by W.S. McCallum
Thirty-two hours travelling.
From home to the airport. Half an hour's drive at 6.30 in the morning, out past Abbotsford, slip city, onto the Otago Plains. Check-in. Half an hour's wait. A tearful mum in the departure lounge, praying her baby will be alright in Europe. Boarding. Air New Zealand flight something or other from Dunedin to Auckland. The captain telling us his name over the intercom. Do I care? Does anyone? Reading Metro and trying to stomach a light breakfast. Feelings of enormous relief that things are finally under way after months of planning getting a student visa from the embassy in Wellington, staging a letter campaign to jack up accommodation, pre-enrolling for varsity and wending through piles of Gallic forms, tracking down cheap fares from a town that is as far away as far can be from Paris without leaving the planet, working late nights in a burger bar to save some spending money and still wondering whether it will be enough. Landing at Auckland. Heaving baggage off to the international terminal. Transit time in Auckland - two hours' wait. Marvelling at all the Samoans who have flooded the arrival area in anticipation of the latest flight in from Apia. Paying $20 departure tax then being cross-examined by customs, friendly as ever. On the Air France flight seated beside a girl (sexist observation of her immaturity I stand accused) from Auckland who complains about French rudeness after asking a passenger if it was the right row and being greeted with a blank look. That it's a French plane filled mainly with French speakers, flying from New Caledonia, one of the last confetti of empire, to metropolitan France itself, is no matter. In her world everyone speaks English. She is transferring on to London. Off for the Big OE, working for substandard wages in a waitressing job and dossing in slum accommodation in between getting drunk and getting laid. Transit time in Faaa, Tahiti - two hours in sticky tropical heat, stripping off shoes and socks and shirt in the transit lounge, ignoring sideways looks from effete Frenchmen. Baulking at the price of drinks served at the bar. Tahiti to San Francisco. Some stolen sleep in between being woken up by heedless air hostesses wanting to force yet another cup of bad coffee on me. Two hours waiting in San Francisco Airport transit lounge, a misnomer for a pen into which transient foreigners are herded like cattle in quarantine, scrutinised closely by customs officials who can't speak French to save themselves. The lounge is designed for maximum discomfort. There aren't quite enough tailored-for-dwarf seats so it's better to spread out on the floor and try to stretch for the first time in eight hours, contemplating the dreary view of a stone garden courtyard trying to pass for Japanese, surrounded by high concrete prison walls. The French passengers aren't very impressed either. Back on board and following close behind comes a horde of Americans heading to Paris for their hols. Dressed to the nines, a Californian-style nuclear family ensconces itself in the vacated row in front. The offspring consist of two boys aged eight and nine, wearing skullcaps. "Mummy, this form asks what our Christian names are, but we're Jewish, not Christian!" Take-off. Another breakfast, the third since leaving Auckland, is served. Hopes of seeing the US from the air are upset by the plane's extreme altitude. The North-West and Canada resemble an expanse of grassy mud, devoid of any further detail, only to be interrupted by nightfall. This is the second time night has fallen since Auckland. More febrile attempts at sleep ensue. The whining of the jet engines, a snoring pater in the front row, and further refreshment breaks, frustrate them. The flight drags on and on. The urge to rip open a hatch and take a walk at 8,000 metres surges up in the wake of a rush of claustrophobia. Trying to count the passage of hours is thwarted by a brain too befuddled to accomplish anything as basic as arithmetic. Over England they put on the TV news and serve more food, thankfully not breakfast this time. All the food which has been accumulated internally now wants to attain bodily egress. It's at least ten minutes' wait to use the urine-reeking toilet, so you're left wondering whether to hold it in for a couple more hours, or stand in the corridor getting in everyone's way for as long as it takes to force entry into the cubicle before some pushy bastard can shove in. Gravity and bodily processes overcome the mind's control, so the latter option is taken. Then you stagger back to your seat. You feel like shit and you look it too. So does everyone else on the plane. The pressed polyester Jewish family is now looking distinctly crumpled. Paris is getting closer. There's a jolt and a thud upon touch-down at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport. European and non-European line up in their respective queues and shuffle through the customs gates at vastly different speeds. The customs officers look bored. There aren't any blacks or Arabs on this flight. You pick up your baggage, wheel it past some more bored uniformed types and you're through.
No, Roissy. Paris lies at least half an hour away, and it's six forty in the morning.
Sleep would be the number one priority, except first you have to get to where you're going.
The guide books list three options for getting into town: the bus, which apparently drops its passengers off in some suburban nowhere, forcing them to catch another bus or the metro to get where they're heading; the taxi (too expensive), or the RER express. The train zooms right through the centre of Paris and stops off at half a dozen main interchange stations on the way. It's cheap at 28 francs and there are no traffic jams to slow it down.
Problem number one is getting to the station. The bags didn't seem so heavy in Dunedin! Wandering round looking for an exit with the right sign. It's dawn outside, cold and grey overhead, as it often is in September in Europe. So long to an Austral summer for at least another year, maybe longer. A small stream of people toting luggage is shuffling through an entrance up ahead with "BUS RER" written in black with a yellow background. That's the one.
The bus has been nearly completely stripped of seats to allow room for baggage. Everyone else looks a mess too, and they haven't travelled that far. There are two more stops to pick up other people before the bus pulls up at the rail terminus. A couple of Maghrebins loiter with intent inside the automatic roller doors, sizing up the newcomers. Preferring stragglers, they don't approach anyone this time.
The habitués, mainly French, go for the ticket machines, while the foreigners line up at the ticket office. It's best to join them. Never trust vending machines, particularly in foreign countries, and especially in France after flying for 32 hours and with a head too gluggy from sleep deprivation to attempt anything but the most basic feats.
Time to try out some French. Five years at high school, three years at varsity, and finally the chance to use it in situ.
"Un billet pour l'arrêt du Luxembourg, s'il vous plaît."
"Vingt-huit francs Monsieur."
"Voilà! Merci bien."
Wow, all those years of education and I can actually use it for something! Wonders never cease.
No they never do - he gave me the right change too. The ticket machine at the entry barrier works fine, although pushing two large pieces of baggage through the entry barrier isn't easy. A hapless American gets stuck in one of the other gates and his wife attempts to disentangle him. "Harry, stay still for cryin' out loud!" So Americans do talk like sitcoms portray them. They look like retirees off on the trip of a lifetime. From some place in California.
Once through the turnstiles there's a choice of staircases down to the awaiting train. NZ Rail could learn a thing or two from it. A seat at the end of the second class carriage seems best. There are already a few people in there, with enough space to allow the various travellers straggling down the steps to hog a whole berth each to themselves. A sprinkling of types who aren't hauling voluminous amounts of baggage are airport shift workers heading home for a good day's sleep.
Sleep. Anything for some sleep, but not here. They have bag snatchers on the trains, sometimes muggers. Never sit alone in a carriage all the guides say. Stay clear of anyone who looks violent or crazy. Don't dress like a tourist. Thirty-five kgs of bags and you're not meant to look like a tourist. If someone grabs something what are you going to do?
Get a grip, there's no one threatening here. Only some Yank tourists more nervous than you and some dozy airport workers.
Five minutes go by and the train is still stationary. A couple more streams of people from other flights lumber down the steps and disperse among the carriages.
Three or four minutes more and the "signale sonore" sounds; the warning that the doors are closing. Sounds like a cheap foghorn.
The express glides away from the platform with a breezy hum. There is no sideways motion. It's a relaxing ride.
Tunnels give way to weak daylight. Control towers, megalopolis hotels, autoroute overpasses and, incredibly, a runway overpass with a taxiing 747. The full technological panoply of late twentieth century transport; road, rail and air, intertwined. Dunedin feels very distant.
Some open countryside might have been expected this far from Paris. There is none. Semi-industrial zones share the track side with residential housing, none of it particularly picturesque. The houses mainly shun the tracks, with their frontages facing away, and little gardens hiding behind slate and tawny picket barriers. The track periodically dives underground, only to resurface seconds later on the far side of motorway flyovers. Sometimes the train halts at a station with a name exotic for foreigners but not for the suburbanites who have to live there. Places like Aulnay-sous-Bois. Aulnay under the Wood. Only there aren't any trees. It's all slate, brick and concrete. They chopped the wood down years ago. At other stops the train just whizzes by, so fast the station signs are no more than blurs. As the train progresses towards kilometre zero, the heartland of France, the buildings get taller and taller. Cottages and two storey houses give way to four, then seven, storey blocks, followed by the full-blown spectacle of habitations à loyer modéré, de Gaulle's gift to the urban proletariat in the 1960s.
The concrete crash barriers running along both sides of the track are blotted with graffiti. If you look directly out the window at right angles to the train's forward motion, all the different patterns spray-painted by a multitude of taggers over years and years merge into a crazy criss-cross of wild lines and ever-changing colour. Some of the larger legends are legible, if the eye is quick enough. Taggers' trademarks, accompanied by cartoon characters or abstract patterns that may or may not be coded messages, stand out. Some of the latter almost look cubist, although not by intent. You can imagine them, sneaking out at night, at some small hour of the morning, in their Nikes and basketball gear, de rigueur backwards caps squeezed jauntily onto crew-cut heads. They would have to be quick. Did any of them ever get crushed by passing trains, or nicked by the cops?
There on the right! Glimpsed for a moment before charging into a tunnel and resurfacing in a trench surrounded by apartment blocks - the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur. My first historical landmark. I'll go there as soon as I get the chance. Walk up the hill and look out over Paris, then wander down to Montmartre and discover where all the painters lived a hundred years ago.
Darkness comes for a couple of minutes, followed by some faint light, and then entry into an enormous underground rail yard. Parallel lines of track run off into different tunnels at various points. The two platforms the train pulls up alongside are equipped with the latest fittings: high-tech signage, Spartan but clean and unchipped seating, with a platform surface to match. Only the waiting passengers appear out of place; throwbacks who have somehow stumbled into this dazzling subterranean world. The bombed-out survivors of a 1940s blitz, in shabby overcoats and hats. There are no young people, if you consider under thirty to be young, and there are no beautiful people. Mundane, skinny women with pinched faces and frowns, scruffy men in need of a shave and a haircut or comb. They troop on. The signal sounds and the doors slam shut.
Next stop Châtelet-Les Halles. This particular platform doesn't look so big, but if the métro map is anything to go by it must be a huge complex, as there are several lines that pass through here. The train doesn't hang around before the signal sounds and just seconds later the doors slide shut.
Saint Michel-Notre Dame. Beneath Kilometre Zero, or thereabouts. The spot the French consider to be the centre of the universe. Very modest. Even the British don't presume that much. Their closest is the Greenwich Observatory. Having gained control of time they must have considered it appropriate to cede dominance of space to the French.
Off again. Moments later Luxembourg station is in sight. Best to stand ready at the door, backpack strapped on and both pieces of hand luggage clutched at the ready. The person who set the timing on the doors made no allowance for travellers carrying heavy loads and you could kill yourself getting jammed in one of those automatic doors. There's a click of some mechanism and all the doors on the left hand side of the carriage slide back simultaneously. Step out quickly.
Paris! At last! All those years of thinking you would never make it for want of money. You've beaten the bastards. You've broken the odds. A monolingual education in a monolingual country, geographically isolated, with all those people who thought it mad to take French when Japanese could make you a fortune fleecing all the camera-happy tourists increasingly frequenting the South Island. All those know-it-alls with comments like "they all speak English over there anyway these days" or "French, you speak French? I did French in school, don't understand a bloody word of it." The implication: neither do you and you're a bullshit artist to claim as much. No room for poncey French-speakers in our world mate. Well this is Paris. I've escaped. Upwards and onwards, into the pale morning sunlight of the Latin Quarter.
A new start lies ahead.
The Walking Dead
The sign is clear enough. Problem is, which way is north? Coming out of the metro you feel like a nocturnal cave-dweller, blinded by the light, however pale, unsure of what's what. First instincts are to scuttle back down into shelter. The noise of the early morning traffic is starting to pick up. The first commuters are already on their way, but which way is north?
Stop and look at the map. Drop bags. Watch out for snatchers. That must be the Place Edmond Rostand, and that the Jardin du Luxembourg. So I'm facing north, and I want to walk to the left on the map which is westwards. Holding the map and carrying two bags is one thing too many. Place map in pocket, pick up bags an walk.
Everything has to be broken down into its simplest terms. More than one thing at once and your head would overload. Fatigue compounded with the stress of being in unfamiliar surroundings are already pushing it to its limit.
The streets are grimier than the photos reveal. What seemed like white brick in the doctored guide-book glossies, taken in brilliant summer sunlight, appears less sparkling on a grey autumn morning. They have a Parisian look though, these buildings. Seven floors with studios on top, wrought iron railings in front of windows without balconies. Elegant facades for middle-class decadence. Jealousy, greed, incest, violence, disease and hypocrisy. All bubbling behind those brick walls, waiting to seep out the cracks.
It is difficult to judge how long it took to walk to the hostel, down those streets. The biological clock wasn't functioning. By all the laws of nature it was meant to be early evening, New Zealand time. Everything was wrong. The rising sun was coming out of the wrong quadrant of the sky, with rays too feeble for spring. The senses reeled.
The hostel is indistinguishable from the apartment buildings around it. The same grimy stone, the same architecture. The whole street had been erected at the same time; in the seventeenth century. Since then it must have been repaved many times, and some electric lighting had been installed, but little else was different. Green double doors, designed to be big enough to direct a horse and carriage through, formed the only entry. They were shut. A metal plate had been installed to the right of the door, with a slot and buzzer. A push and the buzzer buzzed, accompanied by a loud click from somewhere on the far side of the doors. One of them swings open slightly, to reveal a cobbled passage leading to a courtyard.
Down the dingy way hangs a yellow plastic sign retrieved from some demolished hotel. ACCUEIL. It's the hollow sort, with a lightbulb inside. It isn't lit. There is no telling what time it is exactly with a watch still on NZ time. Just before eight? No one is in sight in the courtyard.
Think, stupid! Is there some sort of notice? Indeed there is a notice board bolted to the wall alongside the door. A hand-written, plastic-laminated piece of cardboard informs casual arrivals of the opening hours, should they care to read it. For the foreigners there are translations in English, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. The bottom line is that the office doesn't open until nine.
Another hour waiting!
The bags are pulling down too hard. It's high time to dump them and sit down for a while. In a better physical state it might have been a good idea to go off to a café and have a long breakfast, but there was no way. The bags are too heavy and with a body on the edge of breaking point it is a no go proposition.
Sit down and have a rest.
A couple of residents come ambling out of a ground floor door leading into the courtyard. They look French. They walk past without so much as a sideways glance. It is a hostel though. New arrivals can't be a very big deal. One of them presses a little buzzer, previously unnoticed, a partner to the one outside. In response the mechanism clicks and the door swings ajar. And off they go.
The place isn't what had been imagined. What exactly? Something more modern, like a New Zealand hostel, an image reflective of a lack of imagination in retrospect. There couldn't be that many buildings erected this century in central Paris.
Wanna sleep wanna sleep wanna sleep wanna sleep wanna sleep the body is going.
Can't without a bed can't without a bed can't without a bed the brain responds.
It's a dilemma.
Sleep anyway the body insists.
Have to watch the bags says the brain.
Tough luck. The body wins.
* * *
Uhhh? Blurred sight and muddled thoughts clear before persistent shaking.
"What the fu...!" It isn't a case of self-censorship, just of being too tired to articulate the word. Whoever it is doesn't like having a sleeper cluttering up the office entrance.
It is a little man with a big nose. His head is too big for his body. Very French. No, on second signs he isn't. He's too swarthy, with bushy black hair. Spanish or Arab?
"Excuse me - can I help you?"
He speaks English. What am I, carrying a sign?
This is the point where as a French student I felt obliged to speak the lingo, but as a buggered traveller on his last legs I couldn't have cared less.
Stand up. Both legs sag under the effort.
"Yeah, I'm here to stay. I have just arrived. I have a letter here."
Let the letter explain. It was in French, from the director, stating that there was a room available upon deposit. It had arrived just two weeks ago, after a host of rejections from other establishments. Finding student accommodation in Paris was a bitch, particularly from a distance of 22,000 kilometres. The postal order, in French francs, had been sent, but no confirmation had been returned by the day of my departure. A quick phone call had had to do instead. Surely they weren't going to turn around and claim now they hadn't received the money?
"Et alors? You need confirmation. You cannot just arrive here from nowhere, asking for a room!"
"I sent a postal order two weeks ago. I rang up and was told you had received it."
"But we have no room at this time! Who did you talk to?"
"Someone. I don't know. If I knew I needed a name I would have asked."
"This is very irregular." He reaches for his keys and unlocks the door. "Please come in. Sit down and I will try and sort this out."
Several minutes of paper shuffling ensue, during which he miraculously finds a copy of the letter sent all the way from New Zealand, and the paperwork from a local bank associated with the payment of the money order.
"But we have no space! I am Michel, the Directeur-adjoint. Unfortunately I did not work directly on this and I was not informed of it. The person who did this has not initialled your correspondence, and there is no reservation made in our records."
"Where does that leave me? I've been travelling for three days to get here. I need a place to stay! You have my money!"
"I will have to discuss with the Directeur, but unfortunately he departed yesterday and he said..." He halts to look at the calendar. "Today is Friday. He will be back possibly on Sunday evening."
Sunday! Jesus H. Christ!
"Do not despair however. I think we have one or two residents who will be leaving us in the days to come. We should be able to find you a room soon. You are staying for the year scolaire?"
Resignation. There was some hope. Unfortunately it was non-specific, easy to slide out of hope.
"This is your first time in Paris? Yes? I have a list of local hotels. You can find a place to stay for a few nights near here. The prices are listed. This is not the tourist season. You will not need to reserve."
This turned out to be bullshit. A walk across the Latin Quarter, past the Sorbonne, to the sleepy, quiet streets with the hotels, reveals that they are all full up except the most expensive one, and the receptionist there affirms adamantly that the one room free - a double - cannot be occupied until midday. He mutters something about previous occupants and cleaning. Bullshit or not? There's no choice but to take it. The idea of wandering all over Paris lugging bags looking for something better is too hard to handle. It would take longer to go somewhere else than to settle for this. Okay, here it is then.
"You can leave your bags here and have a stroll while you're waiting." The receptionist is being kind, and can't possibly understand how cruel those words sound. Thirty-six hours without sleep and I'm going for a walk.
Two bags stay put but one has to come along. The one with certain important papers and valuables you don't want to leave lying around. It's a pain to carry but there's no choice. The Seine is north. Have a wander around there. There's a map in your coat pocket, not needed for the moment. They've been drumming Paris into you at school since fourth form. Remember those games you had to play in class, saying what all the monuments were and locating them on a map? So school is good for something after all eh boy. Back then I never thought I'd make it. Paris! You might as well have said the moon. And here you are. It's in your face and making noise and you can barely keep your eyes open. Paris, the city of stupor...
The streets are disorientating. There are no hills to serve as reference points as you shift around, unlike Dunedin. Can't even see the Eiffel Tower, as it's too far away and the apartment buildings block any view that might have been had if you were any closer. The footpaths are extremely narrow, as are the streets, which aren't laid out in a grid, unlike the methodical colonial settlements of the antipodes, drawn up in England before the settlers' ships set sail. Paris, the medieval city, the guidebooks say. They don't say the winding streets leave you confused as to where you're going, and they're so narrow there are parked cars blocking foot access along the footpaths. Jee-sus! Another one! Turds everywhere. It's not certain they're all of canine origin.
There's the Seine, on the far side of a stream of speeding cars. And there's Notre Dame, or Noder Dayme as the Americans would say. Might as well have a closer look, but stuff going for a tour.
The river itself is brown. It's quite a drop from the banks. There is intensive foot traffic here. The closer to the cathedral you get the higher the density of human bodies is. Just outside the cathedral's entrance, two tour buses are disgorging the latest wave of humanity to descend on the place. One crowd is Japanese, the other German. This is where if you belonged to a certain generation you would make some cliched comment about guess who won World War II.
The plus is there's a square in front of the church, with some concrete slabs to sit on here and there. A good place to have a rest. Ten minutes' walk and you're exhausted already. You could lie on one of those.
The concrete isn't very welcoming, and the bag doesn't work well as a headrest with all the hard objects inside it. You can't fall asleep here. As a tourist Mecca it's equally a pickpocket's paradise. You can close your eyes but Paris is still there. The noise of the traffic. All the tourists mulling around chatting in various languages about the same things. Your sense of hearing is heightened by the novel surroundings. After thirty hours of jetstream in your ears it's like waking from a nightmare. There's random noise, with something tucked into the gaps between it vaguely identifiable as silence. Fragmentary though beautiful all the same. A giant yawn wracking the whole body spoils this contemplation. To stay lying down too long is to invite sleep and becoming an easy mark for a thief. Get walking.
Rue d'Arcole. It crosses over the Ile de la Cité to the Right Bank. Arcola was a battle but insufficient neuronal energy prevents retrieving data as to who was involved and when, assuming you knew to begin with. My body is but a machine, a badly maintained one running low on energy. There's some public establishment hogging what must be some of the most pricey real estate in the world on the left hand side of the street, and a row of apartment buildings on the right, with compact shops on the ground floor. People have been living here continuously since the days of the Gauls. Everything feels so old. Old and permanent. These blocks won't be pulled down in a hurry.
Tourist boats cruise under the bridges leading to the far side of the Seine. This particular bridge leads directly to the Hôtel de Ville, the residence of Monsieur the Mayor, Jacques Chirac. It's spotless. All the windows are bright and clean. The fin de siècle lamps in the square are all neat and shiny too. Etched into the memory is a photo of this building after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871; the building a gutted wreck, with glass blown out of every window frame, and rubble and bodies scattered around the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. They have had time to tidy things up since then.
From here there are two options. Well, three but the third one is to keep walking north and straying too far from the hotel is not a desirable option. So that makes it two options really. Turn left and head to the Marais, which despite once having been a swamp is described in the guide books as being a very pretty part of town with lots of cultural attractions, or turn left and go for Les Halles, the modern face of the central city.
See the Marais. Les Halles is supposed to be a bit crass. There is plenty of time to see soon enough in any case. There's a wait to get across the Rue de Rivoli. Cars are everywhere. Mainly French ones, with a light sprinkling of Italian, German and British models. There are no Japanese ones. The French might have some law about that. The drivers don't appear to be the sort a pedestrian should trust with his or her life. They hurry and scurry, heedless of foot traffic. Even after the crossing lights change for the pedestrians, a few cars race across regardless, endangering life.
On the far side there's a cut-price book store. Note that for future reference. Turn right and into the first side street. The sound of heavy traffic soon fades behind. The cars don't vanish. Even on the back streets there are idiots trying to squeeze vans through hopelessly narrow gaps. At one corner two motorists have got down from their vehicles to hurl insults at one another in their finest Parisian patois. Neither party has collided, it's just that neither of them is prepared to admit that he should give way. They'll spend ten minutes bickering and will either end up punching each other out or will back down, realise they have both wasted time, and finally go on their respective ways.
The buildings aren't so tall in this corner of Paris. Only three or four storeys instead of seven. They are older and more squalid than those of the Latin Quarter. There is a synagogue. This used to be the Jewish quarter. Most of the locals were rounded up in the war and didn't come back from the death camps. Those that did decided that France wasn't safe enough after having lived under Marshal Pétain.
A loud rumbling coming from the waistline needs to be tended to, and perchance a snack bar lies just ahead. It's a fortuitous combination which shouldn't be passed by. At home you know just how far away the next takeaway is. Here you've got no idea. It's a small place. The usual set-up - a formica counter with an aluminium framed display case on top to show off some pre-cooked foods. It's empty, not surprising at ten something in the morning. Give them a few hours and they'll have some sandwiches (not real ones but baguettes sliced in two with miscellaneous fillings) and a cooked ham or two sitting there. A price board is bolted on the wall behind, with three stools and a wall-mounted bench adjacent. Just enough room to move both in front of, and behind, the counter.
The owner is a bit slow coming out from the back room, as he's in the middle of unloading another day's worth of meat and veges. He's a man with a walrus moustache who does not stand as a good advertisement for the calorific qualities of his comestibles.
"Vous désirez Monsieur?"
Is he taking the piss? Sounds like the sort of thing you would hear in a Proust novel.
"Un felafel, s'il vous plaît."
Cost - twelve New Zealand dollars. It's difficult not to feel ripped off, but this isn't Dunedin, and prices can be higher in Europe, or so they say. He's quick though and, sitting on the stool munching away, it tastes like a felafel made in heaven. The first thing you've eaten in three days that hasn't been processed airline food, purpose-built to satisfy the palate for twenty minutes and make you belch and fart for hours afterwards.
"Mais qu'est-ce que tu fabriques, petit connard? Je t'avais dit de les jeter, ces légumes!"
The boss is severely pissed off. Behind the bead curtain he's doing his best to scare the shit out of his African hired help, a kid in a white apron and cap who can't be more than seventeen. For good measure he clips him across the ear. There is no reaction from the kid other than stoic submission. He picks up the offending carton of veges and skulks out to the gutter in front of the shop so he can dump them on a pile of rubbish waiting to be collected.
You can guess the black's circumstances. An early school-leaver with no qualifications, he's happy to take what work he can find. He commutes from one of the bleak outer suburbs, works long hours for next to nothing, and thanks whatever god he believes in that he isn't in prison or heading there fast like a lot of his peers. If he's lucky, in another thirty years he'll have his own place like this one and it'll be him doing the bullying.
The felafel now tastes bitter. Once it is finished, leave is taken without uttering a thank-you to the greasy man.
Enough of the Marais, it's time to see Les Halles. It's not that far a walk. Turn right up ahead, then left, and you're on the Rue des Francs Bourgeois. The street of the bourgeois Francs? Weird. Turn left there and follow the Rue Rambuteau as far as the Pompidou Centre.
The Pompidou Centre, the Beaubourg, or the Refinery, might be more surprising if you hadn't first seen photos of it in the fourth form and been subjected to a bland text for translation describing its construction, architecture and functions. A mess of giant pipes set into a Meccano frame, coloured according to the schema of the original blueprints, it is exactly like its photos. By now your feet feel like lead. You are drawn to the Pompidou Centre. Inside there must be seats. There aren't any outside. The adjacent square forms a giant area sloping down to meet the main entrance, crawling with performers and tourists, and devoid of seating. An odd concept for a public place. Don't they want people sitting down? Would all the café owners nearby complain about lost clientele?
Down you go, then stop. It's a delayed reaction. Postcards. There's a shop selling postcards. You walked straight past it. Buy some now while you think of it. Just three or four to let the rels know you've arrived. Pocketing them, you descend into the shadows of the square.
"Fichez-moi le camp! Oui toi! Va-t-en!"
Christ, he's talking to me.
The man is clearly deranged. A fugitive off the Central Asian steppe, he has a hunched back and a Genghis Khan moustache. He squats in front of a portable railing, the sort the cops use in France for crowd control at football stadiums, public gatherings or demonstrations. Fastened to it are pots and pans and pieces of scrap metal, as well as broken household appliances like irons and grills. This ensemble and its creator are positioned just at the point where the shadow of the Pompidou Centre is giving way to the bright sunlight. My shadow is squarely encroaching on his space.
"Go on, get out of it, filthy foreigner!"
I'm going, I'm going.
He soon directs his attention to other passers-by and similarly harangues them for stealing the sun. His victims are informed in graphic terms, with passing reference to sexual anatomy and the dubious legitimacy of their forebears, that the sun has been promised to him and they have no right to it. Not satisfied with the effect of insults and cajoling, he picks up a metal rod and starts clanging on his hardware, in between chanting some bizarre mantra of his own creation. Some tourists assume it's a show and toss money. He pays them no mind.
The Pompidou Centre is not a place for sociophobes. There are people everywhere, mainly tourists. The ground floor has a pit in the middle. Basement access allows the unwary to stumble into an obtuse piece of installation art with accompanying films screening. Three of them, completely unrelated except in the grand conceptualist's head. Two people have decided to stay. One is a student reading a newspaper. That too could be an artistic statement. Is he part of the work?
Back on the ground floor, stairs lead up to a cinema complex. Hanging from the ceiling is a spherical thing made out of rods, and there's a dot matrix portrait of old dead Georges himself, a conservative politician with a devotion to avant-garde art who shocked Paris with this shambling, glorious monument to things modern. There's nothing much else in the foyer, apart from a ticket office selling entry passes to paying exhibitions and the films. The library is on the third floor and it's free. You can sit down there. I've never been there before, but I know that from somewhere. The escalator glides up beside a red luminous digital sign spitting red messages out in different European languages. Everything is signposted in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish. The first floor is a short one, consisting of a corridor running past a paying exhibit, which turns left to the outside escalator tubes. Gliding up in a plastic tube is the equivalent of being a molecule in some chemistry experiment. The escalator takes you up to the rooftop level, and then higher. Below, the Mongol from the steppes is still screaming and chanting. If he wants release from the shadows, he should come up here. Level two is part of the library, without access from the outside. Another flight of escalators gets you to the entrance on level three. From here there's a clear view out over Les Halles, out past the hive-shaped Paris Stock Exchange, the Louvre, the Tuileries, down the Champs-Elysées, out to the skyscrapers of La Défense, the embodiment of a slick 21st century vision looming on the horizon.
You turn up a side corridor divided in two by a barrier to get to the library. Those going in do so on the left, those leaving on the right. There are indeed seats in there. Nasty leather and wire jobs, with back rests that dig into your spine and bend back when you lean on them. They're purpose-built to discourage the overly studious, or vagrants hogging public space. No fear of dozing off in those.
In the process of scribbling messages to distant rels, writing is interrupted by periodic messages which burst out of loud speakers in French and English every few minutes. The imperious French announcer, booming from a taped message made in the 1970s, in full professional flight, succeeds in sounding more pompous than the translation offered, in sotto voce, by a lady refugee from the old BBC school of broadcasting
"Users of the library are reminded that it is strictly forbidden to eat, drink or place books on the floor. Thank you."
I gaze at the floor and wonder. It doesn't seem dirty. Reassured, my bag stays there rather than being hastily hoisted on to the table.
"In the interests of preventing thefts, visitors to the library should take care of their jackets, coats, purses and bags, and in particular are warned not to leave any personal belongings unattended. Thank you."
Quick check. Yeah, it's all still there for the moment. Nothing new there. It's just the same at the varsity library or in Dunedin Public Library. Nerdy swots must make easy pickings for the light-fingered of all nations.
"Attention! A theft has just been reported in the library! Readers are reminded to be vigilant. Thank you."
Shades of 1984, except that Big Brother isn't watching closely enough.
The postcards don't say much. What can be said when you've just got off the plane? Hello, just writing to say I've made it, will write something longer soon. Enough said, good-bye. The real test is to discover if you have the wits and the wherewithal to find a post office and mail them before sinking into a deep, bottomless sleep.
Out in the street the foot traffic is dense. All the tourists go to Les Halles, mainly for the shopping and the Pompidou Centre. The Parisians like it too, slouching at café tables and watching the people stroll past. Little wonder the French traditionally didn't travel much. Why bother when the world comes to you?
A signpost on one corner of the pedestrian quarter proclaims the word for post office in French, complete with the official symbol of the national postal service, some sort of flying ice cream cone in white on a brown background. The path leads to the Rue de Sébastopol. It feels familiar. There's a Rue de Sébastopol in Nouméa, where I first went to speak French. That one is a busy thoroughfare too, bearing in mind the different proportions of the two cities. New Caledonia was annexed by a French naval captain about the same time Napoleon III was fighting the Russians. The South Seas Rue de Sébastopol turns into one of Nouméa's sleazier streets at night. Innocent tourists from Australia and New Zealand walk along it at their peril, unless they enjoy watching drunk soldiers chatting up good time girls in bars, side-stepping drunks, or being chased by Wallisian transvestites. The original Rue de Sébastopol might have the same atmosphere at two in the morning.
There's another post office sign on the far side of the road, so you cross with the crowd of pedestrians who violate the flow of traffic spontaneously once there's a gap in the traffic. High-pressure Parisian motorists sit fuming, forced to brake in front of a compact wall of people that's too big to get away with running over.
Following the street for another block, there's another post office sign, pointing right. The path leads past the main entrance to the Les Halles subterranean shopping complex. Supposedly a hangout for pick-pockets, the fact doesn't seems to deter all the people standing around, most of whom are beautiful young things trying to make a splash in this scene. Two blocks along there is yet another post office sign, this time pointing back in the direction of the Pompidou Centre. Is this some sort of town planner's joke? Did someone rotate the signs? No, peering through the crowds, the post office is visible on the next corner, fulfilling the promise of all the signs. It has all the feeling of an anti-climax to have actually found the place. After queuing and paying, a minute or two is spent looking for the post box before discovering it around the corner outside.
It has to be time now. Sure enough, the clock in the post office, sighted from outside in the street, reads 12.23. Time to go back.
The Rue de Sébastopol leads back to the Seine and over to the Left Bank. The feet drag heavier and heavier until their weight takes on the drag coefficient of two concrete blocks. The resultant gait is that of a Haitian zombie. No one cares. A throbbing pain is coming from the frontal lobe of the brain. You have reached the final stage of sleep deprivation, the one that comes just before collapsing into a coma. Every step becomes a colossal effort, driven only by the thought that there is an empty double bed waiting. Sticking to the main roads for fear of getting lost takes the weary body back along the Seine to Noder Dayme, up the Boulevard St-Michel a bit and down a side street where all is eerily quiet. The hotel is there, a haven for a collapsing traveller. That double bed is calling your name. You advance in a trance, enthralled.
The rest has a dreamlike quality. The receptionist handing over a key, finally. Staggering up a narrow winding staircase made for dwarves from Tolkien, up to the third floor, fiddling with the key in the lock, praying it will open. Entering the room, the only thing of any importance being the bed. One bag is dropped, then another. Heave off the backpack. Oh heavens, the chance to sleep! Tears would come if the body could expend the effort. It's too late for that. Stripping off, you flop onto the welcoming mattress and doze.
Only to be woken ten minutes later by the buzz of an electric drill. Two floors above, the hotel is undergoing renovations.
Sleep, Weary Sleep
Where am I?
When am I?
What am I doing here?
You want to lift yourself up and wonder if there's the necessary force left. It's dark in here. It's a room. A strange room.
In France. Paris, France. It's not an impressionist painting this time, it's out there. Out that window.
Fool, the only thing out that window is a minuscule courtyard. Not a real one. No, the sort you walk around in. Rather a square about three metres on each side. Enough to keep you feeling claustrophobic when you gaze out the window to see a row of windows blocking all view. If you stuck your head out and craned your neck straight up you might see the sky. It's not worth the effort.
The city is out there bustling and I'm in here near comatose. On a Friday night. Them's the breaks.
Eyelids pull inexorably down. There's no contest. Sleep returns.
* * *
I'm back. Back from the sleep of the dead. Nothing is dredged up from dreamland by the waking state. Every bone aches. Taking a walk finished off the last bodily reserves of strength. Muscular energy is spent. Propping yourself up on one elbow feels like lifting a tonne.
There's a bedside lamp here somewhere. And a switch. There.
The room is unremarkable. Bed, chest of drawers with lamp, a small table with a wooden chair, and a wardrobe beside the door. By decree the room rates and hotel regulations are pinned to the back of the door.
What's the time? Need a watch to find out. I took it off... In the trouser pocket, on the floor. Three seventeen. In the morning although it feels like the middle of the day. Little wonder it's quiet outside. From far down the corridor comes the sound of a man snoring. He'll be on normal time, his biological clock ticking away nicely. Mine is in disarray. "You have to get up" it insists. "You've slept in."
What to do?
Have a bath. You've paid for one, you might as well use it. And a shave. You'll feel less like a bum that way. And what about some food? There's a box of chocolates in the backpack. They'll do for sustenance. They had been intended as a present in the event of some kind French person demonstrating a bit of hospitality. First things first. Your need is greater. Pig out. Chocolates mean sugar. Sugar means energy. Energy is a much-needed asset at present. Your body is about to break down. Eat first.
It isn't difficult to stuff them down. Assorted flavours. Hard ones, soft ones. The nutty ones taste best, being the least sickly, and, having some weight to them, they even feel vaguely wholesome, something chocolates should never be. There is a glass in the bathroom. Washed down with tap water they taste marvellous.
The bath water is heavenly to soak in. Three days of caked sweat comes rolling off. A chance to wash your hair too, to get rid of the stickiness and the itchy scalp. Mostly you just soak, a placenta in the warmth of an enamelled steel womb. A single, unshaded light bulb beams down from a hanging insulated cord. So this is it. That first European bath. Imagine, bathing where all the great ones bathed too, in this very city. Boggling stuff. The dead are looking down at the interloper from the Antipodes, wondering at his presumption. A descendant of the flotsam cast off in the last century, coming back to disrobe himself on the continent of his ancestors.
A voice comes back. "No, don't be so negative, you'll make it there one day." A former girlfriend's father, encouraging your studies of a foreign language you thought you would never get to use. How many years was it you last saw either her or her father? Nothing stands still for long.
Like now. Here and now there's no stability. You are of no fixed abode. Staying in a hotel room isn't going to work - you'll break the back of your savings in just a few weeks. How did Jean Genet do it? He spent the greater part of his life living in hotels. Even allowing for the fact that he managed to earn a bit in royalties and advances in later years, it's still an expensive lifestyle.
Drips from the hot water tap mesmerise the senses. There's a constant for you. A dripping tap in a French hotel. It's something eternal or at any rate poses a slightly less than minimal chance of being eradicated with time. Does that make sense? Are those words strung together at all logical? Can you be logical at three something in the morning Paris time or three something in the afternoon New Zealand time without really feeling like you're in either?
The tap keeps dripping sure as rain. Sure as rain. What is that supposed to mean? Sure as rain? What's sure about rain? Must be an English expression. Rain isn't sure in a desert. More sweepings from the intellectual basement of past generations. What genius had coined that expression? All the stuff folks spout, all those funny expressions. Did they ever sit back and think what it all meant, if anything? "I've got my eye on you!" "She is the cat's mother!" and others buried somewhere, lost at this time of the morning, sorry, afternoon.
Jim Morrison died like this, in a bathtub in a Paris hotel. What was he thinking when he slipped off this mortal coil? There you go! This mortal coil? What was that when it was at home? And another? They're spilling out of their own volition now. But seriously, old Jim, what was going through his head? Crawling lizards in the Arizona Desert? That hokum Oliver Stone dreamed up for Hollywood? My bet is something mundane. He was just gaping at the dripping tap, or the light bulb, completely out of it. There's not much poetic about dying in a bathtub. Marat wouldn't have wanted it that way. He must have had higher aspirations for posterity than being immortalised by David naked, with a gaping hole under his collar bone. That painting had to have been doctored. There would have been blood all over the place, him with a knife sticking out of him, splashing and thrashing about in the last throes, trying to push Charlotte Corday off him and vomiting his guts out. David tidied his death up for future generations just as he doctored the French Revolution in general. All those heroic paintings of thugs and dictators, proclaiming justice for all and inflicting years of disaster and misery.
The water is getting too cold to allow a fitful doze to the metronome of the dripping faucet. Breaking the surface calm, your rising body is released. A follow-up shave leaves the wash basin wearing three days' growth, before you collapse back into bed, clean and naked, to slough off remaining fatigue.
* * *
Awaking for the third time, it remains dark out. Having no sense of what time it is, and wondering if a whole day has been passed in slumber, a by now ritual reach for the watch reveals it's 6.30 in the morning. Saturday morning. Fifteen or sixteen hours sleep thereabouts have been accumulated. A payback for lost time. A new personal record, achieved under trying conditions, like the zomboid walking state that preceded it.
This time restlessness takes over. Restlessness of the kind a 12 year-old feels waking up on Saturday after a week of droning teachers. Outside Paris is waiting to be explored. Empty streets laid out under the sombre morning light, there to be examined in the manner of worms stuck on concrete paving in a rain shower.
Jeans, shirt, jacket, thirty-six-year-old sailor's coat, and scarf. Enough to keep the elements off. Bohemian enough to make you feel like one of the new literati, off in the footsteps of Sartre, Camus, Hemingway and the other local ghosts. Seeking what inspired them, wondering if it will rub off, wondering if it might be better brushed away. Better to be an individual than a carbon copy, surely. So many have made it riding on the coat-tails of others, before tumbling into disrepute when the spell broke.
Up and About
No one is at the reception desk. The door is bolted. However it can be opened from the inside.
A clutch of Chinese restaurants huddle together down the road from the hotel. Future dining destinations. Any Dunedin rice and MSG joint would offer fare at half the price of what's displayed here. It's still cheaper than a $12 felafel.
The beginnings of a mental map are forming. An unerasable plan of essential stops and interlocking paths indispensable for getting life done with the minimum of delay. Know a place well, know where to go, and know what's on offer there. It saves time and money. Haven't seen a supermarket so far. They teach you how to ask for things at the butcher's, the baker's and the ironmonger's in those French language texts. They don't bother telling you that you can get it all cheaper and quicker from the retail giants. That had to be learnt the hard way in Nouméa after reeling at some of the prices in the owner-operated outfits. Supermarkets aren't quaint enough to make it to a classroom setting, and don't offer enough opportunities for dialogue. So you're left with this outmoded image of little corner shops staffed by quaint old men and women without being told that even the French pass them by if they know there is a better deal to be had down the road apiece at the local branch of some supermarket chain.
There's light out in the street, just barely. A bit more condensation and the mist in the air might be called fog, or could turn into rain. With a map in your coat pocket there's no worry about getting lost, so the feet go where they fancy. It must be around seven in the morning now. The early day calm does not pass undisturbed. Nearing the Panthéon, archetypal students come into view, slouching off to early morning classes. They should look more exotic, coming from Paris. Instead they could pass for scarfies strolling through the Octagon on a bitter July morning. A result of the internationalisation of youth culture, including clothes. Which university they're going to can only be guessed at. The Latin Quarter is a mess of tertiary institutes.
It's worth a stop to contemplate the Panthéon, the resting place of the Republic's worthies. The students don't stop. For them it's a sight rendered familiar by hundreds of previous passages thought the place, no more remarkable than Dunedin's statue of Robbie Burns for me. The dome isn't looking its best in the half mist. A few seconds examining the mock Roman styling is enough for a lifetime in these conditions. Keep walking.
The absence of space is overwhelming. Paris is a profoundly cramped place, with its buildings squeezed together and reaching skywards for extra room. You need space to breathe in. The best option is the Luxembourg gardens, a short walk away along the Rue Soufflot.
The side gate leads into a path running alongside the Palais du Luxembourg, formerly a hangout for decadent aristos under the ancien Régime, now transformed into the Senate chambers. Uniformed police guard every entrance around the clock. Or I presume so if they're up at this time on a Saturday. There's no telling when some disaffected terrorist might decide to bump off a few of the Republic's finest in a grudge fest.
The garden isn't at its best, it's the wrong time of year. It's a fetching layout, with very French peculiarities. Few if any English-style gardens would allow such an incredible expanse of uncovered topsoil to remain exposed. Here lawns are special exceptions rather than the rule. Little signs remind all and sundry that it is strictly forbidden to walk on the grass. These metal placards stay up all year round, according to what I read. If you try and stretch out on the lawns on a hot summer's day, officious uniformed men come along and move you on. France must be one of the few places in the world which doesn't believe in the resilience of grass in the face of the downward brunt of a human backside. The hippies back in the sixties set up some movement to free the lawns of France for public use and failed miserably. French gardeners being so inexperienced in maintaining turf, they assume a greater fragility than actually exists. Actually, they could be more scared of dog owners letting their spoilt pooches sully the greenery. God knows there's enough doo doo on the footpaths. Here there's none. A sign up at the park gate had one of those red circles with a bloody great line through a dog's silhouette. Here there are real police to harass anyone who decides to lead the mutt out for a pee on the herbaceous borders. Imagine having the Senate police hot on your heels for profaning parliamentary grounds. You'd never live it down among your bourgeois acquaintances.
The trees make up for the lack of lawns. They're beauties, planted in lines of militaristic precision. French gardens abhor disorder; at least the famous ones you see in books do. Everything must exhibit a Cartesian symmetry. And the pond isn't bad. It would be pleasing to sit here on a hot summer's day, a privilege you're not going to have for a few months. Lots of students must come here for lunch, to unwind. The Sorbonne is just a few minutes' walk away.
Standing above it all is the palace, a splendid sight, with its indoor chandeliers shining through the morning mist. A plum site for an office if you've got the pull to get yourself elected Senator. Sit a while and contemplate. Five days ago the most exalted building you had seen was the old block at Otago University. No comparison really. Royals had screwed and intrigued their way into power for centuries in the Palais de Luxembourg. The power struggles at Otago couldn't match such decadent splendour. Oh for a time machine. No, that would be silly. Were this the past, you wouldn't be in here, you'd be a peasant at the gate trying to get a peek over the fence and being chased away by halberd-wielding palace guards. History's a bitch like that. The further back you go, the worse it gets, unless you're a member of the bodice-ripper school of historical fiction. Worse in some ways, if not others. They didn't have concentration camps, the Bomb and electronic surveillance under the ancien Régime. Louis XIV would have been livid with envy if he could have seen how much power President Mitterrand has over his subjects.
This isn't the first time you've seen this view. It features in countless films, and in a French video course held by the French Department back home. Some trite drama about a trendy blonde Parisienne falling for a young American student, parfaitement bilingue, of course. No sign of any of that at this time of the morning. The park isn't empty, the exception being provided by some courageous joggers doing circuits of the nationalised royal grounds.
It's as light as it's going to get now. The sun has risen over the quarter's apartments. You can't actually see the sun its presence is betrayed by a white disc of light just managing to penetrate the blanket cloud cover. A rumbling stomach brings thoughts down to earth. Before collapsing into bed, you specified you wanted to be served breakfast. A morning feed would be nice.
Coffee and a bit of baguette aren't that filling. They don't do bacon and eggs unless you're booked into a plusher place than this one. The black waitress grudgingly gets some cereal after you insist you want something more substantial. Twenty francs down the drain really. Solitude is broken by an American woman who comes over from a nearby table and starts up conversation.
It's the stuff of first-time acquaintances - my isn't it humid here, comparisons to weather at home, why you've come to Paris. She's here to get French citizenship for her five-year-old son. The chances are good, she says he was born in France of a French father, as the result of a French marriage ceremony. They're divorced now, but she still wants the kid to enjoy all the benefits of double nationality when he's older. It wouldn't be bad, being able to call two countries home instead of just one. If things got unbearable you could bale out and set up over on the other side of the Atlantic. You could pick the best country to retire in. Then there's all the freedom of movement possibilities opened up by European Union. Very nice. It would be better than being stuck with a New Zealand passport. The days of going back "home" to Britain and settling are now over, unless you're a closet Pom with a British passport. Half way through those thoughts, interjecting into a half-heeded conversation, she gets up and offers a cheery "until next time". There won't be one. Getting up this early for a meagre overpriced breakfast doesn't merit the effort that goes into it, and in a few days it's good-bye hotel if the man at the hostel gets his act together.
The day is still young, if grey. Time to have another wander, try and face the day. The urge to feel excited about being in Paris is dragged down by bodily fatigue, a load which has been but lightened by extended sleep. Disembodiment compounds the feeling of strangeness. All the senses are sluggish. It takes twice as long as normal to think anything through, be it the simplest of decisions. It might not be a good idea to go out in this weakened state. Staying in bed isn't that good either. Sleeping now makes it harder to regularise patterns to local time. Staying on New Zealand time won't work. Get with the natives and slide into those local rhythms, like a geeky Yankee trying to do the rhumba.
Back in the street mind and time meld into a curved continuum, The world is mazelike, compartmentalised into narrow streets that go on forever. The buildings don't change. They're unifrom to the point of bewilderment. The occasional boulevard widens perspectives somewhat. Not wanting to burn too much money at the moment, life is centred on walking to the exclusion of shopping. Walk and walk and walk until your feet drop off. Across the boulevard St-Germain, through the back streets just a few dozen metres from the Seine, passing sight unseen to the Atlantic. Turn north, frustrated at the thought the river is so close yet not visible. Walk walk walk along the Seine. Ile de la Cité. The Pont neuf is too busy with traffic to be attractive. The narrow Pont des Arts is more user-friendly. A couple of aspiring artists are out with the canvas and pallet, daubing away. They would do better working somewhere that hasn't been painted innumerable times previously. Funny how the art world tends to congregate in certain spots, looking at the same objects for inspiration, heedless of a world of obscure milieux of greater potential. If they don't have the courage or cash to leave Paris, some studies of corners and back streets might evoke more originality than sub-impressionist shots of buildings best left for the snap-happy tourists.
Hypocrite. If you believed that you would be staring at some barren outcrop in Central Otago rather than trying to catch a whiff of the putrid corpses of deceased scribblers in the Latin Quarter, a literary necrophiliac, strolling around in the city of the dead, inhaling the smell deeply. Inhale till you vomit all the crap you've digested. Spew your guts out until there's no foreign matter left, then start afresh.
The pretence of it all. You are destined for a nowhere future filled with obscurity, in much the same vein as life has been up till now.
Only if I let them get away with it. Listen to that line long enough and you end up believing it. The mediocre are those who accept the mediocrity of others, nothing more. Abdicate originality to the masses and follow the flow. Let it wash you along, into the waiting intellectual grave of the commonplace.
The Louvre is a big bastard after all. Your teacher said as much. Not today thanks. Walking around that lot would finish you. Skirting the south side is intimidating. Rushing traffic and those plate glass windows looming above, wanting to spill out their treasures.
Enough. Back to the Left Bank. There apartment buildings give way to the monumental. The National Assembly doing its best to imitate the Parthenon, the Quai d'Orsay, and then a massive esplanade leading to Les Invalides.
Bony is in there, rotting away in a sarcophagus. Might be worth the price of admission. See the man who had no rival until Hitler and Stalin arrived on the world stage and committed greater atrocities in the name of personal power and national grandeur a century later.
It is a long walk up the broad avenue leading to Les Invalides, which is on a par with the Louvre in the size stakes. Here lies the first sizeable expanse of grass witnessed in Paris, this time with no signs up forbidding public use. People stroll across the green expanses, short-cutting the footpaths. Others sprawl out on the grass, reading newspapers or just having a rest. Very odd. No attendants telling them off. The area can't have park status.
And there's the Eiffel Tower, glimpsed for real for the first time, poking up above the bourgeois blocks of the seventh arrondissement. There is no resisting the urge to take some photos here. The aforementioned tower, the golden dome back of Les Invalides, a shot of the Elysées Palace across the river. Does François Mitterrand work Saturdays? Or do you get weekends off as President? He might be in there now, scribbling away, adding marginalia to some ministerial report. He was a student in Paris long ago. What did he feel during his first long stay here, up from the provinces? Back in the thirties wasn't it? Back in the days of the Popular Front and the Cagoule. Walk around then and you could have bumped into Cocteau or Sartre if you hung out in the right places. Who would their counterparts be today? Should I be trying to hang out with them, assuming such counterparts exist? Questions, questions...
Take a snap of the gendarmes at the gate too. They're not the first you've seen. Here though they are suited to the environment, unlike in New Caledonia. Blue uniforms and képis rather than the tropical khaki of those posted to the South Pacific. And they're not wearing shorts, something French men in or out of uniform look stupid in. Through the wrought iron gate there is a bit more of a walk. The courtyard is austere, cobbled unevenly, a trap for the unwary and a hazard for chic women on high heels. Two cannons that would have been state of the art hardware in Cardinal Richelieu's day are the only decorative objects in the courtyard proper. A sign directs newcomers to the ticket office. The woman there is patient while you fiddle around with your change.
Plans just to see Napoleon's tomb are modified. You can if you want, but there's a full ticket that gets you into various wings of the military museum as well. With a day ahead to be killed this is a comparatively relaxing way of knocking it off. Wandering all over Paris isn't feasible in a state of jet-lag. The walking done so far is no mean feat.
The museum consists of three parts. The first covers the history of warfare from that Palaeolithic to the Gulf War, with a special focus on French achievements in the fine art of killing people. Once inside an already confused sense of the passage of time becomes completely unhinged in the absence of natural light. Large chunks of the galleries are shut off from sunlight to prevent the centuries old uniforms from fading. It's all there - armour, blade weapons, insignia and standards, light artillery, firearms, anti-tank weaponry, and a tank or two. Lessons about warfare start at an early age for boys. They devour tales of death and destruction as a preliminary to gaining manhood, and marvel at glossy books full of detailed descriptions of pieces of weaponry with the same fascinations that girls scan fashion magazines. In past generations this phase formed an apprenticeship to going off and dying for King and country. Since they abolished National Service in New Zealand in the 1960s that has gone out of fashion. They don't want any old one in the army now. The Government doesn't have the cash to take them all in and the military needs trained professionals. Not here mate. All this stuff is for the Parisian boys. An introduction to the glory of France as preparation to doing time in the military. You never know just who might invade and even with one of the largest, best-equipped armies in the world, a few million extra civilians under arms just might do the trick. Don't forget Verdun and all that. And the girls can still look at their fashion magazines, because killing isn't women's work.
The one surprise is to be found upstairs in a darkened hall, secluded from light to prevent deterioration. Here in the house of destruction are to be found some marvels of artistic creation. The Royal Survey models of France's fortresses, built from wood and cardboard, beautifully painted and realistic. To a scale of one to several thousand, they are monuments to the moneymaker's art, remnants from a day when aerial photography and computer-generated simulations didn't exist. Plaques on the walls explain each one's history, how long it took to build, and its date. Under the Louis's these were top secret items, for the eyes of general staff and royalty only, to be used for planning the defence of the realm, and planning battles against foreign invaders laying siege or, as the instigators of 1789 found out, against royalist rebellions. France has preserved most of them, their keepers hiding them when Paris was under occupation. Now they are extravagant curios, to be cherished for their historical value. No one else is in this hall. Few would venture up the cold stone stairwell to have a peek in here.
Wing two is on the other side of the courtyard. It stands in homage to La Grande Armée, the hundred thousand plus men whom Napoleon assembled from all over Europe to invade Tsarist Russia. And what a homage. The uniforms of every regiment that took part in the campaign on the French side, almost two hundred years old and in pristine condition. Hussars, grenadiers, voltigeurs, tirailleurs, cuirassiers, guardsmen, artillerymen, engineers, they're all there, in dummy form. The men stood short in those days. Few late twentieth century New Zealand males, good products of a high-protein diet, would be able to squeeze into these accoutrements. The men in those days would have been five foot something, the tall ones maybe five foot six, judging from the uniforms. Close up, the impracticality of their clothing becomes apparent. It's difficult to imagine marching hundreds of miles across Western Russia dressed like that - long boots, tight trousers, very thick jackets with lots of braid and trimmings, equipment which must have hindered any half-practical movement, and the hats. Try running under fire with one of those tall busby things wobbling around on your head. They boiled like stewed chickens dressed like that in summer, and froze in winter, if they survived the Cossacks and the wolves on the long march back to Paris. Total madness it may have been; in any case the concept and the organisation of the expedition were awesome. The largest field army ever mobilised before World War I, and somehow fed and supplied without adequate roads or rail links of any sort.
Room after room full of uniforms. In all there are hundreds of them, and each regiment is only represented by two or three uniform types. Just imagine them on the march. It's staggering, and so are you. The exertion of having walked from the Latin Quarter is showing, forcing a break for a sit down in every other room. Thoughtfully, the administrators have supplied abundant seating in every room and along the corridors linking them. They would have had weary old veterans in mind rather than someone your age. It's funny how these things work out.
It's an eerie place, this one. It's a Saturday, I'm in a public museum, and I'm practically the only one here. Apart from rubbing shoulders with a couple not far from the entrance. I have encountered no one. Doesn't anyone else want to see the uniforms of La Grande Armée? Am I some sort of twisto with nothing better to do while the rest of Paris is living it up with more exciting pursuits?
The effect begins to pall after the first dozen rooms. All the paraphernalia of Napoleon's campaign merges with repetition. Though there are hobbyists who would have orgasms faced with this lot - wargamers and modellers, that sort of crowd. People running away from reality by trying to recreate the past. Not altogether a bad thing really. Some people need to seek refuge from dull lives, uninteresting relationships, tedious relatives and nowhere jobs. The world would be a dull place were it chock full of insipid realists.
At the other end of the scale are megalomaniacs like Napoleon, lying in the Eglise du Dôme. The Invalides ticket covers entry to the great man's resting place. It is a vainglorious shrine. Wall-to-wall marble and gold leaf. The hero's sarcophagus is large to the point of absurdity - the final overcompensatory effort of a man inadequate about his height? The man who would be king and became Emperor instead, dealing the final blow to a revolution that had already lost the thread years before. The man of Liberty who reintroduced black slavery to France and its overseas empire after the Directory had abolished it there. The man of Peace - look, it says so on that inscription up on that wall - who declared war on Europe and bore responsibility for the deaths of millions, including his own compatriots. The man who carried La Gloire de la France to wrack and ruin, the expansionist who lost the ancien Régime's colonial empire to the British, the man of culture who plundered the great galleries of Europe and pillaged Egyptian treasures. He was a good general, you can give him that. In the end that wasn't enough either, and he had had disastrous set-backs well before Waterloo. The Frenchman they all love to worship who was Corsican.
The walk back is unsteady. An internal compass dictates the route taken, and turns out not to be totally dysfunctional. Well-dressed bourgeois ladies are out walking diminutive dogs, almost as well manicured as their owners. Darkening clouds threaten rain that fails to fall. Traffic flows in driblets on the narrow back streets and in floods on the Boulevard St-Germain. You veer off to a side street to avoid the latter. The heavy coat donned hours before as a precaution against the cold has become an encumbrance, uncomfortably hot to wear, too bothersome to carry. Encased in a cloth hothouse, the pores open and begin to sweat.
Fatigue dominates all other senses, to the extent that hunger fails to stab the stomach. There is one over-riding concern; to get back to the hotel and collapse into deeper slumber once more. Nothing else counts. Neither all the city sights nor its restaurants. Beckoning shops are passed unheeded. No point in stopping if you're not up to deciphering the contents of their wares. Newspaper kiosks festooned with the world's finest periodicals likewise don't draw any attention. Just keep going before you fall over.
There is a mix-up a few blocks from home base, leading to a traipse up the Rue Monsieur Le Prince, almost as far as the Luxembourg underground stop, before the realisation comes that the path you're on is leading southward rather than vaguely north-west, the required direction. An Arab student was killed somewhere along this street by cops in 1986. Read it in a book, and now here I am. Can't recall what sort of police - municipal police, gendarmes or riot police, the dreaded CRS. There was a protest on that day about government education policy. The poor guy wasn't a participant, he just happened to be passing though, either coming from or going to classes. He looked the part of a student agitator, and that was enough for the law enforcement officers concerned. Bludgeoned to death for having the wrong skin colour, age and occupation and being in the wrong place. You could turn that into a statement against French law and order, but it can happen anywhere. Poor old Blair Peach got the same bum deal from the Special Patrol in London.
You're rambling. Not out aloud, but in your head. It goes on and on, in ever more convoluted patterns, leaping from one thing to the next; anything that passes through your head. It's a similar condition to what you get when you wake up out of deep sleep in the middle of the night, and are still stuck in some screwy dream logic, thinking your navel is on fire, or that your left foot has dropped off, until you grope around under the blankets and breathe a sigh of relief when reality strikes.
Chances of that occurring this night will be marginal. The sleep of oblivion beckons. When that head hits the pillow it'll be all over up top.
And it was.
A New Abode
The pronouncement came on Monday.
Three quarters of a hour waiting preceded it, filled in sitting on the cobblestones outside the welcome office at the hostel. Supposedly it opened at nine, but the deputy director didn't feel like getting out of bed at that time. A 20-year-old Melbournite with a nasal whine, short, blonde, and overly stuffed with French food judging from her waist line, paid the off-hand compliment of remarking about the loss of my kiwi accent
"Yer musta bine arwaiy a long tayme."
Four days in fact.
A propos the Melbournite, it turned out she happened to be leaving, coincidentally and happily vacating a room. Half an hour of administrative toing and froing and I find myself with the good fortune of having a permanent, if slightly humble, abode.
The bedroom view is of the courtyard, a proper one this time, albeit with no redeeming features to reward the effort of contemplation therefrom. A torn curtain offers some measure of privacy. The furniture consists of a bed with a sagging mattress, blankets courtesy of the hostel, a battered table and chair, and a wardrobe. The cracked plaster walls were painted a functional white some years back, now rendered dull grey through prolonged exposure to the corrosive Parisian air. It will do. And it is as good as things get on a student budget this close to the Seine on the Left Bank.
For want of official guidance, a self-guided tour ensues. Showers, communal wash-basins and a toilet with a busted seat are at the end of the hall. The kitchen is down a narrow winding staircase one floor below. Breakfast is part of the bill; a generous helping of two bits of baguette and a café au lait, not to be exceeded or else according to the handwritten notice taped to the wall. This morning's diners have already departed, leaving a few crumbs on the barrack room benches. Cooking facilities here include a couple of hot plate units, grimy through over-use and no cleaning. There is no sign of any communal utensils. Overall the kitchen has an unsavoury air. The red tile floor has been scrubbed from time to time, but nothing else is. Food stains cake places which defy explanation, other than the supposition of the presence of careless pan-cake tossers or a history of wild food fights.
"Hé, ouai, toi..."
The accent is Maghrebin. Its owner stands tall and lanky, big-nosed and not very photogenic. A tatty ski jacket with a high collar keeps out the cold. His holey jeans don't. He has a shifty look about him, although for want of any evidence to back up such suspicions, there's no reason to be stand-offish. Smile, be friendly, you'll probably end up good friends.
"Hi, I've just arrived. How's it going?'
There's a pause. He's in the middle of making an assessment. His eyes narrow.
“Where are you from?”
"I'm a New Zealander."
He stares blankly.
Ernest Rutherford, the Anzacs at Gallipoli, the Second NZ Division, Sir Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks and kiwifruit go collectively gurgling down a plug-hole to the tune of God Defend New Zealand.
And it's my turn to stare blankly. The assumption makes slight sense though if you speak French as a second language and take "néo-zélandais" for "irlandais".
"No, I'm from New Zealand."
An association met with a wall of stark incomprehension.
"And where are you from?"
"Algeria. My name is Mohammed."
Hmm, that's an original combination.
Without further ado he pulls out a sausage. It is not a normal sort of thing to do. I can't recall any other first-time acquaintance ever pulling out a sausage.
"Do you like sausage? I have this but I don't want it. I bought it but found out later it was made of pork."
"Ohh, you don't eat pork. Are you Jewish?"
That hit home but he tries not to let on.
"Do you like it?"
He pulls the offering back. "You can have it for 20 francs. I bought if for more."
Yeah, sure. Here I am hoping to make a friend and all I uncover is a second-hand sausage salesman. Or a small-time hustler. Be emphatic or you'll never get rid of him.
"No thanks, I have plenty of sausage already."
Too late bud, you've lost me.
"Thanks anyway but I've got a few things to do. See you."
If I have some great misfortune.
It's not mere imagining that his eyes are glued to me as I stride off to the stairs.
* * *
Having obtained a fixed abode for the time being, the next objective is to inform the authorities. All immigrants, short or long-term, must report to the Prefecture of Paris within eight days of their arrival, according to my visa. The guide for students sent by the French Embassy has the address.
The walk is full of foreboding. Ominous tales of one-eyed bureaucrats encountered by students who had already been to France have had their effect. These anonymous paper staplers are little tin gods. They hold the power to control personal destinies. Be polite.
The woman at the front desk has seen all the human detritus of the world washed up in gay Paris, trying to live the life of Riley in her beloved land. You won't get past her unless things are all in order. She is the gatekeeper. If they're not, the cops watching your every move from the entrance will escort you to the door, or worse, to a holding pen for deportation.
I smile and tell her I'm a new arrival in Paris, come to apply for a student carte de séjour or "stay card" as I clunkily call it in English.
No smile. No pleasantness. A tone of voice indicating she is perfectly indifferent to my very existence, as long as it does not violate immigration provisions.
At Bureau three it's a case of having to have the works. Multiple ID photos, in black and white, as colour won't do. It doesn't photocopy you see, and French bureaucrats like their multiple photocopies. Then all the documentation. Your birth certificate with a certified translation, full enrolment information from your university, a copy of a bill of health from a French doctor. Anything in English has to have a certified translation attached. It can be certified by your Aunt Gerty, they wouldn't know - just so long as it has an official-looking stamp on it, they're happy. You only show them the original documents, they're not for keeping. All the originals were methodically photocopied before leaving Dunedin and carried 20,000 plus kilometres after hearing about the student who entrusted a Prefecture with his birth certificate and is still waiting to get it back. He didn't get his stay card either as they claimed he was lying about having already applied. And you hand over the hastily-made photocopy of the piece of paper from the hostel saying that you live there. It's verboten to live anywhere in France unless you have a piece of paper saying so to prove it. Funny how the French fought two World Wars in the name of liberty but still have to notify the gendarmes of their every change of address. I smile as I hand all the paperwork over to the bespectacled minion. Oh, and the photocopy of my passport.
He is happy with most of it. However the passport gives him no joy.
"Your photocopy has no entry stamp from Roissy on it." He points to the original document. "You will have to get a photocopy of this page. There is a shop down the road where you can do it."
Quarter of an hour later I am back at Bureau three, and stand in line for several minutes watching some dark-skinned people being given short shrift in spite of vigorous pleading. They want papers and not student ones. They are out of luck - wrong visa and wrong skin colour for the man behind the counter.
Mr Specs is quite happy to see me. He accepts the additional photocopy, carefully checks it against the original stamp on the passport, then vanishes out the back. It feels like he is gone a long time. There is mirror glass on the wall behind the booth. Surveillance cameras hang from the ceiling, sweeping the surrounds from both ends of the room. It's not paranoia. I am being watched. Is this a test? See if he cracks under the strain waiting, betrays some nervous tick that will give himself away?
I must have passed the test as here he comes. He sits himself down with an air of majestic self-importance.
"This is your temporary card, until you get a real one. You are not entitled to work more than eight hours a week on a student visa. If you find part-time work you must inform us immediately with full details of the number of hours you will be working and other information we may require. You are warned that a student visa cannot be transformed into a work visa. If you change residence, you must supply us with a new residence attestation within eight days. For your stay card, you will have to come back in three months, say, late December, early January. It will cost you 200 francs - you will need to purchase a revenue stamp to that value. You can buy them in most corner stores. Before receiving your proper card you will be obliged to take a medical examination, the cost of which shall be borne by you. I believe this is currently around 500 francs. You will receive appointment details and all the other information about how to get to the medical centre through the post. This examination is mandatory for all non-European citizens. If you are passed, you then bring the papers you will be given here to add to your file. Please do not delay - this is highly important. Without medical approval you cannot be given a stay card. This temporary card which I am giving you now is to be carried on your person at all times. If you are asked for it by an officer of the law or other competent authority and you do not have it you may be detained for however many hours it takes to verify that you are indeed entitled to be in France. Do you have any questions?"
The litany over, a brief pause follows. It is the first time in the whole process that he has offered to respond to any questions. What to say?
"No, thank-you. That is all clear. You have been very helpful."
Smile, then take the cards and let's get out of here.
Passing by the front desk I hear the guardian woman emitting a gruff "oui" to a humble Asian. I wonder if he has enough French to survive in this cold environment. Once past the cordon of cops at the door, and having bustled through all the immigrants loitering near the entrance, it's time to breathe a sigh of relief. Another hurdle has been surmounted.
* * *
Into the subterranean world is where the steps lead. They are littered with discarded tickets and fag ends. A moderate bustle of people tread on them - it's not yet rush hour. Through the double-plated glass swing doors is a large area leading off to various corridors. This is an interchange station, with more than one platform.
The woman at the ticket counter is reading a magazine. Her blue uniform strains to hold her body in. She looks up. It is her single acknowledgement that I exist. She says nothing.
"I would like a Carte Orange please."
A Carte Orange is something I have only ever read about in guide books. According to all of them it is indispensable for getting around Paris cheaply, being more economical than buying single tickets, day passes, or the various tourist combos that the Metro sells to allow access to its services.
"I don't know."
Her expression is that of a Minnesota farmer's wife standing on her doorstep, watching slimy bug-eyed monsters squelching down the gangway of a newly-landed flying saucer.
"Could you explain which zones there are? It's the first time I have bought a card."
She doesn't say it, but I know what she is thinking - another bloody foreigner. She grunts as she leans over to pick up a map.
"There are six different zones. If you buy a coupon covering all six you have the right to travel all over the Paris public transport system, including the rural trains that run to all the outer suburbs. Most people just get a coupon which covers the zones they use, usually one, two and three. These three zones cover all of Paris proper, or if you are living very centrally, you can just get a coupon for zone one and two. The prices are listed here." She points to a list of rates, giving options for weekly and monthly tickets.
The rates aren't bad. You would clock up more expenditure catching buses to varsity in Dunedin than you would on a Carte Orange. And there is no limit to the number of trips you make within the date it is valid for. The card itself comes in a miniscule grey plastic wallet. The coupon, for sticking through ticket machines, has its own special pouch.
“This is your coupon. It is not valid unless you have it with the identification card in here. Keep the coupon in this little pocket inside the wallet at all times. If you have one without the other, it is not valid. Nor is it valid unless you write your card number on the back.”
Peering at the ticket, there’s a little space for noting down your Orange card serial number.
“You must do it now or I cannot issue the card.”
Patience darling, I’m just having a look. I’m not going anywhere until I get my change anyway. This formality accomplished, she takes the ticket, slips it into the holder inside the wallet, and passes the ensemble under the plate glass.
Lastly comes the change.
“Could I have one of those métro maps too please?”
Again she says nothing but she’s thinking something like “you’ll be wanting the kitchen sink next”.
The maps are free to anyone who wants one but it’s still considered a personal imposition to ask.
“Thanks for all your help.”
That parting smile appears to annoy her even more.
* * *
Quiet perusal of the evening edition of Le Monde forms a relaxing end to a stressful day. Dinner involves a calzone from one of the real Italian pizzerias down by the Rue de Seine, a can of fizzy drink designed to do no good to your innards and some creamy concoctions from a neighbourhood patisserie. A more substantial dinner didn’t feel in order. The stomach is out of kilter. It was expecting breakfast, not dinner. Some shock therapy would do it good. There is a house rule against eating in the rooms, which isn’t worth worrying about as it’s unenforceable. Being disgusted with its state and not being up to socialising rules out eating very often in the kitchen, despite having heard cooking activity there when coming up the stairs.
The bags haven’t been unpacked yet. It can wait. Effort of that sort requires too much energy and organisation, more than could be managed at the moment. An erudite piece on Macedonian nationalism is more diverting than the thought of physical activity. Three paragraphs from the end and attention is wavering. The creamy concoctions from the patisserie are beckoning. It’s humanly impossible to do anything but eat them. They’re just out of the bag when the screaming starts.
The screams of a young woman.
An assault in the street? At the entrance? There’s no sign of anything untoward. No, the noise isn’t coming from the street; it’s muffled, although loud enough to be from nearby. Time to open the window.
Which takes two minutes of fiddling with a latch that doesn’t want to work. Once forced, the night air comes rushing in, along with louder screams. She’s getting more agitated. Speculation abounds. It can’t be a robbery, it would all be over by now. Were it a rape, the perpetrator would have gagged her or run away.
She is in one of the rooms opposite, just above the passage leading out to Rue Eluard, hence the prior confusion about the noise coming from the street. The lights are on in the window.
“Leave me alone!! Go away! Don’t touch me!! They’re not going to get me!! I’ll kill myself first!” are some of the shouted bits emitted in between hysterical screams.
What the hell is going on? Further listening results in the discernment of other voices in the room. They’re not loud enough to be audible across the courtyard. They’re ineffectual, soothing voices. They’re completely unheeded by the screamer.
After ten minutes the screaming becomes almost banal. No one else is looking out the windows to see what might be happening. Is this a regular occurrence? Do young women scream hysterically here every night?
No, they don’t.
There are two men in white coats, the psychiatric nurse variety, in the courtyard. The deputy director comes rushing out of a side door and hurriedly leads them inside. Men in white coats. The stuff of urban legend. How often do you get the chance to actually see a couple making a house call?
Their reason for being here isn’t happy. There’s a sudden bout of more intense hysterics, accompanied with scuffling noises, some unplanned breakages, and then silence.
As the ambulance backs into the courtyard, it’s apparent she is getting the full treatment. The men in white coats reappear escorting their ward. She is about twenty, French by the sound of her, with long black hair. She is very pale, which could be her natural state, or a reflexion of her mental health. The strait-jacket and gag she is wearing prevent her from lashing out or screaming, or running away. They would have carried her except the stairs are too narrow and winding. Perfectly clinical, the men in white coats bundle her in the back, then climb in and pull the doors shut. They are barely in when the ambulance quietly rolls out the gate.
No one else is watching from the windows. The deputy director alone contemplates the departure from the courtyard.
Le Monde doesn’t feel the same afterwards. The big picture may be less important than trying to find out what I have got myself into here.
Breakfast and Beyond
Breakfast is a mix of Oliver Twist and Animal House. Queuing for bread and café-crème and better not try for seconds or it's Oliver Twist time. Sleazy Italians and inept Algerians trying unsuccessfully to ingratiate themselves with blonde Californians, and losing what minimal suaveness they might enjoy by trying to express themselves in fractured English. Brainless babes they may be, but they're equipped to rebuff such inept advances. They stick together in a pack, the girls, pulling snide remarks to themselves to keep the salivating wolves at bay.
My presence is duly noted and there is tentative conversation with a group of Indians concerning what little they know about New Zealand. Cricket and sheep. The coffee is bad. As exotic and continental as it may be, skimming creamy scum off a bowl before drinking it is too nauseating to allow the contents to live up to their pale promise. The bread is bad too - rock-hard crust encasing 80% air.
At a separate table in one corner two of London’s sons are seated. They are wearing jeans and leather jackets that could only be made in England, along with mod-style tee-shirts - the sporty type with logos on one breast, collars and a couple of buttons. There is probably a word for them, except I am not a fashion expert. They are furtively debating some important matter at a volume which requires some concentration to discern details through the noise created by the mob feeding and slurping at the other tables. Their desire to hush their voices increased my interest. They had something to hide, yet not so secret that they felt it had to be left to a more private setting. The pair are not private-school Londoners. Or is that public school over there? The English always have to be different. These two are more like East Enders. They have the looks and poses of sons of barrow merchants. Their features form a combination of youthful impatience and worldly cynicism. Theirs is a world where nothing comes easily. Advancement comes to those who push themselves hardest against the flow.
Numbers were involved in this conversation. Weights and money. Pounds of course. Francs counted for nothing on either side of the Channel for these two. The talk was of something being exchanged, with mention of the comparative merits of various options. Beyond that I could discern no more. They were talking shop in any case. They were traders like their fathers, out looking for the main chance a bit further afield than earlier generations of their family had gone.
It is definitely nineteenth century, this place. Wooden benches, chipped bowls and filthy tabletops. Mid-way through the meal, a Senegalese jumps up and stomps with both feet on the cracked tiling.
"Hop! Un, deux! et trois!"
His coterie of Sub-Saharan friends lean over to examine the crushed remains of three cockroaches.
"Hé, le troisième, c'est un grand bougre non?"
"Une laitue et un bol et nous aurions de quoi faire une salade!"
They all crack up laughing. The Californian babes can't work out what is going on until one of them stands up to have a look.
Any urge to scarper is stilled by an imperious stubby French woman near the door who insists that all bowls and cutlery be individually washed and dried before anyone is allowed to leave. She would make a good Mother Superior. The tea towels are overdue for a wash, to the point that it is academic whether any rubbing with them results in cleaning rather than the opposite. The dirtified bowls and cutlery are stacked and stored in an appropriately grubby corner where the cockroaches can scuttle over them to their tiny hearts' content and pick off any bits of food not wiped away by overly-hasty drying.
Put it all down to local colour.
* * *
A fierce gust is traversing the Place du Châtelet that fails to penetrate my thick coat, though it succeeds in rattling the swing doors at the métro entrance. To open them is to be hit by a heat wave recycled subterranean air, mixed with the dregs of exhaust fumes, Parisian dirt and sweaty bodies.
To enter the métro is to enter the circulatory system of Paris. Above ground the arteries are clogged and slow-moving. Down in those corridors flows the lifeblood of the city. Thousands of kilometres of interlacing tunnels, leading to every conceivable corner of greater Paris, and here is the key to accessing it. The magical Orange Card.
The coupon slides into the turnstile slot, to be swiftly spat out the top for passing entrants to snatch as they step though and dodge their way through the beggars and merchandise hawkers. The African ones have long inflatable sausage things to bounce up and down that no parent of sound mind would give to a kid within a hundred metres of anything breakable. Also on sale are articulated plastic men to throw against walls and watch falling down like inept human flies, feet over head, until the tiny suckers on them dry up and work no more - a matter of weeks at most. Badly stitched glove puppets. Gliders that flit around in tight circles, fun for someone stuck in a prison cell. Indian hawkers specialise in selling overpriced nuts wrapped in plastic, laid out on mini tables covered with a cheap cloth. The Arab merchants have watches and cheap jewellery straight out of a suitcase, or shining from an open coat, both portable enough to run with should the cops make a sweep of this corner of the station complex. From around the globe the dealers of the world congregate at Châtelet-Les Halles - grand galactic centre of the métro universe.
To get to the hub you take a moving sidewalk, striding across hundreds of metres at breathtaking speed, rushing with exhilaration. At the end, just at the point where rushing commuters jump back to earth, a humble black boy is waiting, doling out cards. He doesn't give them to everyone, only to selected people. I must somehow be special.
* CLAIRVOYANT * SEER * ADVISER TO THE RICH AND FAMOUS *
Are you troubled? Feeling depressed? Unlucky in love?
Is success eluding you?
I can help you find the solution to all your problems. Win friends and influence people. Get that job or promotion. Pass exams. Recapture the heart of the one you love, or charm a perfect stranger to follow behind you, panting like a dog, ready for your every command. Do not miss this unique opportunity to change your luck and aspire to greatness.
Tap the wisdom and power of the Ancients
Ring for an appointment any time
The address is an apartment in the Parisian equivalent of Abbotsford. A real man of means our professor.
The off-ramp corridor feeds into a maze of tunnels diverging from a split-level intersection, currently the haunt of a reggae band, all the way from Jamaica. While a tarrying crowd accretes to watch and feel the happy electro-tropical vibes, pickpockets do the rounds. Around the corner a beggar with one leg, his scarred stump carefully unveiled and protruding, manages to extract sympathy from hard-hearted commuters, if not their money.
The platform has just been emptied by the latest passing rame. It has a special smell, this place, a mix of mould and sweat, diesel and humidity curiously suggestive of ripe Gorgonzola. Across the tracks, two guitar-picking buskers try to outdo each other's cliched licks. If they ever met on the same platform they would come to blows. A wait of three or four minutes and the next rame arrives. You can't call them trains, and I don't know any English word for them. They don't have metal wheels, rolling instead along the tracks on pneumatic tyres. They whine instead of rumbling along like a real train, and there is no clackety clack of metal bogies on iron rail joints.
You can ride first class out of rush hours according to the guides. It is not really outstanding, first class - the train from the airport was tidier in second class. The passengers avoid eye contact, with the exception of some male carousers. One of them spends a couple of minutes eyeing up a chubby blonde until he works out she is not what she appears to be. Transvestites don't stay at home here, they're out and about, moving and doing things. Try that in Dunedin.
Some bastard has stuck a National Front sticker to the wall: "La France aimez-la ou quittez-la". Oblivious to watching eyes, the rapid scraping of my set of keys on the metal carriage wall reduces it to illegible shreds. You can love France without having to take that shit.
Hôtel de Ville. It's a decorated station, resplendent with displays on the history of that illustrious building, first sighted only days ago. So too is the Bastille station, having colourful murals propagating the Jacobin myth of a victory over tyranny through the seizure of a largely empty prison, long fallen into disuse. Tourists still get off here and ask where the Bastille is.
By the time the train reaches the Gare de Lyon, a puppet theatre troupe has delivered a one-act play from behind a screen suspended from two overhead handrails, and done the rounds for hand-outs. They take advantage of the stop to move on and by the time the train pulls out they're on the next carriage giving the same performance to a new crowd. They are replaced by two guitarists singing pop songs with Parisian American accents. Their command of Paul Simon's lyrics is only approximative, causing a smile or two from the tourists on board.
Nation. Weird name for a station. This is the interchange for the north-west of the city. Time to get off and descend into another maze of tunnels. It's a period piece, this place. You could film sequences for a historical drama here. They probably have. Rounding the corner you half expect to see German soldiers stopping people and checking papers in the hunt for resistance members. Not quite. There are three CRS riot police though, almost fitting the bill in their sleek, dark uniforms. Lace-up boots, holstered hand guns and side caps jauntily perched on shaven white heads. They've collared an Arab. He must have done something. No, correction, they must have thought he had done something. One of them has the kid, pushing 17 at most, in a firm arm lock, while the other two sceptically scrutinise his papers. They're pleased about something they've uncovered. The kid isn't resisting. He is petrified. The oldest cop, a rotund man with a beer drinker's complexion, makes a sarcastic quip to his comrades in arms. Something about "another one". I don't stick around to hear the rest. Just keep walking. They must have rounded up a good number of illegal immigrants recently. There could be a commendation waiting for them down at the station if they filled whatever quota exists in this particular field of endeavour.
But to be fair, it's not just the immigrants. The cops here can stop anyone, anytime they like, and utter the dreaded phrase "Vos papiers". You would be fortunate to get a "s'il vous plaît" or a "Monsieur" with it. It was tragic for some. The press had, in the last few days, revealed some of the worst cases of injustice that had come to light. They were enough to make you aware that all was not as it should be in the land of liberty, equality, fraternity and "vos papiers". Black Caribbeans from French possessions like Martinique and Guadeloupe - French since the 17th century, French longer than Johnny-come-lately provinces like Savoy - being turned down for welfare benefits because the bureaucrat deciding their destiny had but a shaky grasp of geography and French colonial history and assumed they weren't French citizens. An Arab born in France with the full right of French citizenship, being grabbed and loaded into paddy wagons in spite of having papers in order, preliminary to being detained in a deserted warehouse on the outskirts of Marseille, interrogated Gestapo-style with a beating, and dumped, sans papers and shoes, out in the countryside. A Zairean man married to a French woman who, acting on the advice of his lawyer, went down to the Prefecture to get his immigration papers sorted out along with his one-year-old son. For his troubles he got bundled on a plane back to Kinshasa within hours, so the cops could get around him having access to his lawyer. The French mother was informed anonymously over the phone that her baby was awaiting pick-up at the Prefecture and she had better hurry as they intended closing soon.
There is no point in dwelling on it. As a foreigner in this country you have no power to change things, and the French don't seem too worried that such things go on. Your one power is to do the best you can to avoid situations where the law can be arbitrarily imposed on you the way it has been imposed on so many others here.
On the next line, travelling performers are replaced by itinerant beggars. They are professionals. Romanians all. First comes the father of the family, claiming to be a Croatian refugee. He doesn't look like a Croatian, he doesn't speak like a Croatian, and the piece of paper he is waving as proof of identity is scribbled gabble that doesn't remotely resemble anything Croatian. Money is, not surprisingly, far from forthcoming.
Next stop, and he shifts on to work the carriage behind. In come mum and the kids. She is the universal East European peasant type - headscarf, plain-looking and, out of place given her protestations of hunger and living in "la galère", she is well plump. The three kids with plastic cups for handouts just do not look the part. The boy, around twelve years old, is wearing the latest Nikes and has brand-new basketball style sports apparel on. The girls, approximately ten and eight years old, are dressed in pretty pink dresses with cardigans and neat red ribbons bowed in their hair. They are all scrubbed, a sure sign they are not living on the street at all. The real Parisian poor don't wash, not because they don't want to, but because they can't afford soap, and can't find public wash facilities where they won't be bustled away by the toilet attendant. I read that in a magazine, which is as close as I want to get to finding out if it is true. Again, they don't make much of a collection. This lot are nothing more than hustlers.
Another stop and off they shuffle to work the next carriage. Enter the babushka, granny of the family, bewailing the weight of the miseries of the world, all resting on her back. She is a hawk. She methodically does her darnedest to rattle every single passenger in the carriage. Step one - approach wailing. Step two stop suddenly with wrinkled hand outstretched and fall into silence while staring intently into the eyes of the victim. Step three - if money is received, mumble thanks and move on. If not, sob some pretend tears and wail even louder.
Even some of the hardest-hearted of the Parisians, used to this lark, are thrown by her. Not all of them respond, but she manages to extract more than the previous two waves. She could be likened to the heavy artillery, brought up from the rear of the siege train, deployed in one last attempt at breaching the wall of parsimony. Her method is slow however. She doesn't manage to hassle half the carriage before the next and last stop is reached. Porte de Montreuil, here I come.
* * *
The aim of the trip is to fill in the day at the market. It's an open-air one, occupying a vacant lot the size of three or four football fields. Like every other place in Paris, it comes across crowded for a provincial lad from the South Island. Most of the stalls are set up in tents, with a fair scattering of old men vending their wares from the ground, uncovered trestle tables, or out of vans, strategically parked for the occasion. The hardest up don't have stalls. They do the cartoon trick of selling impossible quantities of small goods from the inside of massive raincoats, or out of a small case held on by a strap over one shoulder. One kid is wandering around trying to divest himself of a shoe box full of CDs. The means by which they were acquired don't bear speculating on.
Everything is on sale here, including the much-invoked proverbial kitchen sink. A good range of takeaways for all tastes is provided, hopefully prepared in cleaner conditions than the hostel kitchen. Some of the food smells delicious - the rest wafts across the packed passages between stalls as an ominous warning of the unpleasantness of gastric shock. The stalls fall into fairly fixed categories. There are the knick-knack stalls, where a range of the French equivalent of three plaster ducks for the living room wall is on offer. There are the clothes stalls, with all manner of rejects and gems from the rag trade, in Paris and beyond. An excellent condition jacket is acquired for forty francs, low-priced because it was made in Germany. Record stalls concentrate mainly on CDs and cassettes, with a sprinkling of vinyl, including Mi-Sex's old chestnut Space Race. Kiwi New Wave music. Who bought that one originally? And it's a New Zealand pressing, wonder of wonders. Another curious link to a land far away is a New Zealand Apple and Pear Board carton at a book stall, home to a collection of cut-price paperbacks (one franc each), tossed in pell-mell. Among the 1960s detective novels and historical romances, no joy is to be found. There is plenty on offer elsewhere to keep a reader starved of anything intelligent from far away happy for weeks. No more grubbing around for anything at all to read in French in a country of stubborn monolingualism. Here you can get anything you want and cheap. Real French novels - the classics - Livres de poche - with period covers - all for as little as ten francs. In the non-fiction department there are two or three stalls offering great ranges of works on twentieth century French politics, the World Wars and all those colonial wars the French still like to think of as large-scale police actions so they don't have to admit they were beaten by diminutive Asians and poorly-equipped Algerians. A hundred francs disappeared and a pile of books later I feel sated. A place to return to.
There is a strong Arab presence at Montreuil. The most interesting ones are the cassette vendors. Row upon row of Rai music at rock bottom prices. Pity I don't know who's who on the scene. Something else to file for future reference once I have done a bit of background reading to find out what's hot. Mohammed the sausage seller might know.
Three policemen cross my path at the intersection of two tracks running between the stalls. Following them from a few metres behind is informative. You see the fear in the eyes of some of the Arabs, whether or not they have valid permits. The cops are relaxed. This is their regular beat. They get free drinks and instant hospitality at one rusty caravan selling kebabs and coffee. Buttering up the law can't be bad for business. The perambulating merchants are curiously absent. Word has spread down the row, moving faster than a foot patrol, and parties not licensed to trade have good reason not to stick around. Enough of the idle amusement at the expense of the unfortunate.
At the northern end of the lot, the ground tails off to a point at the terminus of a long triangular strip, grasping for purchase alongside Paris's ring road. There lies the fag end of the market. Downtrodden people selling whatever junk they might have scratched out of a tip in the wild hope of bringing in a few francs for a meal that night. One old bloke has an awesome collection of assorted plumbing accessories, straight from a demolished building somewhere. Rust marks and traces of plaster give their origins away. I could keep going along the footpath, although the sight of concrete and tower blocks fails to attract me any further.
Off to the right one of the concrete blocks is bearing the sign Carrefour. Carrefour is a supermarket chain. I spend the next half an hour poking through the shelves, discovering varieties of tinned food I had never dreamed of. My personal consumer desires amount to some Camembert, Portuguese fruit juice and some pains au chocolat, consumed in a dead-end corridor with a sunny spot near the check-out counters. Welcome to France, land of haute gastronomie.
There is a great racket coming from the corridor. And suddenly a hefty thump on the door into the bargain.
The watch at the bedside reads 9.16.
It is going to be one of those days.
It doesn't take more than a few moments to come to the conclusion that I am buggered if I am going to get out of bed at this time of the morning whilst still recovering from a late night and the, I like to pretend, still residual effects of jetlag.
Another bout of pounding at the door ensues. The yelling outside has not abated.
Whoever it is should be able to hear through the door. That's the most they'll get too.
"What is it? What do you want?"
"Désinsectisation. Open the door!"
Dis what. Disinsectisation? Come again? They didn't teach that one at uni...
Pulled on trousers and tee-shirt later I am ready to open the door. But I am not ready for what is on the other side.
It's the man from Mars. White boots, white rubber suit, white rubber gloves and a white rubber helmet with a transparent visor. What appears to be a ray gun he's pointing is in fact the business end of a glorified fire extinguisher, the tank of which is strapped to his back.
"You will have to vacate the room. We need to spray."
So do cats; it doesn't mean I want them to.
"Spray what? And why?"
Now it is evident what is creating all the commotion. Several other residents of the corridor are having heated exchanges with the rest of the crew, who are kitted out in the same gear and ready for action. Two doors down an African woman who has yet to introduce herself to me is forcefully expressing her opinion of the idea of vacating her room with a pillow. However capable he is a exterminating things on six legs, her victim is hopeless faced with larger game.
The Maghrebin across the way, resplendent in black shorts, is uttering remonstrations incomprehensible to the stammering man with a Portuguese accent standing in front of his door, though the general intent of the words is plain.
"It's on the order of management. We're here to spray for insects. You were warned."
"My eye I was. No one told me a thing."
"We are under orders to spray the whole building and we can't make any exceptions."
Taking my silence as consent he tries to push his way in. An out-thrust arm proves adequate restraint. With the tank on his back, he is thrown off-balance. It must be that as I'm no Charles Atlas.
"You can come back in half an hour once I've packed my things and got dressed and not before."
A slammed door in his face acts as an effective barrier to any protestations.
The dilemma is what to do with my gear. Leave it here to be insecticided? Haul it around Paris all day till they have finished? Stuff that for a bad joke. Logically the place they won't spray, or will have sprayed already, is the bureau d'accueil. I shall go there.
"You are leaving?"
"No, I'm just leaving my bags here for the day. I don't want them covered in pesticide by your boys in white."
"That is not possible."
"Oh, I'm sure they would make a good job of ruining my clothes and possessions."
"No, I mean you cannot leave your things here."
"Well, look at that, I've already done it!"
"There will be no space if everyone leaves their bags here."
"But everyone hasn't. I'm the only one to have thought of it."
"But the office closes in half an hour. Your bags will be locked in."
"I'll collect them tonight."
The minion has the look of an avant-garde hipster about him - long greasy hair, black clothes, pale face, nicotine-stained fingers from too many Gauloises. Oh, and the designer stubble. Maybe it impresses the girls. The pale waif-like ones.
He decides further resistance is beneath him. His avant-garde aspect shields a conservative control streak he does his best to clamp down on yet he hasn't yet fully succeeded in coming to grips with it. His hip self gains sway here however.
Now there is the question of some time to kill. The hipster was reading newspapers before being so rudely interrupted.
"Is that today's paper?"
"Depends on what?"
"What you mean by today's paper."
"I mean today's paper. You understand the concept of to-day I hope."
"Well, the thing is, this paper hit the news stands last night, but has today's date on it."
He disdainfully taps some ciggy ash into his ashtray, savouring the wondrous subtlety of his insight.
"Then it's today's paper then isn't it?"
"That depends on what you mean by today's paper."
"Well, placing aside philosophical abstraction for the moment, I presume today's paper to be a paper bearing today's date on page one."
"Then it might be assumed to be today's paper."
"Having established this postulate, might I presume to ask you for the entertainment section?"
"Indeed I am, and before we debate what one might mean by "entertainment section", I mean the section of the newspaper with details of cultural events around town in it."
He pauses for a moment, vainly attempting to find pretext for more intellectual prevarication, can't and then hands over a discarded piece he wasn't looking at.
The result of which the decision is arrived at to head off to the Cluny Museum and look at some Medieval artifacts. It's not far away, just by the Sorbonne.
Down a side street on the way, a Maghrebin sidles up. It's my neighbour, the one in shorts.
"Hey, how's it going? I saw you this morning. Pain in the arse to have to wake up to that eh? Where you headed? You want to come for a coffee? Come on! I won't keep you long! We're neighbours - got to get to know one another. My name is Rashid, what's yours?"
It is the first proper cue for opening my mouth since he sidled up. Our Rashid is a fast talker.
So fast I hardly get a word in edgeways over coffee. Rashid prefers the sound of his own voice to the exclusion of all others, making conversation in the proper sense of the word fairly hard. I hear about his life in Troyes, how he has come to Paris to look for work, how he speaks German, English and Arabic as well as French, about his sense of identity as the son of immigrants - "I'm French when it suits me and Algerian when it doesn't", about having sex with the locals - "always use a condom, there's AIDS everywhere in Paris. The girls will like you here, you're nice and exotic, but don't forget your rubbers." Rashid adds that he has no trouble in that department himself of course. "You have to know how to treat them, French women. They're fussy creatures, versatile, ahh, how do you say this in English? Fickle? Yes, fickle. Always looking for something new." And racist? "Oh yes, it's true, but it's what's between your legs that matters to most of them."
Rashid has qualifications in marketing, and Paris is his Mecca. "I want to work for a multi-national, preferably with German connections. Central Europe, that's where it's happening these days. All those empty factories left by the Communists. You can buy them up for a song and make lots of cash. Do you speak German? A fascinating language. I like Germans, they're not as racist as some might suppose. Ahh, and the women." He makes various gestures at chest level as he supplies his estimation of the amplitude of their proportions with reference to the defectiveness of the womanhood of la belle France.
Rashid is an old hand at the hostel. "Not a bad place. As good as you will get this central at that price. Yes, there are the cockroaches and, by the way, keep your door locked at night, or preferably all the time if you don't want to take any chances. You saw the Californian girls at breakfast? Wow! Would I ever! Wild horses... No, they're not my type. And it's a cultural thing. You know, white American girls hanging out with white American guys, doing that American in Paris routine, pretending to be exotic and bohemian while they watch the exchange rate, order Budweiser in American bars, buy Time and The International Herald-Tribune to keep up with home, all that stuff. No room for a sexy Algerian in that scene huh? Anyway, the other night, oh, did you know they all live in a dorm together? Real girls' hangout, safety in numbers and all that, keep the frat house scene alive. Do they have frat houses in New Zealand? No, it's not like America is it? More like Britain? Anyway, they were all out at the café one evening and one of them, Carol, the one with the, yeah, you know the one don't you? I can tell... She gets a headache or something and decides to go back for a sleep, walks into the dorm, which they can't be bothered locking, they just saunter in and out and leave all their gear to be taken. She comes back and there's this black guy, an African, not an Afro-American, an African African, and a real spade, built like this, black as night, just sitting there on her bed. Doesn't even look at her. And there she is and it's race memory time, the LA riots, gang banging black hoods running on the rampage, everything her mother ever told her about watching out for strange men, and particularly black ones, and here's the absolute specimen of one with his butt on her bed. She is pissing herself with fear, but she is thinking, "stay calm, there are people just down the hall, you can scream for help if he pulls anything. And she says to him. "So what are you doing here?" And he says he's got nowhere to sleep and can he sleep here for the night? Just imagine, this big spade from nowhere. She doesn't know him from Adam, he could be a serial rapist or something and he thinks he can spend a night in the girl's dorm - in the midst of all that virginal, yeah, okay probably not, but you know what I mean, all that young female flesh, you know. He is going to spend the night alongside all that and not get a dirty thought in his head and try something on? Yeah sure! So she just smiles and says "Well, hey, don't go away now because I've just got to go to the bathroom. but I'll be right back, so don't you worry." Well she probably wasn't so eloquent, because those girls can't speak French to save themselves and I wouldn't say he could speak anything other than French and his tribal language, but you get the drift. So she runs off to the director who, luckily for her, happens to be in, because he's not always and if you want something done around here in a hurry you wouldn't hold your breath sometimes or you'd turn purple and explode first. Know what I mean? Yeah, so the director rounds up the hostel martial arts experts and they bounce this guy out into the street. And all the time he claims the girls said he could stay, and they're all going, yeah sure, right. So in any case don't take any chances, unless you want a black stud in your room or something."
A quick coffee finishes two hours later and several cognacs are demolished by Rashid in the process. Alcohol does not have the hoped-for effect of slowing him down. He switches into after-burn instead, and speeds up. He starts jumping from one language to another. It's bad enough trying to follow him in English or French without bits of German and Arabic being thrown in to confuse the issue. He finally stops once he has run out of change for another glass, peeks at his watch, smiles and says "Well, I have to go anyway. It was good talking. We will do it again some time. Come and knock on my door if you want to go out. We can pick up some girls and hit the town."
* * *
All that time seated, acting as captive audience to enthralling monologue instilled a wanderlust. The Cluny tour is abandoned for a long walk. Les Halles beckon, with their temptation of getting lost in a large crowd. The shopping centre is vacuous, little different from thousands of others across the globe in its styling. The old Halles would have been more exciting to wander around, with their fresh produce and mongers, smashed wooden crates piled up in corners, and the smell of meat and other produce. It is over twenty years too late for all that. The Paris market is somewhere out in the suburbs now, of no interest to anyone but bulk buyers. In another twenty years it will all be automated, with robots running things and even the bulk buyers won't be bothered going there.
The weather is holding up well. The raincoat is superfluous outside and mildly uncomfortable in the centrally-heated confines of the shopping complex. That and the claustrophobia invoked by its artificiality lead me back outside. Northward I go, pushing back the boundaries of my mental map of the city, as explored to date.
North along the Rue St-Denis.
The first stretch is cobbled. Outside a church there are some young loubards, urban troublemakers, aggressively threatening any passer-by presenting any easy mark for quick money. They steer clear of me. Too young and too tall. There is no telling what physique is lurking under the heavy coat. Beyond the gate keepers lies a string of sex shops. Curiously, their signage is full of lots of English. Once again Anglo-Saxon culture bestows upon France its boundless linguistic gifts, if you can call them that. They are mainly in monosyllabic form - HARD, LIVE, GIRLS and SEX feature repeatedly.
Across the boulevard, the signage density picks up. There are more and more and more of them, all promising better and more exciting porn than their competition. Here there are no traffic-free cobblestones opening up the middle of the street to pedestrians and clearing the street of cars. Traffic snakes along the single lane left open between parked cars and illegally parked vans. In and out of the vans come clothing, wheeled on stands or lugged over shoulders, to and from alleys. This is the home of the Parisian rag trade as well as the flesh trade. In addition there are the usual sights to be seen along any Parisian street - cafés, tobacconists, takeaway joints. Humble family enterprises tucked away between Sodom and Gomorrah, eking out livings.
The foot traffic is almost exclusively male from here on in. The further one progresses along the street, the seedier things become. The traffic slows from a crawl to near stationary, with much honking of car horns. The curb crawlers are pissed off with the rag trade trucks for blocking the view of the footpaths, and the rag trade men are pissed off with the philanderers for blocking the road. The pictures of scantily dressed women in the sex shop displays are supplemented by the real thing. They stand in doorways and lurk in dingy passages leading who knows where. Most of them exude the worn sexuality of faded great aunts. Their dress senses are the walking embodiment of a cross-dresser's: stilettos, fishnets, tiny leather skirts, lots of jewellery. Some have jackets on, some lingerie, some fishnet tops concealing nothing, and a few nothing up top at all. Breast implants are de rigueur, as is caked-on make-up to cover the haggardness paid as a toll for being a peripatecian. The men are mainly in their thirties or over. Are their wives really so repulsive that they would actually pay money for one of those women? Wonders never cease. Some pretend to be interested in the con men running the old pea under one of the three nut shells scam. But they are really here for other purposes, watching the shells with one eye and checking out the ladies with the other.
Hey, I'm not. I'm here by accident! And it has just passed midday. It is difficult to imagine what this place could be like at night. There seems to be no easy way out. If I turn around and go back up the street it will look like I am carousing. The side streets look positively dangerous. Keep going and hope it runs out.
It doesn't. It gets seedier, and seedier. Finally, by the time the end of the street finally comes into view, I have had about as much as I can take. Down this end the ladies are so far gone they don't bother covering the needle-marks on their legs and arms. If anyone wanted kicks from them they would be safer playing Russian roulette.
The St Denis gate offers passage back to the realm of the comparatively normal. Human flesh gives way to the animal variety, laid out on butcher's stalls. There must be some force that keeps the sleaze on the other side of the boulevard. It could be that dead flesh and living flesh is too stark a juxtaposition for even the most depraved clients.
Time to escape via the métro. A station with an original art nouveau butterfly wing entrance, a living museum piece drifting in the late twentieth century. Down, down and back to the Left Bank.
* * *
Another day over. Possessions recovered, insecticide-free, and the windows pushed open to rid the place of the stink of DDT, it's back to stretching out on the bed, catching up on the international situation with Le Monde. A paragraph into a juicy piece on the Stresa régime in Sierra Leone, there is a noise out in the corridor.
Not being one to interrupt, listening from the bed proves adequate for following the contretemps.
"You tryin' to diss me woman? What the hell kinda question is that?"
The voice is American, male and black.
"I only asked."
The second voice is that of a white Californian female, audibly nervous.
"Asked my ass. You were tryin' to put me into place, weren't you? File me away. Well I'm not going to take that shit, not from you and not from anyone else!"
"Look, I didn't mean anything by it..."
"Didn't mean anything? You ask me if I've got any white ancestors and it doesn't mean anything? Like I'm some sort of half-breed? Or is it I'm just too clever to be a nigger, so I have to have a few of your precious white genes in here somewhere?"
"I don't know why you're so offended. I wouldn't mind if you asked me my background."
"Background shit! You're white as the driven snow. Who'd ask your background for Chrissake? All my fucking life, put-downs for being black, bullshit from cops, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and now you turn around and ask me if I'm white? What, can't I be black unless I'm pitch black? Is anything else not up to form? Two centuries of white bullshit and now I'm not even a proper Anglo-American? Jee-sus!
"Look, I'm sorry!"
"That don't make it sister! I want you out of my face and out of my life, got it?"
Some stomping down the stairs is following by a slammed door and the show is over.
* * *
Teeth brushing time. The nightly pre-bedtime ritual, performed at the communal wash basin. A quick wipe around the porcelain beforehand is best as you don't know what has been in there before you.
Flip flop of slippers in the hallway. They are coming closer. They stop.
It's a dark-haired girl/woman, kitted out for bed-time. She is showing a lot of slender leg out the ends of a very short night gown.
It's more a gargle than a greeting. Too much toothpaste foam in the way.
She says nothing, just shuffles over to the cubicle and locks herself in the toilet.
Oh great, so what am I, the Boston Strangler?
Seeking shelter from the harsh washroom light, a cockroach scuttles into the sheltering darkness of the corridor.
On the way out she stops at the door and releases an audible gasp. My mate Mohammed is blocking the way.
“Je te cherchais.”
“Je ne te dois rien!”
He is economical with words yet knows how to make a point. His body blocking the doorway serves to underline it. What could she possibly owe that deadbeat?
Just then he notices me and mutters something about going inside. Her room that is. Herding her down the corridor, he doesn’t take his eyes off me until out of view.
Sexe, Rugby, la Louvre et La Défense
"Oh yesss, mmm, mmm, yesssss"
"Uhhhh, yess, yesss. Ohhh..."
It's coming from the room next door.
"Mmmmm. Huhhhhh. Bayy-by, bay-by. Ohhh..."
Whoever is behind all that is well and truly horizontal. I am bolt upright in bed.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God!"
No, it's not some phone sex line recording, it is the real thing, being emitted from the salivating mouth of some Germanic bimbette. Self-conscious she ain't.
The voice is accompanied by the rhythmic grind of a pumping pelvis on rusty bedsprings.
If she is German or something, why is she speaking in English? Does lover boy only like it when she talks the language of Shakespeare?
"HARDER! HARDER! YES!
It is twelve past three in the morning and there would not be a single sleeping person on the entire floor, given the noise level coming from that one room.
"OH BABY! MEIN GOTT ACH MEIN GOTT!"
So she is German! There is one minor mystery solved. Pity they aren't into bondage, he could have gagged her and we would all get some sleep.
Now what is he up to? She's quietening down.
"JA! JA! JA!"
I spoke too soon. Enough of this, I want some shut eye.
The raincoat is adequate covering for the corridor. There is no premature abatement of noise which might dissuade one from banging on the door.
"YES! STICK IT IN! STICK IT IN!"
Three hefty thumps on the chipped panelling.
I have their attention.
"If you're going to stick it in, bloody well get it over with, I'm trying to get some sleep!"
More silence. You can hear his erection sagging from here. From down the hall comes a muffled laugh. I'm glad someone enjoys a joke.
They have absolutely no consideration, some people, none at all.
Turning to trudge back to my room, I stop. Two wiry forms are stepping out from the bright light of the quiet girl’s room, into the shadowy corridor. Seeing me, they stop. Until one, noticing my bare, hairy legs sticking out from under the long coat, lets out a shrill jackal’s laugh. Having been identified as a resident rather than a threat, they content themselves with merely pushing past me.
* * *
Breakfast is the usual Dickensian free-for-all. Having tired of the Californians' ripostes, the Italian Lotharios have set their sights on a couple of wan, pimply English girls. They might as well try for the moon. The Africans are boisterous, without resort to squashing any local fauna this time. A shy Japanese woman causes much mirth when she asks someone in English if there are any plates for the bread. In more civilized surroundings it would be a perfectly natural question. Here she is the butt of jokes in French she cannot understand.
It is a day for the Japanese. Across the table a stocky bloke from Yokohama introduces himself as Mat. Once he gives his full name the reason for its shortened form becomes apparent. He speaks no French and very little English, which doesn't stop him for a moment from communicating. My nationality is a point of great excitement for him.
Every word is measured, drawn from the vaguely remembered abyss of crammed high school English tests, passed by a bare minimum of applied thinking and a great deal of rote memorising.
"Yes I do. I am from Dunedin."
"A city. In the South Island."
Speak slowly and simply so he can understand. His prior attempts at talking to others around the table failed miserably, mainly because they couldn't be bothered simplifying things and speaking slowly. Foreigners all, and not great linguists themselves, various among them have been heard making comments about how hard it is to get the interest of French people and hold conversations with them.
"You play rugby?"
The light in his eyes is one witnessed too many times before - the glazed devotion of a fanatic. Can it be possible?
"No, sorry, I don't."
In fact I hate the game, have for years.
"But... rugby is... very popular in New Zealand."
Indeed. New Zealand's national religion, parading as a sport. Thirty grown men in tight shorts rolling around in mud, chasing a ball that won't even roll straight. Is this the stuff of national identity?
"Unfortunately I am no good for rugby. Too tall, too thin."
...Too scrawny, and I have a neck. It is a well-known fact that rugby players are either bull-necked or have no neck at all to dispense with the possibility of breakage.
"But tall is good. In Japan... you make good rugby player."
In Japan Colin Meads' mother would make a good player. Although small by European anatomical standards, Mat is large for his size. He has the muscles. He must be. Oh no, tell me he isn't.
"You play rugby?"
"Yes, I am hooker for team in Yokohama."
I look around to make sure no Americans are listening in case the statement might be misconstrued. No, none of them are hanging on our every word. It's understandable, really.
Here I am on the other side of the world, trying to get away from home's all-too-familiar male macho culture, of which rugby is the cornerstone, and now here it is, following me in the form of this Japanese guy.
"You are the first New Zealand man I meet. My hope is - go to New Zealand one day. Play better rugby there."
Heartfelt emotion pours through the simple words. For this man, New Zealand is some sporting Mecca, where Gods walk the earth, and every last one of the inhabitants eats, drinks, breathes and thinks rugby morning noon and night.
Which, if ever achieved, and it very near was in the days before the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand came along and soured things, would be hell on earth for all the boys who didn't like sport in school. It is bad enough there are Frenchmen crazy enough to like the game; I can hopefully avoid them in a country the size of France, where soccer is the national game and "le foot" doesn't mean footy. But what to do about this guy? He lives here.
Every time I see him he will be wanting to talk rugby in fractured English, which I know nothing about in any language. Players, teams, scores. And when it becomes apparent I am not interested in talking he will take it as condescension from on high - a Kiwi from the land of the rugby-playing deities not wanting to talk rugby. "Am I not good enough to be talked to about this?" he will ask himself. They are always so polite, and so easily offended, the Japanese. And you know all that gaijin stuff they carry around in their heads. He will end up assuming I am the original arrogant Western bastard.
What is he doing here in any case? What possibly brings him here to ruin my life with his rugby chatter?
"Am come to study French. Just begin. Am spending six weeks at the Alliance française."
Six WEEKS! I can't avoid him for six weeks. This is too much to handle at this hour of the day.
I mumble excuses and skedaddle.
* * *
It is off-season at the Louvre. Regardless, there is a queue at the entrance to Peio's pyramid. You don't pay at the door. Only once down the spiral staircase and into the airy basement area do you see the ticket office. It is easy to miss it alongside the restaurant, the bookshop, the cloakroom and miscellaneous escalators leading off in all directions.
The cloakroom is free. The ticket is not. Sixteen francs is not bad for general admission to one of the largest art collections in the world. They give out floor plans too in the hope you won't get lost.
First stop is the section on the history of the building from the Middle Ages to the present. The seemingly rigid edifice, with its venerable statues of great thinkers, columns and huge windows, is not what it appears, being the latest of many incarnations of what Parisians have called the Louvre over the centuries. Here it is all explained with reproductions of period paintings, architects' drawings and scale models. The Louvre was in the thick of some of the most tumultuous events in French history, including the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, as well as the Paris Commune, from which it did not emerge unscathed. And now it is undergoing another transformation, of which the pyramid is the first stage. Into the brave new 21st century it will plunge, enhanced with a ginormous underground car park and shopping complex, burrowed under the Tuileries.
The initial excavations acted as a time machine, propelling the builders into the past, back to the beginnings of the building. Back to the Medieval fortress which originally stood on the site. It is down in the basement, waiting to be walked around. The walls, the towers, the well shafts, all intact inasmuch as they could be after being built over. Here is where the moat was. And here is the treasure retrieved from the dried mud that was in the bottom of the moat trinkets, bits of armour. Things more interesting than what they will be dredging up from the Seine an another eight centuries - plastic toothbrushes, foil condom wrappers, broken beer bottles, once hot hand guns.
Up the stairs the art collection proper takes you further back. Back to the Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians. The statues have been restored to a sufficiently smooth state for them to look like reproductions. Dispelling disbelief and accepting they graced ancient homes and monuments does not come easily. Art students busily sketch away, trying to recapture past graces. Two to three millennia separate them from the anonymous artists who chiselled these pieces out. Would they have believed their future influence would be so great? Or that future generations would lack the verve to break out into anything different until near the end of the second millennium after the death of a messiah whose faith they would, and did, scorn? Picasso has come and gone, and art students still come to the Louvre to sketch the work of classicists. Long live the classicists.
It is all classic stuff at the Louvre. From the ancients the corridors lead to the Renaissance, with its embellishments on the classicists and its new talents, up till the nineteenth century. They are all there, the big names. Hundreds of them. You have seen them before in art books, on album covers, reproduced in glossy paper to be sold as posters. The corridors go on and on. After the hundredth great master, they all merge into a blur. And still the corridors continue. Your legs gets tired so you sit down. You get up and go on and on. And sit down again. Art is everywhere, in large and small frames, in cabinets, painted on wall panels and frescos, stuccoed to the ceilings, parqueted into the floor, lurking in the marble work on the staircases and landings. It surrounds you.
I sit down again. Hours must have passed since my entry. Yet there is more to see; over half the building, and the wings that cost extra to visit. Those pose no threat.
The heat is stifling. The high ceilings, large windows and marble would suggest the interior of an icebox except the modern heating gives them the feel of a low temperature furnace.
Enough. Sensory overload has been reached. Things have got to the stage where there is no urge to continue. The raft of the Medusa, the Mona Lisa, huge tableaux of Napoleonic battles, all become too much to endure. The accumulated product of thousands of artists blends into an aesthetic bloc, with the viewers trapped helpless in its innards, mites drowning in coagulating sap. The formalism and conventions of centuries past ensnare them.
The monarchs, princes, regents and other nabobs of times past smirk down from their canvas cells. We are dead but we have achieved immortality. Look at us, in our finery, painted by the finest daubers money could buy. We ran empires, great houses of commerce, conquered lands, plotted and intrigued, murdered on occasion, sired bastards and raped aplenty. Look at us boy. You would not have been allowed in here in our day. Admire us, gaze awestruck, for we are your betters. You will have nothing when you are gone, nothing for people to remember you by. We will still be here then, as we were before you were born. Think about it.
The exit is the only solution. Out into the winter sun, to breathe in the dirty twentieth-century air.
* * *
Sanctuary in the Place Dauphine, a stone's throw form the Pont Neuf. The traffic noise is shielded away on two sides by apartment buildings, and on the third by the Palais de Justice. The white-plastered apartment blocks date back to the Ancien Régime. Simone Signoret lived up there in that building somewhere. Yves Montand frequented the place. Didn't Sartre hang around here too at one stage? Maybe. Memory is a trickster and it might be inventing things to enhance the spot's magic. The square is grassless although endowed with trees, their leaves rust brown in the autumn sun. Pigeons strut about the place, pecking at stray crumbs falling from the bread, cheese and tomato concoction serving as lunch. Two crusty old men are having great fun throwing steel balls in a game of pétanque. One is wearing a beret.
It is all very French in a calming, friendly sort of way.
* * *
Welcome to the twenty-first century. La Défense. The France of the future. Sky scrapers and a Jean Miro fountain. A big fat cluster of 20 foot PVC pipes posing as a sculpture stand off to one side. Ramps and steps and smooth concrete slabs abound to walk on. Not a cobblestone in sight. Along the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, past the corporate towers and residential blocks I head. Such a soulless spot. I wonder if people can enjoy their lives residing here. There is no traffic because there are no roads - they loop around the periphery of the conglomeration.
The amenities of everyday life are here - banks, takeaways, little markets. It doesn't feel right, not French enough, and doesn't look French. Crowded and cramped as it is, with its congestion and dog droppings, in the rest of Paris you never feel you are anywhere else but in France. Here there subsists substantial room for doubt. This could be Tokyo or L.A. if the weather was better. The same architects who built those cities' central business districts and their acolytes masterminded these lumps of concrete, steel and glass.
Up on the parvis stands the Great Arch, a giant box with two sides missing. Along with the Louvre's pyramid, it is one of the memorials to Mitterrand's presidency, due to end in a few months. There is a government ministry housed in there. Which one I have no idea. It isn't important anyway, it's the building people come to look at. A Dane designed it. Very impressive.
Flanking the parvis are two space-age shopping centres, each vying to outdo Les Halles in the consumer race. You wander through them, senses anaesthetised by artificiality. They don't let beggars in. The shoppers are wholesome and smartly dressed, with a high proportion of foreigners present.
Years of life here would do things to you. You would get used to living without trees, perhaps not that abnormal in a European city anyway. And without grass, which, as you are not allowed to walk on it, would not be something really missed by the new Parisians.
It is not tempting to stop for food here. However thhe cafés are overpriced, not unnormal in Paris, and there is nowhere to sit down for a bite to eat without paying. The food and beverage merchants strike a blow against public seating yet again. They can't have people buying stuff and eating it any old where when they could be paying extra for waitering and an uncomfortable chair designed so Jacques Publique doesn't hog too much bum space where there might be other customers arriving.
A métro sign conveniently presents an escape route, as on the Rue St-Denis. The poor man's bolthole.
It is a question of size and the oppression it can instil. Being in a city so big, not as big as they come, but big enough, does feel intimidating. The plus is that it is so big that if you don't feel like remaining in one bit of it, you can exit left and go where you feel comfortable.
* * *
The Eiffel Tower. Yup, there she goes. One of the most reproduced buildings in the world - photos, postcards, tacky bronze statuettes, tee-shirts, sex toys for all I know. Nothing much new of consequence may be said about the structure itself.
A one-step method of annoying people - say you have been to Paris, and when they ask if you went up the Eiffel Tower, say "no", without the slightest sign of concern. Watch as they recoil in shock. What? How could you? Go to Paris and not ascend the Eiffel Tower? Why, it's not normal! Everyone who visits Paris goes up the Eiffel Tower! You abstained on purpose, didn't you? I suppose you are the sort who would go to LA and not see Disneyland. Spend a week in New York and not climb the Statue of Liberty! Tour Greece and not see the Acropolis! Weirdo! Sicko!
The bouquinistes are more attractive than that rusting piece of Meccano. Kilometres of book stalls, stretching along the banks of the Seine from the Orsay down to the Ile St Louis. The rest of the afternoon disappears in a long meander along the quais, crossing from one bank to another so as not to miss anything. It's not just books, they have posters, stamps, the cheapest postcards you will find in the city, records, novels, sci-fi paraphernalia, patriotic reviews, biographies of French generals, stars, politicians and writers, the classics of French literature in hardback, paperback, original editions, entertainment mags, dusty political essays that might have mattered twenty years ago, teen mags, TV guides, book catalogues, card catalogues, books in English and German (overpriced), music scores and on and on and on and on. Four hours later, thousands of browsed items after, as dusk is falling, I walk away, tired, mesmerised and with blistered feet but sated, having bought four postcards and two books.
An orange sky hangs overhead. The commuters rushing home pay it no mind. Japanese tourists snap photos of it. The lovers on the Pont Neuf reflect it into each others' eyes.
Then came the time for work to start. Time to go off to school. It didn't stop my wandering. It interrupted it somewhat, and curtailed its lengthiness though. That I had lived with before. The tug between obligations and free time.
Back in Dunedin various friends had gone starry-eyed at the thought of studying at the Sorbonne. They knew nothing of its drawbacks, which were multitudinous. I thought I had seen overcrowding until I saw the Sorbonne. There are single faculties in various New Zealand universities with more space than that venerable institution. The Sorbonne is a lovely old historical sort of place. In fact it would be best as a museum, being too small and antiquated to meet the demands of a late twentieth century campus, even after decentralisation and the lessening of pressure by opening all those new campuses around Paris since the 1960s. Nothing can be done on-site because there isn't enough room for it. Professors have to conduct research in their own apartments as there is no room at the university to house them in offices. The holiest of the holy manage to fight for a broom closet office, for what it's worth. The library is of a size which would be considered shameful in a lot of modern high schools outside France. Sure, most of the books are tucked away in stacks somewhere and they will go and look for them for you. But this involves filling out little slips of paper and waiting. The library resembles the St Michel métro at rush hour - too many people crammed in to too small a space. A couple of sessions wasting time there leads to the conclusion that the hostel, whatever its lack of charms, is preferable, as none of the books on the reading lists, that bare-knuckled essential for getting through a course, are that hard to come by in the local branch of the municipal library, or purchased second-hand somewhere in the hundreds of bookshops around town.
Some kids like the Sorbonne in spite of it all. The Americans love it. Puffing Gauloises and trying to convince themselves they could pass as French, or doing their level best to stick out. It's not easy these days, what with the number of French kids wearing backwards baseball caps, sports gear and Nikes. The dumb copying the stupid. They hang out in the courtyard, American and French, chatting, arranging café rendez-vous's, discussing the universal topics - grades, clothes, music, sex and what have you.
I am getting old, I know I am. It just holds no appeal. Been there done that. I have been a student too long, I know. Mid-twenties and I still have no proper job. I don't want to step into that so-called real world of the people who repress everything for money, but I'm not that enamoured with being a gee golly freshman type either. After classes, I leave them to it and head off on my way.
The classes themselves are nothing different. There are boring lecturers, and entertaining lecturers, and finally those, the tedious ones, who imagine themselves interesting but aren't. They all speak in French, which leave most of the Americans struggling.
My raison d'être for being in Paris was no more than a pretext. I knew I could pass a first year at the Sorbonne before I left. Not without some work, and some stretching of essay writing skills. It would work out, like it did in the past. In the mean time, it was my intention to continue exploring Paris.
There was little to explore at the Sorbonne. Narrow corridors, a few staircases and lots of closed doors. Pardon me, but ho-hum.
Out in the streets it was fun and games time. Bizutage time more precisely. Bizutage is any one of a number of different initiation rituals carried out across the country on first year students at the beginning of the academic year. The medical students were into it in a big way. A recent trial had involved a hapless group being led somewhere and having all their clothes taken off them. This year it was more sedate. The first years were herded to the square outside the Pompidou Centre, and dressed in plastic rubbish bags for pelting with eggs and flour before being led off to the Arc de Triomphe and left there either to beg the price of the train fare back to the Medical Faculty or to return on foot. Having nothing better to do, I went along to watch. One kid offered me some eggs for a free go at one of the victims. I told him I wasn't into cruelty to animals.
After a walk along the Champs-Elysées to admire goods I couldn't afford, I decided to see how the other students lived, the ones on the modern campuses, leaving behind the horde of medical students begging for train fare in a sudden downpour, the flour and eggs congealing into solid lumps in their hair.
Nanterre is a significant place for anyone who imagines him or herself a student radical. It was one of the flashpoints of May 1968, the revolution that wasn't, and wouldn't have been in any case. It was here the kids decided they weren't going to live segregated into single-sex hostels any more. Here in the land of libertinage, the university authorities called in riot police to evict a group of males from a hall of residence for women only. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Danny the Red, or Danny the German Jew, depending on your political colouring, stirred things up here. Yeah, there were riots in and around the Sorbonne around then, and not for the first time. Here was one of the new universities, the bold new face of French higher education, being torn apart, or so it appeared at the time.
Twenty-five years plus afterwards it is all still standing. Cohn-Bendit went back to Germany a long time ago, and like most of the student leaders, went and got a responsible job. Oh, some didn't. They are the ones who lost out on the dream of a revolution, getting nowhere in life.
Before the university was built, Nanterre was a site for shanty towns, or bidonvilles as the French call them - "bidon" meaning both a big drum and something sham or hollow. A clever image for something so squalid. The squats were bulldozed away to make room for the high-tech city to come. Now it is dated. Modern when compared to Paris proper, but a bit passé alongside La Défense. The problem with the future is that it keeps getting out of date. Anyway, picture lots of sixties-style modern architecture, that Le Corbusier half a century later sort of thing, and you should see the scene.
There are Americans here too. Chatting away in the train to each other. The Parisians get sick of them - all that brash enthusiasm. So very unlike the cool detachment of the hip Parisian, or in his head at any rate. They are heading off to afternoon classes. They got on the train at a comparatively central point. I didn't note where then, but it was before passing La Défense; the outer edge of western Paris. They can't be poor living in that part of town. Daddy must be footing the bill.
The crowding inside the buildings on campus at Nanterre offers a modernised repeat of conditions at the Sorbonne. I wanted a snack at the cafeteria, found a sign pointing to one and followed it, only to make a U-turn at the sight of queuing out the door.
Being early in the first term, lots of students were wandering around lost. Three asked me for directions, assuming I was a local graduate student. Some of them looked so very young.
I discover the arts library and poke my nose in. Flooded toilets and a French literature collection unworthy of the name alongside Otago University's. So we're not all that provincial after all in little old Dunedin. Nice to know.
"Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?"
The comment comes from behind as I'm leaving the library building. It takes some rummaging to arrive at the identification of its owner. I have spotted him around the hostel but we haven't talked before.
"My name's Pat."
A suitably Irish name for an Irish voice. Pat is short, with a crew-cut and kitted out all in black, topped off with a leather jacket. Not the Marlon Brando sort, more the 1930s variety. He could have stepped out of one of those photos of the Irish Brigade fighting for the Republicans in Spain.
The introductory formalities completed, he asks me with narrowed eyes "Are you English?"
My accent must have vanished. Has it deteriorated that much or is he trying to get my back up?
"No, I'm from New Zealand."
"Ahh, that's alright. Do you study there then?"
"No, I'm just visiting. I wanted to come and have a look around, see where it all happened in 1968."
“Ahh, 1968. It's a bit on the tame side compared to those days. So you're interested in politics?"
"I know enough to get by."
"Come and have a coffee then, and I'll put you to the test."
Pat knew better than to try the cafeteria. He found a coffee machine in a nearby lecture block and we went and sat on the steps in the early winter sun.
"I'm an anarchist meself. Fat lot of good that does me in this frigging country. I'd be better off in Spain in one of those workers' collectives, but I don't know the language. You want to know who I work for, in between coming here?"
"The Parti communiste, would you believe? I have an office job in the town council building at Saint-Denis."
"So what's that like?"
"It's a bit of a let down, would be one way of putting it. For me, St Denis, it was the Paris Commune, the hard core of it, the last of the militants to be butchered by the troopers in 1871, the seat of French leftism, the home of the fucking brave and all that. So once I got off the train here I shifted myself down to the council offices and flashed a bit of brotherhood and workers of the world unite and they took me for the original bright-eyed boy. In the interests of international proletarian solidarity they took me on in this part-time bureaucratic capacity. So now I'm in bed with the Reds."
"They're all pricks of course. I know my history, and I know that bunch. Now they're not the left hand of fucking Moscow they don't know where they are. And don't give me that cock about marching on the road to true Communism. My granny in a wheelchair would make more progress than they have since the 1920s. No, they're working the capitalist system like the rest of them. They consider themselves God's gift to Socialism, they do. They're losing their base more and more, election after election the votes go down, and still they carry on about the fecking revolution and leading the masses to victory under their careful guidance."
"What about here at Nanterre - are they strong on campus?"
"Oh, there's a small group, there always is. You know the sort - da was in the party so we might as well be. Just like the Gaullist youth section, or those bastards from the National Front. No, maybe for them it's more like daddy was a para in the OAS, so I might as well go for the next best thing since there's no war on. No, on the whole I wouldn't say the party, or any party, is strong here. The anti-racists are doing alright - did you see all the banners back there in the hall? And the desk for the recruitment drive? That's something anyone can join with a good conscience. Egalitarianism and all that. Nice Republican values. It won't look too bad if a future employer gets wind of it. Their problem is they have no real ideology other than a few knee-jerk reactions masquerading as principles - don't touch my mate and all. It's not the stuff to bring governments down."
"Have you ever been hassled for your political affiliations. Being a foreigner and so on?"
"No, not likely. Not with the St Denis authorities backing me work permit applications. Plus I'm a European, just like any Jean-François. The buggers can't touch me as long as I have a job and an income."
On the underground platforms there are still some stragglers from that afternoon's bizutage. Funnily, they're not actually making any effort to get back to the faculty. They stand around joking and their attempts at begging aren't calculated to gain money. It must be one of those formative experiences they will look back on with nostalgia. Best to stretch it out as long as possible.
* * *
Come ten thirty I am washing my underwear in one of the washroom basins. It is the sort of thing that gives a fleapit hostel a bad name. In the middle of rinsing my Y fronts there comes the shuffling sound of slippers on tiling.
It's her again, the mousy one, wandering around in her dressing gown.
She looks at me.
I look back, and offer an opening for conversation.
"Hello. How's it going?"
She looks down at my Y fronts, stops, performs a U-turn and is gone.
* * *
"Yeah man, yeah!"
Accompanied by rhythmic pounding.
The accent is Californian.
So they are not all immune to masculine charms.
Just as I'm about to get up to holler at their door, the noise subsides. That was quick. Must be a matter of practice.
A New Face
"Hey man, how's it goin'?"
It is as much a plea as a greeting, coming from one of my neighbours. He is black, and very American, with both the dress sense and the physique of a basketball player. There is a degree of tension etched on his face - something to do with the door he is singlehandedly attempting to hold in place while screwing it back on its hinges.
"Good thanks. Could you do with a hand?"
"I sure could. Get a holda this thing for me will you? Yeah, that's it... come on..."
He had already got the top hinge screwed down but hadn't counted on the difficulty of trying to keep the door in position while he screwed down the other two hinges.
"Fuck, I needed that. Take five!"
I feel like a bit player in an American TV series while he performs some sort of handshake ritual that I don't quite get right.
"Say, where you from?"
"Noo Zeelan. That's somewhere in the South Pacific?"
He rolls the word around in his mouth, savouring it the way you would a Danish pastry.
"My name's Maurees."
I know of course that he means Maurice, except that he pronounces it with a heavy emphasis on the second syllable.
"I'm from Compton. You heard o' Compton?"
Yeah, you got it. LA. Man, what a city. Been there to long, too long. Went for a change and here I am. Europe! Who would have guessed?"
"That's a real change of scene."
Too right. I've been touring around Europe a bit. Got here three weeks ago with a grand total of twenty dollars in my pocket and not a single solitary idea about what to do next. My first day in France man, I got off the train from Luxembourg and ended up sleeping in a park. Someone at the American church told me about this place and I talked my way in here. Didn't know I'd be staying but wouldn't you know I got a job in forty-eight hours? Roo dee Rockette. Barman. It's an American bar. Just as well. I can't speak French for shit."
I hadn't been to the Rue de Rocquette. I had a vague notion it was near the Bastille.
"So you've got a work permit?"
"Me? Hell no! I just sweet talked my way into this bar manager's heart. He just slips me the money on the side and the heat are none the wiser. Hey, what are they gonna do, deport me? No problem. It would save me airfare anyway."
"You're a lucky guy. Very lucky."
"It's not a matter of luck. Just persistence and good manners. And I'm the man this guy was after for the job. It was only the third bar I walked into. That street is full of them. If it hadn't happened there I would o' got something somewhere."
"And what do you think of this place?"
“It ain't the Hilton, you know what I'm saying, but it will do. Fuck me if there aren't some crazy bitches around here though. You watch out for them now!"
"Was that you I heard arguing the other night? Something about colour?"
Damn straight. Crazy assed bitch, dissin' me cos some slave owner could ha got down with my great grandmother. She's from Louisiana - Andrea's her name. Should have known better. And what about yo' country? You all white down there? Are there any brothers?"
"There are no Africans in any great numbers. The real New Zealanders are Maori. They're Polynesian, like the Hawaiians and the Samoans."
"No brothers? Imagine that!" Even here there are a lot of black faces. I keep seeing Africans around, even if I can't comprenday a word they say."
"You wouldn't know my neighbour would you? The guy in that room?"
"Over there? Oh! "Oh oh baby baby" - that one? Yeah, I've seen him. I think he's Greek. He's in and out o' that room with babes like the midnight express. That is one horny son of a bitch. Me, hey I'm jealous. What's he doin' that I don't? That's where I'm at."
* * *
It was a Wednesday. I had no classes on Wednesday afternoon, so I ended up down on the Seine again, browsing among the bouquinistes. The early December air was crisp and chill regardless of the clear sunny sky. A fair number of the stalls were shut, the padlocks still firmly attached to the foldout boxes. I wondered how much each stall holder paid as concession to the city authorities. It couldn't be that much or they would be out more often, trying to recoup their licence costs. There were some I had never seen open; those ones probably just left it for the summer, when there were more tourists cruising the banks of the Seine.
At the first stall, an overly vigorous owner attempted to hawk a Livre de poche edition of de Gaulle's war memoirs off on me, claiming it was the first edition. I am sure that even in paperback de Gaulle would have had a first release with a more prestigious outfit than Livre de Poche, but said nothing. I smiled, put the trilogy back and walked on.
The second lot that caught my eye was a pile of old sixties French pop magazines. Glossy, creased pin-ups inside featured the Who, the Rolling Stones, Sylvie Vartan, Jacques Dutronc and so on. Fifty francs each. Not worth the price of admission. If I wanted rock journalism from those days, there are better texts in English. Paris was on the periphery of popular music trends in those days. The rock scene largely consisted of second string English bands slumming to make some money in the hope they could return home and break the scene there.
Moving along I stopped at a stand not far from the Quai d'Orsay. It wasn't normally open, this one, so I had a rummage. The bouquiniste sat on a stool, glancing at me from time to time, reassuring himself I wasn't going to scarper with some of his wares. That was the first time I had noticed such behaviour. The other stallholders were typically very relaxed. So relaxed they frequently weren't even by their stalls. You would have to wander along a bit, and ask who the owner is. Was this one a newcomer to the trade?
It was a right wing sort of stall. Lots of war memoirs, quite a few on the Vichy régime, others on the paras at Dien Bien Phu, and the OAS. Not a left-wing essay in sight. He had Hitler's Mein Kampf in translation though, works on the Waffen SS, and German autobiographies devoted to forgotten heroes or villains on the Russian front. My eyes alighted on a curiosity tucked away in this martial assortment - They Want To Stay French. It was on New Caledonia. I had only heard of the work, one in which a Le Figaro columnist ventured to call Kanak independence activists savage cannibals. Fifteen francs. I didn't subscribe to the sentiments therein, but it would make for an amusing read.
The stall holder spotted an accent when I went to pay.
"Do you know New Caledonia?"
"Yes, I have been there."
"It's a place I'll never forget. The sun, the waves, the magnificent scenery. It's a place where a man might be free, with a bit of luck."
His eyes shined at the recollected images reforming in his mind. Quite a contrast with wintry Paris.
"You lived there?"
"Oh yes, for a year or so. To no avail alas."
"I spent a few months there, trying to improve my French."
Yes, I noticed you weren't from around here. You are from New Zealand?"
Finally, someone able to guess right, someone conscious that there was another English-speaking country in that part of the world aside from Australia. I looked at him again as his looks hadn't registered up till then. His clothes were plain - a beige windbreaker over khaki trousers. The shoes were of the expensive variety, out of place with the rest of his clothing. His hair was black, not yet greying. He slicked it back with hair cream. He was a close shaver, and used aftershave liberally. His silk scarf formed another mismatch. I placed him in his mid-forties. Stereotypically for a Frenchman, he was short and had a largish proboscis.
We talked about New Caledonia. He livened up the more I warmed to the topic. He sincerely missed the place. Suddenly he started shutting up the stall.
"You're going home?" I wondered aloud.
"No, not at all! We are going to have a drink together."
As long as he was paying I had no great objection to the idea. It wasn't every day a real Parisian actually offered to socialise with me. I could tell he was one from the accent. It was stereotypical, the sort that sends audio-visual method language teachers into orgasmic fits of joy. The sort straight out of a Raymond Queneau novel.
He steered me up one of the narrow streets that run away from the Seine, around a few corners to a quiet café. I could see I was to be as much his tonic as the drink. I hoped he wasn't gay.
Jean-Louis, as the bouquiniste turned out to be named, was a regular at this particular establishment. It was an old-style café with a real zinc bar. I had never seen one before. The air was thick courtesy of Gauloises. Just above head height hovered a permanent cloud of smoke. A big ginger brute of a cat sat proudly on the bar, surveying the clients. It wasn't too hard to imagine that he was the owner and the greasy man in the apron behind the counter was his servant. He shuffled over to take our orders - a cognac for Jean-Louis and a beer for me.
"I went to New Caledonia to turn over a new leaf. The wife, ex-wife rather, got fed up with me and asked for a divorce. Something to do with late nights and my socialising without her while she stayed at home with the kids. I have two. Juliette and Christian; nineteen and seventeen. My pride and joy. With their mother however it was long over. I buggered off. I had to get away. I used to run a business you know. I wore a suit and carried a briefcase. Kept a revolver strapped under my arm in case the competition got too pushy."
"No, I can't tell you what I sold. I did alright though."
"New Caledonia was the farthest I could go from Paris without having to emigrate. Nouméa was a breath of fresh air for me. All that stuff about tropical paradises. I had thought it a load of rubbish to tell the truth, but believe you me, when I stepped off that UTA flight and was hit by that blinding light, and inhaled that rich, humid air, I told myself this was it."
"Did you feel that way? It must have been different for you. New Caledonia is practically on your doorstep. What with the beaches, the casinos and the climate, I couldn't get enough of it. I shed all the trappings of my old life. No more suits and briefcases - casual wear with open-neck shirts instead. I hung around not doing much for a couple of months, just letting go. Then it looked like it might be time to start working. You know - settle down and find a place, that sort of thing. I couldn't live at the youth hostel for the rest of my life. Yes, that's where I stayed. It has a congenial atmosphere."
"I hadn't counted on the locals. No, not the Kanaks, the whites, the Caldoches. They were the ones running things, unless you were after government work. No, not me. A government department would never take me on. I'm a businessman in any case. I was after work in the private sector. Door after door slammed in my face. I wasn't after much - a humble sales position somewhere, enough to keep the good woman in alimony back in the huitième arrondissement. They looked at my CV, looked at me, tried not to wince at the Parisian accent, and then said thanks but we'll call you. I have never seen the likes of it. I hope the bastards get fleeced if they ever try to set up interests here. Little provincials..."
"It was getting harder and harder to get up in the morning and do the rounds. And one day I realised I had done them all. I had knocked on all the doors that I wanted to knock on. None of the big firms wanted me. So I went out and got drunk. It made me feel better, until the next day, so I did it again. The third night I got into a fight. I was in some bar, saying my piece on local politics when this brute of a Kanak came out of nowhere and landed me one square in the eye. I wasn't going to stand for that so next thing the whole place was a shambles with flying tables and broken glass and the municipal police were wading in with batons. I spent 14 hours in a hot, sticky shoebox of a cell before they let me go with a fine. The joke of it was that to this day I can't remember exactly what I could have said that would have set the bastard off. He must have been like the Caldoches and resented anyone with a mainland accent.
"You can guess the rest. I took the last of my money, went to the UTA office and a few days later I was back here, wondering what to do. I had old mates coming to me with business propositions, but I didn't know if it interested me, that sort of life, not any more. It would have been a step back into the rut. I resolved that if I was going to be stuck in Paris, I would try my hand at something different."
He looked around the room.
"It's not so bad. I get more time off than I used to hustling for deals. Business is alright. I've had my alimony adjusted downwards so she has to go out and work, something she hadn't counted on. Can't do her any harm. I get to see the kids more than I would have in Nouméa. I still hang out with the old crowd and look at the stress etching lines on their faces, and pinching their muscles."
He took a sip from his glass.
"Ahh, but I miss those South Pacific sunsets. I never got to see New Zealand, although I stopped off at Sydney on the way back. You know Sydney. It's an impressive city. I could live there quite happily. It has a very cosmopolitan feel, and it's so big! Compared to Paris, where we are all squeezed together like rabbits in a warren..."
Pausing to light up a cigarette, he puffed, then leaned back in his chair. "But enough of me. Tell me about yourself. You have come a long way to be here."
My account of the flight amused him. The hostel left him intrigued. "But you must write a great novel about it one day and make your fortune!"
And there was sown the germ of an idea.
The view out the grimy window of the shower stall was something out of Zola: a landscape of roofing tiles, skylights and chimney pots. The only other windows onto this scene were those of what may still very well be “chambres de bonne” - the tiny attic rooms that traditionally served as the maid’s bedroom, tucked away from sight and mind, while not being too inconveniently placed should the master of the house feel the need for extraconjugal activity.
The shower was one of those peculiar examples of French engineering. Every aspect of it felt amiss. Nothing was in the right place. The taps worked funnily, the shower head wouldn't sit still. A brilliant piece of design, it was capable of being detached from the wall so you could flush out those awkward crannies, only the flexible cable wasn't quite long enough for easy use. The soap tray was of the international variety - not deep enough to hold a wet, slippery bar in place. Bending over to pick it up for the sixth time, I noticed the ampleness of the crack under the shower door. It wasn't intended that way, being a piece of bad joinery rather than an expressly designed feature. There were two French basketball shoes visible through the crack, and a bottle of shampoo someone had left just outside the door of the shower stall opposite mine, for some reason known only to the person blissfully showering. The shampoo bottle vanished from view, lifted up by a hand I could not see.
From inside came a shout: "Hé! C'est à moi ça! Qu'est-ce que tu fabriques?"
Fat lot of good that did. The shoes disappeared too, running out the door. I could hear the muffled thump of rubber on the wooden staircase. I thought miscellaneous black thoughts to myself about the twistedness of human nature. The victim in the stall opposite was no hero. He might have given chase, save the prospect of running naked with slippery wet feet down that narrow staircase, its steps worn smooth by the passage of decades of passing feet.
Were I him, I would have been in a titchy mood for the rest of the day, grumbling to myself, regardless of the slender financial importance of that plastic bottle. And I would be thinking how stupid I was to have left the shampoo outside the stall to be stolen, precisely at the point when it was of more use to me inside. And I would wonder how to track down the culprit and get justice, being on the look-out for days afterwards, hoping to spot someone with my shampoo bottle, and then wondering how to accuse someone of stealing a mass-produced item, of which there must be thousands in circulation. How would you prove it was the stolen item? It's not as if you memorised the serial number on the side of the bottle. A dozen other lodgers might own the same type of bottle. And who would you report the theft to? The management? When was the last time you saw them do anything?
I shelved my thoughts and went down to breakfast once I had finished showering and changing. Breakfast for me was no longer partaken with the hordes. I purposely got up half an hour later than them and settled down to a quiet meal after everyone else had left. I had become fed up with crunchy baguettes and scummy coffee and made the daring move of purchasing cornflakes and my very own full cream milk (long life UHT - a necessity in the absence of a fridge). To top it all off, a sprinkling of Beghin Say added that necessary morning sugar rush.
Half way through my feast, a skinny African kid came in. By kid we're talking maybe eighteen. I think he attended a local high school. I didn't really know; I hadn't seen that much of him around the place. He was very agitated.
"Have you seen a bag?"
"A bag? What sort of bag?"
"A green duffle bag. It's got my name on it."
He talked as if I might have it tucked away somewhere and be dubious about his claim to ownership.
"Haven't seen it anywhere. Where did you leave it, in here?"
"No, in the TV lounge. I was only gone for a couple of minutes."
"It has probably been stolen. You can't leave anything lying around here unattended, unless it is nailed to the floor."
He went from looking agitated to looking crest-fallen. He had had something important in that bag. Money, I would guess. He said no more, swivelled around and left me to finish breakfast alone.
* * *
Les Halles came as a tonic after two hours of lecture at the Sorbonne. Something about Céline and his great contribution to twentieth century literature. Me, I don't like his politics. I was beginning to feel an allergic reaction to a lot of the stuff being pumped into me by the learned professors. Their methodology was pedantic, the height of this being the "explication de texte" sessions I had been forced to sit through. Take three paragraphs of some classic, real or imagined, read every word ten times and backward, consult the learned scriptures of the psychoanalysts such as Lacan for great new insights into the significance of the author's use of punctuation, throw in whoever is the latest critical flavour of the month, look up a few words for obscure etymologies in a fat dictionary or two, and you have your learned explanation of the text. Little mind that all the effort you have put into this learned discourse is far in excess of the attention that the author himself must have lavished on his passage. And no, the "his" is not a misogynist's tic - they still prefer to avoid authoresses in French university literature courses. Don't worry if your sparkling insights are critical revisionism based on a world view and theories the long dead author had no ken of. This is an exercise in style, a litero-critical strutting of the stuff.
I had come to Paris for a literary education and I got served up brilliantly presented old tripe. It was time for a walk to burn off the frustrations.
In spite of myself I had come to like Les Halles. The mega-shopping complex could bustle, and bustle it did. I went there to get recharged, to watch all the people, laugh at the tourists, and hang around doing little of consequence. The Fontaine des Innocents formed the haunt of some of the less than innocent characters about the place. Some of them were pushers, others were just derros or alkies. The skateboarders liked it there too, the steps posing challenging obstacles for acrobatics, the ones who could manage it. Americans would have compared them unfavourably to their Californian counterparts. I could watch them without any condescension, not being capable of their acrobatics myself.
Sitting there for twenty minutes, sipping fruit juice from a water bottle and nibbling on a French sandwich, very little passed through my head. You get in those states some days, reaching a dead zone of mental activity. Your brain switches to resting state. Oh, it's performing the minimal functions involved in keeping the body running, controlling movement, hearing, touch, sight and smell. Beyond that it couldn't be bothered. This time it was recoiling from being force-fed French literary hyperbole. You dislike yourself for getting into those states, all the while feeling it can't be helped, and resigning yourself to interaction on that vital higher plane. There is this suspicion lurking deep inside that some of the people around, the ones you look at on public transport and wonder if the have anything in there, switched to permanent brain resting state a long while back and decided they liked it. Thinking that thought left me wondering what, at this time, set me apart from them. To an outside observer I might have the same aspect, sitting drone-like at the fountain, sipping sugary liquid. The repressed active part of my head started screaming that I had to get up to save myself.
He was young and tanned with slicked back hair. The dark purple cape, black top hat and physician's bag were original. All he needed was a moustache and he would have been a dead ringer for Mandrake the Magician.
"Lei parla italiano?"
"Sorry, no. I do speak French though."
"My apologies, Signore, I thought you were Italian.
I contemplated that thought for a moment, wondering whether it was good or not to be thought Italian.
"But you are a foreigner, are you not?"
He took silence as assent. Actually I was wondering whether he was after my wallet. I was getting up anyway so I stood up. I didn't want him standing over me. It would be too easy to snatch my bag and run.
"Yes, you have a slight accent. American?"
I had been asked this before and was getting tired of it. The French assume that any English-speaker who can't be English is therefore American.
He was at least in the correct hemisphere this time. I asked myself what this was building up to.
As I was tiring of the game, I decided to make a contribution: "No, actually I'm from New Zealand."
"Ahh, New Zealand. That is near New Caledonia is it not?"
Well, he had a vague notion of geography. More than some French folk I had met. One geography student at the hostel had quite confidently informed me that New Zealand was in the Indian Ocean. She wouldn't have had any idea of New Caledonia's whereabouts. In comparison this guy was doing well. More interesting was where this character hailed from. The accent was southern European. He spoke Italian like an Italian but the French he uttered sounded odd to my Parisian-schooled ears.
"I myself am from Corsica. Perhaps you noticed the accent?"
Was this guy a mind-reader?
"I only know your part of the world because I have relatives down there."
That curious condescension of those from the Northern Hemisphere - they imagine everyone else is beneath them.
"My uncle runs an icecream factory in Nouméa. Have you heard of Cocos icecreams? They are very popular there..."
I had some recollection of the name but couldn't really say whether I had tried one or not.
He took half a step closer. I inched back just a little. Pickpockets were known to hang around this place.
"Maybe you can help me. Do you know Paris? You live here? I wish to go to the Gare du Nord but have no idea which métro line to take. There are so many criss-crossing... Is there one near here?"
"Go through that entrance to Les Halles and right down to the bottom of the escalator to the lowest floor. Follow the signs saying "Direction Porte de Clignancourt" to the right platform. The station itself is only about ten minutes by métro from here."
"Ahh, thank you my man. I am indebted to you. I would like to repay you with my only gift. I read palms. I have a gift for it - from my grandmother - she was the real clairvoyante. I only dabble, but I have made a few correct predictions in my time. Here, hold your hand. I won't bite, don't fear."
"Interesting, very interesting. You will have a long life, full of activity, with some disappointments on the way, but will finish with success, great success. Not great wealth I think, but success all the same in some field."
His eye held a mystical glint. For some reason I found myself believing this roving carpet bagger as he bowed slightly and took his leave, striding away to catch his train.
* * *
It was a John Cassavetes film I had heard a lot about and it was on somewhere in the Rue Monsieur le Prince. The street was dark though it hadn't hit six. French cinemas each have their own funny systems for getting in. Somehow it always involves novel variations on the theme of standing in a line. This one only opened the box office about ten minutes before the film started. I just waltzed in and asked for a ticket except they wouldn't give me one and pointed to the queue of six people standing outside, herded between iron barriers like livestock. Had Cartesian logic and a bit of sympathy been more prevalent, they might have realised the pitifully few waiting people did not warrant the effort of shutting them out. Couldn't they just straggle in and sit down instead of having to stand around like drongos? The sole motive I could come up with for the exercise was that the sight of people outside the cinema might act as a magnet for others to come, except that this wasn't a major cinema and the half a dozen people lined up looked more pathetic than anything else.
They let us in after a while. You had to pay the usher a franc or two for the effort of tearing your ticket in two. This one couldn't be bothered showing me to a good seat, or to a seat at all. The façade of order outside the cinema didn't extend into the auditorium itself.
Black and white footage shot on wintery days somewhere in New York, 1950 something. It was all subtitled. I picked up some good French slang - "prof à la con" for "big shot professor". A great deal of dialogue was unintentionally funny - a bunch of amateur actors trying to sound cool and not really pulling it off by the standards of the nineties. The plot (tenuous), and the dialogues (improvised), held my attention less than the clothes and the backdrops. What a long way youth culture has come. The theme of racism was still topical, however Spike Lee has turned it into a sledgehammer with which to beat people these days, leaving Cassavetes feeling staid and timid. Back in the fifties it would have been an avant-garde sort of exercise. I can imagine beatniks devouring it, here and in New York. Forty years later it is hard to see what the controversy was about. The use of the camera is interesting, and now and then there is a spark of insight coming from someone's mouth, although not enough to lift the film off the ground. I left the cinema feeling unfulfilled. The admiring comments I had picked up here and there in the trendy press, those magazines that drop old names to impress a teenage readership, yeah, music magazines, they had raised my expectations too high. Maybe the age of the film had an element in their praise. For music journos ten years old is ancient history and forty years is so far back it might as well be Moses on the mount as some cult director.
* * *
I bump into Gunther on the way back to Rue Eluard. Gunther, as might be guessed, is a German. Prior to this encounter I have said hello to him once or twice. He is from Bavaria, of which I have very quaint images trapped in my head from childhood picture books and fairy stories. Gunther does not look happy.
"What's the matter Gunther, you don't look happy."
We talk in French.
"I am fed up. I had a scarf until yesterday. A white scarf. My grandmother gave it to me as a birthday present years ago. I have worn it ever since and now it is missing."
"Stolen? Join the queue."
"I really have my doubts about the hostel. Things there go missing. And I think I know who is behind it. That Mohammed. I saw him today wearing a white scarf. He had never worn one before. I couldn't see it properly because it was tucked away under his jacket, but I'm sure it is mine."
What are you going to do?"
"I will confront him, with someone from management present. With any luck he will give it back and they will throw him out."
"Don't count on it. They're pretty lax around there. Just so long as the board money keeps getting paid, that's all they worry about."
Rounding the corner, we could now see the hostel. Its entrance had ben cordoned off by police. Three paddy wagons were pulled up alongside the entrance. A traffic cop was waving on passing cars whose drivers were slowing circulation by rubbernecking. I didn't expect much as I walked up to the entrance. A cop barred our progress twenty metres from the doors.
"No one beyond this point. It's forbidden."
Gunther was too respectful so I piped up.
"But we live there. Don't I have the right to go home?"
"It's out of the question. Now back off or you'll be spending the night in a cozy cell."
He looked a big enough bastard to mean what he said. We crossed to the far side of the street so we could stand just opposite the entrance and try and work out what was going on. The building was crawling with police. An officer was directing operations with a walkie talkie, or "talkie-walkie" as the French perversely like to call them. Ominously, two of his sidekicks were bearing arms - assault rifles - the sort the military use. Above them, the movement of blue uniforms could be glimpsed through the windows overlooking the street. The director was arguing with a cop who seemed to be the second in command.
The law did not come out empty-handed. Our friend Mohammed, replete in handcuffs, was led past the director by two municipal cops. A surfeit of paddy wagons awaited him. While there was a vague possibility he might be an Islamic extremist plant in our midst, my bet was the police had found some hot merchandise tucked away under his mattress.
“Das bekommt, was man verdient hat.”
Gunther, like so many Germans, imagines that everyone understands his language.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish”, was my contribution.
Barred entry, we had no choice but to wait. Being a clock watcher by nature when other people are wasting my time, I counted the passage of the minutes. Twenty-six of them passed. There was no way of telling how long they had been there before we came back. It was safe to say they must have been there before we had arrived on the scene. The team streamed out of the courtyard, having joined ranks there, and piled back into the paddy wagons from whence they had come. The director was shell-shocked.
All sorts of scenarios were rolling around in my head. Was it a drugs bust? Had the cops decided to boost the monthly deportee total for the precinct and cast the dragnet over a known rendez-vous for dodgy foreigners? My imagination was sadly deficient this time. It turned out that a South African girl had been taking photos of the street with a flash camera, unaware that the building across the street was the place of work of some very senior government officials. A guard patrolling outside had noticed the flash and called in the cavalry. He must have either thought it was a sniper's muzzle flash or someone casing the joint for illicit purposes. The hapless South African had her camera confiscated. She was still waiting to get it back the last time I saw her. Even as your eyes scan this page, some backroom minion may be scrutinising her holiday snaps of the sights of Paris with an eyepiece, searching for clues.
* * *
Maurice's door was open. He called out when he saw me pass by.
"Shee-it, did you see all those pigs? Motherfuckers! I thought they had come for me!"
"Looking for your visa?"
"Yeah. My pulse stopped for a couple of seconds back there. Couldn't understand a thing this cop was saying to me. He pushes open the door, gives the place the once over..."
The lock was broken on the door. The cupboard door, lockable with a padlock (available for hire from the office), had been busted off its hinges.
"What a mess! The cops did that?"
"Fuck no, I had just gotten back and this is what I find. Some arsehole has broken in on me."
"Did they take anything?"
"No - what's there to take? I carry my papers and greenbacks with me. If only I could...."
"You had better go and see someone in charge - see how long it will take for them to get things fixed."
"Yeah, hey, don't you be leaving any valuables around. You might be next on the list."
That night I had paranoid dreams about being chased by police and thieves along narrow, badly-lit corridors with crumbling plaster walls. I was saved from further nocturnal torture some time after two in the morning, by the rising crescendo of animal lust let loose once more in my neighbour's bedroom.
The call came some months after my arrival, in the first week of December. The papers stated that it was imperative I present myself at the Office of International Migrations Departmental Inspection Centre of the Department of Ile-de-France. Failure to do so could result in my being lead to the frontiers; a nice way of saying "deported". I would have to miss a lecture - two hours of Céline - not a great loss.
The momentous day arrived and I scrubbed myself up. I had visions of full body cavity searches, being probed with large pieces of medical equipment, having to give a urine sample. Mum would have been horrified at the thought of me showing up for something like that with smelly feet, dirty undies and unwashed armpits, so I did my best to make her happy at a distance of 22,000 kilometres.
The medical centre was a grotty building up a deserted street. Outwardly it had the appearance of a down-at-heel abortion clinic, or a detox clinic. One of those places where people without a lot of money go to have things done to them that they don't want people knowing about.
I had been warned of the medical check long before leaving New Zealand. The French Embassy had said it was mandatary for all non-Europeans. It was assumed by law that all of humanity other than that small segment born in the European Community must be carrying something. As such we posed a threat to ourselves and the good citizens of the Fifth Republic. If we bore contagion, it might spread to unsuspecting French people. Were we in ill health, we might not be fit for the rigours of French life and prove to be an expensive burden to the welfare system. So checks had to be made, tests carried out, and papers stamped.
What was difficult to work out was why it took them over two months to get around to testing the disease-ridden wrecks who had disembarked at Roissy without so much as a sideways glance from a health official. Had I been a latter-day Typhoid Mary, carrier of the Ebola Virus, or the Black Death, there might have been hundreds of dead French people dropping in the streets in my wake. Greater minds than mine must have discounted such risks in the age of global jet travel, where diseases can traverse the globe in a few hours, borne by unsuspecting tourists.
The reception area was shabby if clean. A counter nearby was unmanned. No, at second glance there was someone there. A woman was sitting at a desk to the rear of the reception counter. Two people of Middle Eastern provenance were being studiously ignored while she chatted to one of her mates about this, that and the other on the phone. I stood behind them for a couple of minutes and concluded I was wasting time. There was a sign pointing to the waiting room upstairs, so I followed it.
"Where's your card? You have to report to reception first."
"Your receptionist is too busy gossiping on the phone."
The nurse said nothing more. I took it as a draw and went back downstairs.
The motormouth had gotten off the phone for a few moments to attend to the two people who were waiting when I arrived. The receiver lay on the counter as she hadn't yet finished yet. I got my card, and a form, which I was told was for the doctor to fill in.
Back upstairs I sat down and waited for my number to be called. The form made horrifying reading - boxes for all the body cavity tests you could think of, blood tests, hearing tests, fluid tests, VD tests. What were they going to do to me?
The reception area offered no clue. Every five minutes the nurse would call a number and lead some poor citizen from the Third World away. I wondered if this was how they felt in the concentration camps in Germany, waiting to be taken away. My number was 33. However when it was called out, a Japanese guy stood up at the same time as me. The nurse looked at him then looked at me and repeated the number. She was thinking one of us had to be a dumb foreigner who couldn't count in French. She was wrong. "You can be 33A and you can be 33B", she huffed as she scribbled down additional qualifiers on our cards. Nothing but hassle, these foreigners. It had nothing at all to do with her chatty compatriot in reception.
So I had to wait a few more minutes, until my number was up.
The first room was less exciting than it might have been. It was the little waiting room that you waited in after having waited in the big waiting room. This time though, the wait was not so long, as I was one of only three people; the Japanese guy already mentioned, and a Korean man who had gone in just before him. They made small talk in bad English, neither having much of a grasp of their respective languages.
By the time my turn came, they had been replaced by an American and an African. The American was talking a lot. In fact he couldn't keep his mouth shut. Nervousness might have had something to do with it, or it could have been natural extroversion in action. I wasn't in his presence long enough to come to a firm conclusion. Before I knew it I was in the weighing and measuring room. You had to take your shoes and any heavy clothing off while they made the relevant measurements. The scales were venerable ones hailing from some time in the fifties. They had sliding weights on the top for fine tuning. Two nurses did the honours. One was responsible for taking measurements while the other filled in my form. They treated you like you weren't there, being too busy to stop and chat. I wondered if they did the same thing eight hours a day every week, or if they got the chance to rotate.
The formalities performed, I am shunted to the next transit point, a short corridor preliminary to the X-ray room. The X-ray machine is a behemoth from long ago. I wonder about radiation dosages as I consider the very sturdy shield behind which the two operators hide themselves from each blast of gamma ray emissions. The standard line is that they need that because they are exposed to it day after day, while you are only being zapped once. Believe it if you can. I get my dose and then I'm on my way again. I am convinced it can only get worse. The body cavity inspections loom ahead.
I am ushered into a doctor's office. Unlike the other rooms it has the look of being lived in. The doctor is an affable sort. He chats about New Zealand, what I'm doing in Paris, and how it's going while he crosses off swathes of the form. Then he proceeds to ask me to lift my shirt for his stethoscope and to cough a couple of times. First the chest and then my back.
"Do you smoke?"
"No, I've never smoked in my life."
"Odd," he says, surveying the X-rays handed to him by a passing nurse mid-way through the chest examination. "You have the lungs of a smoker."
"Is that bad?"
"Not necessarily." His circumspection is admirable but not reassuring.
I wonder what it might be - living in a poky, stuffy room, the dirty winter Paris air with all those exhaust emissions, second-hand smoking from all the chain-smoking hags and half-wits who infest every public eating place, the seasonal damp, the incense I burn in my room to get rid of the smell...
"No really, it's nothing serious. You have a clean bill of health."
He signs the form with a flourish of his hand and passes it back to me.
"Now take that back down to reception and they will give you some papers, which you are to take to the registry of your university to be countersigned and then you must pass them on to the Prefecture."
The secretary is still on the phone. This time she is not so hesitant to be drawn away from it. She tells me very slowly which papers to keep and which to give to the university, talking to me as if I were a five year-old. I nod my head, happy that it's nearly all over and I didn't have to suffer a real medical check-up. Thinking on it, it is difficult to see why they bothered. An X-ray and a stethoscope up my jumper aren't conclusive evidence as to my state of health. My bodily fluids might be secreting all manner of viral and bacterial infections and they would never know. I start to feel concern for the good citizens of France. Do they know that the foreigners with good bills of health wandering around in the midst might be infested with all manner of things? I might have lice; the doctor wouldn't have noticed. He didn't look once at my hair. My groin could be a centre of all types of venereal infections and he didn't bother looking below my belt.
The logic of the land of Cartesianism leaves a bit to be desired. It does mean I am free to stay for the time being however, and that can't be all bad. Besides, if the bastards ever figured out how shonky their medical examinations were and got round to tightening things up, just who would be able to get into France?
* * *
After many weeks I got to meet my stud of a neighbour. He is Greek. His name is Nikos. He has long dark curly hair and the sort of figure that motivated ancient sculptors. He is into art himself, being a student at the School of Fine Arts. Nikos is an affable guy for whom the world revolves around inserting parts of his anatomy into women. A man with no discernible inhibitions and who apparently doesn't mind sharing around his good fortune. On our first encounter, he asks me if I would like to meet a Venezuelan girlfriend of his and promises me a good time with her. I say sorry, but I'm not available.
Although I have only just met Nikos, it feels as though we are old friends. I have heard his conquests come and go, night after night, week after week. It is difficult to believe that he has time for anything else. While he does not have company every night, judging from the noise, he has at least a couple of women a week, sometimes more. I wonder where he finds them all. He is quite phenomenal in his own way.
Nikos is talkative. He comes from Crete. He laughs about it, saying it is a provincial place where irate fathers wouldn't think twice about emptying shotgun cartridges in the direction of any young miscreant who happened to have gotten their virtuous daughters pregnant. I imagine that this situation makes for an arduous life if one possesses Nikos's great carnal drive.
In Paris he has found a playground for the endless perambulating sex fest that is his life. Here there are no hang-ups. He can have his pick of various nationalities, judging by the multi-lingual animal noises I have overheard. The carousing opportunities are vast and varied and he pushes them to their limit.
Curiously, unlike many men who have little to boast about in this department, Nikos does not boast. He has no need to. His self-confidence is boundless. It has allowed him to work his way into the underwear of countless women, ever since he was quite young.
The face behind the animal noises, curiously enough, wins me over. I have already given up banging on his door and now find I can sleep through most of it. The French would call him a bon vivant. I can't help but think he is a nymphomaniac. However, there are worse things you could be.
* * *
I was thinking that with Mohammed being detained by the boys in blue our problem with the light-fingered element was over. Wrong. That night thieving reached a new peak. Residents, groping around in the night for a light switch as they wandered the corridors of the hostel, found that no amount of punching the switch would provoke electricity. All the corridor light bulbs had been systematically removed. For the first time since my arrival, the management riposted with a room-to-room search. Some residents bewailed the violation of privacy, but the staff searching did not have to nose through too much in the way of personal belongings to uncover that many light bulbs in someone's room. Sadly, they failed to find anything. Our unapprehended thieves are clever ones.
And the thieves are not the only ones out roaming. The lair of the mouse girl, as I have come to think of the room at the end of the corridor where my sullen neighbour lives, had become a great deal busier of late. In between Greek sex romps, I was repeatedly getting woken up by slamming doors and loud Arab voices in the wee early hours. Compared to Nikos, the sounds were minor, though curious, distractions.
The latest drama having subsided, hanging out over my mini-balcony, trying to guess what is happening behind all those closed curtains, shivering slightly from the cold December air, I wondered what was becoming of me. Initially I was convinced I had stepped into a madhouse. I find now that the place is starting to grow on me. From this happenstance it might be inferred that I have become one of the inmates rather than an unsuspecting migrant just passing through.
December chugged on until it was time to think about performing the yuletide ritual. I had thought about far-away places, exotic spots, living it up in Greece or Morocco. Problem was the money required. Its deficient presence in my life restricted choices for going away, and not having seen much of France, staying within the Republic's frontiers was the best option. A combination of saving cash and broadening my knowledge of France drew me to a map, trying to work out where to go. Wherever that was, it would not be particularly warm. Climate was no object. I was no sun seeker. I didn't really know what it was I was seeking though. A taste of another slab of the country. I thought about whether to go somewhere isolated or populous. Isolation would have been oppressive, and, if it was that small a place, all the shops might be shut for the holiday season, which would be a bummer. No, it would have to be somewhere populous. After Paris what was there? Marseilles didn't grab me. Negative it may be, and the citizens of that fair city will bewail the image, but for me Marseilles is the town of drugs, organised crime, cops who sympathise with the National Front, and petty crims.
The next biggest town, according to the guide I had, is Lyons. The funny thing about those two places is how the English spell them- with an s on the end. What curious arrogance drives the English to dictate to the French how they should spell the names of two of their largest cities? There is no good phonetic argument for it. History? Did the French say it that way centuries ago? But they don't now, so why should anyone else? Or, if you want to press historical justification to its extreme, why not call Marseilles by its ancient Greek name, or Lyon Lugdunum, as the Romans knew it? Usage is a silly thing in any language. You can spend hours wondering about these things. I do. Usually after some know-it-all has corrected me. Were I to spell Lyons without an s it might irritate all sorts of linguistic purists and pedants. All the more reason to do so.
To cut the ramble short I chose Lyon without an s. I got a place to stay through the hostel. In another hostel, surprise, surprise. Apparently a lot of the residents at the place in Lyon leave for the Christmas break, and they had some empty rooms anyway. It was central, so they said. A stone's throw from the station, Part Dieu. Funny name. I suppose the English would want to translate that too. God's Part, God's Place...
The bottom line was that I didn't want to be in Paris for Christmas. Everyone else was going away, or it looked that way. Being one of the last remaining lunatics in the asylum didn't appeal. I packed some of my belongings, enough for a few days, secured the rest and counted on them still being there for my return in spite of any possible break-ins, such was their worthlessness. My other arrangements were minimal - paying the rent in advance, telling the management of my whereabouts and asking them to hold my mail, sending off chrissy prezzies and cards to the rels in time for them to arrive before 25 December, saying so long to the neighbours, and then I was off.
My load wasn't heavy, and it wasn't far, so I walked to the Gare de Lyon. It is not hard to find. You just follow the Seine eastwards and switch over to the Right Bank when the old hulk of the railway station comes into sight. My tickets were pre-paid. The only passenger train that wasn't running at three in the morning was the TGV, or the Very Fast Train, as it might be translated. You have to reserve for the TGV or you don't get on. Even if you buy the tickets half an hour before it goes, you have to reserve them. Just another little earner for someone.
There is not much to say about the station. All the high-speed trains lined up, ready to zoom off to various parts of South-East France, were something NZ Rail could never muster. The building that sheltered them needed a clean. It had been a nice bit of architecture in its day. Now it was just grubby. There was nowhere to sit in the station, unless one was the paying customer of the local greasy spoon. I settled for a ledge under the departures board. You got to stare at all the people as they stared at the board directly above. It was a good way of feeling invisible.
The train glided on the rails, having pulled out of the station exactly on time. The seats were comfortable and the countryside whizzed past at an incredible rate. The journey would take a bit over two hours - several hundred kilometres broken and left in a shattered heap in the age of speed. It took a comparatively long time to be discarded of Paris. The houses, supermarkets, factories and highways persisted for a good twenty minutes, then thinned out into open countryside. A sign pointing to Meaux came into sight and fell out of sight just as quickly. Someone came from Meaux. Bossuet. And the last Louis passed through there when he did a runner not too long before he lost his head. The line was too far away from town to see much. Local residents' committees would have seen to that. There is a motorway being laid through here as well. I wonder what the happy burghers think of that.
The plains gave way to hills of a rolling nature, semi-wooded, smoothed over by centuries of habitation and cultivation. I lost interest somewhere after that and dozed off, walking just twenty minutes before rolling into Part Dieu. It could wait. There was the return trip yet.
Part Dieu - what can I say? Modern? Ugly? Cold? Confusing? All of those. Confusing because I got lost and took the wrong exit from the station. Ugly because of the architecture. Cold because of its monumental lack of warmth. Intimidating too. I was witness to an Arab kid running off with a bag that did not appear to be his. Beggars crowded the entrances. They weren't professionals. Theirs was a demand born of real poverty, not an eye for easy money.
The hostel was an apartment block. It was the antithesis of the Rue Eluard establishment, standing stark and modern, a concrete block jutting out of the ground, flanked by the railway station, a car park and some apartment blocks with very little attractiveness. I stood looking up at the block and wondered what sort of holiday this was going to be.
A Moroccan at reception looked at me strangely when I said I had booked a room for a week. He sat there for a few seconds pretending not to understand me, then when it became evident I couldn't be fobbed off he went off to call for reinforcements. There was some toing a froing as he called in someone to hold fort at reception while he found the shift manager.
The shift manager eventually surfaced and began talking to me very slowly, the way you talk to a stupid foreigner who obviously can't understand very much of your language. I humoured him and amused myself with the thought that I probably knew the imperfect subjunctive better than he did. It's not always bad being treated like an idiot, provided it is benign in intent. You have a weapon in reserve if they annoy you, you can come back at them with a display of insight that throws them off-guard.
He wanted the whole business in the ID department - passport, study permit, proof of residence. It would have been easier if I had just pretended to be a tourist, but having admitted over the phone that I was living in Paris, however short-term, someone had duly noted it and now I had to cough up papers.
The room could best be described as a characterless box in a block of characterless boxes. The walls were concrete painted pink. The concrete had curious acoustic characteristics. Someone must have been sewing in the room above me. When they dropped their needle or pin, it sounded like the crack of a stick on a snare drum. I could hear music coming up the central heating pipe from two floors below. I opened the window to check. It was definitely two floors below.
The room was a more modern version of my Parisian one, with the same basic functionality. One bed, a small table and chair formed the only furnishings. The room was designed with a wash-basin in a small alcove separated from the bedroom by a cupboard and shelves cum partition. It was cleverly designed with an inner door to ward off corridor noise when you were sleeping.
Not being inspired to do anything else particularly exciting, I resolved to explore the neighbourhood. I walked eastwards for an hour, got depressed and turned around. Paris it wasn't. Part Dieu had a bleak plainness to it that discouraged walking. Any interesting architecture had been pulled down around twenty years ago. The walker was also discouraged by the lack of foot traffic. Here I was in a conurbation, population two million according to the guide, and I was wandering along street after street without seeing hardly anyone. It was the holidays, but they couldn't have all left town. The sole glimmer of interest was stirred by the occasional old building, more often than not derelict, which the developers had missed. They served as architectural ghosts, leaving a faded impression of what had been. The old Part Dieu would not have been very up market although it could hardly have been worse than the soulless thing that had supplanted it.
The outskirts could not have been any better so I turned around to go back to the centre and walked over the Rhône. A few blocks before the river the apartment buildings started looking smarter and the foot traffic picked up. It was still a long way from the bustle of the capital, yet enough to make me feel I was in a real city. The apartment blocks took on a bourgeois aspect.
The Rhône was swift and muddy. Its banks were high. A pine tree was washed up against the base of the Pont Wilson, standing as proof of recent rains. I read later in Le Progrès that a man, a father of two, had taken his life the night before by throwing himself into that brown swirling water. It would have been a quick way to go.
The centre of Lyon lies on a peninsula formed by the concourse of the Saône and the Rhône. It isn't very wide; you could walk from the banks of one river to the other in about ten minutes if you were in a hurry. The central artery of the peninsula is the Rue de la République, a boulevard more than a street, where I counted foot traffic verging on Parisian proportions. I passed by chic and not so chic boutiques, restaurants, bars and cinemas, through alleys both pretty and unappealing, soaking it all in, staring at the people, gazing at the buildings, trying to divine how far the envelope could be pushed as a pedestrian crossing the street in traffic (slightly less dangerous than Paris - they just might have stopped if they hit you - no chance in Paris). I traversed large squares - Bellecour, a parade ground looking for troops and Perrache, a green place spoilt by an ugly railway station.
Some of the back streets of the central city were interesting. They can't have changed much in the last hundred years. Only the sex shops marred the ambience.
The Voxx caught my attention with its name more than its appearance. It had the same spelling as an obscure American record label that specialised in rereleasing the recordings of garage bands from the 1960s. Sure enough, the in-house music was from that decade - a Desmond Dekker compilation. Spartan is the word that best described the décor. The habitués had a preference for chain-smoking and black clothes. I watched them conducting intellectual conversations and filled in a few postcards to give my stop purpose. I wondered about how the establishment maintained its clientele, given the slowness of the service.
Across the way, two twentysomething women, old friends judging from the conviviality, were catching up on lost time. One was English, the other French. The were assuming no-one was listening. The English woman had been away in Germany and was telling about how, while she was there, she had paid for a cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich in the kitchen of a café when she had found no change in her purse. She considered it a feat of sorts to open her legs for the price of a cup of coffee and a bit of toasted bread.
Over the river Old Lyon offered some quaint architecture, survivors of the Renaissance, and more narrow lanes. The foot traffic here was denser. Street hustlers of one sort or another impeded passage. I sidestepped one who tried to stop me.
"It's not a hold-up!" he cried in mock dismay.
"It might as well be - you want my money in any case."
He had no answer to that.
Too tired to walk up the hill, I took the cable car up to Fourvières, a hill offering a panoramic view of the city, its suburbs engulfing all in sight off to a foggy horizon that might be natural or man-made. I could just make out Part Dieu, its location marked by the Crédit Lyonnais tower, a classic sky-scraper from the phallic school of architecture. It was too far to walk back. A bus would do.
* * *
Having few diversions of its own, there was not much at the hostel to hold me. I might have spent a night in front of the telly or doing the laundry except there were no facilities for this. I didn't see much of the other residents - most of them were away on holiday. The ones who weren't hung around smoking cigarettes and making small talk. I felt too much a passer by in their corner of the world to intervene and try to become a part of it.
The métro station at Part Dieu was very spick and span. For all that, I preferred the grubby, sweaty smell of a Parisian station. Here, everything was impeccably modern. I had read somewhere that the subway system was only completed a few years ago. That would make it one of the most modern underground systems in the world. A long empty corridor preceded the escalator down to the platform. Huddled at its entrance were a crowd of homeless late adolescents. Two of their seediest members were hassling commuters for money. I ignored them.
A drunk on the platform destroyed the antiseptic air of the place by vomiting onto one of the newly painted metal seats. Down the other end of the platform, a bunch of Arab kids were playing the fool. The French bourgeois types standing on the platform stood a discrete distance away from them lest they be picked as targets for some prank.
Just as the shiny orange "rame" arrived and opened its doors, a flock of ticket inspectors alighted. The Arab kids took one glance at them and scarpered, bustling aside the poor unfortunate who had been assigned to guard the escalator. Everyone else had tickets, save an African. As the carriages pulled away from the platform, I watched him shouting at three ticket inspectors. He was saying something about racism and discrimination.
It was two stops till I had to get off at Saxe Gambetta. At the first stop, Place Guichard, a lot of Arabs and a blind man got on. The blind man went around with a white cup, offering people bits of folded and stapled paper. He knew exactly where to put his hand out to give them to seated passengers. At first I though he must have been faking his lack of sight, and then realised he must have done this many, many times before. If you accepted one, you were confronted with the following text, once the sheet of paper was half unstapled.
Greetings Fellow Travellers!
Misfortune has rendered me sightless, but God has left me with the gift of true vision. I offer this little message to you in the hope that, in return for a few francs, a métro ticket or a métro pass, or indeed any other offering you may be so kind as to make, that you might assist me on my way through life.
A smiley face was printed at the bottom, just above the staple hanging loose. I pulled out 20 francs. The two copper-plated coins chinked on the side of the cup.
"Thank you sir."
The message inside was banal; a quote pulled from some book of horoscopes. I felt the words on the outside were more important, and didn't feel cheated.
"He fooled you, that one," a sour-faced matron glared disapprovingly.
"I gave of my own volition."
She said nothing.
Saxe-Gambetta was larger, being an interchange, and had more people coming and going. I followed the signs saying "Direction Gorge de loup". First God's part and now the wolf's throat. Lyon had some esoteric sounding suburbs. The rame pulled up. It had no driver. Everything was automatic. I climbed in the lead car just before the doors shut. I sat a row back from the front glacis, watching two young parents hold their delighted two-year-old boy up to the glass. The tunnel interior flashing past looked space-age. I could imagine this as the set for a science fiction film.
Lyon is dead at night. It threw me at first. I had gotten used to people about at all hours in Paris. I had assumed it must have been like that elsewhere in France. Nope. Lyon was dead. I traversed whole arrondissements without coming across another person in the street. Once off the "cours" and avenues, the likelihood of encountering a passing car declined rapidly. I searched in vain but didn't see anything that fitted the bill. I wondered as I wandered whether boulevard was a northern French word. I vowed to check that up and never did.
There were some signs of life for all that. Hooligans demolishing a phone booth, transvestites too nervous to go out in daylight, prostitutes with implants haunting the avenues along the Rhône, derelicts wandering aimlessly, talking to themselves. On the peninsula and in the Old Quarter, the city's respective denizens could be seen out of their apartments, dressed up for dinner, a show, or a club. I tried to get into some of the clubs. The goons at the doors didn't like the look of me - not well enough at heel. I noticed they like turning away Arabs too. There was one club, a trendy rock venue, where I got in only to see an African woman behind me being refused entry. Making a U-turn out of there seemed the best policy, as did passing a word or two to the racists acting as gate-keepers. I doubt they will be letting me in again. Funnily enough, I felt the reverse effect in a West Indian nightclub in the Old Quarter. Getting in was no problem although the entry fee made me wince. Conversely, my lack of chic gear got me a few snobby looks from the largely black clientele. I didn't stay long.
On the banks of the Saône stood a woman leaning over the brick wall running along the river bank. It had been laid to prevent stray cars and pedestrians tumbling several metres to their deaths down into the icy cold water. She was heedless of everything, just stood there staring down at the waters. She didn't notice me staring at her. She had death in her eyes. She was young, and pretty, and didn't care in the slightest. Her thoughts were pulling her far from that place, to somewhere she wanted to be.
She was trying to assess if jumping might be the path to that promised place.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but it's not worth it."
She was confused.
"What is "not worth it"?"
"Doing what you are thinking of doing. If you go ahead whoever, or whatever put you in this place thinking those thoughts, has won. But the funny thing is, if you go ahead, you lose everything, and they will still be there. You will have changed nothing. Worse, by eliminating yourself, you render any change impossible."
"What are you, a priest?"
"No. Someone who has been there and realised that the sole victory over all that is to carry on regardless. How about you come out of the cold and have a coffee or something?"
She stepped down from the wall and turned her back to the river. The urge had passed. Now she wanted to get rid of me. No matter. Suicidal people don't make good dates.
"No, I'm alright here. I just need to think a bit."
"Okay then, but don't do anything ill-considered."
I walked off along the footpath, looking back from time to time to make sure she hadn't jumped. By the point where she was just a speck over my shoulder, she had decided to walk away and leave it be.
A walk through the wintry chill leads me back to Part Dieu. It was around midnight. The shopping centre, better known to the locals as the Commercial Centre, was shut up for the night, with the exception of a cinema deep in its bowels and a subterranean nightclub. The night had been too dull to go straight back to my room just yet, so I steered a course for the entrance. Down the steps and poorer the amount of the entry fee (includes a free drink!), I ordered my drink and surveyed the scene. Unwittingly, I have stumbled into the city's teenage hangout. Aside from the bouncers and the bar staff, I have to be the oldest person in the place, and not having hit the age of twenty-five, that is some achievement. The legal age for everything in France is eighteen and a big chunk of those present are a long way from that rendez-vous. The girls are heavily into make-up and what looks like padded bras. The boys, most of whom are probably around or over eighteen, survey the flock with the keenness of wolves on the prowl. The music is shite. All those trashy disco songs you got sick of hearing five years ago, but which are nostalgic to a crowd which can't remember life before Mitterrand became President.
Two mates beside me at the bar are discussing the projected fate of an unwanted girlfriend.
"I've been talking with Rémy, and it's all on."
"My plan, for dumping Louise."
"I thought you liked humping her?"
"The sex is okay, but she's a pain in the arse."
The French expression was "elle me fait chier". I didn't turn to look at them or they might have clammed up. The music playing loudly was, they thought, adequate screen for the privacy they desired.
"Tomorrow's the big night."
"Yeah? For what exactly?"
"Rémy got her drunk the other night. You know what a pig she is. Couldn't keep her legs shut."
"The slut! I thought he was your friend?"
"Oh, he is. I couldn't have planned it better. He was pissing himself with worry when he told me, so I planted him with a big fat kiss. He thought I was crazy till I said I had been looking for a way to dump her for weeks. I told him he was welcome to her and he said she wasn't that good anyway. Then we got to talking..."
"I'm going to get her around to my place. The folks will be off at the Opera tomorrow. She'll be into the bedroom and up to the usual and just when she's performing, hey presto! In will walk Rémy!"
"Genius. Total genius!"
"Then I'll tell her she's a cheating bitch and that'll be the end of it."
That was the end of it for me in any case. I took my coat and my leave of the establishment and wandered back to the hostel. It was past one in the morning, so there was no way of getting through Part Dieu station. I had to negotiate my way around it, and got past the barrier of the railway tracks via a well-lit but spooky road underpass that hadn't been designed with pedestrian security in mind. At the bus station a different sort of bus was parked: a pick-up vehicle for a local social service, out collecting all the homeless in the quarter lest they die of exposure on that bitter winter's night. The ones who refused help were given a bite to eat and a paper cup of coffee to fortify them. I didn't stand watching too long in case I might have been mistaken as requiring assistance.
* * *
Exploration by day offered more signs of normal life in the streets. Still I wondered where all the people were. My guide book suggested that a visit to Croix Rousse was a must, so off I toddled, in search of that great cultural tourist experience. The sun had come out for this winter's day. Down the narrow alley ways of Les Terreaux, faint streaks of light failed to illuminate the dingiest corners. Le Terreaux is a slender strip across the base of the hill upon which Croix Rousse sits, at the point where the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône causes the land to taper like the base of a limp member. Here lie the remains of a Roman circus, unearthed during building excavations some decades back. I try to imagine the screams of the Christians, the roar of gleeful plebeians. This was a real circus, the sort where they spilt blood and had gladiatorial combat. The Christians had had the last laugh though. A short walk up the hill is enough to obtain a clear view of Notre Dame de Fourvières. They lost a few acolytes in the effort, but the Christians took the city in the long run. Lyon prides itself on being the bastion of French Catholicism, something more than a few Bretons object to. This Notre Dame is the gaudiest church in France. Very few Lyonnais know the history of it. Some told me it was built in thanks for the city having survived the plague, or barbarians, or something. None could give me any dates. This is the city of Catholic charity. It was here and in the environs that many good Catholic priests hid Paul Touvier, collaborator and deporter of Jews extraordinaire, so he could avoid Republican justice. Having wrested Lugdunum from the Roman pagans over a period of centuries, now the good Christians are on the back foot. The first mosque opened in the city just a few months before my arrival; a long time coming in a city with one of the biggest Moslem populations in Europe. My mind goes back to a holiday I had in Christchurch, New Zealand in the late eighties. Just then the first mosque there had opened. Christchurch does not have a numerous Moslem population, yet it was years ahead of Lyon. Funny old world. It says something for the limits of French tolerance. The first Moslems arrived in Lyon in large numbers in the 1920s, and it took them over seventy years to be given permission to build their own permanent place of worship.
The Parc de la Tête d'Or is across the river from Croix Rousse. I admired the greenery from the heights overlooking the park, out on to the Alps on the horizon, which were just able to break through the obscurity of an obscuring coat of smog. Closer up the park wasn't so green. Its grounds were strewn with dead, muddy leaves. The deer stared back from their enclosure. The elephants and giraffes looked miserable. The park was also a zoo, as well as being a playground, a venue for sports, and a place to dine. A miniature railway offered rides for children and adults.
You aren't allowed to walk on the grass at the Park de la Tête d'Or. Men in blue uniforms patrol the grounds, hunting for any miscreants with the audacity to wish to feel the softness of grass underfoot. Their vans have loudspeakers, which they enjoy using at high volume, destroying the place's calm. Tiring of the hovering presence, I strolled down to the artificial lake. Row boats were on hire. Few members of the public were interested at that time of year. One couple, profiting from the mid-winter absence of aquatic punters, were using their boat as a platform for some very unstable sex. As much as they might have wished, overturning the boat whilst surreptitiously having a quick one in a cove sheltered by trees was too dodgy a risk. They gave up, and he started rowing out to the centre of the lake.
Curiosity unsatisfied drew me to Villeurbanne, Lyon's urban counterbalance. Bourgeois, Catholic Lyon, versus proletarian, Red Villeurbanne. That was the stereotype. I wanted to see whether the place lived up to its reputation. The sixième it wasn't. Doubtless there were quite a number of apparts bourgeois tucked about the place, but for all that it was a grubbier, less attractive part of the conurbation than the hub of Lyon.
It was an Arab kid, around fifteen. His friend, the same age, sidled up to me from behind on my other side. I was the meat in a tight sandwich. I hooked the second strap of my bag over my shoulder, wary of a snatch and run operation.
"Don't I know you?"
"I doubt it."
"Yeah, you're a friend of Madame Piaget's, at the lycée!"
His silent friend to me right was brushing a little too close to my coat pocket. I started walking faster. They followed suit. Then I stopped abruptly.
"Connais pas, petit!"
And with that and a quick sidestep through moving traffic, I put a street's width between them and me.
I had seen the look on the kid's face before in that of my old mate Mohammed, back at Rue Eluard. A look of arrogant confidence. The shrewd certainty that here was a mug to be taken and glee at the prospect of doing so. And then that inert bewilderment as the mug slips out of reach, having been led up to the edge of the trap, but not having stepped into it.
A French friend in Dunedin had told me to watch out for the Arabs while I was in France. I attributed this remark as the product of latent Gallic racism against Saracens dating back to Charles Martel's defeat of Moorish invaders at Poitiers in 732, rearing up from the depths of his otherwise Left-wing, correct thinking. Mohammed had taught me that sometimes stereotypes could find an echo in reality, just as Rashid had confirmed my belief that generally you couldn't believe them. Life is complicated in a foreign place. I was sure the false bonhomie of those two adolescents was not calculated to win a new friend. For them I was a target, a chicken to be plucked. With the reference to the lycée it was clear that they had assumed me to be a part of the local white establishment, someone who hangs out with school teachers, or rather might be plausibly assumed to do so.
I wanted to reach something that might be considered the heart of Villeurbanne, so I followed the map to the town hall. Due south down Rue Paul Verlaine, I spotted it and wondered what I had run into. The heart of the Communist municipality was a splendid piece of Nazi public architecture Roman pillars, clinical grey stone, and that imposing neo-classicism devoid of any style that Hitler, Speer and their associates had had erected across the Thousand Year Reich. The edifice sat in a coldly proportioned square which would have offered a natural setting for rows of black Mercedes flying Swastika pennants. I was so strangely impressed I took a photo.
It was nearing one in the afternoon and I had made a resolution to take part in a march I had read about on a poster that morning. Jean-Marie Le Pen was coming to town for a National Front rally. According to this bill stuck to a lamp post it was his first visit to Lyon in quite a while and was aimed to cause maximum insult as the gathering was to occur in a hall not far from Saxe-Gambetta, the little Algiers of Lyon. Not being a devotee of the man, the concept of answering this bill's call to march against the Front appealed greatly. Wasn't I one of those nasty foreigners defiling the lands of "la belle France" that Le Pen so loved to rant about?
Place Jean Macé is a major hub for public transport in Lyon. It lies at the end of the city métro's B Line, and forms an interchange for numerous bus routes serving the southern part of greater Lyon. Getting there was no trouble, just a matter of hopping on the métro at Gratte-Ciel, so-called for its art deco skyscraper, changing over at Charpennes, and heading to the end of the line, past Brotteaux, Part Dieu, Place Guichard, Saxe-Gambetta, to the rally point.
The rally was a big one, spilling across the road that bisected the square. The crowd was young - students (mainly white) and workers (mainly Arab and black). Some of the latter had ridden on the métro with me. They had hopped on well before Villeurbanne, having hiked from Vaulx-en-Velin, one of the places the local white media termed a "quartier chaud", so they could catch a ride from the terminus at L. Bonnevay. The Communists were present, as were the Trots, both waving their banners and keeping a healthy distance one from the other. And there were the anarchists, all in black with flags to match. SOS Racisme, an anti-racist group whose upwardly mobile members had a habit of resurfacing in the French Socialist Party, was presiding over the diverse groups which had answered the call to remind Le Pen he wasn't welcomed by everyone in bourgeois, conservative, white Lyon.
The speeches, compulsory on such occasions, were coming to an end and crowd rousing was being indulged in. Directions were given out as to which way the marchers were going to head. Loudspeakers squawked, listeners tried to decipher the garbled directions, and the various party cadres handed out their own instructions to their acolytes.
There was one not inconsiderable problem to be confronted as the crowd slowly stirred itself for a march due south, through the railway underpass that ran across the southern end of the square the cops. Not wishing their policing duties to be rendered more difficult by having to keep a horde of libertarian rabble-rousers at arm's length from the closet fascists out to cheer on Jean-Marie, they had decided to cordon off the underpass. A solid phalanx of CRS, not quite managing to look like Greek hoplites in their shock-resistant plexiglass helmets and riot shields, barred the way. Undeterred, the leaders of the cortege turned the column to the right, along the Avenue Berthelot, only to stop in the face of another wall of unwelcoming riot police.
I didn't see what happened next, but heard one of the cops yell something over a microphone which got no response other than some jeers and hurled abuse. About twenty metres from the front row and not at all regretful about it, I watched and saw little, but felt the impact of the first charge by the boys in dark navy blue. People were screaming, some in anger, others in agony. Rocks and bottles were thrown from the crowd. While some people were pushing through, trying to get away, others were shoving forward, wanting a piece of the action.
I remembered an old cartoon from May 1968 of a fat cop with a shield and riot gear, bearing the legend "CRS =SS". It wasn't far from the truth. It was a fact of history that the Fourth Republic had used former Vichy militiamen and other assorted thugs to found its new-fangled, independent crowd control measure. Ever since, the formation had had a certain reputation which was hard to shake, and worsened by the deaths of various people in its application of law and order over the years. Now I was not that far away from the full force of their billy sticks. I wondered what being beaten up and arrested would do for my chances of getting my provisional stay card replaced by a real one, then decided to leave the fighting to the heroes and get out.
This proposition was one that required some effort in the doing. Marchers were running in all directions. I ran to one intersection, then another, and another. All were blocked by lines of boys in blue. Someone had (purposely?) forgotten one of the primary rules of crowd control - allow those on the scene an exit so they can disperse and you are half way to defusing any riot situation. I gave up running away and decided to slip down into the métro. Others of like mind were already there. The rame pulled up, only to sit waiting on the platform for all too long. Various of us sat in carriages, hoping the automatic system would decide it was time to shut the carriage doors and move on before the CRS decided to check out down below and wield a few truncheons. Then the signal sounded and the doors slid shut, a prelude to the train pulling out of the station. Just as it entered the tunnel, the first CRS began arriving on the platform, pushing a dazed wave of victims before them.
I got off at Saxe-Gambetta. There was the possibility some bright spark down at the mobile command post was radioing to have underground stations checked for runaway suspects. It wasn't until I had stepped off another line at Bellecour and mingled with the crowd on the Rue de la République that I felt beyond harm's reach.
Chez le coiffeur
I was not, as chance would have it, overwhelmed to be back in Paris come the end of the Christmas break. However by January the place did hold a comfortable level of familiarity about it, while at the same time still offering various avenues for further exploration.
Having put off doing something about my ever-lengthening hair led me to the New Year's resolution of making sure I got a haircut. The uncontrollable fringe and the sticky out bits that just would not sit kept getting worse and worse from week to week. Something had to be done. This was Paris. One had appearances to keep up. My search was a difficult one. A bloke has to be careful where he gets his hair cut, and I, being a barber's sort of guy, was determined not to cross the portal of one of the abundant salons strewn around central Paris. Sexist as it might be, I was determined not to let some female hairdresser get her mitts on my locks. Been there, done that thank you ma'am. They always want to experiment, impose some style on you, make a new you when you are quite happy with the old one.
No, I wanted a barber. A man. Ageing, though not necessarily senile. A working class man who talked sport and politics and had the radio playing while he trimmed. That was the sort of guy who had always done my hair in Dunedin, and they were the only ones I trusted. Them and their old ornate barber's chairs, the tins of tobacco and the brylcream they sold over the counter, along with the something for the weekend they kept under it.
The Latin Quarter was a non-starter for finding this breed. Sure I wasn't after a kiwi barber in Paris, rather I was looking for his French equivalent. I had seen them in old Belmondo films. They have a red blue and white pole outside the door, a dog lying by it, a clientele mainly over forty and Cinzano signs bolted to the walls.
I headed south, needing a "quartier populaire". I thought about Montparnasse except it was too far to walk and not far enough away for me to be bothered taking the métro. I followed the Rue des Ecoles and turned off along some narrow street. A narrow street seemed the sort of place to find the desired establishment. Over a hill and in the Rue Mouffetard, I marvelled at the concentration of restaurants. Still no barbers. Farther along I came to a modest square. The market had packed up for the day, it being eleven in the morning by then.
Surprise, surprise, there it was. A small place with an old sign, a survivor of the sixties. The pole was there, in symbolic form only, a painted beam from which the shop sign hung to attract the attention of pedestrians who may not have otherwise been bothered looking sideways. Faded lace decorated the lower part of the shop window, while another piece had been hung down behind the door to soften the light coming through its panes. According to the hours attached to the inside of the door the place was open, and the presence of two gentlemen inside confirmed this, so I took a deep breath and turned the handle.
The barber, an obese man with an oily moustache, barely diverted his gaze from the balding scalp of his customer.
"Bonjour Messieurs," I ventured.
Well, what did you want - a standing ovation? It's just a barber's shop, not the dark side of the moon...
There was a coat hanger just inside the door with plenty of hooks. It was high enough to take my trench coat without it touching the floor.
"Prenez place Monsieur, j'ai presque terminé."
An empty bench with a padded vinyl top awaited me. The reading matter on offer on the wooden magazine rack consisted of L'Equipe and... L'Equipe. They didn't have little booklets like Turf Digest in France. If you wanted to know about the races, or indeed any other sports results, Paris's sports daily was the one to read.
There was a radio on. To my disappointment it was a quiz show rather than the geegees.
"Louis Quatorze!" the barber blurted out. He was one of those bods who likes to play at home and prove he is better than the contestants.
And there it was, nailed above the big mirror that allowed clients to survey proceedings; the Cinzano sign.
True to his word, the man was soon finished.
"Dégagez un peu les côtés, s'il vous plaît. Pas trop court."
His nostrils flared at the sight of my hirsute head. Probably a bloody hippy was what he was thinking.
He went to work with these funny clippers that you operated by using your fingers and opposing thumb. No scissors here mate. Is this how the sheep feel at shearing time? He got about what I thought was a good length and then whipped out the pièce de résistance - a straight razor. My first thought was of Sweeney Todd and I hoped anxiously he knew how to use the thing.
"Vous n'êtes pas français."
I couldn't figure out whether this was an observation or an accusation.
"Non, je suis néo-zélandais."
"Ahh, ils jouent bien au rugby là-bas...Putain c'est pas ça, c'est Montesquieu! Quel idiot ce type à la radio!"
At that I shivered. Having an irritated man holding a straight razor to your neck can have dire consequences.
And I noticed my hair was going beyond the limits of what I deemed acceptable in terms of shortness. I was heading for a para's cut at this rate, but did I have the nerve to challenge a man wielding a straight razor?
It turned out I didn't so I let him do his thing. Just when I thought he had taken all he could off he went even further. The starkness of the cut left me breathless. People would be taking me for a deserter from the Foreign Legion.
"Voilà. Ça va?"
I was at a loss for words but managed to mutter something back.
The price was fifty francs, not an excessive amount for having lost such a volume of hair. I looked again in the mirror as I put my coat on. It was a tidy cut. He was a meticulous man, a great deal more careful than many of his New Zealand counterparts, who would be better off shearing sheep the way they deploy electric clippers. I looked again. No, it wasn't quite short enough to be a military cut, although it would be a while before I needed the gentleman's services again. I felt the winter breeze blowing up the Rue Mouffetard and straight down my neck as I walked up the Contrescarpe. Such hairs as remained stood on end.
* * *
My mate the bouquiniste approved of the cut.
"Sehr gut mein Herr. You could get into the Legion now."
"Would I want to, that is the question."
"It might make a man out of you, put some Gallic resolve in your indecisive Anglo-Saxon soul."
"Or get me killed in some place I would otherwise have never heard of, let alone bled in."
I was still unsure why I talked to Jean-Louis. I didn't want a bar of his politics, although he was a friendly face and could give me an insight into things French. It was more entertaining talking to him than chatting with a well-meaning Leftist doctrinaire.
Nonetheless there was a lot to dislike about the man. He was racist. Every pore of his body exuded a certain superiority, not only over blacks and Arabs, but over anyone not fortunate enough to be born French. I could see it in the condescending look on his face as we walked past Americans on the way for a drink, in the way he looked at tourists in the café when they wanted something not typically French, or couldn't say what they wanted because their linguistic skills weren't up to the occasion. He didn't mind the English, and by extension their colonials, as he mentally assumed Australians and New Zealanders to be. For him the British were a sometimes misguided bunch, but were admirable sorts for having placed their stamp on the world and merited a certain amount of grudging respect. I had trouble persuading him that there were people from down under who didn't like the English and resented being mistaken for a Pom.
From the way he talked and the way he behaved it was apparent that anywhere else other than Paris he would have been out of synch with his surroundings. He said he couldn't understand why I would want to spend Christmas in Lyon.
"It's a profoundly provincial city, and worse, a city of burghers and bankers. The Swiss of France. Can't stand them. And they all have a chip on their shoulders because Lyon is no longer the financial centre of Europe. It used to be you know, a century or two back. Now they're second or third fiddle to London..."
London. I hadn't been there. I would have to go some day. He didn't notice he had lost my attention.
* * *
I started reading Genet upon my return to Paris. I spent hours ploughing through his two most lurid novels, learning lots of new words for "penis" in French. Sodomy as an art form, peddled by a failed petty thief for the bourgeois cognoscenti. He does things to your head, does Mr Genet. He leads you to look at people in a very strange light. Walking anuses basically. Or is it anii? I should have gone to one of those boys' schools with certain standards to maintain that teaches you such things.
The haircut made me feel a bit suave in the end. And there was no need to worry any more about being hassled by National Front skinheads in the métro when they would assume I was one of them, perhaps leaving it a little bit late to go to the barber for the ritual shaving of the stubble.
The roots of this short hair thing go back a long way into French history. The pioneers were the Norman knights in the eleventh century. Their chain-mail hoods played havoc with the traditionally long, unkempt Norse locks. They used to get a tangled mess every time they wanted to take their conical helmets and hoods off for a breather in between slaughtering Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Saracens and anyone else who got in their way. It was not much of a leap in the application of intelligence to work out that if you lopped those scraggly curls off, you could wear your chain mail as often as you like without tangles. Razors scarcely lived up to their name in those days. The result was that upon shaving a thick coat of uneven stubble would remain - the original skinhead cut. During my spell studying Old French at Otago, I read accounts of how the Byzantines marvelled at the abrupt haircuts of these Northern European barbarians, come to "save" them from the Turks. It would have been a sight.
So, I looked just the part to be a right-wing, racist, pathologically violent Northern Frenchman.
Strange that I should resolve at that moment to go and knock on the mousey girl's door. I had seen her that morning and she had scuttled away again at the sight of me. I basically wanted to know what her problem was.
It was ten to midday and she was still in her room. Her jaw dropped as she opened it.
"Good morning, I come bearing pastries."
I held out a bag with a selection from the local cake and bread shops.
She stood there, not saying a word. Her jaw clenched shut, then she re-opened it. On the verge of saying something, her will snapped and she shut the door in a flash, a click of the key in the lock reinforcing her resolve.
Nikos' offer of the Venezuelan came back to me. Having met her in passing, my main concern on that count was whether she was actually a woman. She looked more like one of the queens that haunted the Bois de Boulogne. Or did, that is, before the police began making sweeps of the place, hauling them in for fingerprinting as part of some drag-net operation. Or so I had read. It's quite comprehensive, Le Monde.
* * *
That day I was buoyed up by the arrival of official notification from the Prefecture that my stay card was ready. All I would need to be able to claim it were the 200 francs necessary for a "timbre fiscal" and a piece of ID.
The first step was the procurement of a "timbre fiscal". The letter said I could get one from a post office, but the corner PTT directed me to the tobacconist's down the road. I wondered about the logic behind me having to buy something as important as a 200 franc revenue stamp from a tobacconist. Doing so somehow placed it on the same level as a packet of fags, little mind the vast difference in price. The person in front of me made a measly seven francs worth of purchases. None the less, I felt he had got a better deal than me - 200 francs for a 26 x 20 mm piece of paper with a dated piece of graphic design depicting Marianne, the image of the Republic. Thinking back, it would have to be the most expensive 26 x 20 mm snippet of processed tree I had purchased.
The xenophobe at the front desk of the Prefecture was as courteous as ever. "Bureau huit" was her short response to my question about directions.
Bureau eight was on holiday. Bureau eight was for non-European Union citizens. Bureau eight was not a happening place to be.
Bureau nine was doing alright. Bureau nine was staffed. Bureau nine gave service with a smile. Bureau nine was for citizens of the European Union.
The non-EU dregs of the earth stood waiting for nobody while a procession of happy Europeans handed over their much cheaper revenue stamps, their IDs, and received in return swift service concluded with the serving of hot, laminated slips of plastic proclaiming them to be the blessed of the earth.
Several minutes of this were quite enough.
"Il y'a quelqu'un ou est-ce qu'on est en vacances?"
It caught the woman at bureau nine by surprise. I shouted it out before she could lift her head. By the time she had, my lips were closed, pretending they had never moved. Non-Europeans were not supposed to be uppity. Non-Europeans were meant to shut up and wait and not expect anything much from life in general. Her eyes went up and down the non-European queue, trying to work out who had had the impudence to question the two-speed workings of French bureaucracy. She passed over the Africans - wrong accent. She didn't rest her eyes on the two Japanese for a moment, knowing, or at least assuming, they couldn't speak French. Was it me, or was it one of the five Eastern European males standing behind me? She stopped, thought it over for a couple of seconds, decided it wasn't worth it, and pressed a buzzer. A mere four minutes later a pudgy woman showed up, curled her lip at the thought of serving such low-lifes, and sat down at the chair behind the desk.
My turn came eventually.
"Timbre fiscal à 200 francs."
Not even a "s'il vous plaît". I ceremoniously placed it on the white counter top.
She looked at it suspiciously.
"Vous êtes de quel endroit?"
"Mon pays Madame? Je suis de nationalité néo-zélandaise."
"Néo-zélandaise. Je suis originaire de la Nouvelle-Zélande."
She must have slept through the Rainbow Warrior affair.
With great aplomb she consulted a manual. It confirmed for her that, yes, New Zealand did exist and that, no, it was not a part of the Netherlands. My lucky day.
Thus was I granted the piece of plastic-laminated paper declaring my right to reside in France all the way to July, so long as I stuck to being a student and didn't try anything funny like getting a real job or wanting to reside here permanently. No longer was I a sub-marginal with a temporary card - I had scaled the dizzying heights of visitor with a proper card due to run out in not much more than the time I had spent waiting to get it.
A Night Out With The Lads
"Screw your essay man, we're all going out! C'mon!"
Nikos spoke the English of American FM radio announcers, and he spoke it well. He had an instinctive grasp of language which was admirable. He admitted he hadn't spoken much English with anyone prior to coming to Paris. Now here he was rustling up a couple of French residents to come along too, in addition to poor, studious me.
"It'll be a fucking blast. You might even get laid if you're lucky!"
He detected some sort of expression in my face and interpreted it positively.
"Yeah, that's it. You know you wanna come. Get your coat and be outside in three minutes."
In Nikos time three minutes equates to nine minutes. Must be some Greek law of mathematics. Usually people who take themselves for organisers underestimate the time necessary by half, instead of by two thirds.
The motley group that eventually formed numbered seven. Me, Nikos, Maurice, Gunther, Rashid and two French guys whose names I promptly forgot. The latter two annoyed me by assuming I was English.
"Ce n'est pas la même chose?"
Give me strength. As we walked to the métro, I gave a short course in post-colonial history pointing to the independent structure of New Zealand, however much having a Hanoverian pretender queen residing in London as our head of state might appear incongruent. That dispensed with, I said as little to them as possible.
The conversational language that night was to be English, mainly because Maurice had no French, Nikos didn't have enough to hold his own, Rashid preferred to show how cosmopolitan he was and because Gunther added like to confirm the impression that many Germans speak English like naturals.
Nikos set the tone for the evening by eyeing up every passably attractive woman under the age of fifty as we stepped our way through the Friday night throngs congesting the sidewalks on the Boulevard St Germain. Sidewalks seems the best word for them, not because of any implied Americanisation, but to elevate them. They were too wide just to be footpaths. These were sidewalks, with an emphasis on unhindered strolling that might have come to fruition but for all the people in the way. Nikos was in no way discriminating. He would try it on with any woman who looked his way. You could tell all this from his gaze. He assessed passing females the way a predator sizes up a flock of ruminants, trying to gauge which one won't put up much resistance, or be able to outrun him when he pounces. He reigned himself in though. The night was not advanced in age, and he wasn't about to leave his mates just yet. There was a time and arena for that sort of thing, and this was not it, at this moment.
On the Porte de Clignancourt line Maurice regaled us with tales of the bar in the Rue Roquette. A cop had walked in the other day. Maurice would have turned white had that been possible. His boss came striding up to the bar and started shouting at him in French. Maurice didn't understand what was being said but caught a wink from the boss when he pointed to the door out back.
"I was telling you off for being a no-good lazy son of an immigrant bitch who thinks that just because he's lived in France all his life he can bum around", the boss said after the cop left. "I learnt a lesson many years ago: if you want to hide something from the authorities - wave it under their noses and they will think it so unimportant as to be unworthy of their attention."
We had to force our way past three brain-damaged skinheads on the platform at Les Halles. In their minds they imagined themselves tough and intimidating, except that not one of them was more than fifteen, and they had been let out for the weekend from somewhere, as they were less sentient than others of their ilk. Maurice and Nikos in the front row shoved them aside without a word. They were so thrown by the lack of any sign of intimidation on the part of these foreigners that they just stood and gaped as the rest of us marched through.
Past them we had to skirt around a tramp groping for something imaginary on the concrete floor, something as fleeting and as elusive as his past life. We walked past a group of cops looking for victims. Nikos crashed the exit gate. He wasn't paying and didn't care. Video surveillance cameras overhead recorded his act but the nearby cops didn't bother turning around to take notice.
We went up the long escalator to the surface, keeping clear of the African kids who pickpocketed here, feeling the hot métro air hit the cold night. Kids were mooching around at the entrance, waiting for each other, on the look-out for pick-ups or let-downs. Commuters stopped at the news stand to pick up a read on the long ride home to points north, south, east or west. Some of them spent four hours a day riding the train. You could spend a lifetime just commuting - a short life in real time, although longer than some in this world. The dead of the slums of Asia strain, grasp and clutch at a hard life before giving up and letting oblivion wash over them in less time than a retired Parisian would have spent riding to work in the train in forty years. A philosopher might ask who led the better life.
"You wanna get laid tonight or are you just gonna think about it?"
Nikos assumed he could read minds.
"Always direct eh Nikos?"
"I told you he didn't like girls!" Rashid nudged me. "Maybe that place is more your style?"
He pointed at a nondescript bar with no signage, nothing distinguishing really save the mirror-glass windows.
Nikos started pissing himself laughing. The French joined in. The rest of us felt left out.
"That's where all the gay boys go!" Unsubtle clue for the ignorant foreigners.
We stopped by a heavy metal record store in the Marais. I guessed we weren't far from the place I had had my first Parisian felafel. Nikos was into heavy metal. His artistic efforts abounded with gothic depictions of barbarian warriors, monsters and skinny blondes with enormous tits and very little clothing. All in keeping with the best traditions of Ancient Greek mythology.
The Marais is a happening place in the evening. Get off the boulevards and into the side streets and there is an extraordinary range of cafés, clubs, cinemas and little shops. Nikos and Rashid debated which place to start the evening at, then settled on a café that was just around the corner and along the road a bit.
Lots of twentysomethings hung out here. It was a respectable establishment, by which I mean the interior was well painted, tastefully decorated, and cleverly illuminated so as to be slightly dark yet light enough for people to pose whilst reading the latest Le Clezio novel. The seating was very comfortable - none of those wooden chairs that hurt your bum and bugger your back up, make you get up in a hurry and pay your bill without wasting too much time. Here you were able to recline, relax and enjoy yourself. To top it off you could hire out games backgammon, chess, draughts and so on. We settled on checkers. Rashid and the French had these strange rules which I couldn't follow, resulting in three losses in a row.
Nikos had no interest in board games. He cast the occasional glance at the board and spent the rest of his time spotting talent. He and Maurice surveyed the scene, passing various comments on the assumption that all the women in the world were stone deaf and didn't speak a word of English. It was a bad assumption. We were asked by a waiter to leave.
"Well, that's a fine start to the evening."
The comment was lost on everyone except the very responsible German in our contingent who guessed I had never been thrown out of a café before. This was true, but then they were not all that common in Dunedin. I did get shown to the door once for throwing jaffas at a Saturday matinee aged nine. Real rebel stuff.
Some minutes later the realisation dawned that the café still had my student ID, taken as security for the game. Sheepishly I went back and retrieved it.
I caught up with the crowd outside the Hôtel de Ville. I was surprised they had waited. Part of me was hoping they hadn't. Rashid and Nikos came to the decision that the Marais wasn't hot enough to hold them and voted the rest of us into going to Pigalle. I could feel where this was leading to. Half an hour later we were shouldering American and German tourists out of the way as we made our way along the Boulevard de Clichy. Nikos was lapping it up, right in his element. Greasy men in spiv suits stepped out to collar us as clients. Nikos said rude things to them in Greek which some of them understood. He was more polite outside one less flashy establishment where the hustler at the door was a very leggy blonde verging on eighteen. There we had to drag him away.
Nikos muttered something none of us could understand.
Dodging the traffic we reached the centre of the boulevard, a long strip of soil lined with leafless winter trees where there was more room to move. Here and there the path was blocked by behemoth buses from all parts of Europe. Further along the pushers were waiting, trying to catch our attention for some junk.
At such times I have this existential "prise de conscience" thing. That's French for something. So shoot me if I don't translate everything. It is the same feeling I used to have on Sundays as a kid, being taken around to visit relatives I didn't know. We have all had these experiences. Going to see great aunt whoever her name was. Don't get me wrong, some of those trips were wonderful. Others you could do without. You know the story. Knock on the door, perfunctory delight at the visit. Chatting on the doorstep then a "come in, come in!". Ushered into the living room. Female of the house puts on the tea, coffee or whatever, breaks out a few cakes and biscuits and the olds settle in for an afternoon nattering about people you don't know, times you haven't lived and things you haven't experienced. It all washes over you. You fidget. You look at the ceiling. You look at the floor. You ask to go to the toilet. You have that last biscuit no one wants in spite of mum's glare. You look at the TV that has been switched off to facilitate conversation. You look at the stereo for which there is no good music anyway because the owners come from another generation. You wonder how many more years of these visits you are to endure before you can say you've had enough. And the talk goes on.
Pigalle is not Aunt Mabel's living room in Abbotsford. It shares that transcendental sameness regardless, due to that stigma of being a place you don't want to be at, but at which you are constrained to remain for the sake of social convention. Just as, at the age of eight, I was the dutiful child, there to be shown off to the relatives, so too, in my twenties, an adult free to do as he wished, here I was out with the lads partaking of laddish things. I contemplated the pusher, trying to attract my attention with the same look I must have given my old aunt proffering her dull shortbreads.
True to form we ended up in a strip club. It wasn't a hard core one. There was no oral sex on stage, bestiality or stuff like that. Just bored women taking their clothes off, mainly for the benefit of middle-aged to elderly men whose wives were wondering where they were.
Drinks were fifty francs a shot. We drank a lot of water. There was a black woman of generous proportions, three French ones with somewhat less, and an Asian who went that little bit further.
Nikos cheered and whistled appreciatively. Maurice kept saying very cliched American things like "Yeah baby!"
Thinking back to the Otago University Students' Association Women's Collective I concluded I must now qualify as a male chauvinist pig. The French guys in our group were very relaxed, and loving every minute of the place.
Deciding to remain philosophical, I concluded that this evening should be fitted into the category of one of those enriching life experiences. The ones that broaden your personality, tone it up and give it that something extra.
Climbing the stairs to my room I had that Saturday morning feeling. The sense of lack of fulfilment which comes as a result of a frenetic, empty Friday night out on the town. One of those points in life during which everything else recedes and you are left wondering about where any meaning might be found in any human endeavour.
I was unlocking the door when I heard their voices. Two Maghrebin voices, coming from the mouse girl’s room. Urgent voices, intolerant of being crossed.
Her voice was plaintiff and unwilling. I could not make out what was being said. Wanting to know, I quietly stepped over to her door and listened.
She was being told to shut her mouth and listen. When she was told to do something, he was saying, there would be no questions, no nonsense, and no getting into the merchandise. Understood?
Her understanding was muted and reluctant. A slap brought about louder, but just as unconvincing assent.
I had heard as much as I wanted to hear. I was carefully stepping back to my door when hers suddenly flew open.
I had seen the pair before, that night in the corridor when I interrupted Nikos in the middle of one of his dirty deeds. That time, I had avoided being identified as a threat. This time was different.
“Qu’est-ce que tu fous là?”
“Moi? Pas grand chose. Je rentrais.” I pointed to the door of my room. Nothing to hide there. They already knew I lived here.
The tallest and ugliest one pushed me against the wall and held me there.
“You mind your own business or you may get more than you bargained for.”
“Come on, let’s get going.” His mate seemed to think there were more important matters to attend to.
They left me standing there in the corridor, breathing the insistent, shallow breaths of someone who has had a rude shock.
Houses of the Dead and Living
Morbid curiosity dragged me there. I had seen the notice in the exhibitions column of Le Monde": Medical Photography the Pioneers 1850-1870". It held a prominent position in the column. Further inspection revealed the name of an eminent gallery which here shall remain nameless. The lettered experts who had fossicked among the remains of another age to bring this event to life had their names proudly emblazoned on the catalogue on sale in the foyer. Something to go down in their résumés.
One entry fee passed to the fashionable female at the desk and I was allowed to step into the echoing corridors to receive a dose of art.
The first panel explained what a daguerreotype was. The first commercially viable form of photograph; one which required a comparatively long exposure, but opened up a new world to science and art. Nearby stood an early camera, lovingly preserved, loaned from a private collection, tripod, powder flash apparatus and all.
Next were some photographs of the photographers featured here, the details of their lives, and the dates of their deaths. It is sobering to see someone's beginning and end summed up after their typeset name in eight digits with a hyphen in the middle. They had anywhere from forty something to sixty something as a life-span. It leaves you wondering what your second date will be, then a chill passes through you. You step away, flexing your muscles, feeling the strength still there, and put an extra spurt into your stride to show there is still a long way to go yet. The thought that sank in, and wouldn't go away, was that here were people who had been dead a hundred and fifty or more years, and look what they were being remembered for.
Catalogues of madness, misery and death. It was all present in that gallery. The glazed stares of catatonics caught in the lens. A proliferation of topless women in various stages of dementia, being held by orderlies and nurses long enough for the exposure to catch an image. Did the toplessness serve any purpose? They were not so depraved they had torn their clothes off. No, the tops had been carefully pulled down. The lensmen may have had less than scientific goals in minds in recording the breasts of their female subjects.
The clothed women looked violated. Not physically, but in terms of their privacy, dignity and humanity. Here they were, being paraded as freaks in a scientific circus. Roll up! Witness the amazing show! See the screaming hag with crooked teeth! Gaze in awe at the lovely Delilah, just 18 in 1856, striking in her straitjacket and nearly bald from pulling her hair out.
Another hall was devoted to deformities: dwarfs, tall people, children with six fingers, a girl with a hare lip, and cross-eyed old men. Not one possible missing limb or deformed limb had been neglected in the quest for comprehensiveness in this survey of the misshapen.
There followed a hall devoted to the recording of skin diseases, for dermatitis to leprosy, passing via syphilis, the scourge of Europe at that time. The subjects captured for the record were no longer humans. They had been denigrated to the status of things, bearers of symptoms, walking displays for medical students.
The sociologists had their section too. In their attempts to find causes for criminality and the presence of the underclass more convenient than those of the ravages of nineteenth century class barriers and industrialised inequality, they alighted upon the appealing explanation that slum-dwellers' motives for being dragged into crime or prostitution might be explained by the shape of their probisci, the set of their eyes, or the shape of their heads. The unwitting success of these theorists was to record for posterity the ill effects among the downtrodden of capitalism in its raw state. For the first time in history, the dress, appearance and condition of the poor had been caught in detail for future generations to view in a way no painting could have done. It was somehow incongruous that what had become of Jules Ferry's universal education system in the late twentieth century still preferred to dwell on Napoleon III's expedition to Mexico and the battle of Sedan in school. Here stood those the bourgeois school teachers of French history felt no affinity for.
Then there came the chamber of the dead. The advent of forensic photographers marked one of the biggest steps in the fledgling science of criminology. Murder scenes could be recorded for later reference. The recorders of death also worked in morticians' parlours, carefully finding the right angle from which to capture the effects of a sword blow, or the right light for highlighting powder burns from a percussion pistol fired at point blank range. Displayed were legless bodies, headless bodies, bodies that were those of victims of torture, and a body of someone skinned alive.
There was a press review of all this the following day. In flowery, polished prose, the reviewer heaped praise on the audacity of the exhibition concept, the artistic skill of the long-forgotten photographers, and their fascinating insight into a world now passed.
I wondered what had changed. The same stares were to be met every day from the down-and-outs in the métro. The beggars of Les Halles and Châtelet exhibited the exact same deformities while rattling coins in tin mugs. Descendants of the mad women pushed prams full of junk around the streets, looking for a safe place to sleep without fear of molestation. And various of the descendants of the bourgeoisie of Louis Napoleon still wondered if this flotsam could be anything other than the result of genetics.
All this in a country where people get upset if you misuse the subjunctive.
* * *
The passing of a barrage of tests was cause for celebration that night. A crowd assembled in Babesville, California, as Nikos had taken to calling the dorm of the West Coast blondes. Alcohol flowed freely, strictly in contravention of house rules. I had been invited to partake of the cheer, being a resident. I had said hello to most of those present, and knew others passably well. Apart from the ever active Nikos, the dorm was largely free of non-native English speakers. Oh, there was a Dane, but he had spent so long in the States most people took him for an American. The social circles in the hostel tended to fall within the broad division of native French speakers, and non-native French speakers. I first assumed some sort of cultural snobbery was involved. Then, through observation of people stumbling over words and the resulting confusion, it became apparent that the cliquishness was motivated by a sense of security. It is hard to be witty and entertaining if you're reaching for the right words. Most of the Americans and Poms in the place only had school French, if that. Some of the French were a bit eloquent, although in most cases there was no perceptible meeting of minds. I passed through both groups, not really fitting into either. The Americans were always talking about "Stateside" with a capital S due to its innate importance to them. The dollar exchange rate formed a continuous topic of debate. There was much debate over the comparative merits of this or that change office with accompanying discussion of commission and rates. I couldn't see why they hadn't changed their money into French francs, or travellers' cheques in French francs, before their departure.
While the Americans were always going on about Stateside, with the Poms it was always "home". Prisoners of mother England and they were only a few hour's travel away from the place by any form of modern locomotion you care to mention. Football, overpriced food and the drab surroundings of some grey conurbation were what they yearned for. I shared some of the French contempt for them. Patronising remarks about accents and a breadth of knowledge of anything south of the Equator that could be comfortably printed in legible lettering on a bottle top got tiring after a while. I got to talking with an Argentinian about this once and he passed various remarks about the ignorance of people from the Northern Hemisphere.
So I floated around them, moving from one group to the other when they started boring me. I was no more inherently interesting to them than they were to me. With most of them I had the reputation of being off in a world of my own. Better one of your own choosing than one imposed by other parties.
There was a comfortable mattress near a hub of talkers. Half a bottle of wine and they began to sound entertaining. If ever you are in party and don't like the life and soul scene, then sit near talkers. They carry on unaware of you, and interpret your silence as attentive interest in their insights and wittiness.
An animated lad from the Mid-West had just discovered Foucault and was in full fight of eloquence, recycling twenty year-old ideas best left to lie undisturbed. I laughed at some of his sarcasm for all the wrong reasons. Many generations of budding intellectuals must have passed through this place.
By the time that not only was Nikos putting his arm around a blonde but she was letting him, you could tell that the alcohol had been flowing. Jack, a Texan, was regaling the crowd with a song about our Portuguese dustman called "Hey Mr Poubelle Man". The old grouch in question had earned the collective ire of the residents with his habit of collecting rubbish from rooms at the obscenely early hour of eight in the morning. He did it with the maximum of noise possible and pretended not to understand a word of complaint uttered to him in any language. Someone had even dug up a Portuguese phrase book and constructed a note on the door to be left alone. To no effect. A Spaniard who claimed to know some Portuguese went blue in the face trying to tell the old bloke to leave him in peace. Forever after, when the old reprobate's name was mentioned, our man from Madrid who mutter just one word: "campesino!" He may have been a real peasant. Either that or too stupid or stubborn to alter his daily patterns.
The other option was to leave your dustbin outside the door. But then the light-fingered element would go into action and you would find yourself sans poubelle and with the old geezer still waking you up, and getting agitated that the room did not have its regulation issue bin.
I got over the problem by emptying my rubbish into a plastic bag courtesy of the local supermarket and fastening it to the outside door handle. The Poubelle Man soon learned not to bother coming in.
At this point someone came up with a dare. An interesting dare. I was daydreaming and missed exactly who had suggested it. By the time I came back online with reality it was too late to pin it down due to the spread of enthusiasm. Nikos and the American post-adolescent males were working each other up.
"You wouldn't have the nerve!"
"Put your money where your mouth is!" Nikos retorted.
"You're on!" chipped in another.
The wager centred on who could run naked from the hostel down to the fountain outside Saint Sulpice church, throw themselves in, and then get back to the hostel first. In the interests of safe feet it was agreed that footwear would be allowed, if nothing else.
The girls, being in Paris and being more sensible, were not greatly attracted by the offer to participate. They were quite happy to watch instead. In the interests of fair play it was decided a witness would have to be present at the fountain to make sure the runners actually threw themselves in. Just one observer. A crowd waiting for them would not do. There happened to be a police station on the other side of the square in which the fountain was located, and it was likely a patrol might be alerted by such a gathering.
I was drafted to perform the honours. I left the runners deciding who would strip off first and went to take up position on a seat near the fountain.
It was a chill wind which blew across the square. I plonked myself down on a seat, having made sure first that the local pigeons hadn't left deposits there, and waited. I didn't walk through here very often. The Sorbonne lay in what my brain told me was the opposite direction from the hostel, even if in reality the square lay more to the north-west. There was not much happening in the square. Any pedestrians were on the far side, away from the narrow street through which the runners were to appear. The Saint Sulpice itself was quiet. It was lit up, being one of the historic monuments the city authorities like to show off to tourists.
I spied a bookshop tucked away on the other side of the square. I hadn't been there before. It was one of those shops which sold a limited range of general release books at higher prices than you would pay for the same items somewhere like Fnac or Gilbert Jeune. Not worth the effort in other words.
Nikos was the first into the square, genitalia flapping in the slip-stream. He let out a "YAAARRG!" and the cold, non-drinkable fountain water, laced with cigarette butts and pigeon poo, met his bare flesh. I wondered if all this was worth the cold and discomfort involved. As he clambered out, dripping wet, a whistle sounded. A lady walking her poodle gasped as this Greek vision of something whistled past her. Her dog, on the defensive, emitted the feeble yap of a too-long domesticated canine and attempted to bite him about ten seconds to late.
I gave my best "hey, I don't know anything, I'm an uninvolved, disinterested by-sitter minding his own business" impersonation as a member of the metropolitan police ran up. He wasn't bothering to chase after Nikos. Instead he was calling reinforcements on his walky-talky. His colleagues were not long in arriving. They were just in time for the remaining four competitors in the race, as bare-cheeked as Adam, sprinting toward the fountain. At least they were, until the saw they saw seven blue-uniformed types bearing down on them, at which point things turned into a free-for-all. Naked bums were peeling off in all directions as their owners wondered how to get away. Two smart ones did an abrupt U-turn back to the hostel, with the forces of law and order in hot pursuit. Another streaker raced off past the Saint Sulpice at such a speed he lost the fat, panting cop on his tail. The last, the singing Texan, was being hand-cuffed, face down on the cobble stones. The two cops who had nabbed him didn't bother searching for any concealed weapons or drugs. One of them, a bit of a wit, uttered the formulaic "Vos papiers, s'il vous plaît". His colleague found this most amusing.
By this time I was carefully walking away. Once I got around a corner, out of sight, I ran.
My path took me through back streets to the Odéon métro station, where I could start mingling with the crowd. Although it was late in the evening, there were plenty of people about to get lost amongst. From Danton’s statue I moved on to the side streets between the Boulevard St Michel and the Seine, filled with takeaways, bars and restaurants. Half an hour’s worth of strolling was enough to calm me down and set me on the route back to Rue Eluard.
A few blocks away I found myself with company. Two blokes sidled up alongside me - one on each side. Both had almost shaven heads.
“How’s it going mate?”
The “mate” was a bit forced. An attempt at Antipodean English. They may have known Australians or Kiwis before. The accent was pure London. That was when I twigged. I had seen these two at the hostel from time to time, usually at breakfast.
“I’m alright thanks. And how about you?”
The one on my right replied. “Us? Bloody marvellous, us. Bin out for a pint or two.”
“Or three!” piped up the one on my left.
They both burst out laughing. The laughs were those of people who laugh too much, and know they’re not that funny, but laugh anyway, because they have the habit of doing so.
With one talking on my left, and the other talking on my right, I wasn’t sure which way to turn to look attentive. I gave up and looked straight ahead. The one on the right took up the conversation.
“We ‘ear you’ve been having some visitors up your way. A couple of dusky lads from south of the Med.”
“You could say that, I suppose.”
The one on the left continued.
“A couple of nasty pieces of work, those two - up to all sorts of mischief. It’s a shame they ain’t bin run in.”
“A real shame,” his sidekick chipped in. “They deal in all sorts of things.” He made sniffing noises to illustrate his point.
Back to the other one on the left: “And a little dicky bird told us that you might know where they stash the goods.”
This time I turned right and left to make sure they could see my blank expression.
“Sorry, can’t help you there. It’s not like I know them or anything.”
Why did they think I had anything to do with those two thugs? Their informant was either misinformed or ill-intentioned.
“Well in any case mate,” the one on the right added. “If you can help us in any way, we could see you right.”
“If you know what we mean,” hinted the other.
More hollow laughter.
“We’ll leave it at that mate. The night is young and all that.”
“Places to go, things to do,” his companion added.
I was given a slap on the back and with that they crossed the road.
“We’re in room 602 if you want to come ‘n’ visit.”
I didn’t look to see which one was shouting across the street. It was strange stuff. They would never have guessed that they had just provided me with more information that I could have given them.
"Come and celebrate the revolution with Régis Debray."
It was a poster pinned up on the hostel notice board. The hostel had a long tradition of debate and speeches by famous people. It had a room set aside specially for the purpose - one of the few with a decent coat of paint. It had panel walls, nice chairs, the works in fact.
Régis Debray. The fellow traveller of the Cuban Revolution. The French Left's man in Havana in the sixties, whose every report and missal was received with bated breath and the Leftist equivalent of a hosanna. Fidel and Ché were forging the true path to Communism and our man was there to take notes. He went further than just writing even, joining Ché in the Bolivian jungle, setting off to prove the Revolution Within the Revolution that he predicted would spread Marxism across Latin America. He was imprisoned and interrogated for his efforts. However his family had friends in high places; sufficiently high to get him released from the other side of the Atlantic. A Renault plant worker's son would have been less fortunate.
Régis is an intellectual of the sort the French excel in producing. The sort of man whose name hits the media from time to time, usually upon the release of his latest book, serving up polished anecdotes and insights into the troubles of France, Europe and the world. At other times it is due to some turn in his political career. For Régis hadn't stayed on the outside of mainstream politics for long. He had links with the Socialist Party, ones that got him a post as President Mitterrand's adviser on Latin American affairs in 1981. That was an appointment which raised a few eyebrows in Washington.
When Jean-Louis the bouquiniste heard Régis was coming to the hostel to give a talk it was red rag to the bull material. In between obscenities linked to adjectives such as "Red" and "Communist" came the phrase "caviar Socialist". It was the one insult that really stuck. Régis was, after all, the product of a bourgeois milieu, from a well-connected family. A man of the street was something he had never been, either in Paris or Havana.
Polite clapping greeting him in the conference room of the youth hostel. Among the young folk, many of whom knew the name, along with others who didn't, were a few old lags associated with the hostel, and a small number of members of the public who had come along out of interest.
I bore the bouquiniste's telling epithet in mind as Régis launched into his talk. His subject was encapsulated in a clever title that said little but suggested a lot, serving as a backdrop to a quick overview of the troubles of France and the developing countries. There was talk of disadvantage and the need for greater equality etcetera etcetera. The talk consisted of fine sentiment couched in the best French, laced with a bit of wit, stacked on layers of nuance which evaporated under the scrutiny of lengthy pondering. The performance itself was admirable, but the nagging question was how a man who had status, money, friends in high places and worldly success could claim to talk for the underprivileged.
I set up Régis's arguments and knocked them down, one by one, in my head. To no avail. What a lowly Antipodean thinks of M. Debray is of no great consequence to Parisian society, or indeed to the enraptured members of that room. He shall have a minor footnote in history where I have none. Such is the way of things.
Someone inevitably raised Latin America at the end of the talk, and discussion shifted to US foreign policy. Listening to the critiques of Washington, there was cause to wonder whether M. Debray's role as French Presidential envoy to the South Pacific in 1983 placed him in an impervious position for the offering of critiques on great power imperialism. That year he had toured the capitals of the South Pacific, defending Mitterrand's resolve to play the part of a latter-day de Gaulle, justifying France's right to have its own nuclear arsenal, insisting that French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa was safe, and that there was no possible danger to Polynesians living either relatively near or far away from the tests. He had informed Prime Minister Muldoon in Wellington, Bob Hawke in Canberra, and various other leaders that Mitterrand was going to find a just solution to Kanak claims for independence from French rule in New Caledonia. And he sternly warned Pacific Island leaders of the menace posed by the Soviet Union in the Pacific Ocean, and added it was laudable France was doing its bit to prop up the Western defence system against Soviet incursion there. All this twenty years after basking in the role of Castro's fellow traveller at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
It was perhaps best not to raise these points. A Left Bank intellectual has an answer to every question and would not even have to wriggle slightly to cleverly evade the consequences of any challenging question that might be set. There were two people at the meeting foolish enough to try. They were just young ones. Against a seasoned speaker like Debray they were no match.
Rather than get worked up, I left before the talk was over.
* * *
It was the season for talk. The presidential elections had rolled around. Watching them unfold had become a regular pastime in the TV lounge, so I sought refuge there. Every week the various channels vied for time with one or other of the candidates. Serious interviewers would prime their guests with weighty questions, to which they would receive measured responses. It was verbal ballet, choreographed for a mass audience. But oh how different from the level of debate in New Zealand. Here were politicians who could string together coherent sentences, who had more than a tenuous grasp of the grammar of their native language, and did not fumble their retorts or witticisms. How was it that France had been endowed with men of such skill while God's Own Country was erratically steered by second raters - pig farmers, doctors of animal husbandry and the like?
There was a good write-up in Le Monde about Lionel Jospin, the candidate no one gave a chance. A timid man, leading a party in tatters was the verdict even of commentators who had once had time for a more positive view of the French Socialist Party. His interviews contradicted this press image. That he could use TV to prove the journalists wrong showed skill in itself. On top of this, he offered conviction and hope. Jospin was not above admitting that his party had had its troubles, then went on to point out that there were few parties in France which might say otherwise, making reference to the neo-Gaullist RPR and the liberal UDF. And could one really believe that Chirac was to be France's new saviour? You might as well bring Giscard d'Estaing back. No argument with that.
Chirac was self-assured on TV. As self-assured as he was in any public arena. He was not the sort of man to sweat over a debate, or not visibly. He was reminiscent of Debray in certain regards, holding that same certainty he had the answers that others were too short-sighted to notice. The same rock steady upbringing that had got Debray on in the world. Mr Chirac was a good talker, with the sole flaw that he was slightly too good to take too seriously. Looking at the facade one could not help but wonder what lay beneath. In New Zealand Chirac is remembered as the man who weaselled two French spies out of internment back to metropolitan France in violation of the arbitration agreement between France and New Zealand over the Rainbow Warrior bombing. He was the one who used the threat of economic sanctions against New Zealand agricultural exports to Europe to gain the release of two convicted criminals involved in State-sponsored terrorism. Chirac is the man who managed to contribute to stirring things up in New Caledonia just before losing the presidential elections to Mitterrand in 1988. Your average half-informed New Zealander would have no knowledge of the other candidates, but might remember Mr Chirac.
Mr Chirac talked of a just society for all. He talked of a country which French people could be proud of once more. Mr Chirac vaunted past glories that would return with him at the helm. He stressed modernity and reform, hand in hand with a regard for traditions and the past. In short, he was trying to cover so many bases with so many pleasing words he took on the aspect of an electoral Pavlov's dog, pushing the electorate's buttons, hoping like crazy for a pleasure response.
Then there came the Big Bad Wolf. Le Pen was another smooth talker. His act was to do the best to appear calm, rational and moderate under the scrutiny of the camera lens. He had been the bovver boy of Parisian student politics in the 1950s, before becoming a Poujadist parliamentarian under the Fourth Republic, and an interrogator of Algerian nationalist prisoners in the war in Algeria. Le Pen has a long track record in French politics, and a troublesome reputation with a knack for saying things that a certain sort of Frenchman enjoys hearing said although may hesitate to say himself in polite company. This was the man who described the gassing of Jews by the Nazis as a detail of history. The one who stirred up National Front rallies with talk about the undesirability of foreigners and how it would be a good thing if there weren't so many of them in France, disregarding statistics that the immigration rate in France has been declining since the 1960s, and that there were more French citizens living in certain West African countries than there were West Africans from those countries living in France. Had Germany won World War II, there is little doubt men like Le Pen would be running France. It was scary that of all the countries in Europe, the land of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and one of the birthplaces of modern Republican democracy, there existed the strongest extreme-right political movement. The American, French and English press from time to time made headlines from the fact that immigrants were harassed by skinheads and neo-fascists in Germany, using these events as the basis for predicting the dire consequences of a return of the extreme right in a united Reich, yet preferred to overlook the fact that Germany had no extreme right parliamentary representatives, and that the racist hotheads who wanted a return to a white Volk that had never really existed could barely garner national electoral support that crept above one percent. In Britain in the 1970s there had likewise been sensationalist stories of the Moseley factor and the return of creeping fascism, but the British National Front had never attained more than fringe backing. Mr Le Pen and his party had attained up to fifteen percent of the vote in some French national elections. Nothing fringe in that. There were FN city councillors, FN mayors, and a national network of party offices, workers and militants, hoping that one day the greater French population would answer the call. In the 1980s they managed to get MPs elected into the French National Assembly. And in the presidential campaigns, while Le Pen never got beyond the first round, for an extremist candidate he received a small but steady proportion of the vote in the first round and could make the Gaullists sweat if it came to a close run-off in the second round in which they required the electoral support of his followers in order to swing the balance against the Socialist candidate.
The FN element is nothing surprising for those acquainted with French political history. Political fringes in France have usually been that bit more powerful than in other Western European countries. Take the Communists for example. With the possible exception of their Italian counterparts, there was no other Western European country which could claim to have a Communist Party as long-standing and powerful as the Parti Communiste français. In the not-too-distant past, the PCF had been able to mobilise millions of voters for national elections. It still held control of various major town councils, parliamentary seats and organs of regional government. Washington had long looked aghast at the sight of Commies sitting in the French Parliament.
Somewhere along the way the PCF lost it. It might have begun in the 1960s when they held back in the face of the protests of May 1968, calling it a bogus bourgeois movement, unworthy of being considered the harbinger of revolution. Or it might have been when the Party formed an electoral alliance with the Socialist Party in the 1970s. And the hand of Moscow, never that judiciously concealed as an influence over party policy, had an added effect on popular perceptions once the dirt on Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev started coming out in the media. Or it may have been the stagnation of the party leadership after the closing of the shop to all but party hacks and apparatchiks without the imagination to do more than parrot an orthodox serving of Marxian waffle, served up with unhealthy doses of vested Party interests. A steady stream of Party ideologues, adopting a holier-than-thou attitude, had torn up their Party cards, or had them confiscated for questioning PCF support for tanks in Budapest and Prague, and PCF lack of support for the mujahadin of the Algerian independence movement. So there sat the Party, the vanguard of the Revolution, having repudiated the only thing that came close to a revolution since World War II, having sat in silence in the name of Soviet and French oppression and Party self-interest, and, perhaps the worst, having sold out to the middle-ground, closet bourgeois Socialist Party in the name of electoral self-preservation, and Party leaders wondered why fewer and fewer people were voting Red and joining the ranks. The Communist gambit to break away from the Socialists and beat them in the polls had fallen flat by the time that Mitterrand was elected President in 1981, and the Party had been going downhill in terms of votes in ballot boxes ever since. Mitterrand had allowed the Communists to hold four minor ministerial posts in the first Socialist Government of the Fifth Republic, mainly of symbolic importance, although that presence was not to last in the face of Communist dissent with Socialist Government policy.
Still they kept trying. Robert Hue was the Communist candidate for these presidential elections. His publicity machine portrayed him as the sole man of the French Left with backbone, leading a party that hadn't sold out in Government like the Socialists had. He was a man of ideas, never in short supply in French politics, who really did represent the workers, a man of the true Left. And also a man few would vote for fear of splitting the Socialist vote, as Jospin was the only one with a chance of matching the greatest threat to the Left in the polls - Jacques Chirac.
The Trots, a funny old retired man with monarchist tendencies, and sundry crazies, had as much chance as Robert Hue of becoming the next president of France. The disheartening thing is that he must have known this. Yet to admit it publicly would have been a terrible blow, and a telling indicator of how far down the Party had fallen. Not that Le Pen hoped in his heart of hearts to become President either. For him it was a good opportunity to get the FN into the news, to joust with the big boys, and remind them that they were not the only players in the political field.
There they are on TV, the big guns, so immediate, yet they live in another world. Theirs is not a life in a roachpit infested with thieves, neurotics, nymphos and streakers. They could afford ritzy accommodation in Paris. They didn't have to wait months to get a laminated plastic card saying they were allowed to stay on French territory for a fixed period before being constrained to leave. They weren't shunted through a dud health inspection that was applied too late to prevent contagious infections being spread among the general population. They weren't shut out of their place of residence by armed cops, or booted out of their room by Men from Mars spraying toxic gas. It was unlikely they could have had the imagination to conceive of such a strange, marginal existence.
Just to round off a full evening, when I got back to my room from the TV lounge, I found the door had been forced open, no great feat given the state of it. Whoever was responsible had given my belongings a thorough going over. There was stuff scattered all over the place.
Nothing was broken. All I could work out as missing was a bar of chocolate I had left beside the bed. Suspicious soul I am, I always carried my money and important papers on me. It was small recompense to see my paranoia was well-founded.
As for attributing blame for the break-in, it depended on just how far I wanted to push my paranoia. It may have been a random act. Maurice had already suffered the same fate. The perpetrators might have been the Maghrebins. Or it might have been the two Poms.
Either way, I didn’t sleep well that night. There was no way the lock was going to be repaired for another day or two, so I shoved the wardrobe up against the door for security.
In the early morning I was awoken from my light sleep by footsteps passing my door. They didn’t stop until they reached the mouse girl’s room at the end of the corridor.
Fun With Paper
There was little cause for cheering the day Chirac got elected if you were not one of the many bourgeois Parisians who crowded the streets around the Hôtel de Ville. They cheered and waved flags. A Gaullist was in the Elysée again, for the first time since Pompidou; the first time in twenty-one years. No more liberalism, no more caviar socialism (for them it goes with a small "S"). Here was a chip off the old block, a man who would make France proud again, just like the good old days under Uncle Charles. Jacques had made it clear he was going to make things better in lots of ways. One of those ways would be stemming the flow of foreigners living in France. Nasty, inferior foreigners who couldn't speak French properly, dislike café au lait, couldn't tell a Camembert from a Roquefort, or a good wine from a bad one. Foreigners who knelt to the East and prayed to a God the Francs had fought Crusades to diminish the influence of. Foreigners who didn't have a pasty pale northern French tint, or even the mid tan of a Provençal.
France had standards to maintain. It was just tolerable that Germans could participate in the Bastille Day march past fifty years after the liberation of Paris, but something had to be done about all those non-Europeans at the doorstep.
The first steps had already been taken under the Balladur Government. Laws had been enacted. Those laws came to be called after the Minister of the Interior of the day, Charles Pasqua. Pasqua is a Corsican name, although Corsica had been so long a part of France that such distinctions mattered little now, except to certain Corsican nationalists who would be happy to be independent. As a patriotic Frenchman wishing to still the tide of foreigners washing up on the shores of the Hexagon, Mr Pasqua oversaw the introduction of a range of new measures.
I had read about these laws in Le Monde, but was none the wiser as to how specifically they would affect me as an immigrant New Zealander. Most of the debate and discussion regarding the laws in the press had centred on the status of the sons and daughters of immigrants from the former French colonial empire.
And I had reason to be interested. For all the lunacy witnessed in Paris, I had become attached to the place and was not that keen to return to Dunedin, where many a Friday night had been spent wandering up the main street wondering what there was to do. In Paris there was always something of interest going on, even for those without a great deal of money. It was a place alive with possibilities in a way Dunedin could never be.
Unless I wanted to end up in Dunedin, a bored student once more stuck in a provincial town, something would have to be done. Specifically the renewal of my stay card. Now this was the snag. As there were not sufficient financial means for me to stay on in France longer than a few weeks after the end of the academic year in June, I would have to find work if I wished to remain. Problem was, under my student visa, there was a limit of eight hours’ work a week. Having asked around about the going rates for menial work of the sort expected of students, it was concluded that this was not enough to live on. The folks were unfortunately not members of the idle rich, or even the affluent upper middle class and were therefore unable to forward money to help me out of my predicament.
I went to find out more about my options at a place called the Regional Youth Information Centre. The staff were very helpful and directed me to a big ring binder on immigration and residency conditions for foreigners in France. The material therein went into great detail and I sat down and spent the time necessary to come to a full understanding of all the permutations. Things were stitched up nicely as regards foreign, non-European students in France, Not only were they now restricted to one-year visas under the Pasqua laws (formerly you could get a ten-year visa), and not only could they attain no more than the meagre labour allowance of eight hours a week, upon completion of their course of study they were required to leave France. Full stop. End of story. None of this come over and study and stay on to live stuff of the past.
So staying a student was a dead end - it did not allow a survivable income to be attained, and it slammed the door on me staying after my studies had ended.
To stay on in France I would have to reapply for entry into France as a foreign worker. This was a far trickier proposition than being a student. Students only had to prove they had funds to tide them over during their stay and prove the fact they were attending classes if required. This latter in itself could be the source of great administrative harassment if a busy-body at the Prefecture wanted to keep student expulsion quotas up and decided you would be a good choice for deportation. Various hostel dwellers had had to hunt down professors who seldom deigned to appear on campus let alone talk with their students and convince them that yes, they were actually students, and ask for a letter for the Prefecture to prove they were attending courses.
Foreign workers had it far worse. First they had to find a job. This involved tracking down an employer keen on hiring a foreigner rather than a French citizen. The employer would have to be so keen in fact that he or she was prepared to spend hundreds and possibly thousands of francs in payment for the work paper and visa processing costs. Once such a marvellous employer had been found, a rare thing at a time when the unemployment rate in France was well over ten percent, that employer would then have to convince the Departmental Directorate of Labour that his or her find was a great asset and the work being asked of the prospective employee couldn't be carried out by some more deserving French unemployed person. That miracle accomplished, and however many weeks involved having elapsed, the job seeker then had to leave the country and complete further administrative formalities. This involved a trip back to the country of origin, and lodging an application for a work visa with the French embassy there. This was no great privation for a Brit, a Scandinavian or even a Trans-Atlantic American. The outlay involved in a return trip to New Zealand was considerably greater. Still, that was my problem. If I wanted to live in France I would have to pay (through the nose) for the privilege.
I had just enough money to do this were there not too much delay in the process, a tall order for a government bureaucracy not used to processing applications for temporary residency permits in less than three months.
There were of course other options. For all of five seconds I considered joining the Foreign Legion. No visa hassles. No need for a work permit. French citizenship issued after a certain number of years of military service. All I would have to do is become a mercenary for a foreign power, immunise myself to humiliation and pain, keep my arse to the wall, and hope some misfortune did not strike me should I be posted to a war zone.
People kept telling me marriage was the other option. "Marry a nice French girl - then you get French citizenship automatically and it's no trouble". Assuming I did have a whirlwind romance with some Parisian girl who was swept away with my charm, good looks and that certain je ne sais quoi, then the fun would only just have begun. Being a non-European national, I would not gain full rights to French citizenship with all the benefits that involved, like being treated as a full human being, until after a period of two years of uninterrupted conjugal living had elapsed. Prior to that I would be unable to work, reside or do anything much in France unless I had a work visa and a job (in which case I would not have needed to get married anyway). So that would take me back to square one trying to get a working visa to live in France because being married to a French woman counts for little unless two years have elapsed. I couldn't really stay in France without work, even assuming she was monied enough to provide for me for two years, because that would involve leaving the country every three months and coming back in as a tourist, a scarcely practical, costly proposition, that some bastard at the Prefecture would doubtless use as a pretext to disqualify me from claiming uninterrupted cohabitation with the spouse.
All in all, it was a pretty screwed sort of situation. The irritating thing was the number of people at the hostel who had been around for a few years and said "but I know so and so and he's got a ten-year visa", or "but I know X, Y and Z, and they didn't have to go through all that when they got married to French citizens". Then, upon being asked when all this had happened, and what the nationalities of the people were, they would look at you blankly when you pointed out that that was in the good old days before Pasqua and that the people involved were not non-European nationals, they were Americans with double nationality or some other peculiarity.
There was one further option. Go underground and become an illegal immigrant, or a "clandestin" as the French call them. Easier said than done. I did have the superficial advantage of neither being black nor Arab, so was not a likely target for identity card checks by roaming police patrols. But in France living illegally was a difficult proposition. You had to inform the police of every change of residence within eight days. And you had to prove your place of residence in order to obtain the most basic services - a bank account, health care, und so weiter. This was just too complicated, and the sort of work going on the black market was nothing that would bring in a substantial amount of money. You could sell peanuts in the métro, or work for scab rates on a construction site. I envied the women who found work as maids or nannies on the sly. They could live in, be paid under the table, and the law was unlikely to conduct house-to-house searches of the comfortable bourgeois neighbourhoods that hired this sort of illegal labour.
Having weighed these factors I embarked, without any illusions, on looking for a job. In my choice of work, unlike my European and American counterparts (for whom there were far fewer restrictions), I had to be very selective. It would have to be work a French person could not do. My immediate strength was my knowledge of English, combined with my knowledge of French I had found to be ahead of most of the English speakers I had encountered during my stay. Teaching and translation work were the most likely options. Some people hunt for situations vacant in the "petites annonces", or classifieds. Having tried this for a few days, looking through the freebie buy, sell and exchange type of rags that abound in Paris, the English-language give-away papers, and various daily newspapers, and noticing posts were few and far between, I turned to another avenue - the Minitel.
Minitels are to be found in every Post Office in France. They are in effect little computer terminals, hooked up to a national directory of telephone numbers offering various services, ranging from railway timetables to sex and bestiality in your home. Unfortunately, the machines are not linked to printers, requiring great expenditure of time noting down numbers and addresses. After the first few pages of address information my wrist was hurting. I was also getting fed up with impatient Parisians wanting to push me off the machine, so I went to the counter and asked for the yellow pages. The midinette claimed I would have to use the Minitel. I told her it was too slow and I knew that this Post Office, like every other one in Paris, had a copy of the local phone directory for use by the general public. She eventually relented and let me photocopy off the relevant section of the yellow pages on the public photocopier which is also standard issue in French post offices.
So I had the addresses. The next question was how to approach these people. In all there were around two hundred and fifty companies which appeared to be likely prospects. I ignored any operations which looked like one-person freelance outfits, or tiny ads that indicated the company didn't have much money. Various guides to writing job applications I had tracked down at the municipal library stated that handwritten letters of application were mandatory in France. Ever the individualist, I flagged this. Not being French I am not a slave to French convention, and in writing to places in the foreign language and translation business, they would be used to the Anglo-Saxon mania for the printed word. On top of which I was not prepared to spend the weeks it would take to write out over a hundred letters, or the spending the time needed on the pathetic approach of handwriting a form letter with a fine tip marker, and photocopying it. The latter seemed to miss the point altogether - a copy of a handwritten letter? Something typed would be a lot less shoddy.
The CV was no problem, having been prepared on disk before leaving New Zealand in English and French. As Macintosh computers and Microsoft Word software is used in France as elsewhere in the world, all that was necessary was to find a place that offered computers using these. The search did not extend far. Various businesses existed around the Latin Quarter offering use of computers for a price. I found one that was particularly cheap and which offered a choice of payment rates - by time or by page. During the first session spent there I concentrated on typing and formatting a model letter and updating my CV. Then I went away, sat down in my little room in the hostel, and went through my material from all angles. There were three or four minor things to change. Returning the next day to the shop, I asked to pay by time. Cutting and pasting, I completed and printed one hundred and fifty-six letters in one hour and fifty-nine minutes. The guy in the shop looked stunned at the speed of my operation. With minor adjustments, mainly the addresses and headers, and slight retouching of the text where the company in question had a certain speciality, I could cut and paste and print each letter in around a minute. Once the printing icon disappearing off the page, I started on the next letter while the laser printer spat black carbon onto an A4 sheet. In all, with photocopying costs for the CV and the price of stamps and envelopes, I ended up paying out over seven hundred francs to complete the application letters.
The traditional advice for such off-the-cuff applications is to follow them up after two weeks with a phone call. Not having my own phone and with the price, time and hassle involved in calling from one of the heavily patronised public call boxes around the place, this was out of the question. I fully expected a low hit rate, and saw no reason wasting effort on a phone call should an employer not be bothered replying to my letter. If a company gets someone they think is a bright prospect approaching them, they don't normally muck around.
By the time a couple of weeks had passed I had received a couple of dozen polite no thank you letters and three come and see us ones, in addition to one phone call. The one phone call came to naught. One teaching outfit gave me an interview but it ended in a "we'll call you" manner.
My big break came with a second teaching company, run by an English woman with green nail varnish and thick lilac eye shadow who liked the look of me. Her company did outcall work training company staff in English everyone from secretaries wanting to answer the phone properly in English to executives wanting to brush up on their negotiation skills. It had the potential to be a stimulating method of earning money. Then came the matter of papers.
"Do you have a working visa?"
"Do you have a British passport?"
"No, I'm a fifth-generation New Zealander."
She looked at a loss, then shrugged. "Well, it can't be that hard to get you legal. I don't hire illegal labour, so we had better make some inquiries."
* * *
That evening there was a timid knock on my door. I switched the bedside light on. It was near midnight. An odd time to visit. Then I remembered where I was. It might be trouble come a-knocking.
The quiet was broken by another knock.
I pulled the covers off. I was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. The building’s central heating made wearing pyjamas impossible. Informal garb, but it would do.
I tiptoed to the door just in time for a third, more insistent knock.
The mouse girl. Up till that moment I hadn’t known her real name.
I had installed a chain on the door after the break-in. I left it on, just in case she had company. My gaze through the crack was met with two wide open, fearful eyes. She was wearing faded jeans and a black tee-shirt. No shoes, no socks. Her long, jet black hair was in disarray.
She was alone.
“Entrez.” I released the chain and she shuffled in. I made sure to lock the door behind her. When I turned around, she was standing there in tears.
“Je n’y peux plus! Je n’y peux...”
And with that she started sobbing on my shoulder. I put my arms around her bony shoulders and held her tight, wondering just what was going on here. After a few minutes, she had calmed down enough for me to let her go.
“Tu veux t’asseoir?” I pointed to the chair as a place to sit. The only other seating was the bed. With a start, as if roused from a trance, she started gaping at me. Something had snapped.
“Non, je veux partir. Ouvrez la porte!”
She was very edgy, trembling even, as she pulled on the doorhandle, to no effect given that I had just locked it. Not wanting to be party to an hysterical scene, I took out my keys and did the honours. She ran back to her room and slammed the door.
Into The Fray
My prospective employer had left it to her secretary to make inquiries about what bureaucratic hurdles had to be jumped in order to get work. I rang the secretary back a couple of days later to be told that a trip to the Prefecture was in order.
The same odious woman was at the reception desk, contempt impressed on every stress-induced wrinkle on her face. The first time I had seen her, all those months ago, I had not looked close enough to notice her pinched, sour face, a common trait among middle-aged Parisiennes. It was something to do with the lifestyle they led, the constant need to keep up appearances, and the ever-increasing anxiety caused by the encroaching effects of ageing. It was problematic assessing whether this was the cause or the symptom of them being ready to fly off the handle at a moment's notice level of anxiety.
I smiled and nodded.
"Merci bien Madame."
Bureau 5 had a little man ensconced behind the reinforced glass partition. He was having an argument with a Middle Eastern gentleman who didn't speak French too well. In spite of the language barrier, both parties were aware of their mutual dislike for each other. For the Oriental, here was an arrogant Farangi bureaucrat giving a haughty brush-off to an unfortunate. For the Frenchman, it was more a case of the wily Arab trying to con the benevolent, but susceptible to swindles, French social welfare system that he was there to safeguard.
That bureaucrat was definitely not going to be in a warm, friendly mood once having finished with this particular client. When my turn came he looked over his hornrims at me with only slightly less contempt than he would have had for a coloured foreigner.
"Bonjour, Monsieur. In have come to enquire about getting work papers. Currently I am a student at..."
He spoke in the same tone the cops used on suspected aliens in their random stops around Les Halles.
He looked at my stay card and at my student ID, along with my passport.
"It is not permitted to work full-time on a student visa."
He passed the offending documentation under the glass. His tacit assumption was that the discussion was over.
"Yes, I am aware of that. That's why I am here. I have come to enquire about getting the relevant papers to apply for a work visa."
He didn't even blink.
"We don't give out such papers just because you ask for them. You need to have a firm job offer and approach us through your employer."
"That is what has been done. A member of your staff, who would not give out a name, said that I was to come here, present identification, and that I would be given forms to fill in and pass on to my employer for completion."
"What was the nationality again?"
"I am a New Zealander."
Without further explanation he got up and walked out via a solid, heavy, door, hinged in such a way that it made a pronounced slam when it shut.
I was wondering why he asked me my nationality when he had not only just seen my passport but my stay card as well. Although the former did not state my nationality in French, the latter certainly did. Had he had a late night out the evening before? It may have been that he was just not paying attention and hoped that his brush-off would have been enough to get rid of me, without really looking at any details in my papers.
I was still attempting to reconcile a motive with his behaviour when an announcement came over the intercom and broke my concentration.
"All members of the public and staff are requested to leave the building immediately. Please walk in an orderly fashion towards the nearest exit."
Everyone started looking around, both staff and members of the public. Was there a fire? What was up?
For a moment I wondered if this was some new gambit to get rid of me, then dismissed the thought. Too much time and effort to take for one as insignificant as me.
A member of the staff was talking to a colleague as they joined the throng heading for the front door. Something about a bomb threat having been received over the phone. Could it have been from the man who had preceded me in the queue? Payback time for the Farangi? Good on him, but he might have waited a few minutes more so I could have completed my business first.
Outside the police had mounted a street-clearing operation that the Belfast Constabulary would have been proud to call their own. All parties exiting the building were immediately herded along the footpath through riot control railings which had been erected some thirty metres down the street.
I stood with the rest of the foreigners who had been doing their best to negotiate the hurdles of French bureaucracy. Members of staff congregated separately, each in little huddles depending on their department. Cops with walky talkies and flak jackets strutted around looking self-important but doing very little. The real work was being performed by a bomb disposal team inside the building.
Half an hour passed. It might have been a good idea to go and sit down in a café somewhere, except that if I didn't hang around, I might have to wait in line and restart the bureaucratic manoeuvring again from square one.
So I waited. I watched the cops, the bureaucrats and the foreigners. I admired the architecture of the apartment buildings in the street, stared at the traffic being diverted. In short I was bored witless.
Finally the all-clear came through. The threat had been a hoax. No one announced this officially at the time. I read it in a newspaper that evening.
The bureaucrats filed back in first. After, with a bit of pushing I managed to get back to the same desk with the same bloke. We picked up where we had left off.
"I was after some papers for my employer when we were interrupted."
With that he vanished out the back again. I sat down and stretched my legs.
The various foreign nationals I had pushed past to get back to my place were not all that keen on waiting because of me. I heard mutterings behind my back but ignored them.
The minion reappeared, papers in hand. He slid them underneath the glass. "You have to get these filled in by your employer and make sure they are returned here. As you will see there is a processing fee chargeable to your employer. Receipt of these papers by the Prefecture is in no way indicative of any acceptance of your application. From here the papers have to travel to receive the approval of the Departmental Directorate of Labour. Your employer would be well advised to check with them before paying any money. Assuming they assent to your application being feasible, you would then have to leave the country and re-enter on a worker's visa."
I thanked him and left.
Outside I breathed in deeply. Hurdle one had been jumped.
* * *
At a further appointment with the English woman I retold what had been said at the Prefecture. She raised her eyebrows when she read the papers and found out that the processing fee was over seven hundred francs. "I haven't had to pay that before." Her level of disbelief rose when informed that lodging an application was not necessarily indicative that it would be accepted. This was the first time she had tried to hire a non-European national since the Pasqua laws had come into force and it was all news to her. She passed all the paper on to her secretary and promised she would be in touch.
After three days I rang her back. At Rue Eluard hostel, messages tended to be relayed depending on whether the poorly paid casual help could be bothered to write them down or not. As it turned out, I had been rung. The news was all bad. After numerous phone calls trying to find someone at the Departmental Directorate of Labour who would answer questions, it was ascertained that there was little likelihood of the application being accepted. The line was that the unemployment rate in France had jumped the ten per cent mark and it was policy not to approve the hiring of non-European labour when the work could go to a French unemployed person. The fact of being a native English speaker cut no ice with the Directorate, which could not conceive that a Frenchman might not speak English as well as someone from an English-speaking country. The English woman told me she was sorry, but under the circumstances there was no way I would get a job and that was as far as things were going to go.
* * *
So that was that. I couldn't get work here. La France, terre d'acceuil, had slammed the door in my face. Renewing the student visa was pointless in the absence of money to sustain studying. Dunedin, here I come.
That night I went out and got horribly pissed.
I staggered home at about two in the morning, tripping on the staircase on the way up to my room. As I fumbled with my keys in the dark, a door opened, casting bright light on eyes none too ready for the change in luminosity.
Maryse was standing in the doorway. I squinted, my left hand doing its best to shield my battered pupils from the light.
She was dressed as she had been the other night, when she had come calling, save the sneakers on her feet. Her hair was just as messy. But the one striking difference was her left eye, which was rimmed with an ugly dash of purple.
Heedless of the light, I lowered my hand and opened my eyes wider. Her left eye was little more than a slit, such was the swelling around it. They had belted her hard. Come the morning, her whole eye was going to be puffed up like a black and blue balloon.
This time she did not sob. Her voice was quiet, level and steady.
“I cannot stay here any longer. Take me away.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Where exactly?”
“Away from here. A café, a club, anywhere.”
“Okay, but you’ll have to help me down the stairs. And you’ll need a jacket. It’s cold outside.”
She vanished for a moment and reappeared wearing a black coat.
As she helped me down the stairs I realised I was in for a stranger night than I had envisaged.
We got turned away from several clubs and discos. A drunk being escorted by a young woman with a black eye. Not an appealing pair of prospective clients. Eventually we found an all-night cellar jazz club not too bourgeois to keep us out. We slumped into an empty couch at the back of the room and soon both fell asleep in each other’s arms. It was not to last as long as we wished. We were shaken awake by cleaners at an obscene hour of the morning and lead out up to the street. Maryse by this time looked like how I felt. We both trudged the streets, looking for a place, any place, until we found a little park tucked away in a back street. Just as the sun was rising, we fell asleep in each other’s arms on a park bench.
I eventually woke up with her on top of me - a weight, although not a heavy one. While she dozed, I stared up at the clouds passing overhead in the pale blue morning sky, and watched sparrows as they flitted between the rooftops. I also watched Maryse. She was very pretty, even with an ugly black eye. I guessed her to be around twenty years of age, not too much younger than me. Her pale skin contrasted well with her raven black hair. And I still knew little more about her than I did the first time I saw her. A real enigma.
When she finally woke up it was with a start. Her surprise at opening her eyes only to be greeted with my unshaven, hungover face was immediately evident. Then she registered where she was and recollected what had happened. She pushed herself up, forcing her long, thin hands against my chest as she did so. She stood and stretched, yawning, while I sat up and then slumped down on the park bench.
“We need to talk,” I said, breaking the silence. I noticed there were now people on the footpath, heading for work, or to the market to make early morning purchases. They were paying us no mind.
She was not a willing talker. I found out the vital statistics - her age (21), her home town (Toulouse), what she was doing in Paris (studying graphic art), how long she had been here (two years), and how many siblings she had (two younger brothers, aged 17 and 19). Beyond that she was not saying much.
“I made some bad choices, that is all.”
“What about those two Arab hoodlums?”
“That is not your affair.”
“It is if you drag me out in the middle of the night when I’m hung over, you with a black eye and all. And I don’t even know you!”
“We are neighbours.” She said flatly.
“In the past you have been a far from approachable neighbour, and now you spend the night sleeping in my arms and I am supposed to be satisfied with “That is not your affair”?”
She started crying. Oh shit, me and my big mouth. I took her by the shoulder. “I’m sorry. We are both tired and need something to eat and a real sleep.”
“I am not going back to that place!”
“Okay, okay! What about a friend’s place?”
“I have no friends here! I am from Toulouse!”
Somehow it did not seem strange that she could have spent two years in Paris without making any friends. That left me to find a solution.
“Let’s go and have some breakfast, I can’t think on an empty stomach.”
I didn’t have a headache from the big night out fortunately. Nonetheless I felt as seedy as the bottom of a canary cage. Inevitably, there was a café nearby. Breakfast for us was the usual bread and coffee, supplemented with a big glass of grapefruit juice for me along with a toasted sandwich. By the time we had finished, largely in silence, I had decided that Jean-Louis was the man to turn to. He was not the sort of man who would turn down a pretty girl in her hour of need. He would be at his book stall by about ten a.m., so it was just a matter of waiting for him to turn up.
We waited in the café. Maryse sat there reading a newspaper. I sat there doing nothing. I hadn’t the strength. At ten to ten we left. There was no physical contact between us. She would not even look me in the eye. Some gratitude. Just what was I playing at? Just days away from the end of year exams, my last commitment during my stay, and here I was out in the streets with some strange woman who would not even talk to me.
Jean-Louis was in the middle of unlocking his stall when we arrived. He noted Maryse with approval and smiled. “Enchanté Mam’selle.” I took him aside while she looked uninterestedly at his wares.
“T’as fait le bringue hein?” He appeared to thoroughly approve. He looked over at her. “She is a catch, but I did not think you were the sort of man who would beat a woman.”
“It wasn’t me. She has had trouble with two Arabs at the hostel.”
That scenario appealed to the racist in him. “Les salauds.”
“We need a place to stay for a while. She doesn’t want to go back to the hostel, for obvious reasons. I wouldn’t normally ask but...”
He cut me off. “Say no more. I will lock up here and take you back to my apartment. It is large, with a spare room. Sometimes my daughter stays with me.”
It was an odd little procession on the way back to his apartment. Jean-Louis made small-talk with Maryse, succeeding to an extent I hadn’t. I attributed it to his native Parisian charm. And he obviously knew better how to relate to a woman than I did.
He stopped in to have a word with the concierge when we arrived at the building where he lived. “I have told the concierge you are friends of my daughter, come to stay for a while. Here is a spare key.”
I slipped it into my pocket.
There was a lift, but not big enough for three people, so we walked up to the third floor, where Jean-Louis had his apartment. He had a big steel door. Behind that was another door, panelled, with an impressive combination lock. “I will write down the code for you, but obviously, do not tell anyone.”
I had never been to his apartment, and was not sure what to expect. Something fairly civilised at any rate, which it was. The furniture was tasteful, and looked nineteenth century. The lounge was spacious, with a drinks cabinet, a large VCR and TV holding centre stage in what had once been the location of the fireplace and hearth. Everything nowadays was centrally heated.
He had even more books than I expected. A lot of stuff on war through the ages, and the usual classics of French literature, along with works by English, German and Russian authors in translation. African masks hung on the walls alongside paintings, although not by artists I knew. Other oddities were old political posters from the Belgian Congo and, on one wall, a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
“A souvenir from a Cuban mercenary, from the days of my youth.”
By this time, Maryse had collapsed in the couch.
“Non, mademoiselle, il y a une chambre par ici!” He carefully helped her up and led her to the spare bedroom.
“This is where my daughter sometimes sleeps, when she is sick of her mother. There are clothes in the chest of drawers. She is about the same size as you. But sleep for now.”
He led me out into the lounge. “I must return to the stall. These types - how dangerous are they?”
“There is some drug connection, but she won’t tell me much. I know she wasn’t a willing associate though.”
Actually, I didn’t know anything of the sort, but for some reason I felt I had to justify Maryse to him.
“Drug dealers are not people to take chances with. You would do best to get out of that hostel completely. You can stay here - that is no problem.”
“But I have no clothes or anything. And my final exams are in a few days!”
“All the more reason for peace and quiet. You can study here - I have a good library.”
“No, no debate, it is the sensible thing to do.”
Jean-Louis walked over to the bureau by the window, positioned to give a good view of the street below. He spent a moment looking for the right key to unlock one of the drawers. “You may need this.” He pulled out a small, yet effective looking automatic pistol.
“Jean-Louis! What am I going to do with that!”
Frankly, I was alarmed.
“Shhh! She is asleep!” He managed a command without shouting, pointing at the closed bedroom door.
I lowered my voice. “But Jean-Louis!”
“This gun was... acquired... in Italy. It is a Beretta, made in Brescia. It is not registered, and cannot be traced to me. If you have cause to use it, you should wipe it of all finger prints and throw it away. Hide it where it will not be found. And nowhere stupid like a rubbish container.” He pulled out the clip. “There is a full magazine. To fire, simply flick this safety catch off, and squeeze the trigger.” He placed it in my right hand and took my arm. “If you fire it, keep your arm stiff, like this. And when you fire, it has a kick, so hold it tightly. That’s it.”
I was not a willing pupil. I had visions of winding up in a police cell, at very least for possession of an illegal firearm.
“If you have any problems, just point the gun and tell them to keep their distance. That should be all you will need it for.”
He left me, somewhat dazed, to sleep on the couch. I hid the Beretta in my coat pocket.
* * *
Maryse was not enthusiastic about returning to Rue Eluard, although admitted the need to collect some clothes and other personal possessions. Most of my possessions could be fitted into my pack, and the ones that couldn’t were not so important as that.
We returned at about four in the afternoon. We both wanted daylight, and a time when our arrival would not be noticed. There was a side entrance just after the front gate which allowed indirect access to our floor without the need to walk through the middle of the courtyard.
My packing took about fifteen minutes. As I packed I wondered what I was doing this for. For her? Partly. Partly I was scared for myself too. The gun in my pocket notwithstanding, I am no war hero, and had no interest in staying in this nest of crims to become their next victim. Stuff was left behind. No matter, none of it was very important.
Maryse took longer. She had accumulated possessions over two years, and had more to choose from. To aggravate matters, she was indecisive.
“You can’t take everything! Just what you can carry.” She had a large sports bag which she had filled and emptied three different ways before I let loose that comment in exasperation. I was getting nervous and did not want to be there all night.
Funnily enough it was my first time in her room. She had a poster of the Rita Mitsouko on the wall, a group I thought had gone out of fashion in the eighties. Her room was brighter than mine. It had been repainted recently, and as well as a view of the courtyard, had a rear window looking out on roofs and chimney pots that must have been alongside that of the shower I used next door.
She was sorting out which shoes to take when there was a rattle at the door. No knock, just an insistent turn of the doorknob, thwarted by the key in the lock.
“Putain! Ouvre la porte!”
It was them. Maryse dropped the shoes she was holding with a thud just loud enough to be heard.
“Ouvre la porte!”
Feeling very melodramatic, I pulled the Beretta out of my pocket.
“C’est quoi ça!” Maryse was taken aback.
“How else are we going to get out?”
She went to the back window and opened it. “Over the roof.”
“Lead the way.”
Her agility at getting through the window surprised me. She had used this exit before. I passed her sports bag to her, and my pack.
I had one leg over the window sill when they broke the door in. They stopped at the sight of the Beretta just for a moment. The big ugly one reached for his pocket.
Here fear took over. I don’t know what he had in there and never will. I fired.
The shot was louder than I expected. And it did have a kick, absorbed by my straight arm. The bullet hit him in the leg.
“Merde!” He fell back in the doorway, throwing his companion off balance. I exited onto the roof to the sound of his screams. Maryse handed me my pack, which I shouldered while I watched the window. No movement.
She knew her way. She led me over the roofs of five buildings, warning me of slippery spots. I kept looking behind me but there was no one following. The only other movement out on the rooftops came from a pair of startled pigeons and a disappointed grey tabby that had been stalking them. Our escapade ended with a fire escape that took us down into a back street not far from Saint-Sulpice. Before descending, I wiped the Beretta clean and jammed it in a downpipe.
* * *
We slept together for the first time that night. But that was all we did. Nervous exhaustion took over from any sexual impulse. We slept through till the final minutes of the following morning, then wearily rose for brunch. Neither of us felt like facing the world.
For the first time in my life I felt like public enemy number one. I could hear the sound of the wanted notices being printed for posting in every police station in Paris. I had not only discharged an illegal firearm, I had injured someone with it. I was very thankful I had not hit him in the chest or head, which I might easily have done, given that I was no marksman.
Maryse did not want to go out, but she was calmer. It looked like a weight had been lifted from her. I went away to run a bath. When I returned, I surprised her in the bedroom.
Sitting on the bed was a medium-sized plastic bag full of white powder. She had been smiling at it when I walked in.
I stopped. Words failed me, then took over. “What is that?”
Dumb question. As if I didn’t know.
“This is what they were after.”
“You can’t keep that!”
“Do you know how many years in prison you could spend for having that lot?”
“Or how many years you can get for shooting someone?”
So this was gratitude. Everything I had been through and she wanted to stash junk in Jean-Louis’s flat.
“Flush it down the toilet! Now!” It was not only my voice screaming, it was my whole body. I had gone out on a limb for her.
“Who are you to tell me what to do? You’re no better than they are!”
Now I was really angry. “Either the junk goes or you do! I’m not abusing Jean-Louis’s hospitality by having that stuff in his apartment!”
On top of which the thought of being had up for possession as well as shooting someone scared the shit out of me.
“Fine. Then it is me that is going!”
She spent considerably less time packing than she had the night before, throwing what little she had pulled out of her bag straight back in and zipping it up. Two minutes later she was gone, leaving me alone in the apartment sitting in silence.
Well, that was that.
After Maryse left, the remaining days passed in a trance-like state. Jean-Louis was very gracious and let me stay on in the spare room. He seemed happy to have me as company, regardless of my lack of joie de vivre. School, sorry, university was all but over. I sat my exams without enthusiasm, but having adequately prepared, in spite of recent upsets. It was a calculated risk. I expected one day to arrive at varsity to find cops or hoods waiting for me. The thought crossed my mind that although the police did not know I was staying with Jean-Louis, if something was reported they might choose to make inquiries at the university. I can only assume nothing was reported because as it turned out, nothing of the sort happened. Either I was lucky, or I had overestimated the importance of a bullet wound in the leg and some stolen drugs. At the university registry I gave my folks' address as the place to which my exam results were to be sent. I wasn't going to be in Paris to receive them there.
Apart from drinking with Jean-Louis, wandering around the streets was a favourite way of passing the remaining time. It had the advantage of costing no money, and the urban landscapes were varied. I explored the hidden parts of the metropolis I had not seen. Walking was a form of solace and exercise. It told me I was still alive and kicking. Marginalised, but still existing.
There were other forms of amusement. Abundant cinemas with plenty of good films to see in a city with one of the best range of theatres in the world. In the darkened auditoriums mundane thoughts could be left behind for a world of invention. Bookshops provided hours of diversion from real life. With the remaining money available, books were purchased. Ones unpurchasable in New Zealand's largely monolingual bookshops. Good buys were wrapped and dispatched to await opening upon the son's eventual return home.
And there was a good deal of thinking to be done in between all the efforts toward distraction from the impending conclusion to this jaunt. A balance sheet was drawn up, haphazardly. The stimulating cultural idyll imagined before departure had not eventuated. No exotic bohemian lifestyle, rubbing shoulders with the golden youth of a new artistic generation, had materialised. Instead, there had been a brush with the world of petty crims and equally petty bureaucracy. And I didn’t get the girl.
The physical aspect of the place had conformed to expectations and surpassed them in many ways. That rich Gorgonzola odour in the deepest part of the métro was something no vivid imagination could have dreamed up. So too were the crickets chirping from between the tracks, basking in the heat and surviving off crumbs and other organic materials that had fallen from the platforms. I would have memories to cling to.
* * *
It was hot on the bus. Europeans in general are unable to survive without air conditioning set at les than thirty degrees Centigrade. I had nothing to drink other than the bottle of Bordeaux Jean-Louis had presented me with at the bus station. Although there was lots of time to think in the bus, my head failed to meet the challenge, being in one of those resigned, ineffectual moods. Instead I counted lamp posts and marvelled at the volume of traffic on the motorway, a lot for nine in the evening on a Wednesday.
London was the destination. Maybe the Poms would be more receptive. I wouldn't be trying very hard in London. Living there wasn't a heartfelt goal. The image persisted of the place being grey and expensive. Lots of rain and overpriced beer. The people I had known who had ended up in London sounded resigned to it more than overjoyed. New Zealand was too small a goldfish bowl, and London was too big, yet it was better than going back for most of them.
The last view of France was the ferry loading ramp at Calais. The approach road had widened into an enormous field of asphalt, upon which trucks and cars were lined up, waiting to board various vessels. We were waved past by customs officials.
The Channel was as level as the approach road to Calais. The ferry didn't offer the slightest roll or pitch. I semi-dozed across from two African women who couldn't decide whether they wanted to gossip in French or English. The intercom announced the wonderful range of duty free goods available for modest sums.
When the ferry docked at Dover there wasn't the slightest bump. Just a bored English voice announcing our arrival.
Bending over to pick up my pack, a shadow cast itself over me.
It was Maryse. Smiling.
Her appearance was evidence of considerable forethought. No dressing gown or sloppy jeans this time. She had combed her long, black hair. Make-up evened out the patchy bits of her pale complexion, without going to excess. Her black skirt and pull-over showed off her slender frame to good advantage, with a scarf added to provide protection against the cold English morn. She had a spacious day pack slung over one shoulder
“Alors, on s’en va?” She arched her eyebrows.
My voice shook with uncertainty. Hers was altogether more forceful.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 1999
Web site © Wayne Stuart McCallum 2004