I live ten minutes from my favourite place in Paris and the protagonist of my favourite French novel- the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. In the book the building is alive, caring for Quasimodo when no one else does. Notre-Dame is a beautiful gothic beast. Concentric arches thrust skywards, a spire pricks the heavens, every surface wriggles with embellishments, the whole structure seems to shift before your eyes, intimidating and alluring, it invites and repels you, finally leaving you standing frozen in front of it.
I decided to turn a hungover Saturday into a day of pleasure and sat in front of my favourite building reading my favourite book. In France you can blow your head off with a simple trip to the pharmacy. It is the only country I’ve been to which sells codeine over the counter. A box of that is a one-way ticket to heaven on earth. It feels like you’ve taken a step back from reality and wrapped your brain in a flocculent blanket. You burn with empathy for everyone around you.
My rapidly receding pupils roam like rodents across the masonry. Tiny and nimble, they scuttle over the cathedral, enjoying every last nook and cranny. I refer to these eyes of mine as rodents because they revel in rank surroundings. They like to look at dirty places. Lord knows they ought to, for dirty is the default state of any place I live in. However clean the quarters upon my arrival, they are dirty within days and dirty they remain until someone else lives there. The dirtier the better in my humble opinion. I trace pictures on surfaces. My grime is never static. It swirls around me like a speeding carousel.
In that novel and in this city I am so seduced by the Roma Gypsies. The government says they don’t belong in France, that they’re too wild and unruly to exist in modern society. They are one of my favourite things about France. The bright paisley rags, the earthy aroma, the guttural tongue, rather than giving the impression of not belonging in France, they seem to belong to another world entirely, a different time and a different place, a world of chaos and freedom and exotic transgressions.
In the novel Notre Dame de Paris Esmeralda is an enchanting Roma Gypsy. The cruel, ascetic Archdeacon is tortured by desire and he kidnaps Esmeralda, imprisons her in the Cathedral and sentences her to death. The Roma Gypsies swarm out of their mythical gangsta’s paradise bearing burning torches and battering rams and storm the cathedral to save Esmeralda. It reminds me very much of the past week when the police of Ireland and Greece have abducted children from Roma Gypsy encampments claiming they don’t belong there. I wish so badly that the wronged Roma Gypsies would storm the police stations with battering rams and burn down those ‘bastions of puritan oppression’.
Gazing at the cathedral on that dreamy afternoon, I imagined a hoard of vagabonds swarming across the bridge and smashing down the cathedral doors to save their daughter. After a few hours reading, a Roma Gypsy with a fishing rod approached me for a cigarette. I beamed a codeine smile, sat him down beside me and gave him a cigarette. I picked up his fishing rod, weighing it in my hands as if I could use it. ‘Where are you fishing?’ He said it’s broken. He walked away with his broken fishing rod held high like a standard bearer for the dispossessed and a busker wailed hallelujah and a little tear obscured the view from my tiny pupils.
As evening rolled in my reveries were ruined by the influx of break-dancers. ‘Put your hands and legs in the air if you want to see a show!’ one shouts, the dulcet tones of a doped-up dickhead.