In France, a grape is not a grape, it’s a raisin, and a prune is not a prune, it’s a plum. An olive is still an olive, but perhaps in solidarity with other dried fruit faux amis, olives on frozen pizzas are shrivelled, clenched fists of pure evil that don’t look anything like they do on the box where they’re plump and edible in appearance. I take it there’s a trading standards authority of some kind here in France, but presumably nobody ever sues because there’s too much paperwork involved. What’s more, these negligent manufacturers don’t even bother taking the stones out of the olives first, so you could quite easily lose a tooth biting into one if you weren’t paying attention; and surely the only silver lining here is the fact you do notice because they look so disgusting. These are the kinds of dangers you must face in your own home every day here, which is why trips away as often as possible are mandatory.
One of the advantages of living in Paris – apart from the clement winter we’ve been enjoying and the billions of other great things I’m always banging on about – is the fact there are trains that will take you to plenty of other places in mainland Europe (which is revelatory if you come from an island) and take you damn quickly too if you get on the right train. You can be in Brussels in under and hour and Amsterdam in a few with a company called Thalys; I’d quite like Thalys if the tight wankers opened up free internet wifi for their paying customers. Corporate meanness aside, trains and France are a majestic combination, and if you don’t believe me then think where the world would be without Impressionism, which happened because Paris’ panoply of progressive painters could suddenly travel to the south relatively easily, and there they would soon enjoy new adventures in light. The French actually adopted railways very late, thinking they didn’t need trains, and when they finally got them they went batshit crazy for them. Plus ça change…
And so we’ve been on some adventures, and hopefully there’ll be more to come. Weekends have been enjoyed in Brussels, Rome, the Loire Valley and most recently Amsterdam, where we went to see St Vincent (who was magnificent) and to check out some art. It’s interesting how differently I view the Low Countries to how I did back then when I had a job as an international photocopier in 1998.
I’d only fairly recently moved to London. I walked into Alfred Marks to perform an aptitude test and within half an hour a woman asked me if I had a full working EU passport. The next day I flew to Germany with some South Africans in ties armed with stamps and sets of staple removers to sift our way through hundreds of lever arch files which we would photocopy and take back home. The photocopier became my friend, and the job – as dull as it was – involved claiming back VAT for companies that had bought items within the EU and could now get reimbursed in this brave new Europe. Oh, and drinking Bavaria dry in the evenings, or wherever else I was posted to that week. I went to Monsanto and Nike and various nefarious other companies that didn’t seem quite as evil on the inside. An MD in the Black Forest gave me a funny handshake mistaking me for a Mason, unaware that I was on £4 an hour. The great thing was, all the travelling time was paid for and also you’d get 60 Deutsche Marks an evening food allowance. I discovered quickly that you could go to a bar of your choosing, warn the bar staff you would drink there exclusively until five o’clock in the morning, and they’d be more than happy to throw you a food receipt to cover all your costs.
I have thousands of misadventures to share with you, but I’ll level with you, I’m saving those for the autobiography. The thing that really struck me as strange was how different Amsterdam and Brussels were in 1998 than they are now, although I’m not talking about the places as much as the way I see them. I thought I knew Brussels well having stayed there for a month, but it turns out I knew the route that connected five different bars, all within close proximity of each other. Amsterdam – where I also worked for a month – is actually a tale of two cities and the first time I only got to see one. There’s the gorgeous side where we stayed at the weekend with the galleries and the cool shops and the treacherous bicycles and the amazing restaurants and the canals, and then there are all the clucking scumbags, the weed bores, the stag parties and the lowlifes that radiate from the station and out into the red light district. And you know what, I used to be one of those shitbags, and what a sorry little prick I must have been. I’ve not suddenly become bourgeois, I’m hopefully just less reprehensible.
16 years on we stayed in an apartment overlooking a canal above a Greek restaurant hired from a guy Claire found on Airbnb called No Fuss Gus. It beat the seediness of the Boatel I was assigned to that’s for sure. Claire was here a few years ago actually, and stayed at the Hotel CC. I hear it’s a bit like the Hotel BCC, but with less privacy.