Life: Did Simone de Beauvoir ever have a Christmas like this?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Nothing could be easier," says the advert for Eurostar. Nothing, perhaps, except digging your own trench and making your own way to Paris via Iceland.

On my first journey last week, I attempted to book at 5.10pm with the people dealing with the British side of events. Ooh, gosh, X would have to speak to Y, and then he would have to fax Z, and Z may not be there.It wasn't really that simple, said X. Cr e dit card booking? Ooh, no. Much too difficult at this time of day. Availability? Ooh, couldn't tell. That was Y's job. And if Y couldn't get hold of Z ... Then I rang the London office running events for the French side. No problem. One seat. One ticket.

C redit card number.

To be honest, I wish I hadn't bothered. The security is more intense than at any airport - everything was removed from my rucksack - and the "meal" turned out to be four finger sandwiches and a soggy French tart (of the less exotic variety). A child in my carriage screamed for the three-hour journey and, when not screaming, took to running up the aisle. I arrived exhausted, starving and dreaming of those lovely people on British Airways who would have taken me to the same destination for half the price, with the added bonus of my being able to spend an hour in the Sock Shop at the airport.

At my hotel, I was greeted by the concierge with the comment: "You like champagne?" Unable to summon up the French translation for "Do bears shit in the wood?" (it's something along the lines of "Les ourses - elles poo-poo dans le bois?"), I said "Oui."

I'm not quite sure how Pierre made the linguistic leap from: "You like champagne?" to "Would you like to see my penis?" but it didn't take him long. Neither am I sure how he made the leap from reading my palm to grabbing my hand and trying to bury it in his groin; the two events took place unnaturally closely together.

I took refuge in a brasserie, where I asked to be seated in a non-smoking area. Every restaurant and cafe in France must, by law, have a non-smoking area, so I was surprised to find myself moved three times. Finally, I asked where, exactement, was the n o n-smoking area. I was told there wasn't one.

Perhaps it was unwise to try and discuss the government's laws while pointing wildly to les cendriers on every table, but I wasn't aggressive about it. Suddenly, no one could speak any English. I paid my bill and, with sudden courage, decided to tell oneparticularly nasty waiter to curb his manners.

Now, I've never been thrown out of any restaurant in my life, so the violence with which I was then grabbed and pushed across the room was a new experience. I must have yelled very loudly because the grip relaxed at the words, "Touch me once more and I call the police!" The words that followed - "Vous etes asshole!" - made marginally less impact, but I managed a dignified exit.

I've never had much luck in Paris. Actually, I think it's a dump, but I keep returning in the hope of discovering some of the charm others claim to find there. Part of my displeasure stems from a disastrous experience I had trying to learn French at the Berlitz school. It was all going well until I went out one evening and downed three bottles of Saint Emilion at a bar. The next morning, we were asked to describe our previous day. "J'ai bu trois bouteilles Saint Emilion," I said, The teacher corrected me: "Non, non, non. Trois verres." "Er ... non. Trois bouteilles." "Non! C'est impossible," she cried.

Despite my bad experiences, I love the French. They're funny, cultured and lively, and have a respect for the kind of intellect that Brits despise and regard as elitism. But the problem with Paris is that it's hard to meet one of these genuinely French people. There's a heavy Portuguese contingent among the waiting staff, and the immigrants from countries where women are regarded as nothing more than the playthings of man cannot believe that a woman by herself may want to be just that.

My second attempt at eating out was at an Italian restaurant. Now, it's hard to see how the words "A pizza margherita with mushrooms" could, in any language, be regarded as a come-on, but again, for the third time in 10 hours, I was manhandled.

"My baby," said the Italian waiter, planting me in a corner. The next thing I felt was a hand on my neck. I shook it off. Five minutes later, it was back. Then it was stroking my head. "My baby," the waiter cooed again.

Is it me? I can't imagine they'd have behaved like this to Simone de Beauvoir, shouting "Ere, Simone, got a bit of this," and slamming their salami down on the table. Did Proust wander up to women in cafes and offer to show them something even bigger andharder than Remembrance of Things Past?

Whatever happened to the women in the adverts? The ones who used to appear in travel brochures, drinking coffee in brasseries? The women who were always sitting alone, happily reading Le Monde and blending easily into the lively streetlife beyond the window?

Twenty-four hours after my arrival, I was Eurostarring back to Britain. The Eurostar promotion had promised me the chance to do something "never attempted during international travel before". Yes. To come home quickly.

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