Just shy of a fifteen day French fortnight, I count the fourteenth morning I’ve sat at my desk and gazed and glared across Nanterre from my window, silently sipping my Earl Grey, humbly indebted to my seven-euro kettle. This week has buzzed with banks and bureaucracy, my mind is numb, though now it’s done and I can settle and nestle deeper into my new den. Living with a family in exchange for minding un petit in the evenings, I have a room and a home. Only burdening me when I let it become a limit rather than a liberty, sometimes reluctant to collect him from school whilst others begin their evenings, it is both work and wonderful. A five year old’s mind, alive and excited by everything, he lives for card games, Cars and Paddington Bear. Evenings entertaining him, if there’s anyone more concerned with their present, it’s the enfant who cares not for tomorrow. He has already forgotten how he lunched, preferring to guess the colours of the cars sweeping past.
The Erasmus welcome week has closed and our courses are starting to begin and I recall some moments. One night we ventured alongside the Quai d’Austerlitz and the Seine’s night light beamed with the buildings. Nights follow a pattern of wandering through streets, emptying bottles and loud chatter, the odd song. Why we stay out so late is to see what happens, where freedom may take us. At half five we sat deposited, surrounded by kebabs and neon lights and I remembered London’s winter nights, where the minutes before the morning metro seemed like hours to our tired eyes and feet. I half expected to see the morning marchands setting up their stalls. Instead, disassembled and empty except for hundreds of oyster shells, salted. We all took a few. Mine now sit on my chevet overflowing with centimes and odd earrings. I woke at seven at la gare routière de la Défense to a kind figure draping his jacket over me. “Tu prends le 258? Je te réveillera”, and he did wake me up.
On Friday, the Erasmus group gathered for du vin et du pain and the fact of our being students in France meant that by the early afternoon, we were all un peu ivre. In a beautiful dusty green notebook bestowed onto me by a lovely Oxonion and a terrific Londoner, I’ve scribbled books to read, films to see and some phrases too, one of them reading “les singes lâchent mangeant du fromage”, the French translation for a Monty Python line, which I recalled to the class, when we were asked to put forward a stereotype of France from our home countries. The weekend saw les journées européennes du patrimoine, a weekend each year when the doors of typically private buildings are opened to the public. We visited le théâtre national de Chaillot. Though a beautiful building, the attraction is the art that happens there and without a trace of performance, the imagination struggles for inspiration. I think of the National Theatre on the South Bank and I see past the concrete that may overbear some and recall sitting in the fifteen pound slip seats, I feel the lump in my throat and my hands tingle from clapping.
On the métro, I look and watch, though I’d just as eagerly read, people are too captivating to not warrant my attention. At Porte Maillot, on the ligne 1 that runs between La Défense and Château de Vincennes, four suits stroll on, iPhones in hand. Vinnie, how’s your dad? – He’s getting a pace maker fitted right now. – Where is it ? – Chicago. – Just under the skin, here. – Where we gettin’ off Phil ? – um, la dayfontz. On the 15:55 RER from Charles de Gaulle Etoile to La Défense, a man with a rose, for a loved one I’d hope, business men with bags under their eyes bigger than those in their fists, clinging on for life it seems. Some crosswords, some phones and long looks at nothing in particular, neither dazed nor confused, simply bored, a look that screams j’en ai marre. I’d like to pause this moment, stand up and hug each one. Instead, I settle for eye contact and the crease of a slow smile, an attempt to reach out to those that will be gone in a second, another stranger in the sea of a hundred. This time last year, a friend of mine moved away and I remember his woe, “everyone who loves me and everyone I love is on the other side of the world”. Though Paris be a stone’s skim away, the point conflicts me from time to time. Then it fades and I remember the minds to know, the hearts to love and the places to be.