“It rains a lot and the streets are covered in dog poo”, something Bethany said to me in our fourth writing class. She was right. It took me all of three days to find both these things out. Both I should add at the same time. I thought of Audrey Hepburn’s performance as Sabrina. I was going to need my brolly.
I was living in the fourteenth arrondissement. Something I would always confuse with the fourth, le quatrieme arrondissement, when talking to old women on the Metro. I actually felt I lived in the thirteenth because I lived nearer to Chinatown if you walked straight. But you can’t do that in Paris because everything is wrapped around each other; and so is easy to confuse.
My district, or rather my Metro stop, didn’t exist the year before. Christine, the friendly though frustratingly logical German girl in my block informed me we were living in a part of Paris denied to those who rode the Metro the year previously. I didn’t know how lucky I was.
My main street, my rue, was Avenue de France. At first this seemed pretty ridiculous to me. Like living on England’s Avenue. Like something out of The Truman Show. And I was waiting for the sky to ripple the way our school play sets did and I’d have to go home and tell people Paris wasn’t actually where I thought it was; and they’d tell me they knew because of course, I was on The Truman Show.
Getting back to Bethany and my writing class, this felt a little more Parisian.
‘Writing by the Seine’ it was called, housed in the most prestigious bookshop people who like bookshops, and Paris, knew. Shakespeare & Company. We were its company for fourteen weeks. We’d meet and share our stories. And sometimes we’d read each other’s out – not giving it the right voice or intonation the person who’d written it had intended, when they had created it.
The weeks were split in two parts and each branch brought new people, apart from a few who like me, clung on. We were different but similar in that we had wanted to write and paying for it gave us the right to do so.
But I was officially there to study, étude, étude Anglais. This amused pretty much every French man or woman I met. My reason being it was a choice to study there or in Manchester. Which I think they understood. I still got nicknamed ‘the girl from Manchester’ in the bookshop round the corner from my university. (I wasn’t even from Manchester)
I found French people to be passionately proud of being French. Most anyway. I remember going to Christine’s apartment on my first week and being introduced to all her European classmates. One French guy inspected my bottle of wine and told me I should buy only, produits Francias. I’d bought almost the cheapest bottle because that’s what you do when you don’t really understand wine. I don’t think he really understood wine either.
Though I had to give it to him, he and Avenue de France were keeping my Parisian fantasy alive.
I took French classes but dropped after a month or so. I’d missed the first term and was barely talking at all. I’d gone thinking I’d pick it all up and then hidden in an English writing class and gained English or English speaking friends. But two months into my adventure I was speaking a little more. I’d made friends and was continuing my education, mainly of le gâteau.
(Paris knows how to do parks)
Sometimes I found French people like to hide the fact they can’t speak English. They also like to hide the fact they can. I thought this was pretty silly.
University commitments were different to those in England. And classes different too. Participation at home is assumed to be equal. People talk generally for the same amount of time. In Paris, Professor Jean-Paul bellowed at us for the duration. Slipping into French occasionally and declaring at the end we’d do more of the talking next week. It was our fault. But I got the best marks I’ve ever received there, so he had the right approach.
My university building was in the Le Marais, the fourth arrondissement. Unlike the grandeur of the Sorbonne I was hidden amongst windy roads and enjoyed the zigzag nature in which I travelled in to get there each day. You had to know where you were going to arrive safely. I punctuated my classes with cakes and felt my thighs expand daily.
I had a balcony off my apartment but it wasn’t how you might imagine. I was living in the developing part of Paris. Developing because I got the feeling someone had neglected it for a long time before and only now were people okay to live and arrive there safely.
And just as I had adjusted I had to leave. I enjoyed the square gardens, the old cinemas, the parks that I came across when dawdling, the subtle differences between boulangeries and navigating the Metro on the same map I started with. I left wanting to return and as if I’d barely touched Paris at all.
Je vais manquer la pluie. I’m going to miss the rain.