Friday, 2 September 2011

Over / Fini

Here’s something I wrote when I first got back. I don’t know why I waited such a long time to post it.

I came back to England last Thursday, the day before my 21st birthday, and I'll be staying with my family until the end of September when university starts. Going out in Watford last night was a culture shock. I haven't been around people wearing that little and drinking that much since Christmas. It all seemed a bit depressing, honestly; conversation, flirtation and pleasure all seemed to be in quite short supply. Everyone was shouting and stumbling around; I left by 11, or else I would have seen the inevitable conclusions of a night out with repressed Puritans suddenly dissolving their social shackles in cheap, sweet alcohol. The police vans lay in wait up by the Horns pub. There was nowhere you could sit and have a quiet drink outside. It will all take some getting used to. I listened to some Arctic Monkeys on the bus home and thought, yeah, they do say it changes when the sun goes down, around here.

My last day in Paris was perfect. It included pretty much everything that made the city such a wonderful place to live for the 10 months I spent there. Before meeting 
Ally for falafel in the Marais, I went for a long stroll by myself around the Right Bank; starting off at Louvre-Rivoli metro stop, I went into the St.Germain-l'Auxerrois church and looked at all the art and architecture I've got much more of a taste for since reading up a little on what it's about, and then I walked across the Pont Neuf to the Louvre. I sat in the courtyard for a long time, thinking about the year I'd spent, thinking about leaving, thinking about what I had left to pack. I even stumbled on the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and looking at the gold-tipped dome that was being snapped by hundreds of Japanese tourists in a passing coach, I wondered if any other city in the world has so many public buildings covered in gold. I then crossed over the river again and wandered down past the Paris Plages, the public beaches that have been set up along the Seine for the month of August, and comprise banks of sand on the quais with deckchairs and sun umbrellas. There are also quite random free attractions like dirt biking, a swimming pool, a salsa band and an ice-cream stall, as if this city didn't already have enough to see, do, experience and reflect on to last the average person several years. But that's false, of course, by the time you'd done it all, it would have changed - there'd always be another exhibition, another cultural initiative, another restaurant you hadn't tried. So, it had started to rain, and I sat under an umbrella on the damp sand, watching the teal Seine wend its way under the Pont Neuf. I met Ally for falafel, which was predictably delicious, and then we went for a wander, and then I realised 59 Rivoli was nearby, so we checked it out. Every square inch of this artists squat is decorated with something; most of the artwork didn't mean much to me, but again, for the millionth time, how wonderful that a place like this exists. I'd love to say that the chocolate tart, coffee and wine that followed was because it was my last day, but quite honestly I ate what I wanted in Paris pretty much all the time, because I could afford it, and what would have been the point in not? We went to a café and then back to Ally's for an apéro with some of her French friends. We had white wine and blinis and salmon rillettes. I left reasonably early for dinner with my flatmates, which was a lot of fun as we quite uncharacteristically decided to se bourrer nos gueules, and at 3am I was playing Action ou Verité (truth or dare) with a Frenchman, an Italian, a German and my fellow anglaise Fiona. Crossing international borders with half of my possessions is, however, perhaps one of the worst things I've ever had to do with a hangover that bad.

So what I'm trying to say is that my last day in Paris was wonderful because it contained almost everything that made this year worthwhile. I had free time and a chance to appreciate the beauty of the city, a good friend, excellent food, patisseries and coffee, art, random cultural initiatives, an aperitif with some nice people, all in French with no problems, and then dinner with my flatmates, who always provided a safe and welcoming base for me to come back to after my adventures in the city.

I was happy in this city. I can easily analyse what it is that makes Paris so enticing, and it would basically go: its concentration of culture; its young and international population; the beauty of its architecture, the richness of its history, and a State that is willing to spend to keep all of these things in a pristine condition. And that's before you get onto the heady combination of being a foreign student with a very undemanding job and more money than you've ever had to spend before, with a nice gang of friendly Anglo-saxon assistants to get you going in terms of having a social life, and a city of young people from all over the world to get to know. Most importantly, reinforced by and reinforcing the country's cultural heritage, is the non-Puritan idea that the pursuit of pleasure is a completely worthwhile way to spend a day, a year, a life. It was interesting to me to live in such an intellectual country, a place where someone I knew mused over dinner, "I actually don't know much about Italian contemporary art" as if it was strange he didn't! I read an article about Rebekah Brooks that described her against-the-odds struggle in the macho newspaper world as "un mépris à la déontologie" (a defiance towards deontology). And that was in GRAZIA.

The culture is different; I can't get that across in a blog post. It always gave me something to think about.

Paris managed to remain both as iconic as everyone says it is, and special to me. I don't flatter myself that I had any experience that won't be repeated by the next batch of wide-eyed Anglo-Saxon students of French to descend on the city come autumn. How I envy them; how wonderful it was to see the city in every season. Autumn for me was summed up by the newness of it all, and the red and yellow flaming of the trees the first time I went to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont with Tiffany. Winter? The Christmas lights and the snow that froze my feet on a lonely afternoon I spent wandering around the Pantheon, feeling far fromhome and like I’d escaped from something for a year. And Spring? Oh, I can’t say anything original about Springtime in Paris. The city opened up like a flower when the warmer weather came. As for summer, I made like all true Parisians and left the city for most of it… being able to travel a little more in Europe was another wonderful thing about living in France. I have a feeling that returning to university next month will give me the strongest back-to-school feeling one could experience. The best thing is that I’ll be living a five minute walk away from a handful of people I can easily spend 10 hours with, including a few who were in Paris with me, and who get it. That’s the thing to look focus on.

To sum up through providing all that I ever could on here, snapshots, well, I went to Rouen and Le Havre, I went to poetry nights, I went to a writers’ group. The metro always smelled like air freshener at Bastille metro; I realised that I’m more attracted to teaching than I thought I was; I danced around the living room of a bourgeois French family whose kid I babysat; I went to a philosophy café at 10am on a Sunday just to see what it was like; I went to so many art galleries that the yellow walls of my bedroom were papered with postcards and ticket stubs by the time I left. It smelt just like lavender outside Shakespeare & Co after March, I used to sit outside on the steps eating ice cream sometimes, and once or twice I caught poetry readings that way. I went to a squat; I had a favourite dumpling restaurant; I wandered around the Latin Quarter on Saturday evenings in July after everyone had left.  I went up to St. Denis by myself for an extreme version of the poverty + wonderful religious architecture you can find in Montmartre. I went to a classical concert at the Vincennes cultural centre with Tiffany one Spring evening, and to a friends house afterwards; and despite the fantastic Vincennes library, I rented almost nothing in French apart from Annie Ernaux’s 100-page volumes of autobiography. Oh, of course I had bad days, and I was lonely at first, and I missed my friends a lot, and I don't want to underestimate how much of a challenge I found it to have the social handicap of having to often speak my second language; a feeling that, ultimately, was quite similar to the general sense of social anxiety I've had for my entire life. Despite all that, je suis folle de la ville. I didn’t know life could be like that.

But from this distance, and writing from my parent's suburban home, it all seems magical. Paris était une fete; her parks, her museums, her people, her food, her quais, her churches and her bars. I never got bored of going into new, old, apartments with white walls and wooden floors; how lucky I was to live there for a year, how many beautiful things I saw. Yes, that’s 
what it was. I saw so many beautiful things in Paris.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” ~ Ernest Hemingway