(posted by Mike, who has been up since 4:00 this morning and is therefore feeling a bit jet-lagged, even though the time difference was only an hour, and who is aware that what follows might consequently be a rambling, spaced-out jumble of a piece, but – since time is so tight in his newly acquired eurotrash-business-jetset lifestyle – is also keenly aware that it’s this or nothing, and that he can’t leave everything to his actually quite scarily talented guest posters, and oh God, he’s rambling already, OK, focus…)
1. This is bewildering.
Pitched into an unfamiliar (dare I say alien?) environment, where all life’s little details feel somehow other, one’s capacity for making the wrong choices increases exponentially. On difficult days, my expectations will shrink back to that classic, irreducible, middle-class English ideal: to get safely from one end of the day to the other without suffering any noticeable embarrassment along the way.
During my first week in Paris, this proved impossible. I pushed doors marked tirez, and pulled doors marked poussez. I caused bottlenecks in front of crowded Métro barriers, frantically scrabbling through my satchel for that sad little placcie bag containing my carnet of tickets. Given a choice of directions, I invariably set off in the wrong one. I struggled with suitcases, room keys, breakfast juice dispensers, coffee machines, small change, tables in cafés, plates of unfamiliar food (how the hell are you supposed to eat escargots, and why did I order the bloody things in the first place?), tips, the language (how I hated it when well-meaning Parisians answered my faltering French with grammatically perfect English, always, always, always – humour me, goddammit!) … embarrassment compounded embarrassment, leaving me feeling trapped inside a bad sitcom.
Mr. Bean Goes To Paris. Sometimes, I could almost hear the laugh track. I could even feel myself starting to pull the facial expressions. Behind closed doors, I sometimes did. Hey: got to keep yourself entertained somehow.
2. This is exciting.
Hang on a minute – I’m in freakin’ Paris! Cool as!
Pavement cafés! (Refreshingly free of all that creeping demographic segmentation, with hand-holding teenage couples bunched up next to gnarly old men, and neatly coiffed Madames next to merry groups of homeward bound office workers – every single last one of them smoking of course, but somehow getting away with it, because this is Paris, and this is what you do. Comme il faut, sort of…)
Beautiful manners! (None of that sod-you-mate Brit solipsism in evidence here, thank you…)
Timeless, understated elegance! (Thank God I got that ridiculous it’s-for-a-play-it’s-meant-to-look-stupid Hoxton Twat bleached fin hairdo chopped off in the nick of time…)
Iconic buildings! (Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Centre, Notre Dame, Louvre…)
All those sexy Marais ‘mos a-poutin’ and a-struttin’! (I’d do you, and you, and you, and you…)
Two nights running, I met up with Sarah, who had seen my shout-out on the blog a couple of weeks previously. Up until that point, my existence in Paris had been a steadily de-humanising round of work / eat / read / sleep. Now, I could finally start having proper conversations again. It still took a couple of drinks each night to unfurl my tightly sprung mental coils, but Sarah’s stimulating company gradually eased me back into a more functional, natural engagement with my surroundings.
Towards the end of the second night, I met Sarah’s charming Italian boyfriend, who spoke no English. So there we were, none of us native French speakers, conversing in the one non-native language which we all shared. My first proper French conversation in years. I don’t think I fared too badly, all things considered. The wine helped, of course – as it always does with foreign languages, relaxing you into a state where, the less you consciously try and search for them, the right words will instinctively start to bubble up to the surface of their own accord.
Sitting in the back of the Italian boyfriend’s car, zooming along the Seine embankment past all the illuminated guide-book sights, heading towards the twinkling Eiffel tower (that hourly light show turns out to look much better from a distance), I found myself grinning with glee. Wheeee! I’m zooming through night-time Paris in the back of a car! This is living!
3. This is fantastic.
Commuting to and from the office every day on the Métro with all the other workers, headphones playing Blur’s Think Tank or – best of all – Bowie’s Reality, newspaper on my lap, I started to feel like quite the proper Parisian. No longer the innocent abroad, but a seamless part of the crowd. Striding purposefully across the Port St. Cloud, with the crisp, clear Autumn sunshine lighting up the glass buildings ahead, and all those gorgeous height-of-autumn colours in the trees of the Parc St. Cloud, and on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne behind me. Heading back after an intensive (best behaviour in front of the client!) but surprisingly satisfying day’s work, to the hotel where they know me by name, and the little Internet place over the road, and my favourite local café/bar next door, and those wonderful early morning markets underneath the raised Métro tracks…oh yes, I’m up and running now, and lovin it lovin it lovin it.
4. This is routine.
Almost as soon as you’ve reached Stage 3 – the very next morning, in fact – Stage 4 stumbles up, bleary eyed, and clobbers you round the back of the head. In a trice, the thrill of the new evaporates, leaving you once again with that familiar feeling: same old, same old. After all: routine is routine, wherever you go. Suddenly, you’re back to wanting out.
5. This is enough.
You’re exhausted – okay, so it’s earnt exhaustion, “good” exhaustion – but no less knackering for all that. You feel ground down, fed up, wanting your man back, your home back, your life back. The misery of the shabby, over-familiar satellite lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport is the last straw – especially when you find that the bar’s shut. All your fellow passengers irritate you to distraction. The massed ranks of self-important business wonks are de-briefing into mobiles, with as much manufactured assertiveness as they can muster, all with the same emotionally distanced and faintly absurd vocal patina. There’s a tense Daily Mail type on your right, eyes narrowed and suspicious, muttering her inecessant litany of minor grumbles about absolutely f***ing everything to her silent, defeated looking husband, who looks as if he stopped listening years ago. You can’t get home quick enough.
On the plane, you put REM’s Bad Day on repeat, and crank it up nice and loud. When was the last time you kept hammering the same song over and over, because it gave you that “Yes! This is ME!” feeling? Pissed-off music for grown-ups. Bloody marvellous. Sipping your G&T from the trolley, you revel in your misery. In fact, you positively celebrate it. Dinner’s waiting when you get home. As you start planning your comic monologue, a wry smile creeps over your face.
I’ve not been in Paris this week. I’ve been in Cologne instead. Meaning a whole new set of unfamiliarities, of course – but somehow, I’m becoming familiar with the very state of unfamiliarity itself. If that makes any sense at all. (I can’t tell anymore; it’s getting on, I feel even more f***ed than I did when I started.) I’m beginning to sense that – for now at least, until even the familiarity of the unfamiliar ossifies into dull routine, as it surely must – this is actually doing me the power of good.