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Penniless in Paris

As I sat in the Café du Nord, sipping on a café crème (apparently café au laits don’t exist anymore), and watching the manic Parisian traffic screeching past, I seriously began to question the sanity of what it was I was trying to do. In a sudden fit of bravery, or foolishness, I had decided a week previously that I wanted to go to Paris, no, I wanted to live in Paris.

I had booked my Eurostar ticket that second before the bravery died or some sense had returned to me, and now here I was, one week later, in the ‘City of Love’ (or is that Venice?), lugging around most of my worldly possessions in a bag the size of a Frenchman’s ego, and not having a clue what to do next.

Why was this such a monumentally brainless thing to do? I’d only really been travelling once before. This was in East Africa, and the whole trip had been fully organised and supported by a professional gap year company.

As well as the lack of experience, there was a distinct lack of money. I only had about £500 in my bank, and I knew in Paris this would be used up quicker than a consignment of garlic in one of the restaurants that lined the city’s streets.

On top of this, I had no plan. I wanted a job and an apartment for about 5 months, but I didn’t know how I was going to get them. I didn’t even know where I was staying first night.
I was now pondering these problems whilst sitting in a café barely 100m from the striking façade of the Gare du Nord, where I’d just arrived in Paris. The Gare du Nord impressed me greatly. I don’t think there can be a train station in the world that better embodies the style and atmosphere of the city that it welcomes people to.   
Despite the view of the station however, it has to be said I wasn’t in the best of moods. I’d had to get up pretty early to catch my train at Waterloo and I was feeling fairly tired and irritable. This hadn’t been helped by having to share the train coach with a large group of Americans that were either a school group on a trip, or a ridiculously large and inbred family, (believe me the second option looked more likely). Either way, they had a habit of being loudly stupid, and got on my nerves exceedingly throughout the duration of the journey.

I just wanted to find somewhere I could finally dump my bags and lie down. Eventually I found in my guidebook a halfway decent looking hotel in Montmarte, called L’Hotel Bonséjour. This wasn’t too far from where I was, so I decided that this would do.

 Unfortunately what didn’t look too far on my little pocket sized map of Paris, turned out to be a solid 45 minute walk. On top of this, as you may know, the Montmarte area is on a hill, and a pretty steep one at that. On top of this I’m carrying the world’s largest backpack, another smaller backpack and wearing a thick coat and scarf (it was cold first thing in the morning in London), whilst walking through a fairly busy area of Paris that is currently littered with road works. It was one of the toughest experiences of my life (no exaggeration I promise), and I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and run the London Marathon.

When I finally arrived at the Hotel Bonséjour, sweating profusely and generally looking in a state close to death, I realised my next problem, I have to speak French.

Don’t get me wrong, I can speak French. Even I wouldn’t be stupid enough to try to live and work in Paris without being able to speak French. The problem is I don’t speak it very well. I only got a C at ‘A’ level and I hadn’t really spoken any for about a year, (apart from once to fend off an exceedingly gay looking Congolese guy in Uganda, but the less said about that the better.)

I decided to just go for it and marched into the hotel reception, knocking over flowers and furniture with my bag on the way, and reeled off in my best French, “um excusé-moi monsieur, um….., je veux, er no…., je voudrais un chambre, um………pour un person, sivou play.” My old French teacher would have been so proud.

Thankfully the manager, a short, bald man with some stupendously thick glasses, took pity on me and spoke in English. I booked myself in for the night, but was told the bad news that the rooms were still being cleaned and I couldn’t go in until 3.00, it was only 12.00. So much for having a lie down. I dumped my bags and went off wearily to have a look around Montmarte.

It has to be said, even in my near comatose state, Montmarte was exceedingly pretty. The sun was shining and the little cobbled streets were lined with tourists just strolling, enjoying the weather or sitting in the little café bars being ripped off (€4 for half a pint of beer is ridiculous I don’t care how pretty the setting is).

I strolled higher and higher up the hill, just soaking up the atmosphere you only get in a city like Paris, a feeling of real culture and history. I had a sit down and a well earned rest on the steps of the stunning Sacré Coeur, whilst taking in the spectacular view of the city (you can see almost every landmark in Paris from Sacré Coeur, apart from the Eiffel Tower and l’Arc de Triomphe).

 I realised that there were no office blocks in the centre of the city, which is unusual in such a major European capital. There were a few to the south, but the centre was unspoilt, and I think its this lack of modernization in the centre that allows the city to retain its unique sense of history.

Sacré Coeur itself I didn’t remember from my last trip to Paris. It had only been a three day trip with my parents, and I don’t thing we got round to climbing the hill at Montmarte. It struck me now as extremely impressive. It seemed pristinely white and had a regal feel to it as it sat on the hill and presided over the city below. The inside was quite interesting as well, a fresco of Jesus and the disciples on the ceiling was particularly noteworthy, but it was the feel outside and its setting that impressed on me most, I had a feeling I would be back during my stay in Paris.

I returned to the hotel at exactly 3.00 demanding (politely of course), a bed to lie in. The hotel was pretty small, and there was no lift, so I had to struggle up two flights of stairs before finally reaching my room. I turned the key in the door, both clockwise and anti clockwise until I realised it was having little effect either way and just barged it open instead. It was a predictably small room, with a little sink and mirror on the left hand wall and a window overlooking the picturesque street below. Most importantly however, it had a bed onto which I collapsed and barely moved for about four hours.

In the evening I thought I had better make some effort to go and eat. I found a small restaurant nearby and ordered a cheap meal and a coke. The young waitress almost keeled over with shock when I said I didn’t want any wine, a meal without wine to the French is like a day without sunlight.

 “Ne pas du vin? Pourquoi?!” she exclaimed, startled.

I lied and said I didn’t like wine and she gave me a look like I had just proposed to snort my meal through my nose rather than eat it.

I went for a short walk after diner down to the Pigalle area to look at the Moulin Rouge, but after being offered a live sex show for a fifth time I decided enough was enough for one day, and I went to bed, wondering what the hell it was I was going to do next.
What I decided to do next was move to a much cheaper youth hostel. It was a small place called the Woodstock Hostel, not far from Montmarte in the 9th district. The lanky French guy behind reception said they had people booked in for later in the week, and that I could basically only stay until they needed to chuck me out.

My dorm was up two flights of fairly dangerous looking wooden spiral staircases, and was extremely small for three sets of bunk beds, six men, and the various assortments of baggage they were travelling with. It was comfortable enough however, and I used the Woodstock as a base for the next four days, knocking up some dubiously translated French CVs and references.

It was here at the hostel, (in between heavy drinking with fellow travellers of varying nationality), that I began to formulate a more serious plan. Unfortunately I had a very idealistic idea of what I wanted: a job in a typical looking French restaurant, or café-bar; and a nice stereotypical Parisian apartment, high up and overlooking a quiet street, with one of those black iron window things that every nice building in Paris seems to have. A trifle optimistic maybe.

After four days I was kicked out of the hostel, and moved across the city to the Latin Quarter. I had read about a cheap hotel that was very popular with budget travellers, but was perhaps a bit run-down. As it turned out, the Hotel des Médicis was very run down. Almost every stair moved, the lino curled up at every edge, the wallpaper was torn and the door to the toilet looked like it had been ripped off a stable.

The whole place had a real Parisian charm to me though. It felt like I was experiencing the real Paris, it was the kind of place I imagined Ernest Hemingway or Pablo Picasso living as they struggled to make a name for themselves.
I booked myself a single room from the manager and his brother in reception. They were a strange double act. The manager looked like the old gay guy from Eastenders that used to be ‘stupid boy’ in Dads Army, the brother, a slightly younger man, dressed like an out of work Morris dancer.

My room was on the third floor and had the same odd charm as the rest of the building. It sloped a good foot from left to right, and the window looked like it could just drop out at any second. However there was a gorgeous black marble fireplace, my window overlooked a quiet street and had a black iron thing; and even better than that, I had a view of the Eiffel Tower. Ok it was quite a distance away, and I could only see the top, but this was not bad for €20 a night.

I fell in love with the Latin Quarter immediately. I loved everything about it from the moment I stepped out of my hotel that evening.

The Quarter is set around the Place St Michel and its lit up water fountain, which serve as a perfect centre point for an area with such atmosphere and life. All around this are tiny cobbled streets that interlink like a rabbit warren, each street lined with an assortment of restaurants and bars offering all kinds of cuisine: Italian, Spanish, Greek, and French, of course. On top of that there are book shops (including the famous Shakespeare and Co down by the river), art galleries, and usually some live music just in case the atmosphere needed adding to anymore. Its an incredible place and it especially comes alive at night. I felt on that first night that I could have stayed for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, to stay I needed a job. My money was running low already, even after a week or so. As a result, my days began to take on a regular routine.

In the mornings I was woken by the maid who insisted on yelling, “vous restez?” every morning, despite the fact that I was booked in for three weeks, so clearly was not intending to go anywhere.

After this wake up call, I would have to remove myself from the crack between the bed and the wall, which the slope had gradually slid me into during the night. I would spend the day doing the touristy things and handing out CVs to any bar or restaurant I came across in the process.

It was on one of these days, coming back from the Louvre, that I was suddenly passed by a group of speeding, wailing police vans. It has to be said that I’d noticed the gendarme to be a little over enthusiastic when responding to emergencies, so I didn’t think too much of the seven police vans and rows of policemen in riot gear, hanging around outside my hotel.

When I got a little closer however,  I could see that there was a fairly large group of people with banners, yelling and throwing things at the police. I tried to ask a few people what was going on, and they said it was just kids protesting about something, as if it was a normal occurrence.

Now I know the French have a penchant for striking, but surely a large, angry mob of school kids is not something that happens everyday. I had to stay and watch out of curiosity.

Unfortunately it kind of fizzled out (I was looking forward to watching a full scale riot!) The police just stood and watched and most kids got bored (as teenagers do), and left. One group stayed to the bitter end however and mooned the police, which amused me greatly for a little while.

I later met an American who was teaching in a high school in the city, and he told me that an astounding third of his lessons had been cancelled due to strikes for varying reasons. Apparently it was an everyday occurrence.

As the weeks went on, I’d received no replies for jobs, most tourist attractions had been seen, and my only hope of excitement was the constant possibility of rioting school kids.

It wasn’t that I’d become bored of Paris, its just that if you’re anywhere long enough with nothing to do, you start to get restless. The money was getting very low also,  and in a last desperate attempt to live my dream, I asked for any job possibilities in an Irish pub that I’d been drinking in for weeks. The barmaid said yes, and got the French manger over to talk to me. It was quite noisy in the pub, so I had a little trouble understanding him (nothing to do with my poor French). As far as I could tell his exact words were, “mumble, mumble, something in French, mardi, mumble, more French, cinq heures, d’accord?”

I didn’t know why, but I was coming back on Tuesday at five.

As it turned out, Tuesday at five was a trial. It got me thinking that if I’d targeted English speaking bars a bit earlier, I might have found a job already.

I’d worked in a bar before, so the trial was fairly easy and I was offered a job, unfortunately they didn’t need me to start for another two weeks. That was the moment my dream died. I had no money left, certainly not enough to stay for two weeks, so that was that, I was coming home.

I said goodbye to my wonky room, and my shaky hotel, and I said goodbye to Paris. I would miss it. I’d been there a month and a half in total, and if a bit of luck had gone my way it might have been longer.

It shows what you can do on a budget, and it shows what a student can do without a gap year company organising everything for you and probably ripping you off. You certainly get a greater buzz out of doing it yourself. All you need is a bit of bravery, or stupidity.

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