City of Love
So – I’m arriving in Paris at around 11pm with a roughly 20-hour stop over en route to Munich. I’ve brought my rucksack, some healthy enthusiasm, and my “foolproof” plan to sleep in the train station. But on my first time in Paris, little do I know the train station closes at midnight.
Upon the discovery of this fundamental flaw in my sleeping arrangement, I pace around the station and curse, struggling to arrange my thoughts enough to actually come up with a half decent plan. This is until I meet a man named Mario from Argentina. He is middle aged, stocky, and with better English than anybody within my radius.
After a chat, he asks where I’m staying. I respond “the train station”. He laughs playfully and repeats to me the same damning information I’ve already received.
Prior to my travels through Europe, I had been living with seven Colombians, which felt like a fairly good orientation into South American hospitality. Riding off the back of this, I accept with relative caution his suggestion to scooter around Paris by night.
Conveniently, he has a studio apartment not five minutes from Gare Du Nord, at which of course his scooter is at, and on my back of course is my rucksack, and too big of course is two people and a 17-kilo rucksack on the back of a scooter. I stash my possessions in his flat, aware of the possibility of subjecting myself to stage 1 of a trap.
Nevertheless we are off on Mario’s scooter. The Eiffel Tower, Arch De Triomphe, and the Notre Dame Cathedral are all stunningly beautiful in Paris’ unnaturally lit skyline. So beautiful that my anxieties fade and I actually fall into a sense of security.
Though, it does get late, and also wet, so back we go. Back to Mario’s flat. Back where he offers me a place to sleep. Back where reality comes rushing, ’cause we both know I got nowhere to go, and we both know it would be near impossible to decline this generous offer. I also have conflicting thoughts; maybe he is a genuinely nice guy, maybe there aren’t exterior motives. Either way, I’m here for the long haul.
He seems to notice my uneasiness and tries to calm me down with a couple of beers. It kind of works, but by this point it feels like he is “concluding the date”. Amidst the “prelude to seduction” vibe I get I also notice that the only piece of furniture is a pull-out bed. It gets to that time, and yep you guessed it, his bed offer happens to be a spot in his, which I decline and go home.
That’s a lie.
I get my sleeping bag, zip it all the way up, and sleep head to feet in what is perhaps the most transparent and awkward moment I’ve ever had getting into bed with someone, and to be blunt, awkward bed encounters weren’t exactly a rarity. I enhance the awkwardness by hugging the wall.
At this point there are two key phrases going through my head. The first being “Rape!” and the second being “What should I do if he tries to rape me?” Eventually he asks me if I’m okay, to which I reply with an unconvincing, “Ye-es.” After this is when some questionable behaviour begins: seemingly as the result of unconsciousness, a hand reaches over to my side of the bed with an accompanying groan that symbolises sleep. Due to my bizarre sleeping position, his hand makes contact with my ankle which I quickly shake off so to disallow a solid grip.
While maintaining the sleep façade, these innocent and playful advances continue. What eventually discontinues is the playfulness, as I imagine by this point, the act is over, my reluctance has gone beyond cute, and what he wants is conveyed through a slightly more forceful grab of my leg as he transgresses from the ankle. What also discontinues is my place in the bed as I decide it’s time for an extended bathroom break.
I sit in the toilet and cup my face in my hands. I groan a little, partly out of exhaustion and partly out of frustration, and weigh up my options. Weapon, attack, escape? No, that’s unnecessary, maybe even homophobic and a hate crime. Probably won’t do that. But as a 20-year-old boy hanging for dear life onto what’s left of my innocence, I’m totally unprepared for a situation of this magnitude. After all, the last thing I want in Europe’s most romantic city is an involuntary gay experience.
I choose option B: don’t leave the loo. If nothing else, if I need to actually use the toilet, it’s one less thing I need to worry about.
I wait anxiously for the first glimmers of day light. While waiting Mario has developed a fairly deep snore, but I decide to refrain from testing its authenticity on the hunch of his bluffing.
It gets light and I alight from the toilet as quietly as humanly possible, at which point Mario miraculously comes to life. He asks what I’m doing, and I reply “leaving”, but with a smile on my face as if to pretend that all of the awkwardness hasn’t happened. My three hours just spent in the toilet did happen, but it’s normal; I do that all the time, and now, for not any particular reason, I’m very keen to leave. Nothing is said while I collect my possessions to move on out of this joint, occasionally saving face and smiling again as to avert away from any kind of tension that might ensue. A smile I am giving with scary conviction given the circumstances, but I think is ultimately driven by my desperation to leave.
I leave with a now trademark smile and a “bye”, at which point he starts to string a sentence together that gets cut short by my departure.
With the day at my disposal and a nod to self-abuse, I spent my time being smelly, tired, eating numerous fast-food meals, drinking three-euro sparkling wine, and to the disgust of the families and couples that populate Paris on a warm and sunny day, sleeping in a beautiful grassed areas of the city.
Cover by Michael Feist