the true stories
It was summer in Paris. I arrived at the Gare du Nord and immediately sought cheap accommodations for the night. It had been a long haul. This was my second European capitol and the first on the continent proper. I had been averaging about 35 kilometers of walking per day. In my style of hitch-hiking, the hiking took precedence over the hitching.
I had walked from the beaches of Calais along back roads that stretched out over undulating green pastures and graveyards that superseded in scale, anything I had ever seen. I was subsisting on wine, baguettes, soft white cheese and excellent paté. The hitch-hiking was easy but unproductive and after two days, very predictable. So much so, that by the third day, I didn't bother.
A typical scenario would have me traipsing along playing my harmonica and sipping wine from my Portuguese wine skin. A harvest gold coloured Citroen would rattle to a stop ahead of me. I would run the twenty yards to check out the driver. A smiling man with a nice mustache would ask if I wanted a lift. My command of French was pretty good in those days and all my conversations were conducted in that language.
I'd usually roll a smoke and get ready for a stimulating chat. A few miles down the track and I would be treated to a statement such as, “ Les cheveux sur votre bras sont très beaux. “ I would thank the man and change the subject. Usually, this would elicit another compliment, such as, “Jim, Vos yeux sont comme un cerf. Est-ce que vous avez aussi tels cheveux sur votre poitrine?”
By now I'd be looking askance at my driver. I would correct him since my name wasn't Jim. Then I would add the indispensable phrase, “Je suis désolé, je suis un hétérosexuel.” This always worked magic. The Citroen would come to an abrupt halt, spraying gravel and clouds of dust on the cattle quietly grazing beyond the fences along the chemin. As if I had announced I was a carrier of wet leprosy, the gentleman would fling my rucksack into the ditch. “Zut alors!”, was the typical leave taking.
Usually I'd make a paté sandwich and play harmonica for the cows and take up walking again. The French people love dogs and every farm had at least one vicious German Shepherd. Protéger les poulets et les canards des renards. I encountered them when walking at night. Talk was, that the countryside was overrun with foxes. I never saw any, the grass was tall. I did see dogs in the restaurants in the city.
I found myself in a hostel, sharing a room with a young Japanese engineer. He had just come in from Germany and proudly displayed to me the largest private collection of fine salamis and sausages I had ever seen. From talking to him, I figured that Germany would be prohibitively expensive and so I decided to continue south to Spain. There was one sight I had to see first.
I have never been a fan of tourists traps, so the Louvre was definitely out as was the Palace of Versailles. I'd had a place in mind long before I crossed the ocean. I would go to the Bastille! I had read The Tale of Two Cities as a child and the smoke and excitement of the glorious revolution hadn't yet cleared from my imagination.
I left my rucksack on my bunk and headed out into the foggy night. I planned to walk and asked directions as I went along. Everyone was more than helpful. Three or four hours later, I was deep into the gloomy rues of some corner of the second arrondisement. It began to drizzle. I ducked into an alley to get out of the glare of the city of lights.
I saw a small figure in the murk. I watched as the image came near and resolved into a small girl with a little rat-like dog on a string. The girl looked very much like Cossette, pictured above from Les Misérables. This urchin's hair was black though, and she was a couple of years older. She came up to my elbow. In a very hushed and serious voice she informed me that I had gotten myself into a real bad situation. According to her, I had blundered right smack into the darkest, most vile, godforsaken back eddy of the whole damned city.
It wasn't safe, she said, to tarry a moment. The little girl asked me where it was I needed to be. I told her I sought the Bastille. She said that I would never make it alive on my own, but that her and her dog could guide me through the proper alleys, known only to her. Her tone was so sincere and concerned, the only decent thing to do was to allow her to lead the way.
Off we went, turning corners and slinking like ferrets into nameless alleyways through an ever-thickening fog. The little rat dog seemed to be quite concerned until we were some distance from where I had first encountered them. About three smokes later, Cossette led me down a flight of steps. They were semi-lit but once we were deep under the cobbles, the light improved. I found myself on a rail platform. I figured we were going to take the subway because Cossette was tired.
Cossette, took my hand in her tiny hand and pulled me over the pavement a few yards from the stairwell. “Venir! Là-bas. La Bastille,” she said pointing to a plaque. The inscription read that the Bastille had once stood there. I gave her a few francs and she was gone. I simply took the metro back to the Gare du Nord and was in my bunk pronto. As I drifted off to sleep, I recalled being in San Antonio seeking the original walls of the Alamo. I was directed into a grocery store across the street from the chapel. There, by the meat section on the linoleum, was a thin brass inlay marking the very outline of the walls.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.