And so it comes to an end. One final day of ticking off the last few things on the list I made on the train to Portsmouth back in June, a fit of giggles at ‘Last Christmas’ in a French cookware shop and enough dodging gormless tourists and awkward Parisians to qualify for the next Olympics. (The essential difference between the two groups? Tourists get in your way accidentally, whereas I’m sure native Parisians deliberately choose the most obstructive spot to stop in and then pointedly turn a blind ear to your “Excusez-moi”, so you have to barge and then they can glare at you for being a typical rude foreigner. Or maybe I’m just paranoid?) And then, tomorrow, home.
Ah, Paris. I remember back in the summer, when I arrived spluttering and laden down with baggage, having to cross the city from one train station to another, getting stuck in metro ticket barriers and struggling up broken escalators (why is it only the ones going up that ever break, and the ones going down are all just fine?), and just generally overwhelmed by people. Bearing in mind that I was coming from weeks spent in a tiny rural hamlet, seeing only a handful of people (the people that I was living and working with every day), and all of the massive space, wide open fields, enormous skies and huge, expansive horizons, it’s no wonder that Paris seemed grimy, noisy, crowded, busy and enormously confusing: walking home this afternoon, I cast my mind back to when I came to see my room in July, and was desperately stumbling down the rue Saint-Honoré, hoping each time that it would be the next block. Or the next. Or maybe the one after that. I’ll be honest, back then I couldn’t imagine living here, and I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to.
And now, as the time comes to leave, I am sad to say goodbye to the city that, yes, I have grown to love. A Parisian once asked me whether I agreed that it was the most beautiful city in the world, and I said no. He demanded where was better, defensively (a defensiveness that surprised me a little: as a native of Bury, I’m not really likely to be overcome with the same kind of pride for my town…), and I had to explain that I didn’t know, couldn’t think of anywhere, but was simply certain that there was somewhere. Because there are parts of Paris that are gorgeous and that I love, and yet there are many many parts that are far less than beautiful: they are dirty and grungy and run-down and tired, and some of them make you sad as you think about what they could have been and what they once were, and some of them just make you twitchy and anxious and glad to be away. In other words, Paris isn’t perfect, and anyone who’s seen the many homeless people sleeping on ventilation shafts to keep warm, or the guys on the Pont d’Iéna selling their tourist trinkets and running a mile when they catch a glimpse of a blue flashing light, or been mobbed by a rather suspicious gang of kids, people waving ‘petitions’ or anyone saying “Hello lady”, will know.
In some ways, I’ve got to know Paris pretty well. I have visited every one of its twenty arrondissements, and used almost all of its train stations (the elusive Gare de Bercy escaped me…). I once spent a mad day cycling from home (near the Louvre) to Neuilly (a suburb over to the west/ north-west, past the Bois de Boulogne), back home and then out to Vincennes (a suburb over to the east/ south-east, past the Bois de Vincennes). My Vélib kilometrage (we’re metric here, you know!) is insane, as are the number of lengths I’ve swum in various more-or-less-grim swimming baths, laps I’ve done of a track whose main advantage is that you can see the Eiffel Tower along the back straight, and main disadvantages are a) that it’s miles from where I live and where I work (an achievement since the two are nowhere near one another) b) that there is no ladies’ changing rooms, and the male rugby players indiscriminately use both the mens’ and ladies’ toilets and c) that the track itself is not flat, rather squishy and prone to freezing over…, and miles I’ve walked in possibly the wrong direction.
The thing is, this is a big city, and a city full of surprises. Even on this, my last day here, I found new things that I’d never seen, or never noticed, before. It’s the kind of place where you could live for ten years and there’d still be statues that you’d never seen, squares that you’ve never stumbled across, museums that you’ve never visited and bars that you’ve never eaten in. As a foreigner, here for a limited time, I have a funny attitude to this city: crossing it is no problem, because even a forty minute cycle ride is nothing compared to the 500 miles that separate me from home, and that soon will separate me from here. But it’s a question of balance, too, because I remember a holiday with my parents, years ago, when the place de la Bastille was a long excursion out. At one point this year, I was heading there every day.
Saying goodbyes isn’t exactly something I enjoy, but somehow final things feel a little easier when you know that they really are final. You can prepare, write a thank-you card, savour the moment, take a photograph. I had plenty of those this week, but there were also too many things that slipped away without me noticing. I headed home, tired, damp (yes, it decided to rain on my last day!) and almost too weary to pull myself up the five flights of stairs (but to be honest, I’ve thought that every day since I arrived here!), and yet not quite ready not to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle one last time. I will no doubt come back, of course, but it will be different. I will be different, the city will be different: it has changed even as I have been here. And I will be one of those boring people who talks about “when I lived here as a student”. Heaven forbid.
But that’s enough for now: I have packing to do, and a train to catch. One last thought: it ended with a cake called pudding.