18. First Days

I HAD SO MUCH time in those first days, and so little money, that my chief entertainment was to ride the underground trains all day. It was an idea that came to me a little late. I'd arrived in September and for the first couple of months had spent my days in the Jardins Royaux, until the cold rain of November drove me to insanity. At the migrant hostel, there was a curfew between 10am and 4pm, and as autumn darkened into winter surviving those six hours became my chief preoccupation. For a time I found a visual arts library in a converted palace where I could read all day. For a month I combed through the folio books, giving myself an aesthetic education that, years later, when I befriended the young Christian Maure, then a hungry graffiti artist, would prove unexpectedly useful. The problem was that the Library closed from the day before Christmas to the end of the first week of January. The thought of how I would survive those two weeks sent me into a panic. I spent a sleepless night at the hostel and the following morning at breakfast I asked my neighbours one by one how they spent their days. One, a Chechen, said he liked to find air vents on the street to sit on. The air coming from the underground train system kept him warm all day. When I set off that morning, just before curfew, it was my intention to follow his advice, but finding a spare vent proved no easy task. Hours later, having searched fruitlessly across the city, I slumped onto the sidewalk in cold despair, and slipped into something approximating sleep. I awoke on a hospital guerney, where I'd been treated for hypothermia. Too soon, within hours I was told I would be discharged. It was evening, time to rush back to the hostel to avoid missing dinner. I hated asking for money, but desperation drove me to tell the discharge nurse I needed money to catch the underground back to the hostel in Innocents, otherwise I'd miss lockout at 8pm. She unlocked a metal box and took out a new twenty-royal note, advising me to take a taxi instead, just in case, but I figured I'd take the underground, at the risk of missing curfew, to pocket the extra royals. As I stood in line at the ticket dispensing machine, I realised the nurse had given me enough for a weekly ticket, so I splurged. That first week was euphoric. I rode the underground trains all day in air conditioned comfort. I got to know the underground network like the veins on the back of my hand, as they say. The city above was more or less unknown to me, although sometimes the trains would rise out of the ground and I stole glimpses of the stately river and the golden domes. People were reluctant to talk, but I could observe them. I realised how lonely I'd become, immersed in my art books.