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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: France

A Journey Through Paris
Jason Phelps

The bus sailed on the paved road through the darkened hills of France. The passengers spoke in hushed tones, excited to arrive in Paris. Every once in a while a piercing cell-phone shattered the quiet. I looked at my friends Sean and Taylor and thought, "What’s next?" We had devised a brilliant plan. We would fly into France and take a late night bus into Paris, even though we didn’t have a place to stay.

As the bus barreled toward the city, we grew more apprehensive with each mile passed.
Taylor tried some mangled French with the woman sitting next to him. She smiled and replied back in English, much to our relief. It was as if this woman was an angel sent to help us. She showed us on a map where the bus would stop and gave us hotel numbers to call.

Frantically, we tried number after number, looking for any room. Most of the calls ended with a rude clerk laughing through the phone. After about an hour, the bus’s engine squeaked to a halt. Everyone hustled off except for us, not looking forward to a November night in Paris.

When we got off, I made sure to thank the woman who helped us. She wished us luck as she melted away into the lights of Paris. I surveyed our surroundings and saw a beacon across the street. The Concorde Lafayette Hotel jutted up into the sky, beckoning us to enter.

Seeing no better option, we drifted into the lobby of the hotel (our next mistake of the night). Here we were, three American kids with backpacks and worn hoodies, in the lobby of a swanky, Parisian hotel.

I’m talkin’ white marble floors polished to a sheen, a bar filled with patrons clothed in crisp tuxes and gleaming dresses.
We approached the front desk and the two clerks raised their eyebrows at our sorry sight. They asked if we needed help and we told them A) we needed to get to the city centre and B) we needed a hotel. I noticed they exchanged a bemused look after we said this. They gave us a map and informed us the Metro lines weren’t working, the conductors were on strike. It was time to trudge toward the city centre.

We left the cocktails, chandeliers, and piano music of the Lafayette Hotel. Unfortunately, we still had no clue where to go. It was the middle of November and cold winds whipped our faces as we pulled our jackets tight. Trying to steady the map as it snapped in the wind, we picked a direction and started walking.

It was hard not to stare in wonder, even in the bitter cold with no place to go. We passed by warmly lit cafes, tendrils of cigarette smoke curling up into the light fixtures as people jovially carried on conversations. The lamp posts on the street seemed to be glowing exclusively for us.

Every couple of blocks we would whip out our map and look in befuddlement. It took us about a half an hour to realize Paris does not have square blocks. Oh no, Paris is divided into districts and streets move in a circular movement outward. Which means that each time we tried to stay on a street it morphed into another.

Having corrected that mistake, we made our way to the Arc de Triomphe in the city centre. It was another thirty minutes of walking through the mysterious streets before we finally reached the Arc. The streets were quiet, a far cry from the busy chaos I expected to see. Instead of honking cars driving rings around the circle, an occasional car lazily worked its way around the structure.

My eyes focused on the raised engravings on the Arc de Triomphe. They seemed to be from a Napoleonic Age, when empires were celebrated. We tore our eyes away and trekked on.

Our next destination was the Champs-Elysees Boulevard, in the very heart of the city. The wide boulevard was lined with sparkling trees draped in brilliant lights. The amazing sights blocked one fact from our minds. We still didn’t have a place to stay.

So we made our way to hotels. Tentatively, we approached the foreboding doors of each hotel we passed. We opened each one to see a skeptical clerk take in the three shaggy Americans walking through their doors. We found nothing less than 120 euros for the night. This was what we were hoping to spend for our four days in the city.
As the number of hotels that rejected us continued to grow, Paris’s magic began to lose its luster. I started sniping at my two friends and they returned the favor. We found ourselves walking the massive boulevards, feeling like three tiny ants lost in a house.

The clock struck two and we still had nowhere to go. Sean suggested hopping a wall and sleeping in a park. I wasn’t to keen on a cop finding us and having to explain why we chose to pass out in a public park. Finally, when all seemed lost, a taxi stopped and asked if we needed a ride.

The cabbie took us to the hostel we had booked for the following night. We arrived and approached the last door we had to knock on. A man greeted us at the door and asked what we wanted. We explained the situation and by some divine inspiration, there was one room left.

We seized upon it and collapsed onto our beds. Taylor started talking about the crazy night but I cut him off. There would be time to laugh in the morning, all I wanted was to wrap myself into my warm blankets and fade into sleep.

© Jason Phelps September 2009

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