I wake up in Ghent to the sounds of streetcars and the bustle of students back from the weekend. The futon I’m couch-surfing on is wooing me with the promise of more hours of dreaming. No, I think to myself. I have to go to Paris.
A friend drops me off at the terminal, just in time to see my bus rolling away without me. I wave it down on a busy street, camera and pack in my arms. It’s a sight that amuses the passengers; the driver isn’t so pleased.
I roll into Paris just past lunchtime, catch the Metro and transfer twice, and there I was in Montparnasse. My rendezvous with brothers Dan and Dave was a shady one: “meet upstairs in a cafe called Columbus, from there we’ll call the hostel company and get our apartment.”
And there I found them, skinny and beaten by the sun. They’d been hightailing around Europe for a month, living the adventure that so many students dream of but never pursue. They’d made it, and the smiles on their faces were only a hint of the happiness that a summer abroad delivers.
We trek it to the hostel, led by a French student in a Canadian tuxedo. Small talk. He said he’d spent several months in Toronto without really doing or seeing anything. We were strangely forgiving, perhaps because he was ‘the eye’ – the man who could (and would) sternly chastise us for our misadventures, if you’d like to call them that.
“Bakery’s there, deli’s there, here is your room”… Boom! We’re eating and getting ready to descend into madness. First stop: Eiffel tower. Why not, right? Buy several bottles of cheap wine from the grocery store, drink, repeat.
End up on the grass in front of the tower, talking to the bootleggers and the street vendors who go in depth about their story, their job and the consequences of working the grey market.
Drunkenly, we see their lookout system, their eye contact with one another, their warnings and their hiding spots for the bottled water and cold beer that they sell. Our friends come and go. We stay, fat in the sunshine with good bread and cheap wine in our stomachs.
We finish another bottle. I begin to get courageous, ask tourists if they’d like me to take their picture. “I’m a photographer, you know. Do you have a flash on this thing?” We watch the comers and goers, the backpackers and the Americans with fat ankles, the gypsy kids and their pickpocket-cons, the Argentinean women with their golden hair and whatnots. The brothers and I share stories of our adventures, the people we have met and the sights we have seen.
Dan and I share a sigh of relief. We had been talking about all things Europe for months and here we were, drunk as sailors under the Eiffel tower. We get up and walk underneath. It’s my fifth time in this city and it still astounds me. The size, the daring.
Walk to the other side, hear the Beatles’ “Let it be” being played from a carousel ride, sing to it and make all those around us cringe. We take a metro ride back to the hostel, where we speak to some Texans and surrender to their silly ways: “Y’all live in Canada? What y’all do up there?”
They told us they owned guns, numerous guns, and how they miss home. “Europe is so damn different! The food portions are so small!”
Lay down, fall asleep, wake up to another bustling day – this time no streetcars, but micro-cars and mopeds, all whizzing by on the street below.
Grocery store bread and cold cuts were how we started our day. I did a favour for the hostel owners and picked up a new traveler from the train station.
Spent five minutes trying to convince her I’m not going to abduct her, which is especially funny (in hindsight) when I crack a joke about the movie “Taken” on an empty elevator ride.
She’s relieved when I show her the room and prove once and for all that I’m not a creep.
She wants to come out with us, and we oblige. She’s Scandinavian in her looks, but her speech suggests she’s American. Turns out, she’s West Virginia girl with ten days in Europe, scurrying around and about before she returns to a day job back home. This should be fun.
We convince her to come with us and head to Notre Dame, where I realize that my camera lens is partially broken from drunken stupidity. I curse myself and move on; there’s no point getting mad now. We meet with another friend from days past, Medina. It’s her birthday – as if we needed another reason to drink and be merry.
What happened after this point is now a large, eight-hour blur. It wasn’t that I didn’t remember; I guess you could say that I just didn’t want to.
We would end up in a truly run-down neighbourhood and get locked into an illegal, afterhours bar, with yelling and chaos thrown in between. Tune in, dearest reader, next week, for the second and final part of the Paris chronicles.