The first signs of spring had begun to break through the wintry chill with a short sunny spell and pleasantly mild temperatures. This was too good to be true however, as le grand froid has made its way back over to the capital – it feels like this winter is never-ending. The first of the month was celebrated with a soirée chez Grégory, which are always a good laugh. As well as the usual drinking games, this time round we had a go at playing Taboo – it was obviously the first time I had played in French, though I wasn’t half bad surprisingly, and learnt some new vocabulary! The day after was spent adventuring around Montmartre, an area which I thought I had made more or less a clean sweep of – just goes to show that places always have their secrets and that there are always things that go unnoticed. First on the agenda was a visit to Musée de Montmartre, where there is currently an exhibition on Le Chat Noir, the infamous 19th-century cabaret opened in Paris’s bohemian quartier. It is probably best known by its iconic Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen poster art, which is currently to my left in my petit appart. Part artistic salon, part rowdy nightclub, it was the first venue for avant-garde artists in the capital. The exposition takes one back to avant-garde Paris during the 1800s, recreating the unconventional and experimental literary, artistic and musical atmosphere at the fin-de-siècle with the works of big name and unknown artists. A place of innovation and improvisation, coming to life each night with songs, stories and spectacles, Le Chat Noir was the venue where bohemians would congregate, all with one aim in mind: “Je cherche fortune, autour du Chat noir, au clair de la lune, à Montmartre le soir…” A really interesting exposition which allows one to discover the colourful history behind one of Paris’s most charming and artistic areas. I then had hot chocolate with the fellow Sorbonne students with whom I had visited the museum and discussed with a French friend the differences between the English and French uni system – which promptly reminded me about the horrific thought of my forever growing student debt (lets sweep this to one side for now…) Myself and Boryana then took a stroll down to Le Mur des je t’aime, a place where love literally comes together in every language. We spent quite a while searching for the carvings we could identify, and were then approached by a Korean guy who asked us if we would pay 10 cents for a poem inspired by our names. He was travelling round the world with barely any money, something which I highly commend and would love to do myself one day, so we thought why not.
That evening a group of us decided to try out a swing night at La Bellevilloise around Gambetta, which a stone’s throw away from where I live conveniently enough (no last/first metro dilemma pour moi!) Though entry and drinks were a little bit pricey, the venue was pretty impressive, comprising of three floors, where the basement was full of swing dancers and later housed the performance of a very authentic and entertaining swing group. We had only had one drink, yet myself and Grégory were drunk on the atmosphere and were cheering and screaming during the whole performance. Result – no voice the next morning.
On the Sunday myself and the girls ventured to Fontainebleau, a quaint little town just 50km south of Paris, which is a favourite getaway spot for Parisians wanting to escape from the capital for a weekend. After a walk through a small corner of its vast forest, we had lunch in a little restaurant where I had a great pizza. Fuelled up and ready to go, we headed over to the castle and were pleasantly surprised that we had chosen the right weekend – being the first of the month, entry was free. I am forever astounded by France’s immense number of castles (you will see that this entry follows a rather castle-orientated theme with two more visited in the last two weeks…) As my French relative informed me, each village has at least one castle, so it’s not a surprise that every region is blessed with an array of impressive châteaux. Built as an alternative residence from Château de Versailles where the kings could relax away from the goings-on in Paris and hunt in its vast grounds, the castle’s walls have welcomed members from every royal dynasty to have ruled over France – the Capétiens, Valois, Bourbons, Bonaparte and Orléans. The apartments’ luxurious and opulent décor inside is matched by the castle’s long and varied architectural facades arrayed against its great gardens. As always, this château français failed to disappoint.
On Tuesday the girls organized a night out, starting with un apéro chez moi before heading to Duplex on Champs-Elysées for a specially Spanish night. Being an Erasmus party, it was crowded and full of dragueurs (guys on the pull trying to chat you up usually in extremely bad English). Aside from the usual Erasmus party nuisances, it was a pretty good night with the girls. So much so that I ended up pulling une nuit blanche (all-nighter). Once seeing off the rest of the girls safely at Châtelet after our noctilien (standard night bus journey involving a guy taking pictures of us and claiming that it was for Paris Fashion Week…), myself and Boyrana took an early morning stroll through a surreally deserted Paris to get back to hers. It was so peaceful and calm, which is a rarity indeed. Back at Boyrana’s I saw the reality of the so-called galère du logement that hits so many students in Paris – the 9m² apartment. Whilst perfectly situated smack bang in the middle of the quartier Latin, it’s compact to say the least. That being said, it makes the most of the little space it has, with both a shower and toilet somehow fitting inside. After a cheeky hot choc and more girly chit chat until the crack of dawn, I left at around 7h30 to take one of the first metros back to mine to sort myself out before lessons and work (a knackering day to say the least.)
On Thursday I had one of my regular wanders around Le Marais, an area sandwiched between Saint-Paul and République which is a great little place to have a promenade. We also headed to over to Le Port de l’Arsenal which links Paris’ canal network together. Likewise with walking around Paris at 5am, it was bizarre when down by the water edge to be in a place that was more or less deserted. Even in the most bustling and busiest of capitals, it is always possible to find a haven of tranquillity. Though this weekend gone, I followed the Parisian trend and upped for the countryside in Picardie with my French and Belgian relatives. I can appreciate why those who can afford it opt for a second home in the countryside – fresh air, more space, promenades in the fields, fresh produce grown in one’s own backyard… But a weekend for me, I’m afraid, is sufficient – I’m a city rat through and through. I really enjoyed the luxury of being cooked for all weekend (always appreciated by lazy students), and what’s more the taste of La vraie bouffe française – crusty French bread, freshly made frites, melt in the mouth meringues, perfect patisseries… Whilst my French relative can’t get her head around my vegetarianism, she was very understanding – on the Sunday she even tried to find me a veggie burger for lunch, though got a rather disgusted look in the supermarket when inquiring! She, like a certain French monsieur, is convinced that I will be eating meat by the end of my year here. I, however, am convinced that this will never happen – and seeing how rare the French usually eat their steak tatare does not tempt me to break the 21 years of vegetarianism just yet. Leaving the small village Vic-Sur-Aisne on Sunday afternoon, we paid a quick visit to some more of my distant French relatives in Compiègne. It’s a very quaint and pretty little commune in Northern France, with a rather exquisite castle.
I am sorry to continue the castle overload, but, once back in Paris, I found myself again within the walls of yet another fortress. Dating back originally from the Middle Ages and restored during the Renaissance, Château de Vincennes contrasts greatly with the other two castles I have visited recently. Unlike the lavish décor displayed in Château de Fontainebleau and Château de Compiègne, it is the medieval structure of this immense fortress that is to be admired. With its dungeon towering at 50 metres, it is the vastest royal fortified castle in France and one of the highest fortresses in Europe. We followed a tour guide which embellished our visit with lots of facts – plus we had a rather entertaining petit garçon who loved questioning just about everything that came out of the guide’s mouth.
And then yesterday Paris was once swept up once again in a flurry of snow which interrupted plans for the day… Though this didn’t stop myself and Boryrana trudging over to Anvers to see Of Monsters and Men, an Icelandic group, at Le Trianon – a great little venue which was originally a theatre. They were absolutely amazing live – we hadn’t realised just how many members there actually were, with the two singers accompanied by an extensive band. When seeing non-Anglophone groups singing in my mother tongue, I do often find it a shame that artists nowadays almost feel that it is compulsory to sing in English in order to become a commercial success. That being said, their English was very impressive (their French, on the other hand, was non-existent!) Its always interesting for me to compare English and French crowd culture when watching a performance: learning French chants, cheers and how to ask an encore… it’s all vital knowledge if you ask me!
So that’s my last two weeks as a twenty year old summed up – hitting the big 21 this Friday eek! Looking forward to celebrating it here with both new and old friends coming from every corner of the world – only during a year abroad!
Musée de Montmartre: 12/14 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris (expo on Le Chat Noir running until 2 June)
La Bellevilloise: 19-21 rue Boyer, 75020 Paris
Le Trianon: 80 boulevard Rochechouart, 75018 Paris