Surviving the City of Love

May 24, 2012

The narrow streets of Paris.

I arrived in Paris on Tuesday via train in order to spend a week playing French Prize money tournaments and to watch the early rounds of Roland Garros.  Germany has been incredible and very relaxing but I have been looking forward to seeing something new and trying my hand at a few clay tournaments.  My club matches have gone well so far and I have yet to lose or be pushed by any of my opponents.  It is nice knowing that I am worth the money that I am being paid.  But I would also like to get some better matches in so I can stay sharp enough to compete at a high level.

I am planning to play two or three tournaments in the Paris area this next week.  I had originally thought that I would be starting play today but it seems with my assimilated French ranking I will enter the draw in the quarterfinals, which will be played on Sunday.   France has one of the most active tennis federations in the world and there are literally thousands of money tournaments going on all over the country all the time.  The tournaments span over three to four weeks, with lower ranked players comprising the early rounds and higher ranked players coming in just for the end.  Based on my ATP ranking I was given a fairly good French ranking, meaning that I don’t have to start in most events until the final weekend.  This is nice because I get to bypass a lot of time and logistical energy that would be wasted getting through easy matches.  So I’ll begin this Sunday in the quarterfinals of the draw which has been going on for close to a month.  If I lose my first round I still make something like $80 and up to $500 if I win through the rest of the matches.  On Monday I play a tournament just in the finals, bypassing everything and just showing up to play for $150.  It is obviously a weak tournament but you get the picture of how things work.  In the stronger events I will start earlier in the week, depending on how many players above me are playing.

Sacre-Coeure

Being placed in the later rounds of the draw has the added benefit of giving me a few extra days in Paris to tour around and explore a bit.  I do not know anyone or have any connections at this point, so I am not worrying about training for the moment and will hopefully do alright once it comes time to play my matches.

I have really enjoyed my time in the city the last couple days, although I did have the worst night of my trip in Europe yesterday.  As per usual it could have been avoided had I been the responsible traveler and figured things out ahead of time so I would not be forced to scramble.  But anyone who has traveled with me knows that just isn’t my style.  I generally prefer, either by choice or disposition, a more organic experience, trusting in my abilities to handle things on the fly and more importantly, fate’s usual aptitude for taking care of me.  That is probably a nice way of saying I am lazy and things normally work out.  But last night they did not and my nature definitely came back to bite me as it was probably the closest I have ever come to spending a night on the street.

Spent the whole evening drinking beers and watching an impromptou acoustic guitar concert put on by some italian guy on the steps of Sacre-Coeure. He played all the sweet, and sappy American songs. It made me cringe sometimes but he had a nice voice and was a warm night to be outside.

I will preface the story by saying that from the time I woke up until about 7pm I had a perfect, although rather exhausting Parisian day.  I woke in a nice hostel that I had managed to find the night before—as per usual—and headed out to explore, even though I knew that I did not have a reservation to return to when I came back.  I’d been in that position before though and figured something would open up and I would probably have to switch rooms or something.  Whatever, I’d figure it out later I thought.  I left my luggage in the hostel’s storage room and took the metro to the Cathedral at Notre Dame.  It was nice and looked like a bigger version of just about every other church I have ever forced myself to visit.  But I was happy I had seen it and even happier to leave and get away from the lines and crowds.

Cathedral at Notre Dame. On the bank of the Seine River.

My plan was to eventually make it to the French open at Roland Garros to see the afternoon Men’s Qualifying matches.  But I had hours to kill before then so I decided I would walk to the Eiffel Tower along the bank of the famous Seine River.  It is a rather long way from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower and took me the better part of two hours to walk.  But for a sunny, warm, and beautiful day I could not imagine a more peaceful way to take in the French architecture and enjoy the scenery.  I put my headphones on, played some soothing music, and reveled in a sense of culture and wellbeing as I slowly passed the day making my way across the city, eventually to Rolland Garros, where my day got even better watching some great tennis.

Walking the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. It was very peaceful, especially since I had nowhere to be and all the time to get there.

Around seven I decided it was time to make my way back to my hostel so I could figure things out.  Seeing as I do not have a phone I was unable to call the hostel as they had advised me earlier to see about a room. But again, that would all figure itself out I thought.  Unfortunately it did not, and the tired sense of calm from a strenuous but empowering day turned into an exhausted anxiety when I finally got back and realized that not only was there no space in my hostel, but literally every bed in the city under $500 was taken as well.  I scanned the creepy hotels in the area to no avail, running from one to the next as the sun disappeared above me.  I signed up for couchsurfer to see if I could scrounge something quickly, but I found no help there either.

One more of the Seine.

By ten I was really starting to worry.  What was I going to do?  I had no place to go, a ton of luggage, and not much time to figure things out.  I managed to get a break online when I found Giovanni’s Gay Guesthouse, which was the only hostel in the city with any availability.  It advertised itself as being for Men Only and as “a great place to find cool, fun guys.”  It was certainly not what I had been looking for but at that point I had no other options.  According to Giovanni’s website he welcomes any sort of gay, bi-sexual, or open-minded men under the age of thirty-five.  While I have never thought of myself as gay or bi-sexual, open-minded seemed to fit and by then I really just needed a place to sleep for the night.  So I booked my spot in a six bed dorm and began the long trek on the metro-transferring twice with all my stuff-and eventually finding myself on the outskirts of eastern Paris with an address and no idea where to go or even which direction to head.

I just liked this photo. I think Paris may be the most beautiful city I have visited. Just in terms of the architecture you can really feel the history of all the buildings and busy little streets.

It was 11pm so I figured I should go somewhere.  I headed out randomly, hoping to find the street for which I was looking.  Eventually I got directions that turned out to be wrong, but led me to a McDonalds three quarters of a mile away where I was able to get Internet and download a walking map on my iPhone.  I finally found the building where Giovanni’s was supposed to be.  It looked abandoned and the area was most certainly less than wholesome.  My email confirmation said that when you get to the building you have to call a phone number and you will be let in through an unmarked door.  If that isn’t creepy enough, it also advised not to ask any of the neighbors for directions if you cannot find the place, which was pretty unnecessary seeing as the neighbors consisted of a small but active community of bums and street people loitering around the stoop of the building.

Sadly, I cannot make phone calls with my American phone so I didn’t know what to do and just sat outside with all my stuff, looking up into the windows with rainbow flags hoping to get someone’s attention.  There was supposed to be some sort of pay phone around but I couldn’t find that either.  I thought about yelling up at the windows but didn’t want to attract any more attention than I was already getting standing around in the dark with a suitcase and a bag full of tennis racquets.

I poked my head in a few buildings looking for a phone and stumbled upon a synagogue, which seemed promising at first except I got scared off by the dirty looks when I realized that I had barged into the middle of some sort of services that happened to be going on at that hour.  Also I was unsure about how the Hasidic Jews would react when I told them I was looking for the Gay Guesthouse in the area.  I know.  Not cool.  But I didn’t want to open that can of worms in the middle of the night by advertising my destination to any sort of religious community, even my own.

Richard Gasquet playing a practice set on center court. He is an amazing shot maker and it is great to see because he is a pretty small guy but gets a lot of power on the ball.

As sad as I was to leave the promise of a real bed, once again I had no options.  So I dragged myself back to McDonalds—uphill this time— and past all the sleazy bars and nightwalkers that had eyed me so thoroughly the first time.  My plan was to call Giovanni on Skype and let him know I was on my way so he could be waiting for me, but I was pretty pissed off by then and decided to have a quick look online for another place.  What do you know!  An even cheaper bed and breakfast had something open up while I was hiking around the ghetto.  I called them as quick as I could on my computer to tell them I was on my way, not even registering the name of the place since the McDonalds workers were getting angry and trying to hustle me out so they could close.  I managed to scribble the address at least before the big worker picked me up and threw me in the street with all my stuff.  I did not know where the place was but wherever it turned out to be had to be better than hiking back to Giovanni’s.  On the way to the metro I found a lady-cab and made a game time decision to make my life easier and spend the money to have her drop me at the door rather than doing the subway thing again.  Why not? I figured.  It was almost midnight anyway.  The subway would have probably been closing soon.

Once again, fate led me astray.  The cabi-lady must have spoken like ten words of English, which was not sufficient for her to explain what was happening when after only a few minutes she stopped to pick up two more ladies and then swerved a totally different direction.  I tried to decipher what was going on and then gave in to the fact that my taxi just turned into a bus.  All three women assured me they were saving me money and going in the same direction. I didn’t believe it for a second.

Literally an hour later, after dropping the two ladies off God knows where in the city and avoiding any sort of highway or bypass that might have sped up our progress, I found myself hunched over in the backseat of the cab, shaking, with my head between my knees. I didn’t know whether to cry, yell at the lady for wasting my time and money, or just open the car door and tuck and roll.  The latter would have been a mistake though because whereas Giovanni’s neighborhood may have been a tad unwholesome, the grounds the taxi was taking me into ever deeper was the heart of Parisian China town, which I had not even known existed and is located in the southern outskirts of the city.  It was dark, deserted, and did not seem like the kind of place for me to go stumbling around in alone.

More French architecture.

There have been moments in my travels when I have realized that if, by some chance something awful occurred and I happened to disappear, nobody would have a clue where to find me, or even where to start looking.  Many times on the streets of Thailand and Laos I’ve had such feelings, a couple times in Mexico and Central America, and one similar midnight cab ride in Quebec City just to name a few.  This was definitely on par with any unease I have ever felt in having no control as I realized that I had no move to make in the situation besides hope that I eventually make it somewhere safe.  The cabi-lady locked her doors and started complaining about how I didn’t tell her I was going outside of Paris-as if I had known-and how she didn’t like it because it was dangerous.  I told her she should shut up because she wasn’t the one who had to stay there for the night.

We finally arrived at a random residential house that I found out was the Nandemum Guesthouse.  The manager had told me she would be waiting for my arrival but, as I should have expected; nobody was there to greet me.  There was a light on upstairs though and I could see two Asian guys walking around.  Where I had been unwilling to shout up or throw rocks at the windows of Giovanni’s earlier, I found myself yelling up to them here at Nandemum’s.  The cabi started honking her horn, which scared me, and I finally got their attention by hurling coins at the window since they were all I could find in my pockets to throw.

I paid the cabi, who was happy to be rid of me, and I thought my ordeal was finally over.  Not quite unfortunately.  Although she was very nice, the manager came down to explain how somehow she had overbooked and did not have a room for me after all.  I almost had a fit then and there and was about to ask her if I could sleep in her bathtub when she called a friend’s place nearby and suggested I could stay there instead.  Once again, I had no choice as I let myself be ushered into her beat up Toyota and driven to another random residential house that is apparently some sort of Korean Hostel.  I had my scariest moment of the night after the lady had dropped me off and left when the owner refused to open the door for me initially and told me to go away.  Where was I supposed to go?  Thankfully he didn’t have a shotgun, which is how I thought I would find him, and I eventually persuaded him to let me in the door.

After that he was all smiles and ushered me into a dorm room filled to the brim with Korean men.  Strangely, many of them spoke great English and were in fact way more polite and nice than most French people I have been meeting.  Nobody was angry that a random white dude barged in in the middle of the night, waking everyone up and demanding to take a shower—I was disgusting after all the walking I had done earlier in the day and then all the lugging around of my suitcases.  It probably felt weirder for me than them but I did not care at that point since I was just happy to have a bed and a roof over my head for the night.  I knew I would need to figure out where I was and how to get back to civilization in the morning.  But for the moment I had nothing to do but settle into my third story bunk and try to get some sleep, which after everything I had gone through, was not very hard.

It was an interesting morning waking up and having breakfast with everyone today.  I never did find out what the name of the place was but if I did know I would write them a great review on hostelworld.  They were all extremely friendly and generous and really seemed to care how I felt, even though I was a bit of a zombie and wanted nothing more than to get out of there as quick as I could.  It was probably one of the more out of place moments I can remember but not at all due to any incorrectness on their part.  A little boy even gave me a lesson on the culture and Geography of Seoul, which was where he was from.

Anyway that was my night yesterday.  It ended around two in the morning and was pretty hellish.  I think it taught me that I might want to take a more active role in figuring out my life sometimes. I will have to start that sometime later though since I was able to find a hostel today for one night and one night only.  I’m thinking about running to Amsterdam for a couple days if I cant find something more reliable here in Paris.  My housing for the tournament starts on Saturday so it might be nice to get away if this is what every night is going to be like.  Not to mention that after my experience yesterday I think I could use a little R &R that only Amsterdam can offer.  Just kidding.   All in all, life goes on and I am happy to have made it through the nightmare and survived to fight another day.

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3 responses to “Surviving the City of Love”

  1. charliecutler says :

    The worst part of all of it is that Giovanni’s charged me full price for a no-show, even though I made it to the door and couldn’t find a way in the building. The refuse to make an exception for me because they say they are the #1 hostel in Paris for a reason and it was clearly my own fault. If I call the credit card company can I have them take the charge off?

    • Joanie French says :

      Charlie,
      Hi! this is from Joanie French in St. Louis Mo. The St. Louis Post Dispatch is looking to do an article about Feldenkrais and wanted an athlete. It is going to happen quickly like this week. If you have time and could say a few nice things about Feldenkrais I would be grateful My phone number is 314.531.1656

      Joanie

  2. Trev says :

    you’re just being dramatic. Paris is an amazing city!

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