When I was 16 I read Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin in school for my French A-level.
I don’t really remember much about it, except that the protagonists Therese and Laurent, who had committed murder, were trapped in a squalid little Parisian home with a cat that just kept staring and meowing at Laurent. Eventually, the cat got booted out a window. Furry little Francois represented guilt as a theme, so he got hoofed.
I’m sitting in a beautiful flat in Paris with a city of possibilities right out side my door. The only thing trapping me is my laziness brought on by too much drinking in Brussels over the weekend. My only company is a cat called Ninja.
The cat will not stop staring. Perhaps this is just what cats do in France, be it in literary or real life terms. They stare at you, and force you to think upon your sins. Well Ninja, perhaps the window for you too.
“Mate, I have to be here, this is where I live.” Ninja says.
Well this isn’t going to write itself, cat, although I wish it would.
Of all the places I have visited thus far, Paris has stolen my heart the quickest. It is like no other capital city I have been to or lived in. Unlike London or Tokyo, which overwhelmed me due to their size and frenetic energy, Paris feels completely manageable. Perhaps because its centre is still ornately beautiful, or perhaps because I’m not immediately immersed by frantic crowds, I feel content and comfortable in a city I barely know.
On arriving at the train station, I grabbed the subway to Odéon to meet my friend Kim. When we first lived together in Brussels I had no idea how posh she was. Now, as she takes me into her family home, it begins to dawn on me that perhaps not everyone in Paris lives in a huge multi bedroomed flat that is of the classic Parisian style, with high ceilings, cornicing, marble fireplaces and shuttered doors that lead on to a balcony over looking the street from every room.
I pause and take in my grand surroundings. I have gone from naught to Paris in the blink of an eye. I struggle to hide my excitement.
I haven’t seen Kim since she visited me about six years ago, but she hasn’t changed a bit. Except that instead of getting into a career in politics and diplomacy as was planned in Brussels, she’s now retraining in medicine. Either way, she’s sharp as a tack and the fact she can pick and choose such illustrious careers is remarkable.
Due to her medicine degree she is predominantly busy during my time with her, which is a shame, but as she hands me a spare set of keys to a flat I have no right to live in, it feels as though she is handing me the keys to Paris itself.
By the time I arrived from Brussels it was already late, and Kim has studies the next day. We share a quick catch up beer and turn in.
The next day, after a very lazy morning, I head out to find coffee and a croissant. If you are wandering around the 6eme arrondissement, be careful. This area is the heart of Paris. The cafes are infamous as the meeting points of the revolutionaries that stormed the Bastille, or the hang outs of the philosophers that, in the way that only the French can, chain smoked cigarettes and agree the most pragmatic view of life is that it is of no consequence, so it’s probably just as useful to light up and order another glass of wine.
Now though, this means a coffee and brioche in one of these famous cafes is worth about 12 euros. I can assure you, there is no pastry in the world that I am comfortable paying this much money for. And so, my search for coffee and breakfast desserts continued.
After eventually giving up on finding anything worth eating at a reasonable price, I have lunch overlooking Pont Neuf and head back to try and catch up on some of the writing I should have done a week ago.
As I wake up from a nap and stare at the empty laptop screen, I realise it is approaching 7pm and Kim is walking in the door.
“Want to get some din…” she begins
“…..YES.” I cut her off, closing the computer screen over and grabbing my coat and wallet in one swift movement.
Her neighourhood, it turns out, is in fact filled with places to eat that are all excellent and priced appropriately. I am just terrible at looking. But then again, that is why I try my best to only stay and travel with natives. I hate being in a place and not having the cheat codes.
We settle on crepes, which traditionally is washed down with Normandy cider. Over dinner Kim informs me we have a party to attend the next night. Also in Normandy.
We go for a stroll and Kim’s experience as a river boat tour guide comes into play. I’m definitely staying in Paris with the right person.
Tuesday rolls around and it’s still up in the air if we’re actually still going to this party. Kim explains it’s the 27th birthday of a course mate. Apparently the guy is super cool and a DJ in his spare time, we’ll have a whole house to ourselves and we don’t need to bring anything, as there are beds for us when we get there. It sounds pretty good, and I’m looking forward to meeting a group of young French doctors.
After picking up a bottle of rum, we meet her pals in Paris who are driving up. I suddenly remember that I am in my 30s, and they most definitely are not. I also have a degree in French, but I completed it 14 years ago, when the people in the car were realistically about 12 years old. As we begin the drive out of the city, the two other students in the car begin quizzing each other on medicine. In French. It slowly dawns on me that, actually, unless people meet me half way language wise, this might be a tough night. With the ongoing medical test taking place up front, bizarrely I fall asleep in the back quite easily.
A couple of hours later I surface to discover nothing but rolling green fields, cows and trees around us, and grey menacing clouds hanging low in the sky. As we arrive in the small rural village, it crosses my mind that this may be the French answer to Deliverance. Certainly, without a lift home, we are stranded for the night. Before I go any further, I’d like to quickly state that the family that welcomed me into their home in Normandy were the loveliest, most hospitable people you could ask for. And yet.
On the night of the of Tuesday, 6th June 1944, a vast group of Allied soldiers undoubtedly spent one of the worst nights of their lives stranded in Normandy. No way home, but just the hope of surviving the night, and eventually seeing their loved ones again.
On this wet, cold evening, it was very easy to relate.
We folded out of the car and were taken into the house we would be staying in. I met a couple of additional students who politely said hello, reminding me yet again how much older I was than everyone else at this shindig.
As we walked into the building it became apparent there were some serious renovations being done. “Unfinished” would be the most accurate term to describe this house. “Cold” also kept echoing in my mind. I dumped my bag in the upstairs bedroom where there wasn’t a single stick of furniture, but simply rugs and mats on the floor. I looked over pensively at Kim, wondering if perhaps she knew something I didn’t. I managed to snag the one fold out bed, and assumed duvets and pillows would be provided later, but not wanting to look rude or high maintenance, I said nothing and followed the group to another house.
We were greeted by children and adults. I was at a family get together where food was being served and I didn’t know a single soul. A cold sweat took hold as I realised this was my world for the foreseeable future. My grip tightened around my bottle of rum. I had to drink my way through this.
In total there was a mum and dad, two baby sisters, the birthday boy and about 10 other students. They all knew each other and were sitting around the kitchen table chatting politely and drinking fruit punch. After putting in some serious groundwork with the dad, I started on the punch and hoped my awkwardness would not become apparent. As the evening slowly dragged on, the family, including the birthday boy all disappeared, leaving me, Kim and the other students to our own devices. Someone suggested a board game. I was over joyed at the prospect, having come all the way to Normandy, with no escape and a level of French too basic to understand the intricacies of a French parlour game. I opened the rum, found apple juice and limes and made brown sugar syrup.
After the kids turned their noses up at a treacle cocktail and returned to fruit juice lightly mixed with low levels of cheap alcohol, my heart began to sink.
Eventually, and thankfully, the board game came to an end. The birthday boy ushered us back to the first house undergoing refurbishment, and I began to cling on to the distant hope that this would be when the party might begin. As we entered, the kids all began to take position around the dining room table, and pulled out a deck of fantasy cards. These twenty year olds had all happily finished my rum before I got a chance to do it any serious damage while neglecting to bring anything to drink themselves. I did my best to hold back the waves of tears eager to escape my face, and opened a remarkably cheap bottle of terrible red wine.
As far as I cared to tell, before the final remnants of my interest were beaten to death and left to die cold and alone in that fateful Normandy village, the game was about werewolves that villagers had to catch before they killed everyone. I was handed a card identifying me as a werewolf. Fuck, I thought, this probably means I’ll have to talk to people.
The dungeon master or game leader or whatever the fuck began talking, at great length, setting the scene in archaic French. If only I’d wasted my uni degree 14 years ago focusing on niche medical vocabulary and dungeons and dragons. Sadly though, I hadn’t.
There was talking. So much talking. All the kids were creating elaborate strategies and lines of questioning to establish the villains of the game. As far as I could tell, there was very little drinking taking place.
As the hours rolled on and I wondered if there would be much point stabbing myself in the jugular with the cork screw as sadly I was surrounded by med students who annoyingly would probably only save my life, I looked up to catch the gaze of Kim, who I realised was as horrified by the predicament as I was.
We had a team meeting, just the two of us and worked out what to do next.
Instead of being truthful and admitting we were bored to the point where ritual suicide seemed like a nice way to spice up the evening, we claimed we were tired and escaped upstairs to watch Netflix.
There were still no duvets or pillows, just thin white hospital sheets that the kids had stolen from their placements.
As I lay fully clothed, shivering, lying under little more than an oversized handkerchief, Kim asked me if I’d mind getting the earliest train home, which meant getting a bus to the station at about 8.30am. I enquired if there might not be anything leaving earlier.
We slept for two cold and dreadful hours and sprang out of bed at 8am, running out the door as quickly as our frozen legs could carry us. Our haste was pointless, as the bus still refused to be scheduled any earlier. We slowly ambled back to the first house in the hope that the breakfast we had been promised might have some kind of rejuvenating qualities.
I’m going to go ahead and say it. Europeans are fucking shit at breakfast. And this was the shittest yet. I had slept two hours, meaning my French and my patience were wearing thin, and now I was back to hanging out with the parents and having to be unbearably polite in a foreign fucking language. The mother offered me bread she had baked herself. I said that would be lovely, and as I turned around was presented with the blackest, driest, hardest loaf of nightmares that I had ever seen. Every bitter bite became more sour as I watched the lovely French baguettes make their way to the table after my desperate attempt to be kind.
I gnawed on my bread, wondering just how much longer I could hold my shit together, when mercifully, Kim announced it was time to go. We politely made our goodbyes, and in need of showers, sleep and any kind of meaningful stimulus, dragged our fatigued bodies to the bus stop.
With every mile the bus put between us and the night we had had, warmth and laughter returned. This would be the second time in three days that arriving in Paris would bring nothing but joy and happiness to my heart. Kim claimed she would never leave Paris again. I could see her point.