Missing Home when your Home is Missing

In the months before I came to Paris, each every-day experience was punctuated by thoughts of “I can’t do this in Paris!” or “I’m going to miss this sooo much”. I’m pretty sure it drove my friends and family insane. Quite often my exclamations would be met by: “you’ll be having so much fun you won’t even notice the lack of vegetarian burgers/proper West country cider/imaginative coin shapes”, or: “oh but in Paris, there’s [insert Other Thing which is nothing like English Thing]!”

Of course, there is never an easy substitution for those things which we hold so dear in our hearts, but that the French just don’t get (like the idea that vegetarians can have other things in sandwiches besides just cheese, or that spitting in the street is always disgusting and never okay).

Once I got to Paris, the list grew slightly, and I found myself missing things I hadn’t expected – having a one-stop shop for all your cosmetic needs (Boots, I love and miss you), always having housemates/siblings/pets to bother when you’re bored, or even just simply living in more than one room. In those early days, riddled by homesickness, it really is the smallest things that hit you hardest. I found myself suddenly overjoyed when spotting a British license plate on a car. I still can’t quite explain why it made me so excited, but that little glimpse of such an everyday detail, easily decipherable compared to the tangled mess of letters and digits on the French plates, instantly brought me back home.

But, without even realising, these things began to matter less to me, and the alternatives – despite not being perfect substitutions – became entirely acceptable. Who needs veggie burgers when you’ve got falafel? Okay, so there’s no proper vintage cheddar, but COMTÉ! [As you can tell, many of the things that characterised my England/Paris dichotomy were edible.]

Over the past month or so, however, I’ve noticed myself going through this process in reverse. Whilst one part of my body sings in joy at the prospect of once more sitting in a real English pub, another part is secretly thinking: but where will I get cheesy crepes for the walk home? When I’m back in that beer garden, I can’t help but think sure, I can see Canterbury Cathedral, but where’s the Eiffel Tower? At least give me the roof of the Panthéon, come on.

In the past ten months, my everyday life has been pulled from its roots, shuffled around a bit, and finally re-settled in this new city. There are new details that make it feel familiar, almost homely. Now, when I see a British license plate, I think of tourists, not home. I catch myself thinking of conversations in French. On my last trip to the UK, I had to suppress the urge to greet the cashier of every shop I entered. I still wouldn’t say I’m entirely settled here, which is probably because I always knew it would be temporary. But I’ve realised that the physical setting almost doesn’t matter, as long as you can find a few things that will comfort you.

It’s a very odd feeling, realising that Home is slipping away from you. Not the concept, of course: if I’m surrounded by my parents, my siblings (and their extensions) and all of my pets, you better believe that I’m at Home. But if there’s one thing I can take away from this year, it’s that Home doesn’t have to be a place. It doesn’t even have to stay the same. If you can accept that the world changes around you and the only constant is how you, yourself, relate to it, then home can be just about anywhere. For me, it’s with my family, my cats and of course, the perfect veggie burger.

Closing remarks

Travelling is a skill. It is something which must be practised and refined although it is probably never quite perfect. There will always be museums you miss, or free shows you don’t know about until they’ve already happened, and countless delicacies you never quite get round to tasting. It is impossible to do everything, and I find that this is especially true in Paris.

In a little under a week, I will be leaving Paris, and returning to Blighty. I always knew this day was coming, but as it suddenly leaps into the path in front of me, I’ve become increasingly reflective (no, not like a high vis jacket).

During this year I have learnt and discovered and realised so  many things about the world and my place within it. But whenever I’ve tried to start this blog, I find myself churning out horrific and hyperbolic Erasmus clichés: “It’s been the best time of my life”, “I’ve loved every minute”, “It was the best thing I have ever done”. Back in September, I believed that all these (and more) were possible. Now, however, I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong: I have definitely enjoyed this year. But I cannot deny the fact that whilst it was certainly a time in my life, and I truly did love certain, specific minutes, there have also been minutes where I have felt so overwhelmed by a nausea of homesickness and loneliness, wishing desperately that I could teleport back to safe, comfortable England, never to leave Ol’ Britannia again. As for the best thing I have ever done – I hope not. It’s certainly up there in the top five, but I never top this I’ll be pretty disappointed.

‘Erasmus’ seems to conjure up mad images in people’s heads, of tipsy sunrises and insanely colourful parades; the kind of stuff that pollutes tumblr tags and saturates your instagram feed. In reality, life here has been largely ordinary, with a few choice peaks of tumblr-worthy material. I won’t bore you with the details of either, but one of the main things I’ve realised this year is that the fairy tale, whilst wonderful to lose oneself in, can’t really spill into everyday life. Yes, some days you see incredible stained glass windows and take selfies in front of medieval churches, but there are also plenty of days when you have to do your laundry and wait in all afternoon for the repairman and go to the supermarket. Those in the latter are constants, whether you’re in Peterborough or Paris.

Like I said at the beginning: travelling is a skill. But it’s also a tool, which can be wielded with great effect, or with very little, depending on your style. It’s a tool for enabling confidence, in order to become as pretentious as possible (à la Sybil Fawlty: “Pretentious? Moi?”). But crucially, it is a tool for development. To soak up your surroundings, to process les environs effectively, and to come out a better person for it. For introspection, via extrospection. Like almost all things, travelling is what you make of it.

To finish, I choose a single cliché, but one that I find wholly justifiable: I would not be the same today if I had not done my Erasmus year.

Au revoir, Paris.

Tips for a Post-Christmas Parisian Winter

As I write this blog, I am hugging a mug of tea against myself, and counting the minutes until I can justify turning the heating back on. The rain is attacking my single-glazed windows with their poorly insulated frames, and I am contemplating putting on a second jumper. This, ladies and gentleman, is a Parisian winter.

As a lifelong resident of the UK (until last September, at least) I am used to the wind and rain that accompanies winter (and spring, and autumn, and summer). When I was younger, I used to love the rain. My parents called me a water baby, and any time rain clouds started to gather, I prepared to run outside as soon as the first drop arrived. But, at some point in one’s life, dancing in the rain becomes unacceptable, so we have to find coping mechanisms (and other ways to expend energy).

Anyone who has ever visited Paris between November and March knows that it can be an exceptionally bleak time. Leading up to Christmas, gaudy decorations and flashing lights do their best to brighten the place up. But in January, it’s a different story. The grey pavements reflect the white sky, and the beige buildings surround you on all sides.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite socially acceptable to hide at home all winter. So, one must find ways to enjoy the city, whatever the weather! Here are my tips for surviving a Parisian winter.

1. Prepare yourself.

With the Paris soldes in full swing (they started on 8th of January, and will finish on the 11th of February) now is the time to invest in that perfect winter coat. Mine is from Zara, and my friend Thérèse tries it on every time she comes round. I’m almost sure it’s the only reason she’s friends with me. I will lament the day when it is too warm to wear my coat: it makes me feel like a true Parisienne, and therefore was worth every single penny.

Also, don’t be afraid to spend a bit extra on an umbrella. Those €5 brollies from the street vendors may look incredibly attractive when your hair is dripping and your whole body is shivering, but they WILL break, usually within about five minutes, and you don’t want to be caught out in front of a crowd of camera-wielding tourists like this poor couple.

Umbrella couple

2. Take advantage

Those attractions which are normally bulging at the seams with tourists are now relatively tourist-free. For an example, I spent last Friday at Versailles. When I first visited the château in June 2013, the combination of stifling heat and a conveyor belt of tourists transporting you through the house made for an overwhelming and frustrating trip. In January, however, the place was near deserted. We didn’t have to queue at all (compared to the 45 minutes I spent in June) and we could stand in wonder in each room for as long as our hearts desired. Plus, the obligatory hall-of-mirrors selfie had far fewer awkward loiterers in the background.

Now is the perfect time to take that picture you’ve been desperate for since you got here – maybe holding the tip of the Pyramide du Louvre between your fingers, or looking pensive on a bridge. Snap it now, because the tourists will soon return.

3. Change your perspective.

The tourist-less places and rues mean that you can take a clearer, wider look at things.  I’ve never seen Place de la République as glorious as last week, when the Lady Marianne of the Republic held her head high despite the rain on her Phrygian crown. The redeeming feature of those grey pavements is that their shining clean surfaces (as ensured by the cleaning trucks assaulting Paris’ streets every morning) reflect beautifully in the rain. It’s the only chance you’ll ever get to see all your favourite monuments twice.

Statue of the République

Marianne, Lady of the République, holding her own in the rain.

What are your top tips for winter in Paris? Let me know in the comments!

Pere-Lachaise

Nobody does death quite like the French.

On Friday, I found myself in Place de la Nation fulfilling a frustrating administrative task. So, to console myself, I decided to walk home via the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Perhaps this sounds odd, that I intended to improve my mood by walking amongst the dead. Still, those who are familiar with off-the-beaten-path-Paris will know that many of the city’s greatest sights involve death – or at least, dead people.

If it’s not Père-Lachaise Cemetery, it’s Montparnasse Cemetery or Montmartre Cemetery. Maybe even a visit to les grands hommes who rest in the Panthéon. Then there’s the catacombs, for the brave visitors who dare to cross the threshold which warns: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort!” (“Stop! Here is the empire of Death!”). Here, you’ll find winding paths, an underground city complete with road names, each street lined with the skeletal remains of over six million people.

Creepy stuff, sure. But that day, I felt drawn to Père-Lachaise. Entering the grounds, I felt a serene sense of calm descend over me. The roaring din and honks of Parisian traffic faded, and I was surrounded by cool stone and leafless trees. I paid visits to all the famous locals. I was approached by an excited man with long, unbrushed hair, who told me in a strange Franglish who I should visit, and instructed me to take a photo of his map with my appareil photo.

Père-Lachaise map

I spent two hours or so amongst the graves, contemplating to my heart’s content. After some time, I noticed that the roads radiating from the crematorium were lined with cars. As I saw the crowds, I realised: there was a funeral today. I walked hurriedly in the opposite direction, only to see a girl about my age, standing in front of a grave I probably would have walked past, clutching flowers and murmuring softly, her glistening eyes reflecting the January sunlight. I stopped, not wishing to impose myself on her moment of grief, and turned to a grave close by, examining its letters in detail, but not really reading them. Suddenly, the place had transformed – it was no longer an opportunity to be closer to Oscar Wilde or Isadora Duncan or Frederic Chopin than I had ever been before, but a place of mourning. A place where dead people rest.

Then, I thought of respect. We tend to think of respect as solemnly and dutifully extolling the numerous virtues of the deceased, of lamenting their loss for a day of black clothing, and then not daring to mention their name for the rest of our years. Many argue that opening up cemeteries as tourist attractions is distasteful and disrespectful, but I believe it’s just another opportunity to show respect. Although Oscar Wilde’s tomb, one of the more ‘popular’ in Père-Lachaise, has had to be fenced in with glass panes to stop his adoring fans from causing damage, many people do come simply to ‘pay their respects’. In fact, the most disrespectful behaviour I witnessed came from this cat, who many might argue could not have known better.

grave cat

I suspect he could have, but simply chose not to.

Since arriving in Paris in September, I’ve come to realise that British and French cultures towards death are very different. In Britain, we prefer to honour the dead solemnly, with statues and memorial services and hushed words. In France, it seems that they celebrate the dead. Their tombstones are not grey and simple, hidden away behind churches. They are marble, they are ornate, they are often gaudy (to my tastes). But they are respectful.

Denial is not a step on the path to respect. However, celebration, exhibition, and, yes, gaudy celebrations, are very good stepping stones along the way.

 

Nuit Blanche – Republique Fog

Taken on Nuit Blanche in Paris.

Taken on Nuit Blanche in Paris. Nuit Blanche is an annual cultural event where galleries and studios open their doors, churches let the artists in, and installations are set up all over Paris. In this one, a giant fog machine pushes Place de la République into a cloud, with eerie shapes emerging from the opaque white. Walking through this felt incredible, a thin mist of water obscuring your vision, people appearing in front of you then disappearing again in a few more steps. Very weird. Very cool.

Paris Essentials

There are some things that you just can’t leave behind when you move anywhere. The following three things are, in my opinion, absolutely essential for a successful stay in Paris.

  • An umbrella. Life doesn’t stop for rain here. The tourists will still be queuing for bell towers, people will steal be eating outside restaurants (albeit with a transparent marquee that seems to appear from nowhere around their tables) and Parisians will still be walking. It’s time to embrace umbrella chic. I favour a big transparent bubble umbrella, but as long as you didn’t buy it from a kiosque for €5 (sounds like a great idea now, but it WILL break in the next ten minutes) almost anything goes – after all, everyone else is staring at the floor, hoping the weather won’t ruin their Louboutins!
  • A stern resting face. When I moved to Paris, I discovered a terrible habit I never even knew I had: making eye contact with almost every person I pass on the street. Aside from making you look a bit weird, this can also attract unwanted attention, and in Paris, that must be avoided beyond all cost. Adopt a stern resting face à la Tavi Gevinson and if anyone still tries to approach you, just intensify it.
  • Shoes that won’t give you blisters. I do a lot of walking in Paris, and after a week here, my feet were torn to goodness. Spend a little bit of money on some good-quality, well-fitting shoes, and make sure you wear them in. Then, nothing can stop you from indulging in some flânerie!

What’s made it onto your Parisian essentials list? Let me know!

The Struggling Flaneuse

“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

― Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays

The flâneur is a shameless wanderer. A person who is comfortable passing through a cityscape at their own pace, with no need to hurry in accordance with the wills of others. To explore without purpose. Paris is a city built on flânerie, on chance encounters and unexpected moments. With so many treasures in such a compact space, you can’t help but be pulled into the folds of the city’s streets.

When I first heard of the flâneur, I thought (in that special way only teenagers can think): “Finally! A word that describes me!” And that was the case for a very long time. Trips to London, Cambridge, my move to Canterbury, were all full of aimless wandering, happening upon hidden treasures and new favourites by chance.

However, since moving to Paris, the home of the flâneur, I find myself less and less able to wander in that same way. Maybe I’m intimidated by the huge, tall buildings, begging you to discover their secrets, the plaques and clues to the history within. This is the city where the flâneur was born, and I can’t quite live up to that legacy.

Another factor is the fear. Or, if I was being supremely existential, the Fear. I have a place to live in Paris (thank God) but I don’t have a home. Not yet. I don’t know these streets, and if I suddenly had to break flâneuse character to escape a difficult situation, I wouldn’t know how to.

I’ve found the key to successful wandering for me is a structure. To know the places where I should ‘check in’: a shop, a statue, a restaurant. Then the spaces in between are open for flânerie!

Maybe some day I will be able to be a true flâneuse, wandering freely with no need to stop and check the street name every few metres. But I doubt I will ever go without my trusty map book (you know, just in case).

What’s your favourite way to explore Paris? Do you plan it all out, or just go where the city takes you? Let me know in the comments!

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