Our first holiday in years. We entered my acquaintance’s Paris flat, immediately expressing our gratitude to the moon-faced ginger tom who had made this possible. We could not have afforded a hotel, so free accommodation in the exclusive, almost central 7ème Arrondissement, a walk away from the Eiffel Tower, in exchange for cat-sitting was a wonderful stroke of luck. H. was particularly excited, determined to show me areas of Paris he was certain would vanquish my indifference to the city. I’d been to Paris twice before, albeit very briefly. I can’t help it – it leaves me cold. It’s like trying to grasp a pink soap bubble. I just don’t get it. Still, as a passionate lover of polyphony, I was looking forward to seeing Notre-Dame, la Sainte-Chapelle and other Gothic churches where it was born. Moreover, after the half-hearted East Anglian attempts at summer, feeling genuinely hot sun rays on my skin was an indescribable relief.
On our first evening, we strolled on the edges of the Quartier Latin, listened to a brilliant street jazz band in Rue de Buci, had dinner in a modest but cosy restaurant where the food – perhaps unsurprisingly for Paris – was scrumptious (I don’t want to touch English-made baguettes ever again). H. showed me an 18th century café that had been frequented by Voltaire, Marat and other pre-Revolution thinkers. We planned to get up early the following morning, to beat the queues at Notre-Dame.
Neither of us slept more than a couple of hours, that night. Mysterious, itchy red bumps seemed to be multiplying on H.’s body, some of them in neat, equidistant linear patterns. The bumps quickly turned into welts. Mosquitoes? We hadn’t heard anything buzzing. He tried reading on the living room sofa, but more bumps appeared. In the early hours of the morning, not knowing what else to do, I went to find some salt in the kitchen, diluted it in water, and began dabbing it on his welts, to soothe the itchiness. I inspected the bed and found pinhead-size red bugs. Squashing them left blood stains on the sheets. A larger specimen was discovered promenading on one of the sofa cushions. Bedbugs. I stared in utter disbelief. My grandmother used to say she didn’t like whiskey because it “smelled of bedbugs”. When I asked her if she’d ever actually sniffed one, she said, “Of course not. Bedbugs are found in gulags and dirty places.” H. immediately corrected my assumption and told me he’d heard before that bedbugs were on the rise even in clean, exclusive hotels. We spent much of the rest of the night reading anything we could find on the internet about these blood-sucking critters.
Strangely, although I have always been a strong point of attraction for mosquitoes, spiders, and other stinging insects, this time I was completely unscathed.
In the morning, exhausted from lack of sleep, H.’s body now covered in over sixty stings, we went to the nearest pharmacy. The pharmacienne confirmed the identity of the corpses scrunched up in tissue as, indeed, bedbugs. Any effective pesticide might prove unsafe for our host cat or for us. So we bought essential oils of rosemary, lavender, and eucalyptus citriodora which, according to my nocturnal internet research, were supposed to be bedbug deterrents. That night, we sprinkled it all over the bed and rubbed some on ourselves, though I was wary of putting undiluted essential oil on our skins. I found the smell unbearably pungent.
I rang my acquaintance. Naturally, she was mortified. It turns out she doesn’t react to the bites, so only discovered the presence of the infestation when she had visitors, at which point the Mairie had come and given her flat the anti-bedbug treatment only six weeks earlier. How could they be back again and so soon? It turns out Paris has severe bedbug problems. It seems even a couple of five-star hotels recently had to close down for a few days, in order to fumigate their premises. Someone told me these are a Canadian, pesticide-resistant strain. Interestingly, the critters seem prevalent in the more exclusive Paris districts.
We were too late for Notre-Dame so, instead, H. took me to the famous Shakespeare and Co. and we strolled around the Île de la Cité. The lack of sleep made everything look rather fuzzy.
The following morning, after a few more hours sleep, I woke up with over a hundred welts all over my body, swollen and itchy. It seems I’d had a delayed reaction to the bites. There were many more tiny smears of blood on the sheets. At 4 a.m., the cat marched into the bedroom, tail in perfect vertical with the tip bent, announcing his return from some neighbourhood feline party, demanding to be scratched under his chin, totally impervious to our plight.
We went to Notre-Dame. I found it somewhat lacking. I can’t say why. However, the stained glass windows of the Sainte Chapelle took my breath away. A myriad of colourful jewels glowing in the Gothic church. I was transfixed.
Another sleepless night brought more bites. H. now had over a hundred and I over a hundred and fifty. When I finally fell asleep, at dawn, I dreamt that King Louis IX was using bedbugs as a way of exterminating political undesirables. I woke up, unable to shake the dream for a couple of hours, my lips slightly swollen, and a temperature. I was irrational. Perhaps I’d also overdosed on the essential oils. I begged H. to go home. This wasn’t a holiday but a nightmare. Of course, moving to a hotel was out of the question, for fear of taking the bedbugs with us. It seems they can hide in luggage and be carried from hotel to hotel that way.
As we arranged for the concierge to take over cat-sitting duties, and booked a new set of Eurostar tickets, our hearts heavy with disappointment, we thought of the numerous cheap and dirty hotels we’d stayed in in the past, and yet not encountered bedbugs. And now, in a clean flat in an expensive area. We wondered when we’d next have the opportunity for a holiday.
Arriving back home, we took all the necessary precautions. Suitcases were unpacked in the driveway and all the contents securely tied in plastic bags. Everything that could be washed was washed. Everything else wiped, disinfected, checked.
Even now, several days later, we jump at the sight of a dot of ink on the table, a tiny piece of fluff in the bed.
I guess someday we’ll laugh about it. Soon, I hope.