On being in Paris

The smell of roasting rubber from the metro is a mere tickle compared to the hammering aromas of fresh bread, seafood and cheese. Looking up to the grey sky, you don’t feel so bad as you would on a similar day across the Channel.

You’re in Paris.

What can be whittled from this majestic stick of French that hasn’t been said before? The streets are wide, the food is delicious and the people are French. Walking the streets, you feel as if you were in one colossal museum – there are monuments, ancient buildings, lively artist corners and sophisticated types strolling in all directions. Like in England, the hangover of lost colonial power is apparent in France, but it’s done with so much style; you can forgive them their pride and lose yourself in a imperial reverie of wine and fragrant butter sauces.

Far from being snobbish, the people are warm and only too happy to help you with barking corrections if you give their language a go. Every day I witnessed tourists slobbering orders in English to stunned service workers. In a bakery  I saw a man demand a baguette in Englis,h and attempted to indicate the width of the loaf he desired by flapping his arms like an irate seagull. The teenager behind the counter was either too offended or too amused to react. Just before things hit melting point, a woman standing in line translated, the zombie got his bread and retreated.  If a French person did something similar in Australia they would be immediately sent to a detention facility and deported the following decade.

So determined to play by the rules, I stammered out what remained of my French language skills and surprisingly, I got by relatively well. Some were flattered that I’d taken the time as an Anglophone to even open a French grammar book (which is a bit of a polite exaggeration, but  a nice compliment nonetheless). The folk selling trinkets beneath the Eiffel Tower and those trying to scam money weren’t so appreciative when I told them to ‘fuck off’.

In the areas where tourists tend to congregate, you can guarantee that someone will approach you to ask you for money at least once every fifteen minutes. I learned to ignore pleas of ‘Do you speak English?’, but there was one trick I’d never seen: someone pretends to pick up something from the ground in front of you, a ring or a coin, and then presents it to you as if you had dropped it. Insisting that you take the trinket, they congratulate you, then proceed to ask you for money to compensate them for having brought such good fortune upon your package holiday.

“Va te faire!”

On being in Amsterdam as a tourist

Ahh, Amsterdam – the watery princess of the North! Exuding chaos and beauty through your sinewy canals, home to a thousand bicycles and iron hooks from which you can dangle furniture, and magnet for people of all persuasions – particularly young continentals looking to get stoned.

The novelty of Amsterdam takes a few visits to wear down because you’re hardly on the plane on the way back from wherever you came from and you’re planning your next weekend to the city. This of course is due to your still altered state of consciousness whereby you hold the unwavering belief that you could subsist on joints, hot chips and cake for the rest of your terrestrial existence. Reality often kicks in when you are asked to communicate with someone born of the prevailing system and all you can manage is a string of warbling nonsense surrounded by pauses long enough in which to pour a pint of Guinness.

However Amsterdam is more than this: you will notice, if you are a male, or care to frequent the male toilets, that they paint tiny flies on the urinals. The idea is that you will instinctively aim at the fly when you piss and not on the floor, nor presumably on the person standing next to you. This can only mean that people in the Netherlands either take great delight in urinating on insects or on the floor, but not both at the same time.

You can also see the world’s largest collection of working bikes near the Central Station, crammed into a split-level parking lot on the canal. It is a marvel to witness how this modern city functions without reliance on the car, unlike so many other western metropolises. The prevalence of the bike has led to some astonishingly innovative two-wheeled contraptions such as the bike/trailer combination; the “bike for the whole family” bike, with a seat for mum and dad and two kids; and the reclining bike, which is the only personal displacement vehicle in which you can rest, smoke a doobie and exercise at the same time. The unicycle is notably absent.