Year Abroad Diaries: 6 November 2012


Friday 2 November

So after a bout of travel sickness, I am sitting at a table facing in the direction of travel, with the flat Northern French countryside whizzing past me. This is it – thirty euros later and we’re heading for the capital, a change of scene.

We had to run to get the 0812 bus. K had put her bedsheets on to wash and they weren’t ready in time, so we ended up jogging along the road with our rucksacks bouncing to make the bus. The driver attempted some awful English and then we were off.

I don’t feel like the only person whose year abroad isn’t quite what they imagined; I think K feels the same. She said she expected parties, dynamicism and things to do, but our town doesn’t really provide that. I imagined extracurricular activities, a zest for being in France, but the honeymoon period has worn off slightly and I’m not looking forward to the peaceful holidays ending.

I’m quite excited to see Paris, to visit some new places, but I can’t wait to go home at Christmas. Is it sad that that’s what I’m waiting for? I don’t know.

Our new life at the one-platform provincial town had clearly not prepared us for the onslaught of possible terminus and levels of Montparnasse. Rising and descending, a soft play area minus the fun, we spent minutes in confusion of where to locate K’s friend, and finally my schoolfriend J. She was catching a locomotive south in several hours, so we only had time to squeeze in lunch and a tea, with a quick catch-up and photos to prove it had happened. I waved her off and her suitcase pulled her towards the train waiting miles through Montparnasse’s labyrinths.

Back to K’s friend’s flat and then Paris at night. Like something from the standard ‘ville d’amour’ film, Notre Dame was lit in yellows, shades that became green when reflected off the river; the Latin Quarter was illuminated like a Christmas tree, with sellers appearing elf-like to promote their restaurants; the bateaux mouches sliding past on the flat water of the Seine. We tacked towards the Louvre, and spontaneously trod under ceilings of gold artistry towards the Mona Lisa, a slight woman with an empty gaze. A huge crowd watched her as if for some comprehension of her inner psyche. I could find none, and returned to the Parisian suburbs for a dinner of microwave pasta.

Saturday 3 November

Our wait in La Poste began at the door and ended there. K and I stood in the queue for a good forty minutes to procure some cash, and on finally reaching the desk (I was in euphoria at that simple triumph) I handed over my ID.

“This isn’t a RIB. I can’t accept your provisional driving licence. Don’t you have your passport?” I explained that the bit of paper I proffered had my account number on it, and that my licence was valid ID in Scotland (and in our sleepy Norman town, for that matter.) It didn’t work. Country bumpkin methods don’t wash in Paris.

After that failure, we collected another of K’s friends (who was chilled and rather bohemian) and headed to Ecole Militaire at the opposite end of the Eiffel Tower. We walked down the Champ de Mars as the sky slowly brightened up, reaching the giant teddy bears at the bottom (every country had painted their own cub, a homage to world peace or something.) After the usual photos with the Tour, we headed on to Trocadero and then down to the Arc de Triomphe (always amazing, one of my favourite sights in Paris!)

Continuing down the Champs d’Elysees, we made the necessary stop at the Disney store to get photos with stuffed toys, noting the stretched line of people outside the newly opened Abercrombie & Fitch. It seemed rather ironic that surrounded by gleaming gold icons and sparkling fashion symbols, the French magnetised towards the American, the transatlantic, the exotic anglophone entity.

Our two tour guides had to go and buy our cinema tickets for that evening, so they left K and I to wander round les Invalides. I fancied seeing Nelson’s Tomb but everything was beginning to close, so we strode round the inner courtyard and corridors, spotting the cannons and plaques dedicated to French war veterans. Our feet tapped the cobbles. The area we found ourselves in was somewhere between Les Invalides and le Tour Eiffel, and there was a lot of fruit stalls and market areas, which felt very Parisian. It was the most in tune with the city I’d felt all weekend – it was cool just to stroll, to take in the atmosphere and look at all the tall, creamy townhouses.

At 1900, we went to a restaurant called Veget’Halles (specialising in vegetarian/vegan food of course!) It was actually really tasty. Most people nowadays think that veggie food has no substance whatsoever, but my mushroom loaf with wild rice, lentils and blackberry sauce was delicious. K (being wheat intolerant and veggie) was in paradise. Soya yoghurt was the perfect conclusion.

After l’addition had been settled, we got the métro again to Cour St Emilion, which is the nearest station to Bercy village, where warehouses have been converted into shops and bars in a modern yet quaint style. There was a lovely tea shop, like a super posh Whittards, and a gourmand cake shop. We all agreed to return the following day and then headed to see the film.

‘Looper’, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, was a seriously weird film involving time travel and a creepy child. Our guides loved it, but K didn’t – and as I’m a bit of a film snob who watches no films whatsoever, I didn’t feel too guilty voicing my opinion. After I tired of the screen, I concentrated on watching the black backs of heads, from which I could glean the disparity between French and British humour. The natives seemed to bounce in laughter far more than we did at comments I hadn’t noticed were amusing.

Monday 5 November

After packing the pages of my journal yesterday, it took us another hour after I’d downed-pen to declare ourselves ready. We didn’t actually leave the flat until twelve noon. First stop was Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur. It was as impressive a building as the first time I’d seen it, but is undercut by the menace of its environs. We visited the church, then wandered around the arty market, wearing down cobbled streets then ending up outside the Moulin Rouge (always disappointing, compared to the film.) We all stood on the Marilyn Monroe air vent and got the typical touristy photos, lunch, then to the coffee bean, nougat-crammed, youthfully dynamic Bercy Village again.

This morning we made a pit stop at Fanprix and jumped on ligne 13 towards Montparnasse. The long carriages lay static in the bay, weighed down by holiday bodies that were travelling back to the country. I lay next to the window and watched the greenery blur past, dissolving into dreams, pulling back into consciousness at a tiny town on the edge of la Manche. The doors spat us out, their mouths closing grimly, ignoring us as we waited in the cold. Back to ‘the sticks’, as my university tutor called it. Next to the expectant bus stop, I stood, little frozen hands in my pocket, tiny rucksack beside me. A lone car peered across the bridge.

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