Is there anything, apart from a really good chocolate cream pie and receiving a large unexpected cheque in the post, to beat finding yourself at large in a foreign city on a fair spring evening, loafing along unfamiliar streets in the long shadows of a lazy sunset, pausing to gaze in shop windows or at some church or lovely square or tranquil stretch of quayside, hesitating at street corners to decide whether that cheerful and homy restaurant you will remember fondly for years is likely to lie down this street or that one? I just love it. I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.
This was 1990 the year that communism died in Europe and it seemed strange to me that in all the words that were written about the fall of the iron curtain, nobody anywhere lamented that it was the end of a noble experiment. I know that communism never worked and I would have disliked living under it myself but none the less it seems that there was a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appeared to work was one based on self interest and greed.
I sat on a toilet watching the water run thinking what an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eagerly abandoning all the comforts of home and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile effort to recapture the comforts you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place.
I don’t know why religious zealots have this compulsion to try to convert everyone who passes before them – I don’t go around trying to make them into St Louis Cardinals fans, for Christ’s sake – and yet they never fail to try. Nowadays when accosted I explain to them that anyone wearing white socks with Hush Puppies and a badge saying HI! I’M GUS! probably couldn’t talk me into getting out of a burning car, much less into making a lifelong commitment to a deity, and ask them to send someone more intelligent and with a better dress sense next time, but back then I was too meek to do anything but listen politely and utter non-committal ‘Hmmmm’s’ to their suggestions that Jesus could turn my life around. Somewhere over the Atlantic, as I was sitting taking stock of my 200 cubic centimetres of personal space, as one does on a long plane flight, I spied a coin under the seat in front of me, and with protracted difficulty leaned forward and snagged it. When I sat up, I saw my seatmate was at last looking at me with that ominous glow. ‘Have you found Jesus?’ he said suddenly. ‘Uh, no, it’s a quarter,’ I answered and quickly settled down and pretended for the next six hours to be asleep, ignoring his whispered entreaties to let Christ build a bunkhouse in my heart.
On the morning of our second day, we were strolling down the Champs-Elysées when a bird shit on his head. ‘Did you know a bird’s shit on your head?’ I asked a block or two later. Instinctively Katz put a hand to his head, looked at it in horror – he was always something of a sissy where excrement was concerned; I once saw him running through Greenwood Park in Des Moines like the figure in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ just because he had inadvertently probed some dog shit with the tip of his finger – and with only a mumbled ‘Wait here’ walked with ramrod stiffness in the direction of our hotel. When he reappeared twenty minutes later he smelled overpoweringly of Brut aftershave and his hair was plastered down like a third-rate Spanish gigolo’s, but he appeared to have regained his composure. ‘I’m ready now,’ he announced. Almost immediately another bird shit on his head. Only this time it really shit. I don’t want to get too graphic, in case you’re snacking or anything, but if you can imagine a pot of yoghurt upended onto his scalp, I think you’ll get the picture. ‘Gosh, Steve, that was one sick bird,’ I observed helpfully. Katz was literally speechless. Without a word he turned and walked stiffly back to the hotel, ignoring the turning heads of passers-by. He was gone for nearly an hour. When at last he returned, he was wearing a windcheater with the hood up. ‘Just don’t say a word,’ he warned me and strode past. He never really warmed to Paris after that.