France on a field trip

France on a field trip



On the night of their arrival in Paris, Quirke closed the door that led onto the dark balcony. Other boys were grabbing beds in the large room. The evening in the fourteenth was calm and quiet, with a spring chill. He gazed at the city lights and inhaled the foreign air. He listened to distant traffic. Hands on the railing, he peered down on an empty, inviting back street before looking around again. Nearby rose the beautiful bourgeois apartment blocks that surround Place Denfert-Rochereau. Beyond them lay Montparnasse and the neon of its cinemas.

As Quirke, CP and several of the girls on the trip walked down the boulevard there, two chancers appeared out of nowhere and spoke to a couple of the girls in perfect English. The casual, assured manner in which they did this took Quirke aback at first. Did they look like they were just off the boat? The girls were embarrassed and kept walking. CP was looking in windows. He hadn’t noticed. The women turned their heads away but persistence dragged some kind of answer, eventually. The pair took this as a sign of success and veered to the door of a bar but, on looking back, looked surprised to see everyone still walking. One of them held the door open a moment. Then they gave up and disappeared in the crowd.

Tina was the eldest, a mature student, but she was the one charged eight quid after foolishly ordering a gin and tonic in a bar. The rest of them settled for glasses of beer. An Arab band did a sound check. They had a dangerous-looking girl singer who stood near the door, signalling to the musicians. As the place filled up she went up to sing. They covered Baby Jane and her English wasn’t great. Some of the lines were gibberish.

The waiter who served their table seemed under pressure. A group of young Parisians sat in the corner, buying nothing, and he started to hassle them. One of them was almost too good-looking. She had a pair of expensive horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. She kept taking them off and putting them on again. She was only semi-vain.

The girls had duty-free bottles of spirits in their room back at the hostel but a mixer was in very short supply so they all stopped off at the hostel’s reception desk. Quirke was told to ask for Coke in French but the corporal on night duty wanted to know why. Tina mentioned “mixer” behind Quirke and he grasped that too but threw a little fit. No alcohol is allowed here. I will confiscate the bottle!

They said no more but withdrew to the room. The orange-walled corridors were very hot because the heating had been turned up to eleven. Tina opened a bottle of Bacardi and poured out six large measures. Whatever Coke they had left, the women got it. The boys drank the rum straight. Quirke was still a little wary of them, especially of dark-haired Ciara. He was sitting on the end of an empty bed and she reclined on an elbow on the one across from him. She looked a bit intense. She leaned her head on one shoulder but he relaxed a bit when she offered him a cigarette.

The spirits of the night were hurting in the morning. Breakfast was missed and it took the cleaners to rouse the boys. The group got on the bus again and the tour began. Down by the river cruise dock, a group of schoolgirls that had already come over to Quirke on the ferry happened to turn up at the same time. They started to wave and shout. “You’re big in France,” observed CP.

The cold breeze on the Seine made Quirke feel a bit better but he and CP sat huddled in their coats while a lot of the other field trippers leapt around, clicking their cameras, craning their necks and laughing like idiotic children. Spindly white human figures had been painted on some of the riverbank walls so he looked at them and at some pretty Italian girls who were also on the boat.

On the dust and dirt under the trees on the Champs Elysées, Tina asked Quirke the French for ‘Where is…’ so he told her and she went up to a cop. “Où est McDonalds?” The policeman shrugged. Quirke didn’t know about le McDo, which might have helped. He wasn’t in honours French, or any French, anymore. Quirke and CP got frankfurters from a stall instead. Quirke took one bite from the sausage, swallowed it, then threw the rest away and ate the bread roll.

In the afternoon he and CP slipped into the Jeu de Paume, almost by default, having grown bored sitting outside. The Impressionists were housed there in 1984 and they made for them because they hadn’t much time and those paintings were the most familiar. The number seemed endless as they walked up and down the varnished floor. The pictures that stood out most for them on that floor were Van Gogh’s Eglise à Auvers, five of Monet’s goes at the cathedral at Rouen, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit. “I like them too but we’d better go,” warned CP. Quirke made him wait a little longer, already thinking he should treasure this. It was an unexpected, accidental element to a drinking holiday.


That evening the coach took them to Brittany, to a hotel outside Dinan. At dinner they got some long white blobs as the main course. Quirke asked a waitress what it was but he didn’t know the word she used. CP guessed it was octopus. It didn’t matter, there was bread and other bits and pieces and the hotel had a bar.

Nick Rhodes has reflected on the (real) video for Girls on Film by saying that if they had the chance again they would ease off on the porn. A strange French couple arrived that night with a tape the guy was anxious to put into the recorder under the lounge TV. The more sociable members of the Irish group already lounged there with their drinks. They watched him kneel and get it going. Among the dodgy cartoons and clips, the tape contained the chef d’oeuvre version of Girls on Film. Had the following phrase existed at the time it would have summed up the context-driven review. This is the sh*t.

In the morning, outlines of farm buildings could be made out less than a stone’s throw behind the hotel and a tractor engine was running in the cold fog. The bus was waiting. A quick purchase of jus d’orange for two in the bar was accomplished while CP took some left-over bread rolls from the dining room. Then they were away.

The professor had decided to split the party into small groups and one was dropped off in each town and village. Tina, Jess and Quirke were left in a village called Pleugueneuc. They had lunch in its one restaurant. Then the women didn’t want to do anything. They walked around the quiet village for a while before the girls told Quirke they were going to stay in the only bar, which was also the restaurant. He wasn’t really keen on bothering people either but he wanted to have something to relate at the seminar that evening.

There was a funeral in the afternoon. The church bell rang in the middle of the village and sombre people appeared silently out of doorways and side streets. He wandered off and came back to the church when the service was over. Groups of men were still standing in the churchyard. Quirke had sheets of paper with lists of products and animals in French and he approached one group to explain what he was doing there. One gruff old boy spotted donkeys on the list and jerked his thumbs at his chest. Des ânes? C’est nous.

Back in the bar, it was crowded with mourners, a lot of whom had red, peasant faces. The girls were sitting next to the mayor; a powerfully built, white-haired man in his sixties. The mayor asked Quirke the girls’ names. It turned out he was an ex-marine commando. His polite, relaxed, half-interested manner was a bit different from that of three Irish army thugs on the ferry, where the down-to-earth Jess, with the boyish hair, had wisely advised the boys not to wind them up. They’re on about communism. Just stay quiet. They’ll kill you.

When the bus came back, Ciara was lying on the back seat, in shock, having been attacked by an alsatian on a farm. The left-hand side of her face was cut and the earring had been torn from the lobe. She had bent down to pet the dog. The wife of the farmer sat her down in her kitchen and put some iodine on the cuts. To her it was an unfortunate nuisance. Quirke asked CP how his group had got on. Where they had been, le maire had received them in his nightshirt.

Back at the hotel Ciara was put to bed and a doctor was called. He tidied up her face and gave her a sedative for the night. She was given the next day off. At the seminar that evening Quirke watched a shy young man get so tongue-tied when delivering his report that he could not form whole words. It was uncomfortable but bizarrely fascinating. He seemed to be almost choking. This happened just as the rest were yawning and watching the time. Some were desperate to get to the bar.

A number of Iraqi pilots were also staying at the hotel. They were training at a nearby airbase. They carried bottles of whiskey around with them at night and liked to talk and share their drink. Every night their girls from the town and those Irish who stayed up into the early hours formed a strange kind of party set with them.

The bus meandered along the north coast the following day. It went through Dinard, which had been a haven for rich Brits in the nineteenth century. Their villas and mock chateaux remained on the heights above the town and the bay. When they reached St. Malo they walked around the damp, narrow streets of the walled old town.

In the afternoon they went to Mont St. Michel. The bus stopped on the causeway so those with cameras could get a vantage point. Some descended the bank to get a better picture. Quirke and CP went down too, to stretch their legs. A girl tried to squat at the mud’s edge to take a picture but she fell in. It was like a signal. The boys started to wrestle. CP was always a bit too beefy and awkward and, in trying to knock him in, snapped the remaining good arm of Quirke’s glasses. After calling him a f*cking this and a f*cking that, Quirke got some selloptape in one of the trinket shops up at the Mont.


The trip’s chief interpreter, a postgrad, had a breakdown that night. Quirke had been talking to her at a dining table after the evening meal and when he stood up to leave she looked as if she was going to burst into tears. She’d been complaining about the lack of understanding the department had of the difficulties. They expected her to function like a computer and didn’t seem to grasp the bus driver was just a driver, he wasn’t an expert on the geography of Brittany.

Seven of the Iraqis left the next morning and their luggage was piled on the patio outside the front door. They were saying goodbye to the rest and all the faces were glum. The Irish were waiting for their bus at the time, in order to go to Rennes. No one needed an interpreter to get dropped off in the middle of Rennes. CP and Ciara had asked to be put with Tina, Jess and Quirke for the day. Their appointed task was to get some information on the regional bus services but the station corporal was a little bastard who ignored their existence, apart from throwing a few timetable sheets across the counter at Quirke. The girls took care of carrier bags of wine bottles, while CP had an idea and tried to copy a route map from a wall. Old women looked on sternly whenever bottles clinked or fell over, while some gorgeous little tarts hung around the photo booths.

Across the street in a craft shop, Quirke bought a black metal bracelet for Sharon, his first college girlfriend, his first any girlfriend. Another girl had bought the same bracelet for herself. On the bus back to Dinan, Tina turned and asked him if he’d bought Sharon a present.
“I just got her a bracelet, that’s all.”
It was wrapped in turquoise paper and he handed it over for inspection.
“Oh that’s really nice. It’s lovely.”
She handed it back and he smiled. The other buyer then turned and said,
“Yeah, I got one too.”
Half an hour later the latter called across to him.
“Hey Quirke, the black stuff is coming off mine.”

She had been scraping it with her fingernail. Quirke had a go at that too. She was right, it looked nice but it was shit. It was their last night at the hotel and CP’s map received great praise from the department. The Iraqis were walking around with whiskey again. Quirke had got to know one in particular. M. was a big, beaming young man with a broad moustache. They spoke a mixture of French and English. At home, long before, he’d been been taught English by an Irishman, a “Mister Ma-gow-an” who’d cried on his last day as he said goodbye to the class. M. also explained that they knew their women were in it for the money and the good time. Nonetheless the lads were far from home and had the money, so it didn’t matter. When Quirke eventually asked him about the war, in connection with the boys who had just left, he expressed natural regret but added that Saddam Hussein was a man who made no distinction between rich and poor, which was good enough reason for him to fight.


The interpreter had recovered enough to walk around in a bathrobe and she came up with the idea of a makeshift disco in the dining room. The tables were cleared away and the Iraqis had a pile of disco records which they were ready to put on once they had rigged up some kind of sound system. The professor wanted to keep the local women out of it, muttering something about impressionable girls being under his care. He went over towards the Iraqis and said, “Just keep your prostitutes out”, at which point Tina, Jess and Ciara were horrified, even though the Iraqis hadn’t understood his accent. They urged him to go over to Quirke and CP at the bar counter and ask them for a second opinion.

The two boys, both nineteen, explained to their professor that it would be taken as an awful insult. M. wanted to know if there was a problem but Quirke told him it would be OK. Don’t mind him. Il est fou. To prove it, he went over to the part of the bar where the French women had gathered defensively. Mesdames, vous êtes très, très bienvenues à entrer. After this enchanté moment that avoided a diplomatic incident, CP and Quirke were rewarded with extra whiskey from department funds.

On the way back to the boat at Le Havre they stopped in Bayeux, where Quirke skipped the tapestry to get a café ham sandwich from a kind old lady with an aggressive little dog. He told her it was their last day and she asked was he the bus driver. Vous êtes chauffeur? Non, étudiant.

In Le Havre they went into a hole of a truckers place before catching the ferry. The last things Quirke saw were the cliffs of chalk and the obelisk and the guiding lights of the harbour before the fog came in. None of them relished the boat journey. There was a storm at sea. The ship was heaving. In their cabins they tried to sleep but the storm and the sound of the engines acted in unison and, as the vessel rose and fell, Quirke twisted and turned and finally lay miserably still.

In the morning he felt a bit better, walking around the decks. The storm had gone. To him at least, it was regrettable to overhear English spoken again. His group decided against the greasy cafeteria with its hundreds of burgers heaped against greasy glass and instead went into the proper restaurant. The waiter recommended the beef so CP and Quirke took his word for it but it was raw. The women had more sense.


Paris, November 2016

Paris, November 2016

18th November, Friday

Over here it’s not as cold. JP was in the hotel (Verlain) when I got there. We were in adjoining rooms. I suggested going to the Quartier Latin. We got two fine planches at La Méthode on the little square/junction on rue Descartes where I stayed in 1996 and 2000.


Then, around the corner on rue Laplace, I showed him Le Piano Vache, which he liked even more. I hadn’t been in it since October 2000.



The first time, it was a June afternoon in 1996, when an outrageous little flirt named Estelle bent over further than a gymnast when poking in her school bag, across the bar. Elle portait la culotte bleu pâle.

Anyway, JP didn’t care for the nearby Le Violon Dingue (nor did I, though I’d been there before too) and we soon headed back for the Cork & Cavan on the Canal St. Martin. I saw no familiar face there. We didn’t stay too late.

19th November, Saturday

Today we walked a long way. We started at Place d’Italie and headed to Montparnasse via La Butte des Cailles and Place Denfert-Rochereau.




After lunch at Le Select, we got the metro on to Charles Michels, just a street away from the river and Allée des Cygnes.



From there we walked past the Tower, near which an anti-Trump demonstration was in progress, and cut down to rue Cler before passing Hôtel des Invalides on our way into St. Germain.




The metro took us from St. Germain des Prés to Goncourt, back near the C&C. D. joined us. He had witnessed a couple get shot dead, one after the other, outside a restaurant on Bataclan night. He was upstairs in a bar across the street.

The lads played darts. I’d made sure we got that narrow corner of the bar. A pretty Cavan girl called Aisling told me we’d known what we were doing by getting in there. I ended up drinking a couple of glasses of water before the end. JP and I left around one.

Paris, December 2013

Paris, December 2013

26th December, Thursday

Hard frost shrouded the night. My throat felt like the aftermath of a tonsils operation without anaesthetic. The drive to Cork was slowed by ice and frost. I had a bit of a skid on the Youghal bypass, where a driver got killed a few mornings ago.

Rugby players: Peter Stringer was in the security queue; Ronan O’Gara was on the plane. I only spotted O’Gara on the airport shuttle train in Paris. He grunted something like thanks when I let him disembark before me with his wheelie bag.

After a shower at the hotel I went to the 15e, to the Allée des Cygnes, where Beckett used to walk.




From there I passed the Tower in the twilight.


I ate in a nice, informal place on rue Cler (L’éclair), where the chicken burger and chips were good and good value. I had a notion that I might watch some of a match in Kitty O’Shea’s but it was closed. The front door looked sandbagged. Last time I looked, there was a hole in the door window, like it had been shot at. I was sick of walking by then. Back in the tenth I went down the canal to see if the C&C might be open. It was. The legendary owner (Kevin) was out to play. He was up on the counter at one stage and speaking Irish at another.

Kevin C and C

27th December, Friday

Having stayed in bed until two, my only symptoms were of the cold. Somebody on bought a copy of The Cynic’s Handbook. Hanging in there – my nose and chest have it now – I dined in Café le Buci in St. Germain at four, after searching those streets in the damp chill. The côte de boeuf (€22) was big and tough but the waitress was sweet. Dark and pretty too. Bonne fête, were her parting words. When I got back to Gare de l’Est it was dark and wet. I’d been filming down by the river. Some Indian then sold me two dodgy-looking choc ices, leading to some more customer dissatisfaction. The Mars bar was OK. I ate that.

Earlier I passed a place where I dined well, before (Au Père tranquille, next to Forum des Halles). That was before descending into the ant pit in a vain effort to get on the Métro there. With the swarm, it was too difficult to get a ticket. I’d go home right now because of the sore nose and the cough. By the river I took some photos and made two videos: one from Pont des Arts, when it was still day, and another of Notre Dame over the lights shimmering on the river, from Pont St. Michel.




I’d have slept and rested better this evening only for f*ckers/guests around me constantly opening and closing their squeaking doors. The room is a return to the street noise too. I’m finished with the Sibour. In future I’ll get a better hotel.

Three pints in the C&C left no mark. For a second night I was with a Middlesbrough father and son. The son is stuck in Paris. The wife has put him on a couch. There are two kids and a bust company. Why is my tongue sore near the tip? I was sweating in the pub but can only hope it’s a good symptom.

28th December, Saturday

A night of nightmarish discomfort was followed by a lull of sorts before the more usual kind of nightmare of security at the airport. Home is colder than Paris and I missed another storm (on the twenty-sixth). Even my teeth are sore.

Paris 2012

Paris 2012


31st August, Friday

Paris, hotel room, six o’clock. “Your buckle is facing the wrong way.” That’s what a stewardess said to me before take-off. Sleep had not been deep and the drive had been grey and gloomy but when I sat in, on the plane, it didn’t take us long to get going. There was a lot of empty seats. Even though I’m on a side street, it’s just off a noisy junction (Magenta/Strasbourg, 10e), I’ve just been dozing for the best part of an hour. Soon I’ll get dressed and go.

1st September, Saturday

Le Saint Jean, rue des Abbesses, 3pm. I’m in Montmartre. I just went up to the Sacré Coeur. Now I’ve eaten here and I’m working my way through a short selection of drinks. The sun is shining but this place is on the shady side of the street. When I went out yesterday, I first went to The Cork and Cavan pub on the Canal St. Martin, as planned. It had a young crowd but not of student age.

Later I had some trouble finding The Quiet Man, which was tiny. In looking for it I went a bit too deeply into the Marais, as could be seen by the growing number of gay couples that passed. Anyway, when I found it, about the only Irish thing in there was the green shirt on the barman. Beside me at the end of the short counter sat a young American couple. They were graduate students in California. She was into whales while he was studying the geochemistry of noble gases. She turned out to be related to Michael Fingleton, the notorious Irish banker. “We don’t like him,” she said. She added that Fingers had become his family nickname too. After the long walk back I found an open burger joint near the hotel and ordered two. It was late and when I confirmed “à emporter” to the black manager, who was trying to keep his staff awake, he dumped some condiments out of a bag meant for another customer and gave it to me and my burgers.

5.45pm, hotel room. The bells of the church of St. Laurent across the street are banging now. When I was walking back here, down Magenta, a green neon sign said 26° C and there was a noisy march about undocumented immigrants. It was a left-wing protest, not a right-wing one.

The bells soon stopped but knocked out another six on the hour. When descending from rue des Abbesses in Montmartre I came out at Pigalle and saw nothing scary on the quiet daytime way except a transvestite who reminded me a bit of Doctor Zaius in Planet of the Apes. Over here, some of the girls are too beautiful, for anyone with a taste for female beauty.

Will I go to Kitty O’Shea’s this evening, just to say I was there? I could take the metro but if I walk I could go straight down to the river and cross to call into Shakespeare & Co on the way. While I’m OK now, I may not feel like doing that or making much effort tomorrow.

The first time I came here on my own (1996) I was actually a bit lonely. One afternoon in Le Piano Vache in the Latin Quarter an outrageous little flirt named Estelle bent over further than a gymnast when poking in her school bag, across the bar. Elle portait la culotte bleu pâle. I was thirty-two but I’m better at chilling now, which is not the same as dossing or daydreaming.



Late on Saturday: I got back to the hotel by midnight. Having taken the metro down to Les Halles, I crossed the river via Pont Neuf. When I found Shakespeare & Co upriver, on the other side, I got a black girl to take four copies of The Cynic’s Handbook. Then I crossed back and got something to eat at a nice place called Le Père Tranquille near Les Halles.

The long walk to Kitty O’Shea’s near Place Vendôme was basically in vain. It was practically empty, there was a hole in the door window, like it had been shot at, and – another bad sign – it didn’t have any beer mats. The even longer walk back made me feel what a warm night it was/is but I want to be fit for tomorrow. I’m just hoping that the weekend will continue to go right.

2nd September, Sunday

It’s gone noon. I’m out of the shower but haven’t shaved yet. How I get enough sleep is by staying in bed long enough. To pass the afternoon I think I’ll take the metro to St. Germain des Prés.




Place St. Anne des Arts, 3pm, at a café of the same saint’s name, on a cool, breezy side street: I saw a sign earlier that said 28° but I’m erring on the side of chilly here. A girl is upset at a nearby table but the guy keeps talking like his voice is the most important thing to hear. My back seems quite cold. I try to watch my back. I think the guy is dumping her. He’s getting more agitated. He’s dumping her (“Je départ”). A bunch of teen girls with feminine intuition (“Une bagarre,” said one) are now sitting and watching from the other side of the narrow street. But here’s my food. It should warm me up.

Hotel before half eight: my work here is done. I’m after my third shower today. Madame Paris succeeded in blowing me away eventually. I must go now to eat and drink. For food, I’ll go back some of the way I came. I feel like a good night. The walk back from the ninth meant I could appreciate the beautiful evening. On my way I diverted to take a few photos of an imposing church that’s not even named in the Rough Guide. St. Vincent de Paul.



3rd September, Monday

The early hours of Monday: I went back to The Cork and Cavan and sat by the canal until I saw a few older people going in and out. I got a seat at the bar and the young Kerry barman started talking to me and eventually he confirmed that the most tanked-up person in the pub was the owner. I ended up sitting beside him and even his Japanese wife joined in and told me they had rows over disciplining their young son. It turned out to be a place that welded a smile to my face.

Monday afternoon, at the airport. It naturally took me a while to get myself together this morning but by midday I was in sufficient shape to leave. The blanches at the C&C last night didn’t do much damage, so. There’s an American man across from me wearing a rug and it reminds me of an Asian in a shop last night who looked like he had one stitched to his forehead.

The owner of the C&C said his son was actually doing more than OK in his class. His wife also gave him credit for doing sports and activities with the boy too but the punch-line concerned a key piece of info in the boy’s possession. “He knows I’m a millionaire.” The top man insisted on getting me a last drink and before that the Kerryman had given me one on the house, saying it was a French tradition, like a buy-back, I suppose. I enjoyed the pantomime there.

I got home at seven. It’s nice to have normality waiting here. First student tomorrow, back in the temple of Apollo.