By Parson Thru
Well, we’re outbound again tomorrow.
First time we’ve been there together in years.
Last time I visited Paris I was returning from the Balkans on my bike, alone. That was some trip: central Europe, Serbia, Greece then Italy.
I’d taken a night ferry across the Adriatic, landing at Brindisi.
Just outside the town, I'd stopped for fuel and had the tank filled by an Italian goddess while her papa was beating the crap out of some old truck.
The sun was already high as I coasted the big black Suzuki onto the forecourt. The girl was sweeping dust from between the pumps. My mind was still swimming from the sweltering crossing from Igoumenitsa and the long approach into the docks. I love entering ports. You can’t rush those things.
With this stunning woman filling my tank, the sun shining and the old man under the raised bonnet of the truck, I was looking around for the film-crew. But there was nothing staged about this scene. Pure Brindisi summer morning. Cast hand-picked – except for me. I took a mental photograph.
A little way up the road, I pulled over and called up my friend E-J who lives in Tuscany.
“Yay, mate! You’re in Italy? Wow! Where are you?”
“What? Can you get here?”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
So that was how I came to ride past Naples, Rome, Florence and anything else of interest as I nailed that bike up the autostrada to Pistoia.
I have a kind of inbuilt compass and found her place fairly easily among the Etruscan streets. Pretty soon she and I were lifting the heavy bike over the ancient doorstep into her building.
It was in this miniature Florence that I got myself lost one afternoon and had to ask someone the way. I found a man in his sixties busy entertaining three old ladies in a small stone piazza. I tried a bit of Italian. He smiled and spoke back in English.
“Can you give me a few minutes? My car's round the corner. I’ll drive you.”
I stood and watched as he kept the ladies cackling with some story I’ll never understand and soon we were on our way.
The car was a little red Fiat 500 with a fabric roof, rolled permanently back. We jumped in and he fired up the engine. He was a big man and I squeezed in the passenger seat beside him. We set off down cobbled alleys, between high sun-washed walls, laundry hanging against blue sky. Periodically, he sounded the horn as we burst into piazzas, scattering pigeons and skirting fountains.
“This is a great car.” I shouted. “Perfect for these streets.”
“I love this car!” he replied. “I’ve had it since new. More than thirty years.”
Another movie scene. I closed my eyes and smiled.
He dropped me outside E-J’s apartment and drove away waving out of the sun-roof.
The following day I was on the road again, heading for France, but not before changing the oil and adjusting the chain in a car park. I’d bought some oil from a shop and a plastic bowl from a hardware store to catch the old stuff. I felt a bit scummy leaving old engine oil by a bin amid such beauty but, needs must.
I entered France on the beautiful road that slashes its way through the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. Azure was a word invented for this place. Hurtling under tunnels and blue sky, sea flashing in the sun hundreds of feet below. Sheer pleasure, sheer drop. What a way to die.
I was aiming for Marseilles after a night camping somewhere above the Cote d’ Azure - just a random campsite off the main road.
I rode into the city through the underpasses that lead to the harbour area – so much filmed and photographed. I parked the bike up and found a café. It was time to ring home and check in before sweeping round into Spain along the coast and then inland to Madrid for more free board and lodgings. Excited by the buzz of Marseilles, I dialled home and spoke to N.
In London the weather was as I’d left it two weeks before – cold, grey and wet. Worse, N was sick.
The last time I’d spoken to her I’d been in Greece, having just swum out to an anchored freighter as I wasted the hours before the ferry sailed. Now, I looked around Marseilles harbour with its cafes, parked cars and castle on the hill. I thought about the journey to come through Barcelona, Valencia, then back up to Madrid.
“Please can you come home?” she asked.
There was only one answer.
I took a last look around, threw a leg over the bike and lit the engine. A deep rumble echoed around the harbour. The race-exhaust that had so pissed off Serb policemen only a week before resonated around Marseilles. I headed back through the tunnels and then north out of the city.
Two nights later, I was in Paris, staying with my friend Tobi just off Place d’ Italie. It was a Saturday. Saturday 14 July. Bastille Day.
I hadn’t realised. We watched the fireworks from a viewpoint on Montmartre. The sky filled with celebration, the street filled with youths throwing fireworks at passers-by.
Tobi took me to a party in some darkened, crumbling club in a side-street. The building had Turkish toilets. It was hot, sweaty and noisy and buzzing with conversation and life. I was drunk and filled with the bonhomie of the Parisienne night. A great way to see out the trip.
And now, twelve years on, N and I are heading back together. Hotel booked in Montmartre. Visits planned to the Louvre, Giverny and Moulin Rouge. Maybe, for old time’s sake, we’ll run across the traffic again at the Place Charles de Gaulle - the madness that circles the Arc de Triomphe.
We might even spot a few ghosts.