Willikers note: Here at last is the next entry of Harold Hark's Glorious European Vacation. As you will see, it takes place last autumn (northern). He passed through Paris before the terrible riots of November, though we will never know whether his very presence was a seed for the turmoil that followed. We know he survived his ordeal, because this story arrived a few weeks ago. Recent server troubles prevented it's publication until now.
To summarise events: At the conclusion of the first part of this series, Harold on the French Riviera, Hark had finally made it, penniless and destitute, to the doorstep of friends in a suburb just south of Paris. With them he hoped to recuperate while waiting for his new credit and ATM cards to be processed and delivered the following week. Not surprisingly, he found upon his arrival that …
They weren't home!
All the hope-infused energy I had maintained walking and hitchhiking from Nice now left me like the muffled fart of a Hovercraft's rubber skirt deflating as it docks.
Where were they? At work? Shopping in Paris -- perhaps taking a coffee aux Deux Magots? Or gone to London. I had to think fast; it was late afternoon and I couldn't just sit on their steps all night. Never had I seen myself as less valid, less capable. I was at the furthest reach of witlessness and things could only get worse. What the hell was I going to do? I was broke and about to be down and out in Paris. How unoriginal!
If Laurent and Julie were still in Fontenay, they might not come home until the wee hours, leaving me to hang around to the suspicion and gendarme-calling alarm of their neighbours. If they were in London, I faced having no money and nowhere to stay until Tuesday, when the credit card and keycard would be ready. Impossible! It looked like I would have to continue the journey, heading now to the town of Nijmegen in Holland, where I was sure to find sanctuary with Jaap de Ruyters, another old friend who was expecting me sooner or later. From there I could have the cards forwarded and eventually reclaim my life from this present and future purgatory among the wretched of earth.
A feeling of euphoria came over me as I ate the last of the Fréjus bread and finished the lukewarm water in the Orangina bottle. There was yet hope!
But no, no there wasn't. Between the front steps of a comforting apartment I was never going to enter and my destination in Holland there was finding my way through the city of Paris at night, without a map. Not to mention a further hitchhiking marathon over hundreds of kilometres through France and Belgium.
I tried to pry open the front windows of the apartment. Locked solid. There was a side window, just in front of the entrance to another apartment, but that was too risky. I tried the door on the trillion to one shot they had left it unlocked. Well, they weren't stupid, were they? At times like these I felt the cold, sneering breath of the gods. No one could be so ill prepared and expect to get away with it.
My map of France gave Paris a slightly larger little box than other prominent cities. From the vague outline of veins and arteries running in and out and around the vast, enormously gigantic megalopolis, replete, I was certain, with harrowing initiations at every step, I discovered the route to Reims in the northeast corner. It was simple. I would walk around Paris along the péripherique, the road that ringed the city. How far away was I? According to the map, not far.
It was the last day of October and unusually warm. The clouds were moving in slowly to keep the night warm too. I picked myself up and started walking. My sandals flapped along the sidewalks of dear Fontenay-aux-Roses, a pretty little suburb I could have lived in for the rest of my life, if only those heartless bastards had been home.
I walked for nearly an hour before reaching Route Nationale 20. By now Fontenay had become Bourg-la Reine. A sign read: Paris: 4.5 km. I walked on, trudging now with a sense of desperate perseverance. I came to a métro station, one served by the suburban line, the RER. I looked closely at the map on the wall and saw that RN 3 left Paris at the Porte de Pantin. I would reach the péripherique at the Porte d'Orleans. I nearly wept. It looked an enormous distance. All I lacked was a lousy few francs and I could have ridden the métro. Or if I'd had a Plan de Paris, the walk through the city could have proved adventurous.
I stopped at a boulangerie to spend my last centimes on whatever I could get. Taking out my last few coins, I was astonished to find that I had enough for a whole baguette. How could I have made such a wonderful mistake? I was at the point of ultimate penury and this sudden windfall was like winning the lottery. No one entering the gates of heaven could have been more joyous as I handed over my worldly wealth for the tastiest bread a down-and-outer could ever hope for.
I passed two more métro stations and each time I tried goading myself into panhandling the fare. I felt beaten; it was such a trifle! At Arcueil-Cachan I spotted a young Frenchman standing on the ground level platform. I was certain I wouldn't be refused. The young man even looked at me without turning away. I read a future of two kindred spirits mulling over the split ends of their lives in the glance that fell between us. Perhaps this jeune homme would be a turning point in my suddenly tattered life, both intellectual and spiritual; perhaps we would become friends. Without breaking stride I passed both saviour and station. Pride had struck. Better luck next life, I muttered to us both.
The name of the station had rung a bell. Arcueil-Cachan. Someone famous was buried in a cemetery in Arcueil … Erik Satie! I snorted with the gusto befitting a cultured clochard as I recalled listening to Aldo Ciccolini's first ever recordings of Satie's piano music. No one else before or since could have written such simple music, at once pensive and cheeky, and always melancholic.
Satie the eccentric had turned his afflictions into music; I was a penniless bum hoping to turn my affliction into a handout. We had another thing in common. He used to walk from this suburb into Paris, either to Montmartre or Montparnasse, before walking home again in the dark of night. I was following in his footsteps.
Why did the old genius have to be dead? Surely he and Suzanne Valadon, his ardent mistress, would have welcomed me into their parlour on behalf of my love for his music and her paintings.
Snorting again, I picked up a healthy butt from the sidewalk, even though I still had the remnants of a pouch of tobacco. Gauloise: cigarette of choice for the likes of me. It still contained six good drags. Things were looking up.
At last I came to the famous ring road at the Porte d'Orléans. Beyond it lay "the great good place" of legend, the "city of light" whose luminousness I was to gaze on from beyond the gates. Before me stood a dozen or more hitchhikers, spread out in separate groups, their thumbs out in all four directions. They looked tense and anxious; cars were not stopping and the day was going fast. I sat for a while and ate some bread, slaking my itinerant's thirst with Chateau La Pompe from the Orangina bottle. The water was tepid but it tasted like a very good year. The heel of my right foot was cracked and hurting. I examined it, muttering hopelessly. After a few months in sandals, both feet resembled a geomorphologist's nightmare.
Stiffness leapt for the locks of my muscles when I stood up. For a moment I considered hitchhiking, but in the quarter of an hour I had rested not one of the autostoppers had been picked up. I limped a few steps and then moved out.
I walked. The sun sank and disappeared as I passed the Portes de Gentilly, Italie, Choisy and Ivry; sometimes taking pedestrian crossings to the Paris side of the péripherique when the little walk space abruptly ended, sometimes being forced off it altogether. Walking, then, in bordertown deserted streets, the sidewalks decorated with puke and piss and lost shoes.
At the Porte de Vitry the péripherique suddenly narrowed, my walk space disappearing, apparently forever. Against natural law, the cars seemed to speed up, even though there was now one less lane. To my left, inside Paris, an immense plain of railroad tracks stretched into the gloom of early night. To my right, the usual escape route, an empty world stretched to the end of all horizons; I might walk for the rest of my life and never come out of that desolation.
The only choice was to take Vitry into Paris. Luck was finally with me; no other entry point could have been so forthright. I walked straight ahead to the Boulevard Massena, turned right and turned right again at the Rue Bruneseau and found myself back on the road to freedom, the rail yards behind me.
Like most freedoms, this one was short lived. The Rue Bruneseau, the border between Paris and Ivry-Sur-Seine, ended at Quai Marcel Boyer, au bord de la Seine. The Péripherique was to my left now. After a quick consultation with the map I devised a new plan. The Autoroute A4 began a little south and across the river. It would take me straight to Reims. I saw a bridge and made for it, relieved to be off the high wire of the ring road and strolling quietly along the river.
Walking along the Seine lifted me foolishly into thinking that things were going to be all right, that the infernal impediments of the last few days were about to end.
The bridge was actually two bridges set close together, each accomodating one way traffic. I chose the second, the sens unique going my way. Both bridges were eye-blindingly lit with fluorescent amber lights. Pedestrians rarely walked in these places and when they did the glow of their skin made them feel sickly, as if they lived in a world long since peeled of its ozone layer. The Autoroute traffic sped by on the other side, but when I got there I was dismayed to see that the lights on the side I was going to hitchhike on were out. In the glare of the amber world on the bridge I hadn't noticed the darkness that clearly made it impossible for drivers to see anyone standing there.
"How can this be?" I yelled at the top of my lungs. Invisible to the world, I howled into it. "Goddamn motherfuckers!" I tried to catch the eyes of motorists speeding by at more than 100 KPH. My eyes darted from the coming to the going and back to the coming like faraway beacons in the land of the risen dead. They tried targeting drivers and passengers at a distance, but it was all darkness out there, the headlights capturing my fear-figure far too late.
I hunkered on a patch of grass and ate some more bread. I got out my pouch of tobacco, Ajja 17 bleu corsé, bought what seemed like years ago in Nice, and rolled a cigarette. There wasn't much left. I'd be looking for more butts before all this was over. The ciggieboo helped; they always did. Like Chuck Noland's Wilson, they were there for the lost, lonely and friendless. I looked at the cigarette papers. Sup-Air. Each paper had a thousand tiny perforations. I said it aloud: "Each paper has a thousand tiny perforations." Crikey, I sounded like Bill Cosby. I said that aloud, too: "Crikey, I sound like Bill Cosby!" Well, let me tell you, this was the funniest thing I'd ever said. I began to giggle. Not the giggle of a fully-grown adult suddenly overcome with mirth, but the giggle of a toddler who is being tickled mercilessly. A blur of passing voitures en vitesse took no notice while I shook, rattled and, right foot giving out, rolled over backwards. As my arms and legs flew up and tiny pebbles sharply massaged my back, I exhaled a roar of laughter. Jerking and twitching hilariously, I finally came to rest on my right side. It all took a couple of seconds, but the strobe light of the passing cars made it seem timeless, discrete frames flashing, one by one, on the screen of a darkened theatre at the periphery of consciousness. I was totally alone, a disappearing act about ready to skip into the wild blue bonkers, away we go, laddie-o.
I returned to the bridge, crossed over the useless Autoroute, and walked into Charenton. Following my nose, I hoped whatever streets I chose would lead me back to the péripherique. As karma would have it, the street I was on ended at what appeared to be an immense park. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot in the cool grass. My feet sighed like a maiden who has just been gently penetrated after an hour of exquisite foreplay. Soon the grass gave way to woods. I skirted around them, keeping to the left. From the corner of my eye I saw something moving in the trees. For a moment I froze. A man emerged. He came towards me ... what the? ... and passed without even noticing my dumbfounded presence. Another shadow stepped from the wood. He stood indecisively for a moment before turning back. More shadows moved; I could hear muffled voices, a high-pitched laugh. By now the hackles on the back of my neck relaxed. It was not another alien invasion, like the one I'd foreseen in the Roman suburb, but the shifting shadowy movements of our gay brethren. A further shadow emerged as a fat bellied hulk with unsure movement. I understand French well enough to know I was being offered a blowjob. I snarled aloud, frightening the poor man back into the woods, "What curse upon mankind has insured that it is never young maidens who come out of the woods to offer themselves? Why must the night flowers and sleeping birdies and shy little animals always be disturbed in their cuddly places by stubble-faced cocksuckers with bones the size of baseball bats?"
I later discovered that I was in the Bois de Vincennes, the midnight home of cruising pansies. At least it wasn't that other great Parisian park, the Bois de Boulogne, where folks liked to dump bodies. Be that as it may, not to mention at any rate, a half hour later and I was still in it. There was even a lake. Just before reaching lake's edge, I joined an avenue and kept bearing left with it. All well and good except that the avenue began to curve to the right. But now I could hear traffic on the ring road again. And there it was straight ahead. Malheureusement, the unfortunate avenue I was on passed underneath it and there was no way to scramble up the sides. Off I went again: "Goddamn French cockfuckingsuckers and their cockfuckingsucking goddamn stupid sonofabitching … Jesus H. Christ!" I screamed as I walked helplessly into Paris.
At the Avenue Daumesnil I got my directions confused. I thought it ran parallel to the péripherique and started following it. But instead of the noise of the ring road's relentless traffic, I began to notice more and more people, more activity. "Stupid arsehole," I muttered to myself, "you've fucked up again, haven't you?" I turned down streets blindly. Hot-stepping night folks were swarming. A clock in a bar read 11 PM. I should have asked someone where the hell I was, but all I could do was cringe and avoid everyone's eyes. I just kept walking.
It was a warm evening, thank the Good Lloyd, perhaps the last one until spring, and Paris was enjoying itself. Couples passed by arm in arm. North African men strolled together, pinkies intertwined. Three generations of family came out of a restaurant, the elders gesticulating and arguing while the youngsters leapt and laughed. "What an outrageous display of happiness," I sneered. "Typical Catholics, allowing children to have fun past their bedtime. Probably got 'em drunk on red wine, to boot." But more to the point, how had I suddenly become as outside of this happiness as if I had gotten off the métro on Pluto?
A great intersection loomed ahead. I saw a métro station, oddly enough the first one I'd come to. A glass-encased métro map beckoned me to come find my vous-êtes-ici on the planet. The Place de la Nation? "Great Jumping Jesus Beans," I exclaimed, an unnoticeable madmen in the throng, "I'm only a few blocks from Père Lachaise cemetery. Move over Jeem Morrison!"
With that, I sat on a bench and reran my ritual to prevent suicide. I ate, drank, and rolled a cigarette. People of all nationalities strolled or hurried by my invisible bulk. I no longer cared. They were so many lost souls like myself. Half of them had probably experienced worse in their lives, and the other half had it to look forward to. Buddha was right: all is suffering. No matter how many smiles or moments of intense pleasure, it's all going to end in tears.
After the smoke and ersatz libation, I studied the métro map carefully. "What's this?" I said to the map, "a bit of ... what's that word rhymes with fuck? ... oh yeah, luck!" The Cours de Vincennes shot straight out of the Place de la Nation, past the hellish péripherique and on to RN 34 and the road to the Oz-like city of Reims.
It was nearly two in the morning when I dropped my bag on the outskirts of Paris. A bicyclist whizzed by, calling out, "Bonne route!" I waved joyously; contact at last. I opened the bag and pulled out my only jumper, white of course. The air was moist; clouds hung low. I felt chilled and exhausted. I rolled another cigarette and stuck out my thumb. A little deux-chevaux pulled over almost immediately.
Two quick rides took me to the further outskirts of Paris. A country crossroads in the wee hours convinced me I'd had enough for one day. I walked toward open country and in a few minutes came across a small rail yard. I leapt a ditch by the side of the road and climbed up a small embankment. Before me stood a solitary, open boxcar. Shah Jehan, beholding the completed Taj Mahal, could not have been more ecstatic. Ronald Coleman, entering Shangri-La could not have been more enraptured. Joining both of them, I wept for joy.
Such a luxurious dwelling should have been filled to capacity with clochards en vacances, but I knew it would be empty; the gods had reserved it for me after my absurd ordeal. I climbed into a spacious, clean, one room hotel suite, the perfect repository for a man who had just walked nine hours for the want of a few francs.
After taking a piss out the boxcar door, I crawled into the old torn and taped up rip stop nylon sleeping bag. The distant sound of engines shunting cars gently vibrated up through the rails and slatted foundation of my crib to massage my tormented bones and muscles. Twice I woke up with an excruciating charley horse: from a dead sleep I had to force myself to hop around the car until the twisted muscle relaxed. And each time, as I fell asleep again, I wondered how I would deal with simulteneous charley horses in both legs. Not exactly a Zen Koan, but that's survival for you.