Paris; Notre Dame and its gargoyles; Montmartre and its cemetery; Crèpes every day and sometimes twice; The Arc de Triomphe; The Tuileries; Adventures in international finance; Vanessa from Romania has a package for us

Say what you like about it, Paris is a fascinating city. We spent a week here and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so much to see and do that you could spend a month’s vacation here, easily. I’ve always dismissed people who dribble on and on about Paris, assuming they were just giving in to the pre-packaged romantic atmosphere. But there actually is something indefinable about the place. We’re fresh off a tour of the European capitals, mind - we’re not new at this. Paris has something the rest of them don’t, though. I’m not sure what it is. Something in the quality of light is unique - the city is covered in a diffuse white glow that makes even the trash loook special. Part of it is certainly the effects of generation after generation deeply concerned with making (and defining) art. Paris is driven by aesthetic concerns in its very fabric - more so than even Barcelona. The Art Deco wrought-iron Metro entrances are the classic example, but there are a thousand others, from theatre posters to the gargoyles of Viollet-le-Duc on the towers of Notre Dame. Paris is a faded beauty, surely - well-used and long past her prime - but a beauty still.

The hotel we used as our base after the dive of the first night was much nicer - and actually even cheaper. It was a little room with a double bed and a door that opened to the top-floor courtyard. Showers cost extra, but it’s amazing what you can do with a sink and a bidet. Quite charming really - we had fun pretending we were starving misunderstood artists, striving thanklessly in a darkened garret to express the unexpressible.

Our first day we saw Notre Dame Cathedral, which really is a quite impressive pile of stone. I’m not Catholic or religious myself, but the stonework of the interior is beautiful. The front facade, with the square tower and arched Rococo doorways, is not as impressive as the back, in my opinion - but I’m fond of flying buttresses. The view of the cathedral from across the river at night is particularly striking. We took a tour through the building with a volunteer who belonged to the society of friends of Notre Dame - we were the only ones on the tour so it was private. The lady was a bit crazy but very feisty and a lot of fun. On leaving, we noticed the cathedral is actually falling over to the left very noticeably. There’s a big concrete pillar bracing it on the inside, but I wonder how long it will be before it falls into the Seine. A few days later we came back to take the tour up into the towers and see the gargoyles. I’ve seen a thousand pictures of them and love them, and Sheryl is in love with gargoyles herself. There are a lot of them up there, but there are only a few angles to look at them and take photos - there’s a reason all the pictures of the Notre Dame gargoyles look the same!

The rest of the time passed in a blur of errands, crèpes and subways. We must have walked fifty kilometers and spent a lot of money on the Metro (even not including the €50 we had to spend on a fine for using the same ticket for two people - long story, don’t ask). We finally did manage to meet up with Vanessa - she’s just as much fun at home as she is when travelling. She told us a story about a mutual travel acquaintance which was so funny it had us crying. She also delivered a package that Sheryl’s sister had shipped to her, with some prescription drugs for Sheryl, a new water purifier to replace the one I broke in Romania, and a new, tiny computer to replace the huge one I’d sent home with Captain Mike. Thanks so much for that, Vanessa - I know it was a pain in the ass.

We went for Indian food with Vanessa, which made Sheryl and I very happy. We’ve been craving Indian food since we left home. Normally at home we go every week or two, but Indian has been so expensive in Europe that we haven’t been able to. But while we were walking to Montmartre we happened across a big Indian neighbourhood and a lot of cheap restaurants. Finally I got my butter chicken and palak paneer.

Montmartre is hell. It’s choked with tourists - literally choked, you can hardly move. I couldn’t see anything all that special about it, to be honest - it’s just a bunch of streets like any other bunch of streets in the city. But maybe I’m missing something? Sacre Coeur was quite beautiful from the outside - it was nice to see an old building which hadn’t been cleaned and sanitized, it was still black with soot. We didn’t go in, though, since the admission price was a bit steep. We really only passed through the neighbourhood on the way to Montmartre Cemetery, which certainly was worth the trip. Lovely old gravestones covered with red ivy, and feral cats all over. There’s an overpass built right over the cemetery, which I thought was awful and Sheryl thought was good (because they didn’t dig anybody up for it). I happened across the grave of Paul Foucault, a famous scientist, which pleased me.

Our last day we saw the Catacombs - a huge network of tunnels filled with stacked bones and skulls. They were filled in the last decades of the 19th century, when it was understood that the overflowing cemeteries of Paris were causing serious disease. The bones were exhumed and brought across the city at night in wagons covered in black cloth and followed by priests chanting the Requiem for the Dead. The catacombs were very neat - we must have spent two hours down there. They were lovingly and carefully arranged in huge curving walls, sometimes in shapes - an archway, a cross. I saw my very first real skull and crossbones.

We were leaving Paris for Africa, and needed huge amounts of US dollars to take with us. Unfortunately, after a lot of calling and asking questions, we were told that France has some asinine financial regulation that all transactions must occur in Euros. That meant that we weren’t able to withdraw US dollars from any ATM or from any bank. The only way we could get them was to withdraw Euros and then take them to a foreign exchange. That hurt, because it meant that we had to pay a conversion fee twice - once from Canadian dollars to Euros, and once from Euros to US dollars. Even the man who ran the foreign exchange bureau tried to talk us out of it. We knew it was stupid but we had no choice. Really we should have done it at home and carried traveller’s cheques with us, but we didn’t know how much we’d need, and I really didn’t think it would be difficult to get US dollars directly from our accounts. Lesson learned, I suppose. For a small amount it wouldn’t have been bad, but we needed more than $4000, so the exchange fees were upwards of $250, I expect - I deliberately haven’t done the math, it would just make me feel bad.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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