Friday, March 13, 2009

Fifth letter home (extract)

21st February, 2009

It has been difficult to write to everyone about happy news over the last couple of weeks, especially after seeing the coverage of the bushfires and hearing about the effect that they have had on my old school community in particular. It has been difficult to be here, and not there, but probably not as difficult as it has been to live amongst it. I was sad to hear about A’s house in particular, after having him in my tutor group, as well as the others.

Anyway, I had intended to write some more about school, but now I just want to write about Paris! I spent the half-term break (schools in England have at least a week off every six weeks, gotta love it) in Paris, and arrived back in Guildford last night.

I went over on the Eurostar when I found a special deal that I could use that wasn’t going to cost me much more than flying, and was so glad I did, because it was so much fun. I love the Eurostar. Drinking wine whilst watching France slip by at breakneck speed- what could be better?!

I stayed in a hostel that was fairly far out of the centre, but it was right near a metro station, so that was fine. It smelt like disinfectant so I knew it was clean, so I treated the smell as a plus. It was much quieter than I had anticipated, not many people around, but that was ok because I was out and about from 7:30 each morning until about 11 at night. I crammed a lot in, but still only managed to do about a third of what I had hoped.

When I arrived I made a beeline for Notre Dame and arrived when the organist was playing, so that was pretty incredible. The tower had closed for the day so I couldn’t go up and inspect the gargoyles.

On my first full day I went on a free walking tour of the city that lasted for about four hours with Ange, the teacher from 'tiny town' who was staying in the same hostel as me. It was run by a slightly annoying but fairly knowledgeable Canadian ‘dude’ and it gave me a good sense (kind of) of the layout of the city. I still managed to get lost every time I tried to use a map though. We went to Montmartre in the evening and unknowingly ate dinner in Amelie’s cafe and I had my ‘Amelie moment’, tapping on the crisp toffee shell of my crème brulee.

Sacre Coeur was beautiful at night (there are photos on flickr) and I thought of you while I was there, P.

After that, I ditched Ange during the days so that I could see Paris in my own way, and we caught up in the evenings for dinner and plenty of glasses of kir (a regional French aperitif, or at least that’s what the Polish guy in the bar who recommended it to us said). We ran amok in streets of Paris, taking extremely un-Parisian photos, and discovering the free view of Venus de Milo (I can tell you which window if anyone wants to know!)

I saved the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay until the end of my trip, because I knew that if I didn’t I’d spend too much time there and miss out on seeing everything else. The Louvre was a breathtaking spectacle, but the long hallways and crammed walls meant that there was just too much to see. I spent most of my time with the Italian paintings, but even that was too much to achieve any sense of narrative or understanding. Mona, behind her wall of glass, was nowhere near as impressive as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. I loved, loved, loved the Musee d’Orsay though. The Van Gogh room was just incredible, seeing his brushwork close up added so much to my appreciation of his work. And it was wonderful to see so many Monets. It was such a beautiful space, too.

I spent one of my days in Chartres, about an hour out of Paris. I wanted to see the Chartres Cathedral, which is the oldest medieval cathedral (I think, one of them at least) in France, and it was just incredible. Such an ancient, solid, echoing space. It was so much quieter than Notre Dame with its hordes of tourists, but every sound echoed endlessly through the cathedral. It was interesting to compare the cathedrals in France with the churches of England. The space itself seems to have prominence in the French churches, whereas the English churches were more cluttered and haphazard, filling organically with memorials and tombs over the centuries, even to the present day. The town itself was lovely too, with remnants of the medieval town still in evidence along the river.

What else did I get up to? I spent a morning in Versailles, which was a beautiful place, but a strange place too because of its history. It was interesting to see the souvenir shop selling little girls Marie Antoinette parasols and fluttering fans- no hint of where it had all ended! I spent a couple of nights wandering through the streets of Montmartre- I loved that area- and found one of Van Gogh’s houses and Picasso’s workshop. I visited Galleries Lafayette which didn’t excite me much at all, apart from the heaped baskets of salts and spices in the foodhall (although H would have loved the place). I loved the Latin Quarter (ate a number of chocolat crepes there- purchased in a dingy little milkbar style place that sold incongruous items like baguettes, cognac in Eiffel tower shaped bottles and orange vodka shots, but I swear that they are the best crepes in Paris, they must be) and walking along the Seine at night. I spent a beautiful sunny afternoon sitting on one of those green metal chairs around one of the fountains in the tuileries. I visited a number of markets near the place de la Bastille, as well as the flower and bird market near Notre Dame. I visited Saint Chappelle, walked to the Arc de Triomphe and climbed the Eiffel tower.

On my last morning before I caught the train back to London I returned to Notre Dame and managed to climb the tower. I thought that the view was better than from the Eiffel Tower, and enjoyed communing with the gargoyles. I drank a heck of a lot of coffee, because I was aware that I was unlikely to get another good cup until, well, until I get to Italy in six weeks’ time! I brought back some cheese and wine, which I will keep to share with whoever comes to visit me first (the wine, not the cheese!) so there’s an offer for ya.

Back in Guildford, I was planning to spend today getting stuck into my marking before Monday, but it was such a beautiful sunny day that that didn’t happen. I left my flat without my coat this morning for the first time(!) and went for a walk along the River Wey. I didn’t intend to go far, but I ended up walking all the way to Godalming (about five miles-dunno what it is in kilometres), gazing at the canal boats, the river locks and the pill boxes (left from world war II- Dad would have liked them).

So, I have a busy day of marking (not mine, a gift from the previous excuse for a teacher) ahead of me tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll write about school next week!

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