There are places you have to keep coming back to. You know, they’re like Vitamin D – you never know you haven’t been getting enough, until you get to the beach.
Well, France is my Vitamin D. I never know I need it until I get there. And when I am there, I don’t ever want to leave.
Out of all the countries in the world, it’s the one I’ve seen the most of. From my very first trip to Disneyland when I was four, where I had my first caramelised apple, to the teenage summer camps, where I’d fall in love with my supervisors, l’hexagone never failed to leave me with months of nostalgia of late warm nights, hopeless crushes and unforgettable encounters with strangers. Returning to Paris is always like meeting a friend that you haven’t seen in years: every time it’s in a different mood, yet it’s always the same.
It was my first time travelling by bus across the channel. Not so much to save money, but to get this ultimate student travelling experience before it gets too unacceptably inconvenient. It’s small, it’s stuffy, it’s long. It’s safe to say I will never do it again, unless it’s a hippie mobile with no windows and we can listen to Fleetwood Mac the whole trip.
When I got to Paris, the first thing I saw was a dirty bus garage, but outside a beautiful evening was waiting for me. After a cold hungover London morning, the warm soft wind felt like putting your feet on a radiator after a long walk in the rain.
I walk from Edgar Quinet along rue Raymond Losserand, past Montparnasse, busy cafés with young couples tipsy on red wine, flower sellers, listening to the soothing voice of Katie Melua, until I get to J’s place. The heavy door opens slowly, with a satisfying squeak, onto a Ottoman style tiled floor – oh how much I miss those large echo-y entrées in London.
She rolls a cigarette, and we talk, while dusk falling over the roofs, sun slowly crawling away across endless terracotta tiles. It smells of summer. I get goosebumps, the soft kind you get from an ocean breeze. We seem so small in those big glass balcony doors, overlooking a busy street, which nevertheless seems so far away from this quiet little room.
I put on my trenchcoat and rush out: I manage to catch the last specks of light before I jump in the métro. I have to admit that Paris métro is one of my least favourite things: it’s busy, dirty and smells awful – but one thing I love about it is the names of the stations. This one is Alésia.
While I wait for J. by the statue at Odéon (another great name, don’t you think?), I watch a couple kissing and whispering to each other on the steps. My hair smells of jasmine shampoo, one of Ludovico Einaudi’s tunes comes on, I smile and clench my fists inside my pockets, looking at the sky: I love it here. We have a ridiculously expensive dinner at Le Hibou and an unforgettable, enormous cheesecake in a bowl topped with warm chocolate sauce.
There is a very beautiful and precise verb in French: déambuler. To stroll, to wander without an endpoint, soaking in the surroundings – I think that the slow and almost lazy combination of sounds it produces is so amazingly accurate of that evening. Nous déambulons along la Seine, past Notre Dame and then home, where I fall asleep with this warm clump of anticipation inside me.
Woken up by the sun, knocking on my window with the softest rays of light, a feeling incomparable to anything else, I go out to get my first petit déjeuner Parisien. In the streets, it’s just me, Beirut on the other end of the headphones and a lazy, sleepy city. As I chemine towards Musée d’Orsay, I rarely see an old man, wrapped in his coat, running out to get a baguette and rush back for his long Sunday breakfast. I pick up a croissant on the market and a coffee at Eric Kayser, wishing I could have another one from that small bar in Milano.
If you have time to visit one museum in Paris, make it Musée d’Orsay. I could walk for hours, inspecting the smooth marble figures of nymphs and counting all the shades of pink in Signac’s Palace d’Avignon.
On my way to the centre I buy vintage cartes postales, and as I dig out for change, I see a couple stop and kiss in the middle of a busy pavement. Everyone smiles and walks around them, without complaining. It never stops to amaze me just how ubiquitous love is here. I choose the most mysterious tea at La fourmi ailée, “Mûre sauvage”, write my postcards and copy the wall drawing of a femme-poème, traced with the lines of Boris Vian.
I try the most sublime version of meringue at Merveilleux, I roll a very bad cigarette and smoke it on a rooftop, overlooking Notre Dame, I drink a glass of white wine and feel like an outsider, I jam to J’s coolest playlist on her bed, sleep for 2 hours and take an empty train to my next destination.
If I was ever to or choose a city to write a book in, it would probably be here. I’d come in May. I’d rent out a flat, with high wooden ceilings and a big balcony, overlooking one of the small busy streets, i’d buy a big notebook, with crunchy brown pages, I could finally learn to roll and teach myself to enjoy red wine.
Every small street here has a secret endroit: a cafe, a bookshop, a corner, so intimate and unexpected you’ll feel like you found it first. I got lost in a bookshop, spontaneously bought a new ukulele in a music store, found good coffee, took a time machine in an old funiculaire to the top of the hill for a breathtaking view, witnessed an Easter service at Basilique de Fourvière, walked from Montée de la Grande Côte down without looking at the map, getting lost in small passages and impasses, writing down my favourite street names. La Montée de Carmélites, Rue des Tables Claudiennes, Rue Donnée… got caught in the heaviest rain and for a split second felt like Audrey in my soaked shoes and crumpled trench.
I fall in love with the girls’ flat: it’s so enormous, yet homely, with its solid wooden floor, mezzanine bedrooms, windows so huge, I have to jump to look out. The universe works in mysterious ways. You can spend years alongside someone, yet only really get to know them once you’re miles away, in the same place, by complete chance. Well, perhaps it’s all spring, fresh food and ridiculously cheap (under €5) good wine, and the company of casual ivrognes like you.
It feels as if the bus is taking me to a different season. We pass by Marseille and Cannes, and at every stop a rush of salty air, every time more and more concentrated, making me ever so impatient.
I get to Nice early morning, all crumpled up from a long and tiring bus journey (promis, no more long-haul buses for me), and the first thing I see is “kiss’n’go”, an English version of short stay carpark.
My adventures continue as I find myself in Nice airport in the middle of national strike: there are no buses, and the public transport comes rarely if at all. When I finally get on one, it gets me to the Promenade des Anglais – a pedestrian road running alongside the sea for as far as I can see. I have to change for n.23 here. It’s just three of us on the bus stop. An old man in a green jumper starts talking to me, but I struggle to concentrate: he has the eyes of a little boy, so blue and clear, like a pure reflection of the sea behind me. He tells me about his apartment just across the road, and how he has been waking up to the same view for sixty years. Et il s’en va.
So after a night of two hours of sleep, a confused cab driver, a smelly stuffy bus, annoying seat buddies, headaches and unnecessary delays – so utterly lost and completement épuisée, I find myself between two tranquilities, so unquestionably honest, simple and kind. This quiet moment of tenderness and kindness, serenity and love. Everything went away all of a sudden – I set of walking all the way to the city along the coast, accompanied by a local man, listening to nothing but the waves and the stories from his life.
Dishevelled by the wind, I finally got to the gare Nice Ville. F. bought us palmiers at Paul, those swirly pastries that melt in your mouth, and we sat and talked about cagoles de Nice and all those great things we were going to do.
We missed our train as some of us chose brie sandwiches over punching their tickets, and when we finally got to Menton, the sun was slowly setting. The train station seemed almost deserted, the smell of burning wood hanging in the air and a barely noticeable smog covering the little mustard houses. We walked by the small streets, our suitcases tattering on stone pavings, and I felt simultaneously reminded of Napoli, by the linen hanging from the windows and occasional Italian heard from the open doors, and Nicosia, by the groups of men smoking lazily on the sides of the streets, the cats and the feeling of sweet seclusion, as if the rest of the world has forgotten about this place.
I wouldn’t be able to count the amount of crêpes, croissants, pains au chocolat and cones of gelato I have consumed over these 5 days. If all of us did, it would probably be enough to feed a small kindergarden. The best gelato was somewhere on the Promenade du Soleil, the best galettes – at Crêperie St Michel, and the most beautiful views of the sea and mountains from Roquebrune Cap Martin.
The day I leave I realise, that in the right pocket of my trench I still have my tights from Friday night. I remember hurriedly taking them off before running into the cold water, and skipping right out onto the prickly pebbles. When someone found them in the dark and kept them for me, and walked me home and almost sung me the most beautiful song, and I lied in bed hugging my knees to my chest so hard I got pins and needles.
On my way to the church in Nice I met an old French man in a white cap, mended at the front with a thick orange tape. He called me “une fille assoiffée d’apprendre” and that was one of the best compliments I have ever received. He told me the poorest people here were the richest and that big things scared him. He walked with me, peaked at the ceiling with his eyes full of fear, murmured something and left. I never saw him again.
“Un jour le paysage me traversera” – I read in Quignard on the plane. One day the background will become me, and I will become the background. One day, it will feel so right, that I will become a part of it. One day, it already happened.
I bought fresh strawberries and ate them by the sea, my hair battling fiercely with the wind. Each one of them was beautiful, and so was the view in front of me. I was breathing in the salty warm air, trying to fill myself up with it so that it lasts me until next time.
“Trust nothing to the memory, for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting”, I read somewhere in Tate Britain once. Indeed, a week later I struggle to put this together in words, because all I remember is snapshots, smells, sounds. That time we walked in pairs, trying to fit under an umbrella, or when we were splashing each other with cold water on the beach, or climbed the rocks for that perfect selfie, when we were having “a moment” on that cold stone, looking over the bay at sparkling Monaco, and F. came and ruined it with “it’s capitalism”, or when talked about love like teenagers on the beach, or when a little seven year old on a road crossing held my hand so tight, it felt all the treasures of the world were in that little palm.
Yet I will never forget that place. A place, where I learnt that friendships at a first sight happen. A place, where I realised that sometimes quitting is learning. A place, where the best meal was a picnic from Carrefour and the best drink – fresh lemon juice. A place, where postmen still walk with linen sacks. A place, where I was so shamelessly in love with someone so perfectly wrong, with a love so innocently platonic, admiration so permissive and pain so sweet. A place that a bouleversé everything inside me so much, that I felt in places I had forgotten existed.