Paris: Muggings and Riots and Notre Dame Engulfed in Flame

After Chiang Mai came two sweaty nights in Bangkok. After Bangkok came Paris.

Jeanne and Justine got an earlier flight out of Thailand, and I arrived in the city fourteen hours after them, in the evening. By the time I arrived Justine had already left the city for Orleans, an hour or two south. Won’t be seeing her for a long time now. After a year of perpetual company and a merry-go-round of familiar faces, suddenly Jeanne and I were all that remained. Weird.

We met Lucie, Jeanne’s older sister, took the train to the heart of the city of light, and ate pizza in a crowded restaurant. During the meal I was quiet. After so long in the company of bogans and backpackers, to be now hemmed in by suited and booted Frenchpersons, gesticulating gaily with sloshes glasses of expensive drinks, wrists gleaming with platinum timepieces – I felt a little bit sad, and a little bit fearful. I missed Tasmania. I missed carrying my life on my back. I missed ruddy cheeks and dirty clothes, and I missed the jolly shrug of the skint traveller opting for the nine dollar sack of wine over the twelve dollar pint of beer. Real people freak me out.

We stayed at the flat of Jordane, one of Jeanne’s best friends from Strasbourg. I’d met her once in Melbourne already; she came to visit Jeanne in November last year. Her flat was just off Champs-Elysees; the street that the Arc d’Triumph hoists up its skirts and straddles. It’s very pretty. Her apartment was light and airy and our bedroom for the week had a broad balcony from which we could look out over the slanted rooftops of Paris and smoke horrible Thai cigarettes. That first night we drank only a couple of glasses of wine and I went to bed early as, although it was only 10pm, my body clock was adamant it was 4 in the morning.

We spent a couple of days exploring Paris. We visited the Eiffel Tower (we took the classic couple photo in front of it, of course, although I angled it wrong and cut out both the top of the tower and Jeanne’s body from the chin down, which meant that the photo was essentially of my own perfectly framed face beside Jeanne’s forehead and the Eiffel Tower’s midriff), the Musee de l’Orangeree, the Catacombs, the smouldering ruins of Notre Dame, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, the busy banks of the Seine, the lively steps of Montmartre, and the peaceful Montmartre cemetery.

On my third day we were to help Jordane move flat. Her other two flatmates had already cleared up and cleared out, and a few extra friends of Jordane’s rocked up to help. With the help of one Julien of Lyons, I lugged down five flights of stairs: a double mattress, a chest of drawers, a bed frame, a bookshelf, a sofa and several dozen boxes crammed with tat. It was quite impressive to see the volume of what a proper human my own age can possess – as opposed to me, who has all his worldly belongings barring maybe one ancient guitar and amp rammed into a 9kg backpack smelling faintly of mildew and fart and beers long-spilt.

It was sweaty work, and after a bizarre hour-long van drive through rush hour Paris, in which I was crammed in the front between two chain smoking Frenchmen, we arrived at Jordane’s new place on the far side of the city. Up four flights of ancient stairs, twisting and time-warped and uneven and ghastly steep, we lugged once more the double mattress, the drawers, the bed frame, the bookshelf, the sofa, the several dozen boxes of miscellaneous clutter, and a mother fucking washing machine to boot. The damned machine must have weighed close to a hundred kilos, and the smooth metallic surface offered no handholds or grip whatsoever, and there was a lot of puffing and grunting and swearing in French as we hauled it to the top floor. But I was happy once it was over: with my red-faced exertion I had apparently proved myself as a decent chap in the eyes of Jeanne’s friends, who seemed to warm to me and gave me beer.

I met Jeanne’s cousins too, and a steady stream of old best friends. It made me a little bit sad at times; I could count on one hand the number of old friends I’d be seeing again upon my return to England. But ah, it’s my own fault, isn’t it. I’ve got plenty of friends around the world. They’re just spread out. It’s the life I chose. Anyway.

I like how the French do things. I like the endless bread and the ubiquitous cheese (although I must say, it’s a miracle how anybody in France ever manages to take a shit), and I like the conversational intimacy of mealtimes – though Jeanne assures me that her friends have not always been quite so classy, and their offering of bowls of olives and tomatoes and plates of Brie during evening drinks it’s a bewildering new development. Everywhere we went – whether the Seine or Montmartre or Jordane’s new flat – we were accompanied by an entourage of baguettes and little cheese wheels. It seems there’s a lot more focus on enjoying the sensations and flavours, rather than simply gobbling all and getting sozzled. It’s pure indulgence of course, but without the morning-after guilt that envelopes the English upon our return to sobriety.

I met Paris at a very strange time in her life. It was strange to see Notre Dame all burnt up. Witnessing history – stuff that generations still to come will learn about – makes one feel ever so slightly more real. The building itself seems fine, apart from the total lack of the massive spire – but if you didn’t have Notre Dame’s shapely form memorised beforehand, you could easily believe there was never a spire at all. A couple of days later, we witnessed more history-in-the-making, as huge areas of the city were cordoned off due to marches by the gilet jaunes. We didn’t see any protesters ourselves, but Jeanne received an angry text from Jordane one Saturday afternoon saying that she’d been making her way home through the centre of the city and had accidentally been caught in a great tear gas cloud blowing down the street. She seemed miffed, at worst. I suppose you can get used to anything, eventually.

We got to be detectives one sunny afternoon, while taking a stroll through the Botanical Gardens (in which we found a large pen full of captive wallabies, which was incredibly odd after a year of seeing them hop free in their natural habitat). Jeanne and I were mooching away from the gardens down a quiet street, when a young man riding an electric push-scooter zipped down the road towards us. Without a word, he slammed on the breaks, ragged his scooter around, and whizzed off in the opposite direction, flinging something on the floor as he sped off. The object went under a car wheel.

As we were watching this, a police officer on a motorbike came screeching to a halt in the street, and with a great huff began to heave his bike around 180 degrees. I glanced at the object on the floor and saw it to be a purse, and realised that the man on the scooter must have been a thief. I tried to point the purse out to the officer, who was too busy dragging his great motorcycle to face the opposite way down the narrow street. Without a word he revved the bike and shot off after the thief, who by now was long gone.

Jeanne and I, now alone in the street, picked up the purse. It was full of IDs and bank cards – no cash, which was presumably pocketed by the thief. An elderly French couple who had also witnessed the chase sauntered over, and asked what was going on.

“The man on the scooter stole this purse!” said Jeanne, pointing down the road.

However, in the time since the thief had vanished, there now had appeared a young man with Downs Syndrome riding a push-scooter along happily.

“Are you sure?” said the old man, eyeballing the suspect.

I nudged Jeanne and nodded towards the man down the road, who was busy waving to passersby as he scooted down the path, smiling.

“Er… not him.”

In the end we gave the purse over to the elderly couple, as they worked for the government and had more of an idea of the procedure for returning it. Jeanne and I walked away hand in hand, satisfied at having (partially) solved a great crime, declaring ourselves to be Tintin and Snowy (Milou, in French).  I was Tintin, of course, because I have a great flick of blonde hair. Jeanne was Milou, because she is small. This felt a little unbalanced, so we decided that I would be Tintin and Jeanne could be Inspector Clouseau, and together we would walk the city streets solving heinous crimes.

We tried for an hour but couldn’t find any more crime scenes, apart from a park where somebody had drawn a pair of tits on a statue. In the end we gave up and went to eat some more bread and cheese, winding away along the cobbles of the pretty city of light, holding hands.

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