Archive for April, 2011

Paris

I have heard it said that the problem with France is that it full of French people. I’ve heard it said quite a bit actually, I live in England. This is bollocks, I am rather fond of a number of French people and on fairly good terms with many more. Being French does not make you an elitist asshole any more than being Irish makes you a drunk – the odds are statistically higher but you probably shouldn’t use it as a basic assumption. I haven’t seen much of France. I’ve been to Lyon but only for a friend’s wedding, and I have been to Paris 4 times. So largely, my experience of France is Paris.

I fucking hate Paris.

Yes, I know. Beauty; culture; fashion; history; Paris has it all. I completely agree. It has some absolutely stunning architecture, it has the feel of character and the weight of centuries I believe is crucial to a great city. It has an intense appreciation of art and is one of the centres of the world for fashion and the creation of new art and forms of art. It is everything that I have ever listed I want in a place to live, work, or spend time.

But I fucking hate Paris.

Every time I go there I arrive wondering why it is that I thought this place was so terrible. I get into a cab, I use my bad but sufficient French to direct the cab driver, pay the fare, and disembark at my destination. On the way I pass nothing but beautifully constructed buildings, well dressed people, and on this last trip even the overwhelming presence of the Louvre. By the time I arrive at my destination I am feeling slightly enchanted by the whole thing.

Then I go out to eat, on this occasion with a colleague.  We obtain drinks and then ask for a food menu, which we are duly given. We then proceed to sit there for an hour. Our drinks have been drained about halfway through this time period, and no-one has offered to replenish them or even attempted to take our food order. When we eventually grow tired of waiting and accost a waiter on his way past, he impatiently tells us to wait, and then after another 10 minutes still has not returned. Eventually we order at the bar, our food takes another half hour to arrive and is the wrong food. We return it and eventually after another wait are served the correct meal. Which is absolutely delicious, let us give credit where it’s due.

Isolated incident? Nope. Pretty much the exact same thing happened at lunch the following day in a different establishment in another part of the city. To be fair, in the second place the waiters were nice as opposed to incredibly rude, just very slow and prone to getting the order wrong. But even ordering a cup of hot chocolate in a café later that day earned me a look that indicated I was worse than Hitler, presumably for having the audacity to request they accept my money in exchange for conveying a cup of hot liquid to my table.

At this point in the rant you are probably thinking “well it’s because they don’t like it when you speak English to them, everyone knows that”. So I should establish that I was speaking fucking French. Now I will not claim my French is very good, but to order some food you basically need to be able to pronounce the menu item along with “I would like”, “please” and “thank you”. I assure you that even if I can give no guarantees about my ability to conjugate the past imperative or have a discussion about Sartre’s position on existentialism, I can order my bloody dinner and can do so in a passable accent. So the standard excuse does not really apply.

I am of course not basing my opinion of a city merely on bad service. But the attitude of Paris is one which just doesn’t seem to gel with me. I’ve been spat at on the street, I’ve had my ass grabbed in the metro, I’ve had small stones thrown at me on my way out of the underground. I’ve also had my wallet stolen but I suppose that could happen in any big city. Every single time I arrive I start by feeling the magic, but it always seem to end with “I fucking hate Paris” But I know there must be something there, I can feel it hiding around the corner from me and running away when I look.

Someday, it will be magic.

Even more Australia

I’ve been in Sydney for 3 weeks now. I can’t really count the number of beautiful things I’ve seen, or how many moments have just involved taking a breath and savouring the warm clean air and the sight in front of me. People have been exceptional – friendly, outgoing and inclusive. I have had the good fortune to be here during Sydney festival, a series of events that lasts all of January and includes free outdoor operas and symphonies.  I’ve fallen a little bit in love with this place after an initially fairly cold assessment of it, though maybe I’ve just really come here at the right time. The weather has been perfect for weeks with only a few extra hot days scattered around.

I’ve made random friends, met Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, gone to a ninja gig in the suburbs, been to the Sydney Opera House to see Madame Butterfly, walked along the harbor at night, gotten the ferry to Manly. I’ve gone to the beach and gotten sunburnt, rained on, salt water up my nose and surfboard burned arms from being quite frankly shit at surfing. I have gone swimming in the middle of the night with a group of gorgeous gay men, and running at 6am alone. I have eaten breakfast every damn day, and it’s been delicious.

I’ve been happy a lot, sad a little and kind of lonely at various points but never bored, and until today never wished I was anywhere else. Today I experienced one of the problems with international travel that you never really think about until they happen. On Saturday there was a death in my family back in Ireland, and I am as my father put it “as far away as anyone could be without leaving the planet”. I can’t get home to be with my family, even if I left now I would not be back before the funeral even aside from the fact that it would cost me a fortune and work would be deeply unimpressed.

I know they do not need me there, but frankly I do so little for them that I regard providing support, an extra pair of hands or anything at all really at times like this as one of the few familial duties I can actually fulfill. I love my life, I love my freedom, and I love that I spend half my time flitting around the damn world. But sometimes being a very long way away from home can have repercussions like this, the ones you never envision when you are seeing yourself on a new adventure.

I realized the other day that I started to feel at home here in Sydney, and then I realized why. 3 weeks is the longest I have been in one city every night for at least a year. The last 5 and a bit years have been crazy enough, but it seems like the first 4 were just training for this past 15 months or so. The shape of my brain seems to have changed, the way I think about travel has gradually altered until I no longer see anywhere as being too far away to go.  I used to think London to New York was a big trip, now I think of it the way I used to think of the bus from Limerick to Dublin.

Kavanagh once wrote “Through a chink too wide there comes no wonder”, and I think he had a point. The experiences I’ve had have been amazing, but that travel knowledge and experience detracts from the sheer fantasticness of some of the things I get to do as a matter of course. I believe that when I travel for myself again and not for a company that feeling will come back, I hope that is true.

But there is only one way to find out.

Australia

It’s actually not that often any more I feel the thrill of going somewhere new, or the thrill of travel in general. I guess the past 5 years of airport hopping and working on the move has inured me to the sheer excitement of going somewhere you don’t live, and that actually kind of sucks. I think part of it is that I haven’t felt as free as I used to lately, but for a variety of reasons (to possibly be explained later) I hope that is changing. In any case, leaving for Australia for the first time was thrilling. Yes I was going for work, but its so damn far away and I have never seen it and have heard an awful lot about it and it was a beautiful day… whatever the subconscious or conscious set of reason I was literally singing to myself in the airport. I have an embarrassing tendency to sing “I’m leeeeaaving, on a jet plane, don’t know…etc” whenever I am about to go on a big trip (Yes, I know I am a corny loser) and it was stuck firmly in my head that day.

It was a long journey, but pleasantly punctuated by free wine, champagne and a meal that did not at all make me want to projectile vomit hard enough to shatter a plane window. I had a flat bed and had a most enjoyable sleep, did a little work, and was feeling rested and quite excited to touch down in Sydney. So I was mildly disappointed when in the middle of an Australian summer it turned out to be overcast and raining steadily if unenthusiastically.  My first impression of Australia went something along the lines of “what the fuck is this shit? Its like landing in Ireland”. In a way, this was a fair assessment at the time, excepting the fact that Sydney airport is like walking through a giant industrial tourist manufacturing facility.

First impressions – For a country founded by convicts and crazy people Australia is pretty damned expensive. I do not just mean there are not enough asian immigrants to lower the price of dry-cleaning either (there are tons), I mean a 3 person round exceeds $20 and apartment rental cost is worse than Manhattan.  One of my biggest gripes with Ireland is that you pay so much for bloody everything and get so little for your money, and I thought Oz must have a similar problem. I spent my first 2 days wondering what the bloody point of it all was. Ok, its far away, but ten thousand miles for a country like home but with more poisonous indigenous wildlife? What the hell has everyone been thinking? What is so goddamn great about this place? Ok, there are some parks and Sydney is on a harbor but the TV is almost as bad as America, the food is expensive and after my first day I could pretty much sum up my feelings with the sentence  “It is raining, and I see not a single kangaroo”

Then the sun came out.

I claim not to be affected by the seasonal depression shit everyone in the world now seems to use as an excuse not to get out of bed in the winter (I don’t need an excuse not to get out of bed). But there is no denying that sunlight makes pretty much anything beautiful even when it doesn’t have much to work with, and in Sydney it turns out that it has quite a lot. For not only does the city with its semi-tropical plant life start to look stunning as soon as those rays hit, but as soon as a hint of warmth is in the air all the incredibly attractive people suddenly materialize from every direction in constant waves of envy-inducing perfection.

Let me not be misunderstood here, there are ugly people in sydney, as everywhere. But the beautiful people are distinctly emphasized by the weather, because their perfectly muscled torsos tend to be uncovered and their fabulous tans are really showing.  My standard mental image of Australians is not necessarily all that flattering (as a former Londoner, they are the international equivalent of a football team at a frat party) but it always includes a degree of physical fitness presumably because in my head sheer proximity to beaches automatically creates individuals who swim like fish and windsurf every afternoon. So far Sydney hasn’t really been disappointing me in this respect.  People just seem to be healthier here.

I am astonished to discover that I like it here. The harbor sparkles, the countryside is stunning, the city itself is beautiful and clean. The atmosphere is nothing to write home about, but since I am working in the Central Business District and staying in a swish hotel I can’t really judge that one particularly well.  I’ve also been told that Melbourne is the cool young city and that Sydney is a kind of staid banker hangout.

The fact that the country largely consists of a giant wilderness has a lot of appeal too. A few hours outside any major population centre will see you in the middle of bloody nowhere. I have a love of cities that means I will probably never live outside of one long-term, but the sheer freedom of seeing the world rolling out in front of you for as far as you can perceive is an amazing feeling. It’s part of what brings me back to the desert every year, and it definitely exists here too.

Sydney isn’t perfect. Cost of living is sky high, and the population in general has a reputation for nationalism and casual racism that is distinctly off-putting. Not to mention that it is a million miles from the rest of the world and in one of the most inconvenient time-zones possible for communication with Europe and the US. But walking along the waterfront of a beautiful city in the sun with a cool breeze blowing and the beach a half hour away can kind of make you forget about all that.  So much as I was not expecting it, Sydney makes the list of places I want to live, though probably the 6 months or less version.