The light at the end of a 9 and a half hour journey

Yesterday, the crew from the 6th trip to Chateau Duffy returned from a week of fun, food and a lot of work. In a moment, I’m off to see how much of my ‘tan’ is left once I’ve had a thoroughly good shower, but first, I’m going to revel in the memories of what I was doing exactly 8 days ago.

Given that the dates for the trip were fixed in late 2013, it’s pretty ridiculous that I ended up delaying my flight booking until the only flight to Limoges on the 26th was fully booked! An alternative route to the Chateau was required – Eurostar was full too (curse school holidays) but as long as I could get myself to Paris I could join a car convoy heading south. And thus, I found myself at Victoria Coach Station on a Friday evening, ready to board a 9 and a half hour coach journey to the French capital. Nine and a half hours. Overnight. On a coach (and a ferry). Not at all my kind of transport! [Incidentally, when you start telling people that you’re planning on taking this trip, everyone will turn out to have their own horror story of the one time they did it. No one, it appears, does it more than once!]

In all honesty, it was fine. Aside from the couple in front of me who snogged consistently throughout the journey, except when they were asleep – at which point they both fully reclined their seats squashing me into a teeny-tiny space. And aside from having to get onto a ferry at 1am. And aside from it being a flipping long time. But all was forgotten when we pulled into the coach park at Port Malliot. I woke up (three and a half hours of sleep, that’s a win) just as we slowed down and caught a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe out of my window. Immediately, all plans of heading straight to where my friends were staying (and waking them up in the process) were shelved, and instead, I had a overwhelming desire to see as much of Paris as I could, in the few hours I had available to me.

Arc de Triomphe

Paris at 7am on a Saturday morning is a very quiet place. The only people I saw were through the windows of boulangeries and a long line at the Algerian embassy. It was a massive contrast to my first trip to the city three years before, when hoards of tourists ploughed through the streets, taking all the obligatory photos. I walked towards the Arch, arriving at 7am to a sight that very few tourists have photographed:

Triomphe, desertedNo people. No cars. Only pigeons. 

A fifteen minute walk down one of the roads off the circle stood the Eiffel Tower (well, the park across the river from it – but it was the view I wanted). A few more people were around by this point, but mostly the ever-present Parisian hawkers and just a few bleary eyed tourists. This is clearly when they take the postcard photos.

Eiffel reflected

I was on a roll. I checked a map to see what else I could hit before needing to rendez-vous at Gare du Nord and figured that a walk along the Seine at 7.30am would be a good way to spend an hour. Would it matter that I was still towing my suitcase along? No. This was too good an opportunity to miss. After all, I just spent the night in a cramped coach seat, and was about to take a 4 hour drive, so the leg stretching was definitely needed.

IMG_7249

Musee d'Orsay

Louvre

One of my favourite spots in Paris is the area around Notre Dame, but I was aware from my map reading that this was a long way from where I’d begun my riverside stroll. (I’ve just checked, it’s 3 miles – and I’d already walked 2 to get there.) However, when I’ve got a target in mind, I’m a determined individual, so despite the 14kg case and the sleep deprivation, onwards I went!

A glimpse of Notre Dame

Shakespeare & CoOnly disadvantage of it still being pre-10am was that this fabulous place was still shut.

It’s unsurprising that by the time I decided I should catch the Metro and find my friends I was rather over-tired and unable to make sense of Parisian transport and its weekend engineering works. But, being Paris, there was an attractive French man who came to my aid not once but twice (well, the first time he managed to point me towards a closed station, so it was only fair that he rescue me again) – even carrying my bag down to the platform and engaging me in London-based conversation until we reached his stop. Paris, you were an excellent place to be that morning!

So, the moral is this. (There is a moral, this wasn’t simply an excuse to drop a ton of holiday photos on you.) Get up early. Get out and walk around. See the touristy sights, but do it when the regular tourists are still sleeping or just sinking their teeth into a glorious croissant. You don’t need to get an overnight bus to do it (you really, really do not) but just make the effort, you really will be rewarded. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt from my years of occasionally walking across London first thing in the morning – you see things in a new, cleaner way and the light is so much better. Plus, you’ll feel slightly smug for the rest of the day.

Actually, I’ll be feeling slightly smug for quite some time – I’ll be keeping that Arc de Triomphe photo on my phone for ages, just to prove that I was there when no one else was!

Showing off London

When one has lived in one of the world’s most fabulous cities [not biased at all] for most of one’s life, its wonder can begin to fade and immunity to its charms grows. The best way to combat London fatigue is always to introduce it to someone with fresh eyes.

This week two Texans are visiting London (and the Matryoshka Haus community) with a view to moving here permanently at some point in the near future. We met them first during last year’s trip to France and it was great to reconnect on home ground – especially as they’ve never visited the UK before.

They arrived first thing Sunday morning (via a rigorous, on-plane, police search – welcome to London people!) and were immediately whisked off to Columbia Road in the heart of trendy Shoreditch for a community picnic. Succumbing to jet-lag wasn’t an option – the evening was spent introducing them to the eccentricities of the Brick Lane curry haggling process. All in all, it was a unconventional introduction to London, but typical of the things we as a group get up to.

I made up for it on Monday morning. What American, when in London for the first time, doesn’t have a tick list of tourist sites they secretly want to see? Red phone boxes, Big Ben, soldiers in furry hats, the Queen…I was fairly sure I could deliver on all but the last, even if it did require me to push aside my loathing of large gatherings of tourists.

We had just over an hour and in that time hit Big Ben (well, the tower as opposed to the bell and yes, that was one of the many ‘interesting’ facts I shared during my tour); Horse Guards; Downing Street; Westminster Abbey; Houses of Parliament; and the London Eye. Oh, and as a bonus, I took them to the best vantage point to get a glimpse of Buckingham Palace (the bridge over the pond in St James’ Park). We didn’t see the Queen, but I think that was a pretty thorough job in a short space of time.

Ok, I confess, I’m responsible for cropping Westminster Abbey. In my defence, taking photos with an iPad is very tricky…

What I forget, or become too accustomed to, is just how amazing the city is to people visiting for the first time. Simple things that we take for granted – like seriously old, beautiful buildings – are awe inspiring. Usually I’d cringe at taking photos of soldiers in furry hats, but when it brings joy to visitors, it would be wrong to be churlish! The exclamations heard when Tower Bridge was glimpsed while on a bus later in the afternoon would warm anyone’s heart. I must never forget just how lucky I am to live here.

As an aside, though I know many useless snippets of London information, it seems I’m lacking in some basic historical facts – like when Westminster Abbey was built. Clearly I need to buy a guide book and swallow it whole, then perhaps I could offer professional tours of the capital. All I’d need is a colourful umbrella…

Encounters of the random kind

I seem to attract odd people, or at least odd situations – there was the woman who whacked me at Oxford Circus, and the incident of the naked women on the toilet with the door open at the gym, to name but two.

In the last couple of weeks there appears to have been a sudden prevalence of these encounters, in fact the three chronicled below all happened in the space of 24 hours. I wonder whether I have some beacon on my head that attracts such things…

1. The tourist photo shoot
In the defence of these total strangers, we were in Hyde Park, there was snow on the ground and the sun was starting to set – all those things combine to produce a near perfect photo opportunity. A man stopped me as I trudged through the snowy fields (deliberately ignoring the dry path – who wouldn’t want to tramp on snow?) and asked in broken English if I’d take a photo of him and his friend. Once I’d realised he wasn’t trying to mug me (ever a typical Londoner) I was happy to, and took a couple. So far, not so weird…

…Then the guy stood next to me and indicated to his friend that he should take a photo of the two of us. I’m wondering if it was the presence of the matching purple ski-jacket/purple wellies combo that attracted him? Anyway, for some reason, two guys are going to be returning from their London jaunt with an odd photo of a purple girl standing in the snow.

2. The French school boys
Firstly, this took place less than half an hour after the photo-shoot. Secondly, it also involved tourists (the bane of the Londoners life – particularly mine, as I appear to be the perfect person to ask for directions). Outside Hyde Park, two French teenagers approached me with matchsticks. Being a cynical Londoner, I was expecting a scam  – what I ended up with was my participation in an English conversation class. Apparently the boys’ teacher had challenged them to approach total strangers and engage them in conversation about matchsticks. I guess that’s one way of forcing them to use their English vocab – when we visited France as school girls we simply practised by going to boulangeries and buying croissants (or, if we were feeling adventurous, pain au chocolat). Anyway, I did not accept their offer of buying matchsticks for 15p.

3. The woman in the steam room
The first rule of steam rooms (and saunas) is that YOU DO NOT TALK TO STRANGERS IN THEM! Seriously, why are people unaware of this fact?? The only time I’ve ever chatted in a steam room was when my friend Claire and I had a mini-spa day and basically chatted our way around the venue – but we were not strangers and there was no one else there to disturb. This doesn’t stop certain people though, a while ago I had the very uncomfortable experience of watching a woman try to flirt with a guy in the sauna, she really didn’t know when to give up.

Relaxing in the steam room after a swim, I replied politely when a woman asked me if I’d had a good swim – but this encouraged her. On asked whether I just swam or counted lengths, I replied that I’d just swum 50, which elicited an exclamation of “But darling! That’s phenomenal!” [It really isn’t, it’s not an Olympic sized pool.] Silent, apart from a brief “thanks”, seemed to suggest to her that I wasn’t up for chatting. However, once out of the room and gathering my things together, we got into a conversation about the water temperature versus the outside temperature (and the ridiculousness of the gym to have a hose blasting cold water into a warm pool during sub-zero daytime temperatures). For some reason she took it upon herself to emphasise that I must make sure I dried my hair properly before I left – to which I replied that I’d made that mistake once, but never again. “But darling! You could have died!!” That could be a slight exaggeration…

Needless to say, I find total strangers referring to me as ‘darling’ very bizarre.

Baker Street spelling fail

In case you’re unaware of the glaring error in this notice, it should read ‘Madame Tussauds’.
Honestly, you only have to stick your head out of the station or read one of the many tourists’ carrier bags to check the spelling…pure laziness.

Can I take this opportunity to have a rant about the aforementioned tourist attraction? [Actually, like I need to ask your permission – it’s my blog, I’ll rant about what the heck I want to rant about!] I find it intensely annoying that it draws so many tourists to the station and locality that I have to travel to six days a week. (At least – last week I managed an eight day consecutive stretch of using Baker Street station. In fact, it would’ve been 13 had I not been off sick at the start of this week.) Why do so many people feel the compulsion to look at wax models of celebrities? It’s baffling.

Tourists don’t get tube etiquette – like standing on the right on the escalators. It’s ok though, because as I walk down them, I call out “excuse me” loudly so anyone can understand my meaning. [That’s using the British rule of not attempting to use any other language, simply increasing the volume of my speech.]

Tourists also like to take photos of the Sherlock Holmes statue outside the station. There’s not a lot of space on that particular walkway and I don’t have time first thing in the morning to pause and wait for photos to be taken. As a result, there are probably photos all over the world of me passing through shots of the man in the Deerstalker.

Actually, it’s not just a space thing – if I’m using that exit (rather than the one on my office’s side of the road) in means I’m in a lazy mood as it involves two escalators instead of one escalator and three flights of stairs. Thus, I’m even less inclined to make concessions. In fact, if I’m on a rant, I’d like to complain that for three weeks of July I was forced to use this exit because of engineering work, meaning I had to put up with it out of necessity, not choice.

Urgh. Apologies. Rant over….for now.

The only good thing about Madame Tussauds is that its café is a Café Nero which is open to the public. I can get to its counter and back to my desk in about 10 minutes which is incredibly handy for a mid-afternoon Chai Latte pick me up. It’s just slightly disconcerting that in doing so, I have to pass a fake Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. Oh, and the queue comes in handy from time to time.

I’m writing this the night before I potentially go back to work after the aforementioned sick days. As I type, the thought of the morning’s angst-ridden commute is definitely making me feel unwell again. Hmph.

Post-Edit: I came to work. Baker Street was hell. 

Monumental

I love having friends in town – it gives me the excuse to be a little bit of a tourist, or at the very least show-off some of my favourite parts of the city that I love.

Yesterday’s guests (and today’s too – we’re meeting for breakfast in Covent Garden shortly) consisted of Ian (veteran Anglophile and lover of London) and his boyfriend (on his first trip outside of the Americas). We took the opportunity to show off the river on a fairly lovely Sunday afternoon. In the end, Ian ended up taking me somewhere I’d never been before – the Monument.

To be precise, that would be the Monument to the Great Fire of London on Pudding Lane. This was where the great fire began in 1666 – if you’d like a useful way to remember this historic fact, how about this rhyme:
In sixteen hundred and sixty-six, London burned like rotten sticks.
Who said history couldn’t be cute?

Somehow I’d never visited this landmark. I’ve got a vague memory that my sister went once, but I definitely hadn’t. Ian’s impulsive idea to visit was a total gem. For a London attraction it’s ridiculously cheap (£3), though, having said that, it does involve climbing up 311 steps, so you do most of the hard work yourself. The views from the top are great – a 360 degree panorama taking in Tower Bridge, St Pauls, Tate Modern, the Tower of London, Parliament… All for a lot less than the Eye would cost you. The workout is an added bonus, as is the certificate you get upon departure. I’m still a sucker for a good certificate!

Friends, be prepared, on future trips to the Big Smoke I may insist on going up there, but it’s totally worth it. Strangers, if you’re in London, check it out. The Tower of London is just down river and is a total tourist trap (& costs £17!), the Monument is a beautiful contrast. Yes, there are tourists, but not anywhere on the same level.

Oh, and here’s the photographic evidence:

Looking back down from the 311th step
A bit of a view
In 8 years of friendship, possibly the first photo of me & Ian together! 
Looking back up
The Monument