Paris 2: Sitting ‘Round Waiting for the Revolution

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(Photo: A previous trip to Santiago, Chile – 2016, courtesy of Tamara Hopewell)

“I’ve been looking ’round for demos but haven’t found a thing.” A flash-back to the early hours of Paris 1. We’re sat outside the bar. Politics the topic. One of the first conversations with my new found French friends. “There’s one Monday, the day after the election.” The answer comes quick. Definite. I grin mischievously. “Cool what time?” “Two o’clock at Republique.”

And so innocuously it begins.

Paris seethes beneath the surface. This is no Revolution, no Commune, no May ’68, but the underlying feeling seems not far off. If Melenchon had made the run off, things would’ve been different – the left/right confrontation more immediate maybe but system-faith somehow restored. A route to change offered. Instead, there’s a second round vote between a NAZI and a Rothschild banker… the election from hell. Distress writes itself across the face of every Parisian under 30. Dark whispers of the days to come. The two combined had received a tiny minority of Paris’ vote. Leave the bourgey liberal areas and that number plummets all the more. Everywhere graffiti urges comrades to boycott the election. Even the veteran parliamentarian Melenchon is wavering.

Look number one comes May 7. Being the person I am, and holding a great deal of faith in the French capacity to rebel, I amble down to Republique at around 6PM on Sunday, the day of the election itself. After spending a half-hour searching the various newsstands in vain for the Guardian, I settle down with the weekend’s edition of the ever-imperialist International New York Times. It seems about a third of the paper’s dedicated to opinion pieces endorsing Macron. I smirk at their self-righteousness, their bewilderment at the widespread left boycott. A few dreadlocked punks, 80’s hardcore blaring from their bottom-price soundsystem, read the paper distrustfully over my shoulder. Noticing, I turn round and explain. “I can’t speak French and this is all they had in English.” They give me a long sideways look in that way continental squatters do when they’re not sure about someone. But they seem satisfied and carry on with their 9% cans of Amsterdam lager.

Nothing happens. I walk to Monoprix and grab some 80 eurocent tinnies. 8PM comes. Results time. Cars start honking relentlessly in the streets. ‘Macron,’ I think. Tamara had indicated as much based on the Belgian-run exit polls earlier (by a twist of law Belgians get to know who the president of France is before the French do). Sure enough I hear the name repeated repeatedly by randomers in the street. I grin and nod. He’s an asshole but at least he’s not a Fascist.

Just near the metro stop a short, olive-skinned girl begins chanting into a megaphone. Sadly my French doesn’t exist so exact translations won’t be coming. However the mood and cognates make it broadly intelligible. “The National Front is a Fascist front and we hate them.” Something to that effect.

A small crowd gathers, starts parading up the pavement. A confused half-hour later, unsure as I was of where we were even heading, we reach our obvious destination, Menilmontant. Large groups of punks, anarchists, and militants loiter round the square. Beer is guzzled. Excited speech forms a low, subway like rumble. There’s several hundred of us.

Suddenly the shouts go up and rise and rise. The marching begins. “Ah! Anti! Anti-capitalista!” The chant scorches the air, booming off the tall Parisian apartments either side. Masks are being thrown over faces. For a second the most unbelivable feelings rush through me. Power! Energy! Passion! The mad, roaring feeling of the rebel. My nerves stand on end. Everything seems possible.

But everything is not possible. There’s hundreds of protesters, thousands of cops. There’s no violence, no law-breaking yet immediately the police rush, batons drawn. The crowd runs down alleyway after alleyway as they give chase. People pull out bins and fencing, forming barricades not of revolt but of desperation. The police hunt like a pack of rabid dogs. This lasts for hours. The protest runs, trying to escape. I’m there as a spectator. Hanging to the sidelines, to the back. Far from the frontline. I slip away. This is not my fight. Dozens of others, however, are corned in a lefty bar. There the police tear gas, beat, and arrest them, leaving blood and tears in their wake.

Then, Monday. The crowds are much longer, the assembling in Republique. This time it is not merely the Anarchists out protesting this fake travesty of an ‘election.’ Trade Unions join, students, communist, even a sprinkling of left liberals. 10,000 in total I’d reckon. The march has a license even. Surely this time it will at least be able to complete the route?

The crowd gets about 100 metres in before the police form a line across the entire boulevard maybe five deep. They shove at people with their shields. Taunt. Shouts go back and forth. The march pulls back. Wait for the police to move. They back up maybe 20 metres. The crowd advances 20 metres. It continues on and on, the taunting back and forth growing more angry, more frustrated.

Then the snapping point comes. The police start to flank on the left side. The crowd boos and hisses. Then, unprovoked, the police charge. The harsh, flat sound of batons on flesh. The screams and panicked runs. Even the black bloc, used to confrontation, looks stunned at this blatant attack. An attack without reasoning. An attack just to attack. Tensions hit their height.

Just then, in response, a member of the crowd, I have no idea who, hurls something, a plastic bottle it looks like. I watch it sail through the air from my spot on the pavement outside the group. It falls to the ground and lays there for a minute. All eyes move towards it. Police back-peddle away. Then the explosion! The noise rings in everyone’s ears. No one is hurt but the crowd runs back, terrified of what the police will do in response. They seem to be closing in from all sides. I take this as my queue. I slip away a second time.

I spend the next half hour on a grand staircase at the plaza Bastille watching the too-and-fro between police and protester down the road, musing about the state of the world, the brutality of the police, the obvious farce of this French election.

One days this shit’ll end but for the moment we’re just sat around waiting.

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Paris 1: Storming Bastille

I whizz half-terrified through the nonsensical, laneless system of Parisian roundabouts, my feet near-skidding on the rain-soaked asphalt beneath this too-small bike. Republique swings past my left. An ever-so-French monument, broad base with famed lady arm aloft to Liberté, égalité, fraternité hogs centre stage. On the wings a horde of cop-wagons – though the coppers themselves seem light on caring ’bout whatever it is that’s going down. And I can only half-peak, half-ponder it myself. Eric, my couchsurf host, the taDSCN1035ll, ponytailed, adventuring son of a French diplomat, weaves in and out some ways ahead of me with the effortless grace of a “I’ve-done-this-before” veteran cycler. I, on the other hand, haven’t hopped aboard a big city bicycle since I came a foot and half away from becoming a bloody skid-mark beneath a Farrindgon Road double decker two years ago. I struggle to keep up.

Minutes later we reach the ordained spot. A small bar, (it’s name escapes). Already a decent handful of folks by the time of our arrival. And only 8PM. A good sign. The place has exactly the vibe one’s desperate for, one can never find in a metropolis they don’t really know. Especially a metropolis as cliche-hungry tourist drenched as Paris. And this place, this place is barely more than a few hundred metres from the centre square. Yet small as it is, tucked beside the tree-lined Canal Saint-Martin with its gorgeous, high bridges with their angular slope, level, slope, it feels like a hidden oasis, a bohemian outpost lurking right beneath the unawares of the tourist’s nose. A mix-match of hip and hippy, all ages and sizes, old, young, cool and not-quite there, soon file in. The total effect though, as the jam night begins, is exactly right, perfectly Parisian, a small, crammed alter to the artistic.

There’s a few acts who’s talents astound. A few acts with something, talent, to be desired. My own songs, strummed buzzed off several 8% pints, singing distorted by last night’s late night tar on my lungs, not to mention any less easily excused faults, can’t have been great. But I get a few honest-sounding compliments on my vocal style nonetheless and the crowd has a communal, celebratory air. This isn’t an open mic like Magic Garden’s in London, rife with one-up-manship and look-at-me competition. It’s a bunch of musicians, writers, artists, students, and travellers getting drunk in a (for Paris) cheap dive (NOTE: The greatest travesty of all Parisian travesties is the price of beer. Wine and liquour are fine. But if you expect to find a pint of beer for under 5 euros… madman! And they run up to 10 in the tourist hot spots. 10 euros for a fucking beer!).

It’s this joint-celebration, the fun, the whirl-me-round smiling conversations enhanced by singalong breakthroughs that make the place magic. And it’s amidst one of these conversations that I meet the group of the night. Four French students slumped cooly in their chairs, dark-clad, smoking. I couldn’t understand a word ofwhat they were saying but it seemed to emanate wit and intelligence and insight. Honest chances are they were little different then students in any city. But aspirant, would-be artsy types throughout every inch of Anglo-America pedestal the French. I’m no exception. I’m not sure how it is I got talking to them. If memory serves (and the memory is bleakly hazy) the ice-breaker came through as a rizzla request (from them not me). Before I’d known it I’d joined them at their table, smoke of every sort pouring down our throats, laughing about different films, different songs, about politics and Melenchon, the revolution and the world, travels happened and travels to be.

“So where to next?” It comes out my lips, emboldened by the beers I’d drank, pretending cool in my 80’s Mao jacket and skinny jeans. I nonchalantly take a swig as I ask, try not to care. Arthur hestitates but Laurène jumps straight in. “Well I don’t want to go home yet.” I smile. Away we go.

Soon we’re in Bastille, a recommendation received with a por que no shoulder-shrug. We stalk up and down the rain drenched streets. It’s truly pouring now. Umbrella-less I feel myself soaked to the bone. But I couldn’t give a damn less. Drink warms the soul and adventuring with new found friends all the more. We dodge in and out a bar at the end. The bell rings last call. We stumble forward. Contemplate homewards. End up, the five of us, two couples plus myself, in some poorly lit, bass-thump bar/club halfway up the strip. Bastille is not the place you go for culture. It’s not the place of head-nodding, back-patting. It’s the land of fuck it let’s have fun. And that’s what we did. We danced. We danced and talked shit. We drank and joked and laughed and smiled. Bastille Bastille the place to be. Grins widen just thinking ’bout it now. The people, the time, the music, the wonder, the energy, the happy, the fun.

PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP

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Ready. Set. Go.

The detritus of weeks of almost-planning scattered over stained carpet floors. Half-useful used guidebooks earmarked to scribbled over pages, margin notes you can’t quite read, volumes bulging with scrappaper directions to your-not-quite-sure-are-real eco-villages in eastern France. Your old green traveler’s backpack – got that one from pops – lays open but unfilled on those same stained carpet floors. “God damn I wish I’d done a wash.” No one’s listening. You say it anyway.

That good ole reliable stomach bubbling is tentatively starting its resurfacing ritual. You can it in feel your gut. It’s twisting a bit. Not a displeasurable twist. The universal feeling of action rumbling over on the horizon: Stomach off kilter. Dropping, rebounding. Manifesting your mind. Side-gut mini lurches too-and-fro.

The human body is weird that way. Science dictates its dictats on why why why constantly. Those chemical concoctions they say, transmitted seamlessly from mind to torso and onwards downwards. But we suspect its something different. Something unexplained. Something unexplainable. The sort of wild human feeling that defines humanity – internal, inexpressible, unconscious, real.

67 hours and counting at time of writing. You (I) will be in the hustle-bustle of Victoria Coach Station, City of Westminster, London. How bustle will the bustle be at 9AM? Wondering. Inevitable navigation round the seawaves of suited boring-bodies hustling off to their high paying jobs of course. But how many travelers? Even inter-city can’t be many. Much less so for international. Micro-details distract your mind. Micro-details like that.

Because two main assemblages of thought demand attention you’re not quite giving. Assemblage 1: Thrill. There’s nothing quite like it is there? (What a throwaway phrase). Your mind replays the first steps of so many times before. Planes. Trains. Buses. Adventures which occupy such a central memorial place now. Then, nothing but raw anticipation. Traveled enough now to distrust the TV-born, book-born, dream-born images of what it will be like. Paris is a known entity. Mostly. Twice before your footsteps have echoed off its coarsely philosophical pavement. The latter the days of the COP21 demos. The throngs of human rebellion resisting the shit-storm the corporate latter-day Gods have cooked up for us unrestful servants. What a time. Beyond Paris, however, the great unknown. Everything to be found. Everything to be seen. Experiences new and unknowable. And that fact seizes your muscles (heart – biggest) as nothing, nothing else could.

Assemblage 2: Nostalgia. Early onset nostalgia more accurately. The homesickness for a place you’ve made your home. It’s oft strongest now. Before the storm. Before you’ve left. Goodbyes always trump in intensity the absence of hellos. It is so much easier to know what you’ll be missing when you can still see it before your squinting eyes. Of course, you know it’ll fade out the backside of your mind soon enough, once your gone. But that stings more than comforts. The absences enlarged by very lack of acknowledgment. You do love this place you’ve made yourself, these people you’ve found yourself. And forgetting doesn’t fill.

And every folk musician of olden days opines here and there about the bitter-sweetness of the leaving.

So here you go. Off to the races. Hold on tight. Hit the road. Paris. Bure. Brussels. Cologne. Berlin. Dresden. Prague. Budapest. Zagreb. Split. Hvar. Dubrovnik. Mostar. Sarajevo. Jajce. Banja Luka. Novi Sad. Who knows what else. Who knows the inbetweens. The unpredictable twist-turns that transform trip’s to adventures. Just onwards onwards onwards. On from there. On through Serbia. On through Bulgaria. On through Turkey. On through life. Keep on moving. Seize the day. Never surrender. Go wild.

WHY TO WRITE A TRAVEL BLOG

The pitter patter noises of inutile dribble draining itself through the interwebs. Uselessness embodied in throw-away lines juxtaposed with another smile, another smile, another smile. The photographic reenactments of “everything’s fine.” Ain’t my life great? Aren’t you jealous? Places drained of PLACE. Always it seems. Constantly. The travel blogger prerequisite: to walk, hike, run, bus, coach, fly, drive, hitch, hop across vast expanses of space without ever experiencing a thing. Or at least sharing that thing with us. And all the mindless chatter. The reviews no one will read. The self-congratulatory back-pats. The insulting, demeaning, downward-gazing how-to’s that anyone with two-thirds of a brain cell could figure out on their own. And no we do not want a copy of your packing list.

I’m not saying they’re all like this. They probably aren’t. My knowledge is cursory. And I can be a dick. But my cursory scanning spurred by some interwoven mix-match of curiosity and necessity to figure out something beyond the bland-bore pages of Rough Guides or Lonely Planet has led me to them, those travel blogs, time and time again. And from there to that. Those adamant conclusions above. All augmented by dickish pretensions, perhaps. But I’ll stick by ’em.

So why, then, am I writing a travel blog? You might ask that. And you might add: ‘a half-cooked spew of insults ambiguous seems a terrible way to start, to get us all onside.’ Well, fuck knows. Some try-hard notions lurking in the back of my mind motivate me. – (How uncouth: try-hardness, zealotry) – Bubbles in the spine incite me. Truth’s I give a damn.

This is an attempt to merge some kind of self-conscious consciousness stream with a real appreciation of people, place. This is an attempt to capture the feeling of the road. This is an attempt to capture the feeling of adventure, of newness, weirdness, strangeness, and wonder that occasionally motivate us humans to plunge our under-employed, under-paid, under-happy selves into somewhere else. This is an attempt to acknowledge its not all pretty. This is an attempt to see the alcoholic escapist in us all. This is an attempt to write about traveling. This is an attempt to write about people. This is an attempt to write about the endless deluge of places, of beauty and awe and unconstrained excitement and then not just that but all the nooks and crannies and corners and rhythms and streetlamp lights and alleyways and graffiti and backsides of life that turn a space into a place, a model into a city. This is an attempt to try to merge aesthetic with undiluted experience.

This is an attempt to write a different sort of travel blog.

Let’s see how it goes.