Above All

It's been a while since 2009. I remember, because in 2009, fellow degenerate c. was living in Paris, squatting in a gorgeous, two story, free-standing stone house, with all power, water, gas and electricity bills taken care of by the city. And i. was dating a parisienne, so would naturally spend his weekends eurostarring over to Paris to spend time ignoring his girlfriend and exploring with us.

I remember 2009, because each week, we'd be out at least three evenings, catching the last metro into the depths of the system, skipping off the end of the platforms, skirting workers, and catching the first metro home in the morning. Our reward was an intimate knowledge of the parisien metro; its tunnels, the metal cacophony of trains squeeling past each other as we cowered between the tracks, faces down. And the backwaters. The billabongs. The oaisies. Forgotten corners where the flurry of the metro became a muted vibration, the only sound discarded newspapers teased by the ebb and flow of an warm breeze.

While winter was metro, summer was devoted to rooftops. Anything with scaffolding, and many things without were climbed. The cuban ballet was admired from above, our leftover champagne bottles next to the billowing flag atop the Grand Palais as a token to the next visitors.

And while many monuments shared our company, there were a few that we'd been unable to visit.

And so, it was befitting that 5 years later, i. would spend a weekend in Paris, and we could render visit to a masterpiece in architecture, previously unknown from above. Despite the near gale-force winds, with their biting edge, we sat upon its marble pews and admiring the view, ate salt and vinegar chips, sank a beer, and reflected upon the time gone by since 2009.

At 3AM, we curled up in a dusty, forgotten side corridor, and buried ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night, the escape plan for the morning only a vaguely formulated sketch. As it so turns out, as morning dawned over the Parisien rooftops, we were alone to admire the view. The sun bled scarlet over the checkerboard haze of flightpaths etched into the dawn canvas, as we slipped from one world into another.

In limbo

Last night was somewhat unexpected. It started off the same: backpack replete with hammock, sleeping bag, water and flu-tablets. I was walking from Odeon towards Arts et Metiers. After spending the weekend losing traction in icy Prague, while crisp, this Parisian night seemed balmy by comparison.

I strolled across the Pont d'Arcole towards Hotel de Ville. Glancing back, the spotlights on Notre Dame stuttered to darkness, indicting midnight, quickly followed by the lights under the bridge I just walked across - of classic iron beam & rivot construction. Its matrix of cross-beams seemed like it'd be the perfect place to string up a hammock. I'd not planned to sleep here at all, but in the circumstances, it seemed ideal. To get to the bridge structure, I'd have to cross over 'the Quai' - Paris's road that runs along the edge of the river. There's no pedestrian clearance, and it's always got traffic. Dodging a few cars, I was delighted to see they're put anti-climb grids on the bridge - which makes things a lot more easy to climb.

As I strung up my hammock, I couldn't help but notice that between the girders, there was a direct drop into the turgid brown of the Seine below. Now, I've never properly slept in a hammock before, especially not whilst suspended above a freezing, fast flowing river. And this hammock was an ultra-light model. No nice curled edges to keep you in. I slid my way precariously into my sleeping bag, and worked myself up into the sling - which was not only surprisingly solid, but very comfortable as well.

Lulled by the traffic, and gently rocked from side to side, I drifted off to sleep, dreaming intermittently of rolling over and into the river. At 5😸0AM, despite being fully clothed, isolated, and in a winter sleeping bag (that had survived these conditions in Nepal) I was cold. While looking for another layer, I noticed that there was actually a manhole exit from under the bridge, so packed everything up, cracked the manhole, and started the walk home.

It wasn't the best night's sleep I've had, but considering the temperature dropped to -3°C - it was surprising just how comfortable it could be in such exposed conditions with basic kit.

Mud Slide

Those who remember 'Asterix and the Golden Sickle' might remember Asterix and Obelix visiting Lutece. 

They're not alone in their enchantment of this bustling city: every day, thousands of tourists smudge their noses against tour bus windows and walk hand in hand in admiration of the same site: Lutece is the heart of Paris, Ile de la Cite.

The growing metropolis had an insatiable requirement for building matierials. In the Asterix frame, we see the Butte de Montmarte - which would be eventually rendered hollow, carved from the inside out for its gypsum. Likewise, the surrounding areas of Paris were heavily mined for their sandstone.

As the city grew, things started collapsing into the empty quarries, and the catacombs were formed in 1777, to attempt to reinforce the underground. Since then, the extensive network of tunnels served as routes for smugglers, German and French resistance bunkers, mass graves, wine cellars, mushroom plantations, and even recently an escape route from Paris' notorious Sante Prison.

Naturally, these spaces intruige visitors and locals. The modern 'unofficial' catacombs attract the intrepid adventurer and the 20-something that wants to drink and get high underground. Rooms are carved out. Parties are thrown. Tunnels are dug. Graffiti is scrawled.

I've always found it hard to appreciate the catacombs. As impressive as they are, they're not the most welcoming of places. When you're not with a group of friends, there's the distinct odour of stale cigarettes and turned beer. Everything is cold and wet to the touch. You're almost always far from an exit.

Others, however, are addicted. Moses Gates is one of these such people, and on his recent trip to Paris, convinced me to go down with him and to spend the night 'hobochicing it out'.

I'd prefer to sleep on the street, in a park, on a bench - anywhere - before sleeping in the catas, so paradoxically, thought it'd be a good idea.

We went down, shared a few drinks, talked about girls and exploring, and eventually made our way to the 'Double Cabinet' to sleep. It's a room that's rarely frequented, due to the fact you have to belly crawl for a good 50m to get in. And this time, it was very, very muddy.

Eventually covered head to toe in white paste, we arrived in the room, and set up to go to sleep. Thirty minutes later, Rex announces: The walls are closing. I gotta get out of here. 

So, tired and bleary-eyed, we marched back out, getting out in time to take the first metro.

There's nothing quite like taking a metro when you're covered head to toe in mud. Everyone - everyone - on the train despises you. Women hide their children. People change wagons. People glare at you, like you're a piece of trash. They have no idea where you've been, who you are, or certainly why you've got a silly grin on your face, but certainly, it's as if your very presence is an deep insult.

And being subject to this disdain, you can't help but realise it's the same judgement that the homeless are submitted to every single day.

Clair de lune

After the conclusion of a somewhat frustrating appointment, I found myself strolling in an arrondissement of Paris that I was somewhat unfamiliar with; that is to say, it's chic. The type of place where buildings have cleaning staff who have an irritating habit of polishing door combination locks daily, removing any chance of deciphering the door code by the fingerprints. The part of town where buildings have a resident staircase, and a service-staff entrance. The type of place where unused spaces go unnoticed.

By chance, I stumbled across one such building, just as a resident had opened the door. Smiling, she held the door for me, and I sailed through into the courtyard, where after a few minutes of fence hopping and wall jumping, I was on the roof. And oh! What a roof. Replete with a view of the Eiffel Tower, and a magnificent forgotten space, I'd found my next squat: Three stories, spiral staircase and multiple balconies.

That night, I packed my bag. I allowed myself a luxury, a handwarmer - and more importantly, my warm sleeping bag.
Under the light of a full moon and clear sky, I settled in, lulled by the rumble of a distant metro.

One of the most challenging elements of a successful squat isn't the entry or the installation, but the exit. I had set an alarm somewhat optimistically: 930AM - in an attempt to avoid rooftopping infront of breakfasting Parisians. Surpisingly, nestled in my sleeping bag, I slept so soundly that I was awoken by my alarm and the patter of rain. I packed my gear, dusty, and slipped into the metro unnoticed.

Sand Worm

I'm pretty sure that every male aged below sixty devoured Herge's Tintin series throughout their formative years.

The sense of adventure, strong moral compass and insatiable curiosity had me hooked. Tintin and the Broken Ear. Tintin in America. And: Tintin in the land of Black Gold. Stranded the dunes: a portrait of a rolling ocean, painted in sand - stretching beyond the shimmering horizon.

I've been captivated by dunes ever since. Endurance racing along the pistes of the African Paris - Dakkar had brought me to Morroco's Merzouga dune - dominating in size, complete with camels silhouetted on its crests against a rising sun - but not the dunes from Tintin. We'd attacked 18km of dunes in Mauritania - a glipse into an apocolyptic world. Winds suspended the fine grains in the air, imposing an omnipresent orange fog around us and blotting the sun. The soft sand swallowed our motorbikes, sapping our energy and morale. Hours later, we emerged with only 1 litre of fuel to spare. Formidable dunes, but not the dunes from Tintin.

Now, I found myself in Tunisia - again for enduro biking. We'd spent days riding closer to the edges of the Sahara, and after hours of blasting across powdery fesh-fesh, we were presented with a vista of dunes, swelling around a rocky spur that rose several hundred metres above where we now were. Over the course of an hour or so, we battled the dunes; sliding off ridges, stalling the engines as the inclines became to steep, elation turning to terror when breaching the ridge of a dune turned into a plummet on the other side.

Eventually we abandoned the bikes and assaulted the outcrop. The final dune resisted, each step causing a cascade of liquid sand that disappeared from below my feet, causing my to slide back. Finally, after climbing on all fours, I arrived, embarassingly exhausted at the top. Stretching before me, an uninterrupted panorama of dunes, rising and falling beyond the horizon. I had finally found the dunes of Tintin.

That night, I snuggled my bivvy in between some dunes, and to the lullaby of celestial magnificance above, fell asleep. The next night, by an oasis I found an incomplete room on top of a hotel, and had some of the best sleep I've ever had. 

Logistics to return home were rendered complicated due to having to travel with our bikes, so we'd opted for a ferry from Tunis to Genova. Somewhat unfortunately, the already long voyage was almost tripled to bad weather. Never mind; equipped with a street-sweeper bristle and paperclip, the nightclub / VIP bar on top of the boat, once off-limits, was now, much to our delight, transformed into a private event - ours - after which I curled up on the very plush sofas until the sunrise over the ocean woke me.

First time I've ever left a nightclub at 8AM in the morning.