It’s just after 7pm, and it’s been a strange sort of day. I feel like I’ve done a huge amount, and yet due to my exhaustion none of it feels real. I’ve been dreaming.
After waking in Berlin at 4am, I landed in France at 8.30 this morning and got the train into Paris. I got very confused and lost in the station, and finally arrived at my hostel around 10.45, and tried to check in. The girl looked at me like I was a half wit. Check in isn’t until 2, of course. I took my backpack and slunk off into the city. I decided the Louvre would be first.
I’m always intimidated when visiting a new place, no matter how near or far. You can get lost just as easily on foot as on a bus or tram, sure, but at least on foot you get lost at a much slower pace – you’re not ferried off into oblivion before you can raise an objection. So I opted to walk – everywhere. I must have covered 15 miles today, or more.
Wandering the city on a weekday morning, I was treated to the lazy spectacle of Paris waking up, and the slow mechanisation of the streets gearing up into a new working day. Someone genuinely opened a pair of old squeaky green shutters above my head as I trudged down a quiet street, and I laughed to myself. It was too perfect. I suppose that’s one benefit of being alone – you notice every detail. If I’d been with a friend – if I’d been with a girl – her – I’d never have noticed the way the moped delivery men hang lit cigarettes from their lips as they zip around, or the Laurel and Hardy outtake of two squabbling laborers trying to reverse a belching lorry into a parking space that was much too small.
I can’t help comparing it to Berlin, which boasts proud sweeping streets fifty feet wide. In Paris, the warren of runways and avenues are half the size, and twice as busy. It looks older, grimier; warm and smelly, as though Hemingway wheeled that moveable feast of his out onto the patio on a hot day and forgot about it. I love the energy, and the fifteen things happening every second.
The Louvre turned out to be miles away, and I was already sweaty and weary by the time I reached its great glass pyramid around 11.30. I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time from there, strafing the skyline in astute, infallible confidence. I asked a couple to take my photograph, which I suppose I’ll be doing quite often. I’d sooner be impaled on the sharpened ends of a hundred selfie sticks than buy one.
I got into the Louvre for free, because I’m under 26, but everyone else got in for free anyway because all the ticket staff were on strike. Before I left Berlin, Heleen warned me not to spend too long in the museum. She told me that if you spent one second at every exhibit, it’d take you six hours to get around it all, or something like that – and my time in this city is limited. Instead, I picked a wing at random and raced off, and after a while found a map that guided me to its main attractions. Yes, I am a big dirty tourist, I don’t care, shut your face.
The Venus de Milo was marvellous to witness, as was the Mona Lisa, The Raft of Medusa, The Sleeping Hermaphrodite (which I misread as ‘Sleeping Aphrodite’ and consequently spent 5 minutes staring appreciatively at its shapely bottom before rounding the statue and realising it was also adorned with a big floppy cock), The Intervention of the Sabine Women, The Coronation of Napoleon, and several thousand other painstakingly crafted images of unfathomable beauty which I sprinted past, red faced, in my haste to get around everything as soon as possible.
Seeing the Mona Lisa in person is much the same as seeing it everywhere else in the world, on posters and screens and imitation canvasses. There is a huge, camera-phone wielding crowd, a lot of tour guides yelling over one another, bleary eyed security guards propped up on tired stools, and a perimeter fence of several metres that the occasional twat decides doesn’t apply to them and ducks under, before being scolded and shamed to kingdom come by the baying crowd. Alone, you feel less touristic, at least. You don’t lean over to your partner and say things like, “By ‘eck, I thought it were gunna be a bit bloody bigger than this!”
I stood in front of the painting for 10 minutes trying to feel something, to appreciate it and to respect the impact this painting had had on the world. Nothing came. I’d simply seen the image too many times – probably at least once a week, if not more, for my entire life – just like the rest of the world. I strained my mind and heart, and imagined old Leonardo hunched over an easel five hundred years ago, working on her smile, his brush flickering deftly back and forth, adding minute detail, layer on layer, plans for flying machines and Vitruvian men scattered around his studio. I felt a slow flush of wonder, finally, and was satisfied. I had appreciated the Mona Lisa.
My favourite painting by far is Liberty Leading the People, because of its bombastic nature. Revolution, death, freedom, change – it’s all so sexy, all that bottled vigour and doomed passion. I swoon. I asked another couple to take my photo with the painting, but they took it before I was ready, and my expression in the photograph can only be described as ‘flummoxed’.
I was weak from hunger after the museum, barely registering the last thousand or so priceless masterpieces I passed; I was craving a burger. Everything in Paris costs an arm and a leg, so I’ve fed off scraps all day. I had a Twix, and a soggy sandwich bought from a mini-supermarket where the security guard had a gun, presumably so he could shoot people to death if they tried to nick off with a cucumber, or packet of sherbet dip.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I’ve not yet mentioned the heartbreak that drove me to this trip in the first place. Well, that’s because I could feel it the whole time, nagging and whining, like that little shit nephew at a family barbecue. My body was aching, and it was hard to walk.
I dragged my body across the city to Notre Dame; it is very pretty, it is very big, there are many people. A woman took my photograph in front of the majestic landmark, but unfortunately a fluorescent man pushing a vast green wheelie bin was passing at that very moment, and is now immortalized in my holiday snaps. The cathedral was stunning inside, and I sauntered to and fro among the aisles contemplating Quasimodo. I was going to light a candle, but you had to pay 5 euros, and so I did not.
I walked back to the hostel after, starving. I’d already failed in my vegetarianism – the soggy sandwich earlier, defended by the machine gun toting mercenary, was, I am ashamed to say, tuna-infused. I bought another, equally drenched sandwich on the walk home, and ate it with a 15 minute long grimace. I took a different route back, which led me through what can quite fairly be described as a ghetto. Homeless people and refugees and shunned ethnic minorities lined the streets for a kilometer or two, and I was the only white face for blocks and blocks. I felt very embarrassed, all of a sudden. There’s a Sex Pistols lyric that goes, “a cheap holiday, in other people’s misery’. Sigh. Yep.
I bought a bottle of wine from Lidl, came back to the hostel, and napped for 90 minutes. At 6pm, I headed to Sacré-Cœur, which, for those not in the know, is a cathedral on top of a hill overlooking the city. The locals hang out there and get stylishly pissed together nightly. I sweated to get there, but finally, after a monstrous stair climb, I made it to the top – and my god, what a view.
The city of light unspooled away before me, ten thousand crowded alleyways below, and the skyline gloriously, gratefully squat – no high rise meddling here, just that stark iron tower over everything, and all the beating hearts below, all the lovers entwined on plush sofas, cuddling up to watch the evening’s television, clinking glasses, making love, and me up here, with my wine, writing this, alone.
And here I still sit, and now you’re up to speed with my day. Here I sit, here I am, my gaze caressing the city, distant horns and bustle carried overhead on the warm evening breeze, and a lazy saxophone is playing in the park somewhere to my left. I brought a pen and pad along, but all the wine bottles here are corked and I didn’t realise, so I had to use my pen to stab open my wine, breaking it in the process and getting ink everywhere. I hammered at the bottle for around 30 minutes with increasing fury, like an otter trying to crack open a clam. Onlookers and bypassers watched fearfully at my frenzied, silent struggle, and I had to repeatedly scurry away from slow rolling police vans, until finally the pen exploded in my hand, the cork plunged into the bottle, and a volcano of cheapest rosé showered my groin.
Despite my now-drunken loneliness, the view is astonishing, and I feel extremely lucky to be here. The clouds are pink, the sky is oily yellow trickling into deep blue, and on the hour, every hour, for 5 straight minutes, the Eiffel Tower sparkles. I’m not talking literary bollocks sparkles either; I’m not imagining it, I mean it literally bursts into a glittering lightshow. White light bulbs flash and dance off its every surface, like silver morning sun on the sea.
This must be what old Paris was like in 20’s, when Pound and Joyce and Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald where running around here up to no good. The selfie sticks and the tour buses might be new and unsightly, but I take solace in looking out at the Eiffel Tower and knowing that a hundred years ago, my heroes, then only young aspiring writers just like me, sat where I am now and their view was the same. They drew their inspiration here, and god, I can see why.
After penning the above, I finished my wine on the bench on the hill, didn’t talk to a soul, didn’t really feel like it, still sad, still heartbroken, but at least soothed by the clouds and that beautiful Tower. By the time I descending the long stairway, I was well and truly sloshed, muttering and burping and singing to myself softly. A couple of French guys helped me get into a public toilet when they saw me helplessly pawing the door outside. The individual public toilets are electric, and every time you exit them, they spray water everywhere inside and clean themselves. I was amazed!
At this point in the night I was depressed and fabulously smashed, got lost for an hour in the streets and all is a blur. We can decipher my later actions from a receipt I found for four (yes, FOUR) cheeseburgers, and despite the gaping void in my memory, the next day I found this single photo, which seems to indicate I staggered several miles to the Moulin Rouge, before doubling back and heading home.
Back at the hostel, sleep came easy.
Tomorrow: Paris, Day 2
“My coffee is finished yet I’m lingering as I have fallen in love.”