A date in Paris.
It's the middle of summer and the weather is perfect this blue, breezy French morning. I wake up early to the sound of stillness. The occasional bird chirps outside my window. A door closes somewhere in the hotel complex. It's early morning in the small but modern town outside of Paris. I pull myself out of bed and yank open the glass door that leads out to my tiny balcony and I'm greeted by the gorgeous French morning. Quiet fields reach out to a blue horizon. The morning has a certain chill to it but is already warming up quickly. I'm loving the summer here, which is far less humid than the crazy, practically sub-tropical humidity the UK has been experiencing over the past few weeks. I spend a few minutes in prayer and gratitude, just taking in the beautiful morning and finding myself so blessed to be experiencing a moment just like this. I'm alone but it doesn't matter. Here in France, I can be anyone I want to be. Today, I am a writer looking for her inspiration.
After my morning check in with the rest of the world, I take note of the train time table and start to get ready for my day. I'm headed into Paris today. It's about an hour by train into the city, but I have no idea what I'll be doing there. The best way I can describe it, is taking myself on my own dream date in the most romantic city in the world. No hero in sight, but that's okay, I'm totally fine with that. I'm looking for inspiration. Best not to get distracted anyway. ;)
I dress up in the least touristy clothes I can find but yet still comfortable enough to walk in, then head down to the foyer and greet the morning hotel staff who call me by name, smile and wave. I make a stop at the tiny patisserie that I've frequented every day since arriving here almost a week ago. It's run by a friendly Chinese family who speak French and English – the husband more adept at the languages than his much quieter wife who just smiles and nods. He has a thick Chinese accent when he speaks but I'm used to it, I'm from Sydney after all. The two most common languages in Australia are English and Chinese-English. He asks me about my day and I proclaim that I'm off to Paris. The pair 'ohh' and 'ahh' over my plans... which are still somewhat lacking... and offer suggestions of places I simply must visit. I thank them and take my chocolate croissant to go (seriously, there is no such thing as a good croissant outside of France). I make it to the station with only minutes to spare and in my broken, almost non-existent French manage to sweet-talk the ticket seller into giving me a ticket for somewhere that is apparently going to land me smack bang in the middle of Paris. I join the train that is already full of morning commuters, reading their phones or speaking quietly to one another in French. Most people are dressed for work. Then there are the older ladies, with scarves on their heads to hold in their silver hair. They clutch their hand bags in their laps, wearing woollen skirts and stockings even despite the hot weather. Somewhere down the line, when fields and small towns become suburbs and buildings, two Americans and a Canadian step onto the train (I can tell by the flags on their backpacks) and speak nosily amongst themselves of their travel plans. They're heading to Gare du Nord – the main railway station in Paris, probably going to catch a train to London or something. Regardless, I realise it feels so strange listening to native English speakers after having not been around them for so long. My ears pick up on every word and syllable with such ease that I can't help but listen in and lap up as much English as I can. One of the gents makes eye contact with me and I smile and he sort of gives me a second look. I then realise I'm being weird and proceed to look away, my face burning crimson. I decide that if he approaches me, I'll just pretend I don't speak English.
My station comes up and I practically bolt for the door. I find myself ejected into a subway station attached to a huge shopping mall with a glass ceiling. I take note of the station on my ticket and then pop out onto what I hope is some sort of a main street. This part of the city is busy but so clean. Until I look up and notice I'm surrounded by these gorgeous, Parisian-style apartments and I gasp, "Oh I want one!" (at a price range of about 3-4 million euros, they might be a tad out of my price range).
I follow these apartment buildings for a while and I can't help but look like a tourist – I'm gawking like an idiot. The roads change from concrete to cobble stone and back again. I hear traffic and the occasional siren somewhere beyond them, leading me to believe there must me a main road somewhere close. It's not just a main road, I soon realise, as I enter through an archway onto a sunny strip of footpath, it's the river Seine and more gasping ensues. I've only spent half-an hour in this city and I've already found myself entranced and romanced off my feet! Be still my beating heart. I make my way over a stone bridge that is probably as old as the city itself and snap a covert/not-so-covert photo of a boat that passes underneath me. It's at this point that I decide to pull out my GPS and try and orientate myself. One direction leads me toward the Eiffel Tower and the other leads me toward the Notre-Dame cathedral. Notre-Dame is closer so I opt to head in that direction.
I walk old streets that gradually fill up with tourists and I know I'm heading in the right direction. I subtly attach myself to a tour group that speaks Greek and find myself quickly adopted by a couple of old, Greek grandmothers who also hang back at the rear edge of the group, their older legs unable to take them as quickly as their younger family members. They squabble in Greek to each other and I can't help but smile. Greek grandmothers are among the scariest creatures on the planet. I would know. I work with one. While she is the most passionate, mothering woman I know, cross her or try to hurt one of her babies and she'll go into full blown beast mode. One time at work, a man who she saw grabbing my hand in attempt to ask for my phone number abruptly found himself the subject of her rage. It was truly scary. After she all but chased him off with a broomstick (I'm sure she would have if she had one handy) she turned and said, "No one makes one of my girls feel awkward!"
I've called her Mama Bear ever since.
Me and the Greek ladies make it to Notre-Dame (pre fire of April 2019) and I wonder at the height of the huge tower. It's difficult to see the top and not get a cramp in your neck, and it's impossible to capture the whole cathedral in a photo unless you're standing at least a block away from it. Still, I watch people try. The angles they contort their bodies into in order to get that perfect shot is truly impressive. I spend a few minutes just watching the massive building, taking in every intricate detail of the old, Gothic design from the pointed archways to the figures of what I assume to be saints that seem to hold the top half of the cathedral on their stone heads and shoulders. Then, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
A woman covered in a head cloth, not unlike the sort of old lady I'd seen on the train earlier holds up her hand in a poorly manner and begs me for money in husky French. Unfortunately, my first instinct is to go to my pocket to make sure my wallet is still there. I wave her off and she storms off in a huff and pulls out her smart phone and starts talking away into it until she seeks out her next victim. I've been in France long enough to know there are a lot of genuine beggars and also a lot of not-so genuine beggars. This one smelled too clean and fresh, and the fact that she was also carrying around a plastic bag full of wallets in a not-so-subtle manner are a dead giveaway. A Police man watching the cathedral catches up to her for a 'chat' not long after.
The queue into the church is so long and as time isn't on my side this day, I opt out of going inside in favour of more city exploration and resume my adventure. There is a line of souvenir shops selling cheap plastic cathedrals and Eiffel towers and I can't resist the urge to try on a bright red beret. Tacky but adorable. The shop assistant immediately warms up to me when he realises I'm not from the UK but actually from Australia. I also fall in love with this cute street-side flower stall but resist the urge to buy myself a blood red rose (my favourite flower) because I know I'll be carrying it around all day.
I keep walking, weaving in and out of the Paris streets while following the river down to my next destination. I come across old buildings trapped in time and forgotten, fountains and statues, and even one of those public toilets with the one-way glass. I opt out of using it. The streets are lined with trees everywhere I go, bringing beautiful green to an otherwise grey and brown landscape. The summer heat is warm but not stifling. It's just a beautiful, perfect day. The sort of day that I can easily imagine the hero to any romance walking hand in hand with his heroine, conversation full of witty exchanges and personal back stories, taking time out to forget about their conflict and just enjoy the moment. Maybe it's when the hero sees her smiling, long hair shimmering in the sunlight that he realises he's in love. Or maybe the heroine finally realises that the man who has whisked her away to this strange city isn't so evil or bad after all. So many stories, so many possibilities.
Eventually, I cross over the river, my GPS pointing me in the direction of my next destination. The Louvre and accompanying Tuileries Garden. The Louvre is spectacular and, like much of the city that surrounds it, I fall in love with it instantly. Unfortunately however, I've come all this way but due to time constraints, I'm unable to go in. I spend a moment to mentally weep my own loss before moving on, making a promise to myself that I will return and write about it in depth. I turn and make my way towards the famous gardens that go on for what feels like miles. It's around about lunch time now and people are lounging on the grass and eating, reading books or chatting quietly amongst themselves in small groups. It's so peaceful that I decide to find a patch of grass and just sit and enjoy the scenery. We're surrounded by lush green grass and hedges that form these intricate, mazelike patterns. There is a statue of a naked woman right in front of me and I take a moment to admire her lush curves. Even the statues of women are beautiful here let alone the actual women (and men). Face it, French people just know how to do beauty. We are surrounded by a wall of more of these gorgeous French apartments and I decide how incredible it must be to live here, overlooking the gardens. I might as well add several more million to the price of one of these. Definitely out of my price range. Maybe one of my characters can live here. I pick out an apartment for him and try to visualise him waking up in the morning and throwing open French doors not unlike what I'd done this morning. He sits on his balcony, taking a moment to sip his morning coffee and check in with the news before his busy day of running whatever business empire he owns. Once again, the options are limitless. Good grief, I'm so inspired right now! I just want to sit down and write a novel!
I eat the croissant I picked up this morning and then decide to keep moving, but I barely make it to my feet when suddenly a man approaches and grabs my arm. I freeze instantly as he blurts something in a spill of French. Then, noting my less than encouraging stage fright, he tries English. He's a painter. He wants to paint me. I politely refuse.
"But you are so beautiful!" he proclaims. "Please!"
I say no and turn and walk. He then proceeds to follow me. And Follow me. And FOLLOW me! The panic starts to set in. I walk faster but he keeps at it. Seriously dude! Can't he take a hint? Eventually, I turn around and yell at him to go away. Weirdly enough, people don't even bat an eye at us. They all just sit and keep talking. I soon realise we look like too lovers quarrelling. Or I just look like a tourist being harassed by a staving French art student. Regardless, I don't appreciate it very much and just when I feel like all hope is lost, I soon feel the two masculine shadows stepping up behind me.
"The lady said no, mate! Now piss off!" I reel around and there stand two, very English speaking gents. They literally tower over everyone. My stalker very soon takes the hint and scurries off back to his paints.
I thank the gentlemen for their gallant intervening and they immediately pick up on my accent. "You're from Australia," says one. "I've always wanted to go there."
Turns out they're a couple of blokes from somewhere in the south of London. They're just in Paris for a few days. We talk for a bit and wind up getting ice-cream together. They ask where I'm headed next and I say I'm heading in the general direction of the Eiffel tower.
"Well there's still so much of the gardens to see and the Arc de Triomphe is in this direction too, if you want to walk that far."
I say I'm game and thanking them again for their help, I set off on my journey. I have to admit, this me-date in Paris is certainly turning out to be quite the experience! I enjoy more of the same for a bit, gardens, grass, gravel roads, fountains and statues. I feel like if I lived here I would walk every day. I feel so totally at home. So totally at peace. Even despite the unsavoury encounter with the artist. I make a mental note to include that experience in a book. How cool would it be if that happened to my heroine and she was rescued by the hero. What an introduction! I grin to myself and probably look like an idiot. Or maybe I just look like I'm in love. I hope so. I feel like I am. I'm in love with this day. This experience. This adventure. A perfect date with just me.
I don't make it all the way to the Arc de Triomphe as the sun is already beginning to move west but I manage to catch a glimpse of it in the distance and snap a super zoomed-in photo of it. I turn to my GPS and head in the direction of what will probably be my final location for the day. The Eiffel Tower. By this time the blisters on my feet are starting to hurt but I push on. It's a 40 minute walk to the tower from here and I force myself to slug onwards, the beauty and romanticism of the city now slowly wearing off in favour of the urgent need to sit and maybe sleep for a week. I realise I've barely eaten anything either, except for the croissant and vow to myself that a dinner in a French restaurant is the one thing that will end this almost-perfect day.
Throughout my walk, I've caught glimpses of the mighty, pointy spire that is the Eiffel tower. Now though, it gets closer and that last kilometre or so I'm so excited I'm all but running (I don't think my body would allow me to actually run right then). I don't need the GPS to tell me that I'm there. The tower stands so tall that it looms over the rest of Paris, so high, pointy and majestic. A pretty cool feat of engineering, I note to myself and snap a photo as well as a selfie. It's near impossible to get a good angle on it but I try anyway. I'm so tired by this point that I decide to take up a seat on a bench and watch it. My mind is in such a daze. I've taken in so much today that I fear it's going to be impossible to journal it all without forgetting something. I jot down some notes in my phone but nothing can compare to the experience of actually being here; my date in Paris.