- April 1994
My first visit to Paris reaches its apogee with a few hours in a CRS detention cell in the west of the French capital. Assured by a community of ‘in-the-know’ nuns (Family connections. Useless ones.) that tickets would be freely available on the day of the Paris Saint-Germain versus Arsenal European Cup Winners Cup Semi Final my Dad and I made our way over to Paris for the match.
A pleasant enough morning at the Eiffel Tower turned into a fairly dismal afternoon. Ticketless Arsenal fans were rounded up on the promise of getting entry to the Parc des Princes, then forced into buses and driven away from the stadium. A few hundred of us were kept hostage until the match was over then let out, irritated, into the Parisien night, to find our way back to hotels and transport. I passed the time in these pre-mobile phone days by writing postcards and listening to the game on the radio. The roar when Arsenal scored scared a few French coppers. Not a prawn sandwich in sight.
I missed a mock A-Level exam to go to Paris that day. My teacher was not amused. Some of my fellow students found it hilarious. Indignant at this travesty of justice (and missing the 1-1 draw) I vowed never to return to Paris. Until inter-railing that summer.
2. July 1994
By this time I considered myself something of a streetwise traveller. Had I not already had a brush with the law and, armed with a GCSE in French nothing would stop me enjoying a triumphant return, this time with my brother as we took a series of trains from London to Rome, via Dover, Calais, Paris and Milan. No Eurostar in these days, either.
We arrived to find the streets outside the Gare du Nord stiflingly hot, and local authorities had water hydrants running to cool things down. We had all the time in the world to saunter across town to Gare de Bercy, from where our sleeper was leaving from. As a tribute to our Gallic hosts my brother had packed the entire contents of our fridge at home into a baguette, the longest we could find, which we ate for the entire journey. We may have enjoyed a glass of vin de table or two – I do not remember. Either way, I had read and re-read our sleeper reservations which clearly said we were leaving at 8.30pm. We strolled into Bercy to see the train was, in fact, leaving at 7.30 and was about to depart. A sweaty sprint to catch a moving train later and we were off.
I don’t know if you’ve ever arrived, out of breath and perspiring, onto an already hot train and sat down in a crowded sleeper compartment, then pulled out a very long and very smelly day-old baguette but if you haven’t then may I tell you it is no way to make friends.
A near miss, but a wonderful one. Sadly we enjoyed an uneventful return trip to England, probably because we travelled via Belgium.
3. May 1995
Having not learnt my lesson at the PSG game, the following season Arsenal again reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup, to be held in Paris. As the venue was the same stadium I had failed to gain admission to the previous year I was keen to attend, and had managed to get a ticket this time round. Apart from nearly getting arrested again when the air horn I had purchased decided to explode at the foot of an unimpressed-looking member of the gendarmerie, nothing bad happened this time. Unless that is you count losing to a freakish 60-yard lob from an ex-Tottenham player in the last minute of extra time. Trouble is, I do count that. As do fans of both Real Zaragoza, who Nayim won the cup for, and Spurs fans, who delighted in the event when I got back to college the next day.
4. July 1995
Inter-railing again, this time with what must have been an optimistic sum of money given some of the places I ended up sleeping. At Gare du Nord a flyer is thrust into my hand advertising beds for 45FF (less than a fiver) for the night. I went in, and spent a terrifying evening listening to what seemed to be two people torturing each other across the airless courtyard. It was too loud and too hot to sleep. The following day small children frolicked in the fountains at the Centre Pompidou. I dozed off and nearly fell in. Very surreal.
5. May 2006
Another European final, and another visit to Paris. More correctly, to St Denis, burial place of the Merovingian and French kings for centuries until our Gallic cousins got tired of all that monarchy malarkey. The Stade de France, built for the 1998 World Cup is a splendid venue, and an apt place for Arsenal’s first European Cup Final, or Champion’s League Final if you’re into modern branding in football.
By this time there were quite a possee of us attending Arsenal matches home and away. The run to this final had seen some exciting jaunts already to Madrid and Turin, both of which had seen positive results. With tickets secured, six of us took a hired people carrier on the cross-channel ferry and parked it in a quiet back street near the Stade de France.
Arsenal (who lose a lot of finals, you may be thinking – and you’d be right) once again lost, in fairly heroic circumstances to Barcelona, who were just beginning their long period of dominance of European football. We nearly had them but conceded two late goals.
So far, so not so good. But things got worse on return to our car which, along with every other British or Spanish vehicle on the street had been broken into. The thieves had got away with some goodies – our sandwiches (rock and roll) for the return trip, some booze we’d packed in case we won and wanted to celebrate, and most strangely of all my best mate’s trousers he was planning to change into as the night chill came on.
We were all keen to get home, and some of us were keener than others to go to sleep and wake up in London, but first we had to negotiate the long drive to Calais. With a broken window. I was at the wheel and one of our group manfully sat by the open window, which only had a t-shirt left on our seat in the stadium covering the gap where glass should have been. At 90MPH, driving through a thunderstorm that suggested someone was unhappy at the performance of Manuel Almunia in the Arsenal goal, the t-shirt did not do much good. We all got wet and cold. Doom, doom, doom.
This trip was much, much worse for the poor unfortunate who had attempted to enter the ground by scaling the spike-topped fence. Losing his balance, he had impaled himself on one of the spikes. Quite how medics removed him I do not know, nor do I know if he recovered or not.
I have had some wonderful trips to Paris. Especially when not trying to watch football or be a cheapo Inter Railer. Best of all was a trip on the first Eurostar out of St Pancras International with my wife and infant son. That said, memories of marvellous disasters of the past are always there, and always worth toasting when I find myself in more pleasant circumstances. Paris, as they say, je t’aime.