I could never say no to a travel opportunity. As a kid I would hitch hike across continents to catch a concert, visit a friend, on a dare, or just to see something strange, with no more than a moments notice. A recent invitation to revisit Paris was irresistible to the wanderlust side of me. Traveling half way around the world on a whim has become something of a normal occurrence in my life. Thanks to the Internet it takes no than a few wireless minutes to have arrangements made and reservations confirmed. I believe in living spontaneously, I’ve based my life on it. When I was younger I never thought about how I’d get to my destination, or where I’d be sleeping, all that was just a rough guide as to the direction I would travel. These days, with a gold card and a passport I’m good to travel for years without a hitch. In essence I’m reliving my childhood. Perhaps I should question whether I ever grew up.
My travel muse Patricia and I were in London. I was finishing a novel ( The Bloody Oath) that I had been working on for almost ten years. It was an exciting time as this was my largest project to date and had been a wild ride in terms of time and research. The climax and conclusion swung between Amsterdam and London. I had the visual stimulation of being ‘on scene’ and the book flew towards it’s inevitable final chapters. The idea of going to Paris came up in one of those idle conversation travelers often have over lamb chops and tea. I had lived in Paris as a young man and had always carried a torch in my heart for the city. The history and romance had overwhelmed me. Patricia and I had previously visited many times as a couple because of the explosive romantic appeal this ancient darling city has on a person and an intellectual curiosity we share with millions of other museum aficionado’s. Paris has several of the worlds most fantastic and complete museums and art galleries.
Whenever possible I like to travel by rail. Europe allows me every opportunity to indulge my fancy. I grew up with the railroad. You might say it’s in my blood. If you want to read about my fact-ionalized history with the railroad you might read my novel, ‘The Revenant’. I describe in detail my very first impressions of those smoking leviathans. When I ‘m riding the train I am transcendent, and I sleep better than at any other time. There’s something about that steady ‘clickety-clack’ of steel wheels on rigid track that sets my mind free. Naturally, the best place to begin a journey to the continent from England is St. Pancras Station, London. Another thing about me is that I am a creature of habit and I like to revisit memories as well as places and things. One of my favorite fish and chip shops, The Golden Hind, is on Marleybone Road. I can never visit London without a ration of Cod & Chips from a spectacular ‘Chippy’, mere blocks from the train station.
Our destination in Paris was the Gare du Nord where all the trains from Britain arrive. Fortunately , transportation into the heart of the city is as easy as the famous Paris Metro, attached to the station. From the station we were able to go direct to our stop at St.Michel, also known as the Latin Quarter. There are many districts to stay in Paris but St. Michel has always been my favorite as it is at the very center of the old city along the river Seine and at the epicenter of the Parisian culture dating back to the time before Roman occupation. I can’t explain why, except perhaps with my belief in reincarnation, but I feel an affinity to the winding lanes that splinter this district, as if I have lived there before. Every time we go to Paris, Patricia and I make a kind of obsessive compulsive pilgrimage to all our favorite sites. It’s almost as if I have been ordered to check in with the ghosts of ancient souls, the sinuous streets, that brooding river, and the beauty that exudes from every follicle of the porous limestone upon which the foundations of each building rest. The eyes on the faces of each famous portrait seem to know when I’m back in the Louvre and have a mysterious way of following me as I pass through the gallery.
Out of habit, Pat and I always find the simplest places to stay. The back streets of St. Michel are peppered with family owned hotels, some run by the same clan for generations. I like the familiarity and repetition of making friends among the hoteliers in the cities I frequent. This practice gives me a feeling that I am actually traveling from home to home away from home and never really being a stranger. Forgive me for not divulging the name of my comfortable little bolthole in St Michel, but in these days of guide book driven mass tourism, word spreads fast, look what happened to Thailand, Bali and Goa, paradise to crap fest, in one edition. It’s strangely comforting to know where every thing is, use the same clothes hangers, open the cabinet drawers and smell familiar smells coming from the kitchen. There are brief moments in ‘travel time’ where it may seem that you’d never left. I like to cozy up with those moments and let my mind drift as comfortably in that space as if I’d been laid out on a soft duvet of floating goose down.
Of all the seasons to travel to Paris, winter is not my favorite choice. The cold doesn’t effect the number of tourists in the streets, Paris is always packed with visitors. The new social order of the Russia’s and Eastern Europe has reinvigorated tourism at a time when North American tourists had begun to falter in the wake of the sub prime debacle. This would be a primarily ‘inside’ trip for Patricia and I who have become accustomed to warmer climates in the last several years. In fact it was damned cold and we had under dressed , this oversight had us hustling up the Blvd. St. Michel towards the shopping district to buy a jumper and a scarf. The best blocks for clothing here are between the Seine walking past the Sorbonne on the way to the Parc de Luxembourg at Blvd St.Germain. Once suitably attired in the latest Parisian styles we began our sojourn around the city. Whatever the weather, we like to walk as much as we can. The 1st through 4th arrondissments are packed with visuals as these are the center of the original city. The Ilse St.Louis and Notre Dame Cathedral in particular are necessary places to become reacquainted with and are both within steps of St.Michel.
My favorite things are the least likely to catch a tourists interest. I like to go into the ancient churches and wrap myself in the vibrations of fervent prayer. This time I stepped in to a choir practice at a church in existence since the middle ages. I felt as if I were swimming in time. I want to peer past the modern office fronts set into the walls and courtyards of prerevolutionairy ‘Hotels de Ville’ of the French aristocracy where if blocks of stone could talk the conversation would be never ending. Cobble stone lanes where iron stanchions still have rings to tie a horse tether to make my imagination swirl as I tilt along with my head in the clouds. I see spirits where many others see only fading architecture. I see stories reaching out over ages of time past when I see the rows of luxurious homes overlooking the palace that once were the bastions of courtiers to the Frankish kings. My mind is enlivened when I think that I am perhaps sharing the streets with Roman souls who walked in my footsteps thousands of years before me. This is why traveling is rarely about a visitation for me, but more of a communion. I have a strange way of ‘projecting’ myself into other worlds and times.
Guide books rave about the French cuisine, but I am street trash by calling, a routard by nature. I went after the freshly ironed waffles slathered with a thick coating of Nutella spread from a kiosk. Instead of complying with the entreaties of the friendly well meaning restaurant touts crying out lavish menus to passers by, I went for the crispy fries fresh from the boiling oil and smothered in thick mayonnaise with a liberally meat stuffed pita dressed in paper from a Tunisian vendor in the lane behind St. Severin’s. For desert I continued my pilgrimage to the one bookstore in the world that should rightly be enshrined as a holy place for writers and artists alike ‘Shakespeare & Company’ on Rue de la Bucherie’. If anything, it is a monument to the labour , tedium and poverty of an authors life. It’s musty smell should be encapsulated and sold as perfume. The lane smells like piss and I can imagine great artists from Balzac to Hemingway relieving themselves in the dark alcoves that punctuate ‘La Rue’ as they have all been patrons here.
In a final homage to those who have gone before me I took a seat at a river side cafe and wrote a few caffeine fueled lines until I felt sated with the spirit of Paris, my love.