On our first weekend at Oxford, our entire group went to London on the train. Most of our group did not want to see Henry V at the Globe for five pounds because they’re clearly delusional, but four of us did and promptly fell in love with Hal. Because, obviously. Seriously though, during his scene with Katherine I don’t think there was a single person in the audience not holding his or her breath– and then my high school friend, Patrick, who is staying in London, and I went to Paris. Pretty much that quickly. By this I don’t mean we got to Paris quickly, but we left the Globe, ate a lovely dinner, took the Tube to Victoria, got mildly lost in the coach station, and then left for Paris. On a bus.
This bus– the London to Paris bus– was driven by a man who spoke only Spanish– no English and no French– and who communicated with shouting and gesturing vehemently to the blank incomprehension of most of the passengers. For a brief period of absolute panic, we thought there was no toilet on the bus, at which point Patrick informed me that if he had to pee in his pants on a bus next to someone, he was glad it was going to be me, which I’m still not entirely sure was a compliment. But fortunately there was a toilet. An unnecessarily hidden toilet, but a toilet. This was mostly fortunate for the rest of the passengers, because Patrick and I, having only brought backpacks, had decided that if there was no toilet, we were going to find our way into the hold of the bus and pee with, or perhaps accidentally on, the luggage.
Having assuaged our urine-related fears, we settled in for an eight-hour ride to France, thinking we’d likely sleep once we got to the Chunnel. Clearly someone at some point had misinformed us as to the nature of the Chunnel, because we were under the very much mistaken impression that one can drive a car– or a bus– through it, which is not, apparently, so. Blissfully unaware, we watched an incredible full moon, harvest orange and enormous, rise over London as we drove out of it, through Deptford, which introduced us to the notion of the 24 hour defense law practice and which, apparently, remains precisely as sketchy as it was when Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in the eye there in 1593, but with the added benefit of neon lights.
We were also the only people to get visibly excited as we drove through Deptford, because Christopher Marlowe and his awesomeness are sadly neglected, even in England. However, I have decided that I will probably not be following through on my plan to explore Deptford on my own, because I quite like being alive and am deathly terrified of being poked in the eye, let alone stabbed.
Having left Deptford, we talked through the darkness of the English countryside, annoying a Spanish man in front of us. I was unsympathetic to his irritation as a) he clearly felt no compunction to help out with the driver’s shouty madness, and b) he had leaned his seat all the way back well before the talking, leaving us practically no space, something exactly no one else on the bus was doing because it was obnoxious. Then I saw a monstrous white thing gleaming in the night. And another, and then another, looming like terrifying, craggy, mossy teeth out of apparently nowhere. We had reached the white cliffs of Dover. I was excited. Patrick was not. But things soon got the other kind of exciting, the kind that ranges from mildly agitating to the imminent fear of death. We soon realized based on clever deductions from the other buses, road signs, and giant boats nearby that the Chunnel was not a thing for buses, but thought that perhaps we would simply get on a ferry and sit on the bus inside of a ferry. This was a thing that would have made sense, but instead we pulled up, with not even a shouty incomprehensible Spanish explanation, at a shed in the middle of a parking lot, and, after sitting there a minute, began to realize that we were all supposed to get off the bus. We had no idea whether or not we would ever see the bus again, nor did we know what was going to happen in the shed, so we grabbed our backpacks and joined the passengers from several other buses in a queue…for customs? For death by firing squad? For a ferry? We had no idea. As we got inside the shed itself, we realized that the balance of probability was that we were going through customs, but the unlabeled haphazardness of the whole thing, plus the fact that everyone’s bigger bags were still on the bus, plus the open and pointedly visible interrogation closet inside the shed made us wonder whether, after checking our passports, they wouldn’t simply shoot us as we walked through the door. We knew there was a 99.99999% likelihood that this wouldn’t happen, but since we’d been on a bus for several hours already, there was the slightest possibility that, in those several hours, the entire world had gone to shit or someone had nuked someone else or Congress had finally, actually, spontaneously imploded from utter madness and America wasn’t a country anymore, or something. The complete lack of any explanation for anything was the most nervewracking part.
Obviously, we were not taken outside the chemical shed and shot, at least not in this universe, but the rather mad journey continued to be…rather mad. We got back on the bus, drove about 100 yards, and stopped again, again with no explanation. We all started to get up, but were shouted back down by the driver; eventually we were made to understand that bags from the hold were being randomly selected for search by customs, and that we were only to get off and go through security if we saw our bags taken out below. Then we waited an unnecessarily long time for someone to claim the last bag and go through security with it. They kept asking, and finally brought it on the bus and held it up, at which point Mr. Super-Reclining Irritated Spanish Man realized it was his and dragged His Royal Highness off the bus to submit to peasant security or whatnot, which the customs people did not appreciate very much. Finally, he strolled back onto the bus and we drove for perhaps another 300 yards before getting into a queue of buses to get onto the ferry. Once on board the ferry, we were all kicked off the bus and marshaled up a staircase with about a million other people, until we emerged onto one inner deck of a ferry, which seemed designed (by which I mean was designed) to get people to make bad decisions, not to sleep, and also as the sort of hell Anthony J. Crowley might design if put in charge. Flashing lights, a bar, gambling machines of some kind or other next to the bar (because Hell isn’t really subtle and neither is capitalism), and, basically, a big shiny floating mall. Also, a coffee shop, because there is some mercy for damned souls, apparently, or perhaps it was just to ensure that no one slept. Also, it was about 2 am by this point, and the ferry journey was 90 minutes. Also, because it was that kind of night, the bathroom on our end of the deck was out of service, which necessitated walking through the entire floating mall to get to another one.
Having survived the ferry journey, which, when we were sitting away from the floating mall, was actually kind of fun, we all clambered back onto the bus and headed off into the sunrise. I managed to sleep for an hour and a half, and woke to see the orange light of very early morning just beginning to illuminate the French countryside, which was actually kind of awesome. Less awesome was when drove into the banlieue, which was apparently where our Metro stop was, just through all of the graffiti ever and past the “hobo’s nest,” as Patrick termed it, with a couch in it (admittedly, if you’re going to have a hobo’s nest, this one was pretty impressive). Then we were kicked off the bus and sent into the metro station with, again, no guidance.
Because I occasionally think things through, I had checked on the Paris Metro system and knew precisely how to get to our hotel, so this should have been the easy part. But before we could take the Metro, we had to get tickets. Of course, because it was 7:30 in the god-damn-morning and we hadn’t slept, the ticket machine was completely unamenable to our accomplishing this with our debit cards, which was a problem because we had decided to wait to exchange pounds for euros until we got to France, on the unassailable logic that we would probably get a better deal. This is as it turns out not a sufficiently good reason to not have any of the currency of a country you’re going to when you get there, unless you are going to arrive in a major airport full of currency exchanges. Otherwise, bad plan. Fortunately, the man behind the counter eventually managed to make our cards work and get us our tickets, and to understand our garbled exhausted-person rusty French through a glass window.
We got to our hotel, where a disgruntled French man told us in English to come back around noon or one. His cat appeared equally disgruntled. Also, it appeared in a hotel, which seemed partly useful (for killing mice) and partly ill-advised (people with deathly allergies to felines not being aware of said cat’s existence prior to arriving).
As it develops, everyone in Paris on Saturday morning is still sleeping off Friday night in Paris until around noon or one, because nothing was open. We wandered down the Champs-Elysees (as it turns out, Hell, or at least Tantalus, is confounded in Elysium, because there were so many lovely cafes…all shut up for the next several hours. Water, water, everywhere…), looking for food or a currency exchange or a chair or a something, wandered some more, wandered some more again, and finally went back to the Starbucks in the Champs-Elysees– the only thing that was open– in abject American defeat. Then, there was more wandering, and some more, and then we went to the Eiffel Tower, but not up to the top, and then some sitting, and then some more wandering, and then it was time to go back and finally put the backpacks that someone seemed to have been surreptitiously sneaking stones into all morning away, but of course finding a metro at this point became obscenely difficult. Or perhaps this happened somewhere else, earlier– or perhaps later– but Paris shifts and moves and tricks you cruelly, and time there as well as space is hard to pin down– but we eventually managed it.
I took a great dislike to the concierge/owner/whatever of the hotel/hostel/house at once. This was because, like a stereotypical French concierge, he was enormously condescending, but there was nothing remotely great about his hotel, which had an unadvertised cat, and had, contrary to its website, no ensuite toilet, though it did at least have an ensuite sink and shower. It also had no visible outlet, meaning that I spent several hours charging things at Starbucks while Patrick was napping at one point. Later we discovered that, despite Mr. Snootypants’ condescending assertion that the outlet was (obviously) near the lamp and the mirror, it was in fact behind a headboard. Which was in the opposite corner from the lamp or the mirror, so fuck you, dude. Before going to Starbucks again (because god knows whether outlets are too declasse for French cafes, or something), and before Patrick’s nap, I had a minor/major breakdown of sheer exhaustion/hunger, because we’re all one night’s lack of sleep and two missed meals away from histrionic toddlers. But I calmed myself, though I almost started up again when it turned out that finding shampoo or soap that is not a million dollars in France is actually really difficult. Eventually I found some kind of 2-in-1 hair and body “wash” that was “soap free” at Monoprix, which was somewhat alarming. Then I got to watch a tourist from somewhere else in Europe and the barista get into a screaming fight in English, which was both of their second language, over whether or not he had made her drink incorrectly, because apparently they do things differently in France and she took exception to this, so that was a fun fifteen minutes (no, really, it was fifteen minutes) for everyone involved. Patrick met me there after his nap, and we went up to the Sacre Coeur, which was cool until, on our way down, one of the men who tries to hawk “friendship bracelets” grabbed me by the wrist for the second time that day despite my telling him no.
If you don’t want to hear a feminist rant, you might want to skip this paragraph.
So here’s the deal: these guys– and they were everywhere near the Sacre Coeur– didn’t target Patrick, they targeted me, because I’m a woman. And because it happened both on the way up and down that someone not only got in my face after I’d told them no, but physically grabbed me by the wrist, I was really, really pissed off. Because I know it sucks to hawk pieces of yarn by French monuments, and that jobs are hard to come by, and that they’ve had a harder day than me, and a much harder life. But the fact that it’s seen as okay to grab a strange woman by the wrist after she’s told you no in an attempt to force her to buy something is a problem. It’s also not a good way to get me to give you money. It’s a good way to get me to kick you in the nuts, which I only managed to not do because I really didn’t want to get arrested in France, or to get me to scream, “Touch me again and I’ll call the police, I said no,” which is what I in fact did. The response to this was “Fuck you, bitch,” because obviously he’s totally entitled to grab me in public because he wants something from me and doesn’t respect me saying no. Except for no, not really, at all, ever. Rape culture, people, it’s a real thing. Also, this kind of thing made me really dislike Paris, which is sad. But everyone there seems to want something from you, and has no qualms about demanding it. And the Metro takes a lot longer to show up than the Tube, and is much more likely to smell of piss. Also, Chatelet metro station is actually the ninth circle of Hell. In some universe, Patrick and I are still lost down there, damned to wander forever without escape. That part was kind of horrifying.
We did manage to find our way with only minor incident (namely that it started pouring more rain than I’d seen it pour– yet– in England) to the Centre-Ville to have dinner before going on a boat tour of the Seine. We found, after much searching for a place that did not cost approximately a million dollars and was also not McDonald’s, a nice restaurant with a waiter who seemed highly and inexplicably amused by our existence, but who was nice enough to not burst into open hilarity. The food was also quite good, and I had my only glass ever of French wine in France, despite having gone when I was eighteen, but still listened to my parents (kidding. Mostly). Then we took a boat tour, which was lovely, except that I kept falling asleep. Some of the people sitting by the Seine decided to moon us, which was just what I was looking for on my boat tour, so thanks for that. It was really cool to see everything by night, and going beneath the bridges on the water gave the city a very medieval feeling.
The next day was also nice; we tried to go to the Louvre but realized that we’d be standing in line until we had to leave, so we wandered to Notre Dame and then onto the Left Bank, where we looked at St. Severin’s church and then went to Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where we’re totally going to live and write at some point in the near future. I bought a wonderful book of short stories by Chris Adrian, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which reminded me a bit of some of Glen Duncan, who is one of my favorite authors (sorry, Tara). Then we searched for a place that had takeaway food for a while, and at it outside of Notre Dame while discussing the possibility of vampires living in the crypt (where, like the crypt at Sacre-Coeur, Patrick refused to go. So if I ever go back to Paris, it’s going to be with some of my anthro friends who aren’t creeped out by dead people, which I had honestly forgotten that most people are). Then we got on the Metro from the Cite station, which was actually pretty cool, and went to Gare du Nord, where we had a mild adventure in obtaining our train tickets and then got on a rather Hogwarts Express-esque car. It was mostly Hogwarts Express-esque because it was full of schoolchildren, who were actually much better behaved than their adolescent and young adult chaperones. So we did, eventually, get to go through the Chunnel after all, which is, like most things, only abjectly terrifying if you think about it, so I tried not to, for once.
Back in London, I conducted some rather heroic maneuvers on the Tube: having hopped on a train that was claiming to be a Hammersmith via Paddington train from St. Pancras, I and several other passengers were rather surprised to hear the announcement at Edgware Road that the train would not be stopping at Paddington (nonetheless, I was elated to be back on the every-two-minutes, bright-shiny-clean Underground rather than the Metro. Sorry, Paris). Most elected to stay on; noticing that the District train stopped across the platform was also going to Paddington, I darted out the doors of one car and through the doors of another, just in time. Arriving at Paddington and making my way into the National Rail area of the station, I saw that the express train to Oxford was boarding and would leave in three minutes, so I collected my ticket from the machine and booked it halfway across the station, leapt into a car, dropped into a seat, and watched as the train pulled out of the station, feeling rather impressed with myself. I was back in Oxford in time to get dinner, a feat of engineering (and not a little running) that has made me quite impressed with this whole “getting to another country in two hours European high-speed rail” thing.
In conclusion, I much prefer London to Paris, which is pretty apparent given that I found myself referring to Paris as some form of hell more often than was perhaps appropriate. But it is good to know that my love for London is real, and that not even the glamour and perfume of Paris can seduce me away from my true love. Nor, in fact, can Oxford; its smooth sandstone curves and smell of old books may be sexy, but in the end the crowds of tourists in and out on the weekend just infuriate me far too much (and I am deeply, deeply sorry for the awful extended metaphor in deep need of a jackhammer. But I would marry London if they would let me. London is definitely the one).