Its 3 am. Again. I turn on the tv set, locked into a corner wall. There’s an opera playing. Its a gothic affair. A handsome young priest is tempted by a ghost bride who beckons him to follow her into the night. He strays alone but is hindered by the vengeful ghost of a fierce conquistador in full armor. The fretful priest lunges with a spear but falls flat. You cant slaughter the dead. A chorus rises, the curtain changes to another scene…yet my bleary eyes reach for the remote and I enter a heavier sleep then before.
I wake up at 8 am, rather irregular for myself. Its raining steadily. If I had more time in the city, I’d gladly flip the do not enter sign and resign myself to my bed, but since I’m already on the tale end of this trip, I need to make every moment count. So I dress, run a brush through my hair and through my teeth, take in some coffee, and create the day. The following days were a whirlwind. I began to construct a type of routine for my time in the city. Since the Metro was out of commission, getting my bearings was not a choice luxury but vital. A brisk walk from my hotel straight down would lead me to right to Notre Dame, and from there, the city branched out to all the major stopping points. Champs de Elease, Luxemburg Gardens, the Grand Palais, and the Presidential Residence. Within the end of my third day, I could easily map out Paris. I think how my legs have never been more exercised. My second hand boots being taken to task on the old rue, avenues, streets and back alleys. It’s a happy burden though. I take my coffee from a small café around the corner from the Hotel Alane. The man running the place doesn’t speak English and I with my miniscule French, convey a need for coffee. There is no breakfast being served at the time, but being a true Frenchman, he gestures me to wait at my table. In no time he produces a perfectly round place of eggs, brioche and espresso.
I sit at the table, quite contented. Its a Sunday and the vast majority of Parisians are ducking from the oppressive rainfall in the comfort of their homes or tourists like me, respectively, in their hotels. As I take in a smoke and begin to pen whatever is on my mind in my little Tartan notebook, a vagrant comes bye. There’s a glass wall separating us, but I can hear her clearly. Not fluent in French I cannot understand her for the life of me, and what she is saying is little more than a pleading babble-a verbal disarray of chaos language I cannot grasp. I’ve only my bank card, so my pockets are free of change. I’m down to one cigarette and have none to offer. I tell her I speak no French and she hurls curses and marches steadily down the Rue, her worn boots clacking with ferocity.
This exchange stays in my head for sometime, rekindling the mayhem of my first evening. I forget my privileges as a tourist in this city, so torn by strife. I saw the newspapers. The copies of “Liberation” filled the lobby of the hotel where I was. As well as the quaint tobacconist up the road where I got my Gauliouses. You could see them in the café, the hotel. They left an indelible impression in the streets. Everywhere they could be seen, felt, sensed. Sometimes seen vaguely. Sometimes head on.
All around Paris they left their claw marks. On feted monuments. On chic posters for high fashion heinously defaced. On images of the president. On benches, bus stops, windows and walls. On streetlights, signs and statues all around. It was the mark of the green vests. There’s was a wrath that the city had not seen in decades. The more I saw, the more tenuous my time in Paris felt. For no man among me wasn’t effected by their communal ire. The row over pension reform was only getting more intense. The Manifest. I remembered to the night of my arrival they stopped traffic, hindered buses and paraded down the streets. In this time, it had gotten steadily worse.
From the comfort my café, I saw the news. It took no French to understand the bedlam before me. I saw talk of teargas, brawls. Fisticuffs breaking out on public transport due to the scarcity of options. It was like a dark poem. In this haphazard time, men’s true natures come to the surface. Whether he wear a suit, or patches, push him enough and his blood boils just the same. In times such as this, nothing is sacred. Venerated statues fall like chess pieces. Opulent towers lauded the world over for their beauty become little more than contemptuous idols to the glutted and privileged . Haughty monuments to the ruling class-worthy and deserving of desecration. No chandelier will put bread in a mans hand or milk in his infants mouth.
Attempting my best to put this dark juxtaposition from my mind, I pay up and walk out of the café and into a bleak Paris morning beset with a pounding rain. I cant take that woman’s face out of my mind. I should have done something. Here I was, drinking fine espresso and wrapped in a very nice coat, kept safe and warm in my chrysalis of comfort. It would have been no great effort to summon a plate of eggs for her too. There’s no language barrier for suffering. The glass wall. It was also in my mind.
The sky bleeds rain and bellows wind. After several blocks, it disperses. I find myself in a rue I haven’t yet attracted to a face I’ve seen before. Its Rimbaud! I walk around the side of the building and find a well hidden entrance. Its a hotel, and inside, a number of Japanese youngsters are taking in coffee and breakfast. I ask the proprietor if she speaks English and she does. Her name is Delia. She tells me this is a chain of hotels named after certain members of the French literati. Due to the proximity of this hotel’s location to the train station, the very station from which Rimbaud arrived in Paris in 1871 before his ill fated meeting the poet Paul Verlaine and his unfortunate family, commemorates the rogue poets entrance to the city.
Delia is wonderfully indulgent and doesn’t give a toss about me sitting in the lobby and looking and the number of displays, riffling through copies of manuscripts, or looking at images of the tarnished young wordsmith looking defiantly at the world in his worn coat and unkempt hair. I curse the gods I’ve already got a hotel, since I would have happily stayed there, just to be close in proximity to such powerful works of poetry. Then another idea occurs to me. A dazzling one. Why not travel up north? To the birthplace of Rimbaud? Such a shameless idea, but not without heart. I ask Delia the distance. She looks on her computer. 3 hours. The strike may complicate it, but the bus is pretty consistent. Such adventures are what travel is about. I decided right then and there, I would go up north. I would visit the land of Arthur Rimbaud. Walk his path. See the beauty in his angst. Place my hands on his headstone.
I would go to Charleville.
I open my hotel room door. The housekeeper had just been there. She leaves loving little traces of her presence. Fresh tubes of Cafe au lait. Folded sheets. That crisp linen aroma. The tv off. My myriad of papers from the past few days, my Lautrec postcards from the Grand Palais carefully laid out. The leather satchel I got near the flea market tucked away, safe. Simple, loving details that warm the soul after a long day tramping in the cold Parisian rainfall. I kick off my boots, pull off my coat, and resign myself to a mid day nap. The past three days have descended upon me like a haze and I’m spent. The window is slightly ajar. Just as I feel the slightest inklings of a truly delicious rest percolating, I hear a call in the distance. I try to ignore it and I turn over in bed, but it gets closer. I reluctantly lift my weary head and look to the window. I hear a megaphone. Its crying something in French I cannot understand, and its aggressive.
Walking to my open window, I peer outside. Just outside my hotel, my eyes glimpse hundreds of protesters. Many in green vest attire. I see young people. Many appear to be students. I want to go and see what’s happening in person. In my black coat and sunglasses, I’m fairly innocuous. Forgoing the desire to return to sleep, I lace up my boots, button my jacket and march out the door. After a few blocks, I’m in the throng. Now I am no stranger to protests. I marched with several Occupy marches, took to the streets after the 2016 election, and participated in a “die in” to protest those slain in gun violence and the corruption of the NRA. This was my first international march and the energy, like the French , was passionate, contagious and revolutionary. All around me are caricatures of political officials defaced. There’s an image of Macron , a tear rolling down his cheek as his mouth is covered by the ghoulish hand of the powers that be, inciting silence to suffering. People of all ages, clad in their green armor, march in solidarity. While there are definitely the expected assembled shouts of ire, discontent, I feel no hate. Only frustration, mixed with a distinct sense of unity. Some people sing. Other dance, pound drums, and holler aloud. There’s certainly outrage, angst, but still hope.
I walk alongside a young man from Marseille. We strike up a conversation. In my atrocious French I ask what the strike is over exactly. He told me an Arab student, one of many, had been slain by police brutality outside the city several months ago, and government officials did nothing to penalize the officers. This apparently was an ongoing issue, so the young people of the city, along with many of the green vests and workers unions, were taking to the streets in collaboration with other strikes. ” We are fed up with this government”, he tells me. “Our lives mean nothing to these officials- they only care about their own interests- not those who they are here to govern”. I ask him about what he feels about what’s going on in America, and he tells me it must be difficult. I tell him it is, but like in France, we are gathering a resistance of our own. “The people of Paris are still people of rebellion, and our elected officials only care about money.”
This strikes me. I began to wonder if in the heart of every Frenchman beat the soul of rebellion? Is it hardwired into the DNA of these impassioned people to strike against the injustices of the world? I felt somewhat ashamed. Up until this moment, I had had misconceptions and anger towards the protesters. I felt that they were a whiny nascence arguing nothing and hindering my trip I had voraciously saved and diligently planned. I did not see the trickledown. How human lives were ultimately effected by the offhanded hubris of those deemed worthy to govern. I realized in this moment that this was truly history- and here I was, a scrappy writer from Las Vegas, walking amongst these people- filled with the fire spirit of the revolution.
As we walked past the Bastille, I feel the raucous energy around me- an actual heat that blankets my senses. Its as though the ghosts of the past are alive again, generating it in these youths. I raise my fists with them, clap with them, sing songs I don’t understand but whos energy I can make out, and shed their tears- reborn as I share in righteous fury. The din makes its way past the monument. A young black girl pulls me aside. “Are you a journalist?” she asks. “No”, I say. I’m put off by the frankness of her inquiry. ” Do you have an Instagram?” I tell her I don’t. Such a random inquiry doesn’t come from no where. I cordially walk away, as she eyes me suspiciously. It was a bit odd, since she spoke to me in English and there were hundreds of other to pick from. Big brother society. The world we live in. Everyone is watching someone.
Having properly rabble roused, I take this as a sign to return. I’m easily a mile from my hotel. I failed to realize how far we had walked. The noise peters off the further up I go, until I’m back on the Boulevard Magenta, which is unusually quiet. The chapel bells herald the evening mass. I stop at a small diner and get a lamb kabab and a Perrier to eat in my room. Turning the key, I place the food on a table, peel my coat off, close the window and collapse into a chair. The white noise of French news provides an odd comfort as I eat and wash up.
There’s a lot to process. In my travels, I realize there’s oft an underlined theme to my journey. It takes no guessing to see what this one is. Jeanne ‘de Arc. The Green Vests. Jean Valjean. Robespierre. The Bastille. The Manifest. Rebels. Nobody does it quiet like the French. There is but one more day to go-then I’m off, to a little hamlet called Charleville- to walk in the shadow of a ragged young libertine- a stolen quill in his hand.