7th February 2013/London-Paris

Click to read from the beginning of the travelogue

Day 1/ London-Paris

Continued…

The trip to the Emirates effectively took up whatever free time i had before my train to Paris. Thankfully, the train station was only 3 stops  away from Arsenal. I overestimated the time required to get to the station so i arrived at St Pancras International Train Station with an hour to spare. St Pancras Station is a stunning modern complex cleverly integrated into the city’s train network with an underground connection to King’s Cross Tube Station. St Pancras serves as London’s gateway to Europe, a result of Eurostar choosing it as a hub for operations.The station pretty much revolved around the concept of an airport with numerous dining and shopping options for travellers passing through.

My last meal was 8 hours ago on the plane and hunger was getting to me. Initially, i intended to starve myself for a nice fancy dinner in Paris but that was still hours away. Walking around the complex, i chanced upon an artisanal panini shop. Just what i was looking for, something light and tasty! The menu was extensive with a variety of paninis featuring quality ingredients sourced from all over the world. I settled on a good old school Italian panini after much deliberation.

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ROMA PANINI: Parma Ham, feta cheese, roma tomatoes

It was my first panini, certainly was not going to be my last! Once you’ve tried a panini, sandwiches will never be the same again! The panini together with a decent cup of cappuccino cost 6 pounds (12SGD+++). Pretty pricey in Singapore’s context but it’s one of the cheaper meal options in London. I tucked into my food and took the chance to make use of the free WIFI. Public WIFI over in London is much better than Singapore’s!

With my hunger quelled, i proceeded towards the platform and after a few custom checks(Thankfully they were much nicer this time around) i was boarding the afternoon Eurostar to Paris. The train had already arrived when i reached the platform.

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I was pretty excited for my first train journey on the Eurostar since i had read up extensively about it and even watched a documentary. Here’s a little background on the Eurostar:

The Eurostar was awarded the rights to run the route between England & the rest of Europe in the 90s after the construction of the Eurotunnel in the 1990s. The Eurotunnel was an engineering marvel, a result of a joint cooperative between France and England(it’s a marvel in itself that these two managed to create something together!). It was an engineering marvel because the Eurotunnel ran across the English Channel( YES UNDERWATER, UNDER THE SEA BED), the first of it’s kind at that point in time. The Eurotunnel improved the connectivity between the two countries and with the integration of a train service, cut down travelling times between two countries drastically.

My excitement mainly derived from the fact that i was going to be travelling at 300km/h under the English Channel.It was reported that for some passengers,a drop in air pressure would be noticed as the train entered the undersea tunnel.My anticipation and excitement about travelling on the Eurostar had overshadowed the fact that the train was from the 90s and hence i had an unrealistic expectation of a modern, futuristic train. Despite being from the 90s the train’s aesthetics were luxurious and tasteful.

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Eurostar remains the preferred way to get across the channel due to it’s convenience and comfort. It takes all of 2hr 30mins for you to get from London to Paris! If you’re on the afternoon train, this is the perfect opportunity to sneak a siesta thanks to the comfy reclining leather seats. No sleep for me though, there was too much to see! I had booked myself a window seat months before so i could have a nice view of the journey. Here’s an amusing selfie i took to troll my friend.

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“BONJOUR?”

The train left punctually from St Pancras and i was on my way to Paris! The journey starts off with the train gradually picking up speed as it makes its way out of the city before zooming past the countryside. You’ll see an endless scenery of farmland with a variety of crops(wheat mostly i think) before the train goes subsurface into the tunnel. After a series of tunnels you finally return back to the surface and the fields of wheat return again. I chose to stay awake so i could put the theory of the pressure drop to the test but it soon dawned upon me that the tunnel was long past and i was already in France.The scenery before you leave England and enter France is exactly the same! I still don’t know which of those tunnels was actually the Eurotunnel. Well, better luck next time! It’s mostly countryside from then on and before you know it,you’ve reached Paris.There’s little buildup of buildings or settlements that you would expect as you approach a big city. I arrived at Gare Du Nord (Central Station), one of Paris’s oldest stations an hour before sunset.

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” They have those old school departure & arrival boards with revolving tiles that changes non-stop producing the unmistakable rattling sound common to train stations”

Gare Du Nord serves as one of three main stations in Paris and is the terminus for the Eurostar service from London. Gare Du Nord is a work of art in itself just like pretty much everything in France as i would soon find out. It’s an imposing structure with high ceilings and towering pillars which gives a hollow ambience to the whole place. After changing some money and asking for directions on which exit to take from the friendly teller, i stepped outside to get my first taste of Paris.

PARIS

Whatever impressions i had of how Paris looked like beforehand was largely influenced by pop culture through films such as Moulin Rouge, Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, Before Sunset and more recently Midnight in Paris. Paris turned out to be an amalgamation of all those scenes from the movies. It had the neon lights of Moulin Rouge, the old school 18th century buildings from Phantom, the cobbled-stoned streets from Les Mis and the boulevards from Before Sunset & Midnight in Paris.
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First view of Paris

Therein lies the beauty of Paris. It’s not solely down to landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower that gives Paris her other worldly charm, it’s the layers from different eras existing together in some sort of chaotic harmony.This is reflected in the layout of the city itself.The 20 arrondisments(districts) each possesses a unique character and history of its own.The result of this is a multifaceted city brimming with character and history at every corner.

Paris’s demographic is a mixture of different races but i mainly encountered Africans and Indians(surprisingly) alongside the French as i wandered around in search of my hostel. Indians speaking french is one conversation you ought to hear. It was amusing and jaw-dropping at the same time as they transited between Tamil and French seamlessly.

The Joy of getting lost in a Foreign Land

The sun had began to set and darkness descended upon the city. Meanwhile, i had spent the past hour hopelessly navigating the streets in search of my hostel. Parisian streets are a maze with back alleys and roads with the same names.The names of roads are hardly displayed and if they are,its probably located at some obscure part of the building. The hostel i booked was supposedly a 5 minute walk from the train station- I had spent 15 minutes walking down yet another unfamiliar street. I finally admitted that i was indeed lost. So there i was, lost in a foreign city,unable to speak or read the native language and where English speakers were rare. I had a dinner reservation at a restaurant and it seemed highly likely that i would miss it. I spotted a couple of Indian men and approached them for directions with the hope that they of all people would be able to speak English.Unfortunately,they only spoke French.I avoided asking native French people because of the stories i’ve heard about them being rude and their dislike for English. Personally,i’ve had bad experiences with the French too during my time working at HSBC where we had a few Frenchmen calling in. An angry Frenchman spewing English vulgarities and “FUCKS” in that accent of theirs is very amusing but that’s another story. Contrary to the popular idiom ” A few rotten apples spoil the bunch” this was not to be the case as i would later find out. Some of the French strangers i had the pleasure of meeting turned out to be the nicest people i came across during my trip.

I was tracing my way back to Gare Du Nord when i was approached by a  beautiful French brunette in a red jacket who bore a striking resemblance to Carla Bruni. She started pointing to a paper and went on blabbering on in French. I just stood there listening, admiring the beauty of spoken French and the speaker herself. After the first few sentences, i snapped out of my daze and replied that i only spoke English. She immediately switched to English. Finally thank god someone who spoke English! She explained to be in halting English that she was doing a petition for some humanitarian cause(which i can’t seem to remember right now). I took the opportunity to ask for her directions and after a quick glance at the address she wrote down a set of directions on my hostel booking slip while trying to explain it out loud. I signed the petition to show my appreciation and thanked her in my far from fluent French.That particular encounter resulted in my first ride on the Parisian Metro and set me off on a roller coaster journey around Paris in search of the hostel. I showed the the African train staff at the ticket counter the booking slip and he pointed me down a staircase to the platform.The Parisian Metro is similar to the London tube in the sense that it’s an underground subway system but i couldn’t help but notice a few differences:

1) The Metro’s network is far more extensive. There are about 10 different lines running across the whole of Paris. Each station seldom has only 1 line running through so figuring out which platform you are supposed to be on is important.

2) The Metro network is much more weathered and run down. Litter can be found on the tracks. You can predict if the train is coming by pieces of plastic/paper swirling in the air. Despite all this, the network surprisingly remains incredibly efficient with trains arriving on time at regular intervals with few breakdowns.

3) Metro trains are old school. Doors have to be manually opened and carriages are quite narrow.

The metro system bears a striking resemblance to the subway in New York that we regularly see on TV. The metro ride was jolty and bumpy as it tore its way through the tunnels. As the the journey through Parisian underground progressed, i began to doubt if i was headed in the right direction. After my encounter with Carla Bruni(let’s just call her that for convenience;s sake) , my initial apprehension of talking to strangers had dissipated. There was a Thai-looking Asian women who stood beside me throughout the trip and sensing that she was the person with the highest probability of speaking English in a train full of Frenchmen, i approached her in the hope of clearing my doubts.She did turn out to be Thai as i had suspected. She assured me that i was heading in the right direction but also pointed out that the metro station that Carla Bruni had directed me to was probably wrong. She redirected me to another station instead. Apart from the directions, we ended up having a nice conversation. She was Thai but grew up in Paris. Upon mention that i was from Singapore she told me all about her trip to our sunny island a few years back and how much she loved our country(Heck she probably loves it more than i do!). I shared with her my trip and where i was going.Unfortunately,the conversation had to end when she alighted a few stops later. I thanked her for her help and she wished me luck for the rest of the trip. It was nice having a conversation in English in a French speaking country. I alighted a stop after my new Thai friend and followed her directions. After another ride on the metro in the direction i had previously come from, the hostel was nowhere in sight. How did a 5 minutes walk from the train station turn into an hour maze ride around Paris on the metro? I gave up and decided the best move was to take the metro back to square one where i had started off : Gare Du Nord station. When i reached Gare Du Nord, i finally conceded defeat and phoned the hostel reception for directions. I didn’t want to do this initially because of two reasons : 1) Pride 2) expensive call rates

The receptionist successfully directed me to the hostel and true to the description on its website it was indeed 5 minutes away in the direction i had ignored previously.The receptionist who turned out to be my saviour was this guy by the name of Nils. Nils was Swedish-French and a talented linguist who could speak 5 languages. I guess that’s a job requirement if you want to work at a hostel. I was expecting a dormitory as per what i had booked but instead i got a 3 bed room! What a pleasant surprise! I took a quick shower, grabbed a map from the reception and headed out for my dinner reservation. All that travelling had certainly stirred up an appetite.

A Parisian Dinner

I made reservations at Terminus Nord a few weeks back before my arrival in fear that it would be fully booked when i arrived.Terminus Nord is a well-acclaimed brasserie(cafe) serving up traditional Parisian fare located just across the street from Gare Du Nord. Diplomats & celebrities were known to dine here before taking the train so the food had to be good.

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True enough the restaurant was packed to the brim. I evaded the growing queue and was shown to my table by the a pretty french woman who seemed to be the manager. She was an incongruous character in the restaurant setting and looked more like a model who graced the pages of a magazine. Even better, she spoke English just like most of the waiters in the restaurant. My first french dining experience turned out to be everything i had dreamed of and more.There was the impeccably dressed french waiter in his waistcoat and bow tie, Paul who personally attended to my table, mouthwatering food served in shiny silverware and not forgetting french music which set the mood for the feast which was about to ensue. I chose their set menu which cost 32 euro(55sgd) which consisted of an entree, main course and dessert together with a bottle of sparkling water(4.5eur/7.70sgd). Here’s a heads up if you are ordering water in France if you’re on a budget: if you simply say water, you’ll be charged for bottled spring water either sparkling or non sparkling. If you simply want water from the tap you have to state “de l´eau du robinet ” (Have fun pronouncing that) explicitly to the waiter. For me i didn’t bother, the bottled sparkling water adds a nice refreshing touch to a meal anyway. I was feeling rather adventurous that night so i ordered a mixture of classics and some local specialties.

Appetiser: Foie Gras served with apple chutney and fleur de sal(French sea salt)

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Foie Gras is simply specially fattened goose liver. My first experience of Foie Gras was at Saveur in Singapore where it was served on stewed lentils. The one at Saveur was good but this right here was heavenly.The overall concept of the dish centered on simplicity and the quality and freshness of each individual component ingredient. The foie gras’s texture was creamy and the taste of liver was subtle and not overpowering. Paired together with the sweetness from the apple chutney and saltiness of fleur de sel on a slice of baguette, the components came together beautifully in your mouth.Fireworks in harmony. It was a moment of pure gastronomical genius.

Main Course: Charleloi Beef Tartare

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Tartare simply means a style of cooking where a raw meat is marinated in seasoning and oil. The interesting part of this dish was that Paul prepared it right in front my eyes! For tartare dishes, the quality of the meat is the star of the show. The meat in this case was beef from Charleloi which is located in Belgium. The beef was tender and the taste was not overly bloody even though it was raw. The seasonings complemented the dish well. For those of you who are unable to stomach raw beef, there’s an option to get it browned by flame torch to your liking. The beef tartare was served alongside a french garden salad and french fries. The preparation of this dish in itself makes it worth considering.

Creme Bulee

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The first time i heard of creme bulee was in High School Musical! A classic french dessert made of primarily custard and a sugar caramelized top. The creme bulee’s top was burnt to perfection and the custard had just the right amount of sweetness.It was an honour to try this dessert in the very country that invented it.

Here’s some dining etiquette you should adhere too if you dine in Europe:

1) To all you instagram-mers…DO NOT TAKE PICTURES OF FOOD!

I know i did but this was at the expense of drawing judging stares from the other customers around me. I think the fact that i was having dinner alone and taking pictures might have been the reason for that though but hey don’t risk it! That particular experience at the restaurant has put me off instagramming food when i eat out.

2) The waiter is not your bitch. Waitering as a profession is highly respected in Europe and the waiters take their job very seriously and with great pride. Be nice to them and you’ll have an enjoyable meal.

3) Table etiquette is of importance. How you place your fork/spoon/knife does make a difference over in Europe. It serves as a sign of your progress on a meal. The waiter uses these hints to decide when to clear your plate/ask if you’re done/ bring in the next course etc.

4) Tip generously. Most of the restaurants do not have service charge. 10% is the rule of thumb but you can always tip more! I won’t be surprised if you do given the service you’ll be enjoying

Paul provided me with the typical Parisian service which has become renowned worldwide. He was considerate, attentive and knew the menu inside out. The next course arrived as soon as i was done with the current course. The total bill came up to 34.50 euros(62.70SGD). It was to be my most expensive meal throughout the trip but i had no regrets splurging that money. The whole experience was worth every euro.I left a fat tip for Paul for making my first Parisian dining experience one to remember.

Dinner had me stuffed to the brim. It was close to 10 and the streets were empty. Paris was basked in this warm yet eerie glow from the streetlamps above. Paris transform into a whole new city at night. The train station was glowing in it’s glory and i spotted a french lingerie shop on the way back to the hostel.

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When i returned to my room at the hostel, i heard the sound of the shower from the bathroom. I didn’t have the whole room to myself anymore. I was curious to who was in the shower as i began unpacking my bag. A few moments later, an Asian girl appeared out of the bathroom in her towel. She was Korean and her name was Kangwon. After introducing ourselves, we talked for a bit. She was a student from Seoul who had just finished a semester learning English in London and was in Paris to meet her friend a few days later.

What a hectic first day of travelling! I was deadbeat yet full of excitement for the day ahead. Bonne Nuit!

Solo Traveller

Click to read from the beginning of the travelogue

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