France: The Land that Dentistry Forgot

Our hotel receptionist in Fontainebleau had a passing resemblance to Keira Knightley, which got us a bit excited.

I went to Paris last weekend. It was an impulse thing. I was called by an old Deutsche Bank buddy on Wednesday. He had organised a weekend to France with his wife and she had to cancel on him because she was working on a research report on Greek banks for Merrill Lynch. Wade (the friend in question) put out a call offering the hotels as he could not cancel the reservations. A quick discussion revealed that my girlfriend had no interest in the trip because she had to go horseback riding, and also because she had been to Paris on a trip during high school and had been so traumatised by it that she never wanted to return. Kind of like a school trip I once did to Apollo Bay where I ended up with burnt shoes and 13 stitches in my left thumb, but that’s another story.

I hurriedly returned Wade’s call with the proposal: Maybe he could get a weekend pass from his wife permitting his absence, and he and I could turn it into a road trip of College-Days proportions. Being married, and sensing he had some vague moral high ground as the wife had cancelled the trip and not him, and he had left the toilet seat down, and not snored too much the previous week when he went out for drinks, which had not gone on much past 11pm, he readily agreed.

Now putting a lie to the theory that it is really cheap to travel around Europe, it cost me €160 for a return train ticket. I probably could have got it cheaper flying, but I did book the day before, and so missed out on any Super-Saver tickets. I blanched when the ticket agent told me the amount, but I reassured myself that this is what road trips are all about: commitment to the cause. It is like when you get called and told to come down for lunch at Portsea, and you think it will take about an hour to get there, and then an hour later you realise that you are out of Minties and low on petrol and it is going to take you another hour and a half to get to the fucking pub, where you will be able to enjoy about three beers and then jump in the car to motor on home for another two and a half hours. Then you say to yourself: It isn’t a road trip without commitment. And a sense of suffering.

Anyway, I left Cologne at 10am, something that was surprisingly difficult, because I had to set an alarm for the first time in eight months. Do not underestimate how belligerent I felt that morning, especially for a man who is renowned for his morning belligerence. It was, however, a painless four-hour train ride to Gare du Nord, Paris, via Aachen, Liege, and Brussels—a combination of picturesque countryside, particularly in France, and some of the best in post-war architectural experimentation.

I got into a glorious sun-drenched Paris at 2pm and strategically shifted my wallet to my front pocket to deter pickpockets. Wade had given me the address of the hotel, a Best Western on Rue Berbere du Opera. He suggested taking the Metro to the station called Opera and figuring it out from there. I was in no rush, and indeed Wade would not get in on the Eurostar until 11pm, so I thought it would be the next adventure. It had been a couple of years since I was last in Paris, but the Metro is pretty easy to navigate, so I was quickly on my way.

I arrived at Opera Metro, looked at the local street map and could find no reference to Rue Berbere. Little did I know that “du Opera” allegedly linked to Rue Berbere was in fact a solid twenty-minute walk away, roughly equidistant between my current position and Gare du Nord. But I was on holiday, and so I took the opportunity to wander the streets and get reacquainted with Paris. After orientating myself, by loitering around tourists with less of an idea than I did, I made my way across town and checked in, then settled down to the all important holiday activity of taking an afternoon nap.

An hour and a half later, I was up and ready to see a few sights prior to the commencement of the France/Greece game in the Euro 2004 football tournament. It was 6pm and so I knew no official sites would be open, but all I really wanted to do was walk around and absorb the vistas, having visited a lot of these destinations in previous years. I caught the Metro to just south of the Seine, and crossed the bridge to Notre Dame, and then followed the river towards the Louvre (as made famous in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—yes, the glass pyramids are there, wherein is held the proof that Jesus shagged Mary Magdalene and therefore 2000 years of priestly celibacy is all a particularly cruel joke at the expense of pre-pubescent children the world over) and beyond, up the Champs Elysee to the Arc du Triomph, built so Napoleon’s troops could celebrate their impressive victories over the Italians, Prussians, and Habsburgs. I sat there and tried to imagine what it would have been like to see the world’s largest Contiki tour for Germans come through sixty years ago. I wondered what their trip song was to get them up in the morning. I then pondered the idea of opening a Museum of Military History in Germany, a long-held concept that I think just might work if there is an audacious foreigner in the lead. After some pleasant day-dreaming, I realised I was late and so I ran to the Metro to find a suitable venue to watch the game.

It ended up being another loss for the French, albeit somewhat less degrading than a two-month collapse in the face of twelve Panzer divisions (and associated support). Greece scored late in the second half and the French went home early. The hopes for a wild night out in Paris evaporated. I retired to McDonald’s for a couple of cheeseburgers, then the off-license for a couple of cans of beer, and then the hotel to await Wade’s imminent arrival.

Which duly occurred at 11:15pm.

We rapidly moved to the street level to soak up the local night-time ambience. A nearby bar provided the first comfortable base. The second was an Irish pub, O’Sullivans, my mother’s maiden name, which was busy, exhibiting the as yet unexplained attraction of Irish bars across the world. As you can well believe, Wade and I were pursued by a number of hot, teenage, gagging-for-it French chicks, but we were looking for a more sophisticated crowd and moved to the neighbouring salsa bar at 1am after a quick call to a London friend to find out where “the cool places” were. The bar was playing a lot of Beyonce for a salsa club and we did an admirable job of drinking Paris’ third worst caipirinha while ogling the dance floor, in true businessman style. At least Wade had taken his tie off. Bed soon thereafter.

Next morning we were up at 10am, off to petit dejuneur at a nearby locale and then to the largest flea market in France, at Clignacourt. Wade was looking for some 1930s travel posters that are currently de rigueur with certain elements of Manhattan society and the bars they frequent. The flea market certainly had its share of disreputable characters selling all lengths and widths of string and wire, but we found our man, who lamented the lack of tourists, and hence the knock-off price he gave us, and the fact that Napoleon had been so strong and now France had nothing. There is nothing like the lament of the state-educated, small-time businessman with a penchant for airport novels. I should have asked him if he had read the follow-up to Chariots of the Gods.

We were now under some time pressure. Up until this point, it had been a standard road trip, all drinking and travel posters and hot women and petit dejuneur. But the real reason for our odyssey was something else. It was 1pm in Paris and we had to be 85 kilometres away, in Samois-sur-Seine at 4:30pm to watch the opening act at the Django Reinhardt memorial jazz festival.

If you don’t know anything about this festival then I won’t hold it against you. Django Reinhardt was a musician who pioneered a certain type of jazz, gypsy jazz, in the ‘30s. After a disappointing visit to America, he returned to France and settled in the hamlet of Samois-sur-Seine where he later died. His style of music never reached a wide audience, dwindling to the point that (it is reputed) there were only three bars left in Paris that kept the music alive, although they presumably also did a little Open Stage Poetry on Monday nights after The Simpsons. And there was this annual gathering at the place he was buried, Samois-sur-Seine. Then a couple of years ago, as far as I can remember from somewhat blurred conversations, Woody Allen did a film loosely based on the Django Reinhardt story and the festival started to gain a little more attention, until its glorious form today: about eight hundred people milling around and watching the one stage, and a little impromptu jamming on the side, on a small island in the Seine. Check out the festival’s website and marvel at the splendidly slipshod translation.

But what did I care? I never really got into jazz and I was miles away. So Wade and I started moving with a purpose. Efforts to hail a taxi at Clignacourt failed utterly. Sure, there were five parked at a sign that said Taxi, but it looked like we had got there during their coffee break. So we took the Metro back to the hotel, and our bags, and got the hotel to call a cab that arrived in four minutes. Off to Gare du Lyon, three different queues for a ticket and a casual Croque Monsieur and half a litre of beer before the train ride at 2:47pm.

3:30pm and we arrive in Fontainebleau, home of INSEAD and a hotel receptionist with a passing resemblance to Keira Knightley which got us a bit excited. Our hotel, La Napoleon, was appropriate and when we called for a cab to get to the festival, they said it would take half an hour. A quick beer (330ml) and at 4:15 we were in the cab and the meter said €32.00 and counting. This was before the six-kilometre trip to the festival. Wade judiciously questioned the sum and we were told that Fontainebleau taxi drivers only work from Monday to Friday. So on the weekend, taxis are called from a presumably less unionised neighbouring village, hence our starting cost. Needless to say, I was a little shocked. But what does one do when you are stuck a few miles from your goal, with a deadline to meet? So we accepted that this was in some way a karmic debt being repaid, and if we have any luck it will haunt the Fontainebleau taxi drivers, especially the next time I have to give investment advice to a French pension fund manager.

We got to the festival about half way through the first set, so not a bad outcome all things considered. Wade’s brother, Carter, was on stage playing along with Alfonso Ponticelli and the band Swing Gitan. They were rocking the audience with some great, fast-paced gypsy jazz with a few ad hoc inclusions such as The Simpsons theme and a bit of Scorpions. After the set, the following band that came on seemed to be a bit more traditional and slow-paced and it threatened to send me to sleep, so Wade and I grabbed his brother, his brother’s wife, and miscellaneous others and off we went to while away a few hours drinking beer, listening to the odd bit of gypsy jazz and just hanging out in the sunshine. At 10 pm we caught a shuttle bus back into Fontainebleau, walked half an hour to get back to the hotel and ‘enjoyed’ a late night kebab. Keira Knightley was no longer on duty.

Sunday morning and it was going to be a busy day in transit. Petit dejuneur was coffee and croissant, and a casual wander around the local chalet grounds and a chance to look at the peacocks. Then I left Wade and Co. and made for home, which was speedy and not really that interesting.

Research shows that France has the lowest per capita consumption of deodourant products in the EU. I believe it.

Number and duration of sexual escapades: nil (but I nearly got to be a roadie)

Gender of sexual escapade partner/s: N/A

Number of orifices “engaged” during sexual escapades: N/A

Number of independent observers to sexual escapades (including cameraman): N/A

Amount and type of drugs consumed: Coke: nil; Weed: nil; E: nil; Amyl: nil; LSD/Hallucinogens: nil; Cigarettes: nil; Alcohol: est. 5 litres of beer

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