I RETURNED FROM London to Orleans, where most of my assistant friends had gone, leaving me feeling a bit lost. I felt as if I was in Orleans temporarily now, as a visitor, not a resident, where I had no more work and only a teaspoonful of people to go for coffee with. My colleagues, however, were still around, and I was invited for dinner at Claire’s, one of the French teachers at the collège. I began the evening with her and her husband (and Juliette and co., who came a little later on), but was roped into playing pirates with the two boys soon afterwards, being given a felt hat an expected to understand all the Tintin and cartoon-related references being jabbered at me by hyperactive French six-year-olds. I managed to get by, although my ship was bombed and sunk by Red Rackham the pirate.
The following day, on which I was liberated from the foyer, my family (rather, a portion of it (mother, brother Sean and my aunt)) descended on my adopted hometown for a visit-cum-holiday. We stayed at the charming hotel in town, spookily run by the family of one of the teaching assistants at the collège, where I now had lofty views of the city I had walked in and around for months. We had a nice week exploring the area in my mum’s right-hand drive car, dodging trams and giving way to the left at roundabouts (won’t mention priorité à droite), eating at some of the great restaurants Orleans has to offer, not least enjoying the local white wines. You must understand that my mother’s side of the family are rather partial to wine, and so when I revealed I was going to work in the Loire Valley, they were fairly keen to visit for some reason. That aside, we spent most of the time casually sauntering around Orleans in unexpected sunshine, they admiring the shops and architecture whilst I came round to the fact that these were the last days of my life in France. Seven months had run away: the excitement of moving, my bank card being stolen, Christmas, the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the trip to London… somehow they’d all come and gone so unnoticeably quickly and I was now showing my family around sunny Orleans, much like I had been done in September.
I had especially set aside Orleans Cathedral for their visit. I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals in France and beyond (another blog post, maybe), but Orleans’ is really quite impressive. First of all, it’s enormous, but its cavernous interior is subdued by the beautifully intricate stained glass, depicting the life and death of the city’s most famous muse, Joan of Arc. Speaking of which, we were lucky enough to catch the opening days of the annual Fêtes de Jeanne d’Arc, a series of festivities celebrating the ill-fated heroine. The fêtes opened with a torch-lit procession through the old town, with a podgy and I dare say slightly embarrassed-looking armour-clad girl on horseback who was meant to represent Joan, but frankly looked as though she’d been dragged away from her crêpe and stuck on the back of a horse wondering what the hell was going on.
Another thing I had reserved was the fabled Château de Chambord. I think I was the only one of us assistants who hadn’t yet done it, and I’m so very glad I left it ‘til the end. This not-very-modest hunting lodge of Francois I is fiendishly big; evidently more of a brag than a place to hunt deer, with its soaring white towers and countless chimneys. It has the unique ability to look both menacing and charming at the same time, depending on the sky behind it, and will leave a lasting impression on you should you ever wander around its domain. The inside, however, is agreeably less inspiring than the outside – in fact, other than the intriguing double staircase (thanks Da Vinci) and the great views from the ramparts, the entrance fee only just justifies itself. Don’t let me deter you, though. Chambord is arguably the King of châteaux, and a class way to end my time in France. Look at that, no sooner than I finish my contract as an assistant do I find myself voluntarily becoming Chambord’s PR officer.
The week wound down in grey, drizzly style as Sean and I prepared for the next leg of my year abroad. Some time before Christmas, he proposed the idea of interrailing across Europe, and since I was well and truly under the influence of the travel bug, I was definitely up for it. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s loosely a form of backpacking, although getting around is done by taking trains rather than trekking, facilitated by the use of a fixed-price interrail ‘pass’ which is valid in nearly all countries in Europe.
If there is one person I will remember most fondly after these seven months of living in France, I know who it is. It’s a person who has guided and helped me from day one, always there for support and advice when I’ve been confused or lost. It’s not any of my colleagues, my friends, the troglodytes at the foyer, the students I’ve taught or the friendly faces of the bakers in La Ferté who look at me with a mixed sense of happiness and ‘here we bloody go again..’ None of them. I don’t know her name, but it is the woman who does the pre-recorded announcements at French train stations. Introduced by a jingle that sounds like it belongs in a yogurt advert, her almost hypnotic voice has become indelibly engraved into my brain, so much so that I don’t think I will ever get used to the chap who does the same thing for South West Trains again. So, I only thought it right to end my time in Orleans at the train station. It was there I arrived and it was from there I would leave. From there, Europe awaited by railway.
The first stop, perhaps rather logically, was Paris. In my experience, most long-distance travel from Orleans requires passing through Paris, and since Sean doesn’t remember much from our stay at Disneyland Paris when we were kids, it only made sense to say salut. I have since decided that Paris and I are no longer as good friends as we once were. I not sure if it’s that I’m bored of it, or that having seen just as attractive, more manageable and less pretentious has opened my eyes in what was perhaps blind admiration of Paris when I was a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a beautiful city, whose café culture I adore is arguably the world’s best, but I’ve moved on. Unfortunately we spent much of our time there under an umbrella. Not long after we checked into the excellently-located but poorly-equipped hostel, the rolling pearly skies didn’t seem to stop crying over us, transforming Paris’s silvery smart boulevards into a watery cityscape. Now, I am British, and so I am almost always prepared for a downpour with my umbrella and its one broken spoke, but there is only so much I can take of having one arm hoisted to keep up an umbrella which seems subjected to a continual joust against the beastier umbrellas of Japanese tourists outside Notre Dame. The rain – or rather, drizzle – does next to nothing for my mood or my morale, either. This was particularly high when I opened my bag to find my MP3 Player swimming in a small puddle which had formed in the front pocket. It was the cherry on top of a poor night’s sleep in a room with one plug for four people, meaning that for the rest of the trip I wouldn’t be able to indulge in Stromae and Christine & The Queens, who I’d grown to enjoy whilst in Orleans. Anyway, after a night in the room where a guy who looked scarily like my GCSE English teacher, Miss Taylor, was sleeping, we set off into the rain. The Louvre, just five minutes away, looked bloody awful – for some reason they’ve put up a giant red Portakabin next to the pyramid and called it the museum ‘boutique’. I’m sure it’s a joke. I hope it’s a joke, but I think it was meant to complement the bizarre string of red lights dangling inside the pyramid, which was surrounded by metal railings as if to welcome an imminent VIP. No VIP was there, though; just a seemingly endless stream of umbrella-bearing tourists encircling the pyramid and forcing us to come back later. Off to Montmartre.
We deftly avoided those men who try to ensnare your fingers in a piece of string, and marvelled at the gloomy city fanning outwards from the Sacré Cœur. It was a real shame, I thought, that we couldn’t enjoy a sunny Paris where the awnings of cafés and shops seem so much brighter and more inviting. Instead we descended through the quiet city (it was Sunday, after all; a day where there really is little else to do in France other than sleep or go on a café crawl) and found a place for Sean to watch the crucial Chelsea match, in the heart of St-Germain, an area whose vibrant flurry of crêperies and brasseries, scattered with antique shops and boutiques is hard to dislike. These boutiques, however, are true to their name and do not resemble boxes of TNT and clutter famous landmarks.
Chelsea won 1-0 and therefore Champions. Sean was happy, and I was also happy since when we left, the sun was shining! It was as if José Mourinho cast a spell of sunshine to shine over Chelsea fans and their miserable siblings. We wandered around the city to make the most of it, passing through the benevolently renamed Queen Elizabeth II flower market. If you ever happen to pass it when it’s on, take a look – a lot of it is unnecessary stuff you’d never buy on impulse, such as caged doves, but there is a copious amount of fresh flowers to peruse, from fully-bloomed hibiscuses to ripening lemon trees.
Our lazy evening meal was just that, pavement-side at a restaurant near the Hotel de Ville, slow and unhurried as the skies slowly turned black with night. The evening’s highlight (or low point depending on your point of view) was a flock of what I think were Thai women on some form of night out, their leading lady staggering haphazardly in a pair of red heels and a white fluffy coat, looking frighteningly like Michael Jackson in awful drag. In fact, she looked more like Michael Jackson than the man pretending to be Michael Jackson at Thriller Live the week before. One of her friends lingered at her table with a camera.
‘Can you take picture with us?’
‘With you or of you?’ I asked from my bourbon vanilla crème brûlée.
Go away, I thought! If I’d wanted a picture with MJ and friends I’ve have gone all out at Madame Tussaud’s the other week. I reminded her of the obvious fact we were eating, but I’m fairly sure she didn’t like that I preferred desserts to her and her shrieking friends and trotted off into the night.
The following day, when the rain had apparently disappeared, we headed to the marvel that is the Sainte Chapelle. A stone’s throw from Notre Dame, the well-hidden chapel is an architectural treasure in all senses of the word. The interior seems to glow gently as if it were made from ancient gold, but all glory goes to the astoundingly tall windows, like glass kaleidoscopes made with jewels, given the sheer colour and vibrancy of the stained glass. Our eyes quenched of colour, we made our away across the bridge to the little Ile St-Louis for lunch. I love this island, the smaller of Paris’ two central islands, partly because it’s not quite as well-known as the neighbouring Ile de la Cité and it has a very distinct Parisian feel about it: quaint and chic apartment blocks, cafés, old streetlamps. I’ve always wanted to live on the island if I ever had the money or necessity to live in Paris. Perhaps it’s because I’m British that I feel the need to surround myself with water in order to feel at home…
Gradually we made our way to Gare de l’Est for our train to Munich, in doing so following the rue Aboukir, a street I didn’t know beforehand, but will now not leave my mind in a hurry. It’s clearly known for its uninterrupted row of garish and cheap women’s clothing stores, most likely where Michael Jackson and his pals got their outfits for the night before. The last time I was at Est was last December on a Christmassy trip to Strasbourg. It was nice to follow the same route in the daytime and watch field upon field of rape whoosh past and, more interestingly, the architecture transform from Parisian high-rise to picture-book Alsace from the windows of a TGV.
I was woken the following morning by the couple of Chinese girls who’d been staying in our dorm. These were the same girls who’d jovially introduced themselves the night before although when they found out British citizens didn’t need a visa to get into Germany, the conversation stopped. I still don’t know why. I took that they were either so offended, amazed or shocked that such international border-crossing goes on so freely in Europe that they lost all ability to speak for the rest of the night. In any event, Munich was doused in sunlight, putting a much-appreciated spring in my step. I remember going on a run on one of the high-tech treadmills at uni, which led me on a simulated run through Munich’s streets. And now, here I was, exploring the same streets a much less exhausting pace.
Munich feels so very German, or so I perceived as we meandered the Marienplatz, dwarfed by the Rathaus. It
looks German, it smells German (when you pass the Bierkeller and wurst stands, of course) and it’s in this corner of the country that all the sausage-eating, lederhosen-wearing football clichés come to live before your very eyes. There are some striking buildings in Munich, German’s third city, topped by the enormous Residenz, which stretches out like an exaggerated pop-up book, a mere testament to Munich’s imperial past. The famed Frauenkirche is worth a mention, mainly because it falls a bit short – it’s nice inside, but its location hidden amongst alleyways and passageways makes it very difficult to appreciate its entirety. Anyway, I think I’ve probably seen enough cathedrals…
My favourite thing in Munich is the Englischer Garten – whose name doesn’t need to be translated, I shouldn’t think – a vast green space sprawling along the banks of the Isar. It’s the perfect place for a walk, a cycle, a run, or even a surf. No really, there’s a custom-made surfer’s ridge/bump/wave thing in a corner of the park, and watching the amateurs in wetsuits take to the wave is both great fun and an attraction in its own right. We stood there for ages remarking how easy they made it all look, until I was splashed by one of them, at which point I stepped back a little bit. A bit deeper into the park, there’s a clearing, from which rises a dark wooden pagoda, the Chinesischer Turm (can you translate that?). We stopped for a beer, of course, feeling as though we had entered a sort of cross-cultural theme park; the unusually harmonious blend of the two (let’s call it Ginese or Cherman) felt a bit surreal.
As the evening drew closer, we took the U-Bahn north to BMW World, essentially a giant showroom of Beamers. The building itself supersedes the rather small collection of ‘look, but don’t get inside’ BMWs and Minis; it’s a massive cave of undulating glass and curve metal, albeit in need of a good dusting. I wrote a couple of IOUs on some of the car bonnets to the salesman who looked at me with mild suspicion. Next door to BMW World (which I should really call BMW Village because its car collection doesn’t warrant such a significant appellation) is Olympiapark, unsurprisingly where a lot of the 1972 Olympics took place. You might recognise the huge TV tower and the giant cobweb-like canopies sheltering the main venues, all of which still remain in a brilliantly landscaped public space. The Olympics are long gone, but the city’s sporting legacy is still very much there – I’d never seen so many people out running, and it now ranks second only to Amsterdam as the place where I have had to dodge the highest number of bikes per hour. It was great to see such a vast space being used so effectively, more than forty years after its first use. It was nonetheless a little overshadowed; it’s hard to think about Munich ’72 without remembering the Israeli team and what happened in the apartments overlooking the park like a tombstone.
We spent the last part of the evening in an Italian-run pizzeria with ice cream watching half of the Juventus match, sheltering from the sudden thunderstorm that had opened up over the city. It wasn’t a hugely eventful day; there were n strange Thai women asking me for photographs or anything of the sort. Mind you, the ‘CABARET und BROADWAY’ place could had a few funny-looking women outside it when we turned left too early on the way back to the hostel.
The rain persisted the following day, but by the time we had suitably stuffed ourselves on some rum-laced cream cake from the region, there was sun in the sky. Good news for an imminent train to Prague!