Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Wrap-Up: Paris

Before I left Paris after the finish of my job over there I had a little bit of a European adventure with my boyfriend. It was good timing in the end as it gave me a chance to go back over the tourist sites I had seen a year ago, one last tour of Paris before I left. Though I have to say the French really pulled it out for us, the one day I really didn't want a train strike was the day my boyfriend arrived, as he flew in at 5:55am. But of course this is Paris and so yes there was a train strike and yes it was only on the RER B line, the line needed to get out to the airport. Thankfully they did still have a few trains running from Gare du Nord out to the airport, about 4 an hour, so much less frequently than normal. This meant I just had to somehow get to Gare du Nord by about 5:15am to catch the train out to the airport in time to catch the people coming off the plane. Unfortunately the metro didn't start running until 5:30am, so I had to find another means of public transport.

Thankfully Paris has these night buses which run all night and seem to just follow the main train/metro lines. So I caught one of those at 4:30 am and managed to get to the airport gate about 5 minutes before my boyfriend arrived, perfect timing in the end, it just involved a rather early start. It was fun to catch the night bus, I was a little worried as I had heard stories of the night buses in Sydney where the people are behaving like animals, but this was lovely, true I did see a guy peeing in the street, but that was it, on a Saturday night too, unbelievable.

We then did the proper tour of Paris, I think I have had enough visitors that I've got a pretty good walking tour down pat now. Heading through the Jardin Luxumbourg , past the French Institute towards Notre Dame and the Louvre. The one thing my boyfriend wanted to see in Paris was this plaque on the Ile de la Cite commemorating the spot where Jacques de Molay was burned to death. This guy was the last Grand Master of the Templars and he was burned on that spot on the 18th of March 1314. The story goes that as he was burning he cursed the King of France, Philip the Fair, and the pope at the time, Clement V and then both those guys were dead within the year. Oooooh, coincidence? I think not.

I mentioned Philip the Fair and Clement V when I wrote about Avignon, as this period was when the Popes were tied to the French kingdom and had to do what the king wanted. So when Philip wanted to get his hands on the Templar's wealth, who were basically the bankers for the rich at that time, he thought the best way to do it was to arrest most of the knights on charges of heresy and that sort of thing and execute their leader, that way no one could complain when he grabbed all their cash. As Pope Clement V was beholden to Philip it was pretty easy to get a conviction for heresy. I can't really blame old Jacques for the curse really, having to pay the price for his king's greed.

After old Jaques it was onto Sainte Chapelle, my favourite church, and for once there was hardly any line, even though this was in peak tourist time. So we got to see the lovely stained glass windows again. As we were heading back to the Latin Quarter for some dinner after that we managed to run into a massive gay and lesbian mardi gras. That was a bit of fun, so we watched that for a while, now having never been to the one in Sydney yet I can't really compare the two, but I think Sydney's would have been more organized with more impressive floats, but this one was still pretty good. There was word that the transport workers were going to join in the march as well, but I didn't see them, I don't think French people are as accepting of strikes as they once were and so perhaps it's good that the transport people didn't show up. I don't think they would have really fit in anyway.

The next day it was onto the Louvre where we got to see all the famous pieces, I really do love the Mesopotamian section, though that doesn't seem to be nearly as popular as the big painting section. After that it was onto the Arc de Triomphe and then Les Invalides where we got to see Nappy's tomb again. That place really is an impressive resting spot.

I had to get this photo taken, it's me with a painting of Pont du Gard in the Louvre. There were a whole series of them of the ancient Roman ruins in Nimes, I guess it used to be a popular subject for artists.

I really wanted to get up the Notre Dame towers one last time as well, as I think the view from up there is one of the better ones in Paris. My guide books said the towers opened at 9:30am but I think the church workers had got a bit slacker since that section was written as the sign outside said they opened at 10am. In the end they really opened at about 10:20am, but I got to have one last look around inside before getting in the interminable line about 20 minutes to 10. I think with Notre Dame you just have to accept the fact that no matter how early you get there, you will always have to wait for about an hour. There was already a decent queue forming by the time we joined the back and then we had already been waiting for about 40 minutes by the time they slowly started letting in the first few people. Even though we were probably only 30 people from the front it still took at least another 20-30 minutes before we got through the gate. Still I think it was worth it, and it is perhaps less discouraging if you get there early as even though you have to wait for ages, at least you can actually see the entrance, as opposed to those people who get there a bit later and are already miles down the block.

Then it was off to Sacre Couer where for once I didn't get bothered by the string guys who were staking out all the entrances, I don't know, perhaps I was starting to look like a local. There was a really militant church attendant inside the church, which I kind of like as it stops people make a massive racket and taking pictures of everything. I was watching the guy and he was doing a very good job of also making sure everyone took off their hats as they came inside. A very different feel to the inside of Notre Dame where they actually have vendors inside selling souvenirs, now I'm not too sure, but didn't Jesus take a kind of dim view of that sort of behaviour?

Here we have Notre Dame at sunset and the obligatory gargoyle shot and also a pseudo-arty shot of Dave in Montmarte, but then I suppose we are in the arty area of Paris, aren't we meant to take these sorts of photos?

There was a wine tasting event that evening so we headed out to the Republique area, making a stop to rest by the canal before the tasting started. This is something that I think is quite typically Paris, there is a canal in the north east of the city, which goes underground for a while and then eventually joins up with the Seine, but out in the Republique you can actually see the water. There are trees growing alongside and it is quite peaceful out there and the Parisians love to come out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and drink some beers while sitting on the concrete beside the stagnant water of the canal, I find it slightly strange, but they seem to enjoy themselves.

We were sitting up the end where the canal starts to head under the city where there is a lock to lower the boats underground. Whilst we were sitting there a tourist boat actually headed through the lock, full of tourists, and headed into the pitch blackness of the canal under the ground. Now I'm one who quite enjoys little boat trips but I think a pitch-black ride underneath a city is not one I would really enjoy. The wine tasting was as good as ever by the way.

We had planned to go to the Musee d'Orsay on the next day, but the tickets I had ordered on the 17th of June still hadn't arrived by the 1st of July. Pretty impressive really, it takes more than 13 days for a letter to travel about 10 kms in Paris, not bad La Poste. So instead we headed off to the zoo and the Jardin desPlantes, though it was a stinking hot day and we spent most of the time there just hugging the shade. Our choice of viewing animals became more a question of which ones had the coolest enclosures (temperature-wise).

We then headed out to the Eiffel Tower to see the symbol of Paris. After climbing up and down I wanted to go to the Trocadero to get the best viewing angle of the tower and as you walk through the Trocadero gardens there is a big fountain/pond area running the length of the avenue. This seems to turn into an unofficial bathing area when the temperature starts to rise as there were heaps of people frolicking around, but then when you get closer it turns out the water is green with algae, which put paid to my thought of sticking my head in. My feet did enjoy the cold though, I just wasn't too keen on catching some terrible middle-ear infection.

On our last day in Paris we headed out to the Museum of the Middle Ages were I got to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries again which I just love. This time round I got a free audio-guide too which was a bonus as you learn heaps more about the history of the pieces that way. And as this museum is really about history it's kind of important too. Apparently a lot of the pieces there are from Notre Dame which the peasants really took a disliking to during the revolution and tried to destroy most of the facade. The church became a bit of a symbol of the French royalty during the revolution and I suppose when you consider that a couple of the Louis king's got themselves sainted you can see how the church and the monarchy became intertwined. I'm not sure what miracles these kings performed in order to get themselves that sainthood, perhaps it was something to do with squeezing ever increasing amounts from the peasantry without them complaining earlier. When you see some of the castles they built I would say that's a bit of a miracle.

Then that was it, my stay in Paris and the Cite Universitaire came to a finish, I packed up the rest of my stuff, threw out 6 massive bags of rubbish and then it was off to Charles de Gaulle airport for our plane to Egypt. Thankfully there was no train strike that day.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Hi Guys!!

I'm back, well it's been a long month and a bit, but a lot sure has happened in that time. There was the end of my job in Paris, a European adventure and 3 job interviews. But now I have a little time to update everyone. I was thinking I'm going to have to change the name of my blog now that I'm back in Australia, but "Taking on the Aussies" doesn't really have the same ring to it. Maybe I can try and throw in a few insults towards the Europeans every now and again to justify the name.

The job interviews were a bit of fun, that was the first time I've been interviewed for a job since I was a checkout-chick at Woolies and Big W. Lets just say the process was a little different this time round. I'm not overly confident I will get the job, in fact not very confident at all, as the last interviewer didn't seem particularly enthusiastic as to my application. I get the feeling they had already made the decision and it wasn't me, oh well I'll just have to try again somewhere else. I did get to do the freaky psychometric testing though, which apparently a lot of big companies use to weed out the crazies and the liars.

They test your numerical, verbal and abstract reasoning as well as a massive personality questionnaire. I even got the added bonus of a salesman questionnaire. I think really though, the reasoning tests are really testing your ability to go out and by a book on this stuff and study up. The maths is not difficult, percentages anyone, it is more the fact that there is quite a short time limit placed. It was strange doing these tests though as every time I've done an exam you have a fairly good idea as to how you went, you did all the questions you could, you know where you were unsure and where you couldn't do anything. But because these were quite easy it all really came down to how well you read the question, and it is quite possible to walk out thinking you had done great when in actual fact you had barely passed as you had read everything wrong. I get to read my report in a week or so though, so I'm looking forward to that.

The personality questionnaire was also really boring, I was at least hoping for some interesting questions like "Do you ever feel like screaming when in a quiet place?" or "When standing on the top of a tall cliff do you ever feel like throwing yourself off?". Those would have been fun to answer. Instead there were a total of about 15 questions and these were asked about 200 times in various guises. And they were all like "Are you ambitious?", "Are you confident?", "Do you look towards the future?", Boooring! So I just answered honestly and moved on, it was funny seeing the rest of the group, all straight out of uni, and you could see them pondering over each question, thinking "which one would they most like me to pick?".

But I think the salesman questionnaire had to take the cake, it was all about whether you could ever be in sales, and your views on salespeople. There were these questions like "Would you sell a product to your grandparents even if you didn't believe the product was very good", that kind of thing, so that was pretty easy to answer, but I don't think they are ever going to get me to sell stuff, thank god! I was filling it out thinking, what sort of job have I applied for?

But enough about that, I can give you another taste of summer in Europe, even though I am now in winter in Australia, as I went on one last trip to England before the European adventure.

I visited Hever castle whilst I was over there (the first photo), this was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, but after she married Henry VIII and subsequently died, it passed into his hands and he gave it to another one of his wives, Anne of Cleves, after he divorced her. It was later (very much later) bought by the Astor family (of the hotel fame) and they actually used it as a residence, so there are the renovated parts where the rooms have modern wallpaper and beds and then the original parts which have been restored. It is now owned by the Broadland Properties group (how romantic) who use it as a conference centre, though the castle is still open to the public. They also have on display here a rare portrait of Catherine Howard, and thus have portraits of all 6 of King Henry VIII's wives, which is not a very common thing to have in a single collection.

Though the underground art-historian rumour about this painting is that Hever castle probably paid a lot more for it than what it is actually worth because a well-known BBC art-historian guy (Starkey) did this big piece on this lost Catherine Howard portrait just a few weeks before it re-appeared and was bought by Hever. So the rumour is (I think) that Starkey knew who had the portrait and wanted to push the price up for them (knowing that Hever would want to complete their collection) and so did the TV piece on it. Ohhh, these underhanded dealings in the art-historian world, how juicy!.

Anyway on to some pictures, it really was a lovely place, with fantastic grounds, complete with a massive lake (second photo), Italian gardens (to display the Astor's Italian sculptures), a yew maze, a water maze (not particularly impressive, or difficult and is the photo to the left), topiary and flowers all over the place. I think the most impressive thing about it though was that it really did look and feel like a proper castle, with the proper battlements and moat and everything. And the gardens were just what you expect it England, lovely and green, manicured and lots of flowers.

Unfortunately you weren't able to take photos inside the castle, but what do you expect from a group called Broadland Properties. They did have one other impressive thing, apart from the complete portrait collection of King Henry VIII's wives and that was a personal lock of King Henry VIII. When he would go travelling around the country, and he did spend some time at Hever castle before Anne lost her head, he would take his own locks with him. These would be placed on the doors and that way he could be sure of security, as only his personal locksmith had the keys to them, so I guess he only had to keep that guy happy, rather than the whole country.