About ten years ago now, the good lady wife and I were staying in Paris for a couple of weeks, seeing as much of the city as we could, whilst simultaneously trying not to spend any money; the latter being of more concern to me than her. It is possible to have a cheap holiday in Paris but, generally speaking, only if you leave the wife at home.
My cheapskate itinerary included all the inexpensive museums, general perambulations about town, looking at bridges (always free), plus a trip to the Paris Plages. A similar urban beach runs in my home town of Bristol but - even when it’s a sunny day – an afternoon in the west country sitting on the side of the Floating Harbour in a glorified cat-box watching the swans and the rats fighting for supremacy doesn’t have the same “Je ne sais quois”
As an aside, some useful points to note for any tourist in Paris, taken from my long experience in Confidence Artistry:
- If someone kind of funny looking approaches you with a shiny ring that he says he found on the pavement, asking if it’s yours, say “Oui. Merci Beaucoup”, take it and walk off fast.
- If you’re using a cashpoint and someone taps you on the shoulder and asks if you’ve dropped something, step IN toward the cashpoint and turn around, or otherwise guard both your card and money.
- If you’re walking through a pedestrian area, and some friendly young girl grabs your wrist and starts weaving a friendship bracelet – they tend to pick on young women – then “Non, merci” usually doesn’t persuade them to stop. So either use a room key to cut the weave, a lighter to burn it off, walk slowly away whilst letting them keep weaving, or just look in to the middle distance and yawn when they ask for money.
Anyhow, personally I reckon that whatever else you do in Paris, you have to take a walk around the Cathedral of Our Lady. The Eiffel Tower is more popular with key-chain vendors, but the sheer improbability of Notre-Dame – built on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine from stone, faith and stubbornness with iron tools, pulleys, levers and an endless supply of peasants – cannot help but impress.
A further aside – an essential element of any British tourist’s Notre Dame experience should be to walk up behind a tour party studying the statues and gargoyles – this is very effective if wearing a long coat, scarf, bow tie or even a fez – and saying “Don’t Blink!“. This works even better if you’re near the beheaded statue of St Denis at the side doors.
Something that visitors to the Île may miss is the Memorial of the Deportation, the entrance to which is at the bottom tip of the island. The underground structure was originally a morgue, but was set aside and dedicated in 1962 to be a memorial to 200,000 Jews deported to concentration camps by the wartime Vichy regime. The architect, Pingusson, created a sombre, discomfiting experience as a visitor walks down steps along a narrow, darkened corridor into a central underground chamber. But once inside, the visitor finds hundreds of thousands of crystal lights, leading off to a single flame in the darkness.
I was very moved on my second visit to the memorial, for which I had a four day growth of beard and sunglasses, and was most careful not to make eye contact with any of the security personnel.
However, on my first visit, as I was walking through the entrance gate down to the memorial garden reading my tourist brochure, I stumbled slightly as I stepped on some unseen obstruction. A slight awkwardness in my gait led me to the preliminary conclusion that I had some kind of rock or other detritus stuck in the tread of my left sandal. Did I mention I was wearing sandals? And socks, obviously, because what sort of barbarian would wear sandals in Paris, in the middle of July, without a pair of nice, thick army-issue cold weather socks?
As I got down to the steps of the entrance to the memorial itself, the walls of the entryway enclosed me, and I came to the horrible conclusion that whilst the preliminary rock hypothesis was a good starting point for further investigation, the unmistakable odor filling the air around me lead toward the inescapable conclusion that the item affixed to the bottom of my left sandal was an extremely large dog turd.
We’re not talking about the product of some little lap dog stashed in a handbag here; a visitor to the Cathedral of Our Lady had obviously felt that it was really important that his St Bernard take part in the experience, and further that when that blessedly-named canine squatted to pinch one out, the resultant steaming chods were a votive offering to the other saints that could be left in situ, and certainly didn’t need to be picked up and disposed of hygienically. The Parisiens have form for this. Subsequent to my visit, the city instituted a scooter-mounted vacuum-wielding cleanup service. So kind of like The Ghostbusters, which is how I’d describe it if I was a poop-cop chatting up a girl and we got to the awkward “So what do you do?” question.
Where was I? Right, so we’re in the Holocaust memorial and I’ve got a huge lump of dog feces stuck to my left shoe. What do I do? First thing – I turn to leave as quickly as possible, but there’s a sign on the wall that says “Sens de la visite” with a big arrow pointing inward, and a “No Exit” sign. So obviously I can’t go that way. If people start walking through “No Exit” signs then what next? It’d be Anarchy. That’s probably how the French Revolution started.
Right, so I can’t go back, and I feel that it would be grossly inappropriate to leave a trail of footprints made with dog muck through the middle of a memorial to the victims of the Nazis. So… I decide that my best plan of action is to discretely remove my left sandal, and bang it against the wall a few times to dislodge the offending canine artifact, which I can then pick up in a plastic bag, and dispose of at the next available bin. A quick inventory of my bag of tourist tat also identifies a souvenir pen from Les Invalides with a small sculpture of Bonaparte on the end. With all due deference to the Emperor, it strikes me that his Bicorne is ideally suited to the job of cleaning out the treads of my sandal.
So I casually take a look around to make sure the coast is clear, nod and smile at a pair of Danish backpackers who walk past me, and discretely remove my sandal. I then start tapping it against that wall, occasionally prodding at the mass of dog poop with Napoleon’s hat. I don’t know what that dog had been eating, but it was powerful, binding stuff. Possibly it included some kind of egg-based dog treat. Referring to the Bristol Stool Scale, I would have put this somewhere between a Type 2 and a Type 3.
The initial tapping wasn’t really doing the job, and I was getting worried about the possibility of sandal-to-thumbnail transfer of the offending dog excrement, which may have required emergency amputation to prevent my hand being rendered forever unclean. So I took it up a notch, and started really putting some effort behind slapping my sandal against the wall. The textured wall was picking up a few stains, so I made a mental note to throw a bit of water on it, and sacrifice a handkerchief to the task of wiping off the stain. Finally after around 30 seconds enthusiastically slapping my shoe against the wall of the Holocaust memorial – with the Corsican’s able assistance – I dislodged all of the offending material. My work here was done.
And that was when I noticed the two armed security personnel standing in the center of the memorial, looking at me with horror (the one on the left) and quiet anger (the one on the right).
Now, in retrospect, I’m really not sure if there’s a good option at this point. To recap, I’m in a memorial to those killed in the Holocaust, specifically the citizens of France deported to concentration camps. I’m hopping on one foot, holding a sandal in one hand and a poo-encrusted Napoleon pen in the other, there’s a noticeable stain on the wall and the whole memorial smells of dog crap. I’m normally a pretty suave chap, but I knew I was going to have to work hard to cross the language barrier on this one. I also wondered if perhaps there was some subtle inter-cultural insult related to slapping the wall of a Jewish memorial with the sole of my shoe. It was probably even worse than making the thumbs-up sign to an Iranian, or the OK sign to a Turk. Mind you, I can’t really think of any culture in which slapping sandals against something is deemed a mark of respect.
But I felt that it was important to explain myself. So I tried not to look directly at the officers’ sidearms – which were holstered but clearly they had both removed the safety straps – and broke out my best Schoolboy French:
Excusez-moi, Monsieur le Gendarme, mais il y a une grand crotte de chien sur ma sandale. J’aime beaucoup les Juifs. Hitler était terrible,
In retrospect, even if “terrible” wasn’t one of those slightly dodgy faux-amis that can mean the exact opposite of what you intended, I don’t really think I could have said anything that would get me out of the situation. Fortunately, at this point, my wife who had entered the memorial before me – and had been blithely unaware of my predicament – came back to find me. “Oh my God!” she said, smacked me around the side of the head, snatched away my plastic bag and retrieved both the dog crap and the soiled Emperor, and flounced out through the “No Exit” sign. It was some time before she spoke to me again.
The less-angry security guard at this point bodily encouraged me to hop after her. He didn’t shoot me, so I can’t really complain, and on the plus side this was the only memorial I defiled. On that holiday.
And that was the time I got thrown out of the Holocaust Memorial.