“So you do all the maps and navigating and stuff. What do I bring to the table in this travel duo?”
We were in a taxi on the way to the airport, for an 11am flight to Paris.
“Don’t be daft. You contribute loads. You make me do things I don’t want to do.”
“Yeah,” said Annie slowly, looking out of the window as Lisbon’s trams and tiles flicked by. “Yeah, I do. I introduce you to a wealth of interesting new experiences.”
“You sort out the nights, I sort the days.”
“Yeah, that’s good. I like that.”
We each bought a mini bottle of red wine in Lisbon’s airport and ate massive baguettes while we waited to board. We were each well aware of our excesses of course – the drinking, the lack of sleep, the indulgence in food and any other choice delights nudged in our direction – but any guilt or concern I was feeling around this was tempered by the fact that there were only a few days left: three more nights, then it’d be another year until we saw one another again.
The flight was quick, made breezy by wine, and I felt happy to land in France. I began to hear idle flutterings of the language as we wound through customs; I’ve always thought it sounds like leaves in the wind. There’s something about France I just can’t get over; I know in my heart I will always have an enormous affinity for it. I like every bit of it: the busy windows of comic book shops, the red signs outside tobacconists, the jolly greetings you get in bakeries, the flowery street names, the cobbles. I like how proud the people are. I like how often they protest – and how hard. I like the way that it’s not considered lame or embarrassing to be earnest, to try hard and to work at creating something beautiful. There’s a seriousness to France which we lack in the UK, sometimes to our detriment.
We took a fast train into the city and came up above ground at Châtelet in the city centre. To give me time to get my bearings we sat outside a bistro with red awnings, and when the waiter came over I realised, with a lurch, that I was going to have to try and speak French. In theory I should have more than enough French to chat, but I always worry my language skills will spontaneously abandon me. This fear causes me to speak the language in a high-pitched mouse voice, which in turn causes people to have to lean in and ask me to repeat myself, which of course immediately saps any remaining confidence I might have had and gets me all red in the cheeks.
“Bonjour! Vous avez, er, la carte? S’il vous plait?” I stammered to the big man in the apron, who nodded and brought over a menu.
After several months off, I’d decided I wanted to smoke during our three day stint in Paris – sort of the done thing, isn’t it – and then to pack it in immediately when we left. I’d bought some cigarettes in Lisbon in preparation, and to test my language abilities further, I asked a chef on a smoke break if I could use his lighter.
“Excusez moi, vous avez un feu, s’il vous plait?”
“Oui, bien sur,” said the chef, brightly.
“Merci, bro,” I grinned. French men always like it when you call them bro.
I felt my demi-lingual panic deflate. Everyone (not least the French) says Parisians are stuck-up and brusque, but two out of two encounters had gone reasonably well.
Annie and I drank a glass of red wine and watched cyclists and mothers with prams and a windmilling man getting arrested by four police officers.
“The people here aren’t as hot as in Lisbon,” observed Annie.
“I’d say it’s about the same,” I replied, defensively.
The waiter never came back to ask if we wanted anything else, so to pay the bill I was forced to go inside and once again offload my dodgy French on a waitress. She was very smiley and helpful, and I felt monumentally proud to be getting things done in a second language. There really is no feeling like it – the sense of accomplishment is profound.
We left the bistro and wandered the streets to find cheap food. We saw a big tower in the distance and I said ‘hey look it’s Notre Dame’, but it wasn’t Notre Dame, it was the Tour Saint-Jacques, which I’d never heard of. We bought sandwiches and more wine from a Carrefour Express. Though I love the shop for its food, the sight of the shop’s green logo filled me with sadness, thinking about Strasbourg and the mess I made of it all. I didn’t say anything to Annie – I didn’t want to be a drag.
We ate our lunch and drank our wine in the park surrounding the tower, enjoying the sensation of being in Paris. There’s such an international romantic glamour surrounding the very name of the place that simply sitting there and knowing you’re in Paris is an activity all by itself.
“We’re really in Paris,” we kept saying to each other, disbelieving.
We were sat beneath a horse-chestnut tree, and periodically a fat conker would plop down into the grass. We ignored them at first, until one hit the earth near us with a horrible weighty thud, forcing us to shuffle back on our bums until we were out of the danger zone.
The promoter paying Annie to play, an American expat named Leah, was putting us up for the duration of our stay. We took the Metro east, across the city, to a trendy suburb well away from the frenetic pace of central Paris. Leah welcomed us into her apartment, which she shares with several friends. It was an old building and the apartment wasn’t spacious, but it was decorated lovingly and chaotically with bohemian trinkets and art. We were introduced to several people – an English guy, an Australian, others from across France – and I let Annie do most of the talking. She’s the star of the show, the one they’re interested in; I’m happy to stand beside her as the supportive friend and the smiling, quiet roadie.
Leah kindly gave us her bedroom; she would stay in the room next door with her boyfriend. I tried and failed to keep track of names and who was from where, and when we’d dropped our bags, Leah and her friends invited us out with them to a park for drinks and food.
Walking down the street, I spoke with Leah’s tall, French boyfriend. I’m writing this a month or two after the fact, and his name escapes me now unfortunately, but he was friendly and amusing and very kind about the fact that we had to switch to conversing in English once the limits of my French became apparent. I always feel guilty about it.
We bought artisanal beers and fresh bread and cured meat and several kinds of cheese, and at the top of a grassy hill overlooking Paris we spread out blankets and sat down. The park was called ‘Parc Jean-Moulin’. I thought of the many times in my youth in which my friends and I had sat in parks with nothing more than a couple of crates of Fosters. It’s nice to do things properly.
Paris looks different from the east. I’ve only ever seen the skyline from Montmartre, where everything looks pink and dusky and the rooftops and balconies all tumble over one another. From our hill, the Eiffel Tower shone on the horizon, but the view was far more suburban; high rise flats occupied a good deal of it.
Someone put on some techno, and I smiled at the similarity with Berlin – not just the setting, but the people. Everybody was from everywhere; educated and self-aware and trendy. And I felt a sensation I’d not felt since Berlin too; the pull to appear equally with-it, to say cool things and hold interesting conversations. We talked a lot about teaching; Leah and her English flatmate both teach English in a school. I told them about my online classes, and to my delight we got into a chat about semantics and grammar and how nonsensical languages can be.
French people drink slowly, so Annie and I finished our share of the communal beer pile early and went to buy more for everyone. I spoke to a confident, friendly young French guy who reminded me of someone I used to know in Australia, and when he repeatedly used the word ‘bro’ I couldn’t help but smile.
We sat late into the night, watching dark orange clouds roll overhead. Over the summer at home, living with my mum and my stepdad, I’d been spending a lot of time working on a five-year plan. Paris was always the end goal: to develop my language skills and acquire a visa, and to somehow find work and a flat and to begin a new life in France. As we sat, however, and I listened to this jolly, upbeat expat community chatting and laughing about the quirks of life in another country, a sensation crept up that I never expected: I’ve been here before.
I don’t know – maybe it was the sight of the artsy clutter in the apartment, or maybe it was listening to the Australian guy talking about how he attended dozens of hours of language classes when he first moved there. Maybe it was seeing more people rock up to join as the night wore on – friends of all nationalities, all arriving with blankets and cigarettes – or maybe it was the feeling that I needed to be likeable, to be cool, to swallow down anything crass or crude. Maybe it was the sense of being far from home, or perhaps the growing sensation of just how much there was to discover, to learn. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but in the space of several hours, over the course of what was by all accounts a thoroughly lovely evening, I felt my long-harboured desire for Paris beginning to recede. To these busy, messy people, chatting excitedly on the grass beneath the stars, this was the great adventure of their youth – their big move overseas, their new foreign family. If I moved to Paris, it wouldn’t be because I loved the city, I realised: I would be moving out of a desperate desire to repeat what happened in Berlin – to repeat the wonder and momentum of a carefree past. And if the latter half of my twenties taught me anything at all, it’s that no matter how badly you wish it were different, that just can’t happen. You can’t have the same adventure twice.
We tidied up, and I picked up the beer tops and the little cluster of cigarette butts that had amassed between me and Annie, and put them in a plastic bag. We wound back through the park; me, Annie, and Leah’s boyfriend ahead of everyone. I was a little drunk, and I repeated a joke I’d made to Annie earlier in the day – something a vaguely coarse and silly. But when I reached the funny bit, Leah’s boyfriend didn’t laugh; not because he was offended or annoyed, but simply because he didn’t see the humour in it. And I remembered how many times that had happened in Berlin when I first arrived; how much I’d had to learn, how much I’d had to change to fit in. And then I looked across at Annie, and I saw that she was laughing, and all at once I saw that it was fine that Berlin was over, and it was fine that I could never go back. I still had the best bit with me.