0419 A Unique experience in Paris (Fra 044—revisit)

Paris Travel Blog

 › entry 44 of 201 › view all entries

Paris gets more visitors each month than many countries get in a year.  Everybody has been to Europe, from senior citizens to rugged backpackers,  from hobos to super wealthy Saudis.  There’s practically not a single building in the city that hasn’t been photographed, written about or drooled over…

 

So what do I have to say about Paris?  Is my experience here unique?  Well, it had better be.  Because I absolutely refuse to accept that I’m following in somebody else’s footsteps and just rehashing somebody’s else’s experience…

 

But before I tell you about today’s experience, let me go back a few years and tell you about a couple of other experiences I’ve had in Paris

 

August 2000 Paris on the Crossroads

 

In 1999 and 2000 I went on a crazy two year journey to try to find myself, find what I believe in and what I want to do with my life… By August of 2000 I had travelled from Morocco to Mexico to Venezuela, all over the United States… I had travelled to India and back… I had lived in Hollywood for 6 months… quit my job and gone to Morocco… found a job, quit my job and bought a one way ticket to France… crashed with a couple of musician and housesat for total strangers in Blois, France… still not tired of erratic ramblings, I had bought a one way ticket to New Delhi…

 

I arrived in Paris early in the morning and saw the sun rise over the great city.

  I managed to explore the city a little bit before heading to the Indian consulate.  Here are a few things that stood out in my memory…

 

First was the plaque at the train station where France finally admits after 60 years  that Vichy France was an active participant in the Holocaust, and not just a victim as had been the belief previously…

 

Then there a huge mosque and Islamic center not far from the train station, reminders of the new realities in modern France

 

The I headed on to the Seine and past the better known landmarks.. I was struck by the image of several hobos sleeping right to Notre Dame Cathedral…I was awed by the splendour of the the gold domed palace…

 

And then, over towards the Eiffel Tower, I was a bit surprised to see backpackers just camping out in sleeping bags in the park… and I was quite intrigued by this “alternative” way of experiencing Europe

 

When I wasn’t able to get a visa to India, I was at first tempted to head on back to Morocco.

  I even went up to Clichy where the buses to Morocco head out from… But after giving it some thought, I realized that I still needed to do a bit more crazy rambling… So I went to the train station and spent almost all my money on a one day ticket to Berlin

 

Fast forward to April 2005…

 

On my second trip to Paris, I married and financially stable--  still going on crazy trips, but only for 5 weeks maximum and then back to my wife and peaceful life…

 

And in 2005 I took my wife on one of those trips…I wanted her to really experience Paris so I took her on a marathon hike from La Defense all the way to Notre Dame… She was a good sport about it all certainly enjoyed the sights… but she could hardly walk for a week after that…

 

Back to the Present…

 

Today my experience of Paris is going to be very special because it comes after 8 days of exploring and playing music in no less than 42 suburbs which have given me a much broader context as to what the Great Metropolis is all about it’s much more than just an endless herd of tourists all taking pictures of the exact same monuments and landmarks.

  Paris is a beautiful but not too big city of 2 million people that is the heart and soul of a region that includes hundreds and hundreds of unique cities and towns spread across the region.

 

And now I’m ready to start discovering that “soul”…

 

First I have to hurry up to the Arch so I can take  a quick video clip just in case this is ends up being my only visit to Paris.  I find a good spot to put my camera, but I have to fight for it as a dozen other tourists want to have their picture taken at the exact same spot…

 

Heading down Champ d’Elysee, I’m almost overwhelmed by the contrast between tonight and my previous nights in Houlles, Franconville and Andilly where the last bar closes before dusk.

   Here the street is alive and churning with excitement.  I don’t care that it’s a tourist trap--  it’s just great to see PEOPLE and life late into the night… It’s also fascinating to see people from every nationality, lifestyle and social position, from multimillionaires to punks to homeless folks all rubbing shoulder on this grand avenue… Suddenly I’m completely inconspicuous  walking down the street carrying a guitar and a shoulder bag… Everybody fits into the kadeiloscope that is Champ d’Elysee…

 

I continue on across the bridge which is lined with some of the most beautiful statues… Everywhere around me are architectural marvels and pompous overkill… Not far away the Eiffel Tower flashes a spinning spotlight begging for attention as well…

 

It’s a beautiful moment… After 8 days of enjoying the simpler things and hidden little gems in the suburbs, it feels so rewarding to just have urban magnificence spread out in front of me like a lavish buffet…

 

But  eventually I must come back to reality… I’m in Paris in  the middle of summer with no place to stay.

  No worries… I’m sure I’ll figure something out… I’ll just do what I always do, trust my instincts and wander around until I find something cheap…

 

So I wander up through the jewellery district and on up past the old American Embassy where things are a lot quieter… I quickly realize that only small sections of this city are truly sleepless…


I head on north to the St Lazare train station, figuring surely there will be cheap hostels around  the train station and if not--  well I could just crash for a few hours on a bench at the station…

 

But I couldn’t see a single cheap hostel and the train station wouldn’t be open all night… I figured I could head over to La Gare du Nord and try my luck there… No luck… The only hostel I happened across was 35 Euros a night--  and booked…

 

To complicate matters more, the subway system was now shut down, so no hope for catching a train out to the forest… So my options were quickly being whittled away…

 

I looked at a map and decided to head towards a large park on the northeast side of town where I figured I could camp out… only to find that it was fenced off.


Looking on the bright side, at least the neighbourhood felt fairly safe… I decided I to try one more park at the very edge of town… There at 3 am I finally found a sort of safe and discreet spot to camp out for the couple of hours that were left of the night…

 

Next morning, I woke up relieved and yet flustered by the roller coaster of experiences of the previous day… I figured that maybe I needed to take a break from Paris and France for a while.  So I headed down towards the Eurolines bus station in Bagnolet

 

…But this would not be my last visit to Paris

                   

Back in Paris a Month Later…

 

Fastforward a month, I’m back I Paris once again.

  I’ve arrived this morning from London and I’m leaving tomorrow night for Rome… So I’ve got plenty of time to explore the city properly.  And this time I’ll do a bit of research ahead of time to find where all the cheapest hostels are--  and if I can’t find one, I’ll make sure I find a nice secluded forest before it gets too late…

 

I head straight from Bagnolet into the city… down some interesting but not spectacular narrow streets… down a long open air market to the “Bastille”…


I’m a  little disappointed, I guess I was kind of expecting that famous old prison to still be here but all there is is a big pillar…

 

From there I head up to Notre Dame and the very touristy streets that surround it… Take another clip in front of Paris’ Mairie which clearly outdoes them all… on up to the Pompidou, the famous inside out building… on past the Louvre…

 

I continue on back to the Eiffel tower where I take my official me-playing-the-guitar-in-front-of-the-Eiffel-Tower clip… From there I head south, explore a couple more monuments… One that I find a bit peculiar is a monument to the civilian victims of the Algerian war for independence.

  At first I thought  “great!  Nice to finally see some acknowledgement of the atrocities committed in that war”… But on closer look I see that it’s dedicated only to the civilians killed by Algerian fighters, not those killed and tortured by the French forces…

 

But then again, I guess most countries have a pretty lopsided view of their history… But maybe if France took a bit more honest look at the demons of their history, they’d be more successful in facing the troubles of the present… just a thought…

 

I really want to see the Luxembourg Gardens.  I remember being intrigued by Les Miserables when I was younger, and have to see the garden that the book made famous…

 

It’s not all that spectacular, but I’m still glad I came to satisfy my curiosity…

 

 The day is quickly slipping away, I’ve done so far a pretty standard tourist circuit… but that’s all right… I’ve already spent many days exploring the lesser known suburbs and I hope to spent many more.

  But there’s one more landmark that I’ve got to see to feel I’ve fully explored Paris--  the Sacre Coeur Cathedral… it’s way up on the north side of town, but I might be able to get there before dark…

 

So I head on up north.  There don’t seem to be any major roads heading that direction, so I zigzag my way up the side streets  looking for the quickest way up to the Sacre Coeur, snapping a few more pictures along the way… Luckily I make it just in time and take a great clip in front of the cathedral.  

 

I’m going to tentatively put the cathedral at the top as the most beautiful structure in Paris.  There’s something dreamlike--  almost Taj Mahalesque about the building.

 

I climb up the stairs past the buskers, the Africans offering to weave a wristband right onto your wrists, and hundreds of people just chilling out and enjoying the view of the city… A good vibe in this cool little corner of Paris

 

Finally I head on down the hill.

  I have thoroughly experienced Paris.  Now it’s time to either find a reasonable hostel or get out of the city and find a forest to camp in.  I’ve done a little bit of research and there’s not really a “backpacker ghetto” anywhere in Paris, hostels are scattered throughout the city.  There are a couple right here in Montparnasse, so I’ll see if I can find them…

 

It’s Ramadan break-fast time, and here in North Paris I can really feel the excitement.  Moroccan tea shops and pastry shops are rushing to sell chbakia and mnsimin to last minute shoppers, and those who have no family to go home to are cramming into the eateries to eat harira soup with dates… It’s nice to feel that vibe again…

After a couple bad leads, I decide to look up one more hostel before giving up…

 

I wander around a while until I finally find it… and yes, there’s vacancy… and for 23 Euros I’m finally going to spend a night in Paris like a civilized person…

 

I quickly drop off my bags and  decide that I haven’t finished exploring Paris after all… I head out to see what more there is to see… I take the main boulevard heading west which turns out to be the red light district--  nothing like Bangkok or Amsterdam--  just a bunch of porn shops and peep shows--  oh, and the famous “Moulin Rouge” theatre as well where crowds of well dressed middle age couples line up outside to see the show… not what you usually see in a red light district…

I veer on to the south a little ways looking for a cheap place to grab a meal… but I can’t find anything reasonable at all…

 

Finally I head on back down a different street.

  This street it turns out to be the “Guitar District” with dozens of shops selling guitars and other instruments… Well, at least I know where to look for a guitar if I’m ever back in this area…

 

Back at the hostel I have a couple of really good conversations with my roommates.  One fellow is a French farmer boy who is about to go to New Zealand for in a farmer exchange program.  He explained to me that even though he lives in a farm village, he and his parents are pretty open minded in regards to immigrants--  but many people in small towns are not.  We got to talking about the irony of why immigrants from Africa are still considered “immigrants” on down through the 3rd and 4th generation, but Sarkozy, the son of white, Hungarian immigrants is considered 100% French… He admitted that the reason is simple: subtle racism…

 

We also got to talking about the riots.  He said that the police make no effort to establish a connection in immigrant communities.

  They just wait until things get ugly and then they rush in in full riot gear for a show of force--  making it hard for them to be perceived as anything other than “the enemy”…

 

It was good to hear the perspectives of a white French fellow on these touchy issues… A nice finish to my Tour du France…

 

After this guy went to bed, another roommate showed up, this guy from Poland, and he was eager to talk too… He helped answer some of the questions I’d had on my Warsaw visit--  so I’ll paste our discussion onto my Warsaw entry…

 

And so ends my last night in France

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photo by: Sweetski