Europe – July 2017

Day 7 – Arrival in Paris

Friday 4th August

The mood this morning was a tad sombre. Once again, we find ourselves saying goodbye to loved ones. It never gets easy. Fortunately, Sandy had already done most of the packing last night but there were still plenty of things left strewn around the house, like chargers, cables and so on. Sandy continued the packing this morning whilst I took Paul David and Joey to a newsagent to pick up Dad’s daily newspaper and lottery scratch-cards. These things have become a part of Dad’s daily routine for some time now.

Since I made mention of the confectionary bars in yesterday’s blog, I thought I’d snap a couple of quick shots of what they looked like when we got to the newsagent’s. Doing so immediately garnered the what the hell is going on here sort of attention of the proprietors. Paul leapt into damage control mode and explained the reason behind why some random stranger was walking through their shop snapping photos. Fortunately, he’s a people kind of person and good with words. He very quickly turned what could have been a potentially awkward situation into a pleasant one, with the shop owners taking an interest in it all after he explained with some humour what was going on.

So, with everything we came in for in hand, we left and drove around to Dad’s house, which was actually walking distance for anyone not using a cane. As it happened, Dad needed to visit the local hospital at some point today for a semi-annual blood check. Since we had a couple of hours to kill, we agreed that I would drive him there. If it looked like it was going to take too long, I would leave him there and Paul would collect him when he was ready. Paul had arranged to work from home today to help see us off…or perhaps it might have been to make sure we actually left, I’m not sure which. In the event, Dad and me were in and out of the hospital within ten minutes, so it all worked out well.

With his arm sporting a plaster from where they had punctured him to collect blood, I took Dad back to Paul’s house, where we started the unpleasant business of saying all our goodbyes. Paul, Marie and Rhianna have been terrific hosts and we’ve lived there for the past week as though we’ve always lived there. They have been so welcoming and tolerant of us, and the explosion of possessions we flung all throughout the house, and not a single hint of a complaint all throughout. It has genuinely been a real pleasure to spend time with them all and we will miss them dearly.

As predicted, the goodbye ceremony was tough. We were saying goodbye to Dad as well as Paul and his mob. Everyone did a good job of holding back the emotion. Paul in particular did a great job of this. Instead of crying, he hid behind comforting words of compassion, like haven’t you gone yet? And get the hell out of my house already you bloody leeches. Bless him dearly. Since we ate from – and indeed emptied – their fridge for the duration, I wanted to leave a little something to help soften the blow to them all. I already knew this would be refused if I gave any money to Paul so I enlisted the support of Rhianna, whom I felt I could trust, to pass on some money to Marie when she got home tonight as a thank-you. However, all did not go as planned. We got about fifty meters from the house when Jennifer blurted out that she had left something important in her bedroom, so we doubled back and dropped in again. There’s nothing quite so odd as having to say good-bye…for a second time in as many minutes. Anyway, it turns out that my trust in Rhianna was somewhat misplaced. Evidently, Paul had realised what was going on with my little scheme and rather skilfully coerced the poor child into revealing all. Actually, I don’t blame her at all. Paul has decades of deviousness and cunning behind him and Rhianna is an easy mark for someone of his…talents. Well, it seems that when Jennifer went inside to collect her forgotten toy, Paul took her aside and gave her the money back, with instructions to tell Sandy and me only after we were on the road and a safe distance away that he was giving both Jennifer and Joey each half of that money as spending money for the rest of the trip. Thus what was originally intended as a little something to say thank you to them all ended up commuting in to more spending money for the kids. Gotta love family, haven’t you?

Now on the road again, we drove the car into London, stopping along the way to fill up with fuel, so as to ensure we returned the car as full as we found it. I had the forethought to check ahead of time – and I mean before we left Australia – on exactly where I needed to drop off the car. It’s a good job I did as well. On a Youtube video I found of someone driving their car to where the rental car drop-off point was, it was clear that unless you knew exactly where to go, you simply wouldn’t find it. It’s a concealed entrance to a multi-story car park down the side of St. Pancras rail station with nothing to indicate it was a rental car drop-off point. Had I not seen that Youtube video ahead of time, I would have ended up driving around in circles trying to figure out where we needed to be. This was a particularly clear case of my OCD working to my advantage.

Whilst the rental car agent was giving the car the once over, I wandered into the train terminal to find a luggage trolley, since we would struggle to manage without one. I swear I must have walked a kilometre there and back before I found one. Once I returned with the trolley, I took photos of the car from every possible angle, lest there be any problems with the rental car company accusing me of damage I wasn’t responsible for. I doubt there would be any problems but taking a few seconds to snap some photos didn’t seem like too much of an effort to ensure peace of mind.

After an obligatory toilet stop, we made our way into the train terminal and contemplated where we would park ourselves for lunch. We still had a good hour to play with, which was the plan all along, so this seemed like it was going to work out well. We asked one of the staff where the nearest Maccas was and he directed us accordingly. Just as we were walking off, I said to him that we were on the 13:31 train to Paris and asked, just to be on the safe side, if we actually had enough time to go for lunch. No! He said we would already be cutting it fine if we went through now already. Oops! This meant a rather sudden change of plan and I could already start to feel the daggers from Sandy’s eyes. Naturally, missing out on lunch was now my fault. Naturally.

This was the first time any of us have been on the Eurostar. My own expectations were very quickly shattered. I sort of half expected we’d be able to just make our way to the platform and wait for the train. Oh no. It very quickly became clear that the security and customs checks would rival those of air travel. It was bad enough that we had to manhandle our entire luggage (three large and rather heavy suitcases, several backpacks and a few other bags) onto individual trays and then onto the belt to go through the security X-ray scanner…and of course off again at the other side – all with hoards of other travellers all around us. Stress levels were already heightened because of the lost lunch opportunity but they quickly got very much worse when Joey flared up at the prospect of temporarily loosing access to his Lego toy he was nursing, as it, too, apparently needed to go through the scanner. The situation escalated rapidly with a full-blown meltdown just starting to kick in, so I spoke to one of the attendants and explained that I had an autistic child that was about to lose it if he wasn’t allowed to hold on to his toy. The staff member said he’d have to get permission from his supervisor and he darted off to find someone. This left us holding up the steadily heaving queue, of course. Now, in addition to Sandy’s daggers, I could feel the eyes of a dozen other irate passengers also piercing through my bloody skull. Lovely. Just what I need right now. After a few minutes, all the while trying to keep Joey calm and ignoring the indignant stares from everyone else around me, the supervisor arrived. I explained the situation and he said it would be OK for Joey to keep hold of the Lego as he walked through the metal detectors but he did ask his subordinate to swab the toy – presumably to check for explosives. It was at this point that I remembered Paul and his fecking spud launcher. He and Joey had been using a spray propellant to prime the bloody canon. I suddenly had a nightmare vision of teams of security guards descending on us when they detected traces of explosives from Joey’s toy. Great!

The entire process of security and passport checks were every bit as onerous as you might imagine but we were eventually through and into the departure lounge. As it happened, we must have been on the tail end of the entire complement of passengers as there was now just about nowhere left for all of us to sit. With the trip expecting to be almost three hours, we explored the departure lounge for something to eat. Fortunately, there was somewhere. Unfortunately, it was only one option and, of course, we were a captive audience and the prices reflected this accordingly. We hadn’t even reached Paris and the fecking sticker shock was already kicking in.

So, after mortgaging the house…again…we ate one of the least satisfying meals we’ve ever eaten. And I use the word meal quite wrongly. Dried clumps of nutritionally deficient cardboard mulch would probably be more accurate.

With the memory of the meal not fading fast enough, the boarding of our train was called and thirty thousand people all stood up at once and immediately piled into the very narrow entrance to the platform. Who designs these places anyway!?

I’m not quite sure how but we somehow managed to get the kids and luggage onto the train. There’s a luggage compartment space at the end of the carriage by the door but it was all but full by the time we got onto the train. In fact, I think we were among the last passengers to board. This meant I had to manhandle three tons of other people’s bloody luggage around first to make space for ours. You’d think people would put their heaviest bags on the bottom, right? But no! Also, there’s just enough space in the gangway there for a single person to stand whilst stowing luggage but that didn’t stop people from wanting to push past me to get to their seats – despite it being obvious what I was trying to do. Bloody French!

So, we did eventually make it into our seats. To be honest, they were quite comfortable – better than I was expecting, albeit just a little bit cramped. We had a table section with two seats either side of the table and a nice big window to watch the world go by at over 330 Kph. There was WiFi on-board but it was sketchy at best and it took me the better part of an hour to get yesterday’s blog and photos up on the website. The AirB&B host e-mailed me whilst we were en-route. He wanted an updated on our arrival time. I replied that we were on the train and gave him our expected arrival time.

We arrived at Paris’ Gare Du Nord train station on time. Since we weren’t that far from the end of the carriage, and our luggage was now placed with the most ready access, we left the train to join the rest of the sheeple onto the platform. It seems we were on one of the carriages closest to the back of the train, as it took ages for us to inch forward to the front of the platform and into the main terminal space. It has to be said, Gare Du Nord is a bit of a shithole. It looks old, dilapidated and really quite run down. It also seems to suffer from inherent design flaws and quite unable to accommodate the number of people using it. Of course, with the arrival of our train, plus about thirty others by the looks of things, it was absolutely bursting at the seams with people. Many of those wanted to move faster than a family of four with several tons of luggage were able to move, so we were constantly being nudged and pushed aside. Bloody French! The family all found somewhere reasonably safe to park whilst I went to find out some transport options. I asked at the information booth about using the metro. When I pointed to the rest of the family and luggage, she chuckled…at me…and gave me a very French look. It was the kind of look that said you bloody stupid Englishman, do you really think you are going to manage navigating the French underground with that lot in tow and not lose a bag…or child…in the process? Bloody French!

Fortunately, there was a man at the taxi rank that spoke passable English. He was managing the queue of travellers into the fast flowing stream of taxis. I showed him the address we needed to get to which, wouldn’t you know it, is on the other bloody side of Paris. He also chuckled…at me. He did stop laughing after a while and said it should cost around €25 for a taxi ride there. The metro would be considerably cheaper but this situation called for a tossing out of all the fucks I had remaining, which admittedly wasn’t many at this point, and throwing caution, and the budget with it, to the wind.

The taxi driver was quite chatty on the ride over to Malakoff. He pointed out a few interesting things here and there in his broken but understandable English. We actually drove through the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. Once he pointed this out, it immediately looked familiar.

The driver was good enough to handle the entire luggage for us. He did this at both ends of the journey and I gave him €30 for the trip, which he seemed happy with. He dropped us off right at the door to the apartment complex where our AirB&B apartment was located. The driver left and I walked up to the gate. There was an intercom there but no combination of buttons we attempted seemed to do anything. What now? Fortunately, there was a phone number on the paperwork I, also fortunately, brought with me so I gave that a try. It went straight to voicemail. Buggar! Here we are, in the middle of some leafy Paris back alley with our entire luggage and no way of getting off the street. Bloody French!

After a few more attempts at dialling that same phone number – what other choice did we have – someone did eventually answer. It was a woman. She spoke reasonably good English and said someone would be there to let us in. As it turned out, it was this same woman that showed up a few minutes later. She was the mother of the man that we had booked the apartment with on the AirB&B website. She showed us the code to get in and then introduced us to our new home for the next three days. It was at this point that things really started to look up for us. The place is just gorgeous. It’s a modern, fully equipped, two-story apartment and looks like it was built less than a year ago. It’s all modern and the whole place looks and feels like a 4-star hotel – everything is absolutely pristine. I was half-expecting a run-down hovel but this couldn’t be further from that. We have free WiFi and it’s walking distance from two metro stations as well as a range of shops. It’s situated in a leafy and extremely picturesque suburb of Southern Paris called Malakoff. We feel like we hit the jackpot with this one.

We settled in and then our host’s mother led Jennifer and me on a short walk to see where the shops were. We bid her farewell and then collected a few provisions, like eggs, bread, bacon, etc. By the time we got back, Joey was starting to get a bit defiant. This is often a sign of hunger or tiredness so we wasted no time in heading out to find the metro station with the ultimate aim of finding somewhere to eat – specifically a Maccas, as that usually does the trick with him when he gets like this.

At the station, which was admittedly a tad longer walking than we expected, we tried to see about getting some three-day passes. It may be that something got lost in translation but the woman at the information booth seemed to suggest we should wait until tomorrow to buy the passes and that we should buy a block of ten one-time-use passes for today for around €16 instead, which we did.

We boarded the metro train to Mont Parnasse, which is four stops up the line. This is where our host’s mother suggested we go, as it was replete with restaurants – including a Maccas. We made it to that station and emerged onto street level. We could indeed see quite a few restaurants but not what we were looking for so I popped my head into a nearby taxi to ask the driver if he could direct us. He sent us down one of the boulevards, where we did find the Maccas we were looking for. The next logistical challenge would be how to order our particular variety of food without speaking any French. As luck would have it, this Maccas had those touch screen terminals, where you can order and modify to your heart’s content – in English, no less. After some finagling, we finally had it all plugged in and I tried to pay using my global currency card. Payment was declined, so I tried again. Payment was declined a second time. Why was this happening? There’s plenty of money on the card. A third attempt was met with the same failure, so we just assumed it was because it needed to be paid for with a signature instead of a pin number, which these machines couldn’t accommodate. We printed out the order and took it to the cashier instead. When I tried paying there, it failed also but this time there was an error on the screen – something about too many failed payment attempts. It seems the three attempts to pay at the touch-screen machine were enough to cause a block on the card. Buggar! That’s one of our two cards now out of commission. We’ll have to remedy that with the bank in the near future. Fortunately, our second card was still working.

Sadly, the Maccas food was really quite awful – a real disappointment after what we had to go through to get here. Maybe it’s because we’re just used to how it’s done in Australia but everything was just…well, cardboard really.

Awful or not, shovelling some grub down did perk the kids up a bit. We left Maccas and hailed a taxi to take us to somewhere close to the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t want to go right up to the base but to somewhere we could take some nice evening photos. The driver took us to the Place Du Trocadero, which did indeed afford us a truly magnificent view of the tower. The place was just heaving with tourist – many of who were toting selfies-sticks – and dozens of touts trying to hawk various bits of toot. Somewhat on the parting advice of the taxi driver as we got out of the car, I kept a close eye on our belongings, keeping everything safely tucked away. With the sheer volume of tourists here, the pickpockets are out in force.

At a balmy 22 degrees Celsius, there was but a whiff of a breeze with an overcast but dry sky. The weather couldn’t really have been any better and we spent a good hour or so just mingling around and enjoy the show the tower was putting on by just being there. The iron girder structure was slowly being lit up as the dusk rolled in and it looks absolutely spectacular. By around 9 p.m., when it was starting to get dark, we decided to head off back to our new home base in Malakoff. We hailed a taxi, which took us there for €17.

Back at base, we loaded all the photos and I wrote up the notes for my blog. I’m still a day behind but with the completion of this sentence, I’m now done with this blog entry about 24 hours late.