Tuesday, October 28, 2008

in case of affluence, do not use the strap-on tins

OR: Thank Heavens They Lost That Baby

First, may I please ask you to forgive me if what I type is gobbledy-gook. I am typing on a French keyboard and, confusingly, it's very similar to but not quite the same as an English one.

Being a teacher on half term, I thought it would be nice to have a break on my own in a quiet town in France. I know Angoulême a little as my friend Jane owns a cottage in a village near there, so it seemed ideal.

When I looked the town up, I also discovered that there is a comics museum there and in February they even host a big Comics Festival, which I'd love to come to, if only I could take holidays whenever I wanted.

I don't like flying unnecessarily, and as I live so close to St Pancras, it would seem rude not to take the train. And so I came here by Eurostar and TGV via Paris.

There's not that much exciting to say about Eurostar (it's a train), save that when I booked, I was a little worried because they only gave me 51 minutes to transfer across Paris from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse.

And with good reason.

According to the Eurostar website, it takes 40 minutes to transfer directly by Métro, and 50 by bus or taxi, but you can make it in 15 if you take the RER and change onto the Métro. That's not taking into account familiarising yourself with either station (thankfully I've been to each at least once before), nor buying tickets, nor the fact that my Eurostar was 21 minutes late.

Leaving me with half an hour.

During which I ran a lot.

And pushed into the ticket machine queue.

And arrived on the RER B-line at the same time as a train, and asked a friendly-looking long-haired youth if I was on the right train. I'm friends with a lot of friendly-looking long- haired youths. I shouldn't have been surprised that he didn't have a clue whether the train didn't stop at any station other than his own.

RER trains in Paris have pull-down seats right next to the doors, and there's a sign telling you not to use them when the train is busy. I was pleased to learn that the French for pull-down seat is "strapontin", hence the title of this post:

en cas d'affluence, ne utiliser les strapontins

Some helpful youth (I presume it wasn't a pensioner, but maybe that's unfair to pensioners) had added their own custom sign on the other side of the door: SORTIE (EXIT). Thank you, mystery helpful graffiti artist.

Changing onto the Métro once I got to Denfert Rochereau was easy enough, but finding the mainline station at Montparnasse was a different matter. For this is where I first encountered a system of signposting that seems to involve not using signs if there are more than three directions to choose from.

Luckily for me, however, someone on my train to Angoulême had lost their baby and so arriving 8 minutes late did not have any adverse effects, save that to my body odour from all the running.

And yes, they found the baby. Presumably. I never found out, actually, but I assumed they did because we got going a few minutes later.

Carpeted Walls

I won't say much about my hotel, the Hotêl Européen, save that they're very friendly, and my room is dark red, with carpeted walls. I can only presume that this is some attempt to seem opulent, and on a scale of 1 to successful, I'll give them a generous 4.

Incidentally, at breakfast this morning (not included), someone right in front of me took the last two croissants. I was not pleased. That's no slur on the hotel mind, they did bring out more a few minutes later, but I did think it was a bit rude. This is one gripe that I shall take to my grave. Or at least as far as Lille, on my return journey.

Le Six Pockets

After a quick shower after arriving yesterday, I went on my first exploration of the town. And went the wrong way within seconds, thanks to yet more clear signposting. There's nothing quite as useful as a signpost to the Office de Tourisme pointing straight on, placed between a left fork and a right fork.

No matter, I soon walked past a little alley leading to some steps up a bloody great stone wall, and nothing says "I'm on holiday" quite like climbing up lots of steps. The only thing I regret is that I forgot to count them.

When I reached the top I noticed a billiards club called Le Six Pockets, and another sign to the Office de Tourisme. This led into a big square with a modern covered market and the Blues Rock Café, which I made a mental note to visit.

I couldn't see any more signs, so I wandered down some streets and found some comic art murals on some of the buildings. I remembered Jane telling me there's a lot of this around the town, so I took some pictures and carried on exploring, until I found myself next to Le Six Pockets once again, and decided to have another crack at finding the Office de Tourisme.

Until I found myself next to Le Six Pockets once again, and decided to have another crack at finding the Office de Tourisme.

Apparently if you take this route clockwise you can't see the sign.

I did find it eventually (two doors up from Le Six Pockets), and the woman in there was very helpful. All the museums were closed yesterday, so visiting them is my quest today. I spent the rest of yesterday wandering looking for more of the murals (I'm not going to cheat and check them off against the map until tomorrow - apparently there's about 20 official ones, and I've found about 15 or 16, sme of which are clearly unofficial), and walking around the perimeter of the old town, on the ramparts high above the valley, taking in some amazing views.

Better than McDonalds, not as good as Wimpy

I'd forgotten that in France, everywhere is shut on Monday evening, so after some fruitless wandering and, not really wanting to go back to the hotel, I decided to eat at Le Quick. Le Quick is the big French fast food chain and, while I think I may have eaten at one before, I couldn't remember, so I convinced myself that eating there would be a serious experiment into everyday French life, making it a more than worthwhile holiday outing.

I chose to eat the "Long Bacon Menu", which was two burgers, a rasher of bacon, and two types of plasticky cheese in a long bun. Here are the result of the British jury (ie, me):

* Le Quick give you the option of normal fries, or "les Rustiques", which are seasoned potato wedges. Which, if you like potato wedges as much as I do, is a big boon.

* You order at the counter, and they bring the food to your table, like in Wimpy, but unlike in McDonalds.

* However, the burgers, while superior to those in McDonalds, are a little tired and soggy, so Wimpy win this particular round.

* The toilets are locked to those not eating in the diner, preventing a McDonalds-as-public-convenience type scenario, but for some reason; there is no door into the men's and the urinals are in full view to anyone in the corridor.

So, a little more than passable, all in all, which is not bad for a big fast food chain.

The Blues Rock Café

Having promised myself I would, I took a trip here for a couple of drinks after eating. Although they do have lost of pictures of stars past, old vinyl and electric guitars stuck up all over the walls, it was a little disappointing. I hope there's some live music there later in the week (I suspect not), but last night they had MTV on in the corner.

French MTV, strangely enough, is a breath of fresh air. Unlike most British or American stations, they don't seem afraid to play unlikely tracks next to each other. At one point, I was treated to Jeff Buckley's Grace, followed by Linkin Park, followed by a French band called Anis, whose track "Rodeo Boulevard" seemed to be a good-natured line dancing version of a certain famous Run DMC video. I hope it was a deliberate parody. I really really hope so. This was then followed by John Lennon's Imagine.

The highlights for me, however, were these marvellous videos by two French stars:

Les Vedettes - JoeyStarr

Phillipe Katerine - Louxour J'adore:

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