“We’re closing,” the manager said, not unkindly. I layered on some warm clothing, hoisted my backpack, and began a slow trek along the glistening sidewalk of the Champs Élysées.
It was 2am, and I had spent the last five hours in McDonalds, using perhaps the only free WiFi in Paris to scramble for a couchsurfing host until my laptop died. Afterwards, I got a little sleep in a corner of the restaurant. If it kept raining, I knew I was in for a long night.
There’s a paradox to homelessness: as long as you’re unobtrusive, it’s easiest to be a bum in affluent areas. People leave meals half-finished on the table, and shops throw food out on its best before date, creating a hobo’s buffet; there’s often more public transit; and – the best part in an unfamiliar city – orienting yourself is easy. Supposing I had walked all the way to Montreuil, I might have met more likeminded people – but then what? I reached the Arc de Triomph, nearly circled it and, on a whim, turned down the Rue Victor Hugo.
Perhaps ironically for its name, the street was lined with immaculate window displays; by day, it must be posh. I could sleep on any of the wide doorsteps, but more than anything out of concern for my backpack I didn’t. I walked on towards Place Victor Hugo, my bag straps digging grooves in my hips.
Here my luck changed. There was a café under renovation, and in front of it a tarpaulin tent protected huge sacks of excavated dirt. I ducked in, took my pack off, leaned against one of the bags, and slept safe from rain, wind, and discerning Parisians. It’s the only time sleeping rough that I’ve woken up, checked the time, and been comfortable enough to tell myself “just five more minutes…” Sleep is a biological necessity on the street, not a luxury.
I walked all the next day, slow under my backpack, knocking tourists off the ladders at Shakespeare & Co. when I turned to see the opposite shelf. Armed with second hand books, I meandered along the Seine, stopping here and there to read a chapter or just marvel at Paris in springtime. Gold-plated or dew-splattered, the city gleamed. In cracks in the sidewalk, gravel paths, and the canopy of branches over every boulevard, greenery stretched forth. The Parisians wore black, with beige overcoats and ironic little Camus smiles, but even they stopped on occasion to hear a calliope or browse the antiques for sale on the quays. Sometimes they carried flowers.
Who were these French ideals, I will probably never know. I met my own sort over pints in a bar near Bastille, and caught up with them again the next night. In Montreuil, on the Rue Robespierre – seriously – a collection of punks, anarchists, students, and the too disaffected to label, crammed into a pub to see Rawxman, a Siberian decorated with a stick n poke tattoo of Edgar Allen Poe and stickers that read “capitalism is for pussies.” My backpack stood behind the door. The music was forgettable – Rawxman had a cold – but we sang along, an old biker borrowed the guitar and bashed out a few chords, and everybody clapped. And then, someone gave me an apartment.
My apartment was one room, toilet down the hall, at the top of a building with no elevator, but it was perfect. Kitchenette, shower, bed, table, chairs, and cupboards fit into the corners, leaving plenty of space. The neighbor even had WiFi. That reminded me of staying in an illegal hostel behind an empty storefront in the Algarve.
A British expat called Lance lived there, constantly stoned, and ushered us in by saying “that’s as closed as the window gets.” A few shards of broken glass clung to the window frame.
“I can’t connect to WiFi. Where’s the strongest signal?” asked my dorm mate.
“Next door, innit?”
I crawled in and out of ruins in the Algarve, always where I wasn’t supposed to be, and Paris was similar. A few days after meeting my new friends, they invited me into the catacombs.
“Mom says everyone did it in the ‘70s,” explained the girl ahead of me. “You just open any manhole and go down. If you’re bored or whatever.”
“They filled in the entrances,” said Antoine. He rifled through a stack of maps, moving his head to make the most of a miner’s headlamp.
“Pity Charles couldn’t come.”
“Did everyone bring candles?”
We were bent double, knee-deep in muddy water, hands brushing along the walls.
“If you get flu symptoms,” Marie told me, “go to the doctor right away. The rats carry all sorts of shit.”
The Paris catacombs began as a mine. Notre Dame cathedral was born there; later, the catacombs stored bones from overflowing Père Lachaise cemetery. When the Paris Commune was defeated in 1871, the tunnels become an easy way to dispose of the massacred communards. Then, they were a German bunker during the war.
We scrambled over piles of human bones, slithered through a narrow part, and found ourselves in a cave. People lived here, or had done: stalactites were carved into gargoyles or women, the walls mosaicked, and spent tealights filled every alcove. Someone passed me a beer and a handful of M&Ms. We lit our own candles, and the regular explorers compared notes.
“Remember the cinema?”
“What was it like?” I asked.
“Amazing. Huge, and with stools and a projector… Pigs found out about it, but when they went back down all the stuff was gone.”
“Fuck cops,” his friend added heartily.
“And there used to be a bar, too. You know, guys come down with a hammock, live here for a couple of weeks and do these sculptures. They set up kitchens and everything. Half the time it smells like ratatouille.”
“And the other half?”
“Smells like teen spirit,” Antoine quipped.
I rode the metro home, covered in mud, gleefully certain everyone knew where I’d been. I lived in the apartment the rest of my time there, and chatted everything from music to zines to politics with my new friends.
France, like so much of Europe, is caught in a right-moving current. Even in Paris, there were Front National posters on tree trunks; I looked up and found Marine Le Pen glaring back. Fed up with the waffling Hollande and his Socialist Party, the French people tell pollsters they would rather have Sarkozy back. And yet, I saw almost none of this France. On May 1st everything closed. I joined a flood of people marching from Bastille, young and old, various breeds of leftist. The nation is in the hands of grocery clerks, teachers, labourers, and crazy kids who climb down manholes in the dead of night – just as much as it is in the hands of businessmen and fascists. The punks are alright; maybe we will be, too.