Escape from Paris (How we almost missed our ferry home)

Picture this: a man’s screaming face, he is trapped in an underground carpark in a Parisian suburb. He has just spent 6 weeks in overly close proximity to his family on an alleged holiday and now it looks like this “vacation” will continue indefinitely because somebody has locked the keys (with the underground carpark fob) in the apartment.

But I have gotten ahead of myself, first a bit of background. On the previous evening myself and my wife had calculated that in order to make the journey from the not so leafy (best described as up-and-coming) suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine to the ferry port of Cherbourg, we needed to depart at 9am. Google maps had indicated a 4 hour journey (albeit sans traffic) and a 9am departure would give us two and a half hours of wiggle room for petrol and lunch breaks and a bit of leg stretching before our 3.30pm (latest) check-in.

It has to be said that I’m the one in our family who is the stickler for punctuality and my nerves were starting to tingle when my wife arrived back 15 mins late from her pre-breakfast walk and pastry pick-up. But hey, breathe deeply sure we have 150 mins to play with! An hour later I was definitely breathing very deeply as my wife realised that in an effort to achieve an efficient key drop-off, she had left us without a way to get out of our underground car park. A frantic phonecall revealed that our landlord was at least 40 mins away so intercom buttons were haphazardly being pressed trying to find a knight in shining armour who could release us from our dungeon. Then our hero (me) stepped up to the plate and found a manual override on the car park exit. It involved cutting power somewhere but needs must, who cares if Jacques couldn’t toast his croque monsieur that morning (insert gallic shrug). So after a lot of pushing and shoving we got the gate open and we were free! Now all we had to do was get the roof box on top of the car and start to pack stuff into it (note: roof-boxes are not underground car park friendly).

By the time we were ready to leave it was 9.50am but we still had 100 minutes to play with. Then we asked Google maps to plan our quickest route to Cherbourg. The previous night it had suggested going along the Paris ring-road (the infamous peripherique) and we had mentioned to the boys the possibility of seeing Parc des Princes, where PSG play. Now however there were red traffic indicators everywhere and it was clear that we would have to take a more circuitous route. The overall estimated time for the journey had also gone up to five hours. Yikes, only 40 mins to play with.

Things did not get any better once we hit the road. But travelling around Paris on a Saturday in August, what did we expect?! Every Thierry, Dominic and Herve was heading to their breezy summer retreat escaping the intense Parisian heat. Every toll-both (and there were loads of them) had a 5km tail-back, Google Maps kept sending us down alternate routes to beat the traffic but I think it was also sending thousands of other vehicles at the exact same time like a shoal of fish in the ocean.  

When we eventually managed to escape the greater Parisian area our estimated time to reach the destination was 15 mins past our latest check-in time. At this point, the mood in our car was slightly frosty and the tension could have been cut with the proverbial guillotine. Then just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, our Volvo decided to tell us that our tyre pressure was low. Now to say that our Volvo has a heightened responsibility towards all things safety-related is like saying my children are kind of fond of screentime! All you have to do is try to reverse into a moderately sized parking space and the amount of flashing buzzers, lights and sirens that go off are similar to an early 90’s rave. Not satisfied with a reactive approach to safety, the Volvo will also try to grab control of the steering when it feels you are moving out of your lane, think Kit in Knight Rider without the American vocals. Hence when the tyre-pressure warning light went off I was less than concerned and assumed that my wife would be of a similar opinion. Think again, the announcement that “I have to pull in at the next stop” sent a shiver through the collective spines of the other car occupants. At this point I had a decision to make, (i) try to talk my wife out of a totally unnecessary stop or (ii) calmly grit my teeth, nod my head and try to make the quickest pit-stop in French motorway history. For the sake of my marriage I went for the latter, luckily the service station was jam packed so we couldn’t get near the air pump, a quick kick of the tyres later and we were back on the road.

At this point we needed to travel 250 km in 2 hours on roads with a 110 km / hr speed limit (the maths didn’t quite work). Nevertheless we pressed ahead just relieved to have some consistent forward progress. With about 150 km to go we encountered a vehicle with a Carlow registration, similarly packed to the rafters and from the overwrought look on the driver’s face, in a similar situation to ourselves (i.e. dead late for the last ferry out of town). Thus began the great Hiberno-Normandy car rally, think Cannonball Run without the humour, with yours truly as Burt Reynolds and my wife as Farrah Fawcett. Thanks to the expert driving of Mrs Doyle / Fawcett we made the port at 3.35pm (leaving a string of French police voitures in our wake*), only 5 mins after cut-off and crucially they were still checking-in cars. We gave the Carlow car a satisfied fist pump as we both pulled onto the WB Yeats ferry (just like the Italian and Qatari chaps sharing the Olympic high jump gold medal). We had escaped / won / survived, never have I been so happy to board a ferry (note: I hate ferries).  

*This may not be true!

Paris Je T’Aime!

I have recently returned from a lovely long weekend in Paris with my wife and two year old daughter and it moved me to try and express my affinity for that great city. Having spent a year on Erasmus studying in Paris, it is the place on this planet, apart from my home town of Dublin, that I am most familiar with. Furthermore on the fateful night that I first met my beloved I had been struggling to find my mojo in the chat-up department when I mentioned the special place in my heart for Paris, suddenly her eyes lit up and the rest as they say is history.

Although I must say that Paris has not always been so good to me. My first trip there was as a teenager on a camping holiday with my parents (already I can hear warning bells). Camping in Paris is not something that has much of a following (unless you are down and out along the quays of the Seine) but I can confirm that there is a camp-site in Maisons Lafitte which is about six RER / train stops from the Arc de Triomphe. I can also confirm that there was a dog in the local camp-site bar who liked nothing more than to nip /bite Irish teenagers when a goal was scored during the Euro football tournament but the less said about that the better!

A more significant and entirely more satisfying trip to Paris occurred in the summer of 1994 when I travelled “sans parents” but “avec beaucoup d’amis” to the city of light in search of part-time work, adventure, enlightenment, and a certain je ne sais quoi! The stories from those six weeks could probably fill an entire novel (think of a coming of age tale involving the destruction of a pretty apartment with a lot of Bob Dylan vinyl LPs) so I will keep it to the bare bones. What impressed me first was the sheer scale of the place, from provincial Dublin I had arrived in a true capital of the world. Then there was the uniformity of everything, Baron Haussman did a great job when he designed all those boulevards back in the day and it is a great legacy. Into this grandeur and heat we arrived as doe-eyed innocents but left as hommes (or at least slightly wiser youths). Paris welcomed us with open arms and we consumed it all, from the noxious smells of Chatelet Les Halles on a sweltering summer day to the idyllic calm of the fountains in Palais Royal, from singing Beatles songs to an assorted crowd on the Champs de Mars to being maced by a vagrant on the Quai d’Orleans (even the vagrants in Paris have weaponry). We took in the full experience and lapped it up. Even when things were bad and they did occasionally get a bit too real like when a friend was questioned by the gendarmes for selling sandwiches without a license to taxi drivers (hey somebody had to pay our rent while the rest of us were having adventures, thanks Barry), or when the locals ran us off their territory for trying to sell water to the other tourists (that’s one cooler box we never got back). We just endured it because we were living life and besides, we were doing it in the most beautiful city in the world. Also we were at that stage of our life when sleep was an afterthought so quite often we would be found wandering the arrondissements in the early hours of the morning almost always with some cheap French wine or 1664 beer in our hands and almost always ending up at Pere Lachaise cemetery, which was right beside our accommodation (10 people in a one bed apartment). Exchanging tales near Moliere, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaff and Oscar Wilde, there’s your fantasy dinner party guests right there!

Two years later I returned to study, improve my French and re-acquaint myself with pastis du vin (think the French equivalent of Buckfast). While I wasn’t actually studying in the centre of Paris, every spare moment would be spent taking the half hour train ride into the Champs Elysees. I loved walking (and still do) or cycling along its entire length, from the majesty of the Arc at one end through the glitz of the high-end shopping and eateries (and the obligatory McDonalds), through the greener section by the Grand Palais down to the traffic chaos of the Place de la Concorde. In more recent times I was fortunate enough to visit Paris on the one day of the year when the Champs is pedestrianised and that was even more fun. This was a less intense time than my previous visit, mainly because I had more cash and therefore I didn’t have to deny myself food for a few days in order to afford a value meal in Quick! I also managed to find myself a girlfriend and really enjoyed walking hand in hand around the Quartier Latin or Place des Vosges (although not as much as I enjoyed doing it with my wife more recently!).

And what about the Parisians you may ask and their notorious arrogance. Well apart from the odd outburst on the metro or occasional incorrect directions, I have to say that Parisians are a pretty pleasant bunch (particularly once they realise you are not English). I have even found that this bonhommie has only increased on the more recent occasions when I have brought my kids with me. Indeed on my most recent trip, a Parisian gentleman at the table beside us in our restaurant made an elaborate crane (the bird not the building facilitator) for Ella (my two year old). It even flapped its wings when you pulled its tale.

Of course Paris has been further cemented in my good books by the fact that I witnessed both of Ireland’s recent rugby Grand Slams while in Paris purely by coincidence. This almost wipes from my memory the sad and sorry tale of the 2007 rugby world cup which I also took in at first hand at the Parc des Princes and Stade de France.

So now I try to get an excursion to Paris at least once a year whether it’s with kids (and the inevitable trip to EuroDisney) or just with Niki and the potential to experience Paris after dark (if you can live with the sky high price of drink in the bars).

There have been a few lowlights in Paris over the years but these mainly relate to work and trying to recover debts from French businesses with huge trade union involvement, as our legal advisor once said “This is the last communist country in Europe. If you insist on enforcing your rights the trade unions will hold a barbecue at your head office!!”

But overall I have to say that I will forever love Paris and I wholeheartedly endorse the words of Audrey Hepburn “Paris is always a good idea”.