September 28, 2013

Paris for the n'th time

We got a brilliant night time bus tour as we rolled in to Paris and to the hostel. While I'd booked ahead, I got stuck with having to swap back and forth between hostels. I started at the prescribed one, being the same St Christopher's I went to with Madde back when I had my first visit from London.  I joined a roommate from the Netherlands down in the bar for a quiet night with mediocre Parisian De Mory beer. We accepted the hospitality of a rather drunken Frenchman in the bar who shouted a round of yager-bombs before heading up to bed. Hostel charm.

I wasn't going to be denied one more time at the opera house so I went to Opera Garnier first thing in the morning, getting my booking for the tour. There was some time to wait so I strolled down to the Tulleries Gardens to read under a tree for a while. On the way back, I joined some Eminem groupies as they waited for the notorious rapper to emerge from the exclusive hotel. I only stayed long enough to get a glimpse of his swaggering entourage but it was fun to know what the hype was all about.

The interior of the Opera Garnier was absolutely stunning, with all of the glitz and glamour that the art had assumed at the Napoleonic time when it was built. The staircases were built for flowing dresses and the building was set up for a structured procession of proceedings from room to room as the drawn out social event of the opera went on.

When we walked in to the main interval hall, I was absolutely dazzled. A room to rival the hall of mirrors in Versailles for sure. I didn't know so much about how it was done back then but I found out how the social convention was for women and men and how different it was to how we go now. Women stayed in the boxes and the men went out to conduct their business, following strict conventions in courtship and presentations when arriving at the house. In the main auditorium, at least they had the fantastic fresco by Cézanne, bringing colour, life and modernity in to an otherwise regimented space.


I took the afternoon nice and slow with a meandering walk to the Grand Palais, then going over the road to the Petit Palais where there was an all sorts museum with artefacts and art from all over the ages of France. While walking through the Petite Palais, I couldn't help but stop and wait a while. I sat there and absorbed the low rumble from the nearby Cafe where despite the amplification and echo of the tall vaulted veranda, the lush green courtyard lapped up the sound, transforming it in to something all the more soothing. The sky was dull with occasional patches of blue jumping at the eye but all was really made better by the long green banana leaves and a smatter of yellowing leaf reminding me that summer was indeed coming to an end.

That night I went out to the Eiffel tower to start a bike tour by night that I'd booked through Busabout. Strangely, by the time I got there, the groups were being divided up but when we went to show them our receipts, it appeared that our bookings hadn't been properly recorded and there wasn't space for all of us. The group of girls wanted to stick together so they left the spot for me, leaving quite disgruntled with the company and Busabout for giving them the false assurance that they had their spot saved.

I helped lead the bike convoy full of terrified riders over the hostile Paris roads as they were familiarized with the commands from the tour guide for single file, mob formation and bunching up. The tour had much less talking and information than I expected and for someone like me who would happily take to the roads at night anyway, it wasn't much of a novelty. We stopped for some good but terribly expensive gelato for a good 20 minutes and I started to doubt the quality of the tour but when we stopped by the ferry terminal on the side of the Seine, I was happy that we would get to see some sights from the water as well. The highlight was cracking open a good number of bottles of red over the course of the voyage, finding a funny

I had moved to a new hostel for the 2nd of 3 nights having not managed to get the middle night at my original hostel. I stuck with the St Christopher's brand and tried out their new hostel near Gare du Nord, a good 25 minute walk from the original. I made a new friend over breakfast we agreed on heading straight out to Musée d'Orsay to check out my favourite brand of art, French Impressionist. Sam was a casino cocktail waitress and body builder/sculptor from Alberta and it was interesting to hear about her rather different way of life. We got on well and after a good couple of hours of walking through the gallery, we both sat down to relax over lunch in the gallery. Having seen one of the waiters pass by with a decadent mille feuille, we decided to order and share one before heading back out to the gallery. There wasn't all that much time left in the day when we left the gallery and I had to head off to change hostel once again to be ready for the early pick up the next morning.

I rushed out of the hostel with some juice and a left over baguette that I still had packed from breakfast. I was on the run to the Bastille where I hoped to catch the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor they had that night. I was told that if you got to the ticket office 60 minutes before the show started, you could often get discount tickets but I was only there 45 minutes before after a long check in ordeal at the hostel. The line moved smoothly but by the time I got towards the front, number 4 in line, the tickets ran dry… Bitterly disappointed, I talked to the scalpers and looked out for any people who were trying to sell any leftover tickets from partners who hadn't been able to come. The options were thinning and I went back to a couple of scalpers but wasn't happy with their price, trying to haggle down by playing the student card and since I knew the market well enough but he knew too well that there were still enough people around to price me out of the market. There was one more guy with a ticket but even with the show having just started with the lock out in place, his deal was just a little too good to be true and having no way to check that his A4 print out ticket was genuine, I think I dodged a bullet by saying no.

I was rather desperate having come so close that I stayed outside the opera, waiting for the unlikely possibility that someone would be waiting around for their +1 to arrive or cancel, allowing me to step in and buy the otherwise un-used ticket. My luck was running thin and as it came to 20 minutes in to the first act, still outside, I asked a couple of open looking people as they left the house what they thought I could do, suggesting that I may be able to buy a ticket from someone if they left the opera having not liked the first half but they didn't give me too much encouragement as the line-up was star studded that night.

40 minutes in to the first half and I was almost ready to go home when I greeted and struck up conversation with a man as he left the main doors. As it turned out, he was the director of the French National Opera Young Artist's program. I asked him about the program and learned about it spanning all of the main opera houses in Paris and not just the Bastille or Garnier and just how many were currently on the program. He was very sympathetic to my plight that night and thought I should be able to see the opera so he took me inside to the ticket desk where he spoke quickly in French to the ladies before writing something on a small square of letterhead paper which would soon act as my VIP ticket. He told me to take the lift up to the 3rd floor where I could wait for the break in acts when an usher could show me in. I greeted the usher as I wondered towards the nearby late-comer's video screen but when I explained the situation, he just winked and lead me to the heavy auditorium doors. He showed me inside and pointed out that I could take up a position on the stairs of this upper balcony.

The second half of the act was in full swing and I could see everything through the thin balustrade in front of me. The Chorus was seated in a stark semi circle on stalls set 4 metres above the action below as long ramps broke up the stage and moved around between scenes. The singers were top notch and while the soprano was very different to the Emma Mathews version of Lucia I was involved with in Perth, it had a different sound that still made a lot of sense of the crazy character. I spent the interval exploring some more of that modern house. It was completed in 1990 with an obvious mission to make sight and sound accessible to every seat in the house. It wasn't the traditional horse shoe shape at all and with a capacity of close to 2700 it was obviously a house for some pretty big voices.

Having been told at the close of the first half by a couple of lovely old opera ladies (who I think were staff from somewhere else in the house) that I'd have to find a better place off the stairs to sit. I told them about by little white ticket and exclaimed that I could go and get a much better seat than where I had been before. I went down to the dress circle and the usher then told me that I could take any seat I wanted that wasn't currently used. I felt very privileged, especially considering the alternative of still being on the road side either attempting to get in in vain or having given up.

The opera closed with a fantastically supportive rupture of applause, making it a real night to remember and leaving me with the lesson that a friendly face and a polite tone can take you a long way when coupled with hopeful persistence.

I took the train back to the bar strip to catch up with Samantha for the evening session back at ye ol' faithful, O'Sullivans. It was still early so we took a couple of pints and then sat down, watching two classic Italian boys eye off people around the room. We had a lively chat about the transparency of it all but as the night wore on, we made guesses on who they would hook up with that night. It was that sort of place in a way. After a good dance and general wind up of the night, we caught a taxi back to her hostel (the people who lurk around Gare du Nord are bad news) then I carried on back home to mine.

Yet another early morning bus ride out but before, I took the time to enjoy the fruit I'd stocked up on before. Some banana slices to compliment my nutella baguettes in the morning was all I needed to brave the long ride to Bern.

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