I’ve talked about my concern that compared to many authors I admire, my life so far has been humdrum with none of the remarkable stories and anecdotes they’re able to utilise in their writing. But it hit me yesterday that stories are what we make them. It’s all in the telling, isn’t it?
I went to Paris for a weekend with my French class is ordinary. Many people have done that. While it’s an opportunity, it’s not an anecdote that inspires novels. But the events of that weekend and the stories it’s given me to tell are what matter. (Yes, I’m the one who actually says, “Oh, I’m so writing about this on my blog,” while in the middle of a bizarre situation in a foreign country.)
Let me tell you about Paris. Or rather, let me give you an account of the first day I spent there, because this post will be about five thousand words long if I do the whole weekend at once.
We met at the train station in central London at seven in the morning, which meant waking up at five on a Saturday morning. It would be bad enough at any other time of year, but after the first week of term when my body was still adjusting to going to school, it felt horrific. I slept most of the way on the Eurostar, waking from confused dreams soundtracked by Mumford & Sons to overhear snippets of conversation before dropping off again, and eventually we arrived in Paris.
We arrived in the middle of a demonstration: thirteen thousand protestors between the train station and our hostel, or so the report we read of it the next day informed us. At the time, it just seemed like a lot of people with placards we didn’t understand, flags we didn’t recognise, and smoke flares being lit from a roof. Our group was split between two emotions: “Can I join in?” and “We’re going to die”. The sole teacher looking after us was more concerned that something would happen and she would never be allowed to take a group to Paris ever again.
After fighting our way through the crowds, we managed to get to our hostel where the woman at the desk was vocal about her support for the cause and her anger that she couldn’t be out there joining in. According to our teacher, she was swearing continuously in French.
“Do you speak French?” she said, eventually. Upon hearing the affirmative, she didn’t stop as one might have expected, but continued with her profanities. Fortunately, our young innocent (ha!) brains were not corrupted because we’re not good enough at French to understand what she was saying.
On that first day, we visited a number of tourist landmarks, such as Notre Dame. While crossing the bridge where people attach padlocks to symbolise their eternal love or something soppy like that, we spotted a cameraperson following what looked like a couple.
“I think he’s proposing,” said our teacher. “Let’s go and get in the background!” So we crossed the road and lurked entirely unsuspiciously in the distance of the shot, trying not to laugh too much or make it too obvious that we were doing it deliberately. After a while, it became apparent that it wasn’t a proposal, and was more likely some sort of indie film. I’m sure we made great extras, though they kept changing the camera angle to avoid us. How dare they.
The purpose for our trip was to see a performance of La Cantatrice Chauve, a play we’re studying for our exam, but before the play began we went to get a meal in a French restaurant that was just across the road. (Not for the first time, I found nothing on the menu that I could or wanted to eat, and ended up ordering a portion of chips on their own. Nutritious much.)
The meal was … not exactly a success. It took rather longer than we expected, and while everybody ate their main courses our teacher collected the money and explained to the proprietor that we wanted to pay before dessert because we had to leave in a hurry. However, it soon became apparent that we weren’t going to have time to eat our dessert.
“Can we come back later?” we asked. We’d already paid, after all, and it was just across the road. But they insisted that they had already made the desserts. “We have to go. We don’t have time.” As a group we gathered our coats and bags and got ready to leave the restaurant.
The proprietor, insistent that we should eat the desserts, came out with the first couple. “Mousse au chocolat!” he said, hoping one of us would claim it. We repeated that we had to go and we didn’t have time: we were going to miss the play. “Mousse au chocolat!” No, we insisted, we were sorry but we couldn’t eat our desserts. Those of us nearest to the door started moving in that direction.
All the lights in the restaurant went out.
Embarrassed that we were leaving without our desserts, we took advantage of the blackout to try and make a hasty exit. However, they flickered on again before we reached the door, and he was still calling out, “Mousse au chocolat!” Undeterred, we left, only to find that one of our group had accidentally picked up another customer’s scarf, and had to go back to return it.
We made it to the play, but only just, and it was a matter of squeezing into whatever seats were left in the positively miniscule theatre. Wedged into a corner of the back row with a wall on the side to lean against, warm from the body heat in the room, I struggled to stay awake, dropping off numerous times. My friend, sitting next to me, fared no better. We had a buddy system of nudging each other awake whenever we spotted the other napping, but it wasn’t entirely effective.
After the first play, half the audience left and we were able to find seats together nearer to the front. The second play was La Lecon, by the same writer (Ionesco), which the other French class were studying for their exam. The rest of us knew nothing about it, however, and spent most of it baffled. The trouble with Theatre of the Absurd is that it doesn’t even make sense in context, so when you’ve got no clue as to the plot and don’t understand most of the language… well.
This led to some stunning misinterpretations (“Just to check I understood: he killed her with an orgasm?” “What? No! It was a knife!” “… okay, I totally didn’t see that.”) from various members of our group. Personally, I couldn’t stay awake in that one either, so I probably understood even less by value of missing about ten minutes in the middle. The swiftly-spoken French on stage and the laughter all around me was so baffling and over-stimulating to my poor exhausted brain that I became entirely convinced I was going mad.
Afterwards, we took a detour to the Arc de Triomphe on our way home, only to find that it had been closed forty minutes earlier so we couldn’t climb it. As our teacher said, “That’s the French for you. They clearly just felt like going home.” We viewed it from underneath instead, and I discovered that my phone camera is a thousand times better than my actual camera when it comes to taking photos in low light. Don’t worry, my concerned face in this photo is only because I couldn’t make my camera work properly…
While there, we witnessed half a dozen almost-accidents on the roundabout around the Arc – apparently there are so many accidents there that car insurance won’t even cover it if you crash there – but nobody actually crashed while we were watching, which was something.
Our Metro journey home revealed to us the rather unpleasant reality of life in Paris as we witnessed a woman vomiting repeatedly into a bin on the station (we think she was homeless, because she seemed to have all her clothes with her in plastic bags), a one-legged beggar dragging his way along the train, and half a dozen other homeless people in the stations or on the train.
Poverty seemed to be an integral part of the weekend. In novels Paris is portrayed as the ‘city of love’, but to be honest all I saw was a city of neglect. The homeless were everywhere, people begging on every train and at every station, with tiny paper cups that would hold only a few coins as though they didn’t expect anyone to give them anything …
The Metro trains themselves were frequently grimy and clattered alarmingly, slamming to a stop at each station which propelled us forward, usually into other people. I always thought travelling on the Northern Line was unpleasant, but I’ve got a new appreciation for it now.
Eventually we returned to our hostel after a journey that had been far too much for my poor brain (I’m pretty sure I sang the whole second half of Les Mis under my breath to calm myself down, and while it worked to an extent, I was still feeling unbelievably anxious). Though in a room of nine people, each bunk had a curtain, and I could shut everybody out and enjoy a few moments of peace to write my journal and recover from the noise and colours of the day.
However, much to the distress of my aching feet, we had another day yet to come…