Wednesday, 28 July 2010

School Trip To Poitiers: 7. A Bus Driver In Paris

'I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles,' sung Ella Fitzgerald in the famous Cole Porter song.

The children on the bus, who were uninterestedly watching a second rate dvd, suddenly sat up in their seats, flung back the curtains and cheered.

"Look," yelled one in great excitement. "It's the Eiffel Tower. It really is. It's over there. Look." However many times you have seen the structure on film and tv, there is something magical when you see it in the raw for the first time and times thereafter.

Driving a bus through Paris does not give one the luxuries of looking a the nice buildings. The utmost concentration is needed to cope with the constant hooting, carving up, two fingers raised out of car windows, fast manoevering motorbikes and mopeds and all the other hazards, made doubly bad tempered by the heatwave.

"I don't do Paris," my co-driver had announced that morning, so here I was driving the bus past Notre Dame at 4.30pm, at the height of the Paris rush hour. I didn't mind. I like driving in Paris and agree with some of their warped ideas about how to drive. It can be disconcerting for the co-driver and passengers who you feel are clutching onto their armrests when the bus does not look like stopping at a red light.

It is tiring as you have to have eyes at the back of your head, never get complacent when things seem to be going well and just be patient, take your time, without giving the Parisians one inch. A bus is fair game for the locals. A British bus is worth double points and simple to cut in front of.

I knew I was being accepted onto the Parisian net when after one particular junction I managed to thwart a van and three motorbikes from cutting up the insides. It was satisfying to see in my mirrors the van try but be thwarted by an aggressive looking concrete post and having to brake sharply. The bikers, too, realised that they were heading for disaster. The hooting was prolonged.

Soon after, at a clearer piece of road, one of the bikers stopped at my window, stood up on his bike and in a firm yet calm said:

"Use yoouurrr eyezzzz, Monsieur," before disappearing in a cloud of Chatelet dust. Yes! I thought to myself - they've accepted me.

We went on without incident to Montmartre, where the school were getting out and walking through the Artists' Square, the Place de Tertre and Sacre Coeur to their restaurant. There is no hanging around at the small drop off point in Montmartre. Taking buses into Paris has been made as difficult as possible by the city authorities, but it is home from home and the same applies in the UK where cities seem to want the tourists but not the buses.

I blocked the road as their were no spaces. I put on my stupid and obtuse bus driver act and ignored the hooting behind.

"No park, no park," shouted an official looking meet and greet parking attendant.

"No park 'ere. Stopping OK but know parking." I nodded and agreed with him, resisting the temptation to say an smart ass phrase like 'I know that'. Three minutes later we drove off. We drove to one of the few streets where parking was permitted for buses. Relieved to find a space and place we placed our permit in the window, just in the nick of time as the same parking warden we had encountered in Montmartre was now checking the buses here. This time he semi-smiled.

We had a couple of hours break, so we went in search of something to eat. Around the Gare du Nord seemed a good place to be ripped off by some Parisian Cafe owner. It did not take long and we simple Engleesh were forced to fork out 16 Euros for two ice creams and two soft drinks. We obviously had 'I saw you coming' written all over us.

When it came to returning to the Montmartre drop off point to reunite with our party, there were double the numbers of buses. The place was gridlocked. There was little room to move as half the road was divided by a concrete lip to form a service buses only lane. The hooting was unbearably loud this time. Nothing moved for fifteen minutes. I was expecting a Parisian punch in the nose.

But then it cleared and we were off, away out of Paris and on the road north to Calais.

Perhaps Peter Sellers in the 1968 film Inspector Clousseau could have summed up what it is like to take a bus into Paris when he said:

"There is a time to laugh and there is a time not to laugh, and this is not one of them."

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