So Anthony and I had our first couch surfing experince two nights ago. We decided to carry our bags from North Paris, into Central, hitting some uber touristy destinations on the way, to save money on bag storage and transport.
After a wicked day (not without constant, random aches and pains from carrying our bags some 10 miles through Paris) we arrvied in our couch surfing host’s neighbourhood in East Paris, near Nation. The neighbourhood had an inviting feel to it, like we were in the heart of the art/political quarter of Paris, yet avoiding the trendy and pretentious areas we had already passed through. Paris is strange like that. You can be walking down a street where the men are wearing rouge pantelons and cravates carrying small white dogs that polity poo into satin poo bags, and then around the courner you feel like you are in a scene from Blade Runner where you live under railway tracks warming your hands over burning barrels roasting small white dogs for dinner (although I am not impying the French eat small white dogs)!
It was about 8.10pm and so we were on time by my standards and late by Anthony’s. On arrvial to our hosts apartment block Anthony tried to top up his phone so we could call our host to let him know we had arrived. Anthony went quiet and it soon transpired that Orange had declined Anthony’s cash card and helpfully informed him that he could call the customer service number to find out why only once he had topped up. We then preceeded to randomly press buttons on the side of the building to try and alert someone of our presence, without luck. I suggested we find a payphone by the station and call from there. This is when we learnt that payphones in Paris only take cash cards. It then started to rain. We stood, forlorn, staring at the skanky payphone and the euros in our hands until a kind French man offered us his smartphone. This is when we learnt that we could not use a french keypad. The kind French man called our host instead. As the number dialled I had a sinking feeling that no one would be there and with a thud the French voicemail began. I think I understood the words please and then the universal beep to which I frantically left a message. We thanked the kind French man and made haste to our host’s appartment.
Once back we pressed the buttons on the side of the building some more until Anthony spoke to a woman on the other side of the road. She spoke English and offered to lend us her phone. At this point a resident of our hosts building arrived and let us into the building. We were shown our host’s front door which was on the ground floor next to the lift and another door. We rang the door bell. No answer. We rang again, and again and nothing. As our hopes of a free roof dissipated further we slid down the wall next to out host’s door and sat in silent protest. We decided that we would stay for another half hour then leave. He had to return at some point.
Over the next 2 hours we saw several residents arrive at the buidling and use the lift to reach their appartments, all politely greeting us and not dwelling on the fact that a couple of wet hippies were sat on their clean marble lobby floor. Anthony decided to try the other door that we had been leaning on and discovered that it was the emergenrcy exit which lead to the fire stairs. We looked at each other and decided we would wait a little longer and then camp out at the bottom of the fire stairs. A few mins later after writing a letter to our host with our mobile number on it, we decided, sod it, lets sleep in a fire escape, the main contriubuting factors being the rain hammering down outside, our tight fists when it comes to money and our apparent lack of dignity. So we silently slip through the door, slide up the stairs to check there are no cameras or other surprises waiting for us and then unpack with the stealth of ninjas. At least that is what it was like in my memory. In reality Anthony had his head torch on and we fumbled about with zips and rolling matts in the dim glow of the fire exit sign.
Rolling mats down, shoes off, sleeping bags out, piss pot at the ready, we lie down with knees at right angles ready for a night’s sleep. After 5 mins of whispering we hear the door to the front of the building open, and the clear and neat clicking of a woman’s heals. I whisper “don’t worry, it sounds like a woman in heels, she won’t use the stairs”. The clicks get closer and we both hold our breath. The clicks pass the lift and then in a moment of sheer terror the handle of the fire exit door snaps open. At this moment I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you are at school in nothing but a t shirt that is slightly too small. Exposed and vulnerable. Anthony bursts into a verbal diahorrea of apologises and explanations of how our friend is not back and we were waiting but don’t know where he is and to check the note, but in reality there is no real explanation to this all. We are sleeping in her fire exit in high quality camping gear. As much as my feet smell at this point we are clearly not homeless. We are just two strange English creatures who have chosen to sleep in a fire exit instead of seeking out a hotel. The woman gives us a look of bemused confusion and comments that she hopes our friend turns up and then takes the lift.
Anthony is quick to decide that we need to get out of there and think of plan B. I start to ram all my stuff into my bag in a panicked haze. I begin to think, what if our host comes back and the woman tells him we are in the fire exit?! We only have the camping mats left when we hear the door to the front of the building open again. More footsteps come towards the fire exit door and then stop. We both freeze like stupid rabbits about to be run over by a steam roller in a completely avoidable situation. We hear someone pick up the note we left on the door mat. We then hear numbers being pressed and a dialling tone. Anthony grabs his phone praying it is not on vibrate. We then hear a friendly voice saying he is coming to find us, and footsteps leave the building again.
In less than a minuet we are outside of the fire escape and in the lobby waiting for our host to return, frantically trying to come up with an elaborate story that will explain how we are already in the building minutes after he has left to find us that sounds less strange than what actually happened. But it is all just academic in the end. Our host returns with open arms and invites us in with a clear explanation as to why he was so late, a lesson in wine tasting and talk into the wee hours of the morning on politics, religion, culture and everything inbetween.
We did, however, make one further social faux par. We bought wine for a French man. This, as it happens, is probably worse than trying to sleep in a French man’s fire escape.
Emma, a fire escape in Paris, 12 October 2012