Paris and Ireland

In La Paz, an electrician is wiring an apartment in a new part of town. In Melbourne, bartenders are rattling bottle bins into laneways. But in Waiting Room B of the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, there’s a British lady rifling through the trash for the piece of cake she accidentally tossed out and an American mother calling out to her colgate of brats, “Do you want to buy a souvenir?”. It’s 5:45pm but it’s never too late for binned brioche or a Carla Bruni keyring, now is it?

I’m finally bidding adieu to the arrondissements and architraves, the transparent bins and iron railings of Paris. Last time I wrote, the rain was keeping me indoors, away from the Bastille Day pomp and firework, away from a 44km walk.

John and I eventually dislodged ourselves from our Marais loft for a night in the 20th at Mama Shelter, a hotel penned by design guru Philippe Starck—a man who can pull off paunch, acne scars and leather pants at the same time. As it turns out, he can also pull off a hotel. Though I didn’t have time to discover much in the hip 20th (bar a Lebanese lunch spot where freshly-shaved bastourma and kibbeh sated my appetite), it is the well-known home to a hell of a lot of famous dead people. To tackle the tombs of Père Lachaise, I met up with Electra, my new partner in flâneurising, gourmandery and aestheticisation.

After some aimless meandering, we realised a map would be useful if we were to commune with the resting places of anyone other than various Barons of Mecklenburg. A pair of mopey Swedish girls curtly refused to tell us where they got their map from in two languages no less—has the country still not recovered from it’s relegation to the Eurovision wilderness? Anyway, we found a map and duly marched on. No one was doing anything remotely cool at Jim Morrison’s grave (you couldn’t even buy smack, I mean c’mon), while Oscar Wilde’s ostentatious plinth attracts all the loonies. Nearby, Marcel Proust has a humble little spot devoid of kisses, garbled tributes, misquotations and signed Metro stubs. Maybe the Proust fans need a gimmick too—like writing the title of their post-doctoral thesis in White Out or something. Maybe not.

After almost two weeks in Paris, the experience that stands out as the most Gallic was not the bronze shimmer of fried duck fat, nor the two students playing Django Reinhardt tunes to their friends on the banks of Île Saint Louis. No, it was a trip to the Roger Le Gall swimming pool via the Promenade Plantée. John and I had had a brief jogging flirtation with the Promenade earlier on, but it warranted revisiting. A disused train line, the Promenade begins just behind Place de la Bastille as raised brick arches and continues as an uninterrupted lineal park for several kilometres eastward. New York’s Highline is based on it, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke walked along it in Before Sunrise, it offers one of the most pleasant walks in Paris and, yet, thankfully, somehow, it remains largely free of tourists in a city that is bursting at the seams with them. In their place, is a jogger or two, a book-reading student, a homeless man and a crocodile line of kindergarten kids. After an hour or more of walking it, Electra and I emerged at the far edge of the 12th, a few steps from one of the only full-sized outdoor pools in Paris.

At its doorway was a simple sign explaining key rules: boardshorts forbidden, bathing caps obligatory. We had met the first requirement but the second prompted a visit to the pool’s vending machine, which doled out everything from goggles to rubber lifeboats. We decided to buy one bathing cap and take turns, though we acknowledged that stretching it over both our heads at the same time would have been much funnier. We split off into our gendered changing rooms and Electra, who “ne parle pas français”, promptly got a browbeating from a French lady for wearing her shoes over the no-shoes-beyond-this-line line—a border defended more fiercely than the Maginot Line ever was. Meanwhile, I almost faceplanted in a pool of tepid chlorinated water when I failed to notice the sheep-dip-style foot bath at the exit to the change rooms. Reaching the pool area, it very quickly became clear that, though bathing caps and budgie smugglers are de rigeur, wearing a bikini top is entirely optional. Sunbathing breasts dotted the horizon as pointed evidence of France’s stubborn but gratifying certainty in itself as a rational, rather than a moral state. A country where the veil is supposedly banned not because of what it represents but because “we need to be able to see you”. The continuing echoes of 1789

And then there was Ireland. My cousin Madelin and I had managed to co-ordinate travel plans so that we could reach Dublin on the same morning and, in a feat of triangulation that Pythagoras would have smirked at, we were met at the airport by Margie, erstwhile travel companion and Adelaidean, who has lived in Dublin long enough to say “grand” and “craic” but not so long as to forget the word “gumboot”.

After a quick stint in the capital that involved Irish beer (tick), Irish potatoes (tick), Irish butter (tick) and an excellent exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Mughal Empire (tick?), Madelin and I headed west to Galway, which served as launching pad for the wild coastlines, mountains and lakes of County Mayo, Connemara and the Aran Islands.

Housing us for our first night was Inishmore, a treeless island of cows, horses and the odd person. Those familiar with Father Ted won’t have to imagine what it looks like. A healthy dose of bike riding got us round most of the island in an afternoon. Even on a sunny day putting my feet in the Atlantic at a “swimmable” beach was a jaw-shatteringly cold experience, but watching the same icy waters crash underneath us as we sat in the ruins of a Neolithic cliff-top fort was much much more appropriate. Indeed, though the sun was gloriously present, the wind from the west destroyed any scraps of real warmth on the island, which meant that even in high summer smoke rose from the chimneys. And, thus, riding past cottages and farmhouses gave us our first experience of the humid, cigar-like whiff of a peat fire. There is something irrefutably primitive but pragmatic about burning the soil in your backyard and the ubiquitous scars of peat diggings and that smell followed us wherever we went. One thing has to be said, sitting in front of a peat fire has none of the romantic nor pyrotechnic appeal of a wood fire.

In Leenane, the youth hostel was run and populated by French people hiking the surrounding national park. Yet, the first person we met was not a Pierre or a Claudette, it was a Neil. Before I’d managed to get my less than enormous frame out of our hire car, Neil was already engaged in a conversation that we soon realised we were party to. He was a tall man with a ginger beard and ponytail, wearing a 3-piece black polyester suit and speaking with the rapid bounce of a salesman in full pitch. After some spurious name-dropping related to how we should have a drink with him (Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Russell Crowe), he told us that he lives in Prague, wears his beard like a proud Irishman, is part of a band called Digital Druids, has recorded with someone from The Cure and gave us a quick review of the book he was reading on the Cathars. Just when I thought he was going to give us a flyer for a gnostic rave seance, he asked us whether we had traced ourselves back to our Irish clan name. “Ah no, we’re Greek”. His response, “Fantastic! You’ve done well. I was a Greek high priest in a past life.” Oh yeah, I thought, a very convenient path of reincarnation given that, when the Greeks were building Delphi, his ancestors were probably throwing mud at each others genitals and calling it organised religion.