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Monday, 19 January 2015

London Part 1

Without a doubt, my number one destination for travel was France. But when that is where I live now and you ask for my second choice? Europe is simply full of completely different yet utterly magical places all in one tightly packed continent, each with their own foreign beauty waiting for me. But as sure as I was coming to Paris, I knew I had to visit London and put my metaphorical gumboots onto the plush land of England for my travels. And you would completely understand the extent of my desire to go if you were right next to me, sharing the stress of purchasing ridiculously overpriced Eurostar tickets just to see this highly acclaimed city in all its festive holiday glory.

In the midst of all the excitement when departing Gare du Nord in Paris to head to St Pancras station in London, I must confess that there was a point where I felt truly alone. Over these four days, there would be no organiser to help me, no host family to depend on and the experience of the journey was most definitely up to me. Getting stuck at one of the tramway stations with my ticket not working was not the most comforting thought either. But there is an unexplainable amount of pride when you can get yourself out of those situations, even more so doing it in French. There was pressure with these circumstances, but in a strange and unpredictable way, I did not feel scared. Gazing out the passing sights of Paris as the artificial lights faded out and the sun rose slowly from the edge of the horizon was nothing but peaceful when the train departed. Reaching St Pancras station had a real Victorian feel about it, with the iron bars and the precise design of the station, almost to the point of having a steampunk vibe to it. My eyes were instantly drawn to the big gold clock that ran with a vintage elegance and with every minute that ticked by, I almost chanted in rhythm. Here in London. Here in London. Here in London.

Having turned into quite the French woman during my time in Paris, it took all my will not say that instinctive bonjour or merci to the people that I met in London when I first arrived. Honestly, I just stood there in a shop at the train station for about twenty minutes getting over the confusion of not hearing that sexy yet fast paced language that I love but instead a familiar one with a strange level of formality and grace. Granted, I am no complete stranger to the English accent, but that simply does not mean I could get used to people talking to me as if I were the Queen. It astonishes me how bizarre it felt to view English as a foreign language, while the occasional thought in French seemed perfectly normal. When I finally got my words together and bought my underground tube card to explore the city, I was ready to take it all in. Dragging my little red suitcase along, I set off to Covent Gardens, waiting to go above ground and see my first sights of this historical and wonderful city.

Covent Gardens was a very magical sight to see, with a blend of both commercial and very individualistic aspects that make it the most perfect introduction of Christmas in London. Through my cringing as the clunky wheels of my suitcase hobbled behind me on the cobbled ground with its obnoxiously loud clatter, I gaped at the beauty of the large red ornaments that hung on the ceiling of the main structure as you walked in. Right underneath, little tiny white stores would sell jewellery boxes and handmade bags and little dainty necklaces all put out on display to reflect the gleaming sunshine that streamed through the glass roof. On the outer edges, luxurious stores had filled their windows with their festive range that looked even more precious being framed by the classic black edges around each of the displays. Walking into any one of them was an experience in itself as the warm air embraced you first before you lose yourself in the smells of divine chocolates or winter teas or soft body creams that make your head spin. As much as the comfort of standing by a warm hot chocolate glass dispenser gave me while I relished in its sweet taste, the events outside gave me an even better perspective of classic London with its culture of street entertainment. By the big Christmas tree with fairy lights wrapped all the way to the top, a magician performed his trick around a huge crowd who applauded and laughed loudly at his comments. On the under level where all the cafes and creperies and bakeries where serving customers with hot lunch, a lady was singing a powerful but beautiful opera piece that rung through the entire building with its resonance. It was so easy to talk to people and within minutes, I had bought myself three beautiful English teaspoons whilst telling the vendor how much I would enjoy using them in my home in New Zealand. The longer I stayed, the more I didn't want to leave because it was a place that was just so classically beautiful with the most heartwarming atmosphere.

But no matter how pretty, my body was just physically tired from hauling my luggage around and when I realised I could check in to my youth hostel in Camden, I left the markets and stores behind me, hopping on the tube as if I had been doing it for years. Upon discovering that my hostel was within one of the most vibrant and unique night populated areas of London, I was very nervous to get my key and make my way up the creaky stairs to a room that had six wooden bunks and an odd smell. It wasn't accommodation that I was used to at all, but my purpose here was to travel, leaving early in the mornings and coming back late at night. At least the bed was clean and comfortable, and that was all I required when you take away all those unnecessary embellishments. The bars on the streets were all closed when I looked out the window. But from its exterior, I could imagine hundreds of young nightmoths hanging around them when darkness settles with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in another while loud music blasted in their eats. I made no effort to stick around despite the small protests of brain urging me to sit down and take a small break. There was definitely no time for that, because I needed to go see one of the most famous icons of London itself, and the perfect time was creeping up.

Any traveller who ventures unknown waters alone can tell you that no matter how great at navigation you may be, sometimes a little help is required. I was moved by how willing and friendly the man who worked for the underground was with explaining where the best places are and what I must do to make my stay unforgettable. Saving a lot of time thanks to his advice and help, I made it to my destination, rounding the corner to see the glorious London Eye glowing brightly against an unbelievably ethereal blue background. Now here is my gripe with this heavenly sight - my first initial thought was not the shock of seeing such an impactful scene, but a simple question: Where is the grey? Either I had been living a lie or the entire image in front of me was an unnerving recreation of what perfect London would be. Through years of being told of the notoriously grim weather, I could not accept this strikingly beautiful scene, as if my eyes were purposely deceiving me. The wheel turned around slowly and surely while the white fluffy clouds just lay there in a sea of blue. I could barely tear my eyes away, but I needed to buy my ticket and I could not remember ever being so excited to see the sights of a city from above. By the time I had emerged out of a busy ticket office, the slow transition into sunset had started to begin, layering on the lingering rays of sunlight onto the fading blue. I prayed and willed the sky to hold off longer so I could see London with its daytime glory, even for just a glimpse. And whoever was listening above granted me that wish and proceeded to create a picturesque display that superseded my expectations. As the gondola glided along its curved path, I saw this iconic city transform from bright and bustling to an unbelievable silhouette of gorgeous shapes and sizes, all dark against the now warm orange sky. It was like time moved incredibly slow yet fast, passing by in both a blur and also halting still so that I embed what I saw in my mind forever. The ride gave a feeling of being pulled up to heaven, just to reach the top for that one special moment to then fall back down, gently like a light feather.

Walking along the side of the Thames whilst holding a hot sausage baguette a little afterwards as the sky turned dark, I had one of those moments of reflection. Not quite an epiphany but more of a general appreciation for what I am seeing and where I am. While bikers performed their tricks on my left and the skateboarders showed off their skills on my right, I strolled past the bustling Christmas markets until I found a quite park bench to sit down and ponder over the sorts of personal challenges that I had to overcome to get me to this point. In no way exaggerated, I had to dig so deeply to find a courage and determination to leave what I knew behind to explore this unknown part of the world. Before, it had weighed on me greatly that maybe I didn't have that sort of drive to pull it out when I needed it most, or more importantly that I never possessed it in the first place. But I made this all possible for myself and I could not be more proud of the person that I have become - it almost saddens me how long it has taken for me to discover that fear or not, I have grown into a woman who can achieve fantastic things. With the support of various very important people in my life, I could finally say that where I was in that moment was one of the greatest highlights yet, without a shadow of hesitation.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Monumental Moments

Paris is known for many things, everybody comes up with similar ideas in mind but perhaps nobody really knows what they are saying unless they have experienced it for themselves. And the first time will always be the best, no matter how crazy those circumstances may be. That wow moment provides an indescribable feeling that really bursts through your entire entity, hitting every single nerve in your body and it overpowers you with adrenaline and awe. I must confess, I did not know all that much about the beautiful attractions around the city, not the history nor the inspiring stories behind them, but only that they have the power to really open your eyes to a world that is more colourful and breathtaking than I could have ever imagined. By now, I have visited these monuments several times over, and I can truthfully say that each glimpse has been more stunning than before. Presented here is a collection of photos taken over the different times I have visited but I cannot emphasise enough that they are just a shade of the real beauty you would see with the naked eye. But while I will never get tired of making my way into the city, just to sit down on a park bench with a coffee or stand in the middle of the busiest roads when the traffic lights turn red, I don't think I can ever forget the thrill of seeing it for the first time.

Exploring the city and leisure time would be a real luxury, that is what I had initially thought. It goes without saying that having such a beautiful home to stay in and eating both satisfying and delicious meals would require my absolute dedication to work hard for all these advantages. And while that is yet another topic of discussion for another time, I never thought that work would propel me into having my first educative tour of the city. It was a hectic first day of work that Thursday as I was thrust into classrooms to manage and teach by myself even though it was my first work day and only my third day in France, and it ended with the information that I would be leading a group of nineteen students into central Paris to meet with the art history teacher José. Not only have I never been into the city, but to make sure nineteen others got there all intact in the midst of the morning city rush? That had to be the craziest thing in the world.

But after conquering the complicated system of trains and trams and metros, dragging up some deeply buried bravery to make quick decisions and using my French ability to comprehend exactly what we were doing, it was all worth it to finally arrive at the escalator that would bring me onto the infamous Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Yes, it was cliché Paris but as far as I know, people don't really understand what that means. In winter, cliché Paris is simply feathered rain with moments of strong breezes, ruffling the perfect line of bare trees wrapped in fairy lights all the way down the avenue. It would have been gloomy, but all I could think of was the illumination of soft light that bounced off the walls to highlight the world class architecture of the buildings themselves. Right there on my left, the glowing brilliance of Louis Vitton stood there in all its glory, the windows filled with shapes and colours that were so imperfect, they just worked together. Around me, the stores and restaurants on one of the most famous avenues in the world had started to wake up from its hibernating state, slowly turning the soft hazy background into the golden gem that it is, much like the first but slow, oozing scents of a freshly brewed latte filling a café with its warm breath. I could not bring myself to hold up my camera and take the photos that I wanted and needed to share because its sights just struck me into stupor. What have I done? I had allowed myself the opportunity to experience one of those moments that you would tell your friends and family about endlessly, eventually your husband and children and undoubtedly will try to reenact it again in the future. But of course, it would never be the same.

It took me minutes to comprehend that we had stumbled to the middle of the road, standing there on that concrete island while traffic whizzed past us left and right in its haughty, busy fashion. My jaw almost fell to the ground when I realised we could not have been more than 30m away from the l'Arc de Triomphe, with the most perfect dead on angle that you see in all the guides that you devour with your eyes at home. It was majestic and gorgeous, standing there so profoundly that you can feel the pride of the Frenchmen who built it themselves in its embodiment. As a symbolic emblem of unparalleled victory, I couldn't help but feel that same sort of triumph for myself - for conquering my absolute fears to get to this point and create something for myself that shifts my world into a completely different shape. And after I took it all in and realised that I needed this memory forever, I turned on my camera. And it never stopped snapping.

From all my previous travels, it has always been a repetitive situation when visiting attractions and beautiful monuments, the process of which I hated and despised. You view. You admire. You get back on that damn bus ready for another sickly journey to go to the next one. So to my absolute surprise and pure joy, I fell in love with Paris even more upon learning that all the significant buildings and landmarks are simply in one line, within walking distance and surrounded by the same, never-ending ambiance that draws me in with its irresistable charm and elegance. Our brief walking and exploring of Champs-Elysée was nothing short of fancy, but arriving in front of the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais was like reaching the pinnacle of French architectural brilliance. The Grand Palais with its mighty size and sheer grandness, this ornate structure hosts the crème de la crème of art in all forms. Chanel and Dior runway shows, Japanese contemporary artwork, the classic Christmas ice-rinks with beautiful light displays all take place in its interior while its exterior mimics the robustness and strength of the strange mélange of Greek inspiration and iron. Just across the street, the Petit Palais stood just as boldly as its companion but with a unique delicacy that makes it stand out perhaps more so despite its comparatively tiny size. The glass lined with both slim and thick frames of stone accentuated its fragile strength, as if one touch could both shatter it and break your finger simultaneously.

Continuing onward, we found yet another unforgettable place, one that catches even José's breath every time even though he has lived in Paris his entire life. My first steps on the most extravagant and decadent bridge in the city, Pont Alexandre III, brought me to a point that showcased Paris at one of its finest. The four statues that stood on the sturdy anchors of the bridge gleamed with gold, and its gilded statues had been crafted with so much detail that looking that each of them would have made your eyeballs roll. Leaning over the edge, the elaborate twisting and turning of stone created the ornate pattern that wove the bridge together. Both sides symmetrical, it danced over the Seine to meet up at the Nymphs of the Seine which sat on the edge like dark angels against the creamy white of the structure. Running my hand across them brought a chill to my body that had nothing to do with the cold. I looked over where José was pointing just to see a beautiful palace with a golden top and let myself marvel at the grace of l'Hotel des Invalides. Being not a hotel but a hospital despite its name, you would never be able to understand how a place so beautiful could once have harboured signs of death and illness at all. For those who fought bravely in the war, it was a splendid place to be and of course they deserved nothing short of this. And when you would think that after standing in that one spot, I have almost seen the world, the cobbled road had lead me to my first real life sighting of la Tour Eiffel, its strong framework standing out even against its grey background. Across the Seine with its flowing morning water, it just stood there waiting in the shadows. I can't say it was magical or stunning or exceptional. It didn't rain with sparkles, or reflect the light of whatever sun was present, or make unicorns and rainbows appear in the distance. But it was real. And its realness, the indisputable authenticity of it, was enough for me.

Making our way back over the bridge, we continued along with l'Arc de Triomphe just behind our backs to find a perfect square with French lamposts and textural groundwork. In front of us stood the pointy and slick l'Obélisque de Luxor, the gift from Egypt that took five years to sail across the seas to France. It was straight out of a storybook, with cryptic markings in archaic symbolism across the granite surface stretching 20m above the ground. Of course, you could not miss what was directly behind, framing the small pointy structure with its round shape and slow movement. The Concorde spun around with a speed that put everybody in a trance as we admired the clean whiteness that moved ever so slightly but smoothly like gliding butter. Underneath it, stalls would sell crepes and waffles and churros that would permeate through your nose. That satisfaction of holding a chocolate crepe and nibbling on it whilst craning my head to see the top of the cycle was immense, and there would be seconds where the hot steam would rise up and disturb that image before the winds, which were building up, would carry them away.

We approached a large pool with a fountain and those classic little green chairs when I finally came to realise that we were in one of the most iconic gardens of France, Les Jardins des Tuileries. Here on a bright and warm day, you would find tens upon hundreds of Parisians sitting back on these chair with their newpapers and their morning coffees. The classic design and distinctive quality of French gardens that I learnt that day was its measurable perfection, its accurate and planned design with statues equally distanced and trees lined all the way to the very end where it met the small arch. Walking around the fountain with tile dust crunching under our feet to live up to its name of 'the garden of roof tiles', José and I talked about life in Europe and I got a real feel of what it would be like to live in a place like this. For all its beauty and its elegance, there is a price to pay. No Parisian is ever completely relaxed and chilled out like New Zealanders would view as the norm, they are worn out and worked to the ground every single day without fail. It is only their pride in the beautiful place they have created and the assurances that they are living in the arguably the most yearned for destination on the planet that gets them out of bed in the darkness of the early mornings. His Spanish background screamed for him to go back to Spain, to his roots but he just cannot leave this place with his family. If you love it here, you must risk everything and make the choice, establish it all before your life really begins. Once it starts somewhere else, it will be difficult to move and how would you feel knowing that it wasn't right here. It was one piece of advice as we walked through the gardens that will haunt my mind in the future, either as relief or regret but I'm not sure which yet.

And if it wasn't enough to do all that in a few short hours, we ended our journey in front of the Louvre. Even the weather held off for a little while to let us view the very object that changed the definition of art and architecture. We were there for a few minutes only and it was ominous to know there were things that lay beyond there on that golden line, more to discover and much more to see. But in an almost poetic way, it summed up what my adventure would be like in Paris and provided a metaphorical depiction of my soul searching. It would be a never-ending discovery of things that would be etched into what defines me, but will require constant curiosity and depth to reach the very end.

I would do this tenfold, a hundred fold and never quite explore it all to the detail of my heart's content. I would never tire of trying to though, and I would come back every chance that I get. And to the day I write this, I still do.