I know this is not part of the ongoing Cold New Year story, but something I said on twitter triggered a memory and there was a rabbit hole I fell down in my mind and a bunch of other shit happened so I’m going to tell you a story.
This story takes place in the magical year of 1998, June to be exact. I was a young pup, inexperienced in the ways of the world. So, I decided to attend a trip to Paris (France, just in case some Texans out there just got excited.). The trip was sponsored by our high school’s French Club, a fact that is only relevant in that I had not nor have I ever taken French as a second language. But I had a reputation around school as “educated” and my parents had the money, so I was allowed to tag along.
After months of preparation and passport gettin, we went off and spent nine days in the City of Lights. It was one of the best times of my life. The language barrier fell off after a day or two as I tend to pick up languages and accents fast, especially when immersed in them. We bargained for baguettes and t-shirts at the markets. We ate fresh baked croissants and heavy butter every morning. We drank every night on the steps of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, except for the one night we went clubbing at a place called the Locomotion next to the famed Moulin Rouge. We were yelled at every night by our Pakistani concierge for enjoying the hell out of being young and dumb. There was even a camembert throwing incident.
And the touring. To this day I have never drank as much and had as much energy to tour. We met every morning at the famed Palais Garnier (yeah, the one with the phantom). We ran through the Louvre in 4 hours, running to each major attraction, snapping a quick photo and on to the next. We wandered down into the Catacombs below the city streets surrounded by the bones of Parisians hundreds of years dead, entering through a small door in a dilapidated building that in America would lead to a crappy donut shop or an illegal Russian card game. We saw graveyards, snapping pictures of the graves of Jim Morrison, Chopin, and yes, Les Mis fans, Victor Hugo.
We went into the country after having a really scary bus ride where our driver almost pushed a Mini onto the sidewalk. In the countryside we toured chateaus and Versailles, a notable trip because the grand palace was empty because of a tour that was at that time in Mobile, Alabama, a two hour drive from home. And we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower at night to stare at the miles of lights, the city stretching out before us with all the hope and possibility that only the young can access.
After that first Eiffel Tower trip, I had the scariest cab ride of my life. A violent affair that at one point saw myself, a girl, and another friend clinging to dear life to wine bottles while our driver said “Fuck the circle shit” around the Arc de Triomphe and utilized the mathematical principle that “the fastest way between two points is a straight line.” I think that roundabout is seven lanes. He went through all fourteen, bisecting the circle in what I can only imagine was a moment of boredom and opportunity to scare the crap out of three Americans.
But back to the Eiffel Tower. We had been told by our tour guide that the lights of the Eiffel Tower are turned off around midnight. At least I assume that’s where received this erroneous information.
I cannot blame anyone, though. It was a strange time in Paris. See, the week... No, the day after we left was the start of the World Cup. That’s a really big freaking deal in Europe, American peoples. The entire time we were there, football chants could be heard from every corner and cafe of that great city. No one, and I mean no one people, were more proud about that than the Scottish. You have not lived until you are taking fresh, expertly made Parisian coffee from a swank cafe on the Champs-Elysees and heard the victory speech from Braveheart belted out by a belligerent Scotsman from within. I could write an entire entry on our experiences with Scottish people in Paris, but for now I only mention them because they come into play later.
For our last night in Paris, our group decided to go to the Eiffel Tower, lay out blankets on the Champs de Mars and wait for the lights to go out while sipping cheap wine. A simple plan. Such is life.
My night began to become awesome when I left my bookbag in the hotel on the way to the Metro. I asked our teacher, our chaperone, if they could wait while I went back. Her response? “Just meet us there.”
Let me explain. I am not sure I have mentioned yet, but I was seventeen at the time of this story. I am from a small Mississippi town and had been in Paris for approximately eight days. Sure, I knew my way around the Metro (the subway) and had gone out with small groups of people unchaperoned. But I was seventeen, in a strange country where I only had a passing knowledge of the language and was beset by every other country around, and was just told by an adult that I was free to do as I pleased. I see fault in her judgement now, maybe, but at the time I did not hesitate. I did not ask a friend to accompany me. I just went back for my bag. Without even thinking about it.
I would catch up with them later. Heh.
I went back and got my bag, finding it in the hotel lobby where just five minutes before we had been given a lecture about how gypsies had begun coming out in force because of the World Cup and were robbing tourists blind. My response to that? We can handle gypsies. Because we had... But that’s another story.
So I get my bag and head to the Metro stop a block down from the hotel. I made my transfers, sang a couple of football chants with random excited strangers, and exited three blocks from the Tower. I looked around, but saw no sign of my touring group. So I began to wander. Let me make this plain: Always wander around a strange place. You never know what you will find.
I bought a coffee from a street vendor and made my way to the grasses of the Champs de Mars. No sign of our group. So I started farther down, looking at the groups laying on blankets and watching the sun slowly sink and the city light up around me. I remember smiling seeing the moon shine above me.
Then I noticed a party going on at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Many people filling the small square of rocks and light. Music, dancing, the air full of drunken voices. Just the kind of thing my group would be attracted to. At least, my friends in my group. Did I mention a large contingent of Pentecostals came with us? Again, another story.
I make my way down to the party and see by the blue and white banners that this is a Scottish gathering. The men in uniform seem to be important, then I flash on news reports and t-shirts, and recognize the Scottish National Football team in the gathering. Again, something my people would be attracted to. A big smile covers my face by this point.
I wander into the crowd and let the music swell around me. Beer was flowing from bottles and kegs. People were laughing and talking and dancing. I have never heard anything more energetic than the sound of bagpipes ringing off the iron of the Eiffel Tower.
I do not see my friends, so I ask someone if they have seen a large group of Americans. The man grabs me by the shoulders, shakes me hard, and with a big grin yells at me, “Are you American?!”
I nod yes and he crows. Honest to Superman, he crowed. Then turned to his friends, “We have to make the American dance!”
I am pushed to the front of the crowd, led by my new friend. He laughs and shouts at the bagpipers and they change the tune.
They begin to play the Hokey Pokey. So, I did what I could only do. I danced the Hokey Pokey. With the Scottish National Football team the night before the World Cup. To bagpipes. Underneath the Eiffel Tower.
I am more proud of that last paragraph than I have any right to be.
When they were done, and I have no idea how the decided they were done, my crowing Scotsman gave me a hug and told me I did great. Then he said the best words in the English language behind “I love you.” “Get this man a beer!”
So for the next hour or so, I drank. A lot. Like it was a sport. Finally, I realized I might need to find my group and bid my new friend adieu. He did not seem to notice as he had his arms around a particularly buxom lady.
I went back out into the grass of the Champs de Mars and found my group. I found out where they had been while I was having fun. Seems some of our group was hungry, so instead of stopping at one of the thousands of awesome eateries in the place where cuisine was invented, they had stopped at McDonalds. Yeah. I know.
I pulled my friends away and took them back to the party, but by that time the entire thing had mostly dispersed. Something about sleeping so they could “play Brazil” in some important match the next couple of days. Yeah. That’s how the Scots prepped for that.
My friends and I were not to be deterred, however, and went in search of alcohol. Which meant we threw a rock and picked the closest place with a cooler. There, my friend gave the vendor everything that was in his pocket and used his arm to push all the Heineken off a shelf and into my backpack. Then we went back to the blankets and tried to hide the beers from the Pentecostal adults who would make clucking sounds at all our jokes and laughter.
And we waited for the lights of the Eiffel tower to go out.
The next six hours or so are a blur. Most everyone else left, claiming one of two reasons the lights were not going out: 1) the city was keeping them on for the World Cup starting the next day or 2) they just don’t go out. I have never heard definitively either way.
What did happen was this: At three in the morning, I found myself sitting next to an girl from our group on a blanket in the most romantic city in the world. I knew nothing was going to happen because I was dating something back home. I was also seventeen years old, dumb as a bag of baguettes, and full of beer. So I did the most logical thing that I could think of: I excused myself, walked over to what I thought was a secluded spot behind a tree, and vomited.
I bet you thought this story would end all attractive and romantic and sweet, huh? Sorry.
I can pinpoint the tree on Google Maps if you want clarification. That’s how non-secluded my secret spot was.
So, after cleaning myself up in a cafe, I went back to the poor female who had chosen my company, and vomited again right next to the blanket. Then I fell asleep.
When I awoke it was still dark and only a few of my friends were left, the girl long gone. That is my memory anyway. We may have gone back to the hotel together. I have no memory, really.
Just like the fourth night in Paris where I went missing and came back in at 4 in the morning, fell straight on the floor, and nobody including me knows where I had been. But that’s another story...
And the other time we judged the hotel was only an inch away on the map that turned into a four hour walk... Another story...
A lifetime of stories in nine days. I want that life again. I would not trade my knowledge of life and women and love and everything else for anything, but I would like to have that fearlessness again. The ability to not care about what might happen, except that everything can be great with a little hope and eagerness. I want to be the kid again. And I think I am making my way back...
Oh yeah, and the time we met the “California Dream Men,” a group of Chippendale strippers that were plastered all over Paris at the time...
Or the writer from Meridian, Mississippi that we met in a random bar that recognized us by our accents...
Or that other time...
I hope the rest of my life is filled with dot dot dots...