It was pitch black and frosty when I finally exited Charles De Gaulle airport after trying in vain to find somewhere to clean myself up a bit following my 20+ hours in the air. There’s no doubt about it, flying is an undignified way to travel. Or at least that’s what I was thinking when I was giving myself a bath in a toilet cubicle with a handful of moist towelettes. I was a bit disoriented by the dark and greeted the bus driver with ‘Bonsoir Monsieur’, despite the fact that it was around 07h30 AM. This earnt me a quizzical look and a ‘Bonjour’ in return. Welcome to Paris.
I was only in Paris for the morning – I was catching a train to Vichy not long after midday – but in that time, I managed to sneak a quick look at the Place de la Bastille and the Gare de Lyon, as well as stopping at two different boulangeries to try A) a pain au chocolat and B) a croissant. Both were excellent, but the croissant was a little better, having come from a slightly more artisanal-looking place. A delicious flaky treat.
I also had time to take the métro, only a couple of stops, but it seemed to work well and got me where I was going. I also used an AT machine and discovered that in Europe, they dispense 10s – how civilized! I should mention that the lady who sold me my carnet of tickets (a book of ten singletrips) was extremely friendly – as was everyone I met in Paris, as a matter of fact. Upon arriving at the Gare de Bercy, I discovered that I was, in fact, an hour early for my train. I had all my luggage and I was tired, so I decided to wait. On reflection, this was a good choice – I asked the lady sitting next to me a question about the trains and this evolved into a full-fledged conversation about the region I was travelling to – my first proper conversation in French, in fact.
Eventually, I boarded the train to Vichy. I passed the trip watching the countryside go by – France is a beautiful country, that much is obvious. I passed a lot of gorgeous estates dominated by stately manor houses, and tiny, idyllic villages but an equal number of spooky, abandoned industrial parks and empty, cavernous buildings. Plus, what I believe was a nuclear power plant – neat!
In the late afternoon I arrived in Vichy and met my host family, Olivier, Aurélie and their son Clovis. After a shower and a long-awaited change of clothes, Olivier took me for a walk around Vichy, which was that very evening being illuminated for Christmas.
A brochure I once read advised me to read a book set in the places you’re visiting before you visit them, to make them feel a little bit more special once you arrive. With Vichy, it would be difficult to find a fictional novel on the topic, but I have read Vichy France by Robert Paxton, which is a historical text (in English) about the collaborationist regime that governed France during the Second World War. Perhaps deliberately, very little trace of that history remains, but I did get a chance to see the Palais des Congrès – the headquarters of Maréchal Pétain’s government, which now houses the Opéra de Vichy.
After all this, we had dinner, which was Quiche Lorraine and salad, followed by a selection of cheeses. It was fabulous, and also a great opportunity to get to know my host family.
The next day, I set out on my own tour of the city, and visited a few more of the major buildings in the city, including the Hôtel de Ville, which was breathtaking. Beautiful buildings are a dime a dozen in France, of course, but this one was a particular favourite of mine. I also bought myself some leather gloves to stave off the cold, although I maintain that it’s not nearly as bad as people warned me – I left the airport wearing a hoodie and once I boarded the bus, I felt too hot. I then had lunch at a local boulangerie, which was a chicken sandwich made on a frankly huge baguette. I ate it sitting on the steps of the local markets – it was excellent, my favourite thing I’ve eaten in France so far except perhaps Aurélie’s quiche.
The thing that has most struck me about the last few days is just how nice everybody has been to me. I’m not sure if I’ve just been lucky, or perhaps it’s the French words coming out of my foreign face, but even the dreaded Parisiens were extremely friendly and welcoming. Despite the warnings I received, nobody has switched to English – it’s all French, all the time. I find that challenging, but also exciting.