The week before leaving for Paris I worked in London, Oxford and Birmingham. Sunday night I was back in London ready for le early 07.55 Eurostar and Paris, at last.
A wave of panic
I think that I was so busy in the run up to Paris that even as I was sitting on the train, none of it seemed quite real. About an hour and a half into the journey I started to feel a bit emotional. Crikey, I thought, I am going to Paris after all as though I hadn’t quite believed that I would. Perhaps I secretly thought that some unforeseen catastrophe would roll into my way blocking my adventure and buggering up my bucket list. That passed pretty quickly. Just as the train pulled into Gare du Nord a wave of panic washed over me. Gill, what are you doing? You’re French is, well, beyond sketchy. Merde.
With too many bags to carry comfortably, I decided to grab a taxi. At this point, a full disclosure. I had help in the form of Viv, my twin, who kindly volunteered to be my human pack pony, spreading the load.
I normally walk up to Rue Ordener. It’s a pleasant mile long stroll past shops and cafes providing the perfect excuse for a quick coffee on the way. It takes me around 25 minutes on foot from the Gare du Nord. With bags, in the middle of a 32ºC summer heat wave, I didn’t think it would be quite as pleasant.
Joe le taxi
The official taxi rank on Rue de Dunkerque filled up rapidly as the Eurostar emptied. We joined a long line of bodies snaking alongside the steel railings leading up to the taxi zone. “Deux?” called the assistant at the front, without waiting for an answer, motioning us towards an empty cab parked up to the left of the rank.
“153 Rue Ordener.” I said in my best French. The driver nodded.
“Ah Montmartre. Nice area. Good place. Where are you from.”
“England. Where are you from?”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Portugal.”
What a great start to Paris, a friendly cabbie. We were having a pleasant chat about how long he’d lived in Paris, Portugal and the recent heatwave until he casually dropped into the conversation that all fares in the city were “A flat rate of 55 euros.” setting the metre to said €55. I bit my tongue. Surely not?
Some weird new tariff?
Mentally calculating what a 25 minute walk would cost in a London black cab, I sighed inwardly because the equivalent distance was probably ten pounds. Similarly, I wouldn’t even pay £55 on an airport run from Heathrow to London. Hmm. Maybe Paris has introduced some weird new taxi tariff that I haven’t heard about? Ever the optimist, I Googled the fare. Anything is possible. It came up at between 10 – 12.50 euros. Meanwhile, our driver continued chatting away, failing to notice the deathly silence that had descended upon the back seat. He had effectively increased the fare fivefold. I looked over at Viv, her mouth set in a straight line.
This wasn’t how I wanted my big adventure to begin, by getting ripped off. It was one of those moments where you weigh up whether an argument is worth the price of how much you’re going to get fleeced, but fifty quid is fifty quid. As our cabbie continued what was now effectively a monologue, I interrupted.
Google says ….
“Do you have a number for the cab?” He looked at me vacantly in the rearview mirror. I wasn’t particularly clear, I’ll grant you. Perhaps he could be forgiven for thinking I wanted his number to call him in the future for another journey on the extortion express. “I’ll need a receipt too.” I added for good measure. Another blank look accompanied by raised eyebrows. Oh for pity’s sake, I’ve just given you two legitimate outs, man, work with me. There was nothing else for it, other than to be direct. “Look, I know it isn’t €55. I even checked on Google.” I offered my phone to him, in the hope that it was an absent minded mistake. No response. “I know that you have to make a living, but so does everyone else.”
Punch & Judy Parisienne Style
We played €55 volleyball for a couple of minutes. It was like a French version of Punch and Judy bickering about the fare. Me. “Oh no it isn’t €55.” Him. “Oh yes it is.” Culminating in “It’s a complicated journey.” It’s three streets. At that point I laughed. Nothing is that complicated if I can find it on foot. Eventually he shrugged “Pay me €25 then.” My turn to look vacantly in the rearview mirror. “Pay me €20.” Finally, as the cab pulled onto Rue Ordener, “Ok, pay me what you like.”
The cabbie passed our bags from the boot. I held out the money and he refused it. “No. I want to pay you.” I insisted. He shook his head. “You need to be paid. You drove us, take it, but please don’t do this to anyone else. It’s just not fair.” I tried to force the money into his hand. He shook his head muttering “Thank you. Have a nice day” as he jumped into the driver’s seat and drove away. Maybe he was ashamed. Perhaps I look like a sucker. It could be that he was worried that I would report him. Either way, that cheeky fivefold increase had left him out of pocket instead of me. Somehow I was the one left feeling irrationally guilty.
Paris, at last behind the big blue door
It wasn’t how I had wanted to start my day but on the plus side, I was now unexpectedly a taxi ride up, what’s more, I was in Paris. The huge, weathered, blue wooden door leading to 153 stood in front of us. I’d always wondered what was behind those doors, I was about to discover the answer. Fumbling around for the key code and details of the agent, we walked through, into the courtyard and up to another door.
A quick buzz on the intercom and Auorelle, the agent, appeared, opening the door with a huge, welcoming smile and cheerful “Bonjour.” Behind her, a narrow, winding, wooden staircase corkscrewed upwards to five floors.
We stood and smiled. The aroma of wood, polish and a hundred years of history hung in the air. Sure, we’d need to climb those stairs with our bags, but they were a thing of beauty. The smooth wooden handrail had been worn down to a soft sheen by the hundreds of hands that had run their way up and down it for over a century. I imagined sticky children’s fingers, dragging along the wood, delaying the start of a school day. Adult hands absent mindedly grabbing the rail as they bounded down the stairs, late for work. Families, students, making their way up and down, up and down each day in the hypnotic haze of daily life, a million things to do on their mind. A threadbare burgundy stair runner flowed down the centre of the staircase like a river of spilt claret. Placing my palm on the end of the stair rail, I slowly made my way up the stairs.