First evening in Paris and we end up in a place called Krishna Bhavan near Gare du Nord where I order un lassi de mangue and un thaali. Scooping up curry with parathas seems remarkably like the last time I had dinner with Harriet, somewhere near Euston, and I feel like we’re not doing the whole French Experience particularly well. Oh well, it’s my first evening here. There’s time.
I’ve arrived in Paris desperate for a holiday but not expecting to be over-enthused about the city itself. This is due to hazy memories of a day spent here when we were 14 and on French Exchange, more excited about the boys than Pompidou Centre which looked like it was covered in scaffolding anyway. (With hindsight, the ‘scaffolding’ was integral to what my guidebook calls its ‘radical architectural statement’, but certain things are lost on teenagers). And crowds of people in a hot and sticky Notre Dame ring a bell from a fleeting visit with my parents and brother en route to the South of France when we were young enough to be crammed into a family room at the Novotel. At the time, I think we were more excited by the all-you-can-eat breakfast.Sorry Paris.
But those unenthusiastic recollections fade away as we walk back to the Gare du Nord, past the Chennai sari shop, the patisseries, and the Europeany apartment buildings with their clunky metal-grilled doors which remind me of living in Madrid. I breathe in continental Europe and get all excited about starting to feel like ‘me’ again. Do you reckon if we actually properly lived here, we’d really like it? Harriet asks. Don’t you think we’ve been there, done that? Afterall, it’s been a good ten years since we all vanished into Europe for a year, in the days when we wrote each other proper letters and made phonecalls to stay in touch. Most of our peer group are now ‘settled’, ‘grown up’, with kids and the like, but here’s Harriet in Paris doing a language course for 3 weeks, surrounded by 21 year olds who are now who we were then. During her brief sojourn here, she’s coping not with the reality of nappies and mortgages but with those random living abroad experiences when you can’t properly communicate, don’t have a clue what’s going on, and find yourself devoid of personality and reduced to childlikeness; unable to express who you are and what you think.And here’s me, on holiday, feeling like moving here could be just as much an option as any other.
Has the moment passed? The jury’s probably still out on that one but we at least agree that we feel way more self-confident than we did back then. Confident and past caring; happier to make mistakes and to try speaking in French even if we’re unlikely to make it seamlessly to the end of the sentence.
In deference to another aspect of grownupness, Harriet heads home to catch up on sleep after her 4am bedtime the previous night. We’re clearly too old to stay up so late on a school night, that’s for sure. I head back to the Gare du Nord and seek out a deserted corner to write my journal. The Arrivals board clacks away as the information changes, suitcase wheels rumble across the station’s expanse, arriving trains hiss and occasional whistles blow. In this place of transit I find my peace, and my claustrophobia dissipates.
A guy walks up to me and starts to talk. He has kind eyes and an unsettling loneliness, but after the past few weeks I choose my own company and he’d get nothing more from me than stilted conversation. So I stare blankly and incomprehensively at his persistent French until he saunters away.
Soaking up station, I remember train journeys in Central Asia, in India, in North Africa, and dream of the Trans-Siberian Railway which is still top of my list for another day. Russia, Mongolia, China. Bring it on. And back along the Silk Road through Central Asia. Pourquoi pas?
Anyway, I am not in Asia, I’m in Paris and I plan to enjoy every moment of it. I put myself back where I actually am and watch the world go by, switching off my virtual roaming so that streams of emails don’t interrupt the real thing.
My mind fills with different perceptions of place and mobility that I crammed in for exams. On the one hand, there are those who write romantically about global nomads and the beauty of these moments of journey and throwntogetherness that I see around me in Gare du Nord. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t resonate with all that airy-fairy stuff. On the other, I think of those who argue that a global sense of homelessness is a bit of a bourgeois luxury in a world where movement is often forced and where remaining at ‘home’ would be preferable. Indeed, over the past few years I have listened to so many stories from Kurds and Afghans about hard nights spent in Paris and have heard the names of people who never completed the journey. Resting my feet on my little wheely suitcase, I visualise a Paris of romance, fine dining and culture, but think too of police cells, park benches, the grittiness of the banlieueand the unseen other side of the coin.
My reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Nessie’s train. Who’d’ve thought that so many people would turn up in Paris at 10.17pm. And there she is; a familiar face among the crowds. In a more practical moment, I’ve already worked out how to get to Lindsey’s place, so off we go.
Paris awaits. On y va.