Another big drive today from the French Alps to Paris but with European motorways having a speed limit of 130km/hr and being fantastically maintained we were able to cover a great distance in what seemed to us to be a relatively short period of time. We covered over 500km in 6 hours and that was including numerous stops for toilet breaks, fuel, lunch etc.
This was the first night this trip that we had booked to stay in a hotel. I had chosen to stay at a hotel near Gare Du Nord (Paris) as that is where the Eurostar train departs from and I thought it would be easier to get to our 9:15am train the next morning if we were stationed near the place we needed to depart from. Hotels are hideously expensive. I reluctantly booked a 2.5 star hotel, Hotel Richmond, as I couldn’t bear to part with more than 200 Euros (approx $375AU) for 1 nights sleep. Hotel Richmond had fairly good reviews on Trip Advisor so I was hopeful that whoever gave it the official 2.5 star rating was just having a shitty day.
Having 4 children generally means you need to book 2 hotel rooms or pay an exorbitant price for a two bedroom apartment. We had been carrying Rohan’s self inflating mattress around with us, as he is more comfortable on either that or the floor than a bed, so I only booked a room for 5 people. This led to all sorts of anxious questions from my children, who are not adept or keen on lying. I needed to ferry numerous “what if….”, “what would happen….” or “what would we do…..” type questions along with them then concocting their own elaborate lie for if any of the highly unlikely situations they had suggested occurred. “You just shut up and say nothing!!” I yelled exasperatedly. But the fact that we were breaking rules was met with less than enthusiasm from my truth telling, rule loving brood.
My plan had been for Ben to drop me and three of the kids off at the hotel with all the luggage then he could go and return the car with the 4th child. On their return they would just come up to the room. Easy. Or so we would have thought.
I should mention that about 40 minutes of our 6 hour drive was travelling 7 km through Paris to find the hotel. Neither the car GPS, Apple Maps or Google Maps seemed to understand the complexities of Parisian roads. In fact, I’m not even sure if the French equivalent of the Road Transport Authority or knows the places where you can/can’t turn, drive etc. It’s mayhem!! I would be yelling at Ben “You need to turn left HERE!!!” (right meaning the Australian right hand turn – across the traffic). Ben would respond with “Bloody Hell!! You can’t turn here – look at that sign!”. I would look at the sign (a circle with a line through it) and watch 3 cars in front of us make the turn anyway and say frustratedly “That’s not what that sign means!!!” Or “who cares? We’re in Paris. No one gives a shit about the road rules!!”. We drove around and around in horrendous traffic with each of the three map navigators giving us conflicting instructions leading us to squabble over which navigator was more correct and which navigator would likely understand the places where left/right turns were prohibited. You would think our brand new French made and hired in-car navigator would have had the best shot at getting us to our destination, but it seemed to be the least accurate.
We finally made it to the hotel and Ben begrudgingly stopped to let us out. I had rang the hotel to enquire about if there was a driveway we could pull in to to unload or parking out the front of the hotel and the person who answered the phone said “There is no parking. Directly out the front of the hotel is a lane of traffic. But just stop the car and unload. People do that all the time and no one cares.” No one but the cars behind you…. I thought to myself. Ben quickly threw our 6 million bags and 3 children on the sidewalk before screeching off. It took Kylah, Isabelle and I about 3 trips to drag all the crap we have accumulated in to the foyer of Hotel Richmond.
The person at the desk seemed to have no idea about our booking. He fiddled and fiddled with his computer, while I balanced with 25kg strapped to my back and 6 bags hanging off each arm before telling me we had been booked into the “New Hotel” just up the road. F—— me. So we set off up the road looking for a shinier sign for Hotel Richmond. After wandering for some time, looking like a frazzled bag lady with feral children (Isabelle and Rohan both conveniently had forgotten their shoes when they were shoved out of the car and were wearing clothes that were absolutely covered in every bit of food they had eaten that day I finally stopped and asked a man if he new where the new Hotel Richmond was. “Sure! It’s right over there.” he said pointing to a sign that literally said “New Hotel”.
“New Hotel” must be the most inappropriately named hotel in the whole of the entire world as there was nothing new about it. On checkin we went up to our room which had just enough space for 2 double beds and 1 single bed all in a row. They were pushed together and looked like one long bed. There was barely enough space to allow the door to open fully and you had about 50cm of walking space along the end of the beds to the bathroom. The bathroom was the single most disgusting bathroom I have seen outside of public bathrooms in rural trucks tops and looked like it hadn’t seen a single bathroom cleaning product since 1971. I picked that year as I think that was the era when mustard coloured toilet seats and orange tiles were all the rage.
“It’s just one night. It’s just one night, It’s just one night” I kept saying to myself over and over with the hope that I could convince myself that 17 hours in this dirty shoebox was completely manageable. Ben and Jazzy arrived soon after us (as we had spent a lot of time wandering around looking for the “New Hotel”) followed by my dear school friend Brigitte and her husband Charles, who were coming to join us for dinner.
My children, who all seemed to be immune to our unappealing surrounds declined to join us for dinner and instead asked for McDonalds so that they could stay in the room and make the most of the free wifi. Best news I’d heard all day!! I happily went with Brigitte and Charles to order McDonalds (which is so much easier to do if you speak French!) and didn’t even batt an eyelid at the 36 Euro price tag (over $50AU) on a MacDonald’s dinner. I was just happy to be having a night out with other adults.
We left my 4 absorbed with their iPads and happily chowing down on MacDonald’s and set off with Brigitte and Charles. Brigitte had organised to take us to a place called Montmarte. It is a stunning church atop a hill which gives you panoramic views of Paris. We went there, along with approximately 10 000 other tourists and an equal number of scammers trying to tie you up with friendship bracelets made of wool (then demand money) or pick your pockets. Fighting our way through the tourists and scammers was most certainly worth it. I also learned a trick from Brigitte’s husband Charles. Whenever he was approached by a suspected scammer he would simply say to them “I’m French” and they would immediately leave him alone. I practised saying “I’m French” in what I thought was my most convincing French accent. It’s awful. You literally have to be so rude to these people. If you show them a speck of interest they will hound you relentlessly. I absolutely hate it and have no idea why the French government allows it. In Australia and England you aren’t allowed to follow people around in public places trying to sell them things. Why on Earth don’t the French employ the same rule? I would say that it definitely impacts on their tourism as I hated being approached every 3 seconds and being asked for money or asked if I could sign something (so that when I’m signing and distracted they can make off with my bag) or being bound with a friendship bracelet, which is impossible to remove without scissors then told I owe them money for it.
Brigitte detailed times that she had been pick pocketed. Despite being extremely vigilant they are always coming up with new and improved ways of stripping you of your belongings unbeknownst to you. She said that there are some genuinely needy people in Paris but it’s almost impossible to tell who is in genuine need and who is just trying to extort a quick buck out of unsuspecting tourists.
We walked through the most amazing and elaborate church I’ve ever seen and enjoyed wandering around, appreciating it’s beauty without the worry of Rohan suddenly declaring loudly that religion was a scam.
Brigitte’s description of the church and the local area was fascinating. It certainly helps to have a Parisian friend with you who speaks the language and knows all the places to go. Behind the church was an artists market, which we quickly looked at before going a few streets back where we were assured was more of a local area and almost entirely void of tourists.
Ben and I enjoyed our dinner and catching up on 3 years worth of stuff with Brigitte and Charles, who were able to offer us so many explanations for things that had completely baffled us about France. From a cultural perspective they are very formal to each other and unless they are BFF’s they must call other men/women either Madam or Monsieur. To the French, beauty is of the utmost importance, which is why florist shops decorate almost every corner in Paris, similar to how 7/11’s dominate corners in Australia.
It was interesting listening to Brigitte describe their school system, which to me seems abhorrent and worse than the current Aussie system – something I thought impossible. Apparently from 3 years old children are forced in to a system where they need to sit down, shut up and listen. I can’t imagine it. When I have taught prep’s in Australia I struggle to get them to sit down, shut up and listen – and they are either 4 or 5 years old!!
She also described how difficult it is to rent in Paris because of various laws forbidding landlords from kicking people out during the winter. This means that before landlords will grant you a rental agreement, you need to put down a huge deposit (incase you spend the whole of winter not paying your rent) and assemble a file detailing your life history, spending details, income statements etc before they will even consider you. It sounded easier to get a mortgage than it would be to rent. I also learned that the French are super strict on how much money you can withdraw from French bank accounts each week and all sorts of things that they do to micro-manage their citizens.
Paris really is a beautiful and spectacular city. I really struggled with being approached by people all the time though. I felt like I couldn’t just relax and wander around admiring the beauty. I was always on guard with my handbag locked and didn’t engage with anyone trying to talk to me – something I usually enjoy doing. And there are SO many people EVERYWHERE!!!
When we visited Versailles we had to pass through airport-like security and there were army troops everywhere holding machine guns looking out for terrorists. But honestly, with the amount of people they had crammed into that castle with absolutely no exit signs all, it would be an easy task for a terrorist to take out a bunch of people. All they would need to do is stand right in the middle of the castle and yell “fire!” or something else to evoke panic and there would be a stampede reminiscent of the Hillsborough Disaster in the UK where 96 sporting fanatics were trampled to death.
Health and safety does not seem to be of importance to the French, and I also found customer service was not that great either. I keep coming back to our first day in Paris where the manager of that cafe left Isabelle hysterically screaming and traumatised in a pitch black room while he yelled at me, and thinking about what would have happened if this situation had occurred in Australia. I can assure you I would have made complaints to anyone and everyone and would not have let it go. That manager did not give a shit about a traumatised 7 year old even though we had just spent a couple of hundred dollars in his restaurant. Isabelle is fine now, although she is scared to go into toilets by herself. But I am still livid (as I’m sure you can pick up from my numerous posts mentioning this incident). If there is one thing I hate more than polyester and public toilets – it’s bad customer service.
I spent many years of my life, while I was at school/uni working in the customer service industry and being forced to be polite and pleasant to arsehole customers. Now that I am an adult, and generally not an arsehole, I expect to be treated with courtesy and respect. If I am going to spend my hard earned money supporting a business then they need to train their staff in the art of manners and smile through gritted teeth even if they are having a shitty day – as I did for the best part of my late teens.
Brigitte confirmed that customer service is generally pretty terrible in the tourist parts of Paris. Outside of the tourist zones the Parisians are lovely. When we were staying in Brigitte and Charles’s apartment while they were in Aus, the local grocery shop owner and florist were so nice to me and ever so helpful. My advice if you are going to go to Paris would be to find an Airbnb away from the tourist zones and then live like a local. That is the only way you will really be able to experience the beauty of Paris and warmth of the local Parisians.
I’m so glad I was able to spend my last night in Paris with Brigitte and Charles. They showed Ben and I parts of Paris that we didn’t even know existed and we had the most wonderful time catching up with them. The little restaurant that was a hot spot for locals, not tourists, was lovely and we had the most brilliant night.
I’m so glad that even though Brigitte and I live across the world from each other and only get to see each other every few years, when we do catch up it is like nothing has changed. The only problem is that there is never enough time!!!
We arrived back at the hotel to find children hyped up on McDonald’s and Choc Ovo bars (I told them they could have one each). It was 10:30pm and we had to be up early the next day to catch the train from Paris to London.
The beds were made with only a thin sheet on them and when I removed a uncovered Doona from the small cupboard I discovered that it had huge yellow stains on it. I was so repulsed I could hardly sleep and chose to freeze all night in the air-conditioned room than put that doona anywhere near me.
Thanks for reading!!