I studied in Paris for four months when I was 19, because I am a cliche. I lived with my cousin in a fourth floor flat off the Rue de Rivoli that had no lift and no oven and no way near enough space for two people who were not romantically involved, (and I wrote a blog about it, because I am a cliche.) These days I regard Paris much like I regard my family: with a mixture of delight, fondness, and horror. And, much like my family, I find that I get on with it best when my exposure is limited to snatches of 24 hours or less. This weekend I had a brief afternoon window between my journey from London and my onward travel northwards, and I think this is probably the my favourite way to enjoy the city. A small taste. An amuse-bouche.
With only 2 hours between trains I elected to get the underground to the centre and walk as far as was bearable with a big cheap rucksack in city summer heat. The smell of the metro and its symphony of rattling stops and starts is oddly one of the most familiar things about Paris. So are the oppressive crowds of August that lie in wait at Citè; wading through swarms of ticket collectors and tourists trying to fit the station’s bulbous lines of lamps into a square format. (Resisting the temptation to get my iPhone out and do the same.) As soon as I emerge from underground, Paris always seems to swallow me whole, sucking me out into the sunshine and stuffing my ears with arguments and accordions and the shriek of seagulls. I begin my sweaty march towards the Île Saint-Louis, beneath Nôtre Dame’s gargoyles and alongside cafes bristling with Americans and Parisians, my boots already chalky white with Paris gravel. A woman in cream stilettos whizzes past on a vespa. I’ve already seen seven tiny dogs. Couples: everywhere. Pigeons: everywhere. There are more benches than a city realistically needs, and every welcome breeze is balanced by the smell of stale piss.
Acquire two scoops of sorbet at Berthillon, and find a patch of riverbank to sit on. I Instagram. The omnipresent smell of stale piss forces me to walk and lick. I meander along a radioactive Seine broken only by arching bridges white with seagulls, and boats of Asians in sunglasses. Branches dapple the water and the facades of apartments facing the river, and everywhere else is pale under the unforgiving glare of a cloudless sky. Comedic/tragic juxtapositions of couples whose make-or-break holiday to Paris is doing the former, and those whose is doing the latter: kissing like noone is watching, screaming like noone is listening. An old woman in red capri pants with a husband in tweed; an older woman wheeling a bike with panniers stuffed with bread; a still older woman in a silk neckerchief and a cloud of perfume and a chestful of amber beads. (Paris belongs to old women.) Away from the rippling shade and into the relentless sun. Shakespeare and Co. have opened a new cafe, and it looks like every cafe in London. Teenagers considering paying €15 for a secondhand paperback with a nostalgic cover. More selfie sticks than I can count. Someone with a Starbucks cup. I descend underground once more.
Much like my own city of London, I hold Paris both dear and in disgust. I sort of hate everything about it, and it sort of always feels like home.