things that have been wonderful lately

Sea foam that blows in over the walls of Saint-Malo’s old town and swirls like snow in the icy air. We take refuge in a teashop where the waiters smile and bow, and sit next to a woman who is methodically crunching her way through three bowls of sugar cubes while loudly discussing bank transfers into a flip-phone. The remains of a single espresso, long since finished, dry in front of her. We eat galettes oozing molten cheese. The waiter slips us two slices of raspberry cheesecake “just to taste” and fetches a fourth bowl of sugar cubes for our neighbour.

Sinuous crocodiles of school children, hand in hand in high-vis jackets, meandering along footpaths on their way to and from daycare activities during the Toussaint holidays.

Christmas lights pretending to be icicles strung out along boulevards. Winter comes to Paris in a rush of shedding and adorning, showing off and bunkering down. Terraces grow glass walls and sprout overhead furnaces. Leaves darken and die (a process I still watch with wide-eyed Queensland fascination). Five cold months stretch out bleakly ahead, five months of frozen toes and hunched shoulders and taking 15 minutes longer to leave the house because of all the layers. But five months, too, of bright cold air; of sharp sunshine; of elegant boots and belted overcoats. Of Christmas markets smelling of mulled wine and of cosy train journeys. Of the Paris I first saw at 20, the one that still feels a little more like adventure than any other version.

Hot chocolate so thick it can barely be poured.

Dr Anne the dentist in studded ankle boots and belted jeans, her smoky voice booming through her open-plan surgery while she grinds tartar from my molars. I forget to look up dental vocabulary before I go and spend a lot of my time nodding, hoping not to spot a drill in my peripheral vision. But she says pas de problème and sends me out into the morning unscathed.

Rough-edged cinnamon cookies fresh from an earth oven carved into the walls of the deepest dry moat in Europe. My friend and I are the only ones peering through the low stone doorway into what were once primitive cold rooms and pantries and the woman by the oven says, They’re a test batch. Try one. It’s not until much later, when the last of the crumbs have been licked from our lips and we have crept back through the subterranean fortress to surface level that we see her disappearing into a doorway and realise she still lives in the chateau perched above.

My cheeks when I have remembered to moisturise religiously.

Singing O Come All Ye Faithful at the top of my lungs in a village church at 11:49pm on Christmas Eve.

Singing Auld Lang Syne, arm-in-arm with my friend, at 12:01am on New Year’s Day in a hipster bar somewhere near Wandsworth (the dodgy end).

Staying in, making dense pumpkin soup with extra curry powder, while wearing Quidditch Captain pyjamas and Dobby Is Free socks.

Sitting in a room full of fundraisers, learning about tax exemption regulations and having the confidence to say in accented but perfectly comprehensible French, so just to clarify, this applies to all deductible donations?

The full-grown pig that lives on a barge on the Seine in central Paris, and goes for a walk each morning on a leash.

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City of Lines

Not long after I arrived in Paris in 2016, I caught two trains to Manchester for a weekend to run 10 kilometres in an elephant suit. I stepped out of Manchester Piccadilly into light rain and a motley crowd of teenagers with blue hair and men with septum piercings and overweight women in fishnets and miniskirts.

I didn’t realise until I left how narrow Paris is, in terms of everyday fashion. In the centre at least, in the more expensive quartiers, the limits of “normal” and “acceptable” are tightly defined. I have joked lovingly about the Paris uniform – jeans, sneakers, shirt, leather jacket optional – and as a girl living out of little more than a suitcase I am infinitely grateful for it: my practical wardrobe is suitable here for both work and play, for early mornings and late nights and most things in between.

In summer, the rules change slightly to allow for cotton dresses, a-line skirts and t-shirts, wedge sandals. Jeans go, sneakers stay. The very occasional tailored short. Sleeveless is fine, strapless is unheard of. Everything is slightly loose-fitting, so that bodies move inside clothes not as though the clothes are too big, but as though the bodies are small and delicate.

It took me a long time to work out what the difference was, why I could tell the visitors from the locals instantly even if the tourists, like me, were wearing the uniform. But it’s possible, oh so possible, to get the uniform wrong: running shoes instead of casual sneakers, ill-fitting jeans, polo shirts. A lot of exposed skin that is not smooth and luminous. This is where non-Parisians go wrong all the time, in addition to the other blatant misstep of being overweight.

My Australian friend, visiting from London, pinpointed it over a long lunch.

Aesthetics, she said, doing an irritatingly good job herself in a patterned sundress, white sneakers, and tousled hair. I, sartorial sinner, lost cause, was wearing a Hogwarts t-shirt. They value beauty.

And beauty, it seems, is even more rigidly defined here than elsewhere. It is casual and practical, ready to step off a bike and into a bar. It is often loose-haired and fine-boned and light on accessories. It experiments with scientific reserve, one variable at a time (a brocade coat over jeans and a white t-shirt; a snakeskin boot with a straight black dress).

A Parisian friend is more blunt. If I see someone with blue hair, he says, I assume there’s something wrong with them.

 

Little wonder, though, that a city so physically dominated by lines – proud boulevards, stately avenues – tends sartorially to colour inside them.

The grandest and most recognisable line is the Axe historique, which since the 17th Century has been Paris’ spine and today marches on unbent from the Louvre, under the Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel (“the little one”, topped with a quadriga that always makes me think of the Brandenburg Gate), through the Jardin des Tuileries, across the Place de la Concorde, the length of the Avenues of the Champs-Elysées, la Grande Armée, and Charles de Gaulle (passing through the “real” Arc de Triomphe on the way), and finally over the Seine to the modern Grande Arche in the business district of La Defense. Crossing the road on a clear day at almost any point along this triumphal way, as it’s also known, is an exercise in awe and timing: the perfect linear grandeur of the thoroughfares between monuments demands to be admired, while Paris traffic charges on unmoved and willing to run down the momentarily mesmerised pedestrian.

If Louis XIV and Napoleon laid the foundations with the Voie Triomphale, it was Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the 1800s that turned her into the City of Lines; an ambitious project of demolition and creation with the explicit intent of making a grim urban landscape more spacious, interconnected and beautiful. Today it is impossible to imagine Paris without the perfect symmetry of Rue de Rivoli, or Boulevards Sébastopol, Magenta and Voltaire.

 

I have a theory that it’s the lines that have made Paris, throughout history, such a haven for artists. What better place for the beauty-obsessed and the subversive than a city physically and culturally defined by lines demanding to be either admired or transgressed?

Paris is an immersive masterclass in perspective and light, its arrow-straight boulevards lined by stone buildings dressed in much the same style as the modern Parisian woman: slight variations on an elegant theme. (While their balconies and turrets and windows are rarely uniform, Haussmanian buildings never exceed six storeys and their height is, or at least once was, proportional to the width of the street at their feet).

Although Haussman went out of style, lines never did. The Arch built at La Defense in the 1980s not only aligned perfectly with the arches at l’Etoile and Carrousel but also, in a different direction, created a new axis with the two tallest buildings in the city, the Eiffel Tower and the modern Tour Montparnasse in the 15th arrondissement.

What the lines mean, in practice, is that in almost every neighbourhood of Paris there’s an elegantly framed, precisely centred and often unexpected view of something. Round a corner in Grands Boulevards and you’re face to face with the domes of Sacre-Cœur; turn your back for a moment on the Pantheon and the Eiffel Tower peers over the Jardin de Luxembourg. Even after 18 months these picture-frame moments still sneak up on me: from the very modern heights of Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton building on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, the Eiffel Tower appears perfectly centred between two curved roof sections.

 

Haussmann would perhaps be disappointed to discover that the line that most powerfully defines Paris both physically and culturally today is its least beautiful. The Boulevard Périphérique ringroad draws a shaky circle along the city’s administrative limits, separating the city of Paris from her suburbs with absolute authority. If you live outside the Périph, you are not from Paris; you are from the banlieues and you will correct anyone who misplaces you.

The not-Paris beyond the Périphérique is infinitely more diverse; cross the physical boundary of Paris and you’re more likely to transgress her intangible limits. The word banlieue has become weighted with poverty and racial tension, with insecurity and ugliness.

But the banlieues range all the way from desperation to decadence; from the “hot” neighbourhood of Saint-Ouen in the north-west, it’s a short drive to the central business district of La Defense, all glass towers and global insurance firms. Venture south-west and the suburbs are village-pretty, filled with detached houses that smell of woodsmoke in winter and have little gardens where fat snails and lost hedgehogs take refuge.

 

The French Government – famous for drawing incomprehensible bureaucratic lines around everything from employment rights to handwriting – seems to enjoy sending newcomers to the end of metro lines in search of its elusive approval. In September I approach the Périph to visit the Prefecture de Police, an application for a French driver’s licence clutched in my hand. I walk a past a long, silent queue of people behind an A4 printout directing Asylum Seekers This Way, and join a shorter line that shuffles towards the bleak administrative building. I’m wearing my good sneakers and my leather jacket for the occasion. Please, my dossier says in triplicate. I’ll drive within your lines if you’ll let me.

the other side

what you might have seen

Late May, 33 degrees. I lean my croissant-softened stomach against the parapet of Pont Neuf and take a photo of the sun setting, fairy-floss pink and gold. My phone pauses, considers, balances, presents me with a high-definition memory. This will be a hit on Facebook. I upload it immediately, even though it’s not yet dawn in Australia.

I’ve been picnicking on the cool emerald carpet of Square du Vert-Galant, drinking cheap rosé, wearing a floral singlet, basking in the smug grandeur of our first real summer’s day. Softly spoken men offered to sell us things to accentuate our pleasure : cold Heinekens for friends, velvet-petalled roses for those who might be lovers. My fellow picnickers bought beers while I wondered how deeply the thorns would cut our palms if we took the flowers instead.

what you did not see

I was lonely when I took the photo, a vast echoing loneliness that stretched forward into the rest of my life. Old friends, friends with whom I could let down my guard, friends with whom I didn’t have to think too much, were distant and indistinct. New friends seemed impassably far off, protected by frontiers of language and culture and old friends of their own.

It took a year of expatriation for the shadow to fall; to make my way for the first time into the dark place behind the monuments and the cafes and the train stations. The place of isolation. The sad place of a stranger far from home.

You think a lot, in that place, about how things used to be: how comfortable you were, and how good you were at your job, and how you earned a decent living, and how you mostly sounded intelligent when you spoke. About how people didn’t listen to you speak with an infuriating mix of pity and concern. About how there were girlfriends you could call when you needed a dance or your Tinder date had murdery eyes or you just wanted to lie in the sun and say nothing.

You think about how tired you are, of filling in forms and asking people to repeat themselves. Of smiling too much, of laughing too easily, of wearing the wrong skirt and feeling eyes follow you the length of the metro platform. Of being not right.

And then, once you’ve started, you can’t stop thinking about other things, too: about the phone ringing in the night for someone to say, I’m sorry to wake you, or, Get on a plane, or, I’m so sorry. About what a bother it would be for your family to fly over to pack up all your things.

There’s a temptation not to document the unphotogenic side of expatriation, an unwillingness to admit it’s not all Instagram-ready. To admit there are days when you eat the last of your Vegemite and listen to ABC Grandstand and refuse to leave the house. That you’re living a real life, not just having an adventure.

What can’t be seen

I stay late underground, in a quiet bar whose stone walls lean in to inspire confidences. I make a new acquaintance. I learn a new word. I sleep long and late, until the restless adventurer in me has the energy to whisper,

tomorrow I will try again.

Schrödinger’s expat

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. 

 

home is where you’re happy

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

what brought you here?

Being an expat in Paris makes a whole lot more sense when you realise that it’s just adolescence all over again: that you spend half your time trying to be accepted into social circles, and the other half trying to understand how life works.

That you feel everything more strongly than you used to, but often can’t communicate your emotions.

That you get frustrated a lot.

That you compare yourself to everyone around you, constantly reassessing your level of integration.

That you’re learning so fast that sometimes your head aches just with the pressure of existing.

That it’s deeply uncool to be too enthusiastic about your life.

That sometimes you want so desperately to wear the wrong things, eat the wrong things, say the wrong things, but that the weight of expectations – your own, those of the people at home, those of the people around you – can be hard to bear.

That most of the expectations are all in your head.

That you crave acceptance.

That you spend a lot of time wondering if you should have a boyfriend yet, and (secretly) what on earth you’d do if you got one.

That you’ll make friends, eventually, and they almost certainly won’t be the friends you imagined making (they’ll be so much better).

That you might, without necessarily realising it, be having the time of your life.

– – – – – – – – – –

People come to Paris for love or money. Almost every expat you meet was drawn here by a job or a lover, and if they’ve been here for more than six months – more than the unwritten but precisely allotted honeymoon period – they have settled into a complicated relationship with the city that ranges from polite hostility to outspoken loathing.

It’s hard to say for sure why this is. People often cite the hardness of Paris, the fact that even after 20 years you’ll still be a foreigner, the perceived rudeness of its inhabitants, the pollution and the horns and the six months of winter.

I wonder if it’s also the discomfort of finding out a mythical city is just, after all, a city; that nowhere is actually as magical as the Paris of books and films. That living here is, unavoidably, much the way I imagine moving in with Tom Hardy would be: a series of shattered illusions in which the perfect object of my affections is revealed to be flawed and complex and very real.

Maybe, too, it’s just a reaction to the string of enthusiastic newcomers who turn up, for a month or three, weak-kneed with love for the city and a return ticket to take them back, admiration undented, to where they came from, leaving the true expats with jobs that frustrate them and lovers who leave the toilet seat up and a city that costs them a fortune and then begs for more.

 

People like to ask, what brought you to Paris? And I invariably say, bread, and wait for them to laugh, or to stare at me in confusion.

I’m yet to meet another expat who shares my origin story, which is perhaps also why I’m yet to meet another expat whose relationship with Paris is quite like mine. I came for love, yes, but not for a person: I came for the language, for the smell of the air in winter, for the colour of buildings and the shapes of leaves.

I came because I fell in love with a country, a long time ago, and absence really did make the heart grow fonder, until at last I had to follow it across the world. I did not come for Paris – if anything, I was deeply suspicious of it – and it is only from being here, living admidst its capricious, challenging, varied reality, that I have fallen in love with it.

People come to Paris for the love of the place all the time. Wide-eyed backpackers and well-heeled retirees and sleep-deprived honeymooners and everyone in between, they come here because it calls to them and they embrace it for two weeks and bid it a lingering farewell, promising to come back.

But they are not expats. Coming is one thing; staying is entirely another. When you’re thirty, if you’re an expat in Paris, odds are you’re here for a person or a paycheque.

I’m more than six months in, now. There are complicated French documents with my name on them and I can complain about the Paris housing market with the poetic rancour of a long-term resident. And as the heady summer of my honeymoon period gives way to the bright winter of reality, I’m learning there are peculiar benefits to being in love with a place.

I am the only person I know to be here entirely on their own terms. If they came for a lover, their relationship with Paris is uneasy; she is the cold, elegant third wheel in their affair. If they came for a job, she is their office.

Perhaps they left things behind they did not wish to. Undoubtedly, they hold Paris responsible for the awkward teenage growing pains of their expatriation. This is why, when asked why I’m here, my response almost always elicits surprise.

I came to France, I say, because I wanted to. And I fell in love with Paris after I arrived.

And when your love is a city, life is easier. Just going outside – being surrounded by her – lifts my spirits. Every meal, every exhibition, every Sunday walk is a date.

I knew her – her moodiness, her flaws, the way she looks first thing in the morning – from the start. I chose to stay.

I do not need to fear that Paris will fall out of love with me, because she has never loved, and will never love me, and for once that is okay. I with my deeply uncool enthusiasm and she with her luminous disinterest in my existence: ours is an unconventional but functional love.

 

Our love will end, of course, as all loves do. Perhaps I’ll read this in a year with bitter eyes and laugh at my naivety as I vow never to return. Perhaps we’ll part with mutual affection a decade from now. Perhaps I’ll be torn from her tomorrow, unwilling and unready.

But she makes me happy, and for now that is enough.

form over function

On Friday night I end up in a bar in the Marais, speaking wine-assisted broken Spanish to a bilingual Frenchman. For some reason I have made a lot of hispanophone friends here, and have been surprised in equal measure by the extent to which I’ve lost my ability to speak, and the extent to which I’ve retained my comprehension. I spend a lot of time nodding and smiling, interjecting ¡sí! to demonstrate that I am following. It might be true what they say about every piece of information you ever receive remaining in your brain, just buried and poorly filed: all my language lessons are still in there, somewhere.

 

In late August my French shifts gears and accelerates, almost overnight. Except that it’s not my French at all – the words, the grammar, the phrasing, it’s always been there in my head – but rather my ability to produce it at will. My confidence, mixed with a handy dose of screw it.

Sometime in September I realise I’m no longer scared. I no longer rehearse conversations in my head and my heartrate no longer skyrockets before meetings. I just… speak.

And it’s not all good. It’s far from good. I fumble conjugations, drop words, fail to catch nuanced meanings. But I talk, and sometimes whole sentences come out, fully formed, without my conscious involvement.

Language has always been a passion but now it borders on obsession. Surrounded by tri-, quadri- and even pentalingual people, I am mired in the self-inflicted shame of my linguistic inadequacy and I become a walking satellite, ears straining to tune in to every passing conversation, constantly testing myself: do I understand? How would I respond?

My contentment with my progress fluctuates wildly. Some days, a fluid five-minute conversation over the coffee machine will fill me with glowing delight; others, a misplaced adjective while buying cheese will cast me into dejection.

On Saturday, in unseasonable sunshine, my Guatemalan doppelgänger and I catch a cheap train to Epernay, in Champagne, and hire electric bicycles from the tourist office opposite Moët and Chandon. We strap bread and cheese and charcuterie to the back and pedal out of town toward the village of Cumières, where the grapevines grow so close to the houses as to almost swallow them.

Perhaps it’s because I’m tired, but I spend the day faltering: to the ungallicly enthusiastic young man explaining our bicycles, in the supermarket, at the train station. Proper sentences are just out of reach. When the battery on my friend’s electric bike stutters and goes out, having pushed us up one too many hills, I understand how it feels.

I cry off a dinner invitation, unable the face the rush and swell of conversation. Maybe my language skills are introverted too; after too much use they need quiet to recuperate.

 

The primary concern, of course – as everything I write here will attest – is that when it comes to language, I value form over function. For me what matters more than the story you tell is how you tell it: how beautiful your phrases are, how elegant your words, how lovely it all sounds.

And so, being able to understand and be understood is not enough. I fixate on my accent as much as on my sentence structure. Several times a day I hear myself say “please” and am frustrated again by the Australianness of it. No matter how many times I try, I haven’t been able to make it lovely. I suspect this, too, has contributed to my lack of confidence in speaking: not only am I afraid to be wrong, but I am afraid to be ugly.

On Sunday, my friend and I brave patchy rain to take advantage of the Journée sans voitures, an environmental initiative which bans cars from the city for most of the day. Wandering through the Marais after visiting a museum and a tiny photography exhibition, we stumble on an art showing by Melburnian Lisa Barmby. We stay for wine in plastic cups, meet her friends, take in her work. Lisa speaks excellent French – much more complex and ready than mine – with a strong Australian accent and I think, even artists get it: function over form is no bad thing.

 

On Monday night I join a running group and discover that I speak my best French, puffing, after 8 kilometres. Maybe the distraction of putting one foot in front of the other keeps me from second-guessing everything I say; maybe the rasping of my breath in my throat makes it easier to lean into my rs. Either way, it’s good to know that when it comes to language aids, I have a healthy alternative to wine.

Dubrovnik

Sometimes it seems like it would be the simplest, most logical thing in the world for me to be a travel writer: combining two passions into an honest living.

But the more I travel, and the more I write, the more I realise I would be a terrible travel writer. I’m no good with specifics and logistics; I have no patience recommending hotels and art galleries and restaurants. I tend toward a writing style so snobbishly, aggressively verbose as to turn off (I can only assume) the sensible reader. I prefer the way words sound to what they convey.

And while I so desperately want to write about my favourite places in the world, I don’t want to do so in any kind of way that would help you plan a trip there. I just want to wax lyrical about how those places made me feel. About how they might make you feel, too, if you have the chance to go there. When I tell you Dubrovnik, Croatia, is the most magical place I’ve ever been, I’m not basing it on careful research on affordability, accommodation options, availability of services, weather. I’m basing it purely on the fact that I spent ten days there in early September and if I never get to take another holiday, that one will be enough.

Herewith my entirely impractical, subjective, nonguide to having a wonderful time in Dubrovnik.

 

Go in early autumn, or perhaps spring, before the hordes descend from northwestern Europe and pack the restaurant terraces and narrow bars. Even in September, you’ll get pedestrian bottle necks at Pile Gate and have to weave your way through crowds of American wedding guests and cruising retirees on the Stradun, but you’ll always get a table for lunch.

Take friends, old and new. Mix them in together, it will be okay. Everyone gets along in Dubrovnik. Talk politics. Play cards. Get caught in the rain.

Brave the steep hillside, if your legs will allow it, and book a room or a flat that has some stairs between it and the Old Town. You’ll curse yourself every time you walk home but the view once you arrive, over the town and the Adriatic and the island of Lokrum, will be priceless. It is, in fact, possible to live inside a postcard.

Order the house wine. It’s cheap and it’s good and sometimes it comes in litres and you’ll look at your friends and say, this is foolish. A litre of wine? And then after an hour you’ll order another, just to be sure.

Buy a pair of cheap snorkelling goggles from a souvenir stall slash icecreamery and wade out from Banje Beach to plunge your face into the sea. Without them, you will never realise that disinterested seabream are passing your feet to nibble around the rocks below. Shake out your hair and dive into the middle of a school of tiny silver sand smelt, who will make space for you in their midst with an admirable show of broadmindedness. Become, momentarily, a mermaid. Drift out into the intense blue and gaze back at the city walls.

Go to the only nightclub, even if you don’t like nightclubs or electro music. Go because it’s carved into the ancient city walls themselves. Go because you might be met with shirtless firebreathing bartenders. Go because it contains one of the world’s most dense population of tall, attractive men*. It won’t just be the smoke machines that make you feel faint.

Eat icecream cones. Every day, twice if you can manage it. Eat one as an entrée while you decide on a restaurant.

Say yes to as many things as possible: to parasailing and to kayaking and to guided tours and to 2am swimming and to 3am lemon-picking and to a nightcap with a new friend.

Try not to say winter is coming TOO often.

(Fail.)

Take the cablecar to the top of the cliff, there’s literally a whole other side to Dubrovnik. Pick up your jaw. Order a pina colada.

Go back into the sea, to make sure the fish are still there. Try not to be too sad each time you have to leave them.

Find the fountain with a legend attached (if you drink the water, you’ll come back to Dubrovnik again). Swallow handful after greedy handful.

 

*based on a small-scale study.

people-watching

I spot you on my way to Tuesday drinks at Le Siam, coming off the Pont au Change. You’re sitting outside Le Mistral, a bar that shouldn’t be, but is, my favourite.

It’s tourist central, a little overpriced, nothing special. It sits next to the nondescript Place du Châtelet and traffic jostles by on the Quai de Gesvres.

But when you take one of the wicker chairs facing due west, you look out over the river to the pearly spires of the Conciergerie, and in the distance beyond the Pont Neuf you see the top half of the Eiffel Tower, far enough away as to seem deliciously mundane.

I sat in one of those chairs (the one next to where you are now, in fact) for the first time on a summer evening a few weeks ago and talked about love with an old friend. An American tourist at the next table asked me for a restaurant recommendation and I was able to give one, confidently pulling a business card from my wallet. It’s just around the corner, I said. You’ll love it. Order the duck.

I’d just come back – come home – from London on the train and I gazed out over the hazy view with proud familiarity.

There are two of you sitting there today, with a spare table between you: you didn’t come here together. You’ve just struck up a conversation and your shoulders still face outward. You don’t want to over-invest too early in this interaction so you’re turning your heads to speak, making glancing eye contact, using the view to plug the silences.

You are two strangers wearing the same expression: tired but awestruck. You are both very fair and it’s clear you are both in transit in the City of Love.

I hurry on, wondering if you will recount this story at your wedding, finishing off one another’s sentences, correcting details of how you met on a sidewalk in Paris, thirsty and footsore from your urgent holidaymaking.

Perhaps you won’t remember who initiated the conversation or what you drank or even what you said but you’ll agree forever on the way the sunshine grew thick and golden over the Seine. On how it felt like it was seeping into your veins, a slow warm elixir that was disease and cure in one.

On how you began to fall in love.

ways to stop traffic in Paris

Paris is a ville qui bouge, except when it doesn’t.

Film a movie on a Wednesday afternoon. Bring a bored security guard, a crowd of extras in postwar jackets, and a few hundred metres of security tape.

March to République to protest a new law.

Move to a flat in a narrow one-way street and hire a large removal truck. Park it in the middle of the street for as long as it takes to move. Develop an immunity to horn blasts and verbal abuse.

March to Bastille to protest a change to an existing law.

Follow pilgrims and nuns in stately silence along the Seine to Notre-Dame on the Feast of the Assumption, then break into a mad dash to get a good spot for Mass. Use your elbows. The Bible is silent on the matter of elbows.

Be the President (or the Prime Minister).

March back to République in solidarity with Palestinians.

Dig up the underground water lines. Only vaguely explain why.

March to the Sénat in solidarity with Ukrainians.

Dress up your firefighters in their best and parade them along the Champs-Elysées, or complete a lap of the country on a bicycle.

Wander the streets in a summer dress, mentally composing letters to the you of four years ago. Forget to look both ways before crossing.

finding myself

I think the phrases “I ended up…” and “I found myself…” are the reason I travel.

On the last weekend in July I ended up in an “Australian” bar at one am in the port town of Antibes, drinking Côtes du Rhône and trying to explain relationship fundraising to Italian engineers. We were there because most other places were closing, and because my new friends were now in possession of an authentic Australian, which made it all deeply amusing.

A couple of weeks ago, at a similar time of night, I found myself doing shots with the bar staff of Cafe Oz Denfert-Rochereau in Paris. Antibes’ “The Australian Bar” won points over Cafe Oz for having eschewed fake Indigenous artwork and inflatable kangaroos, but had failed to replace cultural appropriation with anything else; it was a nondescript terrace with a single “No Swimming – Crocodiles” sign affixed crookedly to one window.

When you come from the ends of the earth, you spend a lot of time answering the question what’s it like there? or at least, in my case, disappointing people by not having any kind of neat answer at all.

When people ask about the ends of the earth, they don’t want to hear about high quality of life and high median house prices and cricket and systemic racism and tortured children and terrible public transport, so I invariably add that it’s stupendously beautiful and full of animals that are definitely trying to kill you, which generally mollifies my audience. But, they add. Australians are so friendly. So laid back. Well, I prevaricate, picking at the chewed skin around my nails. Some of us are.

I don’t know if I find it impossible to encapsulate Australian culture because there isn’t a single cohesive one, or because it’s my own culture and I’m too involved in it, or because I am deeply suspicious of generalisations. Maybe it’s because when you’re looking from the outside you’re more likely to see all the wrinkles and loose threads in the fabric. Maybe it’s all of the above.

My friend suggests that my willingness to keep being talked into going to Australian bars is in itself a cultural artefact. I hope it means “openness to experiences” rather than “endemic alcoholism” but it’s hard to say.

 

In early August I catch the slow train to Burgundy, to stay with my friend in the house her parents have owned since she was born. Her brother and his children live just around the corner in the same tiny village. Her surname is etched proudly on the side of the building that contains the family business, and if I can’t find her, she says, I’m to ask anyone where F’s daughter is. In other words: she’s a local.

She takes me through narrow streets lined with stone houses and along winding roads between fields of Grand Cru vines, intensely green as they march off into the distance. We follow her German Shepherds up a rough trail to a lookout point and gaze out over hallowed ground, home to names even I, plebeian drinker that I am, recognise with awe.

On the Saturday afternoon we happen upon a village wine festival, where five euros buys you a wine glass and a stamp on your hand to wander the closed-off streets, filled with stalls of local winemakers, and I find myself tasting wine while patting a baby goat (they’re presumably there to entertain the children while the parents sip, but I line up with the toddlers and giggle as happily as any of them).

On Sunday I end up helping to run a stall in a village flea market. Locals stop to kiss my friend, and her nieces and nephews manage the stand for us while we go to buy ham sandwiches and chips and beer from the food tent, run by chatty volunteers. The kids aren’t sure about this giant Australian their aunt has introduced to the region, and I wish I could reassure them: this place, your little village, it feels like home to me. Culturally, ‘small town’ weighs more heavily than ‘French’ or ‘Australian’.

In the afternoon I find myself floating in a backyard swimming pool, toasting in the surprisingly fierce Burgundy sun. On the train back to Paris, my hair dries stiff and tangled down my back and I fall asleep on my backpack, worn out by wine and sun and late nights.

 

Last month I found myself running ten kilometres through the rain in Manchester, England, wearing an elephant suit. The month before that I ended up singing the Marseillaise with drunk football fans on the Champ de Mars. Next month, hopefully, I’ll find myself turning 30 on a boat off the Croatian coast, accompanied by old friends and new.

I don’t think life is about Finding Yourself. It’s about finding yourself, over and over and over again, in moments of joy and wonder and hilarity and novelty.

Ending up is what keeps me going.

forever and no time at all

One of my favourite people in the world sent me a questionnaire to commemorate three months in France, and I enjoyed answering it so much that I’ve decided to share it. I have edited both the questions and my original answers before publication because I edit stuff, I can’t help it.

  1. Are you happy with what you’ve done so far?

Yes. It would be hard not to be. I always crave more, but I’ve worked, travelled, eaten many baguettes, visited many churches, met wonderful new people, seen old friends, made incredible memories, and run 10 kilometres in an elephant suit*.

  1. Have you consumed the right number of pastries?

My body says too many, my heart says too few.

  1. What’s one thing you wish you had done already but haven’t?

Become flawlessly bilingual and effortlessly elegant. Strewn the cobbled streets of Paris with hearts broken by my exotic but approachable Australian charm. Also, visited Mont Saint-Michel and re-enacted scenes from The Scarlet Pimpernel. I am going to do that last bit in September. The rest is TBC.

  1. Paris. Just Paris.^

Better than I could have hoped. I was worried that living here would ruin the magic, but it’s made it more magical, to be honest. I feel like there’s still more to explore. Everyone needs to stop asking me if I prefer it to Marseille, though. That’s like asking if croissants are better than wine: they each have their distinct and unassailable place in my life and my heart.

  1. What would make the rest of your time a success?

Improving my French. Travelling to about eight more countries. Passing my CFRE exam~. Knowing what I want to do with my life next. Doing more writing. Turning 30 without having an existential crisis. Learning to ride the métro without having to hold on to anything. See also: question 3.

  1. What’s one thing that frightens you about the experience?

Coming to the end of my visa and not feeling done; having to leave before I’m ready. Also, cyclists.

  1. Could there be more pastries?

Bikini season says no, heart says always.

 

*I keep meaning to write about this.

^I submit that this is not a question, but I’ll let it slide under the banner of poetic licence.

~International fundraising executive accreditation that requires passing a scary four-hour exam in November.

the fear

I had money when you asked me, my wallet was
weighed down with it, to the point that it
frustrated me, all that space taken up by
so little value but when you asked me madame, une pièce
c’est pour manger
I shook my head and hurried on pretending
my bag did not contain a tiny pirate’s loot. When you walked
along the metro carriage announcing that you had not eaten
in 24 hours I looked at my feet, stuffed into boots not yet worn through but that I already
had a mind to replace in les soldes because
I’m in Paris and
I want Parisian boots
and I did not look up even though I carried bread and fruit I would not eat
when I got home, deciding instead to pay double for
risotto aux cèpes and rosé at the bistrot
that faces Saint Laurent.

My friend says, people are not open here. He says,
(brows cutting deep into his genial face) no one
cares here. When he was in America, he says,
he was stranded at an airport until a stranger
offered him a bed, and a ride to it, and when he said yes what he found at the end was
a new friend. He shakes his head, remembering: people are not kind,
here.

And I gaze up at him, mute, wondering
how it feels not to be afraid. How much more
space his brain can find for things when it is not
calculating risk and planning exit strategies, when it is not weighing up
the guilt of not fishing out some extraneous coins against the fear that
that hungry man might also be a violent one, when it is not
registering the time it takes to open-slide through-close the front door
to an apartment building,
just in case, and trying every day after work, subconsciously, to do it
just a little faster,

when it is not scanning for signs that no will translate as
once more with feeling

I have long since forgotten to resent the mental energy it takes
just to exist; maybe
it keeps me sharp. I’d be lying if I didn’t get a kick out of my
highwire freedom, balanced, muscles working,
and more beautiful because of it
but the fear has stolen my empathy and that I mourn, along with
the stories you might be able to tell me, if it would let me stop and ask you for them

But it is just me, and it takes
onemississippitwomississippithreemississip
for me to get inside my door.

Nice

The same cars that preceded the President of the Republic sedately along the Champs Elysées during the military parade, speed ahead of him, 12 hours later, to Place Beauvau.

I was on a rooftop when I got the news, perched amid the chimneys and turrets of Paris’ skyline with the Eiffel Tower effervescing in the distance. I’d gone up there with a man I barely knew to watch the fireworks and when my friend sent me a message saying, are you ok? I assumed she meant, he’s not a creep is he?

But then.

A truck has crashed into a crowd in Nice. They think it’s terrorists.

We had come so close. There were only minutes left of the 14th, the national holiday, and we had almost got through it, clustering in defiant joy along grand boulevards and in vast parks and beside famous seafronts, flags in our hands, shouting bravo! for the sapeurs-pompiers in their shiny helmets, lifting children onto our shoulders to be a little nearer the pyrotechnic peonies that bloomed in clear summer skies.

France needs the 14th, people had told me with quiet but emphatic nods. After November, today is important, to be happy.

And we were happy, or at least it seemed that way. The police who patted us down before we entered the exclusion zone around the Champs Elysées to watch the parade were businesslike but warm, bordering on unexpected friendliness. Men with idle machine guns gave cheerful directions to bewildered tourists. The officers in plainclothes dispersed among the crowd joked and grinned, prodding us to cheer loudest when their unit marched past, putting gentle arms around a woman having a dizzy spell.

In the afternoon we spilled onto grass, laden with rosé and cheese and prosciutto, and basked in uninterrupted sunshine. We talked away the long evening until at 10:58 we fell silent and expectant, turning to our skies or our televisions, waiting for the first shock of beautiful, violent colour that would explode harmlessly above us.

But then.

Choosing Nice was brutally clever. Recognisable, beloved, packed with locals and tourists, but perhaps without the extreme level of security that encircled Paris.

As I descend from the rooftop another friend asks, are you okay? Rumours of smoke on the Champs Elysées. I stop on the silent street and wonder: is this it? Is this the moment when I go from optimistic observer to endangered citizen? Twitter tells me it’s a fire caused by a stray firework and I fall back from afraid into sad. I look along the silent street and wonder how they do it, the people who live in places where they get those messages every day. The people for whom the smoke is almost never just a wayward spark. The people for whom a jet flyover is not a spectator sport. How do they keep going?

I hurry home but I do not sleep until 2am. I send a lot of pre-emptive messages and a lot of responses to concerned questions but I am safe, so very safe. The flicker of police lights fills my tiny flat from the television screen. I do not cry until a reporter says, there are many children among the dead.

I am desperately sad but not surprised and that makes me even sadder. This place we are in has no exit that I can see. This morning we paraded our military might in all its splendour but what good is might against a truck and some reckless hate? When the danger worms its way into isolated minds and springs up in unexpected places, the tanks and fighter jets start to look as anachronistic as the cavalry with their swords and the soldiers in their Napoleonic hats.

I can see a myriad of ways this is going to be responded to, and I don’t like any of them. I am as afraid of what we will do as what they will do.

All I know is that I would go back, today, if there were another parade. I would dance again on the Champ de Mars and I would follow the crowd to the spectacle. I would sit on busy terraces and I would duck under police barricades to get to concerts. I would move to Paris.

I would continue to live with bullish joy, and I would risk dying happy. Because I have that option. Because I’m one of the lucky ones. Because joy is the only weapon I have ever had to wield.

But then.

Today we are all Nice. Last week we were all Orlando. Last month we were Istanbul, and before that Brussels, and before that Paris. We should have been Dhaka and Baghdad and Aleppo and Mogadishu. It makes us feel better, to type these things, to stand electronically alongside grieving families. It makes us feel righteous, and ever so slightly less helpless. And in some small practical way it helps: hashtags on Twitter can identify the missing, find beds for the desperate, demand attention for the forgotten.

But it scares me too, because we really are all Nice. There is no longer a there and a here, a deadly and a safe, an us and a them. We all inhabit the same small world and it doesn’t work that way anymore. It feels like it’s not working at all. And I have no idea what we’re going to do about it.

to market, to market

Place Saint-Sulpice fascinates me. I’ve never really seen the square in front of the church because every weekend it is packed with market stalls.

And these are no ordinary markets; they are useless if you want practical things like stockings or eggplants. So far, in the short time I’ve lived in the quartier, the rows of white tents have offered to sell me antiques, ceramics, and…poetry.

Surely only in the chic heart of the Rive Gauche could you devote an entire market to poetry, and have people actually come, in the rain, to wander and peruse and discuss and listen and, ultimately, buy. Only here could you find enough poetry publishers to fill a square for a week.

I wander through the stalls in a state of rising anxiety. There is too much. I cannot afford to buy everything and I do not know where to begin. How can I choose just one or two books, support just one or two poets? How do I find the collection that I’ll most enjoy or learn from? It’s overwhelming; my brain has never before considered the possibility of a poetry market and it does not cope.

Poetry, to my mind, is a secret, personal nonsense, something to be read (or worse, written) in the privacy of libraries or barely solvent bookstores, or self-indulgent websites. Poetry is lovely and damaged and inherently unsaleable. But no one has told the Parisians. I am delighted and deeply confused.

I buy a copy of Le Paris des écrivains because it seems both generalist and somehow practical, and hurry home with it clutched to my chest.

A week later, the anthologies are replaced by armchairs and I go back to being an interested but unaffected spectator. I sit in my favourite cafe and write a bad poem about soccer (sorry, football) while olive-skinned Parisiennes in Prada shoes browse for 19th-century tea chests.

I can’t wait to see what will come next.

hither and thither

The flat I’m staying in faces the French Senate – the repurposed Palais de Luxembourg – which means I have an above-average chance of finding Ukrainians singing protest songs outside my front door. I don’t know how effective their manifs are, but they sing quite beautifully. There are usually bored policemen blocking the entrance to my building, and sometimes nondescript men in quiet suits stand motionless on nearby street corners.

I would suggest it’s the safest street in Paris, except that there is an extreme risk of being run over by Senators in eco-friendly Renaults. They zoom out of narrow stone archways that cut from courtyards onto the street. I wonder frequently if a palace is a highly impractical building for a government chamber, but I might just be jealous.

Being écrasée by a parliamentarian seems, at least, more dignified than being run down by a cyclist. Bikes are the scariest thing about the traffic, silent and barely visible missiles with supreme and complete disregard for give-way rules.

 

Getting around is a fascinating preoccupation here. No one I know drives, but the streets are full of cars. The métro is an assault on the senses, packed with rattling and squealing and hot air and the ubiquitous scent of urine, but when there’s a train every three minutes I will happily forgive any number of olfactory sins. If you don’t like the métro, the bus is a valid option, but where you’re going is probably close enough to walk anyway.

If you’re braver and fitter than me you can rent a bike and cycle it to wherever you need to be. And if your tastes are less conventional, it appears you will not be shunned: I see rollerbladers on a daily basis (what joy! My favourite but much maligned, in Australia at least, form of locomotion) and, almost as often, people casually travelling from place to place on battery-powered hoverboards.

 

I take a coach for a Sunday adventure because it lets me see two chateaux in one day. (Sometimes I get anxious about how much there is to see here and how short my time is. Hell, how short my life is. When I think of all the beautiful and interesting places in the world, I can’t breathe. Greed has always been my sin of choice.)

The gardens of Vaux le Vicomte are neat and manageable; you can get from one end to the other in half an hour, even if you’re walking a little slowly because you’re on the phone to your mother in Australia trying to articulate your happiness as you go. But you also have the option to hire a golf cart, a choice intended for the elderly and preferred by 20-something Americans who are allergic to tranquility. (After careful reflection I decide that death by golf cart would be even more ignominious than death by bicycle.)

Around Fontainebleau, the gardens blur into forest and you have to content yourself with a section unless you’ve come for a whole weekend. But here you can pay a man with a magnificent moustache 7 euros 50 and he will hand you up into a carriage behind two beautiful bays and you will clop sedately around the paths, becoming, as you go, both spectator and spectacle.

I ride quietly behind a row of retirees who ask thoughtful questions about the flowering cycles of rhodendrons, and breathe in the familiar smell of horse. Here there is only sensory delight. I will always, I decide, have a soft spot for the least practical ways of doing things.

pieds mouillés

France is flooding, and Paris – slowly – with it.

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.

 

that girl

Paris (or at least the parts of her I can see) is the girl who looks good in everything. Today her elegant boulevards are swathed in silvery mist, her trees muted, her stones softened by the twilight that lasts all day.

I secretly like her best this way. She is gentler and quieter out of the sun, less moody than on rainy days. But I’d never presume to tell a girl how to dress, to subject her to my taste.
Besides, I love her in anything. We are in our honeymoon phase, Paris and I. It takes a lot to dent my admiration.

On Sunday my kindly Airbnb hostess pats my shoulder goodbye and I haul my suitcases across the Seine to a new apartment. The flat is a dream: tiny but equipped, light-filled, secure. Intensely expensive. Mine, at least for now.

I have, by accident, ended up in an intimidatingly posh neighbourhood. I know this for three reasons. The buildings are paler, here, the stone either lighter or cleaner. Gentrification appears to be literal whitewashing. There are entire shopfronts devoted to brands I have seen advertised in Vogue. And there don’t seem to be any supermarkets. The upper classes must have access to shampoo sources as yet unknown to me.

My dirty hair and I take a walk through the half-light. My lack of groceries is a neat excuse to order an omelette and a dry white and to sit in the shadow of Saint-Sulpice, shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversations around me. My need to reignite my French has turned me into a spy.

There are so many things I need to tell you, so many notes scrawled on the margins of notebooks or tapped hurriedly into my phone. The crumpled bike, the man with the speech on the metro, the manif. Lyon, Ieper. The shapes of cobblestones.

But then the weather changes and I tell you about that instead. You can take the girl out of the country…

et vous?

In the evening, a man with a guitar sings songs in the corner of the café below my flat. Afterwards, he walks amongst the tables with his hat upturned, smiling and asking. People give. He sings well.

I sit in a different corner, writing bad poetry. I wish I had a hat.

stormy weather

Written: at a table outside Café le Bistro in the 10eme, with a glass of rosé.

Countries visited: 2
Churches visited: 5
Pastries eaten: ~17

A storm wanders over on Friday the 13th, announcing itself with very little rain but a theatrically long grumble that makes everyone look up, surprised.

Logically it makes no sense, but I’d never thought of it storming in Paris. Rain, yes: uniformly grey skies and soft light and puddles that mock my choice of footwear. Snow, certainly, and sunshine, both golden hot and white cold, glinting off iron balconies and slanting down boulevards.

But not storms. In my head storms belong to Brisbane.

 

I came back from a weekend in Belgium with a red nose. After the shock of seven degrees when I arrived, I was equally unprepared for 27 in Ypres, and I became perhaps the first ever Australian to visit Europe in May and suffer a sunburn. (I await, resignedly, annulation of my citizenship.)

My dear friend Katie came back to Paris with me and stayed until Wednesday. On Thursday the worries clawed at my throat: where will I stay after this month? What if I spend all my money? What am I doing with my life?

On Friday morning I write myself a list, create an illusion of structure for my life with a steady hand. I need routine, plans, vegetables. I pour a long coffee and add two sugar cubes and by the time I reach the bottom of the cup my joie de vivre has returned.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s only two weeks since I uprooted my life. I have to keep reminding myself that it storms sometimes in Paris, too.