Green countryside, trees, remote warehouses, wide open farms, electric poles, and train tracks were the images that passed before my eyes as my thoughts meandered aimlessly. I was tired and unable to sleep at the same time. The mere prospect of reaching The City of Lights consumed much of my thoughts. I had read much about France’s grandiose beauty, magnificent culture, and astounding history. This trip, however, was my first visit and thus my first tangible exposure. I was a member of an adult volleyball team touring Western Europe. At present, we were on our way from London to Paris. Our plans were to play some volleyball against local clubs as well as to socialize with the teams and to visit some of the major tourist attractions.
French history, like many of the neighboring countries, is filled with picturesque tales of kings and queens, revolutions, and world-renown artists dating back several centuries. As such, I was anxious to see the artwork inspired by such calamities as the prosecution of the Huguenots, the storming of the Bastille, and the beheading of the unpopular Marie Antoinette. Of course, the paintings and the sculptures propelled by the church and by extravagant kings like the celebrated Sun King, King Luis XIV, also peaked my interest and enthusiasm. My partial knowledge of the language heightened the anticipation already built up to this point.
We finally arrived at the Gare du Nord, the train station. It was a cold November day! Cold dry air flowed in waves through the open station thereby causing my muscles to tighten and my body to crunch in hopes of generating and conserving body heat. Everybody was fully covered in layers of clothing and many modeled furry winter hats as they briskly strolled about. At first, the sounds I heard from people’s mouths only amounted to gibberish; but, little by little, they eventually became coherent sentences filled with meaningful expressions. I was amazed! My grammar and vocabulary was sufficiently preserved through the years to give me the power of understanding! I found myself speaking the language without apprehension within moments of my arrival. It really was not because I knew the language well; it was because I was not ashamed of my poor but, apparently, effective communicating skills. “Quelle heure est-il?” I asked a Frenchman to test his reaction to my pronunciation. He simply gave me the time and walked off, a good sign!
The locality was full of people walking in all directions, as would be expected from any major city. Some of us in the group had to get some French Francs and thus waited a couple of minutes in our present position before departing. Upon commencing our walk, our coach told us that it would take approximately fifteen minutes to get to the hotel. I cannot, with a clean conscience, attest to this estimate since all my senses feasted on the motley scenery presented by the strange yet, in someway, familiar city. The streets were narrow and the height of the buildings did not surpass five or six floors. The sidewalks were filled with pedestrians of all ages; they walked at a rapid but uniform pace. The roar of cars, buses, and mopeds polluted the environment. Foreign voices and high-pitched horns adorned the colorful setting. The alternating aroma of gasoline, sweet perfumes, and freshly baked bread stimulated my sense of smell as we marched on the street and sidewalk.
It was not long until we found ourselves in the hotel. It was about half past four o’clock in the afternoon. The hotel was at the crossing of Rue Montmartre and Rue Richer. We agreed to go up to our rooms and get settled with the condition that we meet in the lobby half an hour later. The elevator was small and cramped, sized only for two full-sized or, perhaps, three medium-sized bodies. Three girls from our group crammed into the cabin and took the first ride. Taking note of the slowness of the elevator, I opted for the flight of stairs. The steps were narrow and the stairway was dark. The lighting all throughout the winding uphill trail was poor. Jeff, one of my teammates, and I shared a room on the fifth floor. The room was petite and, thankfully, had its own bathroom. A bathroom, as I had heard from stories back home, is a treasured commodity in Europe. Sharing one shower with the entire floor, I was told, is not uncommon. In any case, I put my bags in the room and, in anticipation of our awaited outing to the city, wasted no time in descending back down to the lobby. Needless to say, I was early and, as short as half an hour sounds, the wait seemed like an eternity to me.
Eventually, the rest of the group came down; at which point, our excursion commenced. We walked southbound on Rue Montmartre. Our coach was familiar with the city and it was his intention to give us a customized guided tour. After a couple of blocks, we reached the entrance of the subway station. I thought our coach was merely pointing it out to us when I noticed that he, along with the group, descended into it. The words “Not Another Train!” quickly crossed my mind. I did not really feel like getting into a subway that offered very little with regards to views of the city. I therefore decided to breakaway from the group. Much to my surprise, I noticed that Irene, a fellow teammate, stood by me when I waved good bye to the coach indicating that I would go on my own. “Great!” I thought. Irene is adventurous, self-assured, and, most of all, good company. She is also cognizant of big city life and very perceptive to its intricacies. So, upon looking at each other, we both said, almost simultaneously, “Oh, well!” and kept on walking.
We decided to walk towards the Musee du Louvre, which is on the north bank, north of La Seine. By walking south on Rue Montmartre, we were accomplishing our plan. The Louvre was a highlight we did not want to miss for it houses, among other works, Venus de Milo and Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Its magnificent glass Pyramide, designed by architect I.M. Pei, at the entrance of the museum is a well-conversed topic for its merits in architecture. It was also a source of considerable controversy ever since it was commissioned in 1983 to its final deployment in 1989. The time now was probably half past six o’clock in the evening and my stomach started to growl a bit from hunger. “How about some dinner?” I asked Irene to which she favorably agreed without hesitation. A few blocks further, we found a restaurant called Pied du Cochon, French for pig’s foot. An interesting name! I did not expect a restaurant with such a name to be in the middle of a city like Paris. The establishment, however, was quaint and ornate. Beautiful flowers decorated the entryway and all throughout the separate dining areas. The patrons wore expensive suits, black in color for the most part, and beautiful dresses, some short and others long. A highly trafficked and charming walkway bordered the restaurant. By now, we were wondering if they would allow us inside. I was wearing a pair of black jeans with a thick brown leather jacket under which I wore a T-shirt. Irene was wearing a long sleeve denim shirt with a black spandex bottom and a backpack. If there was a dress code, we certainly did not adhere to it! In any case, we were happy to see that we were not rejected. Dinner turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. We both started our meal with a delicious French Onion Soup. I, being on the adventurous side, had pig’s foot as my main dish, the specialty of the house. It was quite tasty but it had very little meat to it. The bone filled most of its mass. The skin was crunchy and the sauce was spicy. I do not remember what Irene had but I recall that it looked good. We had red wine to accompany our meal and a delicious dessert to end it.
After the meal and a very gratifying conversation, we left the restaurant to re-embark on our adventure. In looking for a place to eat, we had deviated somewhat from our original course. We relied, however, on our sense of direction to continue our journey. We walked and visually digested our immediate surroundings. Before long, the sky became quite dark, being probably somewhere around eight o’clock in the evening. We walked for a while until realizing that, if we were on the right path, we should have already been at our destination, the Louvre. This realization was not a source of concern since our purpose was to sightsee, be it what we knew to expect from the city or what we did not know we, perchance, wanted to see. The streets forked and curved. We turned right. We turned left. We went up some stairs and came back down again. Stores varied in nature, from selling cosmetics and articles of clothing to selling books and magazines.
The merchandize of the stores gradually changed from expensive thick furs to exotic thin lingerie. An adult-oriented store of the X-rated kind suddenly appeared. I took note of its appearance but it did not necessarily surprise me. The streets went from being somewhat desolate of bodies and full of cars to being reasonably populated with pedestrians and extinct of cars. People seemed to congregate into groups at different corners. The density of X-rated stores unexpectedly grew to culminate in one hundred percent. Triple-X theatres and sex shops were now lined up right next to one another. Graffiti and sexy posters of women wearing small pieces of lingerie crowded the walls. The sidewalks and streets were now pretty dirty. The street we were on was covered in a plethora of soda cans, plastic cups, newspapers, rags, and broken bottles. The people were mostly dressed in obscure gloomy colors with overly worn jeans. Their hands were, for the most part, tucked into their jackets. Select and somewhat vociferous groups claimed ownership of particular corners on the street. Their hair was uncombed and unkempt. The lighting was dim, as though only emitted by yellow lights. Neon signs, of course, were imminent and ranging from fluorescent green and cherry red to electric blue.
Two prostitutes, and one of those in particular, caught my attention. It was her light clothing that struck me as unusual since, as I mentioned earlier, it had been cold that day! Her stature measured roughly five feet and six inches. A bright red silk dress gave a full view of her beautiful cleavage while concealing a double D-sized cup. The low cut and strapped dress was bordered with black embroidery; it looked more like a nightgown than a dress. The thin smooth cloth could not camouflage the presence of a roll of soft skin protruding out of her waist side. The exposed skin of her shoulders, breast, thighs, and knees was milky white. The sleeves of a dark sweater hung from the ends of her shoulders while one hand busied itself with a burning cigarette and the other rested on her shapely waist. She leaned against a wall, as if in a photographic pose, with a foot resting on the same allowing her knee to bend ever so slightly. Her black hair was long and wavy. The thickness and density of her hair did not permit the wind to affect it much. Her eyes were pitch black and her face was perfectly white with a soft smooth texture. Her features were symmetrical and showed no signs of scars whatsoever. As we approached, I could see wrinkles at the ends of her eyes and at the edges of her mouth, where her round delicate cheeks rested. Her make-up was heavy but perfectly applied. Her dark red lips were thick; she was chewing gum at the time. She wore rouge on her cheeks. The skin of her neck creased as it stretched when she vigorously masticated. It was only the folds of her neck and the wrinkles of her face that divulged her age, a seemingly forty-year old woman.
After passing her, we started noticing that the streets were inundated with black garbage bags, the ten pound kind. They were open and full of clothing, particularly full of undergarments. “Strange!” This sight of Paris I did not envision. Irene and I commented on our ignorance of this part of the city and our fortune to have been exposed to it. Privileged, we thought, because we would have never seen this peculiar and unexpected part of town had we meticulously planned our outing. Immediately after, however, I started thinking about our safety and my ability to protect Irene and myself from any possible misfortune. I am sure Irene could protect herself but I still felt responsible for her safety and well being. I did not communicate these thoughts to her, though. Besides, except for the strange surroundings, no one had either approached us or talked to us. The population density lessened as we continued to walk. All of a sudden, we both noticed the consistent sound of footsteps behind us; someone walked in our wake leaving five to ten yards of space in between. He had been walking at our pace, rather quick, and behind us for a block or two. This news alarmed us a bit. Both of us, having had experience in the city, showed no signs of distress. We stopped at a relatively populated corner, pretending to look at a storefront, to see the reaction of the prospective assailant. We noticed that he, too, stopped. He had a leather jacket similar to mine with his hands tucked into it. We only saw his profile and could barely distinguish any distinctive features since it was dark and our haste prevented us from taking a longer glance. We quickly decided to cross the street and continue walking.
He did not cross the street but began walking as soon as we started on the opposite side. Again, we stopped at the next corner to see his reaction. Much to our dismay, he stopped and lingered. I now noticed the loudness and quickness of the imminent palpitations within my chest. “Did he want our money? Was he crazed with the intention of causing us harm? Did he have hidden companions waiting to prey on a couple of tourists like ourselves?” All these questions flooded my thoughts in a matter of a second! We had to lose him but, somehow, we needed to keep our escape path along populated streets. This endeavor would prove to be difficult. Looking for help did not seem to be an option. The crowd we had seen, up to this point, was not the type to help. It is typical of situations like these that people ignore occurrences of the sort for their own safety. We thusly picked up our walking pace and turned right at the corner. Having some seconds to spare before he could catch another glimpse of us on the perpendicular street, our pace went from brisk to rapid. We made another turn. Suddenly, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel! I could see, at some distance, cars traversing through a lighted street. We headed like mad to that point! This stretch we did without looking back. Neither of us still showed signs of fear; instead, we were both resolute and confident, or so we thought our demeanor showed. Never let a dog know you fear him! Anyway, when we finally arrived at the lighted street, we turned around to see the state of our situation; he was gone! What a relief!
After quietly rejoicing for a minute or two, we continued our journey. There was no reason to cease sightseeing as long as we stayed on major inhabited streets. A block or two went by before we headed into a great big arch. Cars and buses drove through it. It was also illuminated but not with striking splendor. “Could this monument be the infamous Arc de Triomphe?” Somehow I pictured it more grandiose and ornate. However, being open minded and receptive to other possibilities, I spent a few minutes looking at it and resolved to take a couple of pictures. The pictures, by the way, never did come out. After the arch encounter, we pressed on. “Wait! Another one?” I exclaimed to Irene after a couple of blocks of walking. We stumbled onto another similar, if not exactly equal, arch. “It cannot be! Did we walk in a circle? No!” These arches, obviously, were not what I had thought. I guess the Arc de Triomphe is not the only arch in Paris.
Still with the Louvre in mind, we pushed onwards. In what seemed like less than a minute, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a loud vociferous rally, a protest of sorts! The rapid haste ignited caution in our actions. My fear was that this kind of manifestation, in the part of town we apparently resided, could invite violence. However, after the relative triumph of our most recent experience, we felt sufficiently secure to step aside for a moment and simply watch. Apparently, African residents complained about some immigration policy. Large picket signs were held high and hands were waved abruptly in every direction. Loud low-pitched voices under a deep muffled roar permeated throughout the immediate surroundings. People yelled and marched chaotically while the sounds of drums kept a rhythmic and persistent beat. Their behavior showed evidence of belligerence. Embedded in the crowd, a couple of cars resided. I do not know if these automobiles belonged to the protestors or if they were inadvertently caught in the middle of it. “What turn of events!” We went from a desolate dark street to a full-grown and fully lit, possibly dangerous, rally!
Eventually, we found our way to the Louvre! The building structure spanned one or two full-sized blocks, a vast coverage! Numerous, brightly illuminated statues lined up the walls of the complex. The Pyramide proved to be gorgeous and quite amazing. It was half past nine o’clock in the evening, at this point. We did not expect to find the museum open, of course. It was open, though! As it turns out, they close late on Wednesdays, a quarter before ten o’clock. We had a chance to walk inside through the beautiful Pyramide, what a sight! Being late, we wasted little time in studying the layout of the museum and proceeded to simply find the salon where the Mona Lisa was housed. We entered, and to our surprise, we were not charged to get in nor did we take time to ask. We might have entered through the exit illegally but we had too little a time to think about it and thusly proceeded to go inside without delay. Beautiful paintings, breathtaking sculptures, and mind-bottling ceilings astonished us beyond belief. Words cannot give justice to the magnificence of the artwork. As we walked through the museum, sighs of amazement drowned our voices. It was not long before we were escorted out, though. Closing time had arrived.
From a quiet delightful dinner in a romantic backdrop to a colorful and dangerous journey through some of the dark forgotten streets to a beautiful mind-bottling museum on center stage paint a revealing portrait of the many faces of Paris, a textured yet smooth palette of vivid colors!