In my sillier moments I like to believe I didn’t choose to live in the Fifth, that instead the Fifth chose me. I have an enduring memory of the first time I visited the arrondissement last year, when I was taking my first dip in the murky waters of the Parisian rental market. Lured in by its proximity to the Jardin du Luxembourg, its central location, and a handful of ads for tiny studios that didn’t cost my entire salary, I climbed out of the métro at Censier – Daubenton on a warm Tuesday evening, looked along rue Monge, and thought, with ringing clarity, I need to live here.
I’m not sure if my instinct speaks often and I do not hear it, or if it saves its voice for times of absolute and immense certainty (put your toothbrush in your handbag and drive home, your father is dying) but either way, on the rare occasions when I listen, it is never wrong.
Of course, “I need to live here” does not constitute an acceptable rental application, and it took a month of nail-biting, the intervention of a dear friend, and a hefty dose of good fortune to make it a reality. My sag-ceilinged little queendom near the Place de la Contrescarpe feels like a rare and unexplained benediction bestowed by the neighbourhood: you, strange oversized Australian, you may stay. I like to think, of course, in my more self-involved moments, that this quartier of Descartes and Voltaire and Hemingway peered into my soul and saw a restless poet who deserved a home.
And a home it has become, whether it was the spirits of long-dead writers or sheer dumb luck or some mix of the two that brought me here. I confess to my friend that Sundays are “Jane days”, when I spend time alone and prepare for the week ahead, but of course that’s a well-meaning lie: Sundays are the days the Fifth and I spend together, growing into one another. Once a week I choose a new direction and wander (laptop tucked hopefully in my handbag should a Franklin-winning novel suddenly formulate in my head), meandering along new streets and, inevitably, testing the hot chocolate at unknown cafes.
Even putting aside the dead writers, it’s a sickeningly clichéd part of Paris to call home. The Fifth, the Quartier Latin, is Rive-Gauche-lite: if Saint-Germain-des-Pres is old money, the Latin Quarter is the baby sister who blew her trust fund on Arts degrees and backpacking and self-publishing her memoirs at 25. It is a neighbourhood of learning and drinking, packed to bursting with universities and institutes (Paris-Descartes, Paris-Sorbonne, Sorbonne-Panthéon, Pierre-et-Marie-Curie, Collège de France, all cheek by jowl with the Lycée Henri V), with cheap sushi and taquerías, kebab restaurants with plastic chairs and drunk sorority sisters on exchange, raclette and bo bun and most things in between. At 2am on a Thursday, I talk cricket with a Pakistani man toasting chicken in Italian bread. His little store is two blocks from my house and I hope we’ll be lifelong friends.
On Sunday mornings I hook a shopping bag over my elbow and stride to the market in Place Monge. Vendors greet regulars with cheerful familiarity and I long to be one of them, to have been here long enough to earn a bonjour chérie! and an extra clementine slipped into my shopping bag for free. In early March, in the pouring rain and still with the weight of two consecutive nuits blanches in my head, I haul myself out of bed to do my weekly shop and struggle along rue Clovis. My trusty boots are letting in water. Icy fists of wind strike at my umbrella and bat last night’s ponytail into my mouth. In the place, genial political volunteers stretch out wilted fliers for Macron and Fillon and I try to invest my beaming non, merci with an unspoken explanation: I do not have the right to vote but I respect and support your involvement in the political system of your country.
There is a warmth that radiates here that does not come from the steaming vat of gratin or the freshly baked Lebanese flatbreads stuffed with spinach and cheese but rather from the dancing eyes and booming calls of the stallholders: profitez, madame! Happiness is a depth charge in my chest, a slow burn that starts in my vocal cords (trois citrons, s’il vous plaît) and blooms through my ribcage, unremarked until the walk home when I triage my emotions.
These are not the joys we imagine as children. When I grow up, I want to stand in the pouring rain and accidentally buy too many avocados because my accent thickens when I’m tired.
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Spring comes to Paris overnight, and right on schedule: the first Saturday after the equinox is blindingly sunny. Heavy-headed daffodils (so big and bright that I briefly wonder if they were planted, already flowering, under cover of darkness) suddenly line the rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, and the trees in the square behind Notre-Dame are so densely covered in flowers that spare petals fall in tiny snowstorms to the paths below.
The bateaux-mouches that for months have been ferrying empty seats up and down the river are packed with sightseers, hoods flung back, scarves dancing in the breeze. Narrow windows along my street that have been closed since I moved in in November reveal themselves to be tiny cafes (four tables inside, four out).
Paris turns itself inside out. Footpaths overflow, intersections bustle, terraces bulge. Every accessible part of the riverbank from Pont Neuf to Pont d’Austerlitz is filled with walkers and cyclers and rollerbladers and people of all ages dangling their feet above the water. I take part in my first ever hash run and go puffing through the crowd, encouraged at regular intervals by picnickers who wave their plastic cups of wine and cheerfully call out Allez! Bravo!
I fling open my windows and Google “types of flowers hard to kill window boxes” and think about painting my toenails. My friend says, make sure you get some sunshine on your hands, and we walk to lunch with our fingers splayed in front of us, divining for vitamin D.
I celebrate the new season by being initiated into my local library by a librarian who derives such evident and pure joy from signing up new members that I wish I could seal the deal with a hug. As we wait for the pen to dry on my new card I tell her that I live just next door but it’s the first time I’ve been inside. She looks at my address, two blocks away, and says, I wouldn’t say that’s next door. Well, I explain, in Australian terms it is. Her laugh dances through the quiet of the reading room. Yes, she says happily, I can see that. I’m her first Australian member and she seems quite concerned that I don’t have any questions for her to answer. Come back to talk to me anytime, she advises.
I walk the two blocks home along Rue Mouffetard with my jacket over my arm and the promise of books in my purse.