Paris, Paris, Paris. Dates that sat in my head for months on end after a hasty Airfrance booking made at the end of October, calendars with dates being ticked off, conversations, Facetimes, Messenger calls had with a long-suffering David (I say conversations: best to define them as panicked rants) for months on end about, amongst other things:
- getting lost
- the weather
- the sleeping arrangements
- the costs
- the airport route
- getting lost
- the wifi hot spots
- the slightly daunting potential of going out
- getting lost
- the merits of the location of David’s flat
- the merits of the location of Holly’s flat
- how the metro worked
- the food
- and getting lost.
It turns out that talking about things forever doesn’t necessarily make them easier: having extremely high expectations, a typical Carolina trait, is also a sure way to feel as though you aren’t doing enough. I shouldn’t have told myself I wanted to do absolutely everything covered by this video, and I shouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about getting lost being the end of the world. Surviving a pretty serpentine city has led me to feel a lot more secure about being somewhere new, not knowing the language, yet remaining calm. Bring on Rio.
Let’s start from Charles De Gaulle airport, the grimmest place I have ever been (with the exception of Gatwick, which I loathe with a passion: the Boots is too small, there is not enough reading material, and I was once trapped in the airport for over five hours in a seven layer outfit, including a Christmas jumper with bells attached, as I’d had no space left in my already bulging suitcase). The uneventful plane journey there was fine enough, albeit on board of a vehicle which looked like it had come directly out of a Sylvanian Families packet. I swear there must have been about twenty passengers. Landing in CDG proved to not be as simple as getting off the plane and jumping on to the Metro – it turns out Stuttgart, in the most classic of “who has ever heard of this place” ways, has its own little CDG area to land in. So having identified the part of the airport I needed to get to so that I could actually reach Paris, I boarded a little coach, which very Frenchly came by twice an hour, was driven to the exit numbered 3G (all the while surrounded by immensely idealistic tourists gawping at the state of the outskirts of Roissy-en-France surrounding us , in the somewhat deluded hope of making out the Eiffel Tower) and finally, made it to the actual airport. I’d like to clarify one thing: I have been to Paris before. The issue is, I was a child, and can only remember Notre Dame and Disneyland. So to me, it was like being somewhere for the first time, and I was very keen to try to do as much as possible.
Eleanor, an Oriel friend who sat through many an awkward tutorial about Elfriede Jelinek with me in the summer term of last year, had given me very precise instructions as to how to reach the chaotic Les Halles metro station from there, and once I stepped off the RER B – after a forty minute journey which saw my ears suffer from harmonica-imposed trauma – I spotted her instantly. We had an emotional hug and then scuttled out of the station and sat down to a stereotypical, delicious lunch of soupe à l’oignon and croque madame. We chatted about French Tinder, our tutorials, and the wonders of Flixbus, and it was a delight to slot straight back into conversation as if we’d never been far apart. It was very different to going back to Oxford, perhaps because Eleanor was fully immersed in precisely the same world as I was – one of language barriers and Jelinek-related stress. In any case, I happened to catch El the very day before her move to Hamburg, so she had to leave me fairly quickly (after spending about twenty minutes patiently and carefully outlining my journey to David’s to me on my little metro map) – which gave me a chance to explore the surrounding area. I hadn’t realised quite how central it was, and found myself faced, after turning a corner, with what was unmistakeably, and most postmodernically, the Pompidou Centre.
(this is the Centre itself)
It’s quite hard to put into words just how relieved I become when I can pinpoint my geographical location instantly, and this was one of those cases: pouring over the guidebooks I had read about Paris meant that I knew I was in front of a building which contained an immense archive of modern art accessible for free, given my age and nationality, a beautiful library, a five star view over the city, and was a stone’s throw from Notre Dame. I also knew I was in the 4th arrondissement, that the Marais area was close by, and that a metro station was nestled just behind the Centre. Feeling rather smug at the geyser of information that had erupted within my brain, and with a Culture Trip list of the best views in Paris fresh in my mind, I spotted the escalators within the building (which seem obvious to notice, but I can guarantee the immense amount of pipes makes it quite hard) and knew exactly what I wanted to do.
A coat handing, bag check, suitcase check, body check, further suitcase check, and passport check later, I found out that a hoarde of Americans were loudly boarding the escalators too – and unwilling to let the “like”s and drawling spoil my Parisian introduction, I opted for the lift. What a choice that was. I was completely alone in a lift which was whizzing through a building that was basically built inside out, and the view alone from the lift saw me loudly gasp as we reached the sixth floor and the entirety of Paris was spread out in front of me. It was absolutely Carey Mulligan-esque, in An Education. I slowly walked along the platform – by this point it was about 5 pm, and the sun was gradually setting – and gazed out at the view before me, each building instantly recognisable. The photos cannot do it justice. The Invalides dome, Notre Dame, the Tour Eiffel, Hotel de Ville, Opera Garnier, Sacre Coeur in the distance – it sunk in just where I was.
I walked from edge to edge of the circular, tube-like corridor trying to take it all in at once, the hustle of the Place in front of me, the gargoyles of Notre Dame to my left, as the city seemed to slowly halve in people walking through it .
It struck me very suddenly that I was at my peak year abroad feeling – six months had gone by, and I could finally not give a single care about what was happening in the tiny town where all my clothes were stored, and where most of my friends were doubtless currently locked in a library. I felt absolutely free as I looked out over the view for what must have been three quarters of an hour, finally ungluing myself from the glass to venture into the art collection. The highlight of the latter was a beautiful collection of Chagall pieces, and I was pleasantly surprised to find many a Picasso, as I thought they would all be nestled in their own museum instead.
I eventually left the Centre and wandered around the square for a while, and had to face the music in the form of metro. I can handle Munich S-Bahn, I can handle Rome metro, I can handle the London Tube, and I can handle Stuttgart U-Bahn, I told myself. You have no reason to panic. And so, of course, I panicked.But it was a fairly calm panic, mainly made up of thinking “Must find somewhere to say I am lost because I will get lost” over and over as the three different lines I got on steadily directed me towards the Quartier Latin – aka the part of town Davros lives in / 5th arrondissement. It’s an area known for its student life and bistros, its lively atmosphere and quantity of cocktail bars, as well as being an academic hot spot besides the university itself – hence the name, as Latin used to be the language people were taught in (I sound like a Lonely Planet guidebook, I’m aware).
Once I actually got to Cardinal Lemoine, I spent a stupid amount of time looking for Hemingway’s apartment before reminding myself I had to get to David’s. Then I got distracted by a bookshop, and another. Then I had a sudden craving for strawberries and decided to traipse (still with suitcase) to find somewhere I could eat strawberries (I did not succeed, but made up for it the next day). Then the heel of my boot broke (I have an obsession with travelling in my high heeled boots – it seems falling off the plane stairs in August once landed in Pisa, and having to be carried off by a stretcher, has taught me absolutely nothing). It felt like an obstacle course race. Finally, I made it to Rue Thouin, chatted to David’s flatmate for a bit and unpacked. The man himself rocked up having finished work and after a brief and surreal hug and chat, went off for dinner with Hol (an impromptu and birthday related one), as I contently sat on the sofa with Simon & Garfunkel playing on my phone, reading my Literarische Paris – the double whammy of having survived a French day and reading a German book a very fuzzy feeling to have.
The next day was filled with the prospect of what I had immensely high expectations for and what I assumed would make up the highlight of the whole trip: the Musée d’Orsay. This time round, I pulled out all the stops. I put my hair in a bun, considered putting on my heels before remembering I had fucked them up, I ate a (in retrospect, pretty disappointing) croissant on the metro*, I got to the meeting place I had picked with Josie (another lovely tutorial friend, this time from the Christa Wolf sessions) an hour early to waltz around alone by myself, and was so amazingly aware of how pathetic my tourist factor was that I delighted in it.
(*the French use too much butter, and it only works in an almond-flavoured pastry imo)
I managed to go to the Rodin Museum in the hour before meeting up with Josie, and once we had met up and she had entertained me with very strange stories about her accomodation and Innsbruck (as well as performing her Austrian accent in front of me), we took a short walk from Invalides to the Orsay. Walking along the river was disclosing the city in front of me: the best way for me personally to get to know somewhere works in two very simple steps.
- Head up somewhere very high and take in as much as possible.
Figure out where you are given the location of the most iconic or well-known spots. I do this with every single city I visit on the first day – the higher the better – and tend to get rather confused and lost if I haven’t been able to do this. The fact I love heights is an added bonus (the first thing I did at Oktoberfest was beg Lilli to let us do an 80m drop just so I could get a view of the whole Theresienwiese).
2. Walk through the city.
This is just a way of watching the bits you have seen from above come closer to you and making your way through town in a route that now makes sense having observed it from another perspective.
The Orsay was magical. I knew it would be wonderful, but it was even better than I thought. The building is an old train station which has been converted into a museum, as its Gare D’Orsay carving on the outside testifies, and unlike the Louvre, is absolutely doable in a few hours.
It is above all a haven of Impressionism, which is my favourite artistic movement, as it houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world, by artists including (and not limited to!) Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Gaugin and Van Gogh. The building is absolutely marvellous in its interior, too: an enormous gallery of sculptures looking down upon you, layered into three floors of wondrous collections, the permanent one being the most impressive.
Before you’ve even entered the museum, the sculptures representing the five continents greet you on the outside, and a good ten to fifteen minutes are spent gawking at the exterior. The amount of works I saw that morning left me completely fulfilled: I remember thinking as I left the museum that I might as well leave Paris. It was done – five years after the history of art classes that had introduced me to the movement itself, I had seen every single one. Olympia, Les Coquelicots, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, L’Absinthe, the Rouen cathedral series, Le dejeuner sur l’herbe, the gorgeous dancing scenes sculpted and painted by Degas… these were probably the reason I came to Paris in the first place (and David’s birthday, possibly). I just wanted to put out there that I am absolutely obsessed with Impressionism, in case this hadn’t quite come through yet. Anyway – we even managed to see that well-known scandalous Courbet painting, L’Origine du Monde. I feel for the poor man in the Realism room who has to put up with people snickering at it.
Josie, too, left me around lunchtime, and I decided to follow Davros’ advice and walk around towards the Marais making my way towards the Iles. However, I immediately got distracted by a sign leading me towards the Orangerie museum – and gleeful that it was so close to the Orsay, I braced myself for the oval rooms containing those lily paintings I had heard so much about from friends. The museum had a very interesting section with a lot of works by Matisse, too – including one I thought I recognised from a MoMa exhibition poster my mother had hung in our villa years ago (I couldn’t shake off the feeling I recognised it, so I ended up sending her a postcard of it to make sure). The stars of the museum were however undoubtedly the long, beautiful Giverny – based scenes themselves (I wish Giverny had been open when I went, but France hadn’t quite reached spring), and I wandered from room to room, pano-snap happy.
Finally overwhelmed art-wise, I at this point decided to try to find Notre Dame. Sadly, the walk through the chilly Tuilerie gardens ended up leading me towards the Louvre, which acted as a further distraction from the walk I was supposed to be taking. I took a very odd route via a McDonalds in the Marais to try to get some WiFi and a vague notion of my location, passing by a St Jacques tower (which I was absolutely convinced made up part of Notre Dame, and really confused me) , but finally, I managed to make it to Notre Dame, where I climbed the tower and sat outside following that, catching my breath and looking up at the building; a wander through the Ile St Louis followed, where I had to peel my eyes off most antique shops. That somehow led me to Rue Cardinal Lemoine itself: so the walk home was a very chilled one, did not require a map, and meant I could explore the Latin Quarter area well aware of the direction I was supposed to be going towards.
David and I went looking for ingredients for a dinner once he came home, and headed to Holly’s: we spent the evening talking for a few hours and it was just really quite pleasant. I love talking (big news).
The next morning saw the same walk from Holly’s to the metro which had taken me a grand total of a minute and a half confuse the hell out of me in broad daylight and people dining outside: I spent THREE HOURS walking through the Marais, completely and utterly lost, snubbed by many a rude Frenchman when I asked for directions, and arrived at Holly’s (after an emergency WiFi stop at BNP Paribas where David gave me the illuminating instructions of “cross the road” – that is how close I was). Following this panicked fluster, we made our way to a lovely coffee shop at the early hour of 2 pm, walked through town a little longer and I then left the two of them to head off to make chocolates for David’s birthday whereas I went to the Monet Marmottan Museum, mesmerised for over three hours. The evening was spent cooking dinner and eating said dinner with friends of H and D, and a strange, eventful night out, which involved me doing the classic act of forgetting my ID at Holly’s, David jogging as he turned 21, someone’s phone travelling in a Parisian taxi and tracked on Google Maps until 5am, losing someone en route to a bar, and spending fifteen minutes in a nightclub – a euro a minute. But somehow even if full of unexpected issues, it turned out to be a memorable and entertaining time.
The last day, the next day, we were all somewhat hungover and tired – and had to head to David’s to pick up my suitcase (joy of joys). Having gotten over that, we then trailed around the Quartier Latin ending up at a lovely crepe/gallette place called Au P’tit Grec – mine being what must have been a year’s worth of aubergines squeezed in and taking me over half an hour to finish eating. And then it was all over very quickly – I was at Les Halles, H and D giving me a goodbye hug each, and then on the RER B back to the airport.
What, however, is really the point of this long ensemble of thoughts, deprecation, and admittedly slightly dull chronicle of transport fears? Having gatecrashed someone’s year abroad gave me full insight into what I had only tasted via social media. It made me grateful to be living somewhere where I had to struggle a little language wise, because it meant that I would grow in confidence – if I were in Paris, I don’t trust myself enough to think I would have reached out in that way (also everyone appears to be quite cold and rude – from the stories regarding French friendships I have heard, anyway). It made me grateful more than ever to be living somewhere that offered me the opportunity to be in a job well paid enough to allow me to travel abroad, when friends of mine are being paid less than 200 Euros in Berlin. It made me grateful to live in a granted, slightly dodgy city, but nonetheless with a beautiful location, close to so many famous German sights, slotted between countries, with the best weather in Germany, in a sweet apartment which now feels homey and which is a lovely size. Oh, and it especially made me grateful to have such lovely friends living in France that were willing to help me out in visiting the city and give me a place to stay, as well as forgiving the ID malarkey (something a lot of my friends have had to do).
Second year me was a very daring, yet very wise version of Carolina: the risk I took in going somwhere absolutely alone and in doing so for an entire year – no cosy British Council Facebook group to meet up with like some of my friends in Germany have had, no English flatmates – has absolutely given me the lowest of times, but soldiering on through those has made it all worth it, as finally, in the spring of my year here, I have a friendly housemate, the knack of making someone laugh in a conversation (hopefully not because of my still highly detectable English accent), and the biggest list yet to complete, with beauty surrounding me in the form of castles, museums, and vineyards. I haven’t done enough at all to explore this region, given the hard times, even though I’ve improved in other areas and now is my time (with a healthy dose of work on the side… a whole other story right there).
Paris was as pretty as can be and a dream for my obsession with Impressionism and Existentialism (yes, I did go to Les Deux Magots), but slightly grim, less fairy-tale like Stuttgart felt safe to come home to, less enormous and maze-like – something probably heightened by finally being able to not just make out what people hurriedly say in French without being able to give any answer whatsoever.
I was thrilled to be able to see the works I’d wanted to see in years – for that, I have the Elizabeth Daplyn Prize awarded from college to thank – I still cannot believe I was in Paris as I write this, that I saw those paintings, that I walked up Notre Dame and through winding roads and sparkly boulevards. It was beautiful.
All of these things I have said in some form or another before, and I feel rather repetitive having said them to so many, but they cannot be emphasized enough. Someone else’s experience will always have its downsides, no matter where. Your time away is yours to shape, and however it may appear to you to be the contrary, you are learning, seeing, doing much more than you think. Just yesterday I realised that for every month I have been here I have done something new and exciting. September was Oktoberfest, October was Leipzig, November was flying back to the UK and keeping it together yet again, December a tangle of Christmas markets and Zurich, January saw me visit Bonn and February spend four days in Paris. Of course I still miss Oxford, I miss my friends, and especially and probably most ironically, to some, my academic work, and look forward to being back. But it’s now just a slight twinge rather than being as hard as it was at the very beginning.
Above all, this time away has made me fully grateful to be abroad – I have no doubt that had I not been living in Stuttgart, the sight of the Orsay would have been delayed for years to come as I slotted into graduate life and scrimped and saved for London properties (I don’t know why I used the plural for that). Berlin is next, a glory of five days in the German city I have wanted to see so badly for the past three years, with one of my bestest friends at Oxford, Kitty – where I’ll be able to see the remains of the wall, walk through the square that saw books censored and burned, see the incredible Pergamon museum… the bitterness of the school trip to Berlin being cancelled never really left me.
I’ve never felt luckier to be where I am at this moment in time.
* ” A moveable feast ” is the title of Hemingway’s book about his time in Paris as a struggling artist in the 1920s. One of his most famous quotes, which is found in the memoir, about the city, is this one:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
Following the terror attacks in Paris, in November, the novel was a bestseller in France for weeks as an act of cultural defiance.