Down and out in Paris


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Europe » France » Île-de-France » Paris
July 15th 1988
Published: August 9th 2007
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Notre Dame Cathedral, ParisNotre Dame Cathedral, ParisNotre Dame Cathedral, Paris

A spectacular cathedral in the heart of Paris.
Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, dear reader; a city full of culture and tradition, and blessed with magnificent architecture. This journal tells the intensely personal story of six months spent living in this glorious city, where despite the beauty of the surroundings the personal signs were ominous from the beginning. Leading on from the previous journal, I caught the ferry from Dover to Calais and then boarded a train on to Paris where I checked into a hostel in the heart of the city. I was young and adventurous which is a plus, but impulsive with a tendency not to think things through, which for a traveller is definitely not a plus!

I originally applied for a student work visa at the French embassy in Tokyo towards the end of 1987, and was told I needed to obtain the visa after my arrival in Paris. So after spending a few days settling in I went to the office and applied for the visa, only to be rejected by the official. He told me I had to apply for a student visa in my home country, and I pointed out to him that I had just flown
Arc de Triomphe, ParisArc de Triomphe, ParisArc de Triomphe, Paris

This famous monument looks back on the Louvre.
24 hours from Australia and had been told by the French embassy officials in Tokyo to get the visa here in Paris, and he simply shrugged his shoulders with a bored expression on his face. Things were not looking good for me financially, I was down to around $1,500 US and was not allowed to work in France which was crucial to my long term study plans, and on top of this I had already signed up for an expensive French language course at Alliance Francaise.

So the scene was set for the next six months living in Paris, where although I had a roof over my head I was living in poverty. I did, however, have a lot of interesting times due in large part to an increasing sense of financial desperation. But what a great city to be down and out in! During the first month or so I visited the famous sites of this wonderful city. There is so much to see and do including the highlights of Notre Dame cathedral, Montmartre, the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, the Centre Pompidou, the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel tower. An American guy from the hostel took me
Eiffel Tower, ParisEiffel Tower, ParisEiffel Tower, Paris

The most famous tourist attraction in wonderful Paris.
to the Louvre, where we spent two days exploring the magnificent works on display within the museum. I'd never been a great art lover but my travel companion was extremely knowledgeable and explained in detail many of the famous works of art in the mighty Louvre.

I spent another day paying a visit to Pere Lachaise cemetery where Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison are buried along with several other famous people. At one stage I passed a group walking in the cemetery and asked "Where's Jim?" One man gave me a look of concern and asked "Is he a friend of yours?" "No", I said "Jim Morrison" but you only have to follow the graffiti with arrows pointing you in the direction of his grave. The lead singer of The Doors has a headstone which is more like a shrine than a grave, with graffiti all over it and flowers laid at it's base by his many fans.

As time rolled on and I got down to the nitty gritty I found my financial situation was becoming increasingly dire, even though I secured a hotel room through a friend at Alliance Francaise. It was great having my own room in the heart of Paris and through discipline and application I was making good progress with my French studies, but due to the fact I wasn't able to earn money I was going backwards financially at an alarming rate. I continued to pay for my room and my course although I couldn't afford either the rent or the fees, but I was unwilling to pull the plug on my studies mainly due to misplaced pride, and the dawning realisation if I returned home I had no idea when I'd have the opportunity to visit Europe again. I lived on potatoes and baguettes for six long months, and that was the sum total of my diet. One day I was crossing a bridge over the Seine river while lugging ten kilograms of potatoes when an elderly gent passed by and wished me bon appetit!

At one stage I phoned a friend from home and told him of my predicament. Within a few weeks a package arrived including a novel entitled "Down and out in Paris and London" by George Orwell. My mate suggested in the accompanying letter that I should try to obtain work as a plongeur (dishwasher) in a restaurant as Mr Orwell had done in the 1930's, but I didn't want to work without the proper visa and was forced to phone family for a loan. The pressure was building but my course was excellent, and I started seeing a Japanese girl from school until she returned home to her country at the end of her course. During this period I came up with a hair brain scheme to make some cash in partnership with a Dutch girl from class. We went to the markets in the morning to buy fresh roses, then painted our faces up as clowns before heading out in the evening to sell the flowers. The Parisian restaurant owners shoo'd us away, and a local man approached us one night to say "Tres jolly les enfants" before spitting at our feet. Hmm, not good! We were very despondent and hardly saw a franc out of this crazy plan.

So the weeks continued to pass as I dined on boiled potatoes and baguettes while struggling to keep my study plans afloat. We came up with another money making scheme in concert with a pushy guy from New York, and our plan was to wash windows at the traffic lights. The New Yorker had more front than a wide boy's shirt, and never let a simple "Non merci" dissuade him. "C'est gratuit!" he said and cleaned the windows anyway. One guy got out of his Peugeot and went around to the back and I thought trouble was brewing, but he got out of his car only to retrieve a few francs from the boot for my friend. After a few days on our new project we had some francs to show for our troubles, when suddenly two police vans pulled up and ten policemen piled out in a clear show of force. They wanted to see our passports and told us indignantly that they don't allow window cleaners on the streets of Paris. So that was the end of that money making scheme...

The months of study rolled on towards July, but I had lost around five kilos in weight and wasn't in great physical shape. My French was coming along quite nicely, but I was in even greater debt after I was forced to ask a friend to lend me more money. One night we went out to a fancy French restaurant with the mother of my American friend who came to visit him. She couldn't believe our appetites and there was something surreal about living in a beautiful city surrounded by fine dining, yet living as complete paupers amidst all those wonderful restaurants and patisseries. Unfortunately this night was a one off and the relentless money worries came to a dramatic head where I couldn't take it anymore, leading to me suffering a nervous breakdown. In my mind I desperately wanted to make a success of living and studying in Paris but the odds were stacked against me from the start, it was simply a matter of pride that kept me in the city for so long when I should have cut my losses and gone home at an earlier stage.

So this was the end result of being down and out while studying in Paris. It can be quite unpleasant to face up to the reality of a difficult situation, which in my case meant two years living overseas ended in disastrous circumstances with my parents having to arrange an urgent flight home. My mental state at the time was not healthy, and the only sensible thought I had during this awful time was that I had to get home safe as quick as possible. Before I suffered the breakdown my plans were to continue living in Europe for the forseeable future but that all amounted to nothing in the end. In order to keep travelling you need to have money, I had none left and to make things worse no prospect of earning any in the near future. However, living in Paris for six months included many wonderful experiences in the world's most romantic city despite my financial worries, and I also had the opportunity to hitch a ride to Belgium for a fun weekend while renewing my visa during my time in the continent. France is a country of unsurpassed tradition and culture, with a beautiful language and people who exude class and style. In Paris whether you're down and out or on top of the world I'm sure George Orwell would agree, basically all of you should be here now!


An involuntary return to the point of departure is, without doubt, the most disturbing of all journeys." Iain Sinclair



It's home time so until next time, I'm signing off for now

Tom

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