There'll Always Be ParisI used to be a frequent traveller to Paris. For three years, I went about once every month and a half. The trips were quite nice, but a day at the office dealing with persnickety Frenchmen isn't quite as fun as it may sound.
Still, there were perks.
I usually arrived on Sundays and departed on Saturdays. Those extra days gave me time to wind down or gear up for the long flights. After seeing all the big attractions, I began spending those pleasant extra days alone, poking about and doing things the locals did. I got to know the city quite well. So well in fact, that when Frenchmen came from Toulouse for business meetings they looked to me - rather than an honest-to-God Frenchie - to show them the town.
The View From Sacre Coeur
One night, our group of Americans, Britons, Dutchmen, Italians, and Spaniards walked up to Montparnasse to see the sunset and have dinner. We watched from the steps of Sacre Coeur. A panoramic view, a brilliant sunset, and a slow dissolve into the City of Lights made it a very pleasant time. Afterward, we strolled down the back steps of Sacre Coeur into the neighborhood below where I knew of a nice little Lebanese place with heavenly couscous and a good selection of wines.
We chatted and chewed. We were much louder than the French tables and were loudly sushed by the waiter after a woman and her dog complained. Sure, it was OK to let Pierre the Poodle sup from his own plate at the table - slobbering water and scarfing raw chicken gizzards with canine delight - but it was impermissible to laugh and talk. Such is the way Francaise.
The Mechanical Floggers of Place Clichy
After dinner we walked to Place Clichy, near the Moulin Rouge. It's flanked by strip clubs and whorehouses, but the seedy neighborhood thrives off tourists and the occasional horny Frenchman so it remains safe. Besides, the garish neon lights make it bright as day, even after dark. There's something squeamishly romantic about the streetwalkers bathed in garish neon light.
We walked slowly past the sex dens, ooh-ing and aw-ing at the pervs on parade. A hooker headed for her next appointment clad only in a long, unbuttoned overcoat that didn't do much to conceal her moneymaker. A sex toy shop sported a window featuring masked mechanical manikins in the throes of BDSM delight. The male statue gently flogged the female's bare, plastic butt with a wimpy looking cat-o-nine tails. Believe me, it was as sexy as it sounds.
As it grew late, we headed for the Metro before the trains stopped. Place Clichy station smelled of urine and humanity. The air was hot and dry. The usually blinding white tile was a little grimy in this depressed part of town. The platform was spotted with drunken tourists and local pervs on their way home after an exciting night at the peep shows.
Soon, a train rolled in and our group poured aboard. We squeezed in, shoved up against a young man holding the overhead commuter bars with both hands. I was first in and was pressed too close to his sweat and cheap tobacco smell. Behind me, the others jostled to get in before the doors closed.
Attack of the North Africans
In close quarters, I always hook my thumb over my wallet. As I did it this time, I was surprised to find a hand already there, pulling mightily on my wallet. Suddenly, a woman screamed. Reflexively, I kicked backward in the direction of the hand. I felt my shoe sink into stinky man's crotch. He fell and the chain reaction took everyone else down too.
He was back up in a flash, running toward the exit with his companion before I could figure out what had happened. I lost them in the crowd, but was unscathed. The others weren't as lucky. One man lost his passport and a woman lost her passport and all her credit cards - recently replaced from a pickpocketing in Milan.
The Metro police refused to take a report, but helpfully pointed out that the assailants were probably, "North African", the French euphemism for anyone they don't like. The Metro boys pointed us to the local Paris police station about a half-mile away. The station was up an incredibly dark alley in this very seedy part of town. It was a long walk through fields of filthy dumpsters and inhabited by giant rats. We arrived at the station relieved we hadn't been robbed again.
Tootie and Muldoon
Our Toulousianne spoke with the police and directed us in filling out our reports. The unkempt police kept asking us about Hill Street Blues, smiling constantly and joking with us. We watched wild-eyed as a prisoner who'd been complaining non-stop finally pushed the police too far. After repeatedly telling him to shut up, the cops - a unshaven, sweating, Laurel and Hardy duo - walked to the pen and opened the gate. Stan held it open and Oliver reached in, grabbed the suspect, and threw him against the back wall of the cell with a thump. It turns out that those thuds you hear in movie fights actually sound the same in real life. We never heard another word from him again.
As crimes go, it was actually a pretty enjoyable adventure.
By the time we filled out the paperwork, dawn was tickling the horizon. With Paris still asleep we knew we'd never find a bus or taxi home, so we asked Tootie and Muldoon if they could take us. They meekly protested that it wasn't allowed, but finally relented. We all climbed into the back of a creaking Citroen paddy wagon and off we went. We asked, jokingly, if they'd turn on the lights and siren, and they immediatly obliged on the principle that if you're going to bend the rules you might as well do it in style.
Sirens blaring, we rolled up to our hotel on a quiet residential street near the Opera. Residents peeked out the windows to see the hubub and one man yelled at the cops to shut up. They explained, in filthy French I'm sure, that we were their important guests and fellow Hill Street Blues fans. The man merely gave the Parisian shrug, said, "certainement" and went back to bed.
There'll Always Be Paris
For some, a night on the town in Paris means a bateaux ride on the Seine or a stroll down the Champs Elysee. Some people prefer the beautiful view from the Tracadero toward the Tour de Eifell at the end of the other end of the Champs du Mars. Me, I preferred the Hill Street Blues and the mechanical floggers of Place Clichy. They say Paris has something for everyone and our little night on the town was proof of it. Each time I remember this story I think to myself, "Well, there'll always be Paris."
I know I had the time of my life.
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Wednesday, January 10, 2007