I could see everyone around me abandoning their belongings to take a shower. I wanted to go ‘bag-free’, so I decided to make the same trusting gesture. I felt weightless walking over to the communal block of showers: it was only a 13kg backpack but it had started to feel much heavier. Maybe it was entirely psychological, but what’s the difference?
The first burst of hot water brought a smile to my face. Finally I could erase the distinct aroma of sweat and petrol accumulated the day before; like a modern day traveller’s baptism. “Cleanse yourself of your stench, and be born again, young hitchhiker.” I stepped out of the shower, after a dubiously long time, and sauntered over to the pristine white basins to brush my teeth. It could be some time before I get to enjoy such luxuries, I might as well be meticulous in my own indulgence.
Staring at my freshly-drafted-army-recruit haircut in the mirror, I couldn’t justify using the hair dryer too. It didn’t help that my faith in the local community had quickly transformed into disturbing paranoia: I pictured arriving back at my tent to nothing but a desolate patch of grass and a message that read, “Next time, don’t be such a fool.” But, everything was just as I left it (of course), so I packed away my tent and attached it to my bag, bracing myself for the ensuing back pain. There was none; just another damning testament to my overractive imagination.
I had to eat something mildly sustainable, so I accepted the added cost of buying food at a campsite. After picking up a packet of chorizo and an avocado, I put the very little French I knew into practice. “Bonjour, puis-je avoir du pain?” Apparently it was convincing enough, since the server asked if I would like the loaf of bread on her right or left side. I pointed to the one on her left, mumbling some words in English and revealing my true identity. Yet another Englishman too arrogant to learn any other languages. Except it has never been about arrogance; what stops me is a lack of confidence.
I sat on a bench outside, close to where the sun was shedding its bright yellow hue. As I seized the opportunity to use my knife, slicing open the avocado and scooping out its insides, the heat gradually entered me. It felt like a gentle affirmation of my safety.
Instead of taking the shuttle bus from the campsite directly into the centre of Paris, I started to walk, navigation-free. I didn’t get very far before I was quite lost, but I stubbornly continued onwards without asking anyone for help or using Google maps, like I usually would.
I regret this decision. I squandered a couple of hours before resorting to a bus. It relieved and frustrated me to pay for transport. On the one hand, it would take me to where I needed to be. Equally, I could have just taken the shuttle bus hours ago.
Either I didn’t get off at the right stop or it was the wrong bus entirely, because I ended up in a very poor district. (Disclaimer: I cannot remember where due to fatigue, stress and a terrible sense of my surroundings). The further I walked, the more the landscape lurched towards signs of poverty: plain, simple, worn-in clothing, very little history or culture, small, dilapidated apartments, old, overwrought cars, various vacant shops. I could reel off a long list of other material signifiers, but what really stands out in this environment is the sea of faces that openly display exhaustion and hardship.
It was a far cry from the romanticised image of Paris stuck in my mind. The propaganda sold to tourists emphasises the lifestyle and culture of the rich, inner-city Parisians and marginalises the struggle of everyone else. It’s not just the case in Paris, of course: it happens in every major city where there is economic disparity and an opportunity for tourism. My previous trip to Paris corresponded directly with this vision of grandeur.
When I finally took the correct bus and arrived in the centre of Paris, unwinding on the elevated concrete in front of the Pompidou museum, all of the wealth and charm left me feeling hollow. Of course I was already conscious of the other side to Paris, but only in that vague, intellectual way that has little effect on your emotions. Now I was forced to confront the thought that all of this can only exist and thrive because of the hard graft of people living much less comfortably. It’s certainly not the only reason, but it is a part of the narrative.
I spent the next few hours seeing monuments and taking pictures, trying to appreciate the beauty of the city on a raw, aesthetic level. I was there, and I had no money. It was an unexpected blessing as it allowed me to explore through the gaze of an ‘outsider’, instead of indulging in the spectacle of Paris strictly reserved for the wealthy. It’s not the people who live like this that I criticise in the slightest. It’s the media’s narrow representation of Paris, and the huge sums of money generated by tourism that seem to worsen rather than improve the general situation for its poorer citizens; pushing them even further into the outskirts of the city and making them into social and economic pariahs.
Perhaps it’s not entirely rational, but it all left me very happy not to take part.
I kept walking for hours, conflicted between documenting more of the city and finding a place to sleep. Exhaustion finally prevailed and I moved towards the Eiffel Tower, slowly and not so surely. Unsurprisingly the park was filled with tourists and hustlers trying to sell cheap alcohol or gimmicky merchandise: I don’t know why I ever thought I could camp there. Running out of options, I crossed over to the other side of the Seine, and found a spot to camp near the Trocadero gardens. It had to do.
I gazed across at the Eiffel Tower, easily the most pervasive symbol of Paris to tourists. Yet what it represents is only one side of the story in such a diverse city, and I strongly feel that the less glamorous segment needs to be broadcast – and it needs to be heard.