Author’s Note: I say “Part 1 of ?” because I don’t know how many posts it’s going to take to tell all of the stories that came out of our 24 hours in Paris. To put the entire chapter of Paris into one post seems impossible and would not do these stories justice. It was the most challenging yet rewarding 24 hours of my life, so enjoy and feel free to laugh because I assure you, I’m still laughing at myself.
If you remember from my last adventure in France, I vowed never to return to the armpit of Europe ever again. But when comparing the prices of flying from Berlin to Barcelona versus taking an overnight train to Paris and then flying Ryan Air, Nicole and mine’s cheap punk spirits couldn’t resist the savings. Not only were we paying a fraction of the cost, but we also didn’t have to buy a night in a hostel. Instead we spent the night sleeping on the seats and of the floor of one of the oldest, most ramshackle trains the Deutsche Bahn had to offer.
The overnight train from Berlin to Paris had its own saga of tales including a DB staff member who was hunting for the blood of train hoppers, our very German cabin-mate who didn’t want to believe that some American trains just don’t have a bathroom, and a long voyage to the restaurant car. But I digress, because the most interesting stories begin the moment we stepped out of that train and into the streets of Paris.
We arrived in Paris at around 9am after a 12 hour train ride. We were exhausted from the lack of sleep resulting from a night sleeping on the hard surfaces of a rickety train clanking through the German and French countryside. Even though we could have easily gone to bed, and often at times considered it, we pushed on, determined to see all that we could in the 24 hour window we had.
Our hostel was not far from the Gare du Nord train station so we dropped off our bags and headed to our first point of interest: Sacré-Cœur. Sacré-Cœur Basilica, known in English as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is located on top of butte Montmartre which is the highest point in Paris. It is there where the long list of stories begins.
Nicole and I hiked up the hill along the cobblestone streets of Montmartre, a neighborhood north of Paris’ downtown area. The sun was just breaking through the clouds and people were filling up the cafes. The sensory overload instantly woke us up and we got astonished that we were transported to a whole new world overnight. We took pictures of things that might be normal to Parisians but were new and exciting to us being two girls from the trash-filled city of Philadelphia. We were total tourists but we didn’t care – I was starting to feel that France was about to redeem itself from my last encounter with the country. That is until we approached the Sacré-Cœur.
We approached the church where there was only one point of entry onto the grounds – a gate behind a group of four Africans. We didn’t pay any mind and started to shuffle past them. We see people of African decent all the time in America and we just got back from Berlin, a very multicultural city where everyone was kind and meant us no harm. But that was not the case here.
One grabbed my wrist and when I pulled back he told me to “relax! This is an African tradition” and began to make a bracelet. Another had started doing the same to Nicole. They tied the bracelets around our wrists and then demanded that we pay. Knowing that we had just been swindled, we were determined to get out of this safely, without making any waves. I pulled out my wallet – thank God I had hooked my wallet to the inside of my backpack before leaving the hostel. Just as I pulled it out, a crowed of this “crew” surrounded me. I summoned all of the Philly attitude I could and held out my arm and said “BACK IT UP! You are making me feel uncomfortable.” I tried to remain strong and not seem vulnerable, lest I become even more of a object to be preyed upon. I didn’t have anything smaller than 10 Euros in my wallet.
One of the taller ones began pushing me in the chest yelling “Don’t f*ck with my crew or we will f*ck you up” and other profane threats. The one who had made my bracelet had said “give me the 10 and I’ll give you a 5 back”. So I did – at this point I was so shocked by what was happening and just wanted to get away. The shortest of the crew had a 5 in his hand so I gave him the 10 and reached for the 5 but he pulled back and said “no – I see you have more in your wallet.” At that point I was frightened but wanted to maintain some of my power and said “no 10 is enough. That is for me and Nicole and you’re going to let us go.” Nicole was able to break away from her crowd, grabbed me and we ran up the hill to the church.
In all of my years and in all of the shady situations I’ve ever gotten myself into I never knew that my first attack, not just on my travels but ever, would be in broad daylight in front of a tourist attraction while being surrounded by tons of civilians. I am still amazed that not only were there no police in sight (it took us two hours before we saw the first police officer) but no one helped us. Everyone just walked right by.
Hey, but let’s not end this post on a negative note. I was a tad bit upset at the beginning. How could I have been so stupid to let that happen to us? But I am so thankful that they only made off with 11 Euros between us (Nicole had paid 1 Euro and they insisted that it was not enough and started to harass her saying that I hadn’t paid and that she should pay for me but that was a fact that I didn’t learn until later). We walked away from it all the wiser. Also, the sites and other adventures we had along the way made up for the attack.
We got to the church, gazed over the panoramic view of Paris for a few moments then ventured a few blocks to Place du Tertre. Place du Tertre is a square in Montmartre where painters set up their easels and spend their days painting as well as trying to sell their art to passer-bys. Some try to tempt you discreetly, but others will try to sell you hard! Some artists will even approach, tell you how beautiful you are and how they would just love to take a moment to draw you. After being scammed just moments before at the Basilica, we were not about to fall for it again… even if they were being genuine. You can draw my backside, baby, because I’m walking away.
Amongst all the chatter and cat calls from men in the square I saw an old man. He sat quietly, getting lost in his work. His impressionist style reminded me of my favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh, so I stood behind him and watched him apply white globs of paint to the canvas, adding light to his blue and black nightscape of Paris. Maybe he knew I was watching or maybe he had no idea and was focusing on the moment that he was creating. Regardless, I took advantage of the time going unnoticed, took a few slow breaths and was instantly healed from the episode that had happened less than half an hour before. This, I realized, was what was real – not money, not monuments – but moments. Good moments, bad moments and all moments are why I travel. After reaching the acceptance stage of this entire series of moments Nicole and I went to a café to plan our next course of action.