(Disclaimer: Paris is a happy city. It is peaceful, the right amount of busy, friendly, aloof, sunny and beautiful. The buildings are fascinating, the food is delicious, the people are helpful and funny. But it smells of pee. Every underground metro station stinks of pee. And this is not an exaggeration. Ask Minu)
Now, to the real story.
So, a Backstreet Boys concert (a promise fulfilled 10 years (but not too) late, with lyrics etched in our minds) followed by a West End musical (Mamma Mia, who doesn’t know the lyrics?) later, we stumbled upon the platform of St. Pancras on our way to greener pastures. Leaving behind hustling bustling streets, more buildings than trees and British accents, we descended into the land of buttered croissants; free Mars bars (the shopkeeper was Nepali and spoke Urdu, thus the neighborly treatment); coffee and rain all combined together at the platform of the Gare du Nord.
Equipped with my London tube/train know-how and Minu’s French speaking skills which were so much better than mine “deux billets allers simple a Villiers Le Bel, sil vous plait” – it all seems so much simpler written down- especially when an irate Spanish ticket-woman is glaring at you on after-hours duty – we were ready to go. We hopped on to the split level RER (National Rail equivalent of France) towards Ory La-Ville on Line D, 4 stops away from Villiers Le Bel, our temporary abode for the next few nights. Greeted by a rainbow in the bright blue sky (although a bit grey and scratched through the train windows), sitting next to Ali la Pointe ka look-alike (long eyelashes and all, camel look) we descended at our stop, wheelies et. al. about 20 minutes later, only to be barricaded behind the train barriers. The barrier ticket reader kept spitting them out like khatti dahi, so we looked around at others for help, and followed suit (we later discovered how it was commonplace to just taapofy the ticket barriers, for free rides). Baby aunty, our host, was waiting for us in her gleaming grey Mercedes taxi, waving from afar; we scrambled into her car backseat excited as ever, at the beginning of our solo cousin adventure in France.
After a couple of minutes of winding roads, we reached her apartment building, a ten storey block of flats, like many others around it. It seemed decent. But then Baby aunty announced to us “I’ll go park the car in the garage, you girls get a head start, that’s my flat (pointing to the corner flat on the last – tenth – storey); oh and the lifts have been broken for a month now” chuckling. Exchanging glances, but too excited to bother about the more-tedious-than-Russell-Square-Station-staircase (honestly!), we grabbed our suitcases and made our way to the reception. Our first few steps onto the cobbled pavement, into the crisp air of France, we heard:
“O soniyayyyyy” followed by loud, hysterical man-giggles.
Nonplussed for a second; this was Paris right? The Eurostar hadn’t tricked us into Gujranwala by any chance, had it? Much to our dismay: yes, laundas happen to be an international phenomenon. And not just local laundas, but Pakistani, Anarkali-scorpion-jean laundas. The works. France is apparently FULL of them Baby aunty told us later. Great, we thought to ourselves, while picking off cat fluff from our sweaters in BA’s lounge. Our crazy wardrobe was divided by half already.
So, Paris was fabulous. You name it, we did it, and that too in record time. Kuch nahin chora. Saw Mona Lisa’s masculine face encased in a glass box; Got into the Louvre in less than five minutes of waiting; Saw Van Gogh’s originals and couldn’t stop grinning; saw Zizou in a spectacles advertisement (a bit disappointing that you don’t find him in the Adidas store, although I fought it out with the cute sales-boy, who said a new line was expected in the future – although I suspect he said it just to please me); the Champs-Elysees (sang the song for Shahnaz, for old times sake), The Arc de Triumph, Obelisk, Jardin de Tuileries, Bastille, Notre Dame (you would’ve loved it Disney buff) and so much more on the way; The Eiffel Tower by day, and by night and was fascinated by how humongous the structure is. Whoa!
Ate escargot. Chewy, in butter garlic sauce. Ate chocolate filled croissants, jam crepes, chocolate-coconut-banana crepes with whipped cream and savory crepes stuffed with salmon (I’m partially writing this to make sheeda jealous). Saw the Moulin Rouge during the day and the local Heera Mandi Street with its Musee de Erotique, etc etc. Got scandalized, of course. Haha.
Slept in a comfy bed with cat-hair, wore clothes with cat hairs clinging to them, and sneezed and coughed and developed allergic reactions to the cats (puffy eyes, patchy skin, the works) but pretended it was a flu so aunty wouldn’t get offended. Aunty was one of the most interesting and eccentric people I have ever come across. She has her story, and her reasons but she lives it out. She drives a Merc taxi in Paris by day, lives with her two billas on the tenth floor of Villiers Le Bel, which is hardly as beautiful as it sounds, and it so overweight she is more than both Sana and Minu combined (according to Munawar Khalu). She took great care of us, and chauffeured us around Paris by day and night; she was our private taxi and tour guide, so to speak. I couldn’t help feeling sad for her, though.
Never thought I would end up speaking four languages in one place – Urdu, English, French and Arabic. Made elaborate plans to chat up some French people to practice our skills, but ended up befriending quite a few Algerians instead. Also learnt that the Bastille does not exist, save for one pillar at the ‘Place de Bastille’. Fell in love with Montmarte – the quarters of the city where all the artists –Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh – used to hang out. The highest point where you can see all of Paris from the footsteps of the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, amidst live music and tiramisu flavored ice cream, who’d ask for more?Our trip was perfect. Not too long, not too short, we did everything (and more) than what we had set out to do. Checked back in to the Eurostar terminal on Wednesday afternoon, on our way back to London – where the sun isn’t as bright, and people don’t really notice you, let alone sleaze on you. But then again, London is hardly home. And the countdown has begun :)