Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Pau and the Penguin.

On arrival at Challes de Gaulle airport and I'd instantly wanted to give up on life. No offence to Parisians, but that airport is truly awful. Paris was really cold but I was just passing through on my way south. I imagined that my world would soon be warming up in accord with the direction I was going, so I didn’t worry too much that I hadn’t brought any winter wear.

When I was asked to play in Pau, I’d gotten excited because it is alleged to have one of the most beautiful views of the Pyranees going. I imagined I might stay an extra day and hang out, wearing a beret. It didn’t work that way due to my relentless travel schedule. Gutted though I was at the fact I would not get chance to stare at the mountains, I still had hope. My hope was for warm weather. England was bleak and dark. I was certain that France would provide me with some heat. I was headed for southern France and it was nearly springtime.

But it was snowing. I hadn’t packed the right clothing at all. I spent the whole tour shivering. Rail was my chosen method of transport due to the fact I had to cover masses of miles in a short space of time. I was sat on a train for about 8 hours each day. It was exhausting and I didn’t thaw out completely at any point.  Tiredness makes you cold.  It was already pretty cold, and I got more tired as the week went on.

The coldness had really gotten inside in Lyon. I went out to buy myself a sweater before the gig. A distraction came in the form of a piano workshop that I happened upon. There were a million broken pianos in all stages of disrepair, as well as harpsichords and other variations on the theme. I gazed in through the window for a long time, which meant I only had time to find myself an awful hoody which was not a flattering colour on me. I’d wanted to find a woolen thing with patterns on.

The gig was on a boat with no heating. My hands could hardly press the piano keys down, let alone strum the guitar efficiently. I wore every item of clothing that I had with me, caring little for how I looked - I looked pretty bad. My stage outfit included a pair of fingerless mittens and the unflattering hoody. My nose was bright red and running profusely.  Everything - my mittens, my top, my nose - clashed with each other in a horrid amalgamation of red and pink. 

From Lyon I travelled to Pau as I watched snow covered olive trees pass me by. There was a woman sat in the next seat who spent the whole of the journey putting make up on, and a man opposite me who got off at every station to have a cigarette, then hurriedly got back on as the doors beeped their way to closure.

My friend was playing the same gig as me in Pau. I didn’t know him that well at the time, but from the moment I met him I couldn’t help but act like a child. I don’t know why - some people have that effect on me. 

Sometimes I think that I subconsciously try and sabotage my own gigs. I came across a large stuffed penguin in the backstage room. The gig was about to take place in a fancy theatre. The audience were seated and waiting in hushed anticipation. I goaded my friend until he agreed to walk onto the stage with the giant penguin under his arm, prop the penguin up at the piano and then walk off again. My memory of Pau has nothing to do with the Pyranees, but everything to do with the giant stuffed penguin.

The next day I got up before the crack of dawn and set off to Brittany. Rennes is a university town. That was my second trip to the town. I always feel a little bit uneasy in university towns. I feel that, on first glance, I could well be taken to be a student, but put me in a university town and I am out of my element.

After that I had to get on a few more trains. The railway system in France seems a little austere to my eyes. There are all different kinds of tickets, and there will often be two trains that look the same, smell the same and sound the same - they might be leaving at the same time, going to the same place, but if you get on the wrong one then you’ll be ejected at the first possible moment. Even those who speak French seem to be utterly confused by this. Quite often I’d be stood on a platform, feeling secure in the understanding that I was waiting for the right train in the right place. Then a bell would sound and everyone else would start sprinting around. When this happened I wasn’t sure if I should also start sprinting around. As I didn’t know where to sprint too I would generally just walk around in a circle and return to where I started. My usual way of guessing which train to get on would be to find someone who looked like they might, by chance, be going where I was going, and just follow them. By the end of it, my sleep had become pervaded by rail-related dreams, and I had imaginary trains circulating around my cranium like cartoon birds.

The tour ended up back in the grimness of Challes de Gaulle airport – my flight home was severely delayed. I waited it out. Alone, I sat next to a big, squeaking, 80’s style, space station, lunar inspiration, 'stand and stare in incredulous ovation' -esque escalator for six hours. Oh how gay it was in Paris that day.

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