Soaring over clouds, what feels like floating, the mass of La Manche lies below, fluttering and distorted by clouds’ shadows, ships like rippling waves in a sea of smeared clay. And there’s Normandy, we’re just about to fly over Caen, bonjour l’hexagone! The clouds play with minds, first you see their dark shadows cast upon the sea and the searching eye must struggle to find its source, dusty vapour a few hundred meters above, a pocket of moisture motionless as it would seem, making his way from land to land across miles of sea, to disperse and reassemble, reminding me of Wells’ mingling clouds. As we fly over sea to land, the atmosphere fluctuates and marshmallows and candyfloss transform into a white blanket of sleeping sheep. Further inland, the clouds become course like mountain tops before they calm and the sheep and the peaks flatten into an arctic plain. If it wasn’t for the sun’s warmth and comfort sweeping across, I’d suppose this was the white wasteland that Dr. Frankenstein fled across. As we descend through the clouds I wonder if I’ll see Rupert the bear frequenting the pirates of the clouds?
From Charles de Gaulle airport, I travelled nervously and parched with the discomfort of incertitude to Chatelet les Halles. I arrived at my new home on the hill of Nanterre about eight miles West of Paris. Thanks to Lorant Deutsch, I have learnt that deep below Nanterre lie the remains of Lutèce, that is to say the romo-gaulic Paris of two thousand years ago, 52 AD to be more precise. Lutèce is the French form of the Latin Lucotecia. L’ile de la cite is the islet on which Notre Dame stands today, and it was on this small island that the romo-gaulic city lay. Surrounded by uninhabitable marshland and bogs, the city found its name: Latin lutum meaning mud and the gaulic luto meaning marshland. In 2003, the A86 was constructed around Paris. During its creation, excavations of land found remains of Lutèce under Nanterre: remains of streets, graves, doors and wells were uncovered. Isn’t it amazing to think that in two thousand years, the land has changed its shape causing the river Seine and the l’ile de la cite to have traversed eight miles to the east! If you go to the eastern end of l’ile de St Louis and descend the stairs seven meters, you’ll stand at the level at which the people of Lutèce would have stood.
Mais revenons à nos moutons! The day after my arrival I headed to Seint-Denis where I’ll study for the next year. Situated about six miles north of Montmartre just outside the périphérique, Seint-Denis-Vincennes Université seemed a bit prison-esque. The semi-constructed buildings, the grey and metallic interior, the security guards dotted around the doors, the toilets without doors and the hundreds of queuing students were a huge deterrent to my being there. A few hours of questions and confusion later, I had made no progress and went home feeling defeated. I went back the next day and it ran much more smoothly: the ERASMUS groups had their own agenda and didn’t need to take part in this queuing malarkey. Before the proper university courses begin, we have two weeks of courses where we learn an overview of French literature, Paris life and all things français. The ambiance is inspiring. All the ERASMUS students chat in French, which is a huge relief as many said an international city like Paris would buzz with anglicisms and English. Hélas! We speak French and it’s sometimes slow and our accents may obstruct meaning but it works. And the teachers? Passionate and inspiring. Not wanting to be too harsh on my home university, but these professeurs want to be there and its obvious. My favourite lesson was with une professeure of French literature. She spoke about where in the world French is spoken and how it’s lead to diversity in how people look and where they’ve come from. It reminded me of Wells again, “human races separate, mingle and reunite as clouds do … they do not branch out like trees with branches that never come together again, it is a thing we need to bear constantly in mind, this remingling of races at any opportunity. It will save us from many cruel delusions and prejudices if we do so! All European nations are confused mixtures of brownish-dark-white, white and Mongolian elements”. To talk about nationality and people, we’re all the same. Look back into ancestry and we have come from all over the world, before today’s French, they were Gauls, Romans, Celts.
Alors, je radote. By the Friday I was ready to explore Paris. We hadn’t any lessons so I took off à pied. I walked for sometime and I knew I was looking for Amélie’s Paris. It doesn’t exist here, nor in Montmartre. If you have seen Amélie, you’ll have an image in your mind of what Paris would be like. I don’t mean to be negative, it’s not that her fairy tale world is fake, it’s just that I choose to acknowledge it as something intangible, a metaphor. She lives in a whirlwind of accordions, vélos and imagination. Although it’s an attractive lifestyle to obtain, it’s a mistake to search for it. In The most beautiful walk in the world, John Baxter writes “the city (Paris) exists as a blank page on which each person scribbles what the French call a griffe (a graffiti tag)”. He supports this idea that Hemingway had his Paris and in the same way, I understand that Amélie had hers and I will have mine. On Friday I saw what my Paris might be. Walking through la place des Vosges, I saw it twice. Firstly, I met a loud cavern of claustrophobia, lingering smoke and heat. I looked again, persevering and I saw more. Côté pile, the sun beaconed onto the lawn in the square and it showed me laughing people, guitars on the grass, bustling bodies and the buildings, the home of Victor Hugo, watching over the passers by.
As I walked I made notes of places where I’d like to return. Just after le Pont de Sully on the northern side of the river, after descending a staircase onto the riverside, I found a terrace tucked away – completely empty and peaceful and beautiful. The cobbled floor dressed in an array of fading leaves, soon to be replaced by their lively autumnal siblings. A man wandered peacefully and pacing in nothing but flipflops and a speedo, very slowly and casually. This was his Paris, I thought, giving no shits as to what passers by thought of him, this flâneur presque nu. At least, he might be happy. In the Square Barye at the furthest point of l’ile de St Louis, a small jardin is host to eight passers by. With a view over the East of Paris, people rest and the water dances singingly so under the sun. We stand in a microcosm of peace. On the sides of the bank cars brake wrenchingly and boats busy along the water. This may be the stillest part of Paris, surrounded by this life and chaos, this is like its mind, where painters and readers come to be. Wandering on, I reach le Pont de Sully, a bridge decked with maybe five thousand padlocks, linking la rive avec Notre-Dame. From la quai de la tournelle the waterside walkway I look up at the bridge and beyond. Paris surrounds me and I sit in its gut, the bells of Notre-Dame sound and Paris’s heart beats. As I wander and sit, a few conversations are had, a few smiles exchanged, who said Parisians weren’t friendly? Who are Parisians? They’re students from all over France and the world, they’re workers and businessmen and travellers – a Parisian is a person and a city is a variety of people. Sitting I burned for winter’s arrival, the summer is lethargic and peaceful but winter is exciting, with a chill you’re awake and it’s like a drug. Walking along les quais and banks, marchands sell a bit of tat and lots of books, Jules Verne €3 Paris au XXe siècle – don’t mind if I do, let’s learn about his Paris too!
I walk north towards le canal de St Martin, this area around République and la gare de l’Est seems like the Shoreditch of Paris with its world-food frenzies and boutiques. I sat down in a café by the metro de Jacques Bonsergent and I feel like I’m on the edge of something good. Around the corner of le rue de lancry, people flood past, each a potential creative and interesting mind. I see a girl whose bag wears hundreds of triforce pieces. I wonder if she is a real Zelda fan or simply loves the pattern, does she know the responsibility she carries on her back? I wake up ready to explore. There’s much to do, to read, to learn and to hear. Twiddling my brow as I do when my mind wanders, I think to cows and yurts of a summer passed before remembering that this is now. In my mind I hear Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “j’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaître”. On commence ici, non?