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Monday, October 15, 2007

 

My Big, Dumb Trip to Europe Part 2- The Not-So-Subtle Art of Becoming One With Your Inner Douchebag

London had set a few hurdles in my path but nothing too serious. Transit strikes aside, I had a great time there. Despite a summer of record-breaking rainfall, the weather even cooperated. Everyday was warm and, at one point, I found myself sunbathing and scribbling on dirty postcards in front of City Hall near Tower Bridge.

The good vibes London left me with faded as I made way towards Paris. Once my train popped out of the "chunnel," the sun was gone. Flat, grey clouds stretched over a long expanse of fields and graffiti-covered underpasses. I'd forgotten to buy a guidebook before I left Portland and didn't bother to exchange my remaining Pounds for Euros before heading to Liverpool Station. Paris' Gare du Nord train station: I would quickly learn to loath it. Almost completely unprepared and unable to speak more than four words of French, I was a moving target in the station's maze of corridors. It should come as no surprise that I had a pickpocket on my tail within minutes of stepping off the train.




He looked like Spud from Trainspotting. I noticed him following me as I wandered in circles hunting for an ATM machine. I headed outside, found one but he was waiting for me when I got back. When I stopped to grab a bagel, he leaned up against a wall around the corner, peaking over his shoulder every five seconds. So I did the only thing I could think of: I stared at him with the best evil eye I could muster. He finally took the hint and moved along.

Pickpocket # 2 was a fourteen-year old vulture that tailed me through a toll gate without paying into the Metro. He kept popping up as I struggled to get my bearings and even followed me into a subway carriage. I tried the stare tick but he only stared back. At my stop I pulled out a tactic I saw in a movie years ago. I waited for the doors to start closing before I jumped off at my stop. Sure, it was cheesy but it worked He kept staring as the train heading out of the station. Despite his hip-hop gear, he reminded me of the mute assassin in Sin City. A wolf could have attacked him on the subway but I'm sure he would have kept his eyes on his mark. Creepy little brat.

Bienvenue vers Paris, abruti

My hostel was located in what the locals were bent on calling a "Red Light district" about ten minutes from Notre Dame. It consisted of little more than a few blocks of crepe stands and old hotels mixed with sex shops and clothing stores blasting Snoop Dogg. Stationed at every intersection were Asian women with clipboards that would wander up to anyone who looked out of place and ask "do you speak English?" One of them even grabbed me on an arm as I struggled to find the hostel. I never did stop to speak to them or figure out what they were up to.

Exhausted and drowning in culture shock sprinkled with paranoia that everyone in the city was out to rob me, I discovered that the hostel had lost my reservation. They were booked solid, as was just about every other hostel in central Paris. A frantic Google search on a computer in the lobby turned up nothing. Finally, eager to be rid of me, the manager made a phone call. There was a room available at a hotel three blocks away. It cost me twice as much as I had planned on paying, the staff charged to use a communal shower and the elderly gent running the place was the epitome of French contempt. Somehow, despite it all, I loved the place. The view from my window was great, I was a block from a shop selling bottles of wine for $3 US and the room had a TV offering up such random weirdness as John Malkovich talking in broken French on a talk show.




After four hours of hassles, I headed for Notre Dame in the rain. In the courtyard the bells overhead rang and the showers stopped as a sunset ripped through the clouds over the Seine, casting a "breath of God" glow onto the cathedral that would have made a lesser atheist convert to Catholicism on the spot. Jennifer Connelly's breasts circa 1990 notwithstanding, there's few sights more gorgeous that I'll see in this lifetime. I tried to take a picture. Here's how it came out:




And that's how Paris made me feel the whole time I was there: like shit- shit for not speaking the language, for not knowing the ins-and-outs of its local customs and for not appreciating its splendors more. Is it the most beautiful city in the world? Probably. Even the graffiti is pretty (see above and below) but, like most beautiful things it has a sneering disregard for anything that isn't up to its level.

That night I spent $18 US for a cutting board of cold lunch meat in a restaurant and another $4 for an eight ounce glass of soda. Two diners sitting three feet away asked, en français, the waiter what I was eating. Two seconds later, they were all laughing and shaking their heads. How did I find myself in this situation? Because I didn't know what I was ordering or, really, how to handle Paris. I was on my own and clueless. Go there unprepared and you'll find yourself in that same restaurant, the butt of lame jokes in a foreign tongue eating something that tastes like dog food and waiting 30 minutes for your bill and another 20 for your change. I guarantee it. Paris does not suffer fools gladly.




Maybe it was because my attempts to speak their language were doomed to failure or maybe it was because my meek "please don't hurt me or spit in my food" attitude was pathetic, the Parisians I encountered lived up to every stereotype I'd ever heard about French rudeness. Here's my theory: anyone who works in the service industry in Paris once aspired to be something more: an actor, an artist, something else. When their dreams failed to materialize, they settled into a lifetime of dealing with moronic tourists but never grew to accept their lot in life. When you have to tell clueless idiots where Jim Morrison's grave is located no less than a dozen times during any given workday, in a language foreign to you, it's bound to inspire a substantial amount of bitterness. And because the people you're dealing with aren't on their home turf and can't speak the language, you can get away with being a complete jerk. Somehow, this sort of thing would never fly in the states.


----------------


I woke up the next morning with one thing on my mind: vengeance. Vengeance, eating a Nutella crepe and getting to the Louvre but mostly vengeance. How would I make Paris suffer for dicking me around the day before? I would rent a bicycle and disregard every, single bit of bicycle-related decorum known to man.

Now this should have been as simple as wandering up to a Vélib kiosk, sticking in my credit card, grabbing a bike and buzzing off to ride the wrong way down the closest sidewalk. Vélib is Paris' new rent-a-bike program with outlets on every other block. The system is brilliant, well-used by locals and was completely unwilling to take my money. I wasted a good portion of my day trying to rent a bike, at one point even haggling with the owner of a shop. He wouldn't let the worst bike in the place go for less than 60 Euro- an old junker that wouldn't fetch $20 at a garage sale in Portland.




After wandering around in circles I found a rental shop a mere three blocks from my hotel. For a mere 6 Euros I finally had a Weapon of Mass Annoyance (see above) under the condition I would return it by 11 AM the next morning. Did I immediately start weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic? Yup. Did I ride on the sidewalks despite a local law preventing it? Yup. Did I buzz around the Louvre garden, at one point forcing a security guard to make a fruitless attempt to chase me down? Yup. Did I dent the bike's bell after not properly setting the kickstand and terrorize as many people as possible with its unintentionally modified, super-shrill "DING!"? Yup.




I even blasted my way through a healthy Friday night crowd on the Champs-Élysées. If Paris was going to treat me like an "ugly American," I decided to act the part. What had come over me? The "City of Light" had awakened a bike-riding Mr Hyde buried deep within my soul, a jackass with an insatiable thirst for what a former coworker once described as "scrumdouchery," the art of being a complete and utter douchebag. I should have been forced to spend a night in jail or at least bribed a cop for the things I did.

The Louvre stayed open late that night and I'd have to say that gazing at the Mona Lisa is a lot more enjoyable when you don't have 1,000 other tourists elbowing their way past you. Moments from closing, a mere ten other tourists and I had her room to ourselves.


----------------


After hours in the Louvre, I conquered many of the tourist-sites between it and the Eiffel Tower. The Champ de Mars was chock full of people chugging wine on blankets and expats from distance lands trying to sell them more. Merlot-hawkers and others trying to unload dozens of glowing plastic Eiffel Towers on metal loops worked their way through the crowd like beer guys in a stadium. Under the tower I found a gigantic, inflated rugby ball and an electronic sign that read: 2007 Rugby World Cup. In London, I spotted several local fans dressed like Zorro wearing the UK flag as a cape. The fans I came across in France were all dressed in polo shirts and extremely drunk.

A gang of them was harassing a young guard when I rode up to the tower. Undaunted by the loaded machine gun in his hands, they formed a circle around him and started chanting a fight song. Then, somewhere among them, "she" emerged: a tall, hairy man in a viking queen outfit, presumably dressed as the Paris team's mascot. Somehow she coaxed a kiss out of the guard, leading dozens around us to cheer, including two of the guard's coworkers. Minutes later, the viking queen was on some poor Indian tourist and his daughter like glue. Babbling at him in French, the guy did what he could to politely turn her away. The viking she-demon would have none of it, demanding a kiss. Despite his near tears, she would not clear a path for him, at one point shaking her fake breasts in his face. These fans terrorized this man for a full three minutes before heading off to annoy the hell out of another guard standing in front of a jeep. Click the link below to watch.




Entire books have been written about European sports fandom but this wasn't what I had expected. When my sister Shanna landed in town a few days later, we ran into something much more cliched. We stepped off the Metro one night and ran into a small crowd of Scottish guys in kilts bugging random French commuters on a stairwell.




A block from our hostel, we heard the chanting. Around a corner, there they were: hundreds of Scottish fans in kilts, all drinking and hollering in front of a place called The Auld Alliance. They'd taken over the street, showering anyone who tried to pass through with insults. Like moths to a tiki torch, we headed inside. A football game was on the TV, Scotland was winning and I assumed all the celebrating was for their teams' inevitable win. Several men were shouting at the screen. Within seconds, one fan was babbling at us. "So all this is for the win, right," I asked. "Naw, this game is on-a tape," he told me. "We won this match last year."

I can't remember his name but Shanna bought him a pint and suddenly we were all pals. He lead us over to a group of his fellow fans for a crash course in rugby, their "army" and all things Scottish. Some things we learned.

- Rugby is life.

- But, then again, football is life. Somehow, they're both life. I'm still not sure how this works.

- Our new bud had lost substantial amounts of money following around Edinburgh's rugby and football clubs. His first wife left him over it. During a trip to Rome, he slipped down a flight of marble steps and severely injured his back. His extreme fandom may very well kill him but he didn't seem to care. He was having the time of his life.

- None of these guys had ever been to Paris. I asked them how they liked the place. One's response: "We've been here five hours, four of those have been at this here pub, the most famous Scottish bar in all of France. It's been pretty goddamn good so far, let me tell ya'."

- At that point in the World Cup, their team might have gone on to play in Iraq supposedly. Were they going to go if that came up? Nope, even their level of fandom had its limits. Another quote: "Are you kidding me? They wouldn't put up with our shit down there. They'd have us all skinned alive by the time we'd get off the train!"

A French chick had somehow wandered into the crowd. Within twenty minutes, she was drunk and riding around on a fan's shoulders, leading the crowd to chant, "DON'T BE SHY, SHOW US YER' PIE!" Convinced they were talking about someone else or maybe because she didn't have a firm grasp on English, she joined in the chorus. At another point in the evening, we found ourselves talking to a fan that looked like John Belushi and had an accent so thick I couldn't understand anything he said. Later, another fan turned to Shanna and said, "Don't worry, half the time we have no idea what he's sayin' either."

And then they all blocked a bus trying to get down the street so they could pound on the windows and spit taunts at the elderly Parisians inside.




I have enough random quotes and bits rambling around in my head from that night to fill another tedious, 1,000-word blog post but it's probably time to close this chapter of the European trip. In no mood to get arrested, we called it a night way too early and headed back to the hotel. An hour later, I stuck my head out the window. I could still hear them all chanting and shouting into the night. The match they had come for was still another 40 hours away.

The next morning we wandered past the Auld Alliance, dark and vacant, to find hundreds of smashed beer cups and cans in the street. I wonder if any of them made time to see the Venus de Milo or to bug the shit out of the locals with stupid questions about where they were keeping the Lizard King's bones.

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