Cycling home along the rue de Rivoli last night I had a sudden flashback of my first day in Paris, back in early September, and of setting out to walk to Bastille to pick up a card to hire a bike. It seemed like a good way to explore the city, and it surely couldn’t be that far… I ended up stumbling across a market, two organic food shops (including scoop ‘n’ save style rice!), C&A and a baffling array of sandwiches, 95% of which had ham lurking in them (I swear the French way to make sandwich is ‘take bread, cut bread, spread butter, place slice of ham inside, ponder rest of fillings…’). Eventually staggering back to my room (cursing for the first but by no means last time its being on the bloody 5th floor with no lift!), laden down with bags of pasta and rice and flour, bundles of vegetables and bags of fruit, carefully wrapped packets of nonetheless rather smelly cheese and goodness knows what else, I felt slightly overwhelmed by this whole Paris thing.
Funny how things change, isn’t it? How I’ve gone from snatching glances at a map that was then hurriedly stuffed back in my pocket (even having only been in city for a few hours, I couldn’t quite bear to look like a ‘typical tourist’) to scrawling directions on scrappy pieces of paper that I always seemed to lose or be unable to read to… well, just knowing the way. My absolute determination to cycle everywhere (and if I had a euro for everyone that’s asked me if I’m not scared of being run over, I’d… well, I’d certainly have enough to buy myself a cake or two! As I say time and again, it’s no more lethal than Manchester) has meant that I pretty quickly got my head around how everywhere links together, although means that my judging distances by foot is horrendous.
And now I’m preparing to spend my first night away from home (‘home’ in this case being my little room on the rue Saint-Honoré, with the dog that races me into the apartment every time I come home, and the cat that does not want to understand that I’m not going to feed it). It’s a funny feeling, because I think it’s only in preparing to not come back to a place (even if, this time at least, it’s only a brief trip away) that you realise how much you’ve settled in there.
Of course, over the summer I got quite used to ‘coming home’ to different places, and there was always an odd feeling when I moved on at the end of each stay. There was excitement, of course, at what would be coming up next, and yet the odd feeling of no longer being connected to anything, which makes you feel completely free, but also strangely lost. And then, of course, after a day or so at the newest place, that too would be ‘home’ and although the places and people that I left behind were still fond memories, I no longer felt sad that it was a different road I was walking down at the end of the day, or a different view that greeted me when I looked out of my window in the morning. Here, though, I think will be the hardest, because I have lived, and worked, and paid bills and done grocery shopping and (unsuccessfully) argued with people in banks and made friends, baked bread, run races, used cold showers at the swimming baths and a million and one other little things that you don’t even notice, but that make up your everyday life.
The other thing, the thing that I realised a few weeks ago, when my parents came to visit, was that I was no longer sure how to describe their house. It was ‘home’, yes, but technically it was no longer my home, since I have another home, here, in Paris. And so I said, ‘your home’, but then that sounded wrong too. And now, when I think about it, I can sort of imagine what the house is like, and the rooms, and how they’re decorated, but it’s sort of hazy and abstract, and I almost feel that I could describe my first-year university room or the first place that I did WWOOFing at better than I could the place where I lived for 18 years. So as I sit here preparing to take the bus to spend a weekend in a city I don’t know, I imagine that in a few weeks’ time, I will be leaving behind a city that I’ve grown to love and my own little place in it to head back to something that I once knew well, but can’t quite remember. A strange thought indeed.
Back in Manchester, there will be no cats, no dog, no goldfish. No phone that rings endlessly because the handset is lost, and no conversations on one mobile interrupted to answer another. No half (very neat half) eaten pears and bananas hidden in funny cupboards, and no mysterious basket of kiwi fruit that has been here, untouched, since before I arrived. No Narnia door in the back of my wardrobe, or footsteps from the floor upstairs whose hidden staircase I only discovered last week. No builders singing outside my window, no motorbikes parked in the passageway downstairs. No bar on the corner full of earnest couples ignoring the dish of popcorn placed between them, no stack of McDonald’s burger buns left on a pallet in a parking space each morning. No net curtains with pictures of sheep, and a hob that it is possible to turn up and down. There will be an oven, and non-sharp knives for spreading butter on toast, and a set of weighing scales that doesn’t look like it belongs in an antique shop. A sofa.
In short, it will be different. Home will be different. But how can that be?