Too skint to enjoy a lunch at Les Deux Magots, Jeanne and I crossed the road in search of a cheaper alternative. We found a cute place around the corner, where for the price of a single sandwich in the first café, we were able to buy a pizza and a carafe of wine. I don’t know whether it’s the northerner in me or the millennial or just basic stinginess, but I get a giddy thrill from finding a good deal.
After lunch we wandered tipsy through the pretty streets to 27 rue de Fleurus, the address that once belonged to Gertrude Stein. I’d researched it that morning; I knew that there wouldn’t be much to see beyond a wall plaque, and I felt silly for dragging Jeanne along. But I wanted to see it – to stand where all those famous writers and artists stood a hundred years ago.
We turned down Rue de Fleurus, and I half expected to see a crowd of bookish nerds standing in quiet admiration across the road. But there was nothing there except a few parked cars. The notion seemed insane. How could such an important place be so overlooked?
Jeanne and I went to stand on the opposite side of the narrow street, where we leant against the wall and looked at the apartment building opposite with its wrought-iron gate. A sandy-coloured plaque told us Gertrude Stein used to live there and host parties with a lot of artists and writers. It was hard to feel inspired, however; there was too much in the scene tying it to the modern day. A large plastic sign tied to the gate detailed the building work currently underway, and a strange man in headphones was pacing back and forth outside, scrolling endlessly on his phone. I tried hard to picture the scene as it once was, to magic away in my mind’s eye the modern cars and the plastic sign, but the pacing man was too distracting. Nothing came.
You need stillness to appreciate things; it takes conscious effort. I learned it from my mum: when we were kids my parents would take my brothers and I to visit castles in the countryside, and she’d put her arm around me and point to the old ruins sitting in a grassy field and say “Can you imagine it Daniel? Can you imagine all the knights charging on horses across the field here, climbing up the walls on ladders?” And if I spent a minute thinking about it, I could see it.
I can still do it today; rebuild the Colosseum in my mind’s eye and pack it with spectators, gild the emperor’s box, and release lions and gladiators out onto the sand. It gives me a real rush in my heart. But it takes a lot of concentration – the sort of concentration that is shattered immediately by one endlessly pacing knobhead.
I couldn’t appreciate Gertrude Stein’s house. I felt embarrassed; creatively impotent. Our stop-off seemed suddenly very naïve and foolish, particularly when I knew Jeanne was watching me hopefully, waiting for the joy that should have illuminated my face. I’d dragged her across the city to look at what was essentially a beige wall.
“Do you like it? Are you glad you came?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
“Would you like me to take your photo?”
“Kind of, yeah. But that guy’s blocking the entrance. Why doesn’t he realise he’s in the way, the total bastard.”
Jeanne put her hand on my arm. She’s always good at calming me down when I get pernickety.
“It’s okay, you can just go and stand there and he’ll leave.”
“But then he’ll be watching me while I get my photo taken with some random door and I’ll look crazy.”
“You’ll never see him again. If you want a photo, don’t worry about what he thinks. Just go and stand there and I’ll take a photo of you.”
So I crossed the road, feeling very silly and nerdy, and had my photograph taken standing in the old stone archway.
We left rue de Fleurus, and every few paces I stopped to look back longingly, willing my brain to make some last-ditch neural connection that would allow me to feel something.
“It’s fun to imagine it, isn’t it?” said Jeanne. “All the writers walking down this street at night, drinking wine, having a wee against the wall there, smoking cigarettes, being silly, falling over, laughing.”
And there it was.
After a bus journey made extra spicy by an insane rambling French lady who kept shrieking ‘poutain!’, we dismounted somewhere in the 1st Arrondissement, where we bought coffees and an enormous chocolate pastry which I got all over me. Jeanne took me to see the Palais Garnier, the city’s premier opera house, which left me in awe at its size and splendour. We went into the opera house’s souvenir shop for a nosey around, however the in-store music was Flight of the Bumblebee, which meant we felt compelled to browse at lightning speed and left after forty-five seconds.
We decided to try and navigate back to the hostel without the use of our phones. It’s surprisingly easy in Paris; there are maps on seemingly every corner. We stopped off on the way back at an arcade Jeanne wanted to go in called La Tete dans les Nuages. Inside it had everything a young ADHD teenager could wish for: basketball hoops, laser tag, pool tables, video game machines, slot machines, claw machines, and a giant VR rollercoaster which slapped a pair of goggles on you and slung you all over the place. We didn’t stay long; it was almost as hectic as the ballet shop.
We spent the rest of the day simply – drink and food and conversation, roaming unplanned across a variety of bars. That’s what I like about Paris. You don’t have to try: you just go outside and you’ll find somewhere beautiful, with good food and laughter.
The next day we’d been intending on a morning of sheer unrepentant laziness, but the sun was shining we didn’t want to waste it. Instead we headed out to my favourite spot in Paris: the steps at Montmartre.
I know many people probably think Montmartre is a cliché and touristic, and yeah, it totally is. But it’s also extraordinarily beautiful – the two aren’t always mutually exclusive. We sat side by side and looked at the city and the clouds and the chimneys and windows and the Eiffel Tower, and we talked for a while about the two of us. Then we went to go drink some wine.
Sitting in a little café down a cobbled alley, we discovered that Montmartre is the best place in the world to visit if you’re feeling bad about yourself. Every two or three minutes as we sipped our glasses of wine, a different artist clutching a sketchbook would draw up before our table and announce we were the handsomest pair he’d ever seen, and would we like a portrait? Then we would turn them down and wish them well and they’d leave amiably, and soon enough another inky-handed artist would float past, catch our eye, and declare us the most beautiful duo in all of Paris.
“My god,” said Jeanne. “I feel amazing. We should sit here all the time.”
And then it was time to go our separate ways. At Gare du Nord Jeanne walked me to the Eurostar entrance, and a long, heavy silence hung over us. Her train was departing from Gare du l’Est, just a ten-minute walk away.
“Alright then. This is it.”
We hugged for what felt like an hour, with blurry unreal people moving around us like water around a rock. Then we parted. As the distance between us grew, we each looked back a ridiculous number of times – so many that we couldn’t help but laugh, despite our tears.
I wept like a dickhead as I was going through passport control, and ate an enormous tuna baguette in the departure lounge to calm myself down. It’d all been so wonderful.