Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Travelling to Spain
passengers mostly looking so dispirited. Apparently the cost of living here is enormous, as I found out, and workers in Paris can barely afford to eat out let alone go to the cinema. Rents here are huge and the economic crisis has hit hard. The subway looked very drab, with cables running everywhere just overhead the entrance and exits and walls. The streets also were less than attractive, a fact not helped by the rain and the cold. Taking a walk around across the Seine to the Gare de Lyons (a very large train station) I found side streets with small shops and stalls, putting their boxes of rubbish piled high in the street. The faint smell of decay reminded me of parts of Indonesia. Even the great monuments, museums I walked past and tourist attractions needed attention, or had sections cordoned off due for repair. Walking back across the Seine I noticed at least 6 large boats tied at the side, obviously used for accommodation with rusting hulls and adorned with small and tatty sunshade areas protecting bleached patio table and chairs, and decorated with tiny pots of plants. I wondered if this was perhaps an alternative and cheaper form of accommodation for those desperate to work in Paris. After failing to understand the menus of the restaurants I passed I found a reasonable looking family type restaurant with English and French menu. Ordering a simple salad, with hot chocolate followed by mineral water I was shocked to discover the total bill over 20 Euros! Especially as the salad was mostly tinned corn and beetroot, accompanied by four tiny pieces of bread with melted camembert. No wonder Parisians cannot afford to eat out!
Close to the Paris Austerlitz station where I would start my next journey I was told there was a mosque – only 10 minutes walking distance. Twice I tried to get there, dragging my small suitcase and backpack along a narrow street past hotels with locked doors and dim boutique type businesses, until I eventually saw what was clearly a huge mosque type establishment standing out from the tall narrow buildings around. Eagerly I approached the first entrance only to discover that it was a busy restaurant, with Hamaam signs still hanging above the festive customers. I continued around the building and found a different entrance, through a huge wooden door studded with ancient iron rounded nails requiring entrances to step through into a small entry with a courtyard visible just beyond. I had seen someone enter and so decided to look around. The courtyard was small, with a central garden, overgrown rose bush, weeds and mud but little staircases led off from various doors. Most were locked so I tried the closed door where I could hear voices. The door opened and the distinguished teacher addressing his long narrow class politely paused while I apologised and asked in broken French/English/Arabic if there was a mosque nearby. Following his directions further up the building I stepped over the lip of even larger studded doors, and found myself looking at a beautifully tiled large entrance, with green fountains full of beautiful small trees. The mosque was very large with many doors running from the wide patios surrounding the fountain area. Tiling and decorations were ancient and very beautiful and obviously very old. Winding my way through archways I was directed down steep circular steps to the toilets which were, unsurprisingly but still disappointingly mostly broken and flooded. Considering that Muslims brought washing and cleanliness to so many parts of the world, it being half of their religion according to the Prophet, it always disappoints me that Muslims today are so incapable of keeping even their mosque toilets in good repair. By the blessing of Allah I was able to quickly pray the Dhuhur and Asr qasr prayers just as the Azaan was sounding, and then quickly perform the Maghrib and Isha prayers as only Allah knew just how hard it would have been to perform them earlier and later. Rushing from the mosque in the middle of their Jamaat, I dashed down the long alleyways in time to grab some food and jump on the overnight express.
The train was definitely an experience – four of us ladies squashed into a tiny room, with four small beds, a shared toilet (with men) at the end of the carriage, and a tiny wash bowl I discovered some time later. It would have been impossible to find space to pray as all space was communal, the beds not being put down until later when I was so exhausted I simply crawled in and crashed. One of my fellow companions was a Spanish teacher from France on her way to visit her parents. Her English was pretty good and she was very chatty – happy to translate, give advice and keep up a steady stream of conversation. I would not recommend travel by train from Paris again as the facilities are just too limited for the cost, and it certainly takes a long time – from 8 pm till 9 am the following morning. Although the company was great – the Spanish teacher and I caught a taxi across town to the next connecting train in Madrid - I would have preferred catching a plane and will do so for my next trip. Madrid is definitely warmer, cleaner and more alive than Paris. The town has an open feel, with wide clean streets surrounded by beautiful gardens. Culture is also evident as I saw a whole street of book stalls setting up early on Sunday morning, each with fiction, non-fiction and collector’s books by the hundred. The Atocha train station was magnificent – a massive forest of palms and lush Tropicana talking up the bulk of the space under an arched glass roof, split by marble paved walkways. Small sparrows flitted throughout the station and the lush foliage while little turtles sunned themselves in the lilied pool closest to the cafes and food stalls.