1. The Arc de Triomphe
A short man bent over in front of me as I was sitting on a bench slathering goat cheese on a piece of brown bread for lunch. The Arc de Triomphe stood brightly in the sun behind him, and I had been enjoying the view, which he interrupted by standing up and showing me a thick golden ring he’d picked up off the ground. He extended it to me and raised his eyebrows. I shook my head. He walked over and showed me the inside, numbers I couldn’t make out. I shook my head again and said, “Sorry, it’s not mine.” He slipped the ring on his finger but his was too pudgy and the ring would not slide on. He held it out to me and said, obscurely, “Familia.” He said his name was Alex as he handed me the ring, which I eventually accepted and felt over in my hands as he walked away… three metres, then paused and turned around. He scrunched up his face and leaned into mine, as if to say, “By the way…” He then asked for two euros, please. I laughed and handed him back the ring. “No, no,” he said. “Lucky! Two euros, please. One coffee.” I offered him some goat cheese and he shook his head. Two euros was his firm price, the price of a coffee. I handed him back the ring and he stuck it with his hands back in his pockets and walked away, looking at the ground.
2. The Eiffel Tower
Before I’d even seen the Eiffel Tower in full, I’d seen its top, peeking out from behind the rows of typically Parisian five-story apartments. I was filled with the dumb touristy giddiness that envelops anyone about to see, for the first time, a world-famous landmark. As I entered the park, but before I’d turned the corner to actually see the thing, I became distracted by a shrivelled old woman wading through brambles and shouting, “Oosh! Oosh!” She appeared to be chasing away some pigeons. A dog (hers?), small and with shaggy hair as white as her own, began barking incessantly at her. She began to thickly admonish it and turned heel, chasing it towards a tree. A blonde woman stood entranced and confused, hand-in-hand with her young son; we exchanged glances and walked away silently.
3. Champs Élysées
Lined in December with whitewashed Christmas market tents peddling German sausages, Belgian waffles and vin chaud, very little appeared distinctly French. As if having detected this, one entrepeurnerial soul opened a “Psychadelic Ride” stall, blaring the Beatles’ more drugged-out hits and video clips of kids wearing 3D glasses screaming inside. Beside the ticket booth, on a red throne encircled by a scraggly reef and gold ornaments, sat a midget wearing a Santa costume and Willy Wonka goggles. Small Santa fidgeted in his seat a bit, then hopped off his throne, approached the ticket manager, asked him something, scurried off to the side, threw off his furry white beard, walked next door and bought a hot dog for five euros.
4. Oscar Wilde’s Grave
… is covered in messy lipstick kisses. It is not clear if these are women expressing adoration or men gushing admiration. The grave stone itself is of a winged man zooming forward like a superhero, his odd Pharonic headdress somehow sitting firmly upright, and the whole thing is surrounded by a glass wall with a clearly aggravated sign that reads: “OUT OF RESPECT FOR THIS GRAVE, PLEASE DO NOT SULLY BY ANY MARK. THE CLEANING FEES ARE EXCLUSIVELY PAID BY THE FAMILY.” Clearly slaves to no one, these lipstick-toting rebels will kiss anything they want—even the glass wall and sign itself.
5. The Notre Dame
We had run into a friend of a friend on the street, bought two embarrassingly cheap bottles of wine and found a spot under a statue of Charlemagne triumphantly riding a horse. Christmas lights strung around the massive tree and sparkled against the night, while pot lights shone upturned against the ornate gothic icon in such a ray of casual beauty that I found it profoundly unfair that we should be sitting there at all, drinking foul wine and chatting about our privileged lives in Europe, while this internationally famous structure could be simply a backdrop. Parisians are damn lucky to live in a city that seems to smile and shrug at its own beauty, and seem well over the fact that they do, perhaps distracted by the everyday concerns of crazy old pigeon-chasers, theatrical scam artists and trippy midgets. I can’t even blame them.