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Mark Stringer's Blog

Eight Legs Good

As soon as I saw the red-headed French zoologist and the octopus, I knew the day wasn't wasted. Long and bitter experience has made me realise that I'm not by nature an adventurous traveller. Given all night, a huge vibrating, sexy metropolis, a pocket full of local currency and a wallet full of widely accepted credit cards - given even on one occasion a leather-clad lady feeling my bum and offering to buy me drinks, I still somehow fail to have the fantastic-authentic time that everybody else has.

So it wasn't too much of a surprise to find myself in Paris on a beautiful late-spring day trying to pull my fantastic-authentic travel experience out of yet another tail-spin. I don't think I was being too ambitious. All I wanted was to see a few art galleries. But the first one I went to was having all its exhibits carefully emptied into a pantechnicon (I suppose I could have just stood there on the pavement and watched, but it wasn't quite the same). And the second one. Well (pause for breath and sigh of embarrassment), I could find the exit and the people at the exit gave me excellent directions to the entrance. So excellent in fact that when I found that I'd walked all around the block without finding it and was back at the exit I just didn't have the heart to go ask again. Instead set off as purposefully as I could in a random direction, trying my best to ignore their quizzical stares. All the time, because it really was a beautiful late spring day, it was getting warmer and warmer and I was getting sweatier and sweatier and the likelihood of my tourist tailspin ending up in admission of defeat in an air-conditioned café got stronger and stronger. So when the random direction that I'd purposefully taken off in turned out to be leading to the entrance of a fully-stocked museum that actually seemed to be open, even though it wasn't an art gallery, even though it was a science museum which the marketing men had been tinkering with, so it was now called something like "Decouvertment Alors!", even though most of the exhibition space seemed to be occupied by a gift shop selling cut-out dinosaurs, I paid my fifty francs and shuffled in.

I only saw the thing with the octopus, so I don't know what she'd been enthralling them with before I arrived (I suspect a terrapin was involved and things had died). There wasn't much seating room as the lecture theatre was packed with children. Although space mysteriously did appear when a man looking as if he'd been doused in three buckets of his own sweat stood panting in the aisle. Even though I couldn't understand what she was saying it was gloriously, blissfully easy to comprehend what was happening. Here's an octopus. A very sorry-looking, very lack-lustre octopus lying like a dirty, student-flat dishcloth, slumped, amorphous in one corner of the tank. And here's a crab - that we're going to put in this screw-top jar. Whoa! The octopus has seen it! He's awake, he's a healthy - well at least an interestingly-coloured orange little octopus. He's got tentacles everywhere, he's ducking and bobbing in obvious anticipation. And here's a piece of Perspex with a fifty-pence-sized whole in it which we'll slide down the middle of the tank. And we'll put the octopus on one side and the crab on the other.

Not being an expert on octopus - or indeed any other - body language, I can't be certain, but I think the octopus did everything in it's power to avoid having to go through that hole. Certainly if the gorgeous-but-firm auburn-haired zoologist hadn't secured the lid on the tank I suspect he'd have just got out and walked round. Still he managed to get a tentacle under and over the partition, and was only a suckers-breadth away - I thought - from giving that poor crab - undefended as it was by any Anglophone notions of animal rights - the experience of being eaten alive while being sucked through a fifty-pence sized hole (yes I know you'd pay good money for that in other parts of Paris). In the end there was nothing for it, there was an obvious gathering together of resolve and tentacles followed by eek, eek!, slurp, unscrew, munch, crab shell and riotous applause from eighty French toddlers and a rapturous Englishman. Sadly the zoologist was busy that evening, she doubtless had other crustaceans to dispatch and cephalopods to contort. Either that or she made it a rule never to go out with men who looked as though they were about to deliquesce in their own sweat.

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