Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Driving in Paris and Other Memories: Paris Syndrome

As I read Tahir Shah’s Paris Syndrome, a flood of memories poured over me. Memories connected to false hopes and crushed dreams associated not with Paris or the city itself, but with a failed relationship, loosely connected to Paris, that has greatly affected my life and choices. When this relationship lay in the wreckage of confusion in Marseille, I hopped on a train to Nice, and then on to Paris for a brief moment to meet up with a friend who was also piecing together a shattered heart. We had a plan. We would meet in Paris. I had an international driver’s license, so we would drive north to Omaha Beach in Normandie, retracing the footsteps of her grandfather.

I met my friend near Gare du Nord, and we headed straight for the car rental area. Renting outside of America, I dreamed of a finally getting to drive a French car, a Citroen or Peugeot. You can imagine my disappointment when I found that the car in our spot was a tiny little Ford Fiesta. Regardless, we loaded up the car and drove out of the parking garage into the streets of Paris to begin our journey north.

Driving out of the city was deceptively easy. Parisian traffic seemed low key and more orderly than I had imagined, and I adeptly weaved my way onto the A14 heading north, briefly waylaid by a passing emergency vehicle. The drive back into Paris did not echo our drive out. Beautiful and ingenious as it may seem, Paris can be a nerve-racking mess for contemporary drivers without a GPS.

The plan seemed easy enough. On our return trip from Caen, I took the A14 and aimed for the peripherique, a road which circles the city and drops drivers near to their destinations. As an inexperienced Parisian driver, I missed the turn onto the peripherique and headed straight into the heart of Paris, a spinning round-a-bout full of traffic, an intersection of five roads, ten spokes.

 My head hurt.

Feeling pressure because we had to return the rental on time, I imagined the worst. Chances were that we would get lost, take the wrong spoke, and spin in the wrong direction, possibly toward another, perhaps even more convoluted round-a-bout.

It was here, entering this giant mess of five roads coming together into a centrifuge, shooting cars in every direction, that my friend, fighting motion sickness to read the map, must have said something like, “Take Avenue de Wagram.”

“What?!”

As I drove into the round-a-bout, trying to keep abreast of traffic, in this land with no divisions between lanes and a hundred cars merging into one place, it was all I could do not to lose it. “I don’t know which street that is!”

Parisian roads are labeled like those in most of the world outside of the Les √Čtats-Unis. That is, they are not on sign posts clearly discernible to a speeding vehicle, rather they are on the sides of buildings easily understandable to a pedestrian or, as in Haussmann’s time, a horse and carriage, but nearly impossible for a vehicle traveling nearly 40 miles per hour (65 km/h). It was not as if I could just slow down and approach each spoke timidly while inquiring about which road to take. That surely would have meant being crushed by the oncoming drivers inside our tiny Ford Fiesta.

Feeling as though a giant crevasse had opened between us inside the car, I yelled to my friend, “Forget street names! Just count! How many do I need to go? How many spokes?”

She counted frantically, figuring how many spokes we had already passed, egged on by the distress and urgency in my voice. Cars screamed past us as I tried to keep control and not veer too close to the center or edge of the centrifuge.

“Three more spokes!” she yelled across the void.

One.

Two.

Three!

Suddenly, we were out of the first round-a-bout. We passed the first test, and the crevasse closed. We were back to sitting close, side-by-side, separated merely by the bucket seats and gear shift.

As each subsequent round-a-bout approached, we developed a strategy. A) Determine which road we had ended up on. B) Find the road on the map. C) Count how many spokes to the correct road. D) Check to make sure we ended on the correct spoke before hitting another round-a-bout. We proceeded with this strategy for what felt like an eternity. In reality, we probably drove through the heart of Paris for twenty minutes.

Then I saw it, a sign for Gare du Nord! “There it is!” 

I was elated. We had somehow survived Parisian traffic and countless round-a-bouts! We had made it!

Then I looked down at the gas gage.

Nearly empty.

Oh well. I did not care if we got charged me 9 Euro a liter for a tank of gas. I was not about to venture away from the portal that would take the car and us down into a garage and off the streets. I had had enough of Parisian traffic and of the crazed people who drive there. I still have not determined who regularly drives in Paris. I have not met a single Frenchman who has said, “Parisian traffic? No problem.” Instead they look at me like I must be crazy trying to drive through the streets of Paris.


Exhausted, we dropped the car and walked back to the apartment my friend was lodged in. It was 9pm. We had yet to hear from her hosts, who were out of town. I still did not know if it was ok for me to stay. At 10pm, my friend got a message. The girlfriend was not comfortable with a stranger staying in her apartment. I was kicked to the curb to look for a hotel near Gare du Nord.

For those who do not know Paris, this is not a comfortable neighborhood for a solo female traveler. Full of shady, back alley dealings, I was skeptical that I would find a hotel suitable for sleeping before my flight back to Marseille. Rather than tell my friend about my discomfort. I googled the nearest hotel, called to make sure they had a room, and headed out.

The hotel was “a stone’s through from Gare du Nord [and] doubled as a bordel”. I know that Tahir Shah’s book is fictional, but I imagine that in his travels Shah has experienced a place much as I did, a place I found in an exhausted state, at the last minute. After a long drive through the convoluted streets of Paris, I just needed a place to sleep.

On the exterior of the hotel, a sign with red letters in English but not in French said, “Guests may not have visitors.” Shaking off the red flags that were mounting, I entered. Next to the forbidding sign, there was a TripAdvisor sign. That should mean something, right? I took a breath and pushed the door in. A bell rang and the man sitting behind the counter hardly looked away from his television. I confirmed that I had just called, and he told me the total. I promptly handed him a card to pay. That was when he finally looked up at me.

“No cards,” he grunted.

I scrambled, taking out my wallet and counting and recounting my cash. The total for the room was something like 54 Euro. I only had 40 Euro, 44 with coins. I hesitated. I really did not want to venture back out on the street to find a cash machine or another hotel. I showed him that all I had was 44 Euro. He grunted and grumbled something about barely making ends meet. Then he took the money and gave me an old-style hotel key. Apparently at 10pm, I was an inflow of cash when there might have been none otherwise.

As I headed toward the narrow staircase that would take me up to my room, I took in my surroundings. Dark, due to nicotine covered light fixtures and no natural light from outside, the interior of the hotel was uninviting. I climbed the stairs as best I could, lugging a suitcase behind me. At the top of the stairs, I found the elevator door straight ahead and my room door directly to my right. I unlocked the door and walked into a tiled floor room, immediately turning around to lock and deadbolt the door. I heard the bathroom facet dripping, inhaled stale cigarette smoke, and heard the television through the thin walls. Luckily, my flight left early in the morning, and this would be a short night.

I was paranoid about bugs and the sounds coming from rooms all around me, but the hotel really was not bad. In a different circumstance, I might have thought it quaint. Even though I was exhausted, I did not sleep well on the uneven mattress, and in the morning, I skipped breakfast and got away from the hotel as quickly and early as possible. Badly needing sleep, I headed for the airport to fly back to Marseille and deal, once again, with wreckage and collect my things.


While I did not ever experience Paris Syndrome as extreme as Shah’s characters, I can see exactly why such an occurrence would happen. The city is touted as the most beautiful in the world, but the reality is both beautiful and gritty. It is a city of contrasts. A city with fabulous food, architecture, and history, and a city full of crazed drivers, prostitutes, and grime. A city I have spent as little time in as possible.