Riding the Rails

Europe's long-distance trains are so easy that you can catch one by accident.

Lyn's migraine has us bailing out of Canal St Martin on a sunny Sunday afternoon and, under the strict time pressure imposed by the rapidly closing doors, I decide that "Paris Nord" is probably not the same as "Gare Du Nord". It's a reasonable call - La Courneuve Aubervilliers isn't the same as La Courneuve 8 Mai 1945, after all.

As the train accelerates out of the subway tunnel and onto the rail network, it becomes increasingly obvious how wrong I am. This is an RER long-distance train to Orry-La-Ville, intersecting the inner-city subway network purely as a convenience.

We're lucky; it's not an express train, and it stops at St Denis, where we hop the next train back to Paris and switch back to the metro.

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Heading towards Montmartre from Gare Du Nord, we are temporarily obstructed by two students manhandling a battered sofa down the stairs into the Metro. Lyn comments that they were probably moving house. In hindsight, we should have followed them; the trains are large, but I would have liked to see them get it past the ticket barriers.

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The sewer museum is more museum than sewer. This is not altogether a bad thing, although the volume of water that flows through the system reduces the smell to a bearable level. The side tunnels, visible from the museum but strictly interdit, are more interesting than the displays of cleaning equipment. Still, with a unified sewer/stormwater system, regular automatic flushing, and a separate tunnel police, any unofficial visit would require extreme caution.

The catacombs' official entrance was closed for Easter. In Europe, you have to plan. Or at least phone ahead.

Or know someone with the key..

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I'm proud to say that I've been ignored, I've watched a barman do rounds with the regulars while on the job, I've paid four Euros for a coffee, and I've had my change thrown at me. Often at the same places. And I was speaking French, albeit badly - I hesitate to think about the American experience. I did see one young couple, his khaki combat pants even less fashionable than my backpacker gear, make a rapid exit from Le Chat Noir, failing to secure even one drink. I don't entirely blame them; the waiter picked up the accent on my initial "bonsoir" and hit me with a paragraph of rapid-fire French that I was completely unable to follow. Later I overheard him speaking understandable French to others.

They didn't miss much. It has TVs in it now.

Not everyone was like that; a couple of waiters and barmen were charming, or at least professional. And when we locked ourselves out of the Metro by accidentally leaving at a station with no ticket machine, a local gave us directions to another. I really think that coming here without being able to speak a little French would be a mistake, however.

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L'espace Dali has a lot of molten clocks and not much else of interest. It costs more than the Louvre, perhaps a reflection of Dali's sense of self-importance even post mortem.

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We nearly made it to the Arc De Triomph. Having battled our way through the crowds on the Champs d'Elysies, we reached the edge of the traffic roundabout that surrounds it. This thing really has to be seen to be believed; it's at least six lanes wide but there are no lane markings, and if there's any right-of-way rule at all it seems to be "faster vehicle wins". I stood mesmerised for several minutes. Cars would enter at speed from the feeder roads, swinging right into the middle and cutting off traffic already on the roundabout, which would sometimes end up stranded, stationary in the middle. Buses pushed their way through while motorcyclists all seemed to have concluded that the faster they got out of the roundabout, the better their chances, so they cut straight lines through the swerving traffic. It really scared me, and I've been to Bangkok.

Lyn tells me that rental car insurance won't even cover you for that particular intersection. In any case, there was absolutely no way to cross it on foot. There's an underpass, but it also connects to the lifts that go up inside the Arc, and the waiting crowd completely blocked access to the stairs to road level. We had to retreat; if there's one thing I like less than crowds, it's crowds in tunnels.

We nearly visited the Eiffel Tower. I wrestled with TomTom for several minutes - it was hopelessly confused by the Arc De Triomph's roundabout - until we spotted it on the horizon and just walked in the right general direction. A hundred metres away the line began, moving at a slow shuffle. But a traffic island provided an excellent view of the tower itself, so I folded my jacket behind my head and lay on the hot tarmac to admire it for a few minutes.

We did visit Notre Dame. Personally, I think flying buttresses are a bit of a hack - like exposed scaffolding - but I hear that they're considered quite an achievement. It would've been nice to get onto eye-level with the gargoyles, but we really need to come back at 9am sharp, in midwinter, on a weekday, to get in on the same day we start queuing. It's on the list.

The line was even longer at the Louvre, but Lyn had done her research. We can confirm that it *is* possible to slip in via the smaller entrance in the attached shopping mall. There's still a line, but it's a matter of 15 minutes instead of what looked like the wrong side of an hour. Of course, we blew half an hour coming up against locked doors in the wrong mall - an intimidating, nearly deserted art establishment that actually had us whispering - and we still had to line up to buy tickets, so it probably came out about even.

I continue to be annoyed at the tendency of classical artists to ruin perfectly good paintings by filling them up with naked babies.

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The Musee de l'Erotisme is rather disquieting, like looking at someone else's porn collection. It collects all the weird fetishes, fantasies, and distorted ideals of every culture into one place. It's a bit like the internet.

There were more women visitors than men. I think that's because the men know that the places next door don't cost ten euros, and they're in colour.

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We have the habit of taking a pre-dinner walk, which consists of wandering the streets trying to find something we want to eat. After the first half-kilometer, the options usually don't change, and the walk ends when we're hungry enough to take one.

In this case, the walk extended at least a couple of kilometers. To start with we were looking solely at the numbers. After a few restaurants I did the maths, concluded that the weekend was costing us over $AU400 each without food, and that an increment of $AU40 for dinner was therefore not significant. After that we started looking for something we actually wanted to eat.

This was surprisingly hard to find. French food is heavy on the meat, light on the chilli. As a couple of semi-vegetarians, our options were extremely restricted. Moreover, the menu at almost every restaurant was nearly exactly the same. Having grown up in a, well, "multicultural" society, such a monoculture came as a shock. It's not just a buzzword. Australia really does mix it up.

We came to France to experience France, so we really did try, but there just wasn't anything we wanted to eat. Beaten, we had a lovely dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.

In defence of the French, however, I did have a marvellous (but rather confronting) three-course meal in a tiny place on the outskirts of Montmartre the following night. I think you just have to know where to look. You also have to know that, if you order the Camembert for dessert, they're going to give you a lot of Camembert.

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