Pick-up on a Paris Street

Radio NZ Competition

October 2022

On a four-day stay in Paris in July, 2010, I was prepared for a little adventure, not the French kind of “aventure” but just a little happening out of the ordinary. I am always on the lookout for something or someone beyond simple sightseeing as I walk strange streets, and that’s all I do really, because all the usual wonderful sights have been seen, so now I just wander or “flâner” in French. 

I delight in encountering things out of the ordinary, a little unusual incident perhaps, something a trifle outré, or just a friendly chat with someone, such as the monk-like chap I once noticed putting out the rubbish at big open gates. He “bonjoured” me and I asked him what was inside. It turned out he was in the religious order of Lazarus and he invited me to have a look around the grounds of the hospital on the Left Bank. It’s not often you get a chance in Paris to go inside gardens and courtyards protected behind huge locked gates. This garden was about a quarter of an acre (massive for central Paris!) with trees, bedded plants, bushes and lawns all overlooked by many high windows. It was a charitable organisation for the unfortunate. I often recall with pleasure the Lazarite putting out the rubbish and stopping for a friendly chat before inviting me inside.

Not infrequently as I walk the great City of Light – I prefer the singular there, dear reader, from “La Ville-Lumière” or “The Light City”, referring to enlightenment, culture and learning rather than Paris’s wonderful city sky or its street lighting which is actually quite subdued. But I meander. Quite often on my Paris street rambles I get asked for directions, and incredibly I am sometimes able to help. I’ve wondered about this, why Parisians would ask me, and concluded it must be something to do with not looking like a tourist – I don’t carry a camera, a bag or a guidebook; I am dressed for long walking, bearing none of the obvious tourist accoutrements. I walk lightly, simply keeping on the lookout a bit, of course taking in the sights, but also remaining open to the geniality of strangers, ready to help them if needs be.

But I ramble on my ramblings! To my tale! I was walking in Montparnasse on the Left Bank, near the southern entrance of the Jardin du Luxembourg and heading towards the gardens. A small car, a nice new economy four-door compact Citroen, drew up alongside me on the left side of a quiet street,. The driver opened the window. He was holding a map and asked me for directions. He was maybe in his mid-fifties, a bit younger than me, his face somewhat pudgy, dark hair carefully groomed; he wore an expensive grey sweater, a silky scarf at his neck. He was Italian and wanted me to show him how to get somewhere on the map. I was delighted to help, to show off my knowledge, expecting it would be in the vicinity.

 “You speak Italian?” he asked.

 “Sorry, no, please speak English, I’ll do my best, I know Paris a little.” 

I was a tad disconcerted when he said he needed help to get somewhere beyond the Champs Elysées, west to the Bois de Boulogne, quite a way off, over seven or eight kilometres. Not that it was the distance that bothered me but the fact that he hadn’t asked for something nearer, which I could simply give directions to and get back to my beloved wanderings about Montparnasse.

He told me that he had rented a car, not much petrol left, no credit card because the bank machine had “eaten” it  … what to do?  I suggested that under these difficult circumstances, as two strangers, he needed to ask for help perhaps from a friendly “gendarme” or go to a police station nearby.  I was just a tourist with only a little knowledge of Paris, really the wrong person to deal with serious matters of another visitor’s difficulties in a foreign country. Oh, no! He didn’t want to deal with any authorities. Fleetingly I thought ill of him, that he expected me to give him money or deal with his stress; this thinking was not backed by his smooth demeanour, his elegant dress and his glutinous way of speaking. I couldn’t help harking back to my pleasant encounter with the monk, hoping that this one was going to join my catalogue of happy chats. 

I started to wonder if I had missed something. Was all his palaver a code for let’s go to the Bois de Boulogne? This was a popular hangout with prostitutes working in vans, soliciting being illegal in France. His out-of petrol hire car wasn’t exactly right for any unbridled cramped back-seat pleasuring. I was untutored in the ways of well-dressed older men in cars wanting something more than directions; I knew certain parts of central Paris fairly well and just wanted to show my knowledge in a helpful way then get back to being a “flâneur” in Paree.

“Come round other side of car and I show you something …”  He was quite insistent. I went round to the passenger side. I was mindful of not wanting this little event to turn into an “aventure”, something out of control or too risqué, so I left the door wide open and sat in sideways so my feet were firmly planted on “terra firma” as I twisted round to look at Signor’s map. 

He gave me his card, golden with black letters, “Milano” the company name on it. He was going to a model show, got lost, no money, as he said:

“I’m a designer … here my album, my daughter, she a model. Look! Look! … I do all this, my work. You help me. Look! I give you clothes.” 

He turned to the back seat and grabbed a bag from a heap of fine glossy stuff. It was full of new designer things like leather jackets, all very swish. 

“These are special, you look good, nice clothes … ”

I couldn’t help wondering if he was thinking that his recommendations would make me look better than I thought I did now! I was a trifle miffed at that insinuation but I let it go because I needed an unfettered mind to deal with the fashion statements. For a moment I thought he’d chosen me because he saw my appearance as drab, and felt I’d appreciate being dressed up. There was a feeling though of a travelling salesman making a pitch. Still, it was quite a cock-and-bull story, perhaps in direct translation a “coq-et-taureau histoire”. I thought back to my Lazarite monk who hadn’t offered anything other than a friendly gesture in showing me inside his gated hospital. 

“Milano” pushed the bag on to my lap and I returned it. Clearly I was showing that I didn’t like the stuff at all, added to which I must have been indicating that I didn’t care for his attentions. So not too surprising then that the whole thing turned, becoming it could be said a trifle outré. I told Milano I was walking the streets, carrying nothing, didn’t want to start now, and I made a movement to get up out of the seat. Then I turned and asked him again why he didn’t go to the police for help as he had no petrol and no credit card, as he had told me. Authorities could help him out of this hole. I suggested that he look at the car rental papers to see if there was some information there. With that he changed his tune. 

“Don’t interrupt with questions!” he fired.

 I found his Italian easy enough to understand in the contexts, and was a bit taken aback by the sudden flare up – to be fair I suppose I was sitting in his car but he had invited me to do so and he had asked me for help, so I was just doing precisely that. I decided to change my nice tune, too, telling him firmly he should go to the police, that I couldn’t help him in his rather desperate plight. It was way beyond assisting someone to find a nearby street or something on a map, his original request. And it was miles away from anything like my meeting with the amiable Lazarite monk.

There was to be no more smiling and pleasant seeking help, and no more offering me designer clothes in glossy bags; he turned dark and serious, reminiscent of something out of Dante’s Inferno. He started to make odd spitting noises at me, demanding his name card back. I wish now that I’d told him he gave it to me and I wanted to keep it. I managed to ask if I could take his photo. This caused him displeasure and he started the car. I got out quickly, purposely leaving the passenger door open. He revved off luckily not hitting anything. I took a photo of the back of his car before he stopped at the end of the street 50 metres away. He stretched over and closed the passenger door, then turned towards Boulevard St Michel. I vaguely hoped that he’d have more luck there … with directions, I mean.

I knew that this had to have been an attempted “pick up” albeit an odd one, but his age and fashionable dress puzzled me; why would he bother with me dressed in my verging-on-dowdy walking gear? Then there was all that odd guff about a hire car, petrol, being lost, and asking for directions – quite a rigamarole just to get someone into their car and looking at gifts.

However, one thing is certain the spitting noises he made weren’t ever going to lead towards a more intimate liaison in any way at all, or result in my acceptance of his designer garments … or receive street directions in Paris! I walked on to Jardin du Luxembourg hoping that all future meetings in Paris would be more like the one with the Lazarite monk. In fact, I playfully thought that anything like the Milano meeting anytime soon again would have me happily taking monk’s orders. 

“Arrivederci, amico!”

Post Script
I phoned my wife in New Zealand not five minutes after the incident. She was amazed at both the encounter and my handling of it, saying I had had a narrow escape. Years later another friend being told about this said that perhaps I had missed an opportunity for more of life’s experience, for a little walk on the wild side. He was a close friend and I perceived a bit of leg pulling. Possibly if I were a more adventurous cavalier type, wanting real gritty stuff for writing about, I would have dared. Still, I recalled the moment sharply and I had no wish at all to drive off with a stranger to heaven knows where. I told my friend the only walk I wanted to take was to the Jardin du Luxembourg for a picnic lunch, then over to the Parc Montsouris via Mouffetarde – the joys of being a “flâneur” in Paris easily superseded the dubious pleasures of a back seat bonk in the Bois de Boulogne with an Italian fashion designer, or any nationality for that matter.

Post Post Script

Though soliciting for prostitution is illegal in France, parts of the Bois de Boulogne are a popular rendezvous place for prostitutes at night-time, usually working in vans parked by the side of the road. The French government has been trying to eliminate this business from the park.