A year to the day after I took flight for France, I land there again, clutching with sweaty fingers a new visa that stretches invitingly into the future. I’m going for a year, I’d said back then, never daring to hope for more.
The first time it was easier to leave – riding the euphoria of a dream fulfilled, and strapped in safely by a return date – but this time it is easier to arrive. In the back of a taxi sunken slightly on its axes under the weight of my 53 kilos of luggage, I crawl past motorway exits that now mean something, signs I can mentally translate into points on a map: Porte des Lilas, Porte de Bagnolet, Porte de Vincennes. Last year, my heart leapt when I caught glimpses between buildings of the Sacré-Coeur atop her distant hill, and just the tip of the Eiffel Tower (unassuming and almost unrecognisable without proper context). A year later, it is more personal landmarks that thrill me: the smooth undulation of Quai de Bercy, Pont Sully’s sturdy green curve, and at last the gentle slope and sharp turn into my street. The overpriced bakery on the corner. The lopsided stairs into my building.
It’s all still here.
I’ve been lucky enough to go home to Australia twice in the past 12 months, and both times I’ve had the unsettling feeling that Paris fades when I am not in it; that my life here cannot possibly be anything more than an elaborate trick of the imagination.
Australia, while I’m away from it, is fiercely, immovably real. Home does not falter. But France… France still feels too good to be true, and when I’m not here to check up on it each morning, it threatens to evaporate in my mind.
And so arriving is an intense relief that is soon lost in jetlag and an aeroplane-transmitted virus and a re-entry to work that chews me up and spits me into bed each night at 7pm. As though in punishment for having doubted it, my life sets out in the first week back to prove it is real with a series of micro-unkindnesses. Spring sunshine gives way to cold, swirling rain. There’s an incomprehensible tax return to be done in a hurry. I work in human rights but when I say the word “rights” it comes out as “fingers”, and makes an office full of people laugh.
I recover my sense of belonging here (and my sleeping patterns) just in time for the second and deciding round of the Presidential elections. All week, mutterings of Macron and Le Pen and et si elle passe? have littered every conversation I’ve had or overheard. Paris seems subdued, burdened rather than reassured by democracy. Police on horseback clop past me on Boulevard Henri IV, while their footbound colleagues, wearing shell-like armour over their shoulders, set up a pedestrian exclusion zone around the Institut du Monde Arabe and demand to look inside elderly visitors’ shopping bags. Morning radio tells me 50,000 law enforcement personnel have been deployed across the country until the polls close.
Unable to contribute to the outcome but likely to be affected by it, I am consumed by impatience. There’s a media blackout on results until 8pm on election night, so the news sites report only what they can: lower than usual voter turnout, undoubtedly as a form of protest against the two remaining candidates. I spend the day frustrated at the idea that so many people who have the right to vote are not exercising it.
High above the Marais, my friends and I throw a tiny election party with champagne punch and 90s music videos and when a dramatic crescendo ushers Macron’s face onto the TV screen we clap and dance to expend our relief. On the way home I detour past my favourite bar to sit for a while and watch some cricket, not ready to go home, soaking in the swell of other people’s conversations, texting friends in Australia irreverent things about “our” new President. I hope you are enjoying #JaneliveinParis, I joke.
Keep going, someone replies immediately. I’m here.