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I am sitting in a park on La Rive Gauche in Paris. Tired – I have walked across the city from Montmartre relatively early that morning, to Le Tour de Eiffel, up down and around the Tower itself, and now along the river, where I have found a place of momentary rest. I lean back on the park bench, taking in the view of the Grande Palais across the river, inhaling deeply on a cigarette. It’s cold, misty, but the sun is starting to shine through, I begin to feel it upon my face. I am watching people, but there are few of them about. There is seclusion here.
A woman with two small “handbag dogs” walks past. I don’t know what breed they are, I don’t care to know. They are small, fluffy and ridiculous. Their names, I am sure, are Jean-Pierre and Francois. Typical, for this Paris matriarch to have given her dogs men’s names – they are, I imagine, the men who are missing in her life. Terribly uncharitable of me.
She exits stage left, and I am again left alone in the small park, listening to birds, smoking, noting the colour of the trees and the traffic upon the river. I close my eyes once more as I inhale, and half open them on the exhale, noticing a slightly dishevelled woman entering the park.
She is fairly unremarkable, but my eyes follow her anyway, attracted to the movement. She stops, looking at something on the ground slightly behind her, and takes a step toward it. I hear a small exclamation, as she bends to pick it up, and as she does so she looks toward me, smiling. As she approaches me, holding this thing in her hand, she says “Monsieur! Monsieur! A ring! It is yours? You have lost?” She is indeed holding a ring, gold, a fairly thick band, looks like a wedding band.
“Wow” I say. ” No, it’s not mine.”
“But you should have,” says she. “For luck.” She smiles. I suspect she is more in need of luck than I – the dishevelment reveals itself as something more akin to squalor – dirty, scruffy clothes; skin that looks as if you could scrub it raw and you still wouldn’t get the ingrained dirt out; hair a bird’s nest – literally. I can see a couple of twigs sticking out of it, I am sure.
“No, no!” I say. “You keep it. You found it. It’s yours!”
“No, no. For you – for luck! My fingers too big.” As she says this, she tries to put the ring on her finger, and it is indeed too big. She grabs my hand, and manipulates the ring onto my finger – a perfect fit, although somewhat gaudy.
“There.” She says. “Is yours now.”
“Are you sure? I mean…you found it.”
“No!” Almost angry. “You must have it. I give to you. You must take.” And she turns, and begins to walk away.
Crikey, I think. How generous. A bit weird, but generous. I notice she has turned back toward me, and is approaching me again.
“You have money? Money for coffee?”
Hmmm. Yes, I have money for coffee, but I don’t just give it to anyone. But then I remember her generosity to me – how could I be so selfish – and I take out my wallet, and find a five euro note, and hold it out to her.
“No, no! I want that one!” She is pointing angrily – her sudden anger surprises me – at a ten euro note I have in my wallet. Well, she has been good to me, so I shouldn’t begrudge her ten euro. I pass her the note, and put the five back into my wallet.
“That one too! I want that one too!” She is pointing at the five I put back.
“No no. Ten is enough!” I am beginning to get angry myself, and her actions are undoing the good turn she has done me. She turns and stalks away from me.
“Bitch,” I think, a little riled now. I pull the damn ring off my finger, and put it down on the seat beside me. “You’ve bloody gone and ruined that now!”
I walk away, leaving the ring, despite my misgivings. Even if it is a cheap one, it could be worth 30-40 euro. Maybe I should hand it in to the Police?
The next morning I am walking along the La Rive Droite. I see a woman approaching, slightly dishevelled. As I draw close to her, she stops, looks at the ground, and picks something up, smiling as she holds it towards me. “Monsieur! Monsieur! A ring!” she says. I hold my hand up, cutting her off as I shake my head. “No!”
“Monsieur! Monsieur! It is yours?”
I’m not falling for that one.
They are everywhere, these beggars. Getting off the Eurostar the day before, I stand outside the Gare Du Nord, to smoke a cigarette, to get my bearings, to soak in a little bit of Paris, before i have to drag myself up the road, my backpack on my back. I am approached by a woman – “You speak English?” Yes, I do. She hands me a note. It outlines a very sad tale, of how her brother is very sick, and how she has come to Paris to try and make some money for him to have an operation. Leukaemia, I think. I am reading this note, becoming saddened by it, how some people seem to attract all the bad luck in life. Here am I, a worthless traveller, offering nothing that would improve anyone else’s life, purely selfish, self-contained and to an extent self-obsessed, here merely to collect experiences to file away in my memory-bank. And there are people like this poor woman, whose life has taken a turn, and things have become a matter of survival for her….hang on a minute. What’s this? You want money? I re-read the note – it is formulaic, written to a recipe I suspect. I hand it back to her, shaking my head, congratulating myself that I have seen through this sham. How clever am I?
By the end of day 2, I am exhausted by them. They are everywhere, and seem to see something in me, they hone in on some signal I am giving off. I find myself becoming angry at them, shaking my head, hold my hand up to halt their advances, before they even open their mouths. Many of them are quite aggressive, and I suspect the words they mumble under their breath as you shoo them away are not welcoming your good self to Paris. I am disappointed in myself, that I become very quickly jaded of them, and begin to question the motivations of anyone who approaches me in the street. The second evening I am there, I decide to go back to my hotel, rather than go out to a bar or restaurant as I had been intending. I need some space from Paris, some solitude.
On my walk back to my hotel, I am confronted by a young man, 30 years old or so. He is French, and asks me for directions. I hesitate, suspicious, but he seems pleasant enough. He is from Paris, but says he doesn’t know this area well. I pull my map out of my bag, and open it, and we stand side by side, touching at the shoulder as we both pore over the map. He finds the location he is looking for, thanks me, and walks off, and I carry on in the opposite direction for a moment.
And then I think “Ah, shit! He touched me, didn’t he?” I hurriedly check for my wallet, iPod, my other belongings I had with me. They are all still there, and I chide myself, for suspecting him. Human faith restored, just a little bit.
I go back to the hotel, eat, and lay on my bed, gaining the solitude I was looking for. As I recover myself, I make a decision – I am letting the beggars, vagrants, tramps, drifters colour my experience far too much. Obviously, they are picking up on something about me – there must be some mindset, body-language they are perceiving. So I decide to refuse to let them bother me – I will ignore them, will remain serenely oblivious. Amazingly, it seems to work – I am no longer even approached for the rest of my time there, and I look on patronisingly, as other less experienced travellers than I become the targets. “Tsk, tsk,” I say to myself. “Tsk, tsk. Fools – they will never learn.”
I talked with someone before I left New Zealand, who said that the thing about tourist attractions is that they are generally really amazing places, that’s why lots of people go there. And it’s true – I adore the Eiffel Tower, and would go back up in a flash – the thing just seems to “belong” almost organically, to Paris; Notre Dame – awe inspiring; the Arc de Triomphe – chaotic, colourful. I am, I must admit, a little disappointed with the Bastille – the old prison I was looking for is, as the more knowledgeable would be aware of, gone – destroyed a couple of hundred years ago, a memorial column on a traffic island in it’s place. But it is the little off-beat places that I really love. I think maybe it gives me that little feeling of individuality, that I have found something that few others know about, something that sets me apart from the average, every day, run-of-the-mill Tourist – with a capital T. Or rather I, again somewhat condescendingly, think of most other tourists as “little t” tourists; I aspire to be a Tourist! Or perhaps a Traveller, a term that embodies, for me, a more serious and earnest experience than simply ticking off a checksheet of sights.
The Cimetiere de Montmartre sits at the base of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. The only reason I am at the cemetery is that my room isn’t ready, so I am going for a short walk up the road. I am walking across an overpass, and I look over the side to find that I am standing over a crowd of graves – and I mean a crowd – the gravestones, markers, tombs and crypts look as if they need to constantly jostle each other aside to maintain their personal space. But how do I get off this damn bridge and into the cemetery itself?! I walk to the end of the bridge, and see no entrance. I walk to the opposite end of the bridge – no entrance. I cross the road, and walk the length of the bridge once more, still no entrance. I finally realise the sign that says “Cimetiere” is French for cemetery. Following up on that clue, I follow the sign, and indeed, find myself below the bridge, and within the bounds of the cemetery. Or – ‘ow you say – cimetiere?
This is not the “famous” Paris cemetery. The “famous” Paris cemetery is only famous, as far as I can tell, because Jim Morrison is buried there. Being no fan of The Doors, nor that particular long-haired prat, I care not. And casting my eye over the map at the entrance to the cemetery, there are a few people who may have contributed a little more to the world than Jim-effing-Morrison – Emile Zola, Degas, Alexandre Dumas. Many, many other notables – some I know, some not, but I figure if you get marked on the entrance-way map, you’ve probably made something of an impact. Unfortunately, my skill with maps allows me to only find Zola’s memorial.
But I love this place. It’s sunny, very warm, but there is shade and cool under the trees, the dappled lighting having the effect of making this place even more beautiful, welcoming, mysterious, hallowed. One part of the cemetery tapers off into the distance, and has the appearance of a tree-lined avenue – I can imagine a horse-drawn cortege making it’s way toward me, solemn, silent, evocative. The metropolis, the noise of it, is all around and overhead, but somehow everything is shut out. And I feel I am privy to the inner-most workings of the city, the personality, the foundation on which everything was built, I am drawn into it’s arms.
This place is old. Not as old as, say, Stonehenge, or Pompeii or the Acropolis, but old. And distinctly more populated, more human, than those monuments I suspect – they are effectively empty memorials, either to people we know nothing of, or people we can only make assumptions about. This place is populated – real names, real families, real dates of birth and death. People, just people – but the personality of this place. Not just this cemetery, but the city beyond it. And the continent beyond that. I come across the Jewish section, and it hits me that all this abstract “history” that we think we know so much about is sometimes all too real, too concrete. “Extermines a Treblinka” or “Morts a Auschwitz 1943” read the grave markers. I imagine these stones mark not a grave but a memory, because I doubt there was anything left of the ones being remembered.
One of my favourite “out of the way” places is the Basilique du Sacre Coeur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Again the more knowledgeable may realise that the Sacre Coeur is one of the primary tourist locations in Paris, which I come to realise after I arrived, noting the number of tourists (note the small “t”) milling about the structure. I had never heard of it before, but the one I have left behind had recommended it to me. It is important to me to share this space with her, even years apart. From the grounds of the Sacre Couer, you get a panoramic view of Paris, and I jealously watch the couples sharing that special view with each other, and silently wish her by my side, my arm around her waist.
My own doing…
I like the Sacre Coeur a lot more than Notre Dame. The religious aspect of the church is truly preserved, and they ask tourists to be very quiet, respectful and not use cameras inside. A little man on the door storms up to anyone daring to use a camera, and gives them a whispered but very authoritative telling off, much to the embarrassment of the offending party. I also like the way the Sacre Coeur keep any money making to a subtle minimum – Notre Dame are a lot more overt about their fund-raising, crossing over the line into tack. Being a lapsed Catholic, I am surprised by the connection I feel to this place, the respect I have for it’s purpose and it’s inhabitants. I light a votive candle for a friend in need, say a prayer for her. But now is the time to cease my encroachment upon this place where I do not fully belong.
I walk down the hill, meandering through Montmartre. This too, is a place of famous names – Picasso, Van Gogh, Dali, Monet have all walked these streets before me. Van Gogh’s painting Cafe Terrace at Night I could swear was painted around here – I walk past what I think is the location, and recognition makes my breath intake, my eyes widen. But no, the painting was made in Arles, in Provence I find out later, and what I believe to be the cafe is just typically French.
What I don’t realise is that one of my literary heroes also lived and worked around here, and I don’t realise this until I return to England and begin reading the diary of Anais Nin. She and Henry Miller spent a lot of time practically on my doorstep, around the Boulevard de Clichy and the Place de Clichy. I love Henry Miller (though strangely only in his New York period; he turned into something of a boor when he came to Paris. Americans, particularly writers, very rarely seem to travel well) – angry, sleazy, a liar, a cheat, filthy minded to the point of making the bile rise, a drunk, a user of his friends and acquaintances. But also crazy, individualistic, passionate, filthy minded to the point of making you…well, y’know – and an unadulterated genius. Also, intriguingly, a person who kept telling the same story over and over again, for most of his literary life.
And so Clichy, Montmartre, Paris – all have become important parts of me. I feel as if I’ve taken something of them with me, and I hanker to go back. To meander, to sit quietly and not run from one place to another, to watch it flow past me, rather than I flow through it. Or rather for it to carry me along slowly, in it’s currents, at it’s own speed, stopping, starting, going off in an unexpected direction, getting snagged on something so being forced to stop to take time. Becoming a part of the city, like the river that runs through it.
I love you, Paris. Your river, your buildings, your history, your people, your noise.
Even the bloody beggars.