Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Diary of a Wide-eyed Traveller (the end)

Apologies for the long delay in bringing you the concluding part of my travel diary. I was desperately hoping I could retrieve some of the pictures I took from my moribund phone - oh well. If this feels a bit rushed, it is because I wanted to honour my promise to give you the full Monty. Enjoy.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

I climbed the rising pavement, inching closer to the steeple of the Notre Dame cathedral. Out on the pavements, people were seated drinking their glasses of beer, chatting and eating pastries.

It was a relaxed but lively atmosphere. People poured out of shops, wandered across the streets, tourists pulled out their maps, and cars zoomed past impatiently.
It took me about ten minutes to reach the cathedral. It was breathtaking: an intricately-designed, gothic-style artifact. I walked round the cathedral, taking in the details. I could see people walking around the roof, but I wasn’t about to dig deep into my pockets (I later on discovered – much too late - that entry was free).

There was a park beside the cathedral that had a very romantic feel about it. I went in and sank onto a bench. I let the sublime feeling of divinity permeate my being. I loved the blend of nature - trees provided shade, pigeons darted their thick necks back and forth, pecking at leftovers on the ground; a busker provided soulful tunes from his guitar. Voices rose gently with the sweeping wind. The bells of the Notre Dame chimed sweetly.

A hymn came to mind:

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful

The Lord God made them all

I couldn’t sit for long because there was so much to explore. Behind the Notre Dame, there was a bridge stretching across the river Seine. The river Seine! Finally I would get to see it. At first sight, the river wasn’t what I hoped it would be. The water was green and murky. It took a while for its beauty to grow on me. When it did, I fall in love with the river. I watched boats teeming with tourists sail past. They waved at those of us standing at the bridge and river bank, and some of us waved back.

It also occurred to me how much faith people have in nature. The rails of the bridge were covered in love padlocks. Even while I stood, lovers were still coming to attach padlocks to the rails. I later checked it up online and found out they were called love locks. It is in fact an old tradition where sweethearts fix a padlock to a fence and throw away the keys to symbolise their everlasting love. Hmm…don’t know if that’s enough to cut the deal, though.



Nearby there was a free music festival taking place. There was a boy band on stage, and they were operating on an energetic high. They bounced in the air and leapt around the stage like helium balloons. The rap poured out profusely. Sounded good. I hung around for a while with the teeming crowd. The area was populated with high street shops, cafes and smaller shops. Locating a supermarket wasn’t an easy task for some mysterious reason.

In the supermarket, I picked up a bottle of apple juice and a jambon emmental sandwich – still haven’t bothered to find out what it translates to.

Shopping at the supermarket was always a low point. Regardless of how little or how much I bought, each time the cashier punched in the figures, the final bill hit me hard in the pocket.

Still, it didn’t stop me from picking up a few souvenirs from a tourist shop.

I ate my sandwich by the River Seine. It had been a truly glorious experience. My watch was showing 9.45pm. Time to head back to the hotel.

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Day 3

I am lying on the grass, imbibing the atmosphere. Children are happily running around me; chasing one another; before me is a towering steel structure that looks less romantic than the movies would suggest. I’m right in front of the Eiffel tower or tour de Eiffel. All the same, it is an impressive tower of steel. People are ascending and descending. The queue to climb to the top of the tower is one of the longest I have ever witnessed. Would have loved to climb to the top, but there was no way I was going to put myself through the torture of queuing for hours on end.

The tower didn’t really strike a chord with me for some reason.

One sight that did strike a discordant chord was seeing some African immigrants, who were selling souvenirs illegally, dashing across the road at break neck speed. Hot on their trail was a Peugeot 307, painted in the national colours, blue, red and white. The words ‘Police Nationale’ were crested on the vehicle. In a dramatic James-bond style, the vehicle swung across the road in a semi-circle, nearly mowing down the men. I could tell it was something they were used to because their faces were full of smiles as they did a Usain Bolt getaway. Was such a pathetic sight.

After the Eiffel tower, I turned my sights to Jardin du Luxembourg – the Luxembourg garden. I had read a lot about it online during my preliminary research, and could not wait to experience its delights. There were other places of interest within close proximity – the Tracadero museum in particular – but two Parisians had expressly told me that it was rubbish; a museum of architecture that would bore anyone silly. Not for me then.

I asked for directions to the Luxembourg garden from two friendly Asian men. So far I had not encountered the famous French hostility. I was very mindful of starting my sentences with ‘Bonjour’ and falling back on ‘parlez-vous Anglaise?’ – ‘Do you speak English’, if needed. It worked – like magic.

The men pointed me to a bus stop. It was just ten minutes away, they told me.

It was nice to experience travel by bus. I had been taking the train, or “metro”, all this while, which I quite enjoyed. There were always spontaneous performances by buskers. There were some good singers too. My favourite was a man singing the Cuban song ‘Guan Tana mera’. He gave such a romantic rendition. I so loved it. There were also the odd beggars shoving their hands in passengers’ faces.

The atmosphere in Luxembourg garden was priceless. It looked like a palace with a huge garden – romantic, Roman-type sculptures, fountains, a palatial building, a burst of bright-coloured flowers, towering trees lining the sidewalks, an amateur jazz band playing in the background, and people lounging on the chairs wearing the look of sheer indulgence and decadence.

Equally entertaining were the joggers circling the park. I had noticed a litany of joggers in the botanical garden too. The French sure loved their figures, I must say. The joggers had subterranean supplies of energy – my word, they circled the park until their chic jogging outfits were bathed in sweat, yet they kept jogging, or should I say running. One particular runner comes to mind – she was at least six foot tall. She was lean – there was no single pound of extra flesh on her – yet she ran round the park like a horse. I mean she ‘hop-jogged’ lifting her knees waist high – trotting like a horse – and she went over and over and over. There was no stopping her – she was on probably remote controlled! Why was she doing all of that was beyond me.

I had clocked up so many visits in such a short space of time, that I quickly developed tourist-fatigue syndrome – ha ha ha ha. I took some time off getting the lines mixed up on the metro, asking for directions, looking for eateries, locating tourist sites and so on. Had a full lazy morning/noon twiddling my toes, flipping channels & simply letting my hair down.

That couldn’t go on forever. I took up my tourist map again: musee d’orsay – museum of Orsay – was yet to be explored, plus the very famous Louvre museum as well. I just wanted to visit the sites. I had read that the Louvre was overwhelmingly massive & could take a lifetime to explore. With patience being one of my weakest virtues, there was no way I would manage that.

This time around I decided to find my own way using the metro map; chose not ask for help/directions. It was a big mistake. Took me on a wild goose hunt, Israeli journey. I eventually backtracked to the station information desk. The male attendant showed me the correct route with an air of impatience. When I thanked him, ‘Merci beaucoup’, he replied: ‘Well done’…or was it ‘Welcome’? Don’t know why I was still figuring that out for a long time afterwards. Just one of those meaningless mental exercises.

Museum D’orsay did not disappoint. It was replete with the wow factor: the colossal edifice, variety of sculptures, paintings & atmosphere – wow! Wow! Wow!

One of the first sculptures I met as I stepped inside was a miniature size of the statue of liberty. Most of the descriptions were written in French. But I already knew the story behind it: it was France’s gift to the United States in 1889 during the celebration of their independence.

There were beautiful marble busts of African leaders draped in the traditional wear. All the African kings looked distinguished, proud and wealthy.

There were several ‘Jean Baptiste’ (John-the-baptist) sculptures. He was portrayed as a heroic figure, a saviour and deliverer. Saint Genevieve and Princess Mathilde also featured prominently. I had noticed both names even in the Luxembourg garden and other parts of the city.

The Louvre was within walking distance – oh.my.goodness!!!! I have never seen anything like it. The build was beyond massive, beyond colossal, beyond infinite. Gosh, I had never seen a museum that took up so much space and bricks! One Parisian I spoke with told me that it is the largest museum in the world. He said he used to visit when he was in primary school, and it would take an average of three months to go through the entirety of just one section of the museum. It was literally mind blowing.

I wandered off to the Jardin Tuilleries. Loved every bit of it. Was a similar structure to Luxembourg, but it was more of a park, bigger and even more beautiful. There was a fair taking place behind the scenes. It had the full Monty: carousel, bumper cars, chips, sausage, crepe, ice cream and much more. I loved every bit of it. It was certainly a touch of paradise.

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On Sunday morning I was really looking forward to worshipping at the Notre Dame cathedral. Unfortunately, I woke up at 9am British time, which was 10am French. There was no way I could make the service. So, I decided to visit the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) cathedral. It was a lovely sunny day and a perfect setting to amble through town, ice cream in one hand, and map in the other. I found the cathedral very easily. It was a fascinating piece of architecture in a breathtaking location. The mosque-like building sat on the crest of a hill, giving it a pilgrimage feel.

I climbed the loooong flight of stairs leading up to the cathedral, weaving past tourist sunbathing on the stairs and grass. At the top, there was a fantastic panorama of the city. It felt as if you were looking at the whole of paris at a glance – houses, rooftops, all visible from roof.

The interior of the cathedral was nondescript: it had the usual stained glass, high ornamented ceiling and effigies of the saints. But, it reminded me of how rich the Catholic Church is. The quality of architecture and d├ęcor was unfailingly stupendous.

Outside the church was a little village with snaking, cobbled paths & high, grass-covered walls and quaint-looking buildings. A long chu chu train car wound its way round Rue Saint Vincent and other streets, showing tourists the rustic sites. I opted for my Legedes Benz even though it cost my feet afterwards.

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I had just two days to go, and there was something I had not done at all – shop.

Champs Elysees offered a full dose of retail therapy. There were high street shops like Zara and high end fashion like Gucci. I also enjoyed the different car showrooms: Renault, Mercedes, Peugeot, Toyota and others.

I went through the shops; visited another landmark – Arc de triomphe – and finally settled for a bite in Starbucks.

On the last day, I revisited some of my favourite places like the botanical garden, the Notre Dame cathedral, took a walk by the river Seine. It had been a wonderful time, and I felt truly grateful for the experience. The weather in Paris had been pleasant all through, but I wasn’t sure what to expect in London. The British weather is ever unpredictable and largely miserable. But I was looking forward to living out a recurring fantasy: unwrapping sheets of grey paper; the smell of vinegar; fat greasy chips; battered cod; a dollop of ketchup and mayo. Freshly made orange juice to wash it down…

That was the fantasy at the fore of my mind as my no-frills Eurostar train pulled into St Pancras. I was thankful for five fabulous days in France, but I was also thankful to be reconnected with familiar sights, language and territory. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is.









7 comments:

  1. Thanks for the last post from the diary of a wide-eyed traveller. Your writing shows that there are indeed tourist attractions housed in France, but I liked it best of all because it indicates that such beauty can be appreciated by a young African lady and subsequently by people of all nations, tribes and cultures. Though even good things can become monotonous (that's why your coined adage 'tourist monotony syndrom' had me laughing). While I also miss not seeing your pictures, your writing showed that you enjoyed yourself and is a bit of encouragement to all of us to get out of our comfort zones, as we human beings are fond of doing. So you're right to have yearned for familiar territory towards the end. Eye openers in the form of travel adventures are equally important as they help us see beyond our inner circle of everyday life. Did any invetions or ideas come to your mind while travelling? Don't worry, I won't ask. But I have decided that I must take a trip somewhere in this second half of the year. So expect soon a 'response from a fellow traveller'.

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    1. Dlaw! Thanks a million for your detailed reply, as always. Any ideas? Not quite. Wanted to write a short story based in Paris but my inspiration tank was empty - lol. Yes, please take a trip somewhere; it's sooo worth it.

      Once again, thanks for your reply. It's comments like yours that makes writing worthwhile.

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  2. Hmmm the way you painted your fantastic trip to France and the way you describe the different landmarks makes me wonder why I have never been there - only 3 hours away!Thank you for such a poetic description of your travel.Here's a thought...I know you as a meticulous type,how the hell did you miss that entry to The Notre Dame Cathedral was free?

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  3. Will! Hehehehe. You make me laugh. I missed the entry because I was too eager to visit all the landmarks in one day. Lesson learned: it doesn't pay to be hasty!

    Thanks for your comment - it's highly appreciated.

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  4. Woooo this is fantastic and in fact a short story. Keep it up. For me language barrier will definitely be a negative for a visit to Paris unless I am in a group with a French speaker around. I hate it when I cannot communicate well in a language since I would like to chat with locals. However one lesson I learnt from your write up is this; next time I visits a foreign country I should keep a daily records of all the activities around me. Thanks Oluchi for CNN type of reporting.

    Regards,
    Prof - G

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  5. Thank you so much, Prof G. I'm glad you enjoyed the diary. It's so true. That was a downside for me - not being able to speak with the locals. Had a number of people trying to chat with me in French; was slightly frustrating there was no opportunity to get up close & personal with Parisians.

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  6. So it seems that a holiday isn't actually the best place to develope new language skills then? While in Munich I experienced the same thing as I usually resorted to English rather than German when stranded on the street and looking for directions. The truth is that at such times clear communication is what is of paramount importance. So maybe the english need to catch up a little with their European neighbours in being able to speak an alternative language on the streets of London? The duty to be multilateral it seems is placed (rightly in my opinion) on the host state rather than the visitor.

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