Why-oh-why am I so plagued by indecision about such irrelevant things? In my “day job,” I’m highly regarded as being able to make quick and sound business decisions, but in my personal life, the opposite is frequently true. Today is a perfect example.
I’d arrived in London just 48 hours before expecting that this morning my sister and I would be here in Paris together. I was relying on her knowledge of French, and confidence in navigating Paris when she announced that she had to attend business meetings and would not be joining me. Her announcement hit me for six as I weighed up the pro’s and con’s of simply staying in Kent. Embarrassed at my hesitation I simply went along with her plans to get me to Ashford Station where I would catch the Eurostar to Paris.
Once onboard the train, I was again plagued by indecision. Would it be safe to leave my bag and go to the loo? What if I got thirsty? How would I find my hotel? In desperation, I pulled out the well worn “Lonely Planet Guide To Paris” that Helen had pressed into my hand as she rushed off to her meetings. I skimmed the pages trying to settle my nerves. Finally finding some sort of calm I sat back and tried to enjoy the landscape flying past the train’s window.
Arriving at Grande Norde I joined the long line to purchase a local Metro Ticket. The line crept forward at a snail pace until I was next to be served. Listening in on the conversation of the travellers in front of me I realised that my schoolgirl French would be of no use. Even if I could make myself understood I had absolutely no chance of understanding the rapid-fire French that the ticket seller was using.
My turn. I hesitated before stepping forward.
“Excusez-moi s'il vous plaît parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked.
My fumbling apology worked like magic and I was soon on my way with a ticket to the Metro. Having already memorised the route I needed to take I sought out the correct line and followed the crowd to the platform. The train trip was remarkably fast, just three or so stations before I alighted my carriage. I needed a taxi to take me the rest of the way - the novice travellers get out of jail free card when faced with no idea which way to go. But where would I find one? The appeared to be three exits and I had no idea of my direction Too Hard Basket Michelle Aitken given that my journey thus far had been underground. I took a chance on the exit to my right and reached street level. Changing my mind I referenced the map on display on the street and quickly found my way. Growing in confidence with every step.
Above ground, I was curious at the random nature of French driving etiquette. Here, cars moved at an alarming speed as cyclists and pedestrians jostled for space on the too narrow streets. Quintessential French architecture with glorious attic floors capping off the buildings looked down on the cobbled footpaths, tree’s softened the landscape, their colourful autumn leaves scattered on the path. Patrons sat at cafe’s with their chairs facing the street they appeared to be spectators watching the day’s parade play out before them. The confusing puzzle of streets, so different from the ordered boulevards of Melbourne, while charming presented as another cause for confusion. Determined to enjoy the moment I took in my surroundings and decided that I was glad I had fought my hesitation and come to Paris. It took no time to work out that I’m only a few blocks from my hotel which is a charming old bank converted into a pleasant hotel.
Aware that I was arriving too early to check-in I negotiated to leave my bags with the hotel porter and, armed with my research set off in search of the antique fabric markets. This is my mission here in Paris, to attend a renowned flea market which is only open on Monday (today) and Sunday. It is here that I have read that astute buyers can snap up century’s old fabrics and laces. This is the treasure I seek. Noting that it is already almost noon, I feel a sense of urgency to get to my destination. Another Metro train took me to the chilly Paris quarter.
I’d left behind the Paris of postcards and ventured into a part of town that seemed seedier - edgier. The buildings, no longer quaint, were rather utilitarian insults to architecture. Graffiti disfigured their walls and the functional footpath found no room for trees or cafes. Following my own handwritten directions, I quickly found the flea market, trying to muster an air of confidence as I wandered among the trash and treasure.
It was not at all what I expected...
Instead of the old vintage wares I had been dreaming of, the market was full of what can only be described as junk. Vendors seemed to have simply spread a rug on the ground and proceeded to lay out their wares. Some specialised with many selling records and tape cassettes. Elsewhere clothing stands were selling a mixture of T-shirts influenced by American Gang culture, and exotic African tribal clothes. Well worn household items and cheap imports fought for space while the stall attendants were either in animated, loud conversations or quietly projecting an air of disinterest. Boomboxes belted out music at full volume and in the distance overland trains rattled noisily by. Here and there, the car’s tried to navigate the narrow streets the bleating of their horns swallowed up by the general chaos.
I became aware that I looked like a tourist with my camera slung around my neck and tried to camouflage it under my scarf. I doubted it worked and pulled my backpack around to the front of my chest lest some unsavoury character decided to help himself to my passport and money.
I wandered like this for an hour or so hoping that I would eventually find the promised vintage fabrics that I had come all the way from Melbourne to find. Finally, I gave in mentally and decided that my research had been wrong. I had been careful to keep the elevated rail in my sightline and made to retrace my steps back to the metro station. Crossing the narrow road to feign interest in the stallholders wares I chastised myself for my foolishness. How could I have been so dumb to think that I would find the treasure I so wanted to discover with no knowledge of the language or the place? For now, this was definitely an experience to put into the too hard basket.
The battle in my head continued for several minutes. One half of me wanted to return to the hotel and resume “normal” tourist routines the next day, the other wanted to relax and enjoy the Too Hard Basket Michelle Aitken experience I found myself in and make the best of the situation. Finally, I resolved to do both enjoying the situation while retreating to the safety of my hotel.
Putting my camera safely into my bag, and returning it to my back I took in my surroundings.
The market stalls were predominantly on the left of the road. On the right side was a mixture of shop fronts and warehouses. The further I walked along the street the more the warehouses took over from the shops. I came to a warehouse where a side door was open. Curious, I peered through the door to find that it opened not to a warehouse but to another street. From my vantage point, I could see that the shop on the corner is selling textiles, beyond that there are other shops selling household items, one had a display of metal objects that I couldn’t quite make out. I looked to my left, then my right and after realising that no one was paying any attention to me, I took a bold step through the door.
For the next three hours, I wandered in and out of the shops I had found. Undeterred by the chilly autumn breeze I revelled in the discovery I had made. Here there are buttons and lace, over there, vintage and antique bed linen. On the corner was a reclamation yard with antique iron baths stacked 10 high. Around the corner a shop with old china dolls and threadbare teddy bears. Each new shop beckoned me to enter and discover it’s rich bounty. I spent my money carefully, discovering that my euro would be covered to old French francs in transactions that I suspect favoured the shopkeeper more than me. Carefully selecting a few pieces of cloth, two bonnets and some old lace collars Is I negotiated like a pro, using shaky French and lots of hand gestures to make myself understood.
As dusk drew in I retraced my steps to the Metro and on to the hotel where my small, but perfectly formed room waited.
The remnants of fabric and collection of collars I acquired on that day now hang, framed in my bedroom. On days when indecision threatens to overwhelm me, I take moment wth my collection and remember that day in 2012 visiting Paris. The lesson I learned that autumn day in Paris has gone with me and, on days when I have that battle in my head, more often than not it is the confidence not to put life into the too hard basket that wins.