I awake at 3:30 am, my bug-eyed sleep mask adrift in the bed. In a massive busy city our room is haven of quietude and peace. There is plenty to do but no one making me do it. That is a great feeling. Liberty.
All is well in my tiny world.
I realise Pam is awake beside me and we start scheming and dreaming, making plans for the coming day, giggling. I check the Googles and the interweb (thank you George W Bush) for sunrise which is 7:00 am, and the weather, 60% chance of rain.
Apparently part of the andtheywalked ethos is we don’t give a damn about the weather, we are still hoofin’ it.
The street our hotel is on, Rue Lauriston, ends/begins at the Pl Charles de Gaulle, which is a massive bewildering roundabout (according to Google Maps 14 streets feed into it) the centre of which is dominated by the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile.
Not long after the rising of the sun we decide to set out. As we are not carrying our backpacks this time there is room for both Pam and I in the lift. Just enough room. It is an experience that is like being packed side by side in an upended Louis Vitton case, studded wooden panels on the walls and a hinged studded wooden door that closes slowly behind. The descent is accompanied by French tunes, that might have been written in the 1920’s, from a single speaker on the lift ceiling six inches above my head.
No NBA players allowed.
We empty via the lift’s swinging door laughing and before leaving we take time to pursue the original sketches by Piccaso and Matisse that grace the lobby walls.
30m from our hotel there is a small fruit stand and not far from there a small cafe both of which have just opened, so its fruit and fresh croissant for breakfast, yum.
Paris is full of motorcycles and scooters of all sizes however coming across a Yamaha XT 500 twin valve circa 1980 in prime condition was a surprise. I had coveted exactly such a bike as a young hoon and visions of me power mono-ing through the Pl Charles de Gaulle with a plume of police cars in pursuit (just like in the movies) immediately sprang into my head. Despite my attempts to persuade Pam of the validity of my idea she remains immune (rolled her eyes) so I suppress my convict heritage and we plod onwards towards the Arc de Triomphe at the speed of slow.
It begins to rain.
Luckily I was born waterproof and have remained so all my life.
The Arc de Triomphe is spectacular, big enough to fly a Nieuport biplane through (as done by Charles Godefroy in the 1919 Paris victory parade) and has stood for more than 200 years (completed 1806). It dominates the arrow straight thoroughfare stretching from the Louvre to the La Grande Arche de la Defense.
Of course our mission is to climb it.
It is early in the morning and the Pl Charles de Gaulle does not look very busy on our arrival. Seconds later a phalanx of cars released from one of the fourteen streets subdues my desire to scamper across to the Arc (that is one wild roundabout) and Pam and I join the swelling masses of tourists huddling under umbrellas in the underpass leading to the Arc.
Despite the total protection from rain in the underpass the umbrellas remain open. Very strange.
The ticket booth (and almost everything other than fruit stands and cafes) does not open until ten am. The French obviously haven’t heard about productivity and the need to adhere to a ‘value adding’ lifestyle.
Vive la France.
We moderners are so proud of our right angles and rectangles. The architects and builders of days gone by were obviously familiar with the right angle and plumb lines, however they could recognize the beauty of the curve and the validity of expression in nonlinear design.
A tip when walking in Paris is to look up, there is art expressed in every nook and cranny of the place. In comparison a modern city reminds me of bran cereal, good for regular shit.
Sculpture adorns almost all surfaces of the Arc de Triomphe and Pam and I wander in and out, under and about, looking at it all.
But we can’t climb it because we are just too early. Mission postponed.
The Avenue des Champs Elysees stretches arrow straight from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde (which at 8.64 hectares/21.3 acres is the largest public square in Paris) and from the Arc runs gently downhill. This is an avenue of brand names, Toyota, Citroen, Gap, Dune, far too many to list them all.
All closed. Vive la France.
Halfway down this down this broad and mighty thoroughfare I realise that the two-day vegan protein shake fast I had taken prior to boarding our aircraft in order to avoid having to use the smallest room on the plane in a seated position, followed by not eating until our arrival in Paris and then having the previously described baguette, fruit and croissants was about to catch up with me.
Everything is closed, but things appear to be stirring in retail land. Which passage will open first? Paris is a city of mystery and intrigue.
We had already reached the end of the shopping district and my need was becoming paramount. So we retrace our steps, me with a very grim expression indeed.
Logic would dictate that beside every Starbucks in the world there would be a nearby facility to void the Starbucks product so recently consumed, and so it is, even in Paris.
I tell Pam to await my return and sally forth into the gloomy catacomb-like tunnel with the tiny toilet sign on the wall. Turning the corner I am confronted with a choice Mens/Womens, not so unexpected. The men’s is being cleaned by a lady who denies me entrance to the single Mens toilet in the establishment. Speaking rapid French she shoo’s me towards the Womens which I attempt to open. No no no no she says, Fifty Euro cents, I see the coin slot on the door, fifty cents, not one Euro, not two Euro, fifty cent’s is what I glean from her commentary.
Back through the bat cave with jaw clenched, where the hell is Pam?
I circle the place with Mt Vesuvius gathering steam in my nether regions and finally spy Pam who is wandering around oblivious. ‘Fifty cents’ I groan, ‘give me fifty cents’. ‘Oh that’s right’ she replies, ‘I forgot you often have to pay to use public toilets here’
‘Never mind that bollox just give me fifty cents’ is my witty comeback as she looks in her bag.
‘Sorry I don’t have any fifty cent coins, only two Euros’
‘For the love of all that is holy woman get me fifty cents’
‘Why don’t you go to Starbucks and get some change’ she asks.
‘Because if I unclench my jaw long enough for a French Starbucks employee to understand what the hell I am talking about you will have to spray me down in the street’
‘Oh’ she maliciously replies and meanders off to the Starbucks till.
Grabbing the coin from her hand I waddle back up the catacomb, the cleaner points to the ladies and says again ‘fifty cents’. I open the door and enter expecting some scene from Midnight Express but the vestibule is clean with a tall bowl and a toilet seat.
Luckily I check first to see if there is any toilet paper before sitting. Now I am Elaine in an episode of Seinfield. Not a square. Arrrgggghhhhhhhh
I stick my head out the door ‘no paper, no toilet paper’. The cleaning lady looks at me and says ‘no anglaise’ I open the door and show her the empty holder.
She takes my arm and muttering under her breath guides me into the mens. My fears of Midnight Express are realised, the door sags on its hinges and the lower edge is rotting, some un-identifiable liquid is pooled on the floor, the toilet is low, halfway between my ankle and knee and has obviously been designed by a Japanese dwarf, there is no toilet seat.
But there is toilet paper.
From now until the end of time Pam and I will refer to such biological urge as needing to spend 50 cents.
Tip to people walking the streets of Paris. Always carry fifty cents and always check for a square to spare.