Pitched up in Paris

Paris. Something told me the scantily clad women in black boots weren’t selling ice creams from white vans parked in a thoroughfare of the Bois du Boulonge. When one emptied the garbage of the night before into a waste-bin she revealed  her profession in the back of her wagon, a bed. It would be easy to wax lyrical about the magnificence of Paris, as it is, but this trip was, let's say, er, a little more rustic. It all began...
Accordion player and bridge detail

 When I was standing at a ticket machine in London Victoria poised to buy a ticket back home to Newcastle. A young Spanish man came up to me and asked, "Want to buy a ticket to Paris for £20?" I looked him in the eyes, they were relaxed, warm and genuine. "Go on then, Yes," came out my mouth. Pablo, and is girlfriend Nerea, through love and long hours have saved up enough money working in McDonalds on minimum wage to travel the world for a while. With a sleeping bag and bivvy, camping stove and passport in my rucksack I concluded living on £40 for three days in the French capital might just about be achievable. Orwell, eat your heart out. This would be down and out in with a pitched up in Paris park twist...And, in order to maintain my dignity I set myself a test: To keep the semblance of a clean white shirt for three days, 'It's the mark of a gentleman,' I convinced myself, 'a nice clean white shirt.'

As evening fell around the city my search for a place to pitch began. I cut through the woods and openings of the Bois once again. This time the verges were crawling with nighthawks in leather and lingerie.  Pimps loitered with random homeless Africans, some just staring into space, in the middle of nowhere, like dusk shadows awaiting dawn. Time to get out of here, I concluded.

I reached a manicured area with cut grass where the relief of seeing joggers and cyclists, lovers and families was palpable. I spotted a clearing amongst some trees and an indention in long grass that would screen me from passers by. I pitched my bivvy under a full moon, carefully folded my clean white shirt, sipped honeyed chamomile tea and fell a sleep, peace-fully in Paris. Beyond the clearance, in amongst the undergrowth, the underworld was only just beginning to wake up. In the morning I navigated my way through those still standing. In the early light, two prostitutes stood blocking both sidewalks of a tree lined avenue, so I navigated down the middle of the road. They muttered something and one blew a kiss. I cut through, sight's set on pure thoughts and the rush of  coffee; but I hadn't dodged all the hawkers yet.

Street light shadow on a warm Paris day.
I nosey'd on up up the Champs d'Elysees towards the Arc de Triomphe where a women miraculously appeared and swept up a golden ring from the street into her palm. She offered it forward to me with an expression that said, 'Want it?'

I paused. "You have it, " I said, instinct kicking in, and kept walking. After a few steps I turned my head and there she was, palm still outstretched with the prize. I took a couple more paces and turned my head once again. She'd gone, as quickly as she had appeared. 'Scam' I thought, but I've only got £35 in the whole world, and what if it wasn't, what if I've just missed a golden opportunity from a kind stranger purely through my own cynicism?

The answer lay around the Arc de Triomphe where, amongst the tourist throng, a man bent down to the ground and uttered, "Ooooh La La!" He eye-balled me, opened his palm, and revealed a golden ring. I'd already dodged him by then though; this time the trickery was obvious, but maybe the white shirt was making me look kept enough to scam.

In this reverie I was no longer cast as a skint backpacker who'd slept in the park following a 12 hour trip on Easy Bus, but an accomplished author, pen poised to reveal the deepest of thoughts to the world.

My mind was to turn higher ideals than hawks. In my clean white shirt I sat supping cafe noir at a pavement café and contemplated the refined countenance of the French female. Fragile, porcelain, delicate, elegant, refined, I mused.
In this reverie I was no longer cast as a skint backpaker who'd slept in the park after a 12 hour trip on Easy Bus, but an accomplished author, pen poised to reveal the deepest of thoughts to the world. It's cool to write in Paris, Woody Allen would approve after all, so I dived deep into the daydream, took out my notebook and wrote. Indulge me if you will:

"Here in the perfumed air of Paris the fine art of the feminine is taken to it's highest expression, it's zenith. Summer dresses float in July sun against the contoured curves of street angels. Their pale complexions, ripe to turn olive in the heat of the Riviera, sport small brown beauty spots. They glide refined on legs immaculately smooth, their sunglasses perched ready atop fine flowing hair to hide those deep brown eyes. And, always, always, always, a cigarette, held aloft between two fine fingers crowned with manicured nails, and a fine gold engagement ring."

Lovers, hand in hand along the Seine
Hello Dolly.
<Cue: Sound of static...>.

Back to reality, the contrast between the whore's of the night and the chic of the day is stark.The streets were warm and walking was long, punctuated by coffee and inexpensive meals in a backstreet restaurant or two .In a market place I became engrossed in the abundance of lobster, artichoke, white asparagus and all the fromage du Francais. I walked the Seine and sought  out the downbeat in little Africa, around rue Dejean, where big groups from former French colonies hung outside hairdressers like it was the hippest joint in town. I invoked Bird, Mingus, Montgomery and Grappelli in the jazz clubs I passed by. On my final day I took-in the Parc Monceau:

"Buggies and baguettes, balls and badminton rackets, bubbles and bosoms, babies and bonnets, bounce as far as the eye can see. Lovers linger, French kissing. Afghanistan this ain't. A sign on a school I passed earlier read: "Ecole Fillies. Liberté, égalité, fraternité," Here every size and shape and age is at leisure under the sun. Pigeons foray for scraps amongst a sea of humanity swimming all directions, all at once; jogging, cartwheeling, wheelbarrowing, sprinting, swinging from trees, scootering. Legs and elbows akimbo, this way and that. Towels spread in rainbow colours across green grass. Sun hats and knapsacks. A melange of black and brown, yellow and white bodies; from Africa and Arabia, and Eurasia. Frisbees and tennis balls fly by. A gay guy strokes his partner's arm with a blade of grass. Bag size dogs snap away, scampering on strings, tiny legs flicking faster than surely they ought to. Everywhere cigarettes and books and discussion. A guitar or two is produced for a song and a strum. A bottle of wine is poured into a glass. All around the sounds of children's delighted screams, chatter and laughter, birds and buses. 

If peace and freedom have an expression, then this is it."

And the shirt?

If a little grey round the neck the dignity of the gentleman inside remained intact.

Parisians in the park

nb, On returning from Afghanistan my time spent time in Spain and France served as a place of reflection as reverse culture shock set in; my writng reveals something of that process!


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