Worse Things Happen on Line 11

I could see the newspaper headlines ‘Sensitive singer-songwriters die of panic attack on Paris metro’. We could both smell the stench of smoke and had alighted onto a platform somewhere on line 11 between Belleville and Mairie des Lilas stations to escape the ensuing carnage.

France had just gone to war in Mali and I had dragged Adrian Crowley here at the worst possible time to film me walking around Paris looking existential; now we were about to meet a gruesome end in a subterranean gas attack. The locals seemed oblivious to their impending doom and went about their affairs with a shrug of their shoulders, as is their wont.

It wasn’t the first time I had got into a flap on French public transport. Having spent a year living in Paris teaching English I had learned the hard way about negotiating the city’s buses and trains and the etiquette involved– the dog-eat-dog jostling for position, the flip-seat politics and the predilection for heavy-petting on packed rush-hour trains. My days were spent going from one end of the city to the other teaching business people in their offices, which mostly involved discussing Ken Loach films with nuclear engineers who spoke barely a word of English. Throw in my own lack of French and the scene was set for daily shame in boulangeries, office receptions and metro station ticket desks. ‘I’ve moved to Paris by mistake!’ is what I felt like shouting at random strangers, but I wasn’t sure how it translated into French.

Somehow I had managed to convince the ever-amenable Adrian to meet me off one of his gruelling tours around Europe with the promise of a room in the worst hotel in Paris, wanton Leffe abuse and some hungover flaneuring. While we rambled, and I rambled on, Adrian would film me on his phone and we might get a video from it.

The hotel was fine, if you avoided the rooms, which reminded me of the rooms I had seen on a documentary about a hostel in Camden Town for Irish navvies fallen on hard times– cell-like, penitential and grim. It was the stench that did it though; years of lung-busting fag abuse had left a bang of stale smoke that was ingrained into the carpets and curtains.

Popping in to see him in his room, I was met by a stunned Adrian, who had, while opening the window to let in some air, witnessed a bloke in the building across the alley pick up a hand gun from the table and place it into a holster. Thinking he might have been mistaken, I took a look myself and indeed saw a scary looking heavy with a gun strapped to his back. I was half shocked and half relieved that the gun incident might deflect from the shit hotel situation. Fortunately, having just come off a tour, Adrian was road-hardened and slightly delirious and seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. I later realised that we were positioned opposite the local police station and we’d seen a plain-clothes cop getting suited and booted before going out to bust some heads (or get a crepe).

Setting out on to Boulevard de Magenta we headed toward my old stomping ground of the Canal Saint Martin area, which is now home to the notorious ‘bobos’ or ‘bourgeois-boheme’. Once a working-class district along the canal and home to immigrants it is now full of bars and cafes teeming with trendy creatives and hipsters. Our plan was to film during the day because the light would suit the camera on Adrian’s phone better, so we went to get fed and watered.

It was while we were sitting in a café looking out on to the stretch of the canal where it disappears underground (the Parisian ‘renovator’ Baron Haussmann had it covered over in parts to stop the local denizens using it for protection during times of political upheaval) that something serendipitous happened– a gentle but steady snowfall began. At first we didn’t particularly take heed, but heading back up toward Rue de Lancry Adrian noticed that the streetlights were particularly bright and the shadow of the snowflakes against the light was striking. Passing the bridge by Hotel du Nord (the location for a famous scene in the eponymous film) I suggested we shoot something and see what it looks like. I began to walk up and down the bridge in the snow while Adrian shot on his phone. We then walked down toward the painfully hip ‘Chez Prune’ café and we got some more footage at the bridge there.

We had earned ourselves a break for refreshments, and as head of catering for the shoot I demanded we repair to ‘Le Patache’ on Rue de Lancry. When I had lived along the canal the bar had been run by a bickering elderly couple who were like a Gallic version of the couple who run the shop in Father Ted. By closing time the husband would be stocious drunk and his hard-bitten wife would have to shut up shop (this involved dragging huge wooden shutters up from the cellar to place on the windows, a la Mrs Doyle). It was clear that since I’d been here last the couple had moved on and the place had been done up by new bobo owners. While I supped on a Belgian beer, Adrian got his phone out and shot some footage of me supping on a Belgian beer. Soon it was time for Adrian to retire and for me to return to my own dingy cell to watch CSI Miami in French.

My concept for the video had been that I would be on the streets of Paris then descend into the metro, take a train and emerge somewhere in Dublin. However, having no storyboard or structure and a limited amount of time to do it (Adrian is a busy man) I had come to realise that this plan was way too ambitious. So instead we had decided to continue filming me walking the city around looking moody. The next morning we lit out for the parts of Paris that I had wound up feeling most at home in while living there– the gritty areas of Belleville and Menilmontant, where the streets are thronged with immigrants and arty types, the gutters are piled high with strange gunk and the architecture is modernist and ugly. I had thought that this might be a great place to get shots of north-eastern Paris’s faded grandeur. Sadly, while wandering up Rue de Menilmontant on a grey Tuesday morning I began to realise that it had all looked better in my head than in reality.

So we headed for that legendary necropolis Pere Lachaise, which was bound to serve up no end of rich pickings for Adrian (never a man to let a spooky mausoleum pass without a giving it a good once over). It was here we were approached by a strange man who seemed to have walked out of a film (this seems to happen a lot when I’m with Adrian) who we politely brushed off and we continued on our way. I was beginning to wonder if cruising in cemeteries was something that Parisians were into when we stumbled on the strangest sight. It was the burial place of a man named Victor Noir, which Adrian had heard was used as a fertility aid by Parisian women. There is a life size statue of him lying horizontally on the tomb that in the words of Wikipedia ‘has a very noticeable protuberance in Noir’s trousers’. According to legend, if one straddles Victor and kisses him on the lips you’ll get pregnant/find a husband/improve your sex life. As a result of all of the action he’s been seeing the lips and privates of Monsieur Noir have become ‘well-worn and shiny’. (This is the Parisians’ version of the moving statues, the dirty feckers). Having spotted a virginal patch of snow stretching along a row of tombs Adrian got me to walk through it, filming the prints left in my wake. He was confident that we had enough for a video, but I had one more location I wanted to check out before calling it a day.

It was this whim I wanted to satisfy that would lead us to our near-perilous situation on the metro. While roaming through YouTube looking for footage of metro stations I had stumbled on Serge Gainsbourg’s seminal song and video ‘Le poinnceneur de Lilas’ ( ‘The Ticket Puncher of Lilas’). It’s a song about a metro station attendant having an existential crisis who ends the song by predicting that once he’s finished punching holes in tickets he’ll punch one in his own head. We would go there in homage to the man himself and try to get something on film. We had nothing to lose.

We stepped on to a train at the Pere Lachaise station and soon we both felt uncomfortable trying to get a standing spot in the centre of the carriage. While fighting with the hordes for air I was reminded of how the metro is hell at certain times of the day. This was when I got a whiff of what smelled like smoke and my over-active imagination kicked in. Here in the heart of North African Paris, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were about to strike back at the French colonialists who had just sent in troops to the Sahara. No doubt about it, we were about to meet our makers. Adrian may not have been thinking the same thing, but I was sure he had smelled the smoke. We bailed at the next stop and gasped for air. After a few minutes I had to admit to myself that it was probably just the smell of a scorched tyre on the train. We dusted ourselves off and got on the next train heading for Porte des Lilas. Once we had got there, we found that it was a pretty mundane place with little of the romance inspired by the video. Still and all, we’d got there in one piece, so Adrian took out his phone and filmed me sitting on one of those plastic seats observing the trains arriving and commuters alighting.

We hopped on a train to take us back in towards the city (getting some more shots of me contemplating life and death on an empty carriage) and we were done. We later headed for ‘Le Zorba’ bar in Belleville near the birthplace of Edith Piaf for libations where memories become hazy, apart from the angina inducing bar bill we were handed at the close of the evening.

Barry (and band) plays The Cobblestone, Smithfield, Dublin on Thursday 19th of December. Special guests for the night are The Pigeons.

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