Vagobond in Paris – Penniless Culture in the City of Love

Paris is good for families!

I saw much of the tourist Paris without going to the Louvre, taking a trip up the Eiffel Tower, visiting museums, or going to a burlesque show. No tours, no museums, and no cafes with overpriced food. I’m not complaining though, actually, I’m glad I was able to see Paris the way that I have seen her.

I don’t think Paris is as exquisite a city as Barcelona. Granada has better graffiti. Since I’ve spent time in Morocco first, sometimes it’s hard not to think that Paris cafes are strange versions of Moroccan ones where the women join the men smoking cigarrettes in crowded rows of chairs looking only one direction: outward.

I arrived in Montparnasse station with a few hours before I could check in at the hostel, so I decided to drag my bags around and see if I could get lost for a while and in the process find my way to where I was going. Of course as mentioned before, my debit cards were shut off and the euros in my pocket were to pay for my hostel in Montmartre. So a taxi or the metro weren’t really options anyway.

I’ve dragged my bags around a lot of cities and never run over anyone’s toes with them but in Paris somehow I managed to run over a dozen people’s toes in a single afternoon. This didn’t happen in New York, Chicago, Boston, Barcelona, Fez, Marrakech, or anywhere else. I have no idea why, perhaps French people have a unique ability to jam their feet underneath my bags. In any event, I expected to be assaulted in uptight French each time it happened because of the many stories about hostile Parisians I’ve heard in the past from foreigners and French alike, but no. Instead, each time I would look back and say excuse me and instead I would be greeted by hurt, droopy sad eyes as if they were saying to me “Why would you run over my toes like that?” In one situation I ran over a very large thuggish looking man’s toes and he simply looked at me pointed at his eyes and then at the ground, I was relieved as I really thought I might be done when I saw whose toes I had run over.

Parisians like New Yorkers have a totally undeserved bad rap. I don’t think the character of a people can change so completely and rapidly that this is a new thing. Nowhere in Paris did I find a person that wasn’t willing to help me, polite, or gracious. My poor French was accepted and even complimented. There are many things one can love about Paris, but I think her people may be at the top of the list.

Cleaning up toxic American assets?

To be honest, dragging bags around isn’t really the best way to see anyplace but still, crossing the Seine, getting my first look at the Eiffel Tower, wandering into Concorde, and just feeling this incredible sort of chaotic energy that exists was a nice introduction to a city that I’ve known existed for as long as I’ve lived. I think perhaps the first movie I remember seeing was Lady and the Tramp and as I recall, it takes place in Paris. Not to mention George Orwell, Tom and Jerry Cartoons, and every other cultural tic that gave a nod towards the city of lights. Actually, I might have seen Herbie the Love Bug before Lady and the Tramp but I don’t think that has anything to do with Paris…

Finally I made it to the Hostel, moved my bags to my room, used the free wi-fi to tgry to unravel my financial nightmare and then went to a grocery store where I bought the essentials with most of the rest of my money. Bread, cheese, salami, cigarettes, and wine.

I took a short walk out to see the Paris night but I was exhausted after dragging those bags around all day and so I went back to the hostel ate a salami sandwich, had a glass of wine, and crawled into my bunk before any of the other three occupants of the room had made themselves apparent. I put in my earplugs and slept like the dead until morning.

The hostel itself was somewhere in the middle. 25 Euro a night and included free breakfast. Had free wifi and only four people per dorm room. Cool funky place, nice location, and friendly staff. On the negative side, I was on the 4th floor (which is really the 5th floor in Europe since the ground floor is zero here) and there is no elevator. Not really a problem but a bit of a pain in the ass if you forget something in the room. The other downside was that the common area and kitchen are incredibly small and allow for perhaps two people at a time to prepare food.

She has the world on her shoulders

Breakfast was stellar and included juice, cereal, bread, jam, honey, croissant, petit baguette, coffee, and chocolate. Each day I ate two bowls of cereal and kept my breadgoods and condiments for later in the day.

My first full day in Paris, I decided to take a long walk and see what I could see. I walked through Montmartre.

Next I snapped photos of Madellaine.

I strolled through Concorde and down the Champs Elysees.

The Arc de Triumph was much larger than I expected. And it had less traffic than I expected from National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

Incidentally, Europe is filled with many ancient wonders but most of the major sights (except those that are of Arabic origin or leftovers of the dark ages) aren’t much older than the things you find in North America. In fact, lots of them are more recent. So I think it is time that Europeans who like to say that America has no sense of history or ancient origins should shut the fuck up. The Pueblos are as impressive as stonehenge and the famous landmarks of Europe mostly date from far to recently for anyone to have their nose raised into the air in such a manner. So for those of you who like to use this argument, I’d like you to shove it. However, I think the Arab world is completely justified in the same argument since they effectively ushered in the enlightenment and rescued Europe from the dark ages. Honestly, the most beautiful things I’ve seen in Europe have come from the Moors.

Now that my small rant is done, I can tell you I continued on and reached the Eiffel tower overlook next to the Museum of Man, which is probably an excellent museum of anthropology but which had an admission I couldn’t pay. I found a protest calling for something from someone at the overlook.

Then I did my best to capture photos that would be unique of one of the most photographed objects in the world.

I walked along the Seine’s banks.

I visited Invalides but was unable to visit the tomb of Napolean because of an admission fee. Like I would pay to visit a dead man.

I strolled along the left bank and found the interesting used book dealers who have small lockers there which they open up and then when the rain starts or the day is done close with a padlock.

To be fair, there are free museums in Paris, but I have seen enough museums in these past months and I didn’t care to visit them.

I walked around the Notre Dame Cathedral and avoided the gypsy women with twigs of rosemary by pretending to speak only Hawaiian.

I entered a free museum, but only to use the toilet.

I walked in a circle around the Bastille monument. The Bastille was the prison which the French destroyed on July 14, 1789 before declaring independence like their siblings across the water had done 13 years before. I don’t know that either country would be happy to hear it, but France and America are two sides of the same coin. Both arrogant, slutty, and beautiful. Both evil and high minded at the same time.

Oscar Wildes tomb is covered with lipstick kisses and sadly, someone broke the dick off his monument.

I visited the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Not to visit Jim Morrison’s grave but to visit the grave of Oscar Wilde. I made a salami sandwich and sat in a part of the graveyard that wasn’t filled with guidebook wielding tourists. I have mixed feelings about tourism in general but tourism centered on the dead and buried strikes me as even stranger. There were many, many tourists. I was one of them, after all, even as I sat and arrogantly contemplated them.

It hit me that the voices of the living are the voices of the dead. We just don’t know we are dead yet, but we are. Everyone is. I found the cemetary to be the best part of Paris I had seen yet. the tourists sometimes carried colorful brochures advertising where the famous dead lay, incredibly strange and fascinating.

A long walk back to the hostel took me through Bellemont where a weekly souk that looked like it came straight from Morocco was going on. I’m glad that Paris reminds me of Morocco and not the other way around.

For dinner, another salami sandwich and a small salad of lettuce and tomatoes I picked up in the market. Several hours of internet use, the earplugs in again, but this time I met the other residents of the dorm room before going to sleep. A Russian, a Chilean, and a Mexican. Young guys, but nice.

The next day, as mentioned before I was raped by the money changers and then panhandled a bit and visited the Montmartre Cemetary.

I took a walk down side streets after dark and found an incredible little jazz club where six guys were creating some of the grooviest jazz I’ve ever heard. I don’t know the name of the place or the name of the group, but I opted to spend three and a half of my last Euros to buy a beer and sit there until they finished for the night. I nursed that beer. I know, I’m not the best Muslim, but if Allah didn’t exist between those notes then I’ve no idea where else he might be.

What is she telling these boys?

Incidentally, I think that the prohibition on alcohol is a good rule that is misunderstood. The point of not drinking is that when you drink too much you lose the ability to tell right from wrong and thus are unable to fathom the will of God. To my mind, there is no doubt that the will of God was for me to sit for hours in that little cafe, nurse that beer, and soak up that jazz.And as a Muslim, I am someone that willingly submits themselves to the will of God.

Back to the hostel where the dorm room was vacant and I sat writing while looking out the balcony window at the lights of Paris below. Sitting in that cafe and then looking at those lights are what made me see the true beauty of the whore that is Paris.

I woke the next day, emailed my friend Laila in Rotterdam that I was on my way and was overjoyed to find that my bank accounts were unfrozen. I took the Metro to the bus station and then it started to rain, just as I was leaving. This was a nice change from the rain beginning when I arrived and hearing all about the sunny day before.

So this is Vago’s Paris.

For those interested in seeing more photos you can go here.

(Originally posted 20 April 2009)

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook