They came back to their hotel room at around 8 in the evening. From the lovely little park across the hotel floated in the carefree sounds of children at play and old men’s banter while they played chess and carom on the park benches. Lovers walked casually and without purpose holding each other close, oblivious of distractions.
It was Kaushik and Ritankar’s last evening in Paris. They were tired and exhilarated. They had made up their minds to not use cabs and had, therefore, walked an incredible number of kilometers. In the mornings, their limbs woke with the sweet ache and soreness of the day before. It made the warmth of the morning baths more soothing than any other they could remember.
Their room was damp and unventilated, an attic of sorts converted into a room with two beds and a wooden shelf. A single bulb lit the place enough for them to find their way around. The smell of cigarettes hung thickly in the air. They had found the place by pure chance. They had stopped at a café to ask where they could find one and had been told that there was one available there itself. The man at the counter had then taken them through a door at the back which opened onto a disheveled courtyard strewn with discarded bricks and cement slabs. In one corner, an iron ladder made its way up to a door. This door led into the room. The room contained no attached toilet; there was one in the courtyard, inexplicably Indian style.
They weren’t spoilt for choice or finances and had decided to take it, forty Euros a night. The next day, they had paid the forty Euros and asked if they could keep the place for the next two nights. The man at the café had agreed.
“We’re staying for three nights. No discounts?”
The man had shrugged expansively.
“It is cheap”, he said.
“Room is small”, they countered.
They had exchanged smiles and left it at that.
“So, what do we do now…finish the beer and sleep?” Kaushik asked.
“Yes, we could do that. Or, we could go out a little later and have some food”
“Yes, we should eat something, I guess.”
“Anyway, let’s finish the beer first.”
They opened their cans and lit a cigarette. Kaushik walked to the small mirror, built over a decaying wash basin, and appraised his hair. He wasn’t pleased with what he saw and spent the next few minutes trying to sort it out with his fingers. Both had forgotten to bring their combs for the trip. They had decided against buying one when they were told at a store that it would cost them eighty cents.
“Fifty rupees for a comb!” Ritankar had exclaimed. “Fuck it.”
Ritankar leafed through the enormous Lonely Planet while Kaushik stared at the mirror.
“It seems Picasso’s studio is not very far from here”, he said.
They were in Montmartre. They couldn’t believe their luck when they realized that they were, when they got off the metro from the Airport, at Barbès – Rochechouart, near where they had booked a hostel room. The hostel had, expectedly, deemed them no-shows by that time, they being six hours late after missing their connecting flight to Paris from Istanbul. And therefore, the room in the attic.
“It is shown on the map?” Kushal asked.
“Yes, right here.”
“If we’d done that walking tour Ashish told us about, we’d have seen it.”
“Yes. No matter, we did well enough without that.”
They sipped their beers thoughtfully.
“We could still go there, if you want” Kushal said.
“Yes, it is an option”
Suddenly, their eyes lit up.
“Yes, let’s do it! Let’s find Picasso’s studio ourselves!”
“Check the map! What’s the nearest metro station? We’ll get there and then walk!”
“Its Blanche, just three stops from Barbès.”
Forty minutes later, they were at the underground station of Blanche.
They climbed up a flight of stairs that from the bottom looked like it opened onto a regular sidewalk. It did not. It opened almost directly in the middle of a boulevard onto a small space for those on foot to wait. Asphalt flanked them on both sides. And on the right, towering above them was the astonishing spectacle of the Moulin Rouge. So unexpected and resplendent was the sight that they stood speechless for a good minute or two.
“Oh my God!” Ritankar finally managed to break the silence.
“I don’t care if we don’t find Picasso’s studio now. This is enough as far as I am concerned!”
The giant wheel swung gracefully around tracing a path of vivid reds and yellows. The famous name shone a bright red on the semi circular façade. Rows of small windows on the upper storey hid modestly behind the dizzying display of light, submerged in the deep red hues. Hundreds of people stood in line at the entrance, waiting for their turn to enter. A faint whiff of music drifted out from inside. They thought of Nicole Kidman.
To one side, a large circular platform stood elevated about two feet from the ground. The top was covered with strong meshed rods. It was possibly an air vent for the metro lines underneath. On it, young women strode up one by one, goaded by their friends and boyfriends, to do their own versions of Marilyn Monroe. A bunch of policemen stood to one side, laughing and occasionally whistling with the crowd gathered around whenever a skirt rose more than intended.
Shiny Happy People.
Next to the Moulin Rouge, a dark street travelled into the innards of Montmartre, climbing eventually to the magnificent Sacre Coeur, as all streets in Montmartre did. The map led them through this street in search of Picasso’s studio. They had spent nearly an hour outside Moulin Rouge, gazing at everything they could. They’d debated whether they should go inside; the seventy five Euro entry charge had been instrumental in their deciding not to. Walking for a few minutes through the street, the chatter and noise slowly receded, replaced by a silence unusual of Montmartre.
They turned a corner and spotted a café. Three or four young men, friends, were engaged in conversation outside. They leaned with their backs against the wall and occasionally squatted and stretched their arms – unmistakable signs of pleasant drunkenness.
“Bonjour” Ritankar greeted them.
“We are looking for Picasso’s house or studio here. Do you know where it is?”
They didn’t know the place. Kaushik showed them the map and the spot they’d encircled. The men studied the map intently and consulted with each other. Their English was inevitably poor and they offered directions with their hands, repeating “This way” throughout. They didn’t look very confident.
They asked several others on the way, climbing towards the summit all the time. The streets remained vibrant. Brightly lit cafes appeared at every corner, animated and beautiful people inside and outside them. More walked them by on the street. They spoke in loud voices and broke into dance, if they heard a song they liked, while passing by a café – the spirit of Bohemia alive and kicking. Nobody, however, knew where Picasso had lived. Montmartre, apparently, had forgotten one of its most famous residents.
On their way back, well after midnight, they lost their way and walked around in circles for an hour before a policeman offered them directions. The joy and abandon of the streets and alleys did not spill out on to the main boulevards. They were empty and lonely. Neon signs shone above shuttered windows. Near their hotel, a group of black guys played football on the street. When they spotted the two figures walking past, they stopped their game and greeted them. Kaushik and Ritankar smiled and nodded their heads in acknowledgement. In their room, they finished the rest of the beer, warm by now, and smoked a couple of cigarettes. Towards dawn, they drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, they were woken early by the alarms they’d set. They checked out of the hotel before nine and walked through Montmartre one last time. It had drizzled during the night and there was a slight chill in the air. Puddles of water glistened between the cobblestones as did stray beer bottles and piece of broken glass. Old men sat reading newspapers outside shops, not yet open. Perhaps they knew where Picasso’s studio was.