My leave has ended, but lacking a visa (it’s being processed in London) I could not return to Nigeria and so was ordered to present myself at a company office in Paris (where my employer is headquartered). My route took me to Bangkok, where I had to spend a day in order to get my tickets changed, followed by a 7 hour flight to Dubai and a further 6 hour flight to Paris on Emirates Airlines. I was fairly lucky on both flights, having pre-selected a half-decent seat, 45C (aisle, near the back, chance of an empty space beside me) on a Boeing 777. I selected the same seat for both flights for no other reason than if it was good for one it would be good for the other, and by pure concidence the plane was the same as well. So I did both flights sat in the same seat, but the second flight was half emtpy and I had the whole row to myself, once the French Arabic chap – who could be a poster-boy for a hijacker awareness campaign – had shifted to another empty row.
Even on the first flight I was fortunate enough to be sat beside somebody who was able to keep his insides inside him. I mention this because when I flew from Lagos to Dubai a few weeks before, the Nigerian chap beside me, as well as falling asleep on me every few minutes, chose a moment ten minutes into our circling Dubai airport to throw his guts up all over the seat in front, the pocket with the magazines catching most of it. The clot had no idea that air sickness bags are provided, so I dug mine out, got it open for him, and he then demonstrated to good effect that they are pretty useless objects unless held with both fucking hands and your gob shoved right into the opening. The next salvo hit the carpet. Fortunately, none of it went on me, we were not far from landing, and his stomach seemed to only contain apple. Had he thrown up a gutful of Nigerian goat stew on my lap on the tarmac at Lagos, there would have been an air rage incident which would have made the international papers. I felt a bit sorry for him, it can’t be much fun being sick in a plane. But I can’t help thinking the airlines would do far better to tell people how to find and use an air sickness bag than instructing them how to put on life jackets in the event the aircraft, inverted and on fire, plunges into the sea at six hundred miles an hour. Attend to yourself before helping others. No shit.
Anyway, I’m now in Paris, where I am contemplating being an airport taxi driver instead of an engineer in the oil and gas business in order to realise my dreams of owning a yacht. Still, mine was a decent driver in that he did not spend half the journey on the phone to his girlfriend with one hand occasionally on the wheel (as was the case on my way to Bangkok airport) and nor did he collect his wife and stick her in the front seat (as was the case on my way to Phuket airport) and nor did he drive at a speed aimed at impressing any Formula 1 team scouts who happened to be in the area (as was the case on my way from Bangkok airport). In fact, he got me there in one piece in a car which was both safe and comfortable, something which is a rare experience for the average oil and gas expat. For my peace of mind I was charged 80 Euros.
The hotel is the most magnificent establishment on earth. At least, compared to the Eko Hotel in Lagos it is. Substantial differences between the two are as follows:
Sofitel Hotel, La Defense, Paris: Receptionist offers you a friendly greeting and checks you in.
Eko Hotel, Lagos: Receptionist offers you a friendly greeting but has no idea who you are and has no record of your booking.
Sofitel: Receptionist asks for a credit card.
Eko: Receptionist asks for a credit card and you reply with “Do I look insane?”
Sofitel: Check-in takes 2 minutes.
Eko: Check-in takes 90 minutes.
Sofitel: Complimentary drink is offered.
Eko: Complimentary bribe is expected.
Sofitel: Helpful staff show you to your room.
Eko: Bone-idle staff explain your room is in another building, 200m away. Off you go, sir.
Sofitel: Wide-screen LCD TV.
Eko: CRT museum piece.
Sofitel: Room service order promised in 20 minutes, arrives in 12.
Eko: Room service order promised in 40 minutes, never arrives.
Sofitel: Complimentary cookies.
Eko: Complimentary cockroaches.
Sofitel: Housekeeping staff are African and they clean your room properly.
Eko: Housekeeping staff are African.
Sofitel: Towels smell of fabric conditioner.
Eko: Towels reek of BO.
Sofitel: Bedsheets are white.
Eko: Bedsheets are grey.
Sofitel: Keycard works after one swipe.
Eko: Keycard works after ten minutes of furious swiping.
You get the picture. The hotel is situated in the La Defense district of Paris, lying a few kilometres west of the city centre. It is Paris’ main business centre in which enormous corporations sit in high-rise buildings, each marked with their logo, and face off from one another in a statement of capitalist might which might seem out of place in Paris. Which is probably why they all got plonked in their own district away from the little street cafes and historical boulevards of the city centre. Being a business district, it is vibrant during the day but dead after office hours, but at any time the reflected quality of Parisian public spaces is evident, at least compared to somewhere like London.
On my first night I chose to eat in the bar/restaurant in the hotel, being jet-lagged and not in the mood for venturing out. I went down at 6:40pm but found the restaurant was not open until 7pm, only the bar. The difference between the bar and the restaurant seemed to be purely what menu was available at the time. This threw me. I’m used to Thailand where opening and closing times are generally identical to those of the customer’s immediate preferences, as is the menu. You want it, we’ll make it for you, whenever you want. For $5. But this is Paris. And it wasn’t $5. Anyhow, I decided to be a bit Parisian and order an Italian Burger from the bar menu (actually, the nice garcon had informed me in a whisper that he could swing it so the restaurant menu was available, but I couldn’t recognise a single thing on there and the prices started at around what you’d pay for a small condominium in Thailand). As the waiter took my order, the following conversation took place:
Waiter: Would m’sieur like some wine with his meal?
Me: Erm, OK. Glass of house white, please.
Waiter: Pardon, m’sieur?
Me: Erm, um, a glass of your cheapest white wine, please.
Waiter: Perhaps m’sieur would like me to recommend a suitable wine to go with his meal?
Me: Erm, yeah, that’s probably best.
At this point the conversation switched from being spoken out loud to merely thought:
Waiter: Ah! You are Eenglish! You are – how you say? – fucking neanderthal, oui?
Indeed. Still, the burger was pretty damned good, fried egg and all. Not very Parisian, you might think. Nor did I. Apparently, so everyone keeps telling me, Paris is the gastrinomical capital of the world. But I was here about 10 years ago and I thought the two things which were the most overrated in Paris were the food and the women (and that was before I’d ever been to Russia). Now I don’t know if I am being a barbarian, or an Italian Burger at 20 Euros is an example of culinary excellence, or whether the Parisians have got the whole world hoodwinked and are laughing to themselves every time anyone starts rabbitting on about how wonderful their food is. I’m an engineer not a food connoisseur, but I can offer an opinion on what I am served.
Yesterday I was in the works canteen, admittedly not the height of culinary excellence anywhere, but I was served a cube of boiled ham four inches in each direction and a pasta which looked like the efforts of a student on his first night in self-catered halls. The daily chicken and rice served to us in the Lagos canteen would have won Michelin awards by comparison. So I don’t know. Probably I will get stuck into the French food whilst I am here, but don’t be too surprised if I end up visiting an Irish pub or McDonalds at some point along the way. Incidentally, I’ve heard that France is a country where McDonalds enjoys considerable success. I might be onto something here. Maybe the French get too pissed on wine to really know what they’re eating? I noticed the canteen did serve wine, after all.
Anyway, I’ll be here for another week, and the weather has improved this morning which hopefully will mean a bright, sunny weekend. Everybody is excitedly informing me that the sales have started, the timing of which in France are dictated by the government. Can’t have shopkeepers marking down their own stock whenever they please now, can we? Chaos would ensue, and we’d need to form yet another republique to cope. Still, it’s nice to be in civilisation again and I’ll be sure to visit one or two of the huge shopping centres they’ve got scattered about. I might even buy some clothes. Having come here unexpectedly from Phuket the most suitable clothes I had with me were jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, and a Berghaus fleece. Compared to how everyone else in La Defense is dressed, I might as well be wearing a yellow Kappa shell suit. But at least I don’t need to wear a coat, hat, and scarf like the locals do. Having spent the best part of four years in Russia, 10C is what I would call fresh, not cold. The way people here are wrapped up, you’d think they were in Moscow.
It’s nice to be here.