Paris For South Americans

Márcio Belem

© Copyright 2004 by Márcio Belem

Photo of the Gare de Lyon.

The Gare de Lyon was my first contact with Paris. I left Geneva a couple of hours before with my two square meters luggage. It contained enough clothes for cold temperatures, rainy days, sunny days, and funny days. One umbrella, three pairs of shoes, two winter boots (one internally coated with wool), two coats, five trousers, four hank chiefs, twenty T-shirts, twenty pair of socks were all wrapped, and packed, plus twenty-five under wears, separated in two groups (clean and used), a belt, a toothbrush, one toothpaste, a comb, aspirin, Imodium, and shampoo. Dirty clothes were inside two plastic bags that gave an extra volume to my non wheeled luggage. All combined weighted 25 kg.

At that time, I was 57 kg, young, slim, with a big hair, a Mexican moustache, who wore a pair of Gandhi glasses.

Immediately after getting off the train, I searched for a chart. How naïve I was. Parisian common sense makes everything very much easier for any person who is not born and raised in the City of Lights. First, you need to have French coins, then  you grab a chart, then you move your chart through stairs - up and down, and then up again. Then, you will find your way to the exit.

The bank was just at the next corner: 300 m from the quay.  I just needed to carry 25 kg, plus my own body, walk for 300 m, arrive at the bank, change my money, come back to find a free chart, realize that instead of one franc I should deposit five francs to grab the chart, come back to the bank, change five one franc into one five francs, face the friendly face of the cashier, be polite and smile, walk back more 300 m, pick up the chart, lay my luggage on the chart, move back 300 m, follow the exit signs, and when I was almost finished, stare at the bottom of some historical stairs (they were built in the nineteenth century), leave the chart, hold my luggage, climb some hundreds of steps, arrive at the top, walk more 10 m, follow the “sortie“ sign, and find out I still needed to descend another stair. At this point, I was ready to be hit by any friendly busy commuter, continue smiling, stop a dozen more times to relax my arms, lay my luggage on the floor, breath deeply, and then… finally figure out how to get out of the (famous) Gare de Lyon.

My hotel was nearby: three blocks from the train station. I could survive without a taxi or any lift. Step by step, I stopped every 30 seconds. My dynamic was being driven by my heart pitting outside my mouth, my body completely wet, my shaking arms - I have never been diagnosed with Parkinson disease yet - and my decisive legs. The latter made a silent commitment to conduct me.

At the front desk of the hotel, I was given the keys to my small but comfortable room at the fourth floor. No questions were asked, only my money was required. Traveler checks were accepted. As historical sites must be preserved, this disallowed me the privilege to get into an elevator. That was Mitterand’s socialist France, and I guess elevators were considered to be driven by big unscrupulous corporations - most likely made in America. I do not blame them. There were just four stairs in spiral with seventeen steps each. No swiveling was needed.  Only two arms were required, plus my legs in good shape. I could survive again. I guess this could have been considered as my first attempt in fighting against obesity.

Inside the room, I found a sink. It also had a king size bed.

Unfortunately, there was no bathroom. Indeed, I remembered having passed one at the second floor, while climbing up the stairs with my luggage. My body was desperately in need to wet my tongue, to free my blaster, and to clean my skin. The sink was enough to meet my (essential) needs, and I could not walk a single meter anymore. Forget about descending to the second floor. I glanced a white towel near the sink and spent no more than a second to decide using it as brush. Why not? I had brought shampoo with me. Indeed, my first sink bath was going to become one of the most pleasant experiences in my life. Calmly, I began spreading shampoo on the skin of my body. The movement was slow but firm and continuous. Using the towel embedded in water, I softly brushed my body. At that moment, I began wondering how happiness in life could be as simple as that. When my sink bath ended, I left the water on my body dip, and then continued drying it with a German made T-shirt.

Hours passed by and my first encounter with the City of the Light was spent shaking my arms on a king size bed. Exhaustion is a term that could barely explain my real state. There I stayed, staring to the ceiling, watching the minutes and the seconds passing by. That was my first day in Paris, and I was almost choking for hours on a bed.

Slowly, my mind began reacting when I remembered the commitment I had made to an acquaintance from Munich. She had asked me to meet her that evening in Paris, in front of Notre Dame Cathedral at 7 pm. There I was, a moribund concerned with an appointment made with a girl I had barely spoken to a couple of days before. Why would she be there? We met for the first time while visiting the concentration camp of Dachau. Besides, we were both Cariocas, and as part of our tradition we make appointments and never show up. Why should that one be different?

Still, I dressed myself, left the keys at the front desk, and walked back to the Gare de Lyon to take the metro. I changed lines three or four times. Until today I still wonder if had I walked, it would have taken me less time. But except for the NY subway, there is nothing as peculiar as the Parisian metro: stairs, stairs and more stairs, residues of cigarettes everywhere, plus that unbearable non stop sound coming from women’s high heels hitting the ground while marching, as if their stress could only go away if they could kill the very first man that would dare to speak to them.

At 7:05 pm one of us arrived, the other had already been waiting for half an hour in front of the cathedral. We smiled and talked about our first impressions of Paris. The cathedral was closed and as unusual as it sounds, it was not raining. So we decided to walk through the Quartier Latin. Time flied. We bought some bread, cheese, yogurt, and a bottle of orange juice. We had our dinner sitting on a bench with the pigeons as our guests. Later in the night, she told me she had nowhere to sleep. I was sympathetic, and offered my room. I advised her I had only paid for one person, and she risked from being barred by the hotel manager. As her luggage was left at the Gare de L’Est, and to avoid missing the last metro, we decided we would pick it up on the following day.

From outside the hotel, I showed where the stairs were, and asked her to wait for me in the bathroom at the second floor so that we could avoid any suspicion. Then, I began sweating, as if I was confessing to the entire world my wrongdoing. When I came into the hotel, I said hello to the manager, and asked for my keys. In a fraction of a second, while he turned back to pick them up, my girl friend rushed to the stairs, and climbed straight to the second floor. She made a lot of a noise. At that moment, I realized how unsafe that place was. Anybody could have come in without being noticed.

I picked up my keys, climbed the stairs, stopped at the second floor, and knocked on the door of the bathroom. My friend gently opened it, and we both climbed the two last stairs. When I opened my room, she smiled. The bed was a spacious king size bed, exactly as I had described. There would be enough space for us to share. We undressed, and I lent her my pajamas. She looked pretty. We talked for a while, brushed our teeth, and turned off the lights. Each one grabbed a pillow, laid under the coversheet, one positioned on the right side and the other on the left side of the bed, we hugged each other, and finally we quietly fell in the arms of Orpheus.

If anyone snored, nobody noticed.

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