A Bookish Adventure

I started this blog to document an extended trip to the US and UK in 2012, introducing children to my Alice-Miranda series. It's hard to believe that it's just on four years since we launched the first Alice-Miranda title - and now there are nine books out in Australia with another five still to come. When I first came up with the idea of this precocious seven and a quarter year old, I had no clue that she would take me on such an amazing journey, not only in Australia but also across the world. I visited 37 schools while we were away in 2012 and gave over 80 talks - it was fantastic. In 2013 I've been on lots of new adventures in the UK - visiting schools from London to Southampton, Lancashire, Scotland, Newcastle and back to London again. After that I headed off to meet readers in Singapore. In Australia I've been to Melbourne, Perth, Albany, Alice Springs and Brisbane. There's a new series too - about a gorgeous little girl called Clementine Rose. She and Alice-Miranda don't know each other yet, but they will soon.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Paris in Summer

Paris in the summer is a beautiful place.  I love the architecture, the food, the fashion.  Parisians are chic.  They know the meaning of understated elegance and even the young girls, the teenagers and women in their early 20s seem to be blessed with an innate knowledge that ‘less is more’.  By that though, I don’t mean less clothing as many of our Australian girls seem to interpret the notion, but ‘less flesh on display’.  I was surprised by the number of young girls and women wearing hosiery and generally covering up – not in a prudish way, far from it.  Perhaps we should have compulsory studies of Parisian style! 

We left London on Sunday morning having spent two days at the Hyatt Andaz in Liverpool Street.  It’s a fabulous hotel which I would highly recommend.  It wasn’t cheap but compared to many overpriced London hotels it was reasonable and beautiful with excellent service.  It was also really close to the uber trendy East End and the Spitalfields markets, where I spent a morning wandering while Ian caught up on his Rugby fix at the local pub. 
We travelled on the Eurostar to Gare Du Nord.  It was easy.  The trains are efficient, on time and very comfortable.  St Pancras station in London is also easy to navigate in terms of checking in, getting through security and immigration and at the other end, I recommend that you avoid the touts looking for ‘private cab’ business and head straight to the taxi line or a connecting train.

I had been to Paris once before in the depths of winter about 6 years ago.  So I was looking forward to seeing the city at a different time of year.  We had originally planned to spend five days in the city and then a couple of weeks touring the countryside.  But deadlines were looming (actually past) and I had to write so we decided quite a few weeks beforehand that it would be better to stay in one place in the UK and then head to Paris for five days of research.  The French countryside would have to wait until the next visit.
We caught a taxi to our hotel in St Germain, a far more central location in the Fifth Arrondissment than our previous stay in the Fifteenth.  But it wasn’t a completely unfamiliar area as we had done quite a lot of walking there on the last visit.  The hotel had recently been refurbished and I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the room and the bathroom.  At least we weren’t going to trip over our bags for the next few days!

I’d been working pretty much nonstop on Alice-Miranda In Paris (her 7th adventure) while we were staying in Oswestry over near the Welsh borders and had managed to click over 30,000 words but our time in Paris was all about the details and making sure that the things I was writing were indeed accurate.  This would necessitate visits to several tourist locations including Notre Dame, Place Vendome, Sacre Coeur and not least, the Palace of Versailles, which we hadn’t visited previously.  Of course I was keen to soak up the general atmosphere too and the food!
The weather was cool and sunny, but still quite a lot warmer than the UK.  I was beginning to worry that I had a suitcase full of winterish clothes and our next destination was Hong Kong, so a little bit of shopping needed to be done too.  We visited the Galleries Lafayette but to tell the truth I found it all completely overwhelming.  The store is beautiful, quite possibly the most beautiful department store in the world (by their own reckoning and mine) but there was just too much choice and in the end I found myself desperate to get out.  Perhaps if there had been no language barrier, I might have found it easier but I wasn’t up for this big a challenge (and I didn’t feel like torturing Ian for hours either!).  So instead we found a taxi and headed to Sacre Coeur on top of Montmarte.  The view from the top is fantastic and shows just what a low rise city Paris is, except for a few small pockets of high rise in areas like La Defense.

Prior to the ill-fated shopping expedition we had breakfasted in a café quite close to The Louvre, then walked to Place Vendome, home of The Ritz Hotel among many other high end luxury boutiques.  We wanted to look in the foyer at The Ritz so, like any other hotel I’ve ever been to, we simply walked in.  I was wishing that I’d traded my jeans that morning for something a little less tell-tale tourist as we were ‘greeted’ by a rather disarming chap who clearly knew that we weren’t about to check in.  When he asked if he could help us, I said that I wanted to look at the restaurant menu.  But having already checked that out online, I knew it would be a quick scan as we couldn’t afford to eat there either, not if we wanted to eat and have a bed for the remaining week and a half of the trip.  But I really needed to see this place as Alice-Miranda and her school group are going there in the story – just for a quick visit, certainly not to stay.  Anyway, the brusque fellow at the door was quite helpful in terms of character development, as was the lovely doorman.
Last time we were in Paris I remember there were a couple of pet shops along the Seine quite close to The Louvre.  Clearly trade has been booming as there are now more than ten of them.  The shop assistants all wear lab coats and the places are very clean and professional.  The dogs and cats cost a small fortune too.  Which brings me to one little (and sometimes not so little) thing that I wish would change in Paris.  I simply do not understand why Parisians don’t pick up after their animals.  There is dog poop everywhere.  The first time we were there I don’t remember it being anywhere near as bad as this time.  I was shocked to see people allowing their dogs to go anywhere and everywhere, and not a plastic poop bag in sight.  We did see some poetic justice though one afternoon when we had stopped for coffee.  We were enjoying the sunshine sitting outside (which brings me to my second little thing – have the French heard about lung cancer?  It’s caused from smoking – which every second person seems to do).  Anyway, I digress.  While sitting at the café we watched a fellow walking his dog.  It was a cute little thing but decided to take a poop right outside the café on the footpath.  The man walked on ahead (leads seem to be optional too).  The dog poo was avoided by numerous passers by, until the man returned and stepped right in the middle of it.  Ian and I couldn’t help but smile. 
We visited the Jardins Du Luxembourg, which are beautiful gardens in the heart of the city and a gorgeous palace too.  It was a sunny afternoon and there were people everywhere, enjoying the outdoors.  It sort of felt like the Parisian version of Central Park – although the gardens themselves are far more formal in their design and of course not nearly as big.  There is a large pond in the centre where children were sailing model boats.
We visited the Palace of Versailles on Tuesday.  They say it’s not the best day to go as many tourists head there at the start of the week (the palace is closed on Mondays) but it looked like the best day in terms of the weather and we were willing to take our chances.  We negotiated the Metro, which wasn’t difficult at all, getting on the train at Notre Dame.  The trains are relatively clean and efficient and it took about 45 minutes to get there.
I was stunned by how many people were heading to the Palace but we were lured into the local tourism office where we could purchase our entrance tickets for two euros more, hence avoiding the ridiculously long lines at the ticket office within the palace grounds.  Our ticket lady also told us to head to the gardens and the rest of the estate first and go back to the Palace later in the afternoon.  This proved to be an excellent tip as we headed straight into the gardens – and the queue for the palace snaked around for miles.
I can now understand why the peasants in France hated the aristocracy.  We’d seen some beautiful castles and stately homes in the UK but nothing quite prepared me for the opulence of Versailles.  To think there were millions starving to death and the king and queen and their entourage lived in such luxury is almost unimaginable.  But I’m glad they didn’t burn it down as it truly has to be seen to be believed.
The gardens are superb and by far my most favourite part of the estate was the Petit Palace – essentially the holiday house at the bottom of the garden and Marie Antoinette’s estate.  The palace itself was so over the top I just couldn’t imagine people living there.The estate is dotted with cafes and restaurants and completely overrun with school groups.  Every child in France must have to visit, like our Year 6 children in Australia go to Canberra on the compulsory excursion because everywhere you turned there were groups of students, some as young as preschool.  I was imagining the possibilities of losing children in the labyrinth of gardens.  I think though they were more likely safer outside though than in the palace where even late in the afternoon when we didn’t have to wait in line, the crowds inside were crushing. 

A visit to Versailles is a must for any trip to Paris and I would happily go back again to explore more of the Marie Antoinette estate.

My second attempt at shopping happened on the Boulevard St Germain where Ian and I walked for hours one morning.  And while I couldn’t afford to do any more than window shop for much of the avenue, I did find one boutique that was reasonable priced and had the most wonderful sales assistant.  She ran around finding me numerous dresses to try on and was very honest in her assessment.  Her English was about as good as my French but we had fun and I walked away with two lovely dresses.  That day ended up at the Eiffel Tower and then a boat cruise up and back on the Seine.  Paris from the river is lovely too.
Quite close to where we were staying is the Shakespeare and Co bookshop.  It’s an icon of Paris that was run for 60 years by a man called George Whitman, an American who found himself in Paris after the war.  It’s an amazing place with loads of books from all over the world.  There are also odd little ‘rooms’ where travellers who land there can sleep.  The quote on their website says, ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise’.  We were both so taken with the shop that we decided that I should leave all of the Alice-Miranda books that had travelled with us across the US and the UK with them so hopefully she would find her way into the hearts of some children in Paris.  So the next morning (our last in the city) I wrote a personalized message in each book (7 in total) about the journey the books had taken and why they were now in Paris and we walked down to the shop to hand them over.  Unfortunately, our experience didn’t quite play out the way I had hoped it would.  There were two young girls manning the front room.  One was busy serving customers and the other was a little more hidden off to the side.  We were looking to see if she might be the right person to talk to when a young man, an American, with a backpack came into the shop, ostensibly to say goodbye.  The girl in question leapt from her chair and the two had a very jolly farewell in which he told her that he would be back in Paris again soon.  I didn’t get the feeling that theirs was a romantic connection but rather that he was an aspiring writer and had perhaps even stayed at the shop.
So we left them to their effusive farewells and then waited for her to return to her desk.  Then I walked over and told her that I had just been on a book tour in the US and UK for almost three months and I wanted to leave my books with them.  Mind you, all in pretty good condition; a full set of Australian series and the first two US books in hardback.  To say that her response was underwhelming would be putting it mildly.  I was under no illusion that she would have any idea what the books were or who I was, but a simple thank you would have been nice.  She took the books and set them on the counter and looked at me.  Now I would at this point have been thinking that perhaps she was French and didn’t speak English, except that when she was saying good bye to the young man, she was clearly American too and spoke perfect English.  Ian and I both sort of stood there for a second and I said a little more about having been away and spoken to over 6500 children.  She just looked at me, and then continued with her work.  Honestly I felt like taking the books back and walking out onto the street to hand them to children myself.  But I didn’t.  Because I wouldn’t have been that rude!  So, while I still love the shop, that particular shop assistant, perhaps not so much. 

I hope that Alice-Miranda will find herself in the hands of a child or children who pass through Paris looking for an adventure!  I’ve still got more of her Parisian adventure to write, but having been there makes such a difference.  It’s the little things, the quirks, the smells and the tastes that I hope make the writing all the more authentic.

We left Paris that afternoon enroute for Zurich and then Hong Kong.  Our flight was delayed an hour or so due to a huge thunderstorm, but no matter.  We got there safe and sound and our transfer through Zurich was smooth – the Swiss are nothing if not highly efficient.

2 comments:

  1. Loved this tour and you look extremely happy in all the photos! (who wouldn't be?). Spent many many an hour in Shakespeare and Co; love it so much. x

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