinese girl next to me refused to talk either in English or in Chinese. She kept drinking the black, sweetened, aerated water available in red cans and then complained of a headache. It was okay though. Pudong airport had been a bit of an ordeal. I thought Indians were bad with standing in line, talking loudly and trying to get to the front. Wrong. There were these hep looking Chinese dames with lots of stuff constantly manoeuvring to get in front of me and I kept blocking them. Then of course my new suitcase was overweight so I had to transfer stuff into my new dotted handbag bought in anticipation of exactly this. After all that, when the bag went through the x-ray machine the women behind them summoned me and a whole lot of other passengers to figure out what the suspicious looking bottles were. Of course one will pack large toiletries in a suitcase ya? Talk about being overzealous! So I preferred the quiet time.

London has a contagious buzz and energy about it.  Non-stop motion and a lot happening at the same time with potential for more. I can see why for some people it is the centre of the universe. Culture and heritage confront you at every corner. Whether it was obtained from colonial plunders or from before is immaterial. It is the preservation of it all that is worthy of respect. The museums and the art galleries are proud institutions that allow much interaction with their customers, the public. It is impossible to see everything even in fifteen days and that was not my plan anyway. An important aspect of this journey/holiday is to figure out my place and space in this world. That of course did not stop me from doing the most touristy thing of visiting Madame Tussauds.  It is a glitzy, kitschy artificial atmosphere not to be taken seriously at all.

I stayed with friends in the City. Marylebone Road. Went running ever so often at Regent´s Park which was just behind the house. Baker Street was the Underground station I prefered to commute from. The same Baker Street where Sherlock Holmes resided. The first day I walked down the street it took me time to realise it was the Baker Street. The eureka moment passed and my cerebrum started eliminating numbers…where did Sherlock live? 55? 66? How could there not be any memorial or a statue…? Then I discovered it. 221B Baker Street that is now home to the Sherlock Holmes museum. Du-h!

So apart from the energy and the unbearable heat in the Underground, the next thing about London that hits you is the multiculturalism. It is everywhere and it is beautiful. It is more than a melting pot or `salad´. It is individuality and collective expression of something new. I guess I cannot express it in a more articulate fashion but for New Zealand to be anywhere at that level it needs to get out of the PC mediocre rut. (But more on that in another blog.) Of course this multiculturalism is not without problems. When you see black kids cycling late at night in Hounslow you can sense something is wrong. Or the amount of discussion on domestic violence means that there is a lot of it hidden too. There are ethnic gangs and other forms of dissatisfaction and disenfrachisement expressed by minorities that one would not want to see in New Zealand. Yet the creative explosion is quite something else. Something New Zealand ´ethnic  sector´ bureaucrats need to take note of and understand.

One day I visited Whitechapel to meet my friend who works at the Royal London Hospital. It was like being on the streets of Crawford Market/Bhendi Bazaar/Masjid in Bombay/Mumbai with the stalls and Bangladeshi readymade dress shops selling salwar kurtas, sarees and prayer clothes. I spotted the Imraan Travel Company And Money Transporter, there were restaurants selling ´Indian´ food and women in full black burkhas wandering around with kids in tow. Yet somewhere in the mix was a biergarten and people of all cultures and ethnicities comfortably hanging out. Brick Lane is very much part of the suburb although I did not visit.  There is a famous art gallery in there too. Once upon a time Whitechapel was a Jewish suburb. There still are quite a few Jewish families living there.  A Kiwi friend, who is actually a Briton of Indian origin, suggested I visit Southall too if only to see how waves of migrants move in and move out and leave remnants of their existence. These remnants are not destroyed but built upon and preserved to tell the story of that place. Apparently there aren´t that many Indians living in Southall anymore but more Africans and people from the middle east. I could not visit Southall.

London Chinatown is bang in the middle of the city. Gerrard St. Of course I passed through. It is a very commercial area and I was pleasantly surpised that it smelled like….well….China. And there was so many Chinese of course. Restaurants that look straight out of Kowloon and typical shops selling Chinese looking things. I discovered a Sikh behind a shop counter. Intigued, I went into the shop to ask him if owned the shop. He did! But I think he was embarrassed by my directness and curiousity and said no more. A Sikh selling little cheong-sams and other Chinese trinkets? It amused me and amazed me for the rest of the day. Imagine that! A business opportunity knows no ethnicity and colour eh? My brother-in-law had Chinese student waiters working in his Indian restaurant in Auckland and that was as far as I saw cross-cultural employment in niche ´culture´ business sectors. I like. I suppose next I could be selling sauerkraut in Berlin ya?

London can get addicting. Particularly the shopping. All Londoners are so well dressed-not fancy designer stuff but just putting together an ensemble that looks attractive and quirky that I am inspired. I am going to make an effort. And all the shopping helped. Perhaps I helped the economy along Oxford St. Topshop is quite the tops too.

I loved London. I shall visit again-for work, to shop and to just be at the centre of the universe.