Faulty Towers Pt I
On our final day in Paris we had decided to watch yet another film in the only escape pod on planet earth, the cinema. From our count, in the exact 3 months since we had started our journey in Europe we had seen a total of seventeen movies in cinemas across the continent. From Amsterdam, to Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, London, Budapest and Brussels, each offering a small insight into the specific cultural eccentricities of each country. Denial is a powerful force, the darkness of a cinema is the biggest conductor of such an aspect of the human condition. It can allow us to completely lose ourselves in another world for a spell, to take a breath from the thick fog of reality that can pull a mighty depression in most if left untreated.
As the lights came up on Nerve (maybe wait for Netflix for this one, it’s the perfect hangover movie, it’s pretty to look at but you can easily stare vacantly into the distance as it rolls on and get the gist), we walked out of the UGC George V onto the bustling Champs-Élysées on a sweltering Parisian evening. The sun was just setting over the street and the iphotographers were out to play everywhere you turned. A young woman was standing right on the cusp of the curb in front of the cinema, violently signalling to her friend holding the iphone to take the photo at exactly the right moment—all the while keeping the same cemented half smile on her face. If you don’t look at least a little dazed, confused and off centre in the photo— then it’s not true Instagram photography. I know I know, I sound bitter today, there’s a frustratingly divisive reason for it. It began as we ventured away from the professional social model and towards the metro line to see the Eiffel tower. As it was the final day in Paris, Lady Stardust and I figured it had to be seen at least once to see what all the fuss was about. The heat was still simmering at 8pm, reminded me of the summer evenings back home, but something was amiss. Along this infamous street were high profile stores such as Tiffany and co, Louis Vuitton hell even the McDonald’s looked ritzier than Darling Harbour. Yet scattered across the footpath were grizzly reminders of the world we are currently living in, Refugees— I’ve spoken of them before and once again the sobering views bring to mind the painful, dark side of denial.
There was time after time where my heart sank further into the floor, last time it was on a street of anonymous shops, but when you see the same broken beds in front of the diamond coated streets of high society, the contrast becomes all the more obvious. As we made our way towards the centre circle towards the Charles De Gaulle Etoile we passed by a musician playing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ on an Erhu (sort of like a violin but…not), the melancholy sweetness of the notes were soured quickly by the sight of a refugee sprawled out across the footpath like a chalk outline of someone who had been murdered there– cusping her cup with maybe a few cents in the bottom, limp and lifeless, yet still not giving in, and not looking up. The grand irony of course was everyone’s attention was fixed on the musician, his CD’s were laid out in a pretty chorus line in front of his chair for 20 euros a pop. There were many people who took selfies, while others took videos of his performance and were cheering on and singing as he played. Yet, the woman laid there, stone cold still– being carefully stepped over by people wanting a better shot to show their friends of ‘the guy who played that song from that movie with that boat!’
Continuing on, trying to forget the horrid scales of what we had seen, I saw a baby—couldn’t have been older than 6 months cradled in the arms of a woman far beyond her years. She had to be in her twilight years at this rate, I had horrible flashes to what could’ve become of the mother. She made it much harder to ignore her, approaching everyone she could see with another Maccas cup and a plea in broken French for whatever could be spared, the baby was oblivious to it all, silently looking up to the cloudless sky. The sadder part was, as we swayed through the bustling crowds of the evening, we came across a bloke robot dancing with a flattened hat in front of him, the coins inside were outweighing any reasoning I had that it was earned—I guess escaping death isn’t the real trick, it’s the moves you can bust.
Strange how a single street can fuck with your perceptions of the limits of mankind’s ability to pretend nothing is in front— there are still people who believe climate change is imaginary for instance, or that the Kardashians are real. The brain matter was beginning to bubble as we passed the mysterious mother/grandmother and child, but it only continued to become painfully ironic as the walk went on, 750 metres can do a lot to someone, especially when they’re painfully aware of the ‘Pleasantville’ veneer that surrounds them.
Approaching the steps to the station I saw yet another family that reminded me of one I had seen a few days earlier. Two kids that couldn’t be older than 10 were sitting in front of a shuttered up shop with a cardboard sign and more empty cups with their mother and grandmother. The brother and sister had their heads earnestly in their laps while their mother helplessly looked at the backs of heads of the passerby’s who were careful to avoid any eye contact. 20 metres on there was a side street— littered with Lamborghini’s and Porsche’s with signs protruding out in English “Drive me for 80 Euros: 20 minutes”. As we walked past, an Italian travelling family of four were hopping in to a Ferrari Convertible for a ride. With two kids around the same age as the family we had just past, fighting over who got the front seat with Dad. For four Euros a minute, I’m sure it had to have been one hell of a ride.
As we reached the top of the stairs to the train terminal I looked around once more to try to grasp how such a contrasting existence could occur on a single street in Paris. Lady Stardust tugged at my sleeve before whispering “Sadly, this isn’t the only time we’ll see this”, the worst part was, she was right.
For now though, my brain needs a rest.
Faulty Towers Pt II
The mood was dampened beyond recognition, we had been travelling for 3 months to the day.
Was it simply ignorance and bliss?
Was it simply just the shine falling off the apple?
Maybe our love affair with Europe had come to the end of its honeymoon phase and what we were left with was the grim hangover. Something had clicked, that’s for damn certain.
I was staring out of the metro window with a defeated slump. Lazily watching the tunnel lights fly by as Lady Stardust leaned against me, tired and just as deflated. Sometimes silence is the only blanket you need, when there’s no voices except for the little one in your head, it’s easy to lose yourself, but goddamn is it ever honest. My mind kept jumping to the same sentiments I’m sure have flashed through most peoples minds, “How the fuck did we end up like this”, “How does someone walk literally over someone else in the middle of a street just to get better lighting on a selfie?”, “What makes these people less worthy of our attention?”, once you jump down that rabbit hole there’s usually no light on the other side. As our station name boomed across the intercom we were jerked back from our trance and reluctantly stood up to deal with the inevitable crowds at the Eiffel Tower…Before you mention how depressively bleak this has been thus far, believe it or not there is a happy ending to this little saga.
As we stepped down on the steps of Bir Hakeim station the air definitely had a dose of plastic around it. Signs everywhere in English with arrows saying “EIFFEL TOWER THIS WAY”, the only times you’ll see English above french text is in the insatiable belly of tourist town. As we descended the station steps to follow the signs to the gigantic tower in the distance, I noticed a fraying poster plastered across the side of a staircase leading back into the station. It had two women on it, one veiled and the other with a look of almost lazy disgust with the french tricolour proudly painted on her cheeks. In bold white writing above them it stated “CHOISISSEZ VOTRE BANLIEUE—VOTEZ FRONT” which, when I translated it came to “CHOOSE YOUR SUBURB, VOTE FRONT!”. Turns out the sentiments of fear are still eating their weet-bix everyday and growing stronger and stronger.
The Front National Party (who were responsible for creating this particular poster) is yet another example of the methodology of monetising dread into anger and hatred, they’ve been growing steadily in recent years and have gained an enormous growth with the current leader Marine Le Pen. Of course I could mention the fact that its founder (Marines father) was stripped of his leadership a few years ago when he reiterated his belief that the Holocaust is simply “a detail of history”. Oh I don’t want to get into the same smearing match, but it sparked another uneasy note that all around Europe, the walls are only getting higher. The grand irony though, looking closer at the poster I could see not only ignorance, but sheer fucking laziness. It wasn’t two different women, it was the same photo flipped horizontally and a shittily photoshopped niqab put over her face. Shame, they could’ve created more jobs if they had hired two models for the shoot…
Walking along the pathway and there’s an inherent sense of deja vu with a cavalcade of barely awake street sellers limply holding 7 or 8 ready-to-use selfie sticks—a simple blanket on the floor in front of each of them covered with key-rings and eiffel tower statuettes in gold, silver and bronze. The sheer scope of the tower was overwhelming admittedly, it is a testament to the allure of the city of love. We were expecting rolling fields of green, picnicking couples who gaze into the glowing evening lights, maybe even a french horn player serenading the night air. I keep slipping into movie level expectations, and when we entered the parkland of the tower I understood why Woody Allen chose to shoot it from afar.
There were gates everywhere, it felt like we were getting ushered through for processing in some dystopian future, there was no grass left without a footprint, burned out cigarette, glassy remains of a bottle or bottle caps spread across it. As we crossed the main road to get a somewhat better look at the tower we were inundated with a new level of street merchants—the travelling grog shop. All over the city we had seen water bottles cooling in plastic buckets and ice for a euro apiece, but this was next level. They kept coming one after the other, like a dodgy drug dealer in Miami, walking wistfully past and whispering “Champagne? Beer?” dragging a bucket next to them filled to the brim with unopened bubbles and brews. Looking away from the tower onto the parkland that surrounds it, it was not the romantic postcard that we’ve been promised.
From the Mad Max scorched earth, to the travelling grog shops at every turn of the head, instead of appreciating the ambience—the revellers were holding their phones up in an almost religious fashion, praying to the almighty Eiffel for the perfect shot. As the 9pm light show began showering us with epileptic inducing flashing lights— we took a moment to slow things down, take a breath and try to let the majestic promises of our expectations come to fruition. As a little italian girl bumped into my leg she lifted up a tablet the size of her torso, the sheer weight was throwing her off and she ended up taking nine or ten out of focus shots of the lights—her parents were sitting twenty meters away, drinking french wine from plastic cups, taking a break from their itinerary. The vibrations were getting sharper by the minute, it was definitely not livening up the afternoon we had experienced up to this point, I could still see flashes of the old woman with a baby begging for change. “I miss Amsterdam.” Lady Stardust admitted, much to the chagrin of France, some cities just have a much better method of pulling the heartstrings without it feeling like puppetry.
We were done with it, in the final hours before we had to head to London— the final stop on this leg of the adventure, and here we were, about to end it on the sour taste of inequality. Did I say this had a happy ending? Well, maybe more bittersweet. As we made the journey back home, we were strolling along the deserted streets near Opera station, the lights do look incredible at night I must admit. Without all the noise and traffic, prams and construction, the city takes its own beauty sleep in the darkened hours. There’s nothing quite like the echo of footsteps on skyscraper walls. As we discussed the depression that was setting in we noticed something in the distance in front of the local Monoprix (think Coles or Woolies, but French). The bright lights from the store were illuminating a group of people stationed just outside the entrance, as we got closer we noticed the mattress which, if you’ve been paying attention can mean only one thing, another family. I remember thinking of how fitting it would be to end the three month journey with an extra dose of loathing for the egotistical world.
As we got closer to them I noticed something remarkable— they were sitting together, laughing, joking with broken pockets of French scattered throughout. The parents were sharing dip and bread while the three children dined on crisps and occasionally a few servings of bread. They can’t afford to be anti-social, when there’s no distractions or layers between yourself and the world, things get a helluva lot more grounded. It was genuinely the first family dinner I had seen in this entire trip that didn’t have at least one kid on an iPhone or one parent drinking way too heavily as they angrily tell their kid to stop taking photos. One restaurant in Prague had a portrait of true insanity, the frankenstein family dinner consisted of three kids on iphones, tablets or a DS, both parents on their phones as well, while taking small breaks here and there to have another gulp of imported red wine. The only time they seemed to look up was when the food arrived and they each took a turn taking a top down photo, ah good ol nuclear families.
As we passed the family we dropped whatever euros we had left into their cup. They stopped eating for a moment to smile and thank us, before going back to their meal. They may be hated by the ignorant, feared by the gullible, demonised by the powerful and abused by the foolish, but they’re fucking resilient. If that family truly is a threat to our cultural ways, then maybe its time for us to stop looking at ourselves through beer goggles and realise that superiority is a fragile state of mind.
To the Birds, Hallelujah.