Paris is the world’s most photographed, most written about, most visited city. More than 30 million people arrive on the banks of the Seine each year, only 45% of them French. “Paris,” according to my literary guide to the city, “comes to us second-hand. Our imagination has been there first, worked upon by the imagination of others. It is through the filter of their memories, desires, dreams, descriptions, lies, gossip that we experience the city. What we respond to is an imagined place.”
Claire and I did the things so obvious that guidebooks needn’t bother to mention them. We dangled our feet in the fountains outside the Louvre, before entering through glass pyramids to see people seeing the Mona Lisa. We sat in the Parc du Champ de Mars, below the Eiffel Tower, and sketched swaying oak trees against the building’s complicated network of steel. We got rude service at a Parisian café when I was moved, still in my chair, from the edge of the pavement.
We went to the Musee D’Orsay and I watched Claire dance between her favourite paintings before a picnic on the banks of the Seine. At Notre Dame we joined the thick, fast moving queue, and once inside were pushed forward, past altars and scattered stalls, selling paraphernalia. At Père Lachaise we joined a hunt through foreign names for the graves of the famous. We laughed at a packet of rolling paper and a lighter placed considerately below Jim Morrison’s modest headstone and read Oscar Wilde’s name below his mock Egyptian tomb, through the lipstick marks of thousands.
In my fondest Paris imaginings, I sat sipping cold beer at a Montmartre café, absorbing an atmosphere relished by generations of artists. Renoir, Degas, Hemingway, Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso, all spent time here, and remembered the many cobbled streets that wind slowly uphill to the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in their work.
Months before, Claire had phoned the Grand Hotel de Clermont, nestled near the base of Montmartre’s hill, and booked a room. A mention of its lively bar in an online forum was our only reference.
We arrived on the eve of Bastille Day. After muddling through a dizzy first encounter with the public transport system we exited from Blanche metro station into a busy road. The Moulin Rouge (literally Red Windmill) stood just ahead, like a friend there to welcome us, waiting patiently.
The hotel lay a few streets away, past an array of cheese shops, bakeries and charcuteries, all smelled before they were seen. Its dirty white exterior crumbled slowly into a single lane road. Two mosaic strips ran across the front, decorating the words “Hotel de Clermont”, “Café” and “Bar”. We creaked up to our room on the second floor.
The room contained two short single beds, childish duvet covers, and a desk that looked out onto a small courtyard, watched over by a statue of Virgin Mary, and the other rooms. The toilets for the bars patrons were clustered below, their roofs covered in fallen plaster. Only one had a door.
We settled in and I went out, found an internet café and updated the site, quickly, so that we could start exploring the city.
That evening we found the first signs of Bastille Day festivities in a nearby square. A small stage and had been erected and an Afro Jazz band were performing, the singer cajoling his audience in English spoken with an American lilt. A makeshift bar sold cheap cans of beer.
Police arrived and the square filled up slowly, with students and young children, professionals and drunks. A shy semicircle formed around the stage and people started to dance half heartedly. Somebody’s dog lay unabashed in the middle, chewing a water bottle.
We sat for a while, watching, then decided to explore. Climbing a long flight of steps towards the top of the hill we were stopped by two men staggering extravagantly down. The first grabbed my arm, squinted up at me through round spectacles, and tried to turn me around. He looked out at the city sprawled below us, spread his arms and said, only half asking, “Ahh Pawis, Pawis is good no?”
His friend, a guitar slung over his dirty t-shirt, had meanwhile pinned Claire. He was composing a poem, to honour her “beuwty”. He looked up at her occasionally through long, greasy hair, then bent back down to write. When the reverie was complete, he read it back to us. “Your ice… so bloo. Your leeps… so red. Your haiw… so… so long.” And so it continued, for a few painful minutes.
Handing Claire the poem, written illegibly on the back of a free postcard, he then asked for “only whatever you want to give me.” She told him that, although it was “trés bon”, she would rather not keep the postcard and handed it back. We turned around and quickly carried on up the stairs.
The streets at the top were a bustle of tourists, tramps, waiters and painters. All competed for space in the narrow area tables, lined up neatly outside cafés, had left to pedestrians. I glanced the ivory dome of the Basilique du Sacré Coeur above us, and we headed towards it.
People sat on the steps below the cathedral eating picnics and drinking wine, looking down on Paris. The colours and contrast between buildings were muted by the setting sun, so that the city was little but a sea of warm yellow, interrupted occasionally by dark modern towers. We sat there for a while, our attention competed for by buskers and break dancers, and then went back to the square, to enjoy a little more free music and cheap beer.
We busied ourselves the next day, much like we did during our other too short Paris days, by taking long detours between familiar sites to see the few pieces of the city centre not sold on postcards. We gobbled waffles for breakfast and baguettes with cheap camembert for lunch and often supper. We drank little but the cheap single espressos that allowed us to sit outside cafes, watching the elegant and unimpressed go by.
It was now Bastille Day proper, so we returned to the festivities at the same nearby square that evening. The band had changed and this time played eclectic jazz accompanied by tambourines and Mohammedan chants. Musicians would occasionally walk off the stage and drift through the crowd, people lining up behind them to be piped through the square like rats. And again, we climbed to the top of Montmartre, to join still thicker crowds, there to glimpse fireworks shot off from the Trocadero and lights dancing on the Eiffel Tower.
At the end of the night we went back to the hotel, duty free vodka again warming our blood, and our conversation. The bar below was busy with a hodgepodge of peripheral characters, whom I gathered to be its locals. A few chairs had been dragged outside, to look onto the quiet street. A seemingly Polynesian man, who I found busking a few days later, playing a melancholy electric guitar, sat talking to a Vietnamese woman, who could speak a smattering of English.
Another man, his corpulence easily filling a shapeless Hawaiian shirt, sat near the door, dribbling red wine down his chin. He lived at the hotel, as one of its long term guests. I had seen him the previous afternoon, through the shutters on the first floor window opposite our room. Although always shut, they were missing the occasional slat. Looking out idly, I noticed him sitting naked, his moustache extending to hanging jowls. His arm was moving vigorously, the fat rippling as it bounced, up and down, up and down, to the sounds of loud, uninhibited sex, which had once before drifted through our window, their source until then uncertain. He must have been playing whatever pornography he was watching with the volume up, perhaps to attract attention.
We sidestepped him, and the shopping below his table, approached the bar, ordered a beer, then joined the small gathering along the outside wall. Claire had met a French speaking American in the bar earlier that day, when trying to establish at what time the fireworks would be lit. He was still there, his grey ponytail suggesting that he might know something about bohemian Montmartre, and be willing to divulge a few of its many secrets. So, I approached him.
We quite easily started chatting. He told us how he had arrived fifteen years ago, as a travelling musician, met a French woman and decided to stay. She had since left him. Warming to his own theme, he described leaving the bar in 1993 and walking to Sarajevo, where he found himself the only Westerner in the midst of an unpopular war. Unfortunately, he left us to help clean the bar, although he didn’t seem to work there, before I could get him to tell us my hankered after secrets.
We staggered up to bed and I lay there, listening to the sounds of the closing bar, thinking drunkenly that here, I could write. If I could somehow capture the spirit of this crumbling but still very alive hotel, in a city known for gracefully blending past and present then I would indeed be a writer. I do not claim to possess those words now.
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