Arrived into Gare de l’Est on Wednesday evening before the game and first impressions of Paris was that it was bloody hot! It peaked around 35 C each day of the trip. Even after midnight, the heat coming out of the city’s concrete was still quite something. The only real respite from the heat was the fact that several of the Paris metro lines are now air-conditioned – worth the price of entry alone!
On my first evening and morning in Paris, I saw approximately zero Ireland jerseys. Paris is the centre of a huge conurbation that is easily able to swallow up 40,000 football fans whole and go about its stylish business. However, this picture gradually changed over the course of Thursday as more and more rugby jerseys of various colours started to appear – the Rugby World Cup was to start the day after ‘our’ game with France v New Zealand in the Stade de France. Interactions between Ireland soccer and rugby fans bring all sorts of latent class conflicts and tensions to the surface; a few times we were asked how we were getting to Bordeaux (for Ireland’s first rugby game). Our reply that we were actually going to the football generally saw the rugby folk initially flinching and taking a step back to safety. This was followed by polite explanations towards a dénouement of ‘we are going here to watch the losers’ and ‘ye are going there to watch the winners’. All very clichéd and all very strange, a bit sad, but also all very true.
On Wednesday evening I met a few friends for grub and a few beers at Au Bon Coin, around the back of the Montmartre hill, which had surprisingly welcoming service. When we asked for the bill the first time, our waitress made us stay for another round! There is a big-city vibrancy to Paris and it is a joy to see old-ish ladies out gossiping and families with young kids running around, even at a late hour, squeezing the most out of a warm evening. I didn’t stray much from the tried-and-trusted steak-frites most of the trip, apart from a visit to O’Tacos on Friday morning at Membership Secretary Cathal’s insistence. I had the smallest French taco on the menu, and didn’t need to eat again for the next 18 hours!
Your correspondent’s party braved the sun to walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq into town (Paris or New York, Gdansk or Glenamaddy – it’s always ‘town’ to a Dubliner) on Thursday morning, taking a detour to walk around the picturesque Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement. As anyone who has walked to the Sacré Coeur will attest, Paris is anything but flat – and this gem of a little park is hilly too. On a fine day the city of Paris is the attraction in itself, you can wander and get pleasantly lost and always stumble upon impressive vistas. We managed to dine and wine our way through Paris for 48 hours without encountering too much of the supposed Parisian rudeness, and just a little upselling.
Because of said Rugby World Cup being in town for the next seven weeks, our game was at the Parc des Princes, the old home of France’s round and oval-ballers before the opening of the Stade de France and a graveyard of Irish hopes and dreams dating back to a dodgy World Cup play-off in 1965 and beyond. The chance to visit the Parc des Princes only made the trip a more attractive proposition, as I had never been there and the Stade de France hasn’t exactly been kind to Irish footballers in recent decades either. The stadium is located in a city setting amidst normal, busy Parisian streets and doesn’t have the depressing out-of-town vibe of many modern stadia. Indeed, the RISSC London meet-up was in a café about 10 minutes walk from the ground. The present Parc des Princes was built in the early 1970s over the Paris’ périphérique inner ring road and has aged quite well. It is a relatively compact ground, packs a great atmosphere and we had a great view of proceedings.
The only real tension in the whole encounter was when some bright sparks in the away end decided to start mocking the French with chants of ‘Me-ssi’ and ‘Ar-gen-ti-na’, needling the French for their defeat in the pre-Christmas World Cup Final a few months back. All very childish, but the mismatch taking place on the field left us little opportunity to be any classier. Having been handed our backsides on a plate by les bleus, we strolled and eventually metro-ed our way back into town. There were traffic jams along the quays of the Seine at midnight on a Thursday night that would count as rush hour in any other city, and our football match already seemed to have faded into insignificance as Paris went about its nightly business.