AS MUCH AS it disappoints me, the mystery of which I speak isn’t a Marple-style whodunit in the streets of Orleans, but rather something that came up one rainy lunchtime in the staffroom. I can’t remember how, but the word ‘chèvrefeuille’ (literally ‘goatsleaf’) came up in conversation and nobody – neither I nor the other English teachers – knew what its English translation was. Their attempts to describe to me a flower with drooping petals that looked like curled up bits of paper were no help. Eventually we managed to get onto the Internet and find out that it was ‘honeysuckle’, at which point I felt slightly peeved at my lack of knowledge of French horticultural terms.
Earlier this month a day trip to Fontainebleau was on the cards. The place is as pretty as it sounds, I can assure you. It is well-known amongst the French for its rambling forest, a favourite retreat for nearby Parisians, but its prime attraction is without doubt its chateau. The former country retreat of the French royal family and modern day World Heritage Site, the majestic manor is arguably one of France’s prettiest, grandest and most perfect. Its far-reaching gardens echo those of Versailles, but on a much more manageable scale and make the ideal place for a leisurely stroll in fading winter sunlight. Fontainebleau itself, although small, buzzes much more than most towns of its size; the streets are alive with markets and lazy al fresco coffee drinkers, even on Sundays. The only problem about Fontainebleau was getting there from Orleans. Because of the way the French rail network is laid out, a train to Fontainebleau from takes near on seven hours (bizarre for a town which is little more than an hour away by car), so co-voiturage it was. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s a clever car sharing scheme where you enter your location and destination online and are shown a list of people driving to and from those places giving you a much more affordable option. Also, it’s actually a great chance to practise French from the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car, completely at their mercy and just a wrist flick away from being locked in the car and carted off to a boggy ditch near Reims and left there with your pockets empty and faith in humanity lost. I’m only joking, no such experiences have happened. I did, however, have to endure him getting a bit lost on the way back to Orleans, and a seat which I now know was definitely soaking wet after having suspected so as the journey went on.
Speaking of transport, I have come to realise that transport is perhaps the most defining element of a year abroad; I seem to have used every form of transport there is except camelback and hovercraft so far, including the tram. Fortunately I’ve never been to Blackpool (what an idea!), so before arriving in Orleans, my experience with electric streetcars was limited. But in France, they seem to love le tramway. Nearly every city has one, even if it has a métro too, and I have grown to quite like them. It’s like the Underground, but you have the joy of watching the streets go past around you, and don’t have to negotiate half a dozen escalators and spatially incompetent passengers standing on the left hand side of them when you’re trying to leave a station. No such problem with a tram.
But yes, transport. Without it, I couldn’t get anywhere. With it… well, I can arrive at a hostel in Stockholm at 3am, I suppose. Because of some very affordable flights with a cheap Irish airline, some of us headed to the Swedish capital on Friday evening for our next international adventure. The flight was cheap, yes, but the compromise was that it left from Beauvais Airport, a collection of large portakabins tenuously described as a ‘Paris’ airport when in fact I’m fairly sure it is closer to Kent than to Paris and as such, requires a small marathon to get to it – a train to Austerlitz, the métro to Bastille, the métro again to Porte Maillot coach station, then followed by a coach to Beauvais. That was no problem, but it was the pilot announcing that he would have to circle for a bit longer due to snow at Stockholm Skavsta airport that I began to lose my usually buoyant sense of adventure… I had been up since 6.30 and it was after midnight before we landed at Stockholm Arlanda airport, the forces that be having given up on the planned landing at Skavsta.
Skavsta – sounds like an IKEA desk chair, doesn’t it?
Every snow cloud has a silver lining, however – Arlanda is an hour closer to Stockholm city centre which meant the coach journey we then had to get from the silent airport at 1am was a shorter one. In theory it should have been a smooth transfer, but I think the hoards of passengers from Paris must have been so panicked at the thought of not getting into Stockholm before sunrise that they pushed and shoved onto the coach, irritating an already-impatient Morgan Freeman-lookalike of a coach driver, who barked at shivering passengers who had somehow misunderstood the need to buy a ticket, even more loudly at those who couldn’t understand his heavily-accented English. Long journey short, we arrived at Centralen station, trudging through slushy streets to our hostel where a sleeping room of ten other travellers awaited us. If you’ve stayed in hostels before, you’ll understand the balancing act of trying to be quick and quiet at the same time, all the more so in darkness and at 3am. This is not easy when your bed is on the top of three bunks, and requires climbing a noisy wooden stepladder to reach it.
The following morning we woke and headed out into Stockholm. My first experience of Scandinavia, I had already picked up on the vibe it boasts walking through its streets the night before – it is distinctly different to other places in Europe I’ve visited, blending the old and new with Scandi ease and style, even if this means countless branches of Wayne’s Coffee and Espresso House. We tagged onto a free walking tour of the city (freetourstockholm.com), led by Ryan the Australian (yes, I also wondered how an Australian ended up in Sweden), something I am more than glad we did – it was funny and hugely informative, divulging all sorts of tales about the quirks of Swedish royal history, Greta Garbo and the origins of Stockholm Syndrome, gliding you nicely through a city which is warm metaphorically, but cold meteorologically.
We then toured the Old Town, one of the smaller island in Stockholm’s archipelago, where we stopped for some of Sweden’s rightly-revered cakes and coffee before making our way to ABBA: The Museum. Don’t think badly of me – or it, for that matter – because it was a revelation. As far as museums go, it was as lively and interactive as you can imagine, complete with the chance to join holograms of the famous foursome on stage to sing along to a small flock of museum-goers who happen to walk past at the time. I did not, however, take part in this, and so don’t even bother trying to find video evidence online.
The following morning we passed many an H&M (and believe me, there are many) and stopped at the delightful Chokladkoppen in the Old Town’s Gamla Stan for another coffee and a semla, one of the country’s signature sweet treats. Our time in Stockholm was unfortunately far shorter than I would have liked, having to make the journey through snow-covered fields to Skavsta to head back to Paris Beauvais. Or rather, Calais Beauvais Airport.
Next time, I will do Sweden in the sunlight. Whilst it was nice to see snow-sprinkled roofs and church spires, I missed the sunlight, and betted the postcard red and yellow houses along the waterfront look a lot nicer when bathed in later summer sunshine. What’s more is that slush wears thin. Even thinner than reading this long-winded blog past about Stockholm and honeysuckle…