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today is 31 Mar 2023

Waiting For the Sun
by Gregory Wilde  /  non-fiction  /  28 Sep 2007

Waiting for you to come along,
Waiting for you to hear my song,
Waiting for you to come along,
Waiting for you to tell me what went wrong,
This is the strangest life I've ever known.

---Jim Morrison, "Waiting For the Sun"

    After the sun, we rode into Paris.  With the heat on our backs and the wine in our hands, we walked up to Sacré Coeur in search of an empty patch of grass.  The sun was starting to decline, and we lay on the hill watching the city and sun fade into night.
    This was the middle of my first day in Paris.  It was filled with exhaustion, awe, and trouble.  Looking back, it seems surreal, now that it's all past and gone.  Before we had made it to that sacred grass on the top of France, overlooking the majesty of Paris, we were lost.  Then, there was the four of us.  We came from Annecy, a small French town in the south, all learning French and all believing Bastille Day in Paris was a profound idea.
    We arrived at 8 a.m. at the Gare de Lyon, and we walked along the Seine and then into Le Louvre, through Notre Dame, inside Luxembourg Gardens, and to cafés in Saint Germain.  We talked about the sea and we talked about the sun and how unbearably hot it had become that day. It seemed like the sun was a foot away, burning a hole into our clothes and tattooing an image of its resonance into our minds.  The cool drinks and food helped for a moment, but soon we were back on the sweltering streets, desperately trying to find somewhere relaxing to cool off.
    Now I know that this is the worst way to see Paris.  But then, in my more innocent and naïve days, I thought an adventure to Paris was always a good idea.  And maybe it would have worked if we'd booked a hotel and had an actual plan.  But the excitement of life is in the doing – not in the arrangement.  Bastille Day is a grand party, a crazy street festival that goes wildly into the night and the next morning, right?  Well, not exactly.  I didn't know of the nationalistic feelings the Parisians can engender, and of the anger July 14th arouses in them.  What did we know?  We were three Americans and an Australian.
    So we walked for hours on end – through streets, inside parks, and into buildings.  We had about an hour to see the highlights of le Louvre, and less than thirty minutes to walk between the hoards of people in Notre Dame.  Paris is a city set on time.  Time to walk and talk while strolling the boulevards and the winding and crawling side streets with hours and hours at your disposal.  If you don't have a week – maybe it's not worth traveling to Paris.  Perhaps I should have known that.  I should have understood the stressful situation that occurs when you rush off to Père-Lachaise to see Jim Morrison's grave, only to see the walled doors locked at 4 o'clock.  A year later, I would return to Père-Lachaise to find Jim.  I was alone in the early morning light, watching the trees and listening to the birds, feeling the sun sparkle between the leaves and having the unknown sensation of death.  Jim was with me then – a spirit that hovers to and fro.  Jim lives inside Paris, and Paris lived inside Jim.
    After we stood at the closed Père-Lachaise doors waiting for a miracle to occur – someone to open the walls from the inside – we gave up and walked down the hill and into the métro.  In the train, the heat attacked the seats and our air, and it did not let anyone or anything go.  We were heading to Sacré Coeur.  It was nearing 6 o'clock and our nouveau plan was to forget the frustration of the heat, to leave behind all the destinations we missed along the way, and to accept the lack of time we gave each monument as a pointless exercise in futility.  It would have suited me better if we went to a café for several hours and watched the people along the Seine.  Then we would have dinner, drink a few café lattes, and leave for our French town on the last train south.
    We arrived at Sacré Coeur at sunset and walked up the endless flight of stairs leading to the church where we were lucky to find a spot of grass.  People were everywhere – swapping up sections of turf like beavers searching for fresh gardens in the summer.  Soon there was nothing left but people and endless talking.  French filled the air and it touched my heart and went into my soul.  We opened our wine and toasted the fading day.  It was my one moment of bliss. But disaster was on its way, a set of bizarre circumstances that would put the fear of death in me; that Paris was the city of catastrophe.
    Soon we finished our first bottle of wine.  I felt a warm feeling cross into me and I finally let myself enjoy the view and sunset.  I turned my head to see the abundance of people, and then looked down to get another bottle of wine from my bag, only to see no wine, because there was no bag.  It had disappeared like a gust of wind.  Out of nowhere, someone had stolen it.  My red Patagonia backpack, the camera I had in it with all the pictures of the day, my clothes and wine – it was all gone.  I asked my friends if they saw something, but they too were perplexed.  The crowd of people made it impossible to search for a bandit carrying a red backpack, but I somehow convinced myself it was worth a try.  I walked to the center of the cement ledge, just below the church, and was hit in the forehead by a streaming object shooting from below.  I fell to the ground and was picked up by a Frenchman.  He said I wasn't bleeding, and that I looked okay.  I searched the ground and saw a burnt wad of paper wrapped around some twisted metal.  It was a firecracker, and it must have had good propulsion, sending it into the air and into my head.
    I walked back in a daze to find my friends.  I told them we better think about leaving before the explosions started to get bigger and louder.  Out in the distance, it looked like Paris was on fire.  Smoke and sparks littered the skies, distributing a fiery light that powdered into the darkening horizon.  We watched the fireworks for thirty minutes before we decided it was time to escape.  The black hill was now a disaster area filled with children throwing fire into the sky.  You could hear the fireworks landing everywhere, resembling a sound of empty bullet shells falling to the ground.  Flashes of light flared beside and below us.  We held each other's hands and walked to the stairs.  We covered our faces from the random explosions that could knock us on our backs and careen us down the endless flights of stairs.  At the bottom, it was mayhem.  There were children within fire and smoke, and colorful sparks burning unnoticeable coils along the grass.
    We made it to the métro and got on the first train heading to the Latin Quarter.  Once we arrived, it was nearly midnight and we were starving.  We walked through the maze of restaurants fighting over what food to eat.  Most of the restaurants were closing or already closed for the night, but we still found ourselves arguing over which cuisine to eat.  After thirty minutes, we made the decision to have Indian food because it was the last restaurant open.  The owner smiled and let us in, saying he would serve us because we looked very hungry.  The food was spectacular; I had two entrees and much wine before I decided to stop.  The check came at 2 am and we were asked to leave ten minutes later.  The owner hated to do this, but he needed to close up, and we were the last customers in his restaurant.
    So we were on the streets again, but now it was dark and silent.  Nowhere were the parties we expected that would fill the night with women and music.  Instead, it was a ghost town.  We had no hotel, no water, no sleeping equipment, and worst of all we had no plan.  I looked to my friends in the desperate hope for an answer.  My legs were as raw as I have ever felt them, and my head felt faint and wobbly.  Stephen, the Australian who had traveled Europe in these bizarre circumstances before, came up with an idea.  We all turned our heads and listened.
    "I know of a park near the Eiffel Tower," Stephen said.  "It's huge, we can walk there and sleep until morning.  Then take a train back to Annecy."
    "You're talking about Champ de Mars?" I asked.
    "Righto, but there's a bunch of places we can hang near there," Stephen said.
    "Alright, if you think so," I said.
    "We're going to have to walk," Stephen said.
    "Oh, God no.  How far is it?" I asked.
    "It's a ways.  Let's get moving, mates."  Stephen picked up his backpack and nodded to the rest of us.  This was the plan and we had nothing better to suggest.  The Eiffel Tower was at least four miles away, meaning we were going to walk for hours.
    During the first half of the walk, no one said a word.  We trotted through the streets and around the boulevards until we saw the tower in the distance.  It looked like a majestic object that we would never reach.  Someone said, "We're almost there," but in reality we were still miles away.  It was an illusion.  The tower looked closer every step we took, but it just never came.
    It must have been an hour and a half before we arrived at the park.  The tower was lit and the park was bright yellow.  We walked to the tower and collapsed in a gravel circle directly under the metal.  Looking up at the massive structure, I could not believe we had actually made it, and I couldn't understand how the day had come to this.  It appeared we found a place where we could finally rest.  No one was around except for a few interesting gang-type kids walking under the tower.  I put my head into the gravel and made a pocket to rest in.  I looked up at the metal and closed my eyes.
    About thirty minutes later, I heard some cars driving in the distance.  Then I heard hundreds of doors closing, and a stampede of footsteps running in our direction.  I opened my eyes and didn't remember where I was.  Then I did.  I got up and looked to my right.  Unbelievably, and almost dreamlike, there were hundreds and hundreds of gang members encompassing the circle we were sleeping in.  They had chains, knifes, and various other types of dangerous weapons.  I shook with fear.  I woke my friends, and they saw the gathering.  Then I turned my head to view the other half of the circle.  Directly opposite the gangs were the policemen.  They held battalions, mace, and tear gas.  They all wore helmets and faceguards.   They stood in unison, waiting for something to happen.
    Before I could react, both sides charged like on a medieval battlefield.  The four of us got up and ran to the police's side of the circle.  When the gangs reached us, we were thrown down and kicked.  The officers were able to protect us to a point before the mace reached our eyes.  Now we were blind.  I could see only faint glimpses of light and shadows.  I stayed on the ground and crawled away from the noise.  A few minutes later, I could see a bit more, and I could hear my friends crawling in the same direction I was.  We got up and held hands.  We made a chain and would not let go.   In the blackness and stillness of the night, and with fighting and screaming behind us, we ran to the river.
    At a small mound of grass near the Seine, we fell below a tree and hid behind a bush.  When we could see again, we walked to a grassy knoll and sat facing the river.  On the walkway were more gangs.  They looked at us and kept staring until we were out of their view.  I searched my body for broken bones or blood.  I was somehow okay.  My friends were not as lucky as I was.  Stephen was hit in the nose and was still bleeding into his shirt.  My two American friends were trying to stop the blood from their lips and noses.  But all in all, we were very lucky to be safe.
    I decided that we needed to sleep in shifts because the gang members were still approaching us.  Most asked for cigarettes, some wanted water, others asked for beer and food, and one even wanted a jacket.  I stayed up with Stephen while our two friends slept.  Stephen and I did not speak.  We had nothing left to say.  About an hour later, Stephen fell asleep, and shortly thereafter I fell asleep too.
    When the morning came, we were missing a friend and a backpack.  My American friend, Ryan, was nowhere to be found.  And Danielle's backpack was missing.  In that backpack she held her wallet, passport, clothes, IDs, and credit cards.  Danielle was in a panic and started to cry.  I asked her if she had seen where Ryan went, and she said no.  Danielle had woken up before Stephen and me, and she couldn't find her backpack.  She searched the area and found empty beer bottles behind the tree where we were sleeping.  Danielle was convinced a bunch of gang members watched us sleep and then took her bag.  Stephen told Danielle to calm down.  We needed to find Ryan.
    We walked around the river, up and down the path, looking for a clue.  But there was nothing.  No one was around.  Paris was empty and quite strange.  We walked back to our campsite on the grassy knoll and waited for something to happen.  At 7 am, Ryan appeared in the distance.  He was walking very slowly and didn't appear to be holding a backpack.  We ran towards him and when we got to him we saw he was wearing Danielle's backpack.  Danielle cried in joy, for Ryan first, and then for her backpack.  She was truly scared for Ryan and even gave him a kiss.  Ryan had asked me when we took the train to Paris if Danielle 'dug' him.  I said she seemed to.  So Ryan got his kiss.  I was happy for him, and I was happy we could now go home and I could see my girlfriend.
    We walked down the empty streets to Gare de Lyon.  When we arrived in the station, we bought the earliest tickets to the south on  the 9 am train.  We walked to a staircase adjacent to a café and sat on the cool marble stairs.  I looked at Stephen, and Danielle, and Ryan, and I closed my eyes because I couldn't keep them open anymore.  We must have floated between consciousness and reality for an hour until our train starting boarding.
    When I got on the train, I fell asleep.  I put my head against the window and my legs on the two empty seats.  I was out cold before the train departed Paris.  I woke up in our town and I told my friends at the exit of the station that I would see them later that night.  We all laughed for a second and I said, "We've experienced something no one will ever believe.  We'll always have this story."  And we giggled, and then walked in our own directions back home.

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