Saturday, November 27, 2010

In November we go to London

American friends visiting Paris, here to write a travel blog — 30 days in Paris —  quizzed me on buying Eurostar tickets and making hotel bookings in London. At first I thought, how strange, that a travelog on Paris would need to include London. But for those of us who live between lands, London is as much a part of Paris as Monoprix and the metro. And in November, that’s what we do: we are all, at some stage in the month, on the Eurostar to London. In November, the Christmas lights that turn Paris into a fairytale land have not yet been put up. And in November, when the rains of October are done with, before it gets really cold and the Eurostar gets stuck in the tunnel, the streets of London are at their best. For those of us in the English speaking community here, London is a suburb of Paris in the way that Brooklyn is a suburb of New York City. Some of us go to great lengths to avoid the train journey over (or under) the water, convincing our friends we, not they, are at the center of the world, and therefore they must travel to us. While some of us commute it daily, and others of us even love it so much we eventually move there, still others go for the shopping (still more interesting in London than Paris), the art or to have dinner with an old friend. Whatever our relationship to London, for all of us, it is somewhere on the expatriate map of Paris.

It was because of London that I moved to Paris. No longer able to afford the expense of London, Paris was to halve my living costs. But it wasn’t only the expense of London that eventually forced me to take up residence in the 11th arrondissment. It was the difficulty of living as an English speaking foreigner in a city that insisted, daily, on the fact that I didn’t belong. Being a foreigner in a city of people who speak the same language is more alienating than living in a foreign language. In London I was expected to belong, expected to be a part of and to share the values and cultural reference points, the social mores and customs, all because I spoke the same language. But the English language is where my affinity with this world not only begins but ends. 

It was, perhaps, because I did not take the Eurostar to London, and instead travelled from my job in southeast England on the local Southeastern trains, that the difficulties of living in England came flooding back to my mind. When I traveled to London in November to see the Muybridge exhibition, I was reminded of all the reasons why Paris is easier than London. Funnily enough, it is primarily because of, not despite, the fact that English is my first language. In London, I was overwhelmed, frustrated and resentful at the dominance of the negative. In November I found myself flailing in London’s culture of no. As an Australian, London is stressful, nothing works, the idea of customer service is a misnomer, a tube strike means total shutdown of all public transport, and if I want to buy a ticket for something, an event, a talk, a train or a day at the races, there’s a fairly good chance that the answer will be: “no."

Louise Bourgeois' Mother
Another British custom that has always bemused me is their erection of barriers, everywhere. When I lived in London I could never swim laps in the public pool because they cordoned off the 50m blissful expanse of water into boxes, each box occupied by a different group: children, the aerobics class that looked and behaved more like water lilies, and lap swimming was relegated to one 20m lane. The English also like to build walls in their houses – the idea of a huge open space, must somehow frighten them. Not like me whose country is 5000 miles wide with nothing on that road. I imagine, for the English, an open space might offer too much possibility, freedom and the promise of desire. Knowing the British passion for building barriers, you would think I would be able to laugh in the face of them. But no! When I tried to enter the train station in Canterbury in November, new turnstiles had been installed. Unsurprisingly, these “high tech” machines rejected my ticket. A man stood watching me, the train in the station, ready to leave on the other side of the barrier. He wouldn’t let me through even though my ticket was valid, insisting there must be a reason why the turnstile rejected my ticket. It is moments like these, traveling in London and England, that I long for the metro etiquette of going through the turnstile with the stranger in front of me, and knowing that if I miss my train, I will wait a maximum of three minutes, not one hour, for the next one.

Metro at Gare du Nord

I know such comparisons are a cheap rhetorical device. Especially because many might argue that Paris is also predominantly, a culture of no. But my experience in Paris is that they start with “no” and slowly but surely, through persistence and good humor on the part of the petitioner, the Parisians always end up at “yes.” This may be for myriad reasons that I don’t understand because I am not French. Just as I don’t fully understand the British culture of no. Perhaps it is their fear of the consequence of doing things differently. Or it may even be because of a pride in jobs they approach with a solid protestant work ethic. However, what I do know is that it is far more enjoyable to flirt with the French ticket officer, plead ignorance and naievety in foreigners’ French, than it is to understand every word of a crusty old Englishman with an illogical rationalization he passes as justification. Repartee with a Frenchman, in French, is a delight, and when I become drawn into pleading in English with the "cheers Chas crew" before I am even on the train to London, I can't wait to get back on the Eurostar, and home to Gare du Nord.

Eurostar train at Gare du Nord

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this piece---I was an exchange student in London via the Rotary Club during my junior year in high school. I must say, i did enjoy the pubs in jolly ole! And yes, Paris does have a softness to it--you can beg the waiter to bring some ice and finally, you get it. Yes, they finally say yes! I'm glad the pubs in England didn't say no to the lager and lime!