Sho't left at Paris

2012-06-04 14:01

My friend Marie’s driving would make a Jo’burg taxi driver cover his eyes and cry for his mother.

We have arrived in Paris at rush hour after a seven-hour journey from our little village in the southwest sticks where the most dangerous thing on the road is a combine harvester.

Marie, who recently moved to our village after retiring from her job as an administrator at the famous Sorbonne, is driving to the capital to visit her children.

When she offered me a lift, I jumped at the chance to visit Paris in the spring, see friends and breathe some urban air – a rich aroma made up of garlicky Metro commuters, drains, cigarette smoke and fresh bread.

The traffic is crazy but Marie is unfazed. Shouting at a learner driver who is taking her sweet time to make a right turn, Marie leans over and says she knows the Paris roads “like my pocket”.

We gun down boulevards clogged with cars, taxis, buses, scooters and hundreds and hundreds of people on bicycles. Marie shaves rubber off pedals as she zips past cyclists. She squeezes in and out of lanes within millimetres of side mirrors and pedestrians’ shopping bags. She squeals up to cars ahead, braking in a way that induces mild whiplash.

Now I know why she’s wearing that neck brace.

When she arrived to fetch me at my house early that morning, I was startled to see her in a neck brace.

Ooh la la, Marie, what happened to you?”

She waved away my concern and said her neck got “tired” on a long-distance drives and that it “helped” her.

Right. So now we know why hurtling through Paris at, um, breakneck speed does not give Marie whiplash.

Bearing down on another pesky car that has stopped at a red light just to annoy her, Marie chatters about her plans for the upcoming weekend and how her children are giving her a lunch on Sunday, which is Mother’s Day in France.

Sunday seems very far away at this moment. I think of my own children and silently pray they will still have a mother on Mother’s Day.

I cover my eyes and cry for a Jo’burg taxi driver.

“Look, Charlotte,” says Marie comfortingly, “you are in the greatest city in the world!”

I open my eyes, sit on my hands and am treated to a seasoned Parisian’s take on some of the famous sites we are rocketing past.

“There’s the Sorbonne. I still have my parking sticker – it’s out of date but it works!”

“To the left, there’s the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés – oldest church in France, from the sixth century.”

“Right. Look right, Charlotte! That’s Brasserie Lipp. All the famous politicians go there. It was one of Picasso’s favourite restaurants. And Hemingway. You know Hemingway?”

It’s like speed dating but faster.

I make sure I follow Marie’s finger wherever it points, partly because I don’t want this kind woman who has driven me all the way to Paris to think I’m rude and ungrateful, but mostly because I’m worried that if I don’t look where she’s showing me quick enough, she’ll start pointing with both fingers, leaving the steering wheel to its own devices.

We are getting close to the address of the friend’s house where I am staying.

“There’s a map book in the cubbyhole,” Marie says.

I fish it out and start to thumb my way towards the 11th arrondissement.

“Non, non, non. Give it to me and pass my glasses.”

Oh. My. God. On top of talking, tour guiding and driving like Ayrton Senna, now she’s going to read a map. And she does. Without slowing down.

We arrive at my friend’s front door with no fatalities and I am tipped onto the busy pavement with my suitcase. With a cheery wave to me and a rich curse at the truck driver who tooted his horn just because we were blocking the traffic, Marie speeds away.

Having survived Marie’s introduction to Paris, the rest is a breeze.

Pressed up against strangers on the Metro so close you can count someone else’s unwanted facial hairs, is a challenge. But after what I’ve been through, I can take it.

Ignoring Homeless Man with Dog as he looms over me in the carriage, rattling his cup and explaining his dire life story is easy (though this is probably where my Jo’burg training kicks in).

Contrary to tourist legend, the waiters are friendly. True to tourist legend, couples kiss openly and endlessly in public. The sun shines. The river sparkles.

I must remember to buy a neck brace at the pharmacy before the journey home.

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