Last Saturday I woke up at 4.30am, took a shower and packed a bag, and at 8am I left London on the Eurostar.
I flew beneath the sea and across France, feeling relieved to be back in my favourite country. I alighted the train at Gard du Nord, and in a nostalgic haze I phased through the ticket barrier, out into the bright blue sunshine of Paris in winter. And it was there, after 329 days, 23 hours and 34 minutes, that I was reunited with Jeanne.
We hugged three times in succession, not saying anything. Then we said hello, and began to walk together through the city, towards our hostel. Gard du Nord is ugly for Paris, but pretty for anywhere else. Motorcycles zipped past in streams, and crazy hooded men hunched along talking to themselves. Cigarette smoke wafted from beneath cafés awnings and magazine stands, and mothers with prams waited on islands between pelican crossings, and between the ornate turrets of the Parisian skyline the sun shone against a clear blue sky.
“You’ve got new shoes,” I said, pointing at Jeanne’s feet. “They’re cool. I have new shoes too. Do you like them?”
The emotional maelstrom of seeing her again had reduced my IQ to single digits, apparently.
“I know, silly. You told me.”
“Oh yeah. So I did.”
With big smiles we made polite conversation as we wound through busy streets. Check in at the hostel wasn’t for hours, so we dropped our bags and headed out to make the most of the sunshine. I tried to use a cash machine in the street and got angry when the buttons wouldn’t work. I swore at the machine and rapped at the glass, and when I turned I found Jeanne smiling at me.
We walked to Place République, and on the way we passed the banks of the canal where we’d sat with Jeanne’s sister and cousins one summer afternoon three years before. We ate lunch in a café outside, and we smoked and exchanged stories about our jobs and friends and our respective lives in London and Strasbourg.
When we’d paid up and were ready to leave, Jeanne picked up her backpack and found it dripping.
“Nooo,” she groaned, lifting a dripping bottle of yellow liquid out of it. “The lid wasn’t tight enough.”
“What’s that?” I asked. “Juice?”
“Wee,” she replied.
“I said wee.”
I watched her, baffled, as she began to lift out her belongings and shake off the liquid.
“But why… why would you bring a sample to Paris?”
She paused and looked at me.
“Why are you carrying around a bottle full of piss?”
“It’s not piss,” said Jeanne, looking at me with a mixture of pity and concern. “It’s passionfruit juice.”
“So why did you- oh.”
With Jeanne smelling of passionfruit, we walked all the way down to Pont Neuf and the Seine, and floated along in a dream past the book sellers with their green stalls on the riverbank. We said hello to Notre Dame, which looks much less remarkable now the roof is all gone, and crossed the river to the southern half of the city, where we drifted around like dry leaves, looking for somewhere to stop for a beer.
By the time we got back to the hostel the sun was climbing down for the evening. Our room still wasn’t ready – which didn’t bother Jeanne in the slightest, but left me incensed, naturally – and to kill time we headed outside to soak up a few more rays by the canal. On the way we passed what looked like a group of wandering medieval minstrels: twenty people marching along in a line through the street, instruments in cases slung over their shoulders, fluorescent feather boas slung around their necks. I paid them no mind, but Jeanne slowed down to watch.
“Maybe they’re going to play,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe. Hey so where do you think we can buy beers around here?”
“We should ask them where they’re going so we can watch them.”
“I don’t really think that’s–”
But she’d gone. After a rapid and jovial exchange of French with a jaunty flautist, she came back.
“There’s a new library opening and they’re going to play inside. I really wanna go watch.”
I used to love libraries. Over the past year, however, several failed visits to Streatham library have led me to become disenfranchised with libraries in general; it’s hard to get into a productive and studious mindset with so many drunkards stumbling between the aisles with their trousers falling down. But I wanted Jeanne to be happy, and so I agreed.
The library was full of children laughing and running around and reading comic books. To open the building officially, an important-looking lady made a speech in front of a television camera. Then it was time for the band. For reasons that continue to elude me, rather than play a single gig in, say, the foyer, the musicians opted to play a couple of songs on every floor of the building in turn – lugging their equipment and their whole audience with them each time they changed. The genre of their music changed as they ascended; in the basement we watched them sing a wistful ballad about somebody dying on the slopes of the Matterhorn, then all clomped upstairs in single file to listen to a groovy flamenco, while the children danced.
After the library we were finally able to check into our hostel room. It was pleasant enough: there was a balcony from which we could see a large sliver of Paris. We sat out there for an hour while it got dark, and talked with great depth and weight and sincerity about the last year. We passed through many emotions together, and landed, eventually, on silliness: the sort of gay, weightless silliness that settles after you’ve had a good and much-needed cry.
In the evening, we went for dinner at a cosy little place by the canal, and we drank beers and reminisced about the old days. Along with everything else, I’d forgotten what a relief it was to be able to sit and talk about your memories with somebody who was actually there beside you as they were formed. I’ve spent far too long in London offering up beloved jewels from the treasure chest of my memories to people at parties who only raise their eyebrows and say ‘cool’.
My alarm woke me up at 8am. Jeanne, quite rightly, was baffled as to why on earth I’d set my alarm at all, and refused to wake up. I couldn’t really explain why I’d set my alarm for such an early hour – it was barely daylight – so I lay in bed and did my daily Duolingo class and looked at memes, and when I got bored of memes I looked instead at the ceiling and enjoyed the feeling of being in Paris. It didn’t matter that the curtains were drawn, that the four walls in my field of view could have been in any city on earth. Lying in the dark and knowing you’re in Paris is a wonderful feeling.
We left the room at 10.30am and took the Metro across town. I like the entrance to the city’s underground – I like the weird Rocky Horror font and the wilted iron gates with their staring amber bulbs. I like the broad platforms too, and the wide, open tunnels. You can breathe down there. I can’t stand London’s tube system, which feels like disappearing down the gullet of a whale.
Alighting at Solférino, Jeanne and I joined a stream of people heading towards the Musee d’Orsay; on the first Sunday of every month entry to the museum is free. The queue was long, and I stood in the drizzle keeping our place while Jeanne went to buy coffee and croissants.
I love Musee d’Orsay. It’s not stuffy and boring like a lot of galleries; it’s not all deathly women in brown dresses and pearl-coloured slaveowners pouting from their drawing rooms. Musee d’Orsay is brimming with absurdly colourful, vibrant portraits and landscapes – not just moody English moors, but sweeping desert, jagged mountain peaks, sun-bleached farmland, smoky battlefields, and golden palaces. We saw paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Monet, and lots of other people whose names I can’t remember. We each made a list of the paintings we found interesting. Here’s mine:
And here’s Jeanne’s:
They’ve moved the Van Gogh’s since the last time I visited, back in 2017. Most of his works are on the top floor now, in their own very busy gallery. We watched people jostle to take their turn standing before Van Gogh’s famous Self Portrait. Over and over again, each new person would reach the front with their phone already at eye level, take one photograph, and turn away the second they’d pressed the shutter – already scanning the room for other photo opportunities. The state of it would’ve had Vincent sawing his other ear off.
By the time we left Musee d’Orsay it’d stopped raining, and we wound through the quiet streets to Les Deux Magot and Café de Flore, two Lost Generation bar-restaurants where many of my favourite writers used to get boozed a hundred years ago. There were free tables in both, but we chose not to dine in when we saw that a single sandwich cost upwards of €20. You can bet that when my heroes were eating there it didn’t cost that much – and nor would they have eaten there if it did. It felt fitting, then, to not eat, and instead sit on the front step of an adjacent bookshop and smoke a cig. Jeanne rested her head on my shoulder, and we watched the cars and the rain.