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.

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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.