Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!


Paris, France

Posted on 11/13/03

Ah! Gay Paris! Dude, this is the gayest city I have ever seen. How gay is it? Paris is so gay that it has gone a full circle and become straight again. So…

Ah! Straight Paris!

The train into Straight Paris was hugely fast. It was going well over 100 MPH. The close range scenery was jetting by so fast that it was impossible to focus on anything before it zipped out of sight. The worst part was when we passed equally fast trains going the opposite direction. The air vortex created by two things passing each other so fast, inches away from each other, made it feel like my eyeballs were going to pop right out of my skull. That sensation and the deafening “whoomp!” sound that accompanied the moment with no warning scared the living ca-ca out of me every single time.

At that speed and with only four stops, we traversed the sizable distance between Bordeaux and Paris in less than three hours.

Paris was just as huge and daunting as I remembered it. Their metro system is admirably robust and comprehensive. There are over 300 stations and the layout is designed so that no spot anywhere in Paris is more than 500 meters (about 550 yards) from a metro station, which is fabulous for us tourists except that it translates into a metro map that is so complex and huge that you need advanced degrees in navigation and cryptology just to read it. After staring at the thing for 15 minutes, I found the metro stop I needed and after another 15 minutes of carefully plotting my course so I would only have to make one metro change during my voyage, I was under way. Three seconds later I was being physically held hostage by the automated metro entry gate. Paris has several different varieties of metro gates. The kind that was mugging me had these thick, two part, Plexiglas windows that opened away from each other, like the doors on the Starship Enterprise, after you feed your magnetic stripped ticket through the reader. I was, of course, attempting to get through with the Office on my back and pushing the Barge in front of me. I should have sensed that something was malfunctioning when I approached the gate and the two panels of glass were already open, but I was just trying to get into the metro system along with the 74,948 other people who were trying to leave the train station at that moment and I didn’t want to dawdle and have an instantaneous mob of impatient Parisians bunching up behind me, so I fed my ticket through the reader, plucked it out the other end, shoved the Barge through and started to step through when the panels suddenly clamped shut during the split-second that my body was through the gate, but the Office wasn’t. I was hopelessly stuck. The panels seemed to be pressing together with enough torque to crush a human skull and my mind filled with visions of the plastic casing of my laptop crunching like a cracker inside the Office. The person behind me tried to free me by feeding their ticket through the machine, but the gate did not open. Then a woman tried to physically force the panels open, while I attempted to help by sticking my feet in the opening and bracing them out, but we could not get the thing to budge. Finally, with my feet still propping the panels open so they wouldn’t slam shut on my hands, I carefully took off the Office and lifted it up over the top of the gate and back down on my side before I pulled my feet out and let the gate thump shut. At least two minutes had passed while I was trapped and after all of the commotion not a single metro person had noticed the predicament and come to my rescue. In fact, there didn’t appear to be any metro staff people anywhere in the station. I pulled my laptop out of the Office and after checking it thoroughly for damage, I packed everything back up and started the journey to my hotel.

I was turned-on to the Andre Gill Hotel by Debra in San Sebastian. After checking them out on the web, it didn’t look too bad. Twenty Euros a night, with sheets, towel and breakfast included. I didn’t learn until I got there that this deal only applied to members of a certain hostelling and travel group. Non-members had to pay 85 Euros a night for a single room with a sink. There were cheaper rooms that you could share with three other people, without breakfast and without showering facilities, but those beds were all full. (You had to pay an extra four Euros if you wanted to shower in this arrangement. No wonder the French are so well known for shirking regular showers. They’re expensive!)

The hotel owner’s daughter was the only one on sight at the time and she took pity on my dejected state as I tried to steel myself for another metro journey to seek out my second accommodations option. She cut me a deal that kept me in the hotel for the night. It was still more than I could afford long term, but it was acceptable for one, maybe two nights.

I had been on an uncomfortable run of being surrounded by sick people since Barcelona. The trains, the hostels, the bus on the wine tour… Everywhere I went people were coughing all over me. This tripped off what I suspect was a hypochondriac reaction soon after my arrival in Paris. I was definitely feeling funny, so I ate about five zinc lozenges and headed out to the Sacre Coeur, which was about six blocks straight up hill from the hotel. The more I climbed, the worse I felt until I got that sensation you get when you’re really sick, where it feels like you are swimming through a cloud of cold/flu germs that are oozing from your own body. I cut things short at the Sacre Coeur and staggered back to the hotel. I sucked down four more zinc lozenges and took a nap. By the evening I was on the upswing. Perhaps I killed the cold with the zinc or it could have all been a figment of my imagination. Either way it was definitely cold and flu season and being sick in a hostel sucks the big one, so I wasn’t taking any chances.

Paris was freezing. I could see my breath all day long. There was no afternoon Mediterranean warm up lurking in the background like locales further south, it just stayed Winnipeg-cold all day. I did my best to look favorably on this weather and counted my blessings that I was not witness to the devastating heat wave from the summer, where over 15,000 Parisians died of heat stroke (mostly the elderly), requiring half-assed, temporary morgues to be hastily assemble across the city. I mentally prepared myself for more of the same nipple perking weather, if not worse, in the mountains of Switzerland. This didn’t bother me, because I knew that more temperate weather was waiting for me in Italy and Greece. I just had to keep Mr. Happy and his Posse warm for couple more weeks.

Paris is not a clean city. The streets are peppered with various forms of animal shit (mostly dogs and pigeons [I hope]), cigarette butts and mud, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where all the mud was coming from with the entire city being paved over. I suppose any city with 10.6 million inhabitants is going to get a little messy. The crush of people, even during off-season, is similar to New York or London. The metros are jammed, the streets are busy and one out of every three people owns a dog that is ferried with them wherever they go. If you can keep you crowd anxiety under control, all this pedestrian traffic translates into a fairly safe environment. With space being at such a premium in Paris there are few if any dark, deserted alleys, because as soon as one is located, someone opens a high priced bistro at the end of it.

People are beautiful in Paris. A small percentage are flirting with the line that crosses into Euro-Trash, but for the most part the beauty is natural. Being surrounded by so many attractive people can be very soothing until you catch you own reflection in the window of a metro and it occurs to you that you are probably the ugliest person on the entire train.

If the anti-smoking campaign succeeds in vanquishing every single smoker in the United States, the tobacco companies have nothing to worry about as long as France holds it course. The only French people over the age of nine who do not smoke are dead. And although you can find the rare no-smoking signs on the occasional train or operating room, these are more suggestions than strict policies. It’s a nationwide free-for all. Smoking etiquette is nonexistent. No one asks if they can light up. No one bothers to blow the smoke away from the people in their immediate vicinity and the country is literally one big ashtray. This is a problem to a certain degree all over Europe, but France is the undisputed champion. I didn’t take the time to look into it, but I imagined that the French anti-smoking campaign consisted of one very defeated looking person, possibly an American ex-patriot, in an office that is so devoid of action that they don’t even need a phone or a filing cabinet. The French can’t claim ignorance about the negative effects of smoking. This past summer all European cigarette companies were required to enlarge the warning labels on packs of cigarettes to cover over half the outer packaging surface with no-nonsense phrases like “Smoking kills!” in 50 point font. Purportedly, the next step will be printing color pictures of blackened lungs and cancer patients on cigarette packs. That’ll make pulling out that after-dinner cigarette nice and soothing. Mmm! That’s satisfaction! Hrrruuuuck!

It rained like hell on my first full day in Paris. I decided to keep warm and dry by spending the day in the Louvre. I knew from prior experience that tackling the Louvre was going to require a big time commitment and big energy exertion. The Louvre is overwhelmingly huge. The crowds, even in October, are fantastically bad (A little anecdote here… As I waited in line for over 30 minutes just to buy a ticket [remember, this is October not August when it is likely five times worse], an announcement came over the loud speaker in four languages telling us that for our safety, we all had to leave the building immediately while security dealt with an unspecified situation. We had all invested a lot of time waiting in that line and not a single one of us flinched. Even the dad with his three small children stood his ground. Since the ticket window was still selling tickets and security wasn’t making any effort to herd us out the door, I gambled that it was safe to sit tight and not forfeit my precious spot in line. In fact, when there was no follow-up to the security announcement, I started to suspect that it was all just a sneaky ploy by the Louvre personnel to trick loitering people into leaving in order to free up more space.). If you truly want to thoroughly conquer the entire Louvre, I’d estimate that you’d need a minimum of three days and Mother Theresa-like patience and determination. The place is filled to the rafters and beyond with an immeasurable number of ancient, important, historical pieces of art. Each and every piece in each and every room is priceless and especially after dropping seven Euros to get in, you tend to start out with the intention of really getting your money’s worth and seeing and learning about a lot of really cool shit.

What happened to their noses?

Like my visit 10 years earlier, I started out slow. I walked leisurely from room to room, stopping to admire and read about every single item. I went through the Medieval Louvre (the Roman-era structure and moat that was discovered beneath the Louvre building that has been excavated and preserved), then Mesopotamia and part way through 18th – 19th Century French Sculptures. This took me over an hour and upon consulting the exhibit map I determine that I had only covered one little section of one level of the Louvre. I kicked it up a notch by only stopping to read about a few prominent pieces in each room. Using this approach I managed to clamor through 5th – 18th Century French Sculptures, Antique Iran, Pharaonic Egypt, Pre-Classical Greece, Greek Antiquities and Roman Antiquities. This took another hour and a half at which point I estimated that I had covered 9% of the Louvre. Counting the time I spent in line to buy a ticket, I had been in the Louvre for over three hours. I was getting hungry, tired, sleepy and very sick of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. So, I shifted into over-drive where I just blasted through every room without slowing down and only stopped for the Louvre highlights. In this manner I hurtled through Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the Americas, Napoleon III Apartments, Michelangelo’s “The Dying Slave,” Canova’s “Psyche and Cupid,” and the granddaddy of ‘em all, Leonardo di Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” This took another hour and by the time I had finished, I figured that I had covered just over 25% of the Louvre. This is where I threw in the towel. Despite being a once in a lifetime opportunity (actually, twice in a lifetime, in my case. Pthhhhhht!) to see these tremendous artifacts, I no longer had the energy or interest to roam for another four to six hours admiring precious, historic works of art. I left, picked up a spinach quiche and took a nap.

I was awakened in the early evening and informed that I was going to see the late show at the Moulin Rouge that night with a group of people from the hotel. The Rouge, which was conveniently located only about three blocks from the Andre Gill, has been featuring mostly naked cabaret shows three times a night since 1889, but the resurgence since the film was released with that dreamy Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, has made the show more popular than ever. We got in line for the 11:30PM show at 10:30PM. Paris was getting colder by the day and I briefly debated the wisdom of standing outside, at night, freezing to death, in line for an hour just to see some jiggling boobies, but to our surprise, the theatre staff herded everyone indoors where instead of freezing we roasted in the collective body heat that 400 people in a small lobby could generate while we waited for the doors to open.

Not having reservations and dressed the way backpackers tend to dress, probably contributed to us being placed in the last row of the theatre. We were nevertheless treated with great care. The tickets were 63 Euros ($74.12), so even us dregs in the back row were paying enough to be doted on. We were cordially served Champaign as the lights went down. They launched the show with several back-to-back dance routines featuring anywhere from one to 20 sets of naked ta-tas. The dancing was sub-par and several of the men seemed to have amusing rhythm deficiencies. I’ve seen tighter chorus line choreography at free shows in Las Vegas. Some of the costumes were very cool, though the select few whose costumes consisted of more than a g-string seemed to have been designed in the Eighties and had not been updated. There were a lot of sequins, lycra, and the tailoring of all the clothing was laughably out of style. I, of course, would have never noticed this on my own. I only learned these facts through the three women that were with me who critiqued everything from waistline cuts (too high) to who was icing and rouging their nipples.

I was starting to get a little perturbed at the thought of watching 90 minutes of this type of entertainment, but deliverance came when the first of several solo acts came out. The interlude performers were, in order of appearance, a balancing artist, a percussionist/juggler (!) and a very schlocky ventriloquist. I was fairly impressed with the juggler, but there was no question that the final solo act got the biggest reaction from all of us. It was a one-woman swimming ballet. The woman came out and stood on the edge of a transparent pool that rose out of the stage. She was wearing a g-string and nothing else. As the pool finished rising, we immediately became aware of the two anacondas that were swimming around the pool. The woman jumped in and proceeded to swim and dive and spin around while draping the snakes all over herself. At first we were all freaking out, but after a few minutes it became clear that she was in no danger. In fact, whenever one of the anacondas could wriggle away from the woman’s gasp it would make a break for the edge of the pool and try to slither out to safety. The edge of the pool had an overhang that prevented their escape and the woman would eventually grab them and yank them back into the action.

The show climaxed to the best of its abilities and we were ushered out of the theatre, past the gift shop where programs were being sold for 12 Euros and t-shirts for 40 Euros. The gift shop didn’t do much business.

The next day marked the end of my clueless, seat-of-my-pants approach to traveling. I had traveled for nearly four months without a guidebook after discarding that useless copy of “Frommer’s Europe,” so I was thrilled to come into the ownership of a lightly used copy of “Lonely Planet - Europe on a Shoestring.” This was an indescribably welcome acquisition. Not only did it have pertinent history and background on all of the cities and sights, but it had endless recommendations for hostels which had become a mild problem after it became clear that the Hostelworld.com reservation system was not functioning with any level of reliability. Nearly all of the searches that I had performed on their web site in the prior two months had revealed no available beds, anywhere. This of course was total bull, so I had taken to just showing up in some cities with no reservation and no inkling as to where I was going to sleep that night. Occasionally I had the name and address of a hostel that another traveler had raved about, but that was about as good as it got. Even though high season was winding down and full hostels were rare, I was nevertheless a little edgy about not having a bed waiting for me when I got off the train/bus/plane and I was delighted to have that source of unease bounced out of the equation. The Lonely Planet book was the size and weight of a gold brick, but it was priceless information and I cherished having it at my disposal.

The hotel budget issue came to a head by my third night in Paris. Having my own room in the Andre Gill was a huge perk, but the 40 Euros that I was paying per night was starting to hurt. Plus, the hotel staff seemed to be getting progressively more ornery and less helpful on each passing day, culminating on my last night when I heard no less than three confrontations in the lobby between unhappy guests and hotel staff, with the staff refusing to do anything to rectify even basic problems like a burnt out light bulb. The staff mantra for inaction was “I’m not the manager. I can’t do anything”

I took a long walk around the neighborhood and eventually found the Caulaincourt Hotel, an affordable place that wasn’t booked solid and they had a desk crew that was a veritable joy to hand fistfuls of cash to. After I nearly died climbing to the fourth floor with my bags I was deeply disillusioned to see that my dorm room had seven men in it. Having seven guys in the same room meant certain disaster. First, I could count on an absolutely filthy shower and sink area. Second, by this point, I was all too familiar with the matrix illustrating the chances of one or more people in a room being freakish snoring machines increasing ten-fold for every man added into the mix. I was a bit sleep deprived at this point and I didn’t think I had the reserve to absorb another poor night’s sleep. To make matters worse, it was a Friday night, so chances were pretty good that at least half my roommates would be out digging the Paris nightlife until obscene hours. In lieu of these potential sleep disruptions, I took every precaution legally available to ensure I would sleep like a dead dog. I took the bed in the far corner, so no one would be climbing over me when they got in late or went to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I screwed in my ear plugs as far as they would go without causing blindness or involuntary leg spasms. Then I took a little white pill from a bottle that had been prescribed to me a while back for my insomnia. I had been hauling the stuff all around Europe and I had totally forgotten that I had packed it until I stumbled upon it earlier that afternoon. Turns out I didn’t need prescription help. While there was some minor commotion when the clubbers staggered in late, unbelievably, not a single one of us snored. I got up to take a whiz at about 6:00AM and the room was as silent as a Memphis Grizzlies pepfest. I couldn’t even detect anyone breathing. It was amazing.

By my fourth day in Paris my budget was taking a serious ass whooping. I barely needed to bother putting my money neatly in my wallet after each visit to the cash machine, considering the very short relationship that I was having with my Euros. I visited the cash machine approximately every third day and withdrew at least 200 Euros each time. And that didn’t count the charges that I was putting on my Visa. It was out of control, but there was nothing I could do. I wanted to know where these guys were that were writing books with titles like “Paris on 50 Cents a Day” or whatever. Up to this point, the best book I could have written would have been something like “Paris on $80 a Day.” Of course with my determination to do all of the cool and decidedly not cheap things in Paris, piled on top of inordinately large accommodations and food bills, I really had it coming to me.

Speaking of cool, incredibly uncheap things… Since I was forking out big money in Paris, I decided to push the non-stop splurging on what was probably the most fantastic thing I had done all year. There’s an American-run business called Mike’s Bike Tours running in four cities in Europe (Amsterdam, Munich, Barcelona and Paris) and I had been hearing glowing reviews about these tours since I first encountered them in Munich back in July. With Paris being the last locale I was going to visit with this service and several people at my hotel jabbering about how great it was, I dropped into the Mike’s Bike Tour office to get the skinny on a tour and use their clean, free bathroom. While I was there, the whole idea of a bike tour vanished like Bush’s approval points when I saw the eight Segways parked in the corner of the shop. If you’ve been living in the jungles of New Guinea for the past two years, you may have missed out on the blizzard of free publicity that the Segway people have received for their new vehicle. A Segway is a revolutionary two wheeled, self balancing, personal transportation device. An internal gyroscope and numerous lightning quick processors keeps the Segway and the person driving it upright while they cruise lazily and enviably down the road at speeds up to 12.5 MPH (It’s rumored that a souped up Segway can go up to 30 MPH, but apparently going that fast on a Segway is scary as hell). The Segway is slowly being introduced into urban areas in the U.S. with mail carriers and street cops in several cities testing them for professional use. There has been some fierce debate on how and if the vehicle should be used in a typical urban environment. Should they be forced to stay on the sidewalks, bike paths or streets? Should people on Segways adhere to traffic laws like cars, etc, etc? None of that mattered while I was standing in Mike’s Bike Tours shop. All I knew when I saw those things parked there was that it was imperative that I get on one immediately.

Mike’s Bike Tours were the first to bring Segways into France and still appear to be the only Segway game in town. The Segways drew a lot of stares on the street. If the oh-wow factor weren’t enough for bystanders when you zipped past them with surprising speed and maneuverability on something that God never intended to stand up without a kick stand, when you stopped on a dime and whipped through a full 360º turn with zero turning radius, onlookers literally went to pieces. At every tourist sight we visited, people stopped looking at whatever hundreds of years old historic monument they were standing in front of and turned their cameras on us. In addition to that attention, we had a camera crew from the American Tech TV network following us on our tour that day (apparently the Segways have attracted more free media attention to Mike’s Bike Tours than a Dennis Rodman birthday party). The poor Tech TV cameraman and sound guy chased us on foot and in their car through the Paris city streets for the entire four hour tour, while the producer wisely chose to mount a Segway and take the tour herself.

Segways are the most intuitive and easy to learn means of transportation that I have ever navigated. Easier than a car. Way easier than a bike. Even easier than an electric wheelchair. The forward and backward motion of the Segway is triggered by leaning forward or backward. Standing still requires that you keep the foot platform perfectly horizontal. Hence, all that it takes to pilot a Segway is a very basic sense of balance (I’m talking normal, walking and standing in one place kind of basic balance). You steer by twisting a switch on the left handlebar (twist forward to turn right, back to turn left). The learning curve on a Segway varies from 30 seconds for a relatively gifted person up to 10 minutes for a nervous, drunk, but either way, after about 20 minutes the thing feels like a natural extension of your body. Starting, stopping, spinning around, backing and turning, one handed while shooting pictures can all be performed as if it were second nature. In fact, the only mildly delicate part about using a Segway is the mount and dismount. Since any leaning activates motion, if your mount/dismount is less than steady, the thing can either speed away right out of your hands or lurch backward and smash your shins. While standing still, there’s the smallest perceptible swaying back and forth as you and your Segway work like symbiotic entities to stay still and upright, otherwise it’s pretty much like standing directly on the ground with your own two feet. You don’t even need to hold the handle bars while you are idling and once you get the ‘nads for it, you can even cruise at full speed with no hands until a turn is required. Your can inch ahead at the slowest possible crawl for delicate maneuvering or lean into near instantaneous full speed acceleration. The Segway will start to complain if you get ballsy like I did 45 seconds after my first mount and start going full speed in reverse into tight turns, otherwise you are only limited by your confidence and the speed range that you have selected.

There are three pace setting on a Segway. You select your speed range when you start the thing up. You have three color-coded keys and each key allows for a different maximum speed. Black will keep you at 6 MPH per hour or less, perfect for winding through dense, slack jawed crowds at tourist sights. If you have relatively bare open road in front of you, then you key it up with the yellow and sail away at about 8 MPH. If you are in a serious hurry, whip out the red key and you can rev it up to 12.5 MPH. We did most of the tour on the black key. With the number of people that were crowding us and the knobs who inexplicably felt that it was safe to jump directly in front of us to get a better look at the Segways, we really couldn’t have gone any faster without flattening some toes. When it came time to head back to the shop and we were only going down deserted streets, we restarted with the yellow key and covered serious ground. Once we were back at the shop, the red key was offered to anyone who was feeling fearless. Not surprisingly, all of us guys were up for it while the ladies hung back and let the boys work through their respective testosterone moments. When it was my turn to red key it, I wasn’t prepared for the acceleration. On the surface, 12.5 MPH really doesn’t seem like much. I’ve gone just as fast (actually much faster) on a bicycle, but for some reason the same speeds on a Segway seem much more frightening. I had a mission to accomplish while red keying it. Mike’s Bike Tours does not take credit cards, so a visit to a cash machine was in order. Having been a veritable Segway prodigy, they felt I was a safe bet to get to the cash machine and back on the red key without killing someone’s child, pet or myself. I stepped onto my Segway, glanced at my group, raised an eyebrow into a menacing position and tilted that mother from zero to 12.5 MPH in about .5 seconds. I was tearing down the sidewalk. The Segway was bucking back into me, a physical signal the Segway automatically gives you when you are pushing it faster than your selected key range will allow, but I was red keying it, so I was probably, in fact, very close to pushing it’s physical limitations. I was coming to an open courtyard where skater punks and tiny dogs were running free when we had cut through it earlier that day, so I eased up. Once I was sure the coast was clear, I laid rubber back to max speed. It was a glorious geek moment. I traveled the two blocks to the cash machine in seconds. I requested 250 Euros and the machine spit out a twenty and 23 tens. Cursing, I stuffed the cash wad into my wallet and floored it back to the shop. Despite being one of the least essential items for survival (in the hunter-gatherer sense of the concept, a la “Fight Club”), I decided that was going to own a Segway before I died. In fact, “Paris Segway Tour Guide” was immediately added to my New-Career-Option-if-I-Don’t-Make-it-in-Writing list.

Oh yeah, there was a tour guide too. Ryan. Nice guy. A recent college graduate who obviously dug the Segways and the attention they generated. He spoke to us at every sight, but with the Segway consuming all of my attention, I hardly remember any of the details, with the exception of the forehead slapping revelation of the secret side entrance to the Louvre - about 100 yards away from the long lines leading into the Pyramid entrance - where people in-the-know could blow past all the Rubes (i.e. me two days earlier) and walk right into the Museum with no wait.

The Segway buzz stayed with me well into the evening. I couldn’t stop babbling about it to my roommates and I immediately loaded my digital pictures and video clips from the tour into my laptop and held a little multimedia Segway presentation for anyone who would watch.

The next day I dropped myself into the other end of the emotional spectrum when I got several lifetimes worth of the creeps shaken out of me in the Paris Catacombs. Back in 1785, when the Plague was in full swing, the Parisians decided that they needed to free up some room for all of the people dropping dead by exhuming the remains from six million graves in the overflowing cemeteries and piling them up neatly in the tunnels of disused quarries beneath the city. Now it’s a spine-chilling tourist sight.


After paying five Euros I descended about four stories into the Earth down a spiral staircase which opened up at the bottom into the weakly lit, eerie catacombs. The first four hundred yards of the catacombs were just plain, dark, cement corridors. I remember thinking that they didn’t look much different from the corridors at the Fed, except that a typical stroll down the Fed hallways made me feel a heck of a lot more dread than the Paris Catacombs. After a disappointing amount of time seeing nothing but bare, cement corridors, I was beginning to assume that all those bones were walled up behind the cement. So the remains of six million people were behind those walls. Big fricking whoop. I just paid five Euros to imagine what that looked like, something I could have done for free in a café while snacking on pastry and a Latte. I was going to have a bone to pick (Bwa ha ha ha!) with whoever was manning the exit. But the shocker was waiting for me at about the half way point. I went through a doorway and suddenly the walls were no longer bare cement blocks. I was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling, tightly packed, piles of bones. The bones were arranged neatly into different patterns along the walls. It was unnerving. I pulled myself together, took a few pictures and kept walking. I walked for a very long time. The bones were never-ending. While walking, I passed several gated catacomb arteries leading off in different directions from the main corridor and I could clearly see through the gates that these routes were also completely filled with bones, extending off into the indefinite distance. I hadn’t given it much thought before that moment, but six million skeletons can fill up a heck of a lot of catacombs. After seeing a dozen gated off, branching corridors teeming with yet more bones my case of the willies peaked. Clearly I was only seeing one, small part of the bone-filled passageways. Every time I tried to back up a little to get a photo of a certain bone pile, I would back right into another stack of bones. The sheer volume of bones I was seeing was astounding. Signs forbade me to take flash pictures in the catacombs, but the place was very dark and my hand was nowhere near steady enough for non-flash, long exposure shots so I was naughty a few times and flipped on the flash. The tour path went on for what seemed like six or seven city blocks. The distance I was covering was made evident as every hundred yards or so there was a plaque stating what street was directly overhead. After what seemed like an eternity of disturbing, dimly lit, bone corridors I emerged into a well lit room with yet another four story spiral staircase leading back up to street level. Once on the street, I blinked and shrunk from the sunlight. I felt like I had been under ground for months, but it had only been about 30 minutes. I staggered around in circles to get my bearings and find a metro entrance while I shook off the lingering shivers of what I had seen. What on Earth made me want to see that horrendous place in the first place? Oh yeah, several hotel companions. Swift payback of some sort was definitely in order. Meanwhile, there was little question in my mind that the experience would end up being juicy nightmare material some time in the near future.

Paris still seems to consider itself the fashion center of the universe, no matter how ungainly those fashion choices may be. For example, four inch, needlepoint high heels, the modern world’s most uncomfortable fashion trend, seems to be back in full swing in Paris. These heels are so high that they require women to buy whole new assemblies of pants that have an extra three inches in the inseam. I don’t get this at all. One, you are wearing heels that are damaging multiple parts of your feet, legs and spine all at once. Two, then you buy pants with an extra long inseam that cover up the goddamn precious, shoes that you are working so hard to have on your feet in the first place. What’s the point? I will never understand women. Though I have to admit, watching women run in those shoes without twisting an ankle and causing a rotary, multiple bone fracture was like watching that maniac go over Niagara Falls with no protection and live. It was beyond belief.

Several of the legendary “Paris-sights” (Say it fast. Hee hee!) were dutifully covered during my stay. The Eiffel Tower was as imposing as I remembered and so were the lines to get to the top. Having already seen fantastic high views of Paris from the Sacre Coeur, La Defense and my room on the top floor of the Caulaincourt, I skipped the debilitating line and moved on to the Arc de Triomphe, smack dab in the middle of the largest roundabout in the world. I checked my sanity for a second and briefly considered snatching up the bragging rights for having made the mad dash through about eight lanes of traffic to the Arc’s base. Then I reviewed my traveler’s insurance agreement and found out that I was not covered for minor injuries. I would need to severe a limb or require neurosurgery to be covered by the policy, so I took the sensible route to the base through the underground tunnel. I made obligatory strolls down the Champs-Élysées and through the Latin quarter even though there was nothing to see but hoitty toitty boutiques and over-priced cafés. I timed my stop at Notre Dame for the 2:30 tour in English, but I only got halfway through it before the incredibly long narratives on the religious significance of every nook in the wall bored me into paralysis. I scrambled through Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the most visited cemetery in the world, to pay my respects to Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. I walked past the Hôtel des Invalides, formerly a home for disabled veterans that now houses Napoleon’s tomb, situated in such a way that you have to crouch into a kneeling position to get a good look at it. That little, pony riding, egomaniacal bastard is still making people bow down to him over 130 years after his death. Finally, I didn’t bother wasting time on the apparent multi-city, ongoing practical joke that is the Picasso Museum after the enlightenment I had back in Barcelona.

Jim still gets flowers on a daily basis.

See all those spots? Kiss marks. No kidding. Here's a close-up.

On my last marathon day of walking through Paris, I happened to look down for an instant and saw a peculiar white spot on one of my Merrell hiking shoes. I sat down to investigate. I was horrified to find that it was my sock poking through a small hole where the tread on the front tip of the shoe was separating from the rest of the body. I was mortified. Back in May when I forked over big coin for the shoes, I thought of it as the beginning of a long-term relationship. I had spent much less on hiking boots in the past and had them last for an average of two years - wearing them through fall, winter and spring – while stomping them through the unremitting Minnesota muck. When I splurged on the Merrells I imagined that I would be buried with them, but here they were falling apart on me less than five months later. I got curious and checked the trend. I stared for several minutes. The near two inch thick, slab of super gripping rubber that had looked nearly indestructible when they were brand new looked as if they had been used as brake pads for inter-city French trains. Several spots on the bottom were reduced to a pathetic, smooth, textureless surfaces where there had once been fat, protruding molars of tread separated by cavernous gaps, with multi-layered, smaller, spiky protuberances that looked as if they could handle a walk up a 90 degree incline. In fact there were patches where the yellow, second, thinner layer of rubber was erupting through the black first layer. I studied this in disbelief. Either Merrell had duped me into buying very substandard shoes or I had put more miles on the shoes in four and a half months than I had in any prior two or three year span of my shoe wearing life. With my feet throbbing from the day’s trek, I was pretty sure that it was the later.

While we’re on the subject of clothing, my new Columbia jacket was working nicely. I had gotten a system down for the pockets and their contents. The inside, breast (huhuh, huh, huh, huh!) pocket housed my camera and random 3 ½ inch floppies for impromptu saving of desirable web information. The outer, left, side pocket kept my gloves. The right side kept the map of whatever city I was in and my 50 centiliter, heavy-duty, plastic Coke bottle that I had been using as a water bottle since Copenhagen (the Danish are serious about their Coke bottles). The outer, left, breast pocket was where I stored various brochures and city information and the right pocket held my James Bond, push button, collapsible umbrella. With all that crap in the pockets, the jacket appeared to put about 40 pounds on me, but I was well stocked and ready for any eventuality and I didn’t have to carry a day bag anymore.

My “Walk-Everywhere-Possible-So-You-Don’t-Miss-Anything” approach to tackling a new city is just begging for a repetitive stress injury in a city like Paris. I had been trying to be conscious of the state of my delicate feet since I had gotten them as close to healthy as possible in Lagos, but Paris was so huge that a carefully planned three hour stroll could turn into a five to seven hour death march after a few chores, tangents and getting lost were tacked onto the itinerary. I ultimately spent eight days in Paris, longer than any other city on my voyage, and aside from the Segway day, I walked pretty much continuously each day. At the end of every day, the trudge up the hill to the Caulaincourt Hotel and then the climb to my fourth floor room became progressively more difficult until my last day when I thought foot cramps and failing calve muscles were going to force me to spend the night on the second floor landing. I actually considered just laying down and using my jacket as a pillow. Maybe just for a little nap, just to rest. It was the 50 centiliters of red wine talking of course. I struggled up the last few flights and reassessed my determination to walk everywhere. But salvation was in sight. Three out of my four planned destinations in Switzerland (Bern, Geneva and Interlaken), were the size of Lego villages compared to Paris. I would spend short, lazy days walking the three hundred yard perimeter or so that comprised the noteworthy portions of those cities. But first I had to get through Lyons and Nice (with day trips to Monaco, Cannes and Saint Tropez), not cake-walks by any stretch of the imagination.

As my time in Paris was winding up I had to admit the unthinkable… I really liked Paris. What with the eternal stereotypes of their elitist attitudes and my less than hospitable nine days there in the rainy, crabby summer of ’93, I was fully expecting to be run out of town in the cargo hold of Contempt Airlines in just a few short days. But I had a great time. The food was fantastic. The sights were amazing. The people were nice. Polite. Even friendly. It was weird. It was like going to Marrakech and having the hustlers ignore me.

I did have one issue to nitpick though... I got a very bad haircut while I was there. In Paris. In the gay section, arguably the style and hotness nucleus of the planet. How was this possible? I thought I’d come out of that place looking like fricking Zoolander, but I looked more like a Norwegian Mr. Spock. Someone had some explaining to do, but my budget couldn’t take another day in Paris for me to track down the proper authorities. So, I bought a hat, jumped on an incredibly fast train and headed south to Lyons.

Go to Lyon

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©Leif Pettersen 2012