Archive for August, 2013

A day with Vincent – Paris 2013

I went to see Vincent.

Van Gogh.

What I knew about Vincent van Gogh you could write on the back of a very small canvas. In fact, the corner of a very small canvas. The obvious things came to mind, the ear he cut off, the madness, the suicide and early death, the almost seemingly child-like paintings and the millions they fetch when sold, which rarely happens as seemingly so many are in museums or in the hands of private collections and will never see the light of day; and of course the song, “Vincent”, also known as “Starry Starry Night”, written and composed and sung by Don Maclean.

I don’t know what attracted me to go to there, I am someone who could stand in front of a painting for hours and not understand what it is about or why it is so revered. If someone can explain to me in plain simple language why it stands up amongst the good and the great then yes, I can grasp what the artist is trying to say. Perhaps I went because of the man. Vincent’s fame and infamy, his sadness, his loneliness and the painfulness with which he lived his life. None of us are immune to these feelings, try as we might to ignore them and I suppose that perhaps rather like going to Germany or Poland, it would seem remiss not to visit a former Concentration camp in a need to know and understand the depths of what humans can do and similarly to be so close to Vincent’s last home and not go there would seem to be a chance gone begging and I owed it to Vincent to try and see what he saw and feel what he felt.

I walked through the hustle of Gare du Nord, dodging the commuters and the bags on wheels and the young guy discretely offering me ‘Metro’ tickets whom I gently fended of with another ‘Non, merci’ and looked for the ‘Transilien’ train signs but after five minutes searching and checking and moving up and down stairways and escalators, I gave up and like a typical man, (sometimes) I admitted defeat and asked someone with common sense for help; a woman.

The young lady at the information counter understood me perfectly, saw my predicament, took pity and even smiled to make me feel better in my stupidity and explained how to get there and issued a ticket, which was remarkably cheap I thought. So now to the platform, but there are so many ‘escape’ routes out of here and the signs I wanted to look at were the other side of the ticket barriers, so where and how?

I’d been in Paris for over a week now and whilst I had seen much, I was getting tired. Lack of proper sleep and the thrill of being in this City had all caught up with me a little and I think I was due for a day off. But today wasn’t that day so I would suffer the confusion of my head for today and flee the nest for a while. Get out into the country and seek some peace and solitude and simplicity. Asking again for help a ‘Station operative’ directed me through a barrier and downstairs to a huge platform area and there were the signs I needed and the train was due in about twenty minutes. As I stood waiting, armed army guys took up their posts around the front of the train and you know how it is, you try not to look them in the eye, another guilt thing going on; guy on his own, carrying a bag, looking confused, hot and sweaty, tired. Ha! How stupid, as if they would be after me. I had read that trains to Pontoise had had their problems in the past and so maybe this was just a standard precaution to put anyone off either coming or going who was likely to cause trouble. Maybe it was an alert. Who knew, its not the sort of thing you do to go up to a mean looking guy with a lethal weapon in his hand and say, “Hey dude, what’s with the peashooter?”

Sure enough the train set off on time and we rumbled across Paris to Pontoise where I got off, hopped over the passenger bridge and onto another train waiting which would take me to the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise. The train to Pontoise was about one tenth full and sometimes when a youngish guy got on at the various stops along the way, they would stand and look down the train before selecting a seat as if being careful about who may be on and where they best be to see anything that may occur. Maybe it was my imagination, but I was aware that as we pass through the northern outskirts of Paris there were rules and laws that were in existence, ones I could not see, but which to guys like these were only too real and they had to be aware of. We stopped at many little suburban places, the train line cutting very close to houses and roads and I wondered whether the houses had moved to the line or the line to the houses. I get the feeling that the French sorted their transport systems out many years ago and just built through where they needed to go, unlike our system which shrank and avoided or ignored the little places that we would like to visit without resorting to cars.

It was a train ride unlike the others I had taken so far, the RER and Metro were brilliant, but hot, sweaty, noisy, swaying and bumpy and that was just me. Efficient yes, but you could get to feel like a little soldier in an army of strangers. It was a quiet journey, rolling along, stopping, a few on, a few off, the passengers getting fewer and fewer as we neared Pontoise.

The further we drew away from Paris the quieter the world became, the bigger the skies seemed to become, more open, more rural as the countryside reclaimed my mindset and minds eye and yet the clouds seemed to bundle up as if trying in the summer heat to at least attempt to recreate the dark brooding atmosphere of some of Vincent’s last paintings.

It was the gentle slowness of the trains to, especially after the changeover at Pontoise, when we almost seemed to free-wheel to Auxers-sur-Oise. Maybe we were going downhill, the driver giving us a few revolutions and then putting the gears into neutral and we coates there. It was as if this place deserved silence and respect and we must creep in, tip-toe and not disturb the frailness of the history that lay here, Vincent’s frailness and all the other artists who sought solitude and silence here the tran pulling up at the platform and going…ssshhh…hushhhh.

I alighted the train and walked into the town centre and found the signs for the Tourist Centre which is an old almost tumble-down building with a yellow crumbly sort of exterior and a creaky interior, in which a kindly lady gave me a town map in English for which she charged 1 Euro as opposed to the standard French one which was free. She thanked me for my visit and I wandered down to the “Auberge Ravoux” hotel / restaurant / museum where Vincent spent the last 70 days of his life and where in a burst of creativity painted 80 paintings.

At the back of the Auberge is a very tiny office where a lady charged me six Euros to visit Vincent’s room, gave me a ticket, pinned it to a small pamphlet about Auberge and then I walked alongside the restaurant which has been restored to its former self and looks beautifully old fashioned and which serves very fine regional meals I understand, the man in charge, Dominique-Charles Janssens having set up this place as a testament to Vincent and his work here and which has become quite famous. I had not booked a meal here, though next time I believe I would and so after admiring three ‘tree’ or ‘bushes’ made out of various coloured wine bottles inverted, like three small Christmas trees, I moved along and up some creaky stairs to a door on which I knocked and waited.

A very tall attractive young lady appeared, I handed her my ticket which she inspected, tore it off the pamphlet and invited me inside the upstairs of the former hotel. We were alone. She led me into a small room which turned out to be fitted out like a library, full of books and artefacts and postcards about Vincent and the town and such. Here the young lady politely asked me whether I would like her introduction in English or French and then proceeded to tell me a little history of Vincent and the Auberge which was short and to the point and which at one point she mentioned that Vincent was not allowed to paint in the room he rented here.

Really? I said, a little surprised.

Of course”, she said, surprised at my reaction.

Well, yes” I finally thought and agreed, “I suppose you wouldn’t want someone like Vincent painting in your room”.

No”, she said.

Paint all over the place”, I gestured with wild arms, at which she laughed.

She then said she was going to let me through to the landing on which was Vincent’s room, restored to as it was when Vincent was alive, but without any furniture, the room having been closed off after his suicide and death and left untouched for years. I asked if it was permissible to take photographs but she said sorry no. Oh I thought, that’s a shame. She opened the door, let me through and as I walked onto the old creaky landing I noticed that the young lady had closed the door behind me, but she was still the other side of it.

I was on my own here, I had not expected that, I had assumed she would accompany me. It was so quiet, like a reverential church, an extremely small sacred place of worship, private and for you to contemplate on what you were about to see. I virtually tip-tied across the landing and the small door in front of me was partially open and just to the left was a tiny chair, a replica of the one in Vincent’s painting simply called ‘The Chair’. Simplicity.

I cautiously entered the room. I say a room, it was a small oblong space, an attic room, no more than 8 feet by 9 feet with a roof that sloped, cutting down head space and no window, except for an opening light onto the sky and the clouds and there was a kind of cupboard built into the wall on the left and bareness, lots of bareness and plaster and floorboards and the chair, a small chair in a small room in a small house in this tiny village. This small simple now hallowed hall was the centre of Vincent’s universe or maybe his retreat from it. He paid 3 francs 50 centimes a day for this and a meal. 3 francs 50 centimes; about half a Euro, 40 pence, less than a dollar. It was all he could afford. Now, he could buy half the Louvre and the French would probably give him the other half.

As I stood there I was aware that this is where he lived for those last few months, probably leaning his paintings against that wall over there, or hanging them alongside his few clothes on the nails still protruding from the wall over there, ate a meal here, drank her, maybe got drunk here, sinking the absinthe that perhaps opened up his mind and heart to what he saw around him but which only emphasised his frail condition, both bodily and mentally. Maybe he sat and thought and day-dreamed and had his nightmares here too on the creaky hard sprung bed that maybe took up a third or more of the room, keeping his artistic materials in the cupboard over there, the brushes and palettes and the oils that he brushed and daubed and almost plastered on to his canvasses with, well, was it violence or anger or love and sadly, at one stage eating them, the oils I mean. Yes I know, his state of mind as it was drove him to do this, oil on the canvas and oil inside the man and sometimes that’s how it just is, the world I mean, sometimes the pain of our reality drives us to do things we would not normally contemplate, though I imagine we all have our own moments of madness, then look back and wonder why, was that me, did I do that and it seems like someone else did those things.

Maybe the depth of the paint Vincent applied reflected the depth of his feelings. We attach names and feelings to what we see and experience and we claim that’s how the world is, that’s reality, when in fact it’s just that that is how we perceive it to be, the reality we think we see is just our own reality, flitered through our senses. Actually the world just is and we interpret it through our own minds and the way Vincent saw it was often bright and with astounding colour but then with a brooding darkness and loneliness too. We literally dream the world we want to live in. We all imagine our own truth about the world and no one person hols the whole truth and this was Vincents truth. Vincent started out drawing, black and white, sketches, moved on to watercolours and thence to oils with all the startling brilliance that seems not to be realistic but as he said himself;

“Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully.”

Van Gogh started to imitate Gauguin’s technique of painting from memory during this time which resulted in his paintings becoming more attractive and less realistic. Van Gogh’s emerging style saw him emotionally reacting to subjects through his use of colour and brush work. He deliberately used colours to capture mood, rather than using colours realistically. No other artist was doing so at this time.”

It truly was painting from the heart, building on the techniques he learned in his head.

Perhaps when those two conjoin, the heart and the head, when you get this perfect / imperfect union is when you find your soul, your true self and maybe in those final few months of Vincent’s life, that’s what he found, his love, his soul, his truth.

I stood here in an empty room, save for one humble chair and its a room, like many old rooms anywhere in the world, though this one was locked up and left untouched for years due to Vincent’s suicide and death occurring here, suicide being a more even heinous ‘crime’ then than now and so it’s a small miracle that this place exists at all. In fact Vincent lived in 34 places during his short life but I read that this is the only one in the world that you can visit. You cannot get any closer to his life, his inspiration and his demise than this.

I moved into the adjoining room which is just as small and at the time was occupied by a young artist, Anton Hirschig. This room has been fitted with some furniture and fittings, bed, table etc., to recreate the look and feel of that room and Vincent’s too. Though I am sure they were as human as any of us and would have preferred the good life and at least a little luxury, somehow the fact that these artists did live in what was virtually poverty rings true in as much as they did live and die for their art.

Vincent never lived to see himself in the arms of a little comfort and security but he did dream that ; Some day or another, I believe I will find a way to have my own exhibition in a café.

Well the dream is almost complete, in that on one wall is a place reserved for a painting, a painting by Vincent that would reflect his time here. How long this will take, I guess no one knows, perhaps it will take a kind and generous benefactor to donate one and this would then be the smallest and most precious museum in the world.

I moved into a third room, larger than the previous two, where there is a huge relaxing section of seating facing a cinema screen and a wonderful short film then shows detailing Vincent’s life with shots of Auvers back then in his day and accompanied by some very moving music. Its hard not to be affected by this, even if you knew nothing about him you cannot fail to come out of this very humbled and to have experienced a better understanding of Vincent and a warm feeling for a man who suffered all his life but used his suffering to try to show the world the beauty in it and the darkness too and that both are necessary for us, indeed are a part of us.

I came out of the screening and spent some time in the bookshop, bought some postcards and a small notebook with a Van Gogh painting as a cover for a gift, said thank you and goodbye to the young lady and strolled past the restaurant wishing I had booked a place. The food sounds wonderful and a group seemed to be gathering for a visit and a meal. Next time, next time!

I took a long slow stroll up the hill past the church Vincent painted, which is interesting as you can get in your eye-line the church and the painting he did at the same time.

Farther on and I imagine the village has changed to some degree over 100 years, but essentially its the same and its quite beautiful. I understand the residents are very proud of its associations with Vincent and the other artists who lived here, but it is done with taste and no flashiness, subtle and modest, very humble and I imagine they keep it in a manner fitting to Vincent and its history.

After a ten to fifteen minute slow trail rising uphill going out of the village, the cemetery came upon me and although I had come here to see the two brothers, I could not help but have a wander around and take photos of this place and even some close ups of just a couple of graves that struck me. One of an artist whose resting place was so colourful and the other of a young man who had gone way too soon and whose grave was so sombre, such a contrast. Perhaps because the artist seemed to have lived a long full life and the young man had barely got going, cut short for some reason.

Vincent’s grave is alongside his brothers, Theo died barely six months after him and though his manner and cause of death seems to be known, I read that Vincent’s death affected him very badly and as much as the human body fights very hard against death, if the heart is not willing to go on perhaps his resistance was low and he slipped away to join him as they will forever be joined, bound as they are by ivy, which came from a cutting supplied by Dr Gachet, who was a good friend and doctor to Vincent in his short stay at Auvers.

I trod back towards the wheat-fields that surround the village and cemetery, the sky’s opening and closing and the path here leads to a junction where four fields seem to meet and there is another reproduction painting of Vincent on display and where I guess he sat and studied and then either painted there, or as I understand, he preferred to paint from memory. Today the wheat was gone, cut short for harvest and the crows were not flying, but sat around cawing, as if laughing at us, but when the clouds rolled over as they did, you could get a sense of the loneliness and solitariness of Vincent, which perhaps he understood and needed and yet perhaps he sometimes regretted and though he never had children he regarded his art as his babies.

I was accompanied by three middle aged ladies who were behind me as I walked towards this spot and of course its a field and there is a two wheel track that tractors and such run along, so where its wet it gets a little muddy. So I walk and see the muddy bit, but wearing good size walking shoes I go ahead without thinking.

Plop!…plop!

The mud was deeper than I thought and so I am standing there, slightly rooted to the spot, the mud creeping up my shoes towards my laces and I turn around and see the ladies following and so I shout out “Look out, watch it!”

They see my predicament, or one does and she shouts to the others,

Attentione…attentione!!”

They swerve and miss the mud and smile at me for the warning.

The mud clings and stays there, I don’t brush it off and in fact I forget about it, but it follows me home later.

I followed the path down to the village, retracing my steps, diverted past the ‘Absinthe’ museum and was tempted to visit, but I thought if I saw everything in one day, I would have no surprises next time, and besides, I was hungry!

I strolled up the main street of the village, which was sort of back to reality time. I knew this as a cyclist came towards me in full racing gear and motoring along on a proper bike (the pedalling variety). As he went past I heard a shout,

Attenzione!!…attenzione!!

A car had pulled out in front of him and somehow he had managed to avoid it. The car just seemed to carry on, slowly and the cyclist tried to resume his speed again. It was almost like a comedy, except it could have been nasty, but it made me chuckle to see the scene, it seemed very French and very French village like. If you replaced the car with a man on a horse and the super speed cyclist with an old bike being ridden by a not so sober man, worse for wear for a little wine inside him and cursing the horse, the horse braying, the rider waving a fist, this was just an updated speeded up version.

Life doesn’t change too much does it?

So back to normal then, out of the time tunnel and back to the 2000’s from the 1890’s.

I walk past a shop/restaurant where I could have sat, had a beer and ordered crepes and I was tempted, but I moved on. Maybe something Vincent’s had said and which I remembered from the screening at the Auberge Ravoux had stuck with me.

I walked to the boulangerie I had noticed when I came into the village. I had seen the cakes!

I go in, there is a old gent asking for and being given his daily bread, but I would not know whether the pretty girl serving was forgiving his trespasses as well. I had noticed a pear flan behind the glass counter, but when I looked again, it had gone. But the young lady walked to the counter at the back and it was there, at least the last slice was. So that, and, due to my ‘I have a thing about lemons’ obsession, I asked for tarte lemon as well and to wash it down a cold can of Kronenburg. An odd mixture really. I paid, I thanked her, I left.

I wandered down towards the railway station, found a seat by the road opposite a restaurant, closed I think and started on the pear flan, which was delicious, the pears firm but soft and the pastry crumbly but crisp. As for the lemon tart, well that was tangy and almost like a drink, the filling just so smooth and the pastry delicate. I downed the beer and sat there fully satisfied and Vincent words came back to me.

How difficult it is to be simple”.

Perfect, I thought. How right he was. For all the complex, interwoven, sophisticated lives that we lead, sometimes the simple things in life are the most precious and the most difficult.

I met a father and son on the station platform and asked for the direction home regarding trains and he said well the next one isn’t going to Pontoise, but its in the right direction and we are going to Gare du Nord, so follow us. The train duly arrived, made a few stops, we got off and the next train we got on was Paris bound. It turned out they had both been on a pilgrimage to Vincent as well, the father in particular had visited probably most places regarding Van Gogh it was possible to go to.

Back at Gare du Nord I walked back to the hostel, sat at the bar, ordered my customary 1664 pint and chatted to the girls about my day. After an hour I moved to a table and stool about 3 yards from the bar, there is a menu there, so I intend to order food. I order and eat and as I am eating I notice a young guy who works there approaching the stool I sat on at the bar with a long handled dustpan and brush. He’s about to sweep up. But what?

Where I sat and had moved my feet about was mud. But dried mud, orange-brown dried mud that had dropped on the floor and had turned to dust. Orange brown mud that had dropped on the floor that had come from Vincent’s field, the wheat-field, where he had trodden.

The guy, I think, gave me a slightly displeased look, as if I should have wiped my feet before coming in, or changed my shoes at least. To tell the truth I never thought and never realised or I would.

But then, if he only knew and perhaps if I could have explained and he perhaps could have cared to listen, he would have understood that this wasn’t just any old mud.

I would have said that this was just me following in Vincent’s footsteps and just keeping his memory alive a little, spreading his landscape literally far and wide.

Maybe Vincent would have liked that.

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The City and The Star – Paris 2013 – The quest.

The word “courage” comes from the French word “coeur”, which means “heart.” True power proceeds not from force, but from love.”

 So today was the day. Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Where to begin? With something like 70 000 graves here, where do you walk, what do you photograph, what do you think and feel and discover about life, death and yourself? For some it’s a gentle stroll in quiet place, a lunch-break meditation, time to rethink their loves and lives, what’s gained and what’s lost and what is, a chance to live and relive regrets and memories and smile a little, laugh a little, cry a little.

For me it was a quest. I was here for a reason.

 It was no use just wandering. Wandering is fine, but within a structure is best. Like a film, it ought to, has to have acts and an inciting incident, an arc, a midpoint, a resolution and an ending and all the other foundations that make a great film. The great screenwriter William Goldman ( ‘Butch Cassidy’, ‘Princess Bride’, ‘Marathon Man’, ‘All the Presidents Men’) said, “Screenplay is structure”, but then he also famously said “Nobody knows anything” (about the film business). Well the endings were already here, or so I thought. Once you know you are on a route then you can divert when something interests you and thence go back to the route, nothing wrong with going off the path for a while, but come back to the path if its a good one. So a while back I copied Rick Steves recommended Cemetery Tour and I would follow that and see where it led.

 I had no idea where I would find the ending. I had seen a photograph that was a few years old and thought, naively, that I may just drop on this from the photo, by chance, luck or circumstance. I should have known better that there was a small lesson to learn and she would teach me that you cannot depend on such things alone, you can trust to them sometimes but you better have a plan, a structure or at least a direction, one that is true to yourself. Well I wanted to be true to myself by being true to her.

 I took the Metro from Gare du Nord across to station “Gambetta”, which leads to the entrance of ‘Porte Gambetta’. I was tired and as I rose out of the Metro station like the dead rising from underground, I had to use the ‘Non merci’ again when a young guy approached me as I walked past a bank with a cash machine close by, as if thinking I was going to withdraw money I guess. No threat just a gesture. I thought he was following me, so I stopped and turned and he went by and then I continued. The entrance to Pere LaChaise here is down a quiet side of the Cemetery and there is a florist opposite the gates. I thought about buying flowers, but in the heat I wondered how long they would last.

I was tired. A few days of little sleep in the hostel heat was wearing a little on the soul, but this was one connection that would be made one way or the other. There was a red thread waiting to be tugged, wound in a little. Just inside the cemetery there was a superintendents ‘hut’ (stone/brick built) where you can pick up a map (2 of) of the Cemetery and on it is listed with their situation, the many graves of the famous and infamous. But with my ‘tour guide’ and no map, I thought that following the ‘road/street’ signs would be favourable and if I got lost, so be it.

 I was thirsty. Every day I would ask the girls at the hostel to replenish my 2 litre bottle with ice cold water and I needed it now. I sat down on a kerbside and noticed a young couple leaning on a tombstone nearby. Well, I thought, that’s not right. Sure enough a lady ‘superintendent’ appeared and asked in a respectful but firm manner for them to please not use the tombs as resting places. I got up to, although she did not address me personally, but I felt obliged. Of course once out in the forest of the fallen you could sneak a lean or a sit here and there, but wo betide if they catch you! As it should be I suppose. I mean you may be tired, understandably, but how do you think the residents feel? Actually I think they would be glad of the company. A little chat, a ‘hows it goin’ kind of thing would be welcome, a little lean they would perhaps relish. If I were there, you could lean on me, I wouldn’t mind.

 First stop was the Crematorium. A huge dome building surrounded by over 1300 small cubicles containing the ashes of many including Maria Callas. Her cubicle is downstairs, underground, but alas this was blocked off and reserved for family and as I walked around one or two people surfaced from here, obviously visiting and obviously moved and quiet having just spent time with someone.

 So my first stop was Oscar Wilde, 1854 – 1900.

 As he sipped champagne on his deathbed he said, “ Alas, I am dying beyond my means”.

 Wit, raconteur, writer and an activist for many rights, gay and otherwise, way before they were acceptable and he certainly had an adventurous life and suffered for it too, spending time in gaol. When I got to his tomb there was a small group of people gathered around a guy who was giving a guided tour and he stopped talking about Oscar to recite a poem of his whilst they listened, enraptured. Dead at 46, Oscar not the poet, but from what no one is sure, well cerebral meningitis, but what caused that? Arguments persist. But he died destitute in Paris, with an enormous body of wit and work left behind. A man ahead of his time no doubt and one who saw the light and the dark in life.

 …I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world… And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.”

 Food for thought indeed, don’t we all want to experience that bit of devil inside, even though we may deny it. The Body of Light, but with its darkness too.

Moving on from dear Oscar, next up was Gertrude Stein, 1874 – 1946.

Perhaps an unfamiliar name to some, myself included until recently. Gertrude, after travelling through Europe, dropped out of Medical School and moved to Paris (a familiar theme, Paris drew many people from England and America who wanted to ‘free’ themselves from prohibition and the strictures of an increasingly industrially bound and structured life and who wanted to find themselves, eat good food, drink party and have lots of sex and mix with like minded people.) shared an apartment with her brother in Paris, then later with Alice B. Toklas, her partner.

 Every Saturday Paris’ finest artists and writers would gather for dinner at Gerts place and receive guidance and stimulating conversation and inspiration. Picasso painted her, his paintings lining her apartment walls (now worth millions), Hemingway sought her approval. She was a conduit, a catalyst I suppose, an inflammatory one, very opinionated and she fell out with Ernest. Most famous perhaps for the words,

 “A rose is a rose is a rose”;

 and quite right too. Not sure what she meant exactly, but I would take it as meaning that we are all meant to be what we are meant to be and we must find that out. That is our mission in life, find ourselves then pass it on, otherwise we are doing the world and ourselves a disservice.

 Steins last words on her death-bed, when asked the question, “What is the answer?”, were,

 “What is the question?”

 Cryptic or what?

 Gertrudes grave was OK, evidence of some flowers, but otherwise bare and you could miss it quite easily, a shame as she was a spark that lit many flames in Paris. It’s worth watching the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” to catch a flavour of Gertrude and many others of this time.

 Moving on, I passed a number of tombs and memorials to the horrors of the second world war and the Holocaust and by God they are moving. I am not sure my photos do them justice, frankly they speak for themselves in the horrors they portray.

 At the Communards wall now and in 1871, 147 men (no women I think) were lined up against the wall here and shot for resisting the French government who were in accord with the invading Prussian army. They had held out against the Parisian troops and were hiding in Pere Lachaise cemetery. The French government actually fought heir own people and French soldiers shot them and buried them here in an open trench. They are a symbol of working class and the poor and of the left. It was yet another bloody time in French history. The French certainly stand up for themselves when they have too. Strikes, revolt,….they are street-fighting men and women when principles are at stake.

 After a while I found Edith Piaf, 1915 – 1963, ‘The Little Sparrow’. And there she lay. A child of the Parisian streets, raised in a bordello and then rose to fame as a symbol of struggle and her amazing emotive voice lifted many but she suffered through ill health, alcohol, and addiction to painkillers but then sang ‘no, je ne regrette rien’. Love affairs, broken hearts, you name it, she did it.

 Was there ever a singer or writer who lived a normal life? Steady, temperate and God fearing?

 I hope not! And if they existed, I doubt they are buried here!

 An interviewer once asked George Michael what he thought he had that most people did not, that made him a great songwriter. He thought and said, I don’t think I do have something extra, people like me have something missing and that’s what I’m trying to express, a gap that I am trying to fill, a void of some sort.

 I wander some more wishing I could talk to these people. What tales they would tell me. The sort of stuff that was never printed, never heard, never recorded and why they did what they did and whether they wished for anything different as so many of them died so relatively young. But then we are so fortunate in that the diseases that they suffered we now can cure and really it wasn’t so long ago and what with wars raging and the futility of what man can do, they perhaps thought you really do have to live every day and commit yourself to the cause. Being cosy wasn’t for these guys. Sure they must have had ego’s and wanted to make their mark and as Picasso said, The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away” and these people went at it helter skelter, driven by fear and doubts and that the days are numbered.

 Following winding paths and getting lost was fun, tracking and backtracking and then the next stop was Moliere, 1622 – 1675.

 Moliere was a great comic playwright and actor and in 1804 he was the first to be reburied in Pere Lachaise, which may have been some sort of publicity stunt to boost the new Cemetery’s input! I don’t know what the prices were then but now it is fairly expensive, but the price is the same in all Parisian cemeteries. The most expensive option is of course buying a plot in perpetuity: 5256.5€ for 1 square meter. If you only buy a plot for ten years (the minimum allowed), it will cost you 331€ for one square meter. To this must be added the cost of the monument. (Prices accurate as of 2010.)

 This guy had an ironic end to his life, here was a sick man whose doctors thought he was a hypochondriac – dying whilst playing a well man on stage who is a hypochondriac, then succumbing on-stage while the audience cheered, not realising he was actually in the throes of dying. (He was well loved for his wicked portrayals of the rich, the noble, priests and made many enemies doing so) He died shortly after saying,

 We die only once, and for such a long time”

 Next was a modern icon. I didn’t cotton on to this guy until the early 1980’s when another forthright man, Oliver Stone, brought his film out. Until then my only memories were a cover version of this guys groups best known song and a few other tunes that wafted over here to England before he wafted away himself. Jim Morrison, 1943 – 1971. Opinions are split on The Doors and Jim. Since the Oliver stone film and reading some stuff about them and him, particularity John Densmores ( drummer in the band) book, I came to realise Jim had a bit of a handle on life. He went all the way, excessive some may say, but he had that spirit that came from Greek myths, that life was short and painful but that we must endure the pain, its good for us, not to be afraid of it. It’s easy to see him as some drug riddled alcoholic with a few good tunes and some heavy lyrics, but he was no dummy, he saw through things, bullshit included, he wanted America to wake up to what was happening and not slip into a homogenized conveyor belt of consumption and terrible wars and conflict and not be ruled by governments and industry. He wanted people to think for themselves again. As Brendan Behan said, ‘the best way to serve the age is to betray it’. But he was a soft gentle guy too, shy even and at his first gigs he sang with his back to the audience. He had principles too, while he was off on a drinking spree, his buddies sold ‘Light my fire’ for a commercial on TV, behind his back. Returning, Jim was furious at their sell out and felt his wrath. Sure he got arrested for allegedly exposing himself, though Densmore suggests it was his finger he exposed, nothing more, taunting and teasing the audience saying have you come to see what I might do or really listen to what we are saying? I think he saw the gap between who he wanted to be and what the public wanted and he escaped to Paris to lose himself and get away from the authorities as they regarded him as dangerous and like Lennon and others, they were after him.

 Like Elvis only being filmed above the waist, Jim took things to another level, he was subversive and likely to lead the whole generation to hell…as if. But then all great artists are regarded like that to begin with, many of them buried here and who we now regard as visionaries and have moved the cause of the human race further ahead towards a better understanding of ourselves and then we all catch up with them later. We try to avoid that dark side of ourselves, push it away, hide from it and deny it. Well, seems its better to acknowledge it, recognise it and then you can use it, rather than it using you. Its the elephant in the room, ignore it at your peril. Like John Nash in ‘A Beautiful Mind’, he recognised his own schizophrenia, the voices and the people in his head, said hello, but then chose to ignore them. He controlled them, not them he.

 The Crystal Ship” – The Doors.

 Before you slip into unconsciousness

I’d like to have another kiss

Another flashing chance at bliss

Another kiss, another kiss

The days are bright and filled with pain
Enclose me in your gentle rain
The time you ran was too insane
We’ll meet again, we’ll meet again


Oh tell me where your freedom lies
The streets are fields that never die
Deliver me from reasons why
You’d rather cry, I’d rather fly

The crystal ship is being filled
A thousand girls, a thousand thrills
A million ways to spend your time
When we get back, I’ll drop a line

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VN8JFPSmZs

The ‘crystal ship’ was The Doors, the band and this was off their first album. Off on the great journey and he would drop a line when he got back. But he never did get back, he just kept going.

His grave/tomb is nothing like it was, its pretty clean as you may see from the photographs. It’s actually hidden away a little and easily missed. Jim nearly never got buried here, the director of Pere LaChaise at first refusing the request until his friends mentioned he was a writer. ‘A writer?’, the director said and then found him a spot. And of friends Jim had this to say and I think he’s right, though its not easy to live up to I guess.

Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.”

There is a steady stream of people visiting Jim’s grave. Respectful and curious, wondering why he left so early, suspected drug overdose probably, seems he couldn’t or wouldn’t quit and his girlfriend Pamela Courson followed fairly soon after. Seems a drug of choice is de riguer for many, what Jim did wasn’t new, absinthe was what many drank to stimulate the mind in the years of “La Belle Epoque” and beyond. Perhaps life seems too scary for some whereas for most its death that we try to avoid.

Onwards and I pass a guy sat at the foot of a grave, backpack, tin of beer, maybe smoking something stronger and a faithful dog keeping him company. He was wailing a tune as he listened to his headphones, it was painful to be honest, and I had no idea who the grave belonged too and didn’t feel obliged to interrupt him to ask, but the guy was obviously in the throes of some sort of ritualistic ceremony so strong that he wanted his friend in there to know he was there thinking of him and missing him or her.

Frederic Chopin, 1810 – 1849 was next, a gentle artistic musical genius who kept famous company during his life and was swept up by George Sand the stormy female novelist with whom he had a passionate on/off love/hate affair until he contracted tuberculosis (another one, I said it was a big killer). She nursed him, then left him, then he died aged 39 and the music they played at his funeral was? Yup, ‘The Funeral March’ which he wrote. I suppose he would have liked that. His body is here, but his heart is within a Church column in Warsaw.

The dramatic story of Héloise, 1101 – 1164 and Abelard, 1079 – 1142 was next, these two being the oldest residents in the cemetery. Peter Abelard dared to question the church’s authority and wisdom, set up a university attracting the bright minds of Europe including one Héloise and sparks flew between them resulting in a baby at which the canon exploded and hired thugs went to his bedroom and castrated him. Disgraced, the two of them went to a monastery and convent respectively but kept in touch by post for 20 years and those letters survive to this day. When they died the two were buried together in her convent then moved to Pere Lachaise and the canopy tomb is made from stones taken from his and hers monastery and convent. A love story to rival Romeo and Juliet and a real one too.

The great poet wit and raconteur Alexander Pope wrote a poem about them which included the line ‘Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’………………..so now you know.

Colette is next 1873 – 1954, she was Frances’ most honoured female writer, married three times and linked romantically to many women, became a music hall performer and famous for doing a ‘Janet Jackson’ and her novel ‘Gigi’ became a film starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.

‘Tank evorns faw leetle gulls’.

Gioacchino Rossini (Italian…what else with a name like that?), 1792 – 1868. OK, what’s the definition of an intellectual? Answer; someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Which he wrote amongst many other pieces. He was prolific, he could knock out a 3 hour opera in weeks. He was quite a sensible genius, he wrote like a madman until he was 37, then never wrote an opera again, moved to Italy, had bad health, came back to Paris, got better, then died. His remains are in Florence, not here.

Baron Haussmann, 1809 – 1891 was next, he who reconstructed a huge amount of the Paris that we see today for better or for worse. He tore down much of the medieval streets as Napoleon did not want revolutionaries to use the small narrow streets to barricade themselves in. So if you like Paris, its him you must thank, if not, well you can tell him by shouting through the green door fronting his tomb.

And that was it. There were many other graves to visit, but it was hot and by now I had had enough and wanted to find one more before I flaked out. I wandered around myself for a while hoping to find her, but realised that I needed help otherwise I would be here all day. I walked back down to the office at Gambetta and sat down again. Whoops! A nice man said ‘Please sir can I ask you to stand?’ Of course I said sorry of course and ‘By the way do you parlo anglais?’ A little he said.

I asked him if he could locate a grave for me. It’s not a famous one, it won’t be on your list.

So he went to the office, got a map and came out. We stood by a van in which sat a man talking in to a woman standing next to it. The man I was with said the guy in the van was the expert. The woman was American and the guy next to me started to make fun of the Franco USA relationship and I completed the statement with a wise ass remark of my own which made him laugh and the USA lady too and just for a second there was a USA/Franco/UK accord.

So now the man says, who is it you want to find? Do you have a name?

I said I can do better than that, I have a book to show you.

I produced Samiras book. He looked and said,

Shes not dead!!”

I hope so, I say, they buried her in 2004.

Wait, wait he said, let me think.

He stood for a minute and from memory only, took a pen and drew around area 18, a small patch in the middle of the cemetery. I think you will find she is in there. She was a bit of a looker. Non?

Oui, I said, very much so. (though it wasn’t my first thought about Samira, she was pretty)

With that I took his maps, said thank you and shook his hand and set off to find my inspiration and maybe one day millions of other too. How remarkable he should remember 1 grave out of 70 000.

I retraced my steps up past the Crematorium turned left, then right, then angled left, climbing up hill, until I reached a big island where I had been before, So if I’ve been here before how come I missed her?

I venture up and down, through bushes and bracken, past old graves, new graves, overgrown graves. Still no luck. Samira you got me running around here, where are you? I stand on a path thinking, I’ve been down here before, but then decide hop off to the right, in between two closely laid rows of graves, with a narrow path separating them. No, no, no, then to my left, is that? Yes, there she is. I see why I missed her before. Her grave, unlike most peoples, does not face the path, it faces away and towards the large island and as we are high up on a bank here, she overlooks much, a good view I suppose you might say. Fitting she should see so clearly.

I am relieved to have found her, I would not have left Paris without doing so.

Samiras grave is tidy. There are flowers and always will be. They are white and artificial, but then she always flowers come rain or shine. Roses I think. A desert rose, maybe. There are plaques there too, and a beautiful photo of Samira, later on in her life, she died aged 31, wearing her ‘armour’, her sunglasses.

I take photos, although I read somewhere its frowned upon in some places in Paris cemeteries to do so, but it is tolerated here. I take close up shots , sideways shots, all sorts, I don’t want to forget this, its too important. Samira was a brave, resourceful woman who had a hell of a rough life but overcame it all only to die young trying to help others. Like many you may say, but she was particularly courageous as she took moral decisions that she did not have too, as hero’s do, and returned to her own community, the one that rejected her initially and she dedicated her life to teaching children a better way. But she simply ran out of time.

I realise I have not come prepared. Brought no flowers, nothing, but yet I wanted to leave something for her. Words. Thats what I would leave. Words. She wrote her book which broke the rules and which set her free and words are more powerful than anything. As Victor Hugo, great French writer, ( “Les Miserables”, buried in The Pantheon) once wrote,

On resiste a l’invasion des armees; on ne resiste pas a l’invasion des idees.”

 “One can resist the invasion of armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.”

I took out her book, the original French paperback version. I tore off the back page and took out my pencil, writing on the back of it,

Un coeur blessé, une fois aimé, est un coeur sacré.”

A wounded heart, once loved, is a sacred heart.”

I place it on her grave where there is space and place two smallish stones on it. I don’t know how long it will last, how long the writing will stay legible for or whether someone will come along and remove it.

I sincerely hope that perhaps Samiras family will visit early September, as I feel they do on the anniversary of her death and maybe see those words and know someone cares for their daughter/sister, someone four hundred miles away, who just fell upon her story and thinks, hopes, that maybe one day someone will continue her story and amplify her life from book to screen and show women around the world, ‘her sisters in trouble’ as she said, that finding a way out is possible, difficult but possible. I hope so.

Some of Samiras last lines in her book read, “I am Samira. I am twenty-nine. I believe in life and I want to be happy. I have done what I needed to have a chance of succeeding’.

Whatever she had to endure Samira always had hope.

It was only then with the sun still shining on her that I shed a little tear for her; a brave, brave girl who deserved much more from life, but in the end gave far more than she received.

I left Samira and Pere LaChaise with lots of thoughts, but one thought and one feeling in particular.

I left with hope.

Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.”

Goodnight Samira, you maybe sleeping now, but you are more alive now than even you may realise.

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The City and the Star – Day 2.

Day two began with a shower and an empty stomach.

I heard voices mumble as they emerged like stricken caterpillars slithering from their cocoons and fluttering downstairs for breakfast. Breakfast is included in the price which consisted of coffee, fruit juice, cereal, cheese, ham, rolls, jam etc. etc. With my upgrade breakfast available I wasn’t bothered about eating any of this, though I had no idea still what it was. I emerged from my own shell at 9. 30. There were curtains drawn in some of the pods, sleeping off the nights celebrations which were audible to us on the third floor as the windows had to stay open due to the warmth and the humidity. Sleep was going to be hard to come by. I had assumed that already and allowed for it. There would be no early starts, just a lazy rise, a shower and a good breakfast and then a slow considered visit to wherever I fancied on that day.

Downstairs the place was buzzing, There was a queue of about 40 people snaking around the bar, moving at a snail’s pace as they collected their sustenance for the day. I took a seat at the bar unsure of the routine for the upgrade. A young lady called Sophia bounces over to take my card and smiles and announces that she will bring it to me shortly. I help myself to coffee and juice and start to look around the scene. Like the few other hostels I have stayed in I look around for somewhere to sit and chat. I don’t mind who it is, everyone is on their way to somewhere and has a story to tell. There is usually a mixture of age groups, families and single people. But I have a dawning awareness that this is not a hostel with that broad spectrum of visitors. Everyone appears to be under the age of twenty five, thirty maximum and there are small groups clustering around tables, sometimes a mixture of men and women, more often than not groups of young women travelling together. I begin to feel a little out of place, slightly uncomfortable that I am the oldest person here by a long long way. There’s no logical reason for me to feel this way, but I just think that I stick out like a sore thumb.

I laugh at myself and my stupidity and imagine the girls in my dorm waking up bleary eyed, looking over at me fast asleep, mouth open, tired and twitching and thinking, “My God, I’ve booked myself in a retirement home”. Then another thought struck me. I did not remember booking a dorm that was mixed with male and females, just male. But it’s not to be and it’s not difficult to be private, there’s a curtain across the bed to be private behind or you change in the toilets/shower rooms and everyone’s aware of the need not to stare. Often I would leave the room when girls returned to change and leave them to it. I was reminded at times of the old line I have used myself a few times in appropriate circumstances. I have perhaps been in a bedroom on holiday, getting changed, when a female voice, a friend or maybe a cleaner even, knocks on the door and pipes up,

“Are you decent?”

“Yes I am”, I say, “But can you give me five minutes?”.

I decide to keep a low profile and not be as social as perhaps I could be. I know that sounds odd, but I was just aware of behaving myself and not giving rise to thoughts that here’s a guy on the lookout for young female company. I was afraid of people thinking I was predatory. I wouldn’t be, but it was a perception I was aware of. I was here for 10 days and a certain behaviour was required. This is a real back-packers hostel, fast moving with young men and women travelling all over Europe and exploring during a year off or their summer break. I gravitate towards the staff, the young women working here, naturally, I think as they are here for the duration and so am I and they know Paris to some extent and there is a chance to get to know each other and hep to make my stay comfortable and interesting.

Breakfast arrives! Sophia, the shy and pleasant girl working the breakfast bar announces that this is the ‘resurrection breakfast’ and plonks down in front of me a full English cooked breakfast. Well if I’m to get this every day it will set me up royally. I don’t eat these normally, but I am sure I can make an exception for 10 days.

It’s beautiful and like all beautiful things, it’s admired, devoured and appreciated.

I finish it and say my goodbyes to the staff who wish me a good day and I head off to Gare du Nord. After hedging my bets crossing the road outside the hostel, sometimes waiting for the green light, sometimes challenging the traffic, I begin to think about her as I make my way into the train station. I remember she used to make her way down into Paris and get on and off trains to get home or to friends, sometimes grabbing a cheap meal here in the station, hanging about with the guys who stand and chat. She may have even walked the railway line here when she had no home or shelter to go to and just walked to keep warm, walking all night until the dawn arrived. Gare du Nord played a part in her life, good and bad and the Metro will take me closer to her former home and district today. If I could get to the actual streets where she roamed I would, but I don’t know how difficult or dangerous that would be. It may be foolish to go wandering in an area whose crime rate is disturbingly high in comparison to the worst in France. I could not blend in if I tried. Perhaps my fears are unfounded in as much I read that trouble tends to explode here rather than be on a continuous scale, but nevertheless there is an undercurrent of hardship, serious unemployment and a desire for the mostly immigrant population to survive somehow by any number of means and I really don’t know enough to poke my nose in and start asking questions. Perhaps if I stumbled across someone who I could talk to, maybe I would discretely ask, but perhaps I should just pay a visit to the Cathedral in Saint Denis and be happy with that.

The Metro line awaits and I need a ticket. There are information desks and ticket offices and there are stand-alone ticket machines dotted around the station floor. All the machines have a queue, but I’m not in a hurry I’m happy to stand in line. There are a couple of American ladies in front of me trying to figure out the baffling machine that confronts them and how to buy a return ticket each. They want two returns into Paris but cannot grasp how to get them. There is a ‘roller-bar’ which spins and moves a blue lit bar against various choices and which once you have made it you press the validate button and keep going until it prints a ticket and gives change. It’s like most things, when you know it’s easy, but two ladies just in from wherever with luggage and a head full of flying means the machine presents a serious threat to their well-being and forward travel.

A French guy helps out whilst I explain that maybe they should just buy a single at just 1Euro 70 each and two more to get back from their destination. 1Euro 70, I think, that’s very cheap compared to London at £4 50. Perhaps it’s subsidised. Whatever the truth is, even at this early stage the Metro service is quite brilliant and fairly easy to navigate with just a little thought. I buy my own ticket and find the correct entrance down into the bowels of Paris and within 3 minutes a train arrives. Thinking back I don’t think I remember waiting any more than three minutes for any Metro train all the time I was there.

I shuffle on, the doors close and I chose to stand. I don’t think I sat at any time during my stay. Often it was very busy and with so many women, children and older people getting on I had no need for a seat and I could keep my eyes on the Metro route board that ran across the top of the doors and the light that scooted along the stations as we moved down the track and I could then avoid missing my stop.

I usually stood by the central pole that had numerous flanges attached and held onto that and frankly you had to hang on. It was pretty bumpy, the carriages swaying as we cornered and rose and dipped and clanked to a halt at each station with the name of each one being announced by an automated voice machine in an interesting and alluring French manner. A few seconds before each stop a soft male or female voice releases a breath of air which seems to ask the question, “Chatelet?” and is giving you time to consider whether this is your stop and then when the train stops the same voice announces with a confirmation of its own question, “Chatelet” in a more downbeat manner, as if to say, yes that’s what I said, “Chatelet”.

As we moved away from Paris the carriages emptied gradually and then up popped St. Denis. I exit, climb the stairs and emerge into the sunlight. It’s midday now and it’s hot and humid. There is a row of shops and then the town square opens up with a small market today, mostly bric-a-brac, some food stalls and to the left illuminated in the blinding Sun, the medieval Basilica of Saint Denis. It’s having some major structural work done on the outside but its open and there is no charge at this stage to go in to the Cathedral. There are various portals lining the knave, each one dedicated to various themes, Papal visits and the refinery of the church and its rituals.

It’s a huge high vaulted cathedral that has its origins from 1000 years ago when St. Denis, who spoke out and preached against the ruling forces was beheaded in Montmartre and the legend states that his body carried his own head to St Denis where he chose to be buried. All but three of the French Kings and Queens from the 10th century until 1789 were buried here, though some were exhumed from elsewhere to be so, causing the church to become ‘The Necropolis of France’.

It’s fascinating to look at the history of France this way, not that I know much about it frankly. But the crypt which is ‘fenced off’ (for which there is a small charge to enter) contains ‘cadaver tombs’, bodies of those interred which are displayed in a sometimes, though not always, less than regal disposition and seemingly always life-size. They cover a huge area of the Cathedral and there are further tombs without the cadavers in the underground section which contains the graves of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, though how much of their actual body lies there cannot be ascertained as the headless bodies were covered in quicklime and dissolved with only some remains left, her garter perhaps, which were recovered at a later time and reburied along with other bones and such. Many tombs were opened and the bodies removed and thrown into mass pits and similarly covered in lime during the heady or should I say headless Revolution.

There are many names here which ring bells, Bourbons, Dauphin of France (8 year old son of Marie Antoinette and Louis), Medici and Louis after Louis after Louis. There are very few visitors, no queues, no hassle and very peaceful, except when a group of young excited schoolchildren came in and they were hush –hushed by their teacher/carer.

I left not so much educated on the history of France but more aware of the turmoil it went through and the way it has from time to time turned on those who were at the head of state and who very often lost theirs. The French people seem to tolerate much, but then will rise up and protest loudly to preserve something that is practical, philosophical and basic to their way of life. Looking around here you can see some of the roots of that anger and discourse and the readiness to challenge authority if need be and very direct action at that. We often moan when we hear French workers on strike at this or that and I just wonder whether their history tells them to stand up for themselves a lot more vehemently than us, the more passive English are prepared to do.

I exit the Cathedral and wander down the narrow main street with shops of all types on either side and this area is really multi-cultural with faces and body-shapes and clothes and expressions and speech of all types in evidence. A woman outside a shop had a ‘slush’ drinks machine which she is fighting with a large piece of wood or rather she is fighting a large group of wasps which seem to be enamoured with the fruity drinks.

I was tempted to stop and buy, but thought I would give it a miss but further down the street I found a guy whose stall was sting-free and sunk a mixed slush very quickly. It was hot now and I stood by a large map of St Denis wondering whether I should walk around the area and explore, but decided I wouldn’t have a clue where I was going and so abandoned that idea. I strolled back and passed by the lady fighting the wasps and guessed a score of 3 nil to the wasps was about fair and that she was wasting her time as the wasps had another substitutes waiting in the wings, so to speak.

That would be their ‘b’ team then.

I go into a shaded wooded area over by an Arts Centre where there are seats and it’s a chance to rest awhile and pass some time. There is a small standpipe in the middle of the area issuing very cold water at speed and volume and many are those that pass by and cup their hands and drink and splash their faces and necks. It’s not just me then that is feeling the heat its the seasoned locals too. A young boy and father of a kind of Arabic look sit close by and the son plays with the water and he gets the hang of the mechanism and manages to manipulate the water out of the tap for himself and others too. It’s funny how simple things are sometimes just enough and that’s a theme that would occur a few more times in Paris over the coming week or so.

I decide that my stay here is over although I am reluctant to leave in many ways. But it’s not as if this place is the other side of the planet. I can come back and with more confidence and purpose I can continue my search. I walk back to the Metro and I’m holding some Euro’s in my hand and I spot the ticket office as I do not see a machine, but as I work my way across to it, my hand slightly raised with the money in it, I cross the path of a North African looking woman who sees me and the money and stops in my way and gestures that she should have the money and not the ticket man.

“Non, merci”, I say.

I don’t know how to feel about her. I mean just to assume that I would give it to her smacks of some sort of desperation perhaps, an assumption maybe, a quite natural act for her that I would never see where I live but here its taken for granted. She wasn’t begging, just crossing my path, no scam, no threat, just a simple I need it please. She did not get it and just walked on. I suppose not living in a big City makes me a little more naïve than I like to think. There is a community here, but the rules are different, way different I imagine. This is confirmed for me a few days later by a young woman who used to live here, but that’s for later.

Ticket in hand I turn around and 4 or 5 guys in black uniforms are walking towards the Metro section where you pass your ticket through and I pass them by. They look like inspectors of some sort but maybe they are armed? I don’t want to look too hard and pass through. Two more are on the stairs and I wonder whether this is standard or something is about to go down. Police here don’t solve too many crimes I understand, I think the community looks after itself or not and they perhaps cannot wield any influence that will have an effect, they just butt out unless they are onto something big. Just how you police this sort of area I do not know. They seem like volcanoes waiting to erupt. Well I’m on my way now, on the train leaving the heat, the dead and a life that I can only guess at behind me. I will come back here I hope and find the seeds of her fall and her rise. Her spirit is in here, she left it behind here. I hope it still moves amongst those she cared for.

Back at the hostel I wash away the heat with a beer and talk and chat with the girls working there before eating, watching some sport on the TV screens and listening to the band that night before planning where I should go tomorrow. Perhaps I will take a walk with Ernest Hemingway, a stroll through the quiet side of Paris. Retrace some of his steps and see where they lead, I can do that with certainty. Yes a walk with Ernest it is. Walking with the dead is not always healthy but sometimes its as interesting as walking with the living. The City of Light yes, but its dark side is just as fascinating. Not unlike us really.

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The City and the Star

The City and the Star

Birth

In the beginning.

If ever I was asked, “Why Paris?” I would reply, “A woman”.

It was a blunt tool that I used, one designed at once to raise an eyebrow and at the same time create an air of mystery. One that was designed to say why else would you go there.

That reply would lend itself to many interpretations, some of which were in my own head, as they exist, I am quite certain, in other people’s heads. Perhaps unconsciously so, after all who doesn’t wish for some ‘dream lover’ to come along and at once solve all their worldly problems. A fantasy if you will, particularly a male one, though not exclusively.

That I was looking for love in one of the Cities of L’amour, perhaps, as some say, the most romantic city in the world and yes that’s pretty arguable I know, especially those better travelled than I, who perhaps would argue the case for a 1001 other places than Paris in which to find love, desire and a release from our earth-bound realities.

That a woman existed there for me to find, a woman who would sweep me off my feet, love me with a wild and lustful passion and feed me all the emotions known to humanity until I was ready to burst and I too would reciprocate her emptiness and fill her up with everything I had.

That I was looking for a mysterious woman, dark and secretive and alluring, one that would whisper sweet urgings of love in my ear with an accent soft and seductive and who would lure me into an affair from which I would never recover and she would remain in my heart forever, blotting and numbing out the real world that I would surely have to return to, but could at least escape from for a few weeks.

That I would forever hold a candle in my heart for her, forever to carry a torch of my own passed to me from one of the billions of lights that blaze brightly in Paris and which could never be extinguished..

Well, all or any of this may have been thought of as true in the minds of others. But the truth was actually more dark and sombre and yet much more illuminating than I could explain to anyone in just a few sentences. So I never did. That I was drawn here was the truth. By a woman, yes, but for now her story, in all its darkness and light, will have to wait. But there is no doubt that it was she who invited me and I accepted gladly and willingly.

It all happened in a rush and was just an extension of months and years of flirting with an idea, an idea that had taken on a slightly more serious tone this past 6 months. Maybe I should go to Paris and get a feeling for the city; perhaps pay a visit to the area where she lived if that was possible and then search and find where she had retired to.

Well, you know how it is when you get an idea in your head and before you know where you are, you’re doing the research, checking out the flights, the hotels, the costs, getting increasingly drawn into the idea day by day. You begin to confide in others, friends, work colleagues and before you know it, you’re committed, whether you want to admit it or not, like self-induced hypnosis, a self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes inevitable. You chose the path least trodden and you take it.

So after considering flying to Paris from the small local East Midlands Airport and mulling over the costs, where the plane will land, transport, bag weight restrictions and so forth, I somehow stumbled on the idea of going by train. I cannot recall now, maybe I saw an advert pop-up somewhere, but I noticed Eurostar train journeys starting from £70 return, London, St. Pancras to Paris. (This was April, three months prior to when my ‘compulsory’ two weeks holiday would kick in) I knew I could get to London from The Midlands by coach for £10 one way, hop onto the Underground to St. Pancras and that the Eurostar train arrives in the heart of Paris at Gare du Nord. Certainly it would be a longer journey at about 11 hours in total compared to perhaps 5 or 6 by plane (From home to hostel), but in adding up the costs, the train option was certainly as cheap if not cheaper and the idea of a nice easy coach and train ride through the English and French countryside and the fresh experience of Eurostar certainly appealed to me. Fewer baggage restrictions and costs were attractive too and I had all day to get there and so a nice relaxing journey awaited me.

At the same time I had been checking out hostels for price and location and the St. Christopher’s Hostel at Canal Martin had received good reviews and a sister hostel was due to open in July just 100 yards from Gare du Nord. Perfect. Without hesitation and feeling the Gods had conspired to arrange this, I booked the hostel, the coach and the train and spent the next three months accumulating a small pile of A4 sheets of paper bearing the location, costs and such of the 1001 museums, attractions and places of interest which The City of Light offered. I read as much as I could on the history of Paris and about its characters, but all the time I was bearing in mind that she was pulling me there, so yes, I should have a good time too, but that I must not forget her, and yet I must not expect too much. It was baby steps. Of course it seems inevitable now that I should also watch the odd ‘French’ film, “Amelie”, “Midnight in Paris” and “Intouchables”, plus other lesser known films, just to give me a flavour of the town and indeed they drew me in further to want to experience this City of so many cultures.

Despite my enthusiasm, I laid no plans that were definitive. The 1st. Sunday of the month in Paris is the day when all the museums are free, so that was close to a plan. Versailles or Fontainebleau was a choice to be made. Certainly a slow thoughtful stroll around Pere LaChaise Cemetery to visit Jim and his feast of friends was a must. A fairly late entry into the race was a visit to the Cathedral in Saint Denis, due north of Paris, where over 40 Kings and Queens of France were entombed and close to where the woman I had such affection and respect for lived much of her life. I hoped to take a walk or two from a book I had bought, “Forever Paris: 25 walks in the footsteps of Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso and more” by Christina Henry de Tessan. But in what order or when and how these things would occur I had no idea at this stage. This would be a casual affair, nothing rushed or frantic, just a slow coiling desire that would come to inhabit me, enough to inspire me further on my quest to get to know Paris and her.

The City and the Star.

Inevitably  the day arrived, as it always does. Tuesday July 31st in my case. The coach journey via National Express was almost uneventful, except for the fact that we were running about a half hour late into London. Heavy traffic. Holiday traffic. Realising that Eurostar ask you to check in at St. Pancras at least half an hour before leaving and that the journey across London from Victoria Coach Station via The Underground could take three-quarters of an hour, I was glad I had left a gap of 2 hours or so in between the coach arriving and the train leaving. It’s about a 10 minute walk from Victoria Coach station to Victoria Underground and I was glad I had decided to fit all and sundry into two medium sized bags, rather than one large suitcase as it was easier to carry two bags around the shoulder than wheel a suitcase across pavements and through London’s crowds. I tried in vain to fit my goods and chattels in one bag, but alas there was nothing I could or would dare leave out. I haven’t learned to compress a few items in one bag as yet and frankly I don’t think I ever will. I have my comfort zones and comfort blankets just like anyone else.

A one way ticket from Victoria to St. Pancras via London Underground was £4. 50 I noted and though I didn’t think too much about the price, but I was on holiday and the train got me there in 10 minutes, but that price would stick in my head and come back to me later. At St. Pancras the Eurostar ticket machine kindly received my ticket, or at least it read that strange black and white square-shaped pattern symbol that looks like a crossword puzzle that can only be solved by an alien and let me through the barriers before I came to the security check area. These are areas I have fallen foul of more than once, not with any serious circumstances, just mild embarrassment. I loaded my two bags on the moving belt and waited for the security guy to usher me through the gate. However I hadn’t reasoned that they still wish to have you pass through a gate that detects metal. So I empty my pockets, leave coins, keys etc. in the adjoining tray and confidentially walk through.

Triiiiing!!!

Ok here comes the frisk. Here comes the delightful young lady to give me the once over. Nope, that’s just a fantasy, here comes the huge mean looking son-of-a-bitch guy who looks like he could strangle his grandmother without conscience and now wants to squeeze flesh and muscle with fingers the size of bananas.

I spread legs and arms wide. He began at the socks and worked his way up the outside of my legs and then the inside. Of course they stop short of the erogenous zones and move on.

Well I would not say it was a squeeze or a grope and of course I am certain it was accidental, but his 1st. finger left hand met my right testicle, which on contact retreated upwards, claiming shelter from the storm. I flinched and looked down on his jacket lapel for a pink curved ribbon and his face for a smile and a wink, but saw no such thing and made a mental note to make sure there was no way I could set the machine off on my return. A frisk at mid body level revealed a belt with the offending metal buckle. Satisfied, I was allowed through with relief. I get the same feeling passing through these necessary precautions as I do when being followed, harmlessly, by a police car. Guilt!

I sit and wait in the vast and expansive hall until we are called through about 20 minutes from departure. We climb aboard a moving staircase and move up to the platform like robots loading onto “The Death Star” in a “Star Wars” movie to where a train awaits. A train so long it snakes the whole length of the platform and then some. These snakes are between 320 and 400 metres long and carry up to 750 passengers and close up they are huge impressive, muscular beasts, but once inside they give a feeling of safety and comfort and indeed the seats and the legroom, are very comfortable and the journey time is just 2hours 15 minutes with one hour to add on for Paris time. We take our pre-booked seats after shovelling our luggage into the end of carriage racks and settle in for the ride.

The train crawls, slides and rolls along through the tangle of railway lines of South London, weaving its way passed vast construction works and occasionally revealing a few sights before disappearing into tunnels and reappearing in green fields and running parallel to motorways and roads. Here the speed picks up, we are cruising, though it’s hard to tell what that speed is as the ride is so smooth, it’s like flying 6 foot off the ground. I guess from the way we are easing past cars on motorways, perhaps we are racing at 100 M.P.H., perhaps more. I read of speeds of 180, but it’s so deceptively comfortable and quiet, I couldn’t confirm or deny that.

Time through the tunnel is about 20 minutes before I emerged into the sunlight and French countryside. I realised my holiday had begun when I saw a roadside sign and couldn’t understand it. I cannot emphasise again just how smooth the ride is and to be able to gaze out of the window and watch the world go by at speed is really quite wonderful, and of course you can wander up and down the train if you wish, grab a sandwich and drink and stretch your legs.

Soon we were rolling through the outskirts of Paris, the banlieu, Saint Denis, Sarcelles and I couldn’t help notice the graffiti plastered all over the walls over the edges of the concrete buttes that enclose the lines and even on the metal stanchions. It seemed to cover almost aspect of the trackside scenery. I imagine it’s a common sight around the world and for those who travel a great deal more than I, it’s probably not a surprise, but for anyone thinking it is ugly and spoils the view, well it would be easy to agree with that, but these suburbs of Paris are tough places to live I know that much and the kids see it as a form of expression and art and it’s no different from those guys who scratched animals on the walls of their caves in Chauvet, France 30 000 years ago. They are expressing themselves and their lives and some of it is really quite beautiful, though I have no idea what any of it says. Names, statements, swearwords, gang names. I guess the authorities could remove it, but why would they? It would only come back and to me it’s just part of the character of the City. Paris may be The City of Light, but it has its dark side. I remembered reading in a guide book, many guide books in fact, that you will often be approached by people offering you trinkets, tickets and such and you should simply say “Non, merci”, not with anger, remembering that there are many, many poor people here in Paris and their circumstances are not as such their own fault. Paris has a rich history, but it is one of turmoil and the effects of its past can be seen all over the city. It’s very easy to judge what you see, but that may only be a manifestation of an inner problem. The lady who invited me here knew that all too well.

We pull up at Gare du Nord and disembark. It’s a huge station with many levels, serving not only Eurostar and the regional lines, but the Metro and RER too, having something like 44 platforms. I found sometimes you had to explore a little to find the section you wanted but the signage is very clear and the facilities are outstanding. I read it’s the busiest railway station in Europe and I can believe it. It’s the station that never sleeps.

I walked out from the man-made glare under the covering of Gare du Nord into the sunlight of a beautiful summer’s day in Paris. The façade of Gare du Nord is magnificent, decorated with 8 statues depicting 8 of the major destinations the station reaches out to with the main edifice of all depicting the mother city, Paris.

I turned left on Rue de Dunkerque and take in the fresh summer air. Wow! What is that? I can’t help contrast the wonderful view of the statues above with the pungent smell arising from the pavement below. Obviously this is an area frequented by people who are perhaps sleeping rough, which is confirmed by the presence of a van and a large table close to the pavement from which food and drinks are being served to a collection of world-weary men. On the side of the van I can make out the words “Catholic Church”. Succour for the needy. In many ways it’s a perfect introduction to Paris, the sad and the sublime, the poor and the wealthy, the darkness and the light. Lucky and unlucky all mingled together and if not bound by wealth, bound by the air we breathe.

I walked through the crowds, people coming my way straining for the station, people dodging and weaving their way back home, travellers with cases in tow, guys hanging about who congregate around the Station front, not that I anticipated problems, but it’s a city after all, but then over the next 10 days I can hardly remember a day when a small group of army guys were not patrolling along this section of Paris and they were armed to the teeth. I don’t know whether there was a security alert or this was just routine, but either way it was at once both comforting and slightly alarming.

St. Christopher’s Hostel is there, the entrance concealed a little with a patio entrance leading onto the reception, café and its focal area, the Belushi bar. I check in, it’s busy, matter a fact it’s always busy. I can barely remember a time when I walked through reception and no one was waiting to check in. Check in was simple, I had done it online. There was a card key for access to my room and 10 plastic cards to present for my ‘upgrade’ breakfast each day. I had no idea what this ‘upgrade’ was, but would discover this in the morning. I intended to fill up each morning, snack through the day and catch up again with the food at night. This was Paris on the cheap, saving my money for the visits I had in mind, there was no room for the pricey restaurant’s I’m afraid, much as I would have loved to have indulged myself. Room 305, third floor, I took the lift (there is two) and wander the long corridors before turning left and enter the room.

The room is spacious, about 8 or 9 yards square with 10 beds bunk style around the outside and facing out onto the street opposite a window running the whole length of the fourth wall. The view was a Best Western hotel directly in front and up the road towards Gare du Nord. There’s a wash hand basin, the ceiling is high giving the feeling of an airy room with space to stretch out.

The pod beds are good, long, fairly firm, a duvet if needed and the gizmos behind the bed include an individual light and two plugs to either recharge or take the current for whatever your instrument of choice is, PC, phone etc. There’s a curtain which covers the entire length of the bed too for privacy and underneath the bed a huge cage for keeping your stuff in.

I unpack my stuff and chat to the young girl sat opposite. She’s from Vancouver, via Toronto and having a year out travelling. That won’t be the last time I hear that whilst I am here. All done and I decide to have a pint and bite. I take the lift down, wander into the Belushi bar, order a pint of 1664 and a chicken Caesar salad. It’s a sizeable area, square, on two levels, a central bar surrounded on four sides, very rugged and solid with two separate areas for eating and one for smoking. The place is really buzzing, not full but there is constant movement all the time. This certainly ain’t no quiet country club or a quaint old pub in the English countryside.

I’m checking out the scene, the staff and notice a small woman buzzing about the place, older than the rest of the staff. She is tiny, pale skin, dark hair coiled on her head as if set there but perhaps is longer than it looks once let down, she has a pretty face, French maybe or some mixture of culture, I don’t know. She’s wearing a loose black dress to the knee and which plunges to her bosom, no stockings. She’s busy, just plain busy. I come to realise that perhaps she is the ‘boss’, the manageress.

The food arrives quickly and it’s a huge bowl of delicious Caesar salad, full of chicken and bacon, flushed down with a really cold Kronenburg 1664 and then bed. It’s been a long day, but I’m here and ready for Paris. And her.

There’s movement in the night, lights go on, bodies shift, bodies come and go in the room and are not careful about closing the door quietly. It bangs shut relentlessly all week. The ‘pod’ beds are all connected and so anytime anyone moves with any considerable degree of force, having a nightmare, climbing down to pee, a small bounce up and down for no apparent reason, you can feel it through the metal struts. I’m ready for this though and if I miss out on sleep, I will catch up later in the day.

I did not sleep easily, I was restless and it was warm, very warm. The huge open window helped, but I wake and I have a thumping headache. I don’t know why. Yesterday was a long day, a strange bed, a strange place. People are heading downstairs for breakfast, but I’m not. I have to take tablets and lie still. I think I remember that breakfast is served until 10. 30, so I will sleep it off.  10. 30 comes and goes and my head and stomach fair no better. Breakfast is out and bed is in. I lie still until about 2 p.m. and I feel a little better. Well I’m getting up, stomach and head ready or not, I’m going for a walk. I see there is a ‘free’ walk around Paris, the Montmartre area, which starts outside The Moulin Rouge, more precisely the Metro station ‘Blanche’. Of course, it’s not free, you give a tip when done. It sounds good, maybe the walk with others will clear my head, I’ll be forced to keep up. I decide to walk there as it’s only 30 minutes away.

I walk past Gare du Nord, along Rue de Dunkerque and a breeze has picked up, a strong one. Maybe that aroma will dissipate in the wind. No such luck. All the breeze does is blow hard in my face. There’s no escape from it. I hold my breath but decide it’s all part of the scene, the perfumery of the poor. I’m not mocking them or anyone by the way, I’m just so ambivalent about people sleeping rough. They will always be there I know, but surely if we are such a sophisticated and caring society, no one should have to sleep on the streets.

I walk past shops and cafes and cafes and shops, a few shoe shops, grocery shops, not the expensive ones, this is not a glamorous area, it’s a little rough and ready. The pavement here is wide, but there’s a tree planted every 10 yards or so, slap in the middle of the pavement and its set in a base about 3 foot wide and so you have to thread your way between that (or tread in it) and the shop front displays, the hordes of people coming your way, people standing and talking, to each other or on phones or to themselves. I skip over to the left where the pavement is clear, now that’s better.

Triiiing!!!

I turn and leap back. It’s a cycle path about 3 feet wide and they go hell for leather, bombing down it at speed. They must be locals as no tourist would be that confident of cycling that fast. I content myself walking under the trees and on the tree base. I turn left onto Boulevard de Rochechouart and the scenery changes. It’s a wider road, dual carriageway either way. The pavement is narrower here and it’s as though with that and the cars parked by the road, they are pushing you towards the sex shops that line the road. They look seedy and I remember reading stories from guys who went in and were conned into expensive drinks and were then threatened and ejected or even fought back. Not my idea of fun. I get approached by a Madame inviting me to sample her wares. Well, not her wares, her compatriots in the back rooms.

“Non merci”, I say with a wave of the hand.

I’m as polite as I can be but yet I am dismissive. “Non merci” is going to be used a lot I fear.

It’s part of the scene again. Paris is and always was the city with a one hand on your heart, one hand on your wallet and from somewhere, a mysterious third hand that massages your ego, if you understand me.

Another few minutes of sex shops and cinemas and “Blanche” Metro arrives. I need to sit and wait. I will check out the gathering walkers and the guide first and see who turns up. Between the two carriageways here, sits a huge round raised area where you can park your bottom to rest. I realise it’s part of the underground system, cold air is blasting upwards. No wonder this is a popular place to sit. You can take photographs of the Moulin Rouge from here and be comfortable in the heat at the same time. The regulars know this of course and before long a plumpish woman with four dogs appears and she sits on the edge whilst her dogs and puppies frolic on the grating, the cold air feeling good to them as they get a cooling down and some affection from passer-by’s.

I kick my heals watching people pass by, posing for their friends with the scarlet red windmill of the Moulin Rouge in the background, a place of former decadence now a must-have photo, a Babylon of babes is now a backdrop for pretend louche ladies who pose in everyone’s lens.

4 p.m. comes around and there is a collection of people around the “Blanche” Metro station entrance. A small group of youngsters and a guide wearing an orange top who looks about 12 have gathered. Hmmm. Well, no disrespect, but I just get the feeling this walk isn’t for me, not now, maybe later in the week. I walk round a few times wondering whether I should walk back to the hostel or walk up to Sacre Couer. I criss-cross the road a few times to see how I feel and just stand around, ‘humming and hawing’ when from somewhere a guy appears at my back. He whispers something. I can’t tell you what he said. He wanders off. Did he think I was hanging about, looking for an invitation of some sort? I don’t know. How strange. Or maybe not.

I need food. I walk up the hill, Rue Lepic, in front of me, passing an extraordinary building with a huge white -grey facade that looks like a real building right up to the top floor, until I realise that behind this frontage…is nothing…just space. It’s like a huge slab of concrete just balancing on the building below. I guess it is supported somehow, somewhere. I hope so. Maybe it’s the Sword of Damocles hanging by a horse hair over the dark racy history of the Moulin Rouge. One slip and…

Half-way up the hill there is a shop on the left, a tiny supermarket. I grab a basket and look for something I can stomach to eat. Some plain sandwiches will do. I come out with ice cream, yoghurt and one sandwich, plus a rum baba. Not exactly what the doctor would order for a headache and a dodgy stomach but you go with your heart sometimes for whatever makes you feel good.

I stroll around Montmartre, climbing steadily towards Sacre Couer, which evades me then reappears between buildings, shops and crowds. Cobblestone streets are trodden by wandering tourists as they must have been trod by artists and troubadours, drunken men and women, carousing and cuddling in the little alleys, farting and fucking, fighting and feuding, painting and pissing their lives away, creating great art and destroying their souls in the process. I climb further, hoping the ice cream won’t melt.

From somewhere a couple joins the throng, a guy in a proper penguin suit and a woman in a wedding dress, closely followed by a man with a long lens camera. Are they just married or modelling wedding outfits? I don’t know. Curious, I will follow. They walk slowly, the ‘bride’ with her dress held up and collected around her thighs so she will not trip over it, the photographer in front now, looking for the right spot. We near Sacre Couer and there is a guy sitting on the kerb playing an accordion. We get near to him, the guy, the girl, the photographer and me, the stalker. As we pass by the accordionist immediately switches from his French Parisian tune to the wedding march. I laugh out loud at him and his appropriate quick thinking.

We are now descending the steps of Sacre Couer and everybody is watching and admiring the scene. But they don’t stop here, they go down, the lens-man isn’t happy yet, he wants that perfect memorable shot. Finally he finds what he was looking for. Grass. The bride slips off her high heels and floats over the green baize, joining the groom, whilst the auteur drops down to a lower level so that his shots will have the Sacre Couer as background. Wow! What a shot this is going to be.

People clear the decks as the bride and groom twist, contort and cling onto the grass in various poses (practice for later no doubt) whilst the lens man clicks away, as do I and half a dozen other folks. It’s a wonderful moment for everyone. The bride is a real looker too, beautiful and I guess once you see the photos, you’ll probably concur that about her and her groom too.

Well they disappear and I’m about to eat my ice cream (s) (I bought 4 small tubs), when three far eastern looking ladies appear.

“Would you take our photos please?”

The bride and groom are still shooting. (Not each other)

“Yes, do you want them next to the bride and groom?”

The girls titter in fake shock. They line up and pose and I shoot.

“Thank you. Thank you”

I sit down to eat melted ice cream.

“Excuse me. Would you take our photos please?”

A middle aged couple appear. They lie down on the grass. (The young nuptials have gone now). The newly married couple coo’d and kissed and so I was going to whisper to this older couple “kissy-kissy”. But they were, I felt, too stricken in years and shyness to want to express before me and 100 other people their long felt wants and besides, I did not want to unplug a volcano and make the scarlet Moulin Rouge blush an even darker shade of red.

More photos, more thank you’s.

I sit down again, scanning the horizon for lovesick couples. All clear now.

I scoff four tubs of ice cream, all different flavours, walnut, banana, strawberry and some kind of Americano recipe. I take a vitamin supplement too, figuring with the heat and my lack of food I need it.

I sit back and admire the view both ways, Paris below, Sacre Couer behind and the blue sky above.

The Eiffel Tower is iconic of Paris and has come to symbolise much about the City. But for me, the sight of Sacre Couer bathed in sunlight and sat high on Montmartre speaks to me of a symbol of a mysterious land somewhere, as if a combination of many religions were centred here, a coming together of many beliefs in one building. Of course it’s a Roman Catholic Church and it was only completed in 1914 but it seems to hark back to some Moorish, Middle-Eastern place and time and is quite magnificent in its proportions. I imagine anyone coming home or arriving in Paris knows they are home when they see the Eiffel Tower, but to see Sacre Couer evokes a feeling of a different kind, a sanctuary, a symbol of forgiveness and comfort.

This must be one of the busiest churches in the world judging by the amount of people coming up the steps, none of who can escape the clutches of the guys trying to sell “cold beer” and even an hour later they still try. Perhaps a little honesty would have been appropriate by then. “Luke warm beer” perhaps would be more fitting. I don’t take up their offer, another, “Non merci”.

I’m not rushing around here in Paris and I’m not on a clock. So I grab a book from my bag and begin reading. The book is “Paris Paris” by David D. Downie, a wonderful collection of trails and adventures, personal reminisces of Paris. For this time I read about Amedeo Modigliani. Downie makes a comparison with Jim Morrison in that Amedeo wanted to live a short full life, which he duly fulfilled and so too did Jim.

Amedeo was an Italian born painter and sculptor who early on in his life contracted the biggest killer of people around 1900.Tuberculosis. It was easily transmittable and had no cure. He perhaps masked his condition in order not to be shunned and by consuming drink and drugs in huge amounts he cultivated an image of a wild man and eccentric artist, even in these Bohemian surroundings. His work output was prolific as was his conquest of women and he succumbed to his disease in 1920, leaving behind his beautiful young wife Jeanne, who was nine months pregnant with his child and the day after Amedeos death and in desperation, she duly waked backwards out of her parents 5th. floor window, falling to her death and that of her unborn child.

I read all this and sit and gaze out over this area of Montmartre and wonder what it must have been like back then. I recalled Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris” in which Owen Wilsons character is being mocked by Michael Sheens bumptious sarcasm for searching for a time “La belle époque”, that he believes existed. The world he wants, a world of pure artistry and genius, did exist, but not without despair and poverty and ill health and short painful lives. Artists truly dying for their art. It sounds Romantic, but to be one of these people or be around them must have been at times pure hell, but they somehow reached the heights and depths of the human soul and depicted it in writing and in the arts and which laid foundations which others built on and owe much too. Artists remain here still, perhaps some who may come to challenge those gone before, but somehow I get the feeling that certain times in history gave birth to a monumental changes which cannot be repeated, the Beatles and Elvis for example. Something came together at one time, flourished and then died with the times.

After basking in the glow of the sun, I decide to walk up to Sacre Couer and go inside. There are hundreds of people milling about and a small queue at the entrance, but soon I am inside. Notices say no photos and although tempted I abide by the rules. Its magnificent and with the construction being completed only 100 years ago, perhaps it gives an impression of what some of the older and just as magnificent churches looked like shortly after they were finished. The clarity and colour of the inside of the dome is stunning. I walk around the outside slowly as there is a service going on, quietly and reverently. There is a machine from which for 2 Euro’s you can purchase a gold coin depicting Sacre Couer and for a trinket is quite classy and so I take two. The service ends and I file out with those now blessed as they in turn bless the altar and leave, no doubt more humble and sanctified than when they entered.

I take a slow stroll down past through the stalls waiting for buyers and artists waiting for models, each displaying their portraits of the past whilst the busiest stalls are the ones offering head and neck massages, perhaps releasing the strain from all their gazing.

It’s all downhill from here, twisting and turning down the narrow cobbled streets, past quaint cafes and table lined restaurant’s, often with a waiter outside, smiling, welcoming. Soon I am back by the Moulin Rouge and I wander slowly back to the hostel, this time down the centre walkway that divides the dual-carriageway road, past people talking, smoking, killing time, surfacing from underground hot and bothered, as if emerging from Dante’s Inferno until finally hitting the hostel.

I’m greeted with a welcome from the lady manageress who serves me a 1664, which goes down well and gives me an appetite for another Caesar salad which is served by a very pretty young woman in whom I detect a faint Australian accent; I think. She confirms this, but says she has lost much of it since moving in with girls of varying accents and nationalities. She has an interesting face too which suggests a another country and she confirms that she is Philippino too and we chat about this and that and I‘m beginning to feel at home here and having weathered the storm of slight sickness today I look forward to tomorrow, though still with no plan in store, although I can feel her tugging at my sleeve, “Don’t forget me, I’m here, waiting”.

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