I’m drinking a freshly squeezed lemon juice and looking out of the window, past the great weeping willow in the garden, to the pale blue sky over Alsace, where a trio of parachutists twirl towards the Earth.
I thought they were paragliders at first, until Jeanne explained there’s a centre nearby where people jump from planes. I should have realised they couldn’t be paragliders – Strasbourg is exceedingly flat. I learned this yesterday when Jeanne and I cycled out of the city into a forest, emerging eventually at a farm where Jeanne used to spend her birthdays as a child, riding donkeys and bothering chickens. My bicycle had a basket on it. Can you believe that? Me, Dan Hackett – the man who once wiped his arse with a bleach-soaked sponge after the loo roll ran out at a house party – riding a bicycle with a basket on it.
I landed in Europe several days ago, after a surprisingly peaceful journey via Manchester Airport, which is generally cramped and foisty and loud and hellish. The virus has disrupted the usual flow of holidaymakers however, and I arrived to find the airport in a zen-like state of calm; no hideous din of shrieking children, no warring stag do factions, no honeymooners bristling visibly as their flight is set back yet another hour. Just the smell of disinfectant and empty corridors and me, in my mask, nibbling at a screamingly overpriced salmon salad from Pret.
After only the briefest hiccup, during which I was pulled aside at security because the scanners had flagged up the harmonica in my backpack as a bomb, I made it to Europe. Switzerland, to be exact, as it’s the only airport in the vicinity of Strasbourg that doesn’t cost around £400 for a one-way flight*. One minor panic attack later as I tried to navigate the train system, and I was in France. Jeanne met me at the station, and our reunion on a busy platform after six weeks apart could almost be described as Casablanca-esque, were it not for the fact that we were both clad in surgical masks.
*perhaps I’ve been harsh – you can pay £50 or less for a flight, as long as you don’t mind the fact that your journey takes 27 hours and is via Moscow.
My first night in Strasbourg was spent at the vacated apartment of one of Jeanne’s childhood friends, Elodie. I’m envious of Jeanne’s friendship circle – although they’re spread across several French cities these days, Jeanne is part of a large group who have been best friends most of their lives; many of them since they were five years old. They are an active bunch with vibrant lives, and are all good-looking in a charming, tousled sort of way. Whenever I spend time among them I always feel like one of the occasional guest star boyfriends on Friends – muscling in on a long established dynamic, laughing along to the banter without really understanding it, occasionally attempting to join in and plunging the entire room into mortified silence.
Elodie’s place is a dream. Its at the top of a winding old stairwell, four storeys above an Ethiopian restaurant, the sublime fragrance of which drifts through the hallways in the evening. Inside the apartment is large and airy, and decorated with a casual French panache I can only dream of. Glossy Polaroid photos are stuck to the fridge, featuring smiling faces on beaches and in crowded restaurants. A map of Berlin’s underground is pinned to the wall in the toilet, and throughout the hall and living room bookshelves groan under the weight of Tintin volumes and Dostoyevsky tomes. Skis and a snowboard are propped up in the bedroom, from the windows of which you can see down to the cobbled street below, hemmed in by shuttered windows and peeling paint. Why is it that when paint peels off buildings in France it looks gorgeous, yet in the UK it looks bleak? I’ve never in my life walked through the quietly decaying backstreets of Sheffield or Bristol and thought ‘rustic’. It’s usually more along the lines of ‘avoid eye contact Danny Boy, unless you fancy being repeatedly elbow-dropped by a gang of youths.’
In the evening Jeanne and I explored Strasbourg. We were staying near the train station, just outside the old town. The old town – known as Petite France, for some reason – is so beautiful it makes me angry. When I headed to Bristol ahead of Jeanne some 16 months ago, I reported back with elation on the stunning buildings I’d discovered down on Kings Street. ‘They’re like something out of a Shakespeare play!’ I gushed. ‘All wooden beams and original windows! 400 years old! You’re going to LOVE IT HERE!’
Little did I realise that in the centre of Strasbourg every single building within a three-mile radius consists of wooden beams and original windows, and they even go one better – rather than having been hollowed out, converted into Wetherspoons and packed to the rafters with white-shirted men doing Jagerbombs, in Strasbourg the majority of cafes, restaurants and bars are independent, and brimming with character because of it. As we wound through the streets, I saw people sipping glasses of wine beneath striped awnings, couples leaning over shared cheese platters, and cyclists weaving through the trickle of pedestrians. And I couldn’t help but think to myself: Christ, this is pleasant.
Sitting on a terrace with Jeanne later that evening, we ordered a couple of lemonades (I’ve stopped drinking, for now) and smoked a cigarette (that’s next on the agenda). I pondered aloud whether I could see myself living in such a place. Jeanne and I have spent years making plans to travel South America for the entirety of 2021, you see, but a combination of the coronavirus and Jair Bolsonaro’s malignant incompetence has scuppered that idea entirely. Instead, we opted for France. Using our savings, we should be able to live here for the best part of a year, even if worst comes to worst and we – read ‘I’ – can’t find paid work.
‘It’s all so gorgeous,’ I groaned as the evening drew on. ‘I feel as though I don’t belong here.’ The idea of living this way – of chatting in cafes and riding bicycles through cornfields, of drinking wine by a river lined with fairytale manorhouses – seemed so very lovely and out of character for me that I almost feared people would smell it from across the terrace. ‘Fuck off to KFC you lout,’ they would shout in French, and I wouldn’t understand and would reply with a friendly tip of my imposter beret.
Probing my emotions further, I eventually told Jeanne that I feel as though I don’t deserve such a nice lifestyle. I’ve not done anything to earn this; I’ve just chanced upon it. It’s like being stopped in the street by a stranger dressed like the Monopoly Man, and he hands you a million pounds in cash and says ‘on behalf of the universe, I gift this to you for being such a fantastic person’ and strolls away. Would you take it? Or, like me, would you feel compelled to wave your wad in the air and call after him – ‘But sir, you’ve made a mistake! I’m not a good person! I’m a shit sir! A shit!’
This realisation – the fact I feel that I don’t deserve nice things, and by extension I suppose, happiness – hit me like a mallet. Part of it, I feel, is the Briton in me. Why can’t we have nice things like the French do? Pretty bakeries and charming bars are objectively more agreeable than the cookie-cutter pubs that span the length of Great Britain, their laminated menus all identical down to the very last typo and/or salad cream stain. Must it be this way? It often feels as though we are afraid of doing Actually Quite Nice activities. If I suggested going for a coffee with the boys I’d be mocked for months – a hailstorm of princess emojis unleashed upon me, and my name changed to ‘coffee loving prick’ in the group chat. And perish the thought that I should dare to float the notion of going for a countryside walk, or on a bicycle ride. I would be minced in seconds. Diced. Juiced. Pulped.
The French don’t seem to give a shit, and I like that. They hang out in cafes and talk about – well, I don’t know what they talk about, but from their cigarette-clutching gesticulations it seems awfully interesting – and they drink one or two small glasses of red wine and then they bid one another a bonne soirée and go home. They don’t say ‘FOOK IT’ and order eight more rounds of pints and wind up seven hours later bellowing at a kebab shop owner over the definition of a ‘large doner.’ The French enjoy themselves and then take that enjoyment and pocket it before it turns into a big horrid mess.
The reason I’m saying all this is because I *love* a big horrid mess. I love it, and I have always loved the UK’s intrinsic chaos. The sight of a man clad in a red woman’s swimsuit with fake pubes bursting from the sides attempting to rive off the door of a moving taxi? I live for it. I am 27 now, however, and I’m slowly realising that unless I sort myself out, I’m going to be in a sticky wicket come my later years. I started boozing and whatnot at 14, and since then it’s been 13 years of liver bashing and silly antics. I don’t want my life to be defined by that, however, and so I maketh this change: to France, to being kind to myself, and to a healthier, gentler lifestyle.
We’ll see how THAT one pans out, ey?