At first the rain is charming. It makes everything glossy, and it falls so lightly that I, accustomed to Queensland downpours, find it easy to ignore. When small stretches of bike path start to disappear into the river, I am astounded. How can rain so gentle make such a difference?
When I have to move apartments, it becomes annoying, but I take a cab instead of the metro and the driver helps me haul my suitcase. It’s still just a drizzle, and a lot of puddles. All the bridges along the Seine seem to have lowered themselves slightly. The damp light makes for good photos.
My new flat has a television and it points out in no uncertain terms how ignorant I’ve been. East of Paris, roads are cut and people are sleeping on camp beds in gymnasiums. News anchors stand in streets flooded to knee level while behind them, pensioners are airlifted to safety.
Unwilling to forgo my long walks, I buy a bigger umbrella, one with a curved handle that opens with a satisfying ch-chunk and that would, in a pinch, be a handy rapier. I hang out my apartment window and douse all my shoes in evil-smelling waterproofer. Ramps along the Quai de la Tournelle disappear into water that is picking up speed, and carrying the odd branch and car tyre.
I wear my light waterproof jacket over an equally light jumper: my blood has thickened, and the forecast 16 degrees holds no fear. By evening the chill is biting through to my skin.
Seven years ago, when I was living in Marseille, it snowed for the first time in ten years. Everything stopped. Locals abandoned their cars in the middle of the streets to throw handfuls at one another. I’m reminded of them when I near Pont Sully to find Parisians lining the railing, taking photos of the river that is now entirely above a stretch of its bank near the Institut du Monde Arabe. Not everyone is using their phone; some of them have brought their cameras. I am self-involved enough to wonder, for a fleeting second, if I’m somehow to blame for this second once-in-x weather event.
Across the Ile Saint-Louis, the trunks of trees along the very edge of the river are out of sight. Just a few metres of the wall below Notre-Dame remains visible. In the distance, the top of the Eiffel Tower disappears into cloud.
I take my photos and walk back to my fourth-floor nest, ashamed at the frisson of pleasure I get from being here, from seeing it. Hollande declares a “national catastrophe”, just seven months after he declared a state of emergency – a state which is still in force, driven by a terrorist threat that looms large over the upcoming Euro 2016 football championship, and the Tour de France. Widespread strikes, in response to changes to work laws, are disrupting the train system, and there’s a severe petrol shortage which has seen drivers leaving the city limits just to fill up and come back. When no one seemed to be talking about the floods, I wondered if weather was a uniquely Australian fascination, but I theorise now that it reflects a broader weariness. There are too many things to talk about. News outlets have started talking about the flood of 1910 in the way their Brisbane counterparts used to talk about 1974, before 2011.
I am grateful for the amateur photographers lining the banks and bridges, locals for once outnumbering tourists in prime position on the Pont de la Tournelle. Documenting. Commenting. Taking in the strange and unavoidable beauty of it. Ready to say, I was there. Once-in-x.