Where’s the snoot?

Okay, so who stole the snoot from the French? I have tried everything to find an arrogant Frenchman – even waiters who traditionally had the role of professional snoot cockers – I have tried speaking French in the worst accent (Australian) and used my best schoolboy french to upset the natives, but no, they politely respond… in English.
Arrogant? I have tried asking directions to the toilette of guards in Versailles and all they have done is smiled and pointed me in the right direction. What am I doing wrong here?
I have tried wearing the wrong shoes (long story) and I even tried ordering a coffee ‘tres legere’ but to no avail – not a sniff among them, just polite courteous service. Nary a Gallic shrug to be found.

Note: the Gallic shrug is something to be cultivated – a combination of ‘I choose not to understand your anglicised attempts at French’, and an ‘I don’t care even if you are lost/busting to find a toilette/desperate for a decent coffee or (d) all of the above.

Somewhere in the last few years all this has gone the way of globalisation and perhaps the global economic crisis, but now I would have to say that the French reputation for snootiness or arrogance is grossly misplaced. Just sayin’.

Curious encounter with a laundromat and a philosopher

You might expect to encounter a philosopher in a trendy Paris cafe near the Sorbonne, knocking back an espresso, but in reality, it’s not the sort of place you strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Consider instead the humble laundromat. If you travel more than a few days, sooner or later you have to experience one. It seems mundane, I know, but in Paris they just do it differently – and therein lies a tale.

Washing clothes seems simple enough – almost everywhere it’s the same: work out the coins, shove in a few clothes and put the coins in the slot and away it goes. Except in Paris. In Paris they take a perfectly simple idea and overthink it – which is okay, but you then have to follow the train of thought. It comes down to politics and a culture of philosophers.

An individualistic culture that is all about efficiency and commerce, like the US or Australia will have each machine take its own coins and it is self contained and modular, that way, if a machine breaks down, you swap it with a new one and the system keeps going.

Paris laundromat

Paris laundromat – the first 6 instructions…

In Paris the logic is based on a fundamental philosophy of centralised bureacracy. So the machines are all governed from a central machine that handles the financial transaction – separate from the process of handling the clothes. Each machine has a number, so you put in your clothes, note the number and key it into the machine across the room that handles the money. This applies to the detergent dispenser, the washer and the driers. One machine, many numbers.

The instructions are there on the wall – taking up most of the wall. In French. And some letters are missing. It is an easy 9 step process, across six notice boards.

Fortunately travellers are all in the same boat when confronted with this unique system, and there is a cameraderie among travellers – so there is usually someone who can introduce you to this seemingly complex system. That means people talk to each other.
Complete strangers you would never otherwise meet start talking, and that is what happened.

This day, I was in first thing in the morning, trying to puzzle out with my schoolboy French, when in walks an African Parisian. He quickly sized up the situation, and explained in perfectly good english how it worked – quite logical really.

He saw that I had a book to read – in English – on the Shakespeare and Company bookshop. He asked where I was from and I told him.

‘I studied next to an Australian, in Boston,’ he replied. ‘I was there for three years, and he told me a lot about Australia.’

I asked him what he did and he told me was a mathematician – and that at his university the mathematics department was part of the philosophy department. I noted that I had taught French philosophy at university in Australia. ‘I prefer the German philosophers myself,’ he said, and we proceeded to to discuss in some depth the relative merits of the French versus the German Continental Schools.

It could only have happened in a laundromat – in Paris…


Victor Hugo’s House

If you should find yourself wandering along Rue de Rivoli past the shoe shops, past the Monoprix minimart and on until you are opposite St Pauls church, you might chance to turn left and encounter a small chateau – the Hotel de Sully. This is quite an impressive Renaissance building built in 1624 for the superintendent of finance M. Gallet. He had a private mansion built with a garden and orangery opening onto Place Royale – later known as Place des Vosges right in the heart of the Marais district in the 4th Arrondissment. It now houses the Centre for national Monuments which is part of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, managing over 100 national monuments. We came upon it during the Heritage weekend, so it was open to the public and we took a peek.

Hotel de Sully

Hotel de Sully

If you walk past the forlorn-looking rose window frame sitting in the garden you will find another building – the service quarters

Hotel de Sully

Hotel de Sully

Which will finally let you out onto the Place des Vosges. It was always an upmarket square and was the model for Bloomsbury Square in London. But here is where it gets interesting.

Before his exile to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, the Place des Vosges was home to Victor Hugo from 1832 to 1848 – he rented a second floor apartment in a 17th century building known as the hotel  de Rohan-Guéméneé. These are not hotels as we know them, but rather they are town houses (hence Hotel de Ville means literally ‘Town Hall’).

 

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges

Once here you proceed to the  end of the street and there you will find perhaps a short queue in front of Victor Hugo’s house. There is a small entrance charge which was waived for the heritage weekend, and we were shown upstairs to the apartment.

The stairs are lined with prints from articles about him, and about his publications – for it was here that he began Les Miserables among other major works, including Ruy Blas, Les voix interiores, Les Rayons et Les Ombres. 

His taste is extraordinary – from the chinese rooms with fine porcelain and lacquer work furniture to hefty Arts and Crafts furniture set against wallpaper not unlike that designed by William Morris.

Victor Hugo's house

Victor Hugo’s house

Victor Hugo's house

Victor Hugo’s house

 

Victor Hugo's house

Victor Hugo’s house – writing desk

Family portraits adorn the walls and the lush furnishings indicate he was well established by the time he rented this apartment.

Soon enough you are heading back down to the street and through an arch into the hustle and bustle of Paris once again.

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges