An annoying drizzle shed a veil over the Eiffel Tower, although that didn’t seem to discourage the souvenir sellers below. The top floor was closed because of the windy weather (falling off the tower is slightly less romantic than standing on top of it), so that meant more tourists below. To avoid them, the trick is not to stand still which, if you want to take a decent picture, is quite difficult.
“Souvenir, sir? Look! An Eiffel Tower with a flashlight! Look! 5 euro only!”
“Hmmm…no I still prefer the real one, really.” I replied.
“Ok, ok. 3 euro!”
“No, no, really. I don’t want a model”
As a cargo of fresh money had just arrived (two fresh buses of Chinese tourists, still drowsy after their 10 hour flight to Europe), he sped off to bid them welcome to France, Paris and the European Monetary Union.
A few hundred meters upstream on the Seine riverbanks, i fled from the rain by entering the RER C station of Pont de l’Alma, the entrance concealed in a small park next to Jean Nouvel’s Quai de Branly museum.
Although RER C is one of the ‘newer’ transportation arteries of Paris, the look and feel of it are old, not to say..well..outdated. This might have something to do with the fact that a) it is infested with pigeons and b) it is under the care and daily operation of the French national railway company (yes, the people who brought you the shiny new TGV now bring you, straight in the heart of Paris, the pigeon-infested railway station. Now you know where the money didn’t go).
The stations look like a mix between the underground cavern lair of Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne and a standard bathroom from the Seventies. But I like the feel of it, really. The tracks are right under the riverside road, and most of the time you can see the Seine through the holes of the grates that are supposed to keep the pigeons out (someone made a calculation error there. Thàt, or pigeons were a lot larger and heavier in the seventies.)
The screens that announce the trains look as if they were borrowed from the Starship Enterprise, with bi-coloured displays in bright blue, that flash up in bright flashy green whenever there’s a delay or a similar shocking announcement (“The trains run ON TIME!!!” *Gasp*). These are the French Railways after all… But i like it. It’s like being catapulted back into time. Nothing has changed ever since the opening of the line. Signs point you to sights long forgotten and closed, and show you a glimpse of Paris 40 years ago, when this was new and shiny, and the fastest way to travel (it still is).
As for the trains…well..erm…they look…nostalgic. Double-deck trains with classy orange leather seats, a graffiti-tagged artistic interior and a touch of Eau de Decaying Rat perfume. Everything you need for your romantic trip along the main sights of Europe’s capital of Love, Light and Art (and Versailles, where one of the C branches ends).
The elderly couple (i estimated them in the early sixties) in front of me wasn’t enjoying the romantic scenery at all. They were looking at a map. From their accent I could deduce origins far south and a touch of kangaroo. If their English wasn’t obvious enough, the man’s yellow-green baseball cap that said “Go Australia” gave it away completely.
“Now then, we have to get off at Seen-Michell”
“No dear, i think it’s ‘Saint-Michel’, and we have to get off at Musée d’Orsay”
“That’s what I said, Seen-Michell’s, it’s right there on the map”
Intruiging as their conversation was, the way they were dressed was even more so. Under their long rain coats and their thick woolen scarfs, they must have worn 4 or 5 more layers of clothing, as they looked more like Michelin’s Bibendum man.
As the train pulled into Invalides station, a decision became rather urgent, as the next stop was Orsay. I was violently pulled from my observations (dead pigeon on the opposite tracks. 2 ‘o clock.) by a question in fluent Australo-french.
“Sorry sir, could you tell us where to get off for the Noter-Damn?”
I could have replied in Frenglish (‘not dze next stoppe, but dze one aftère’), but i chose to answer in English, and added
“Far from home?”
“Yeeesssir, all the way from Melbourne, Australia”. He added those last two words with the heaviest Australian accent I had ever heard, as if to stress the fact, in case i hadn’t noticed his baseball cap.
“My girl here ‘s from Australia (again, the accent) as well. We’ve come to France for a few days. Our plane home leaves tomorrow morning, so we thought we could enjoy a bit of the scenery until then.”
“So, what have you visited up ’till now?” I asked him, as the speaker announced a short delay due to an obstacle on the tracks (heavy pigeon, no doubt)
“The Marne trenches”
“I’m sorry, did you say…the trenches?”
“Yes. and the war graves”
“You see, our grandfathers fought the Great War, and died in the mud. We wanted to see how it was in those days with all the rain and the mud. They left Australia in summer to fight a war that wasn’t theirs in a country with quite a rotten climate indeed. Couldn’t imagine how it would have been so we chose the rainy season to come here and see it for ourselves. Nasty weather you’ve got here. Bloody cold.” And he pointed to his 5 layers of clothes.
The train had arrived at Saint-Michel. A wall of students and tourists waited outside to flood the train, from the cold platform into the overheated carriages.
“Well, gadday’ to you, mate! This is our stop then.”
“Have a safe trip home.” I replied.
“Oh..we’ll be back. Next year in December we’ll be back. We didn’t go to the place where they died, yet. It’s in Belgium. Passendale or something. Died there in December 1917. ”
As i stepped up the stairs towards the chaos of Boulevard Saint-Michel, i saw them arguing across the street, pointing on the map, looking for the shortest route to Ile de la Cité (just around the corner).
Unaware that thirteen months from now, where the poppies blow, they will probably find snow.