I took a year to bum around Europe when I finished school. Well, first I taught sailing for six months. But then I went and bummed around Europe. I have told these stories so many times I thought it would be fun to write some of them down.
I am not going to make it chronological, just offer vignettes, similar to the ones that come up at the end of dinner parties. This does mean that I am going to be repeating myself at many dinners. Oh well. There is a different spin on them when I am drunk anyway. They are all true, sharpened (or dulled) over time perhaps, but true. The dialogue is remembered, but everything that happened, happened.
I am going to start with the story of how I ended up sleeping in a Parisian park for a week.
How I got there I will leave for another story. It starts on some day at the beginning of the European summer some time just after 21:00. It is dark, a little chilly, and I have just been dropped off on the Champs-Élysées. I had just under a hundred Euros in my pocket, no map, and no clue. I was a naïve just-turned-nineteen-year-old-boy, emboldened by a successful stint on getting by with fuck-all in Amsterdam.
The doubts began to sink in quickly. I had no idea where I would sleep that night. The typical narrative of Paris held no truth here. Menacing faces, foreign tongues and a cold breeze. I had a full backpack on, was wearing jeans and a think skiing jacket. I looked like a tourist and I knew it. I thought: I’ll rough it in some corner and deal with it in the morning. Wandering off the main drag I found pissed on corners, dark stairwells, and men with threatening looks. I headed back to the light.
A park, I realised, would be better. Having no idea of the layout of Paris, no smart phone (the year was 2002), and no money for a taxi, I wondered aimlessly looking for a large enough patch of grass to lay my head. I spotted a big sign with a map on, found a patch of green on it, took my bearings and struck out for it.
I hadn’t walked far when a man on a bench called out to me. He seemed well dressed enough, his legs crossed, relaxed, with a hat on. He asked me what I was doing. Guardedly, I told him I was visiting Paris. He then proffered a Heineken.
Only having recently discovered the delights of beer, I happily accepted. Thinking I was street smart, I opened it myself.
He could speak little English, and I no French. We battled along, slowly building up my story beer by beer: England, Amsterdam, Paris, alone.
“You come stay my house. You eat, watch TV, sleep and go tomorrow,” he said.
“Err, no, that’s OK.”
“Come on. No problem! We eat, watch TV, Sleep. No problem. Have one beer.”
I took the beer. As sketchy as this sounds, free beer was free beer and I was pretty much skint. After a few more general niceties he started up again.
“OK, so we go to my place, we eat, watch TV, sleep and tomorrow you go find hostel?”
By this time it was quite late, and the fact I had considered sleeping in a dingy, dark stairwell scared me. The guy seemed like a decent enough chap too.
“You come to my house, we watch TV, we eat, blowjob, and then we sleep.”
“Hey!” I jumped up off the bench. Fucking nutter, I thought.
“No no, I give you. No problem.”
Struggling to put on my backpack I backed away from the guy, stumbling. I took him now (real or not) to be a complete psychopath with 10 others like me in his basement. I headed for the crowds.
I was now shitting myself; convinced that wherever I slept a Heineken toting Frenchman would kidnap me and do horrible things to my person with a baguette. Bewildered, I headed back to the busy streets, determined not to sleep. I would wait for the safety of the sun.
Standing somewhat forlornly at a street corner deciding which way to go, two Kiwi girls accosted me. Very drunk, and very lost, they asked me if I knew the way to the street their hostel was on. I quickly said no and explained I was, in fact, even more lost than them. I stuck to them like glue.
Slightly relieved I followed the two staggering, giggling ladies as they tried to find their way. Soon we came upon a young, well-dressed Arab gentleman. The girls again asked for directions. He looked at them, and, quite unbelievably said,
“I would get my driver to take you, but my sister has the car. Hold on.”
Flipping open his mobile he made a quick call, rattled off something in a language I have forgotten.
“Yes, my sister has the car.”
He paused, looked at the three of us, turned and hailed a taxi. He told us to get in, explained to the driver where to go thrusting thirty Euros into my hand, and bid us good night.
I can’t remember the drive to the hostel. Although I do recall thinking that this guy had just given me a third of all the money I had. Before long we were there; it cost just over 10 Euros. I quietly pocketed the change.
There was no room at the hostel where the girls were staying, but I was told there was another place just down the road that would have space.
It did, and I knew why immediately. The French run hostels like prisons. This one smelt, and looked like one. Thirty beds to a room. Big communal showers. Angry staff. But for me that night might as well have been at the Ritz. Safety and warmth when you have been scared and cold are better than all the mini-bars and room service in the world. Plus, the change from the taxi drive covered the cost.
In the morning I packed my stuff and ate what would become my staple that week, and a favourite to this day: strong black coffee and baguette (at varying stages of freshness) with butter.
Finishing breakfast I walked back to the other hostel to meet up with the New Zealand girls (ashamedly I have forgotten their names). On the way back I spotted a small community park. It was about 100x50m surrounded by buildings on all sides except the one facing the main road. There were big trees clustered in the front, thinning out toward the back. Under the trees men would play Boulle, and children would play ping-pong on concrete tables. In the middle there was a pergola where an Asian man would give morning exercise lessons, and on the furthest side from the road there were the children’s play things: swings, a jungle gym, and a sandpit. Around the perimeter, every 10 or so metres there was a bench.
I met up with the girls outside their hostel, and explained my position as we shared a cigarette. It was quickly decided that I would store my main backpack in their hostel’s locker for the day and we would work it out from there.
I have no idea what we did that day. But by the end of it I had come to the conclusion that I would sleep in the park that night. It was pure economics. I was in Paris for at least 10 days – I had tickets to a Counting Crows concert and was meeting up with a mate to watch it. I had 100 euros. The hostel cost something like 10 euros a night. It was sleeping in a park or eating out a bin. And that park had given me a good feeling. It felt like a good place, a friendly space. Naïve teenager? Perhaps, but this time my gut-feel was right. It was settled.
That night I got my bag, some extra clothes, my sleeping bag and set out for the park. It turned out it was locked at 22:00. I looked around, jumped the small fence and quickly stole over to the jungle gym. It was a wooden one with two mini towers joined by a bridge. The one tower had a wooden floor three quarters of the way up with a roof. I made my bed there. It became my home for the next 8 or so nights.