A Long Walk
Ah! Gay Paris! Dude, this is the gayest city I have ever seen. How gay is it? Paris is so gay that it has gone full circle and become straight again. So…
Ah! Straight Paris!
The TGV train into straight Paris was fast. We were going well over 100 MPH. The close range scenery was jetting by so fast that it was impossible to focus on anything before it zipped out of sight. The worst part was when we passed equally fast trains going the opposite direction. The air vortex created by two things passing each other so fast, inches away from each other, made it feel like my eyeballs were going to pop right out of my skull. That sensation and the deafening “whoomp!” sound that accompanied the moment with no warning scared the living ca-ca out of me every single time. At that speed and with only four stops, we traversed the sizable distance between Bordeaux and Paris in less than three hours.
Paris was just as huge and daunting as I remembered it. Their metro system is admirably robust and comprehensive. There are over 300 stations and the layout is designed so that no spot anywhere in Paris is more than 500 meters (about 550 yards) from a metro station. This is fabulous for us tourists, except that it translates into a metro map that is so complex and huge that you need advanced degrees in navigation and cryptology just to read it.
It was mid-October and Paris was freezing. I could see my breath all day long. There was no afternoon Mediterranean warm up lurking in the background like locales further south, it just stayed Winnipeg-cold all day. I did my best to look favorably on this weather and counted my blessings that I was not witness to the devastating heat wave from the summer, where over 15,000 Parisians died of heat stroke (mostly the elderly), requiring half-assed, temporary morgues to be hastily assembled across the city.
Arc de Triomphe
Paris is not a clean city. The streets are peppered with various forms of animal shit (mostly dogs and pigeons [I hope]), cigarette butts and mud, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where all the mud was coming from with the entire city being paved over. I suppose any city with 10.6 million inhabitants is bound to get a little messy. The crush of people, even during off-season, is similar to New York or London. The metros are jammed, the streets are busy and one out of every three people owns a dog that is ferried with them wherever they go. If you can keep your crowd anxiety under control, all this pedestrian traffic actually translates into a fairly safe environment. With space being at such a premium in Paris there are few if any dark, deserted alleys, because as soon as one is located, someone opens a high priced bistro at the end of it.
People are beautiful in Paris. A small percentage is flirting with the line that crosses into Euro-Trash, but for the most part the beauty is natural. Being surrounded by so many attractive people can be very soothing until you catch you own reflection in the window of a metro and it occurs to you that you are probably the ugliest person on the entire train.
If the anti-smoking campaign succeeds in vanquishing every single smoker in the rest of the world, the tobacco companies have nothing to worry about as long as France holds its course. The only French people over the age of nine who do not smoke are dead. And although you can find the rare no-smoking signs on the occasional train or operating room, these are more informal suggestions than strict policies. It’s a nationwide free-for-all. Smoking etiquette is nonexistent. No one asks if they can light up. No one bothers to blow the smoke away from the non-smokers in their immediate vicinity and the country is literally one big ashtray. This is a problem to a certain degree all over Europe, but France is the undisputed champion. The French can’t claim ignorance about the negative effects of smoking. This past summer all European cigarette companies were required to enlarge the warning labels on packs of cigarettes to cover over half the outer packaging surface with no-nonsense phrases like “Smoking Kills!” in 50 point font. Purportedly, the next step will be printing color pictures of blackened lungs and cancer patients on cigarette packs. That’ll make pulling out that after-dinner cigarette nice and soothing. Mmm! That’s satisfaction!
By my fourth day in Paris my budget was taking a serious ass whooping. I barely needed to bother putting my money neatly in my wallet after each visit to the cash machine, considering the very short relationship that I was having with my euros. I visited the cash machine approximately every third day and withdrew at least 200 euros each time. And that didn’t count the charges that I was putting on my Visa. It was out of control, but there was nothing I could do. I wanted to know where these guys were that were writing books with titles like “Paris on 50 Cents a Day” or whatever. Up to this point, the best book I could have written would have been something like “Paris on US$80 a Day.” Of course, with my determination to do all of the cool and decidedly not cheap things in Paris, piled on top of inordinately large food bills, I really had it coming to me.
Paris still seems to consider itself the fashion center of the universe, no matter how ungainly those fashion choices may be. For example, four inch, needlepoint, high heels, the modern world’s most uncomfortable fashion trend, seem to be back in style in Paris. These heels are so high that they require women to buy whole new assemblies of pants that have an extra three inches in the inseam. I don’t get this at all. Women are wearing heels that are damaging multiple parts of their feet, legs and spine all at once. Then they buy pants with an extra long inseam that cover up the goddamn precious shoes that they are working so hard to have on their feet in the first place? What’s the point? I will never understand women. Though I have to admit, watching women run in those shoes without twisting an ankle and causing a rotary, multiple bone fracture was as riveting and amazing as watching that maniac go over Niagara Falls with no protection and live.
Several of the legendary “Paris-sights” (Say it fast. Hee hee!) were dutifully covered during my stay. The Eiffel Tower was as imposing as I remembered and so were the lines to get to the top. Having already seen fantastic high views of Paris from the Sacrè-Coeur, La Defense and my room on the top floor of the hostel, I skipped the debilitating line and moved on to the Arc de Triomphe, smack dab in the middle of the largest roundabout in the world. I checked my sanity for a second and briefly considered snatching up the bragging rights for having made the mad dash through about eight lanes of traffic to the Arc’s base. Then I reviewed my traveler’s insurance agreement and found out that I was not covered for boneheaded, minor injuries. I would need to severe a limb or require neurosurgery, through no fault of my own, to be covered by the policy, so I took the sensible route to the base through the underground tunnel. I made obligatory strolls down the Champs-Élysées and through the Latin Quarter even though there was nothing to see but hoity-toitty boutiques and over-priced cafés. I timed my stop at Notre Dame for the 2:30 tour in English, but I only got halfway through it before the incredibly long narratives on the religious significance of every nook in the wall bored me into paralysis. I scrambled through Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the most visited cemetery in the world, to pay my respects to Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. I walked past the Hôtel des Invalides, formerly a home for disabled veterans, which houses Napoleon’s tomb, situated in such a way that you have to crouch into a kneeling position to get a good look at it. That little, pony riding, egomaniacal bastard is still making people bow down to him over 130 years after his death.
My “Walk-Everywhere-Possible-So-You-Don’t-Miss-Anything” approach to tackling a new city is just begging for a repetitive stress injury in a city like Paris. I had been trying to be conscious of the state of my delicate feet since I had gotten them as close to healthy as possible with an inert week in Lagos, Portugal, but Paris is so huge that a carefully planned three hour stroll can turn into a five to seven hour death march after a few chores, tangents and my incomparable flair for getting lost are tacked onto the itinerary.
As my time in Paris was winding down I had to admit the unthinkable. I really liked Paris. What with the eternal stereotypes of their elitist attitudes and my less than hospitable nine days there in the rainy, crabby summer of ’93, I was fully expecting to be run out of town in the cargo hold of Contempt Airlines in just a few short days. But I had a great time. The food was fantastic. The sights were amazing. The people were nice. Polite. Even friendly. It was weird. It was like going to Marrakech and having the hustlers ignore me.
I do have one issue to nitpick though. I got a very bad haircut while I was there. In Paris. In the gay section, arguably the style and hotness nucleus of the planet. How was this possible? I thought I’d come out of that place looking like fricking Zoolander, but I looked more like a Norwegian Mr. Spock. Someone had some explaining to do, but my budget couldn’t take another day in Paris for me to track down the proper authorities. So, I bought a hat, jumped on an incredibly fast train and headed south to Lyon.