Did I mistype that?
OK, I meant, Paris Palge. If you don't already know about it, it's a beach-based installation that occurs along the banks of the Seine every July and August. Sometimes, as I walk along the Right Bank, I look down from the traffic-choked Quais onto the top of people's heads. There are crowds of them down there at all times of day. What are they doing? So far this year, I haven't gone down there to find out.
But, late one August night, I have to get back from Rivoli to somewhere near Bastille. I could take the steaming, sweating metro, or I could walk along the lamplit Quai de Voltaire, dodging the cars that stream by in a neon blur. Or I could go down to Paris Plage and walk.
On a night like this, with outdoors as hot as a room with closed windows and the city's heat trapped under its greenhouse-gas roof shutting out the stars, there's no competition.
So I make my way down one of the staircases that lead down to the Quais of the Seine.
People are still dressed for day, in short sleeved shirts and shorts, although it's 10.30pm. In the centre of the city they really are dressed for the beach. But their faces are greenish in the lamplight, eerily underlit by reflections from the river. The effect is kind of, Tour-group of the Living Dead.
They are milling backwards and forwards in both directions. Which stream should I follow? I join the thick flow of the constant foule* wandering toward the the Ile Saint-Louis. I wonder whether I'm going to come across a happening of some sort: some music, a reading or an art installation. I don't. Maybe I've chosen the wrong time of night. I walk for ten minutes; longer, for half an hour, but it's like a gigantic, aimless passagiata.
I start to watch for patterns in the crowd; trying to make sense of what's going on. I notice a group of teenage boys, dodging between the plagistes with a Galleries Lafayette trolley full of bottled water. One of them detatches from the trolley and opens a little electrician's door at the base of a cast-iron lamp post. He takes out a half-empty bottle; a packet of pills. What are they?
I look back at the crowd. They haven't noticed him. They're looking out for something else, hopefully, expectantly.
There's nothing actually happening.
I remember last year's Paris Plage when I spent one sweltering afternoon at Bassin de la Villette. Like tonight, it was crowded. I missed the baby dragon monster; I missed the Guinguette*. I walked up and down the Bassin, through crowds of Parisians who, always seeming to know better, walked always in the opposite direction.
Back to tonight. All the watching I've been doing has changed the nature of what I'm seeing. There's a feeling of tension, of expectation. Perhaps it's mine.
As a female on my own in a crowd, I'm used to feeling like this. Like most women, I've been trained to look out for a bag-snatch, an assault, an indecent proposal, an incident of any kind. What's going to happen? I look at other walkers, their cameras dangling casually from their shoulders, rucksacks gaping open, and feel smug. I'm armoured in my jacket (albeit light cotton) my purse slung across my body. If there's an easy target, it's not me. But I am the only lone female walker I can see. Where am I expecting the incident to come from? Is the crowd the threat or the mark?
I'm unprepared when it happens. A middle-aged, thin, ratty-looking guy with a guitar over his shoulder grabs me by the arm. What does he want? He pulls me towards him.
In a few seconds which seem like forever, the following thoughts go through my head:
He looks scruffy. Also arty.
I don't want to be prejudiced toward scruffy people I don't want him to think that I'm prejudiced toward scruffy people. Or artists (maybe he's part of the entertainment and I should actually be extra-nice to him). I smile.
A bit. Frozenly. He might, after all, be a purse-snatcher or a serial rapist.
After all, he grabbed my arm. That's a bit inappropriate, huh? It lends weight to the purse-snatcher theory. But he looks a bit Latin. Maybe grabbing is ok if you're Latin. Maybe he's just being tactile. I don't want to be uptight. And I don't want to be prejudiced against Latins.
I turn toward him. The effect of my smile and my not-smile must look somewhat grotesque.
He asks, politely,"Tu veux m'accompanier au..?"
OK. So he wants a date. It always comes from the unexpected angle. When you're expecting an iron bar, a feather can topple you.
I start to reply. But how do you gently reject a man you just assumed was trying to rob you?
Furthermore, I have forgotten that, when I'm flustered, I can no longer speak French. Instead, I make a kind of face which expresses relief, gratitude, polite regret and friendly interest. It's not really one face but several different faces fighting for self-expression over the same set of features.
He get's the point. I'm a tourist. I don't understand. He claps me on the shoulder:"A demain! A la meme heure, hein?"
And I'm left, still floundering in his wake, as the vedette* sails off into the night to find a more likely copine*.
Click on the illustration to see it bigger; click again to enlarge it further.
*foule - crowd
*guignette - informal traditional ball
*vedette - small boat; also star, celebrity
*copine - friend/girlfriend (I've always found this one a bit ambiguous)