Paris. The city of light; the city of love.
It is a city of dreamers, of people who come in their multitudes, each wanting to be the hero or heroine of their own life. Some visit only for a few days, others for much longer. Many never leave. Whether they choose to gaze at the city’s priceless works of art, marvel at its exquisite churches, fall in love on one of its bridges, or simply taste as many patisseries as possible, what all lovers of Paris have in common is a shared appreciation for beauty, romance and sensory pleasure.
I am a self-confessed dreamer, who booked a one-way ticket to Paris with no goal other than to live there, to know it intimately, and to call it home, if only for a little while. I was convinced that the city was in some way magical, and that by living there I would somehow transform my life from ordinary to extraordinary. Even after all this time, its beauty still has the power to take my breath away.
But this city is not all fairytale. Like any big city, it has a rougher, dirtier side to it as well. Scratch the surface and you will find drugs, violence, prostitution and poverty. Paris may be charming, but it is by no means immune to these things.
This morning, Olivier and I woke before dawn. After several wonderful days together, it was time for him to return to work and me to go back to England. Grumpy and bleary eyed, we lugged our bags through the dark streets to the station. On the platform, a homeless man muttered and shouted, turning abusive when someone made the mistake of looking directly at him. We gave him a wide berth. When the train arrived, we discovered that the empty carriage in the middle was empty for a reason; someone had vomited all over the floor.
At 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning, most of the people travelling on the métro are heading home to sleep, rather than on their way to work. We were joined at the next station by a group of people clearly on their way home from a big night out. I tried not to stare at the girl sitting opposite me, who was wearing platform trainers, black and gold jodhpurs, a cream lace cardigan and a bobble hat. Long hair extensions, enormous hoop earrings and thick, hipster glasses completed the look. The outfit was bizarre, but her face was young, round and sweet-looking. She seemed to be trying very hard not to cry. Her friend, eyes as wide as saucers, slumped on his seat, completely out of it.
By the time we arrived at Gare du Nord, I was in a foul mood and determined to find fault with everything. We found a cafe and Olivier bought us a coffee and croissant each. I watched as the man behind the counter bypassed the shining row of fresh pastries prominently displayed on the top shelf and hastily shoved two greying croissants into a paper bag. Olivier didn’t notice, and I was too tired to say anything.
A minute later, I fished one of the croissants out of the bag and bit into it.
“What’s the matter?” Olivier asked.
“He gave us yesterday’s croissants. I knew it. I saw him do it as well. He went straight past the fresh ones and sold us two which should have gone in the bin. Why the hell didn’t I say something?”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” he said.
“No, really, it is,” I insisted. “It tastes like a brick. I can’t believe I watched him do it and didn’t say anything. I should have said something. I’m really annoyed with myself.”
Olivier sighed and reached for his wallet. “Look, I’m too tired to go and argue about it. Here, go and buy another one, and ask for a fresh one.”
“No!” I protested. “I don’t want to give him any more custom. He doesn’t deserve it!”
I took a sip of my coffee and winced.
“And that’s another thing,” I continued, getting into my stride. “This coffee tastes awful. Why can’t anywhere in Paris make a decent cup of coffee?”
“It’s only a station cafe…”
“That’s not the point. Every major station in England has a Starbucks or a Costa or a Nero. They might be big bad corporations, but at least you know what you’re getting, which is a decent-sized cup of proper coffee. Not a stupid little plastic cup of eau de merde. Anyway, it’s not just stations. Nowhere really does coffee properly in Paris. Even in nice cafes where the coffee tastes alright, it comes in a tiny little cup and costs a fortune. That’s why I still go to Starbucks when I’m in Paris. I’d rather not, but that’s just the way it is.”
Olivier laughed and made a funny face. “Come onnnn! Don’t be silly!”
“I can’t help it, I’m in a bad mood. I’m tired and I want a proper coffee and I don’t want to say goodbye to you and I have a big spot coming up on my face!”
He peered at me. “I can’t see anything.”
“Yes I do, look at this big red lump!” I said, pointing.
“No,” he said. “You’re imagining it. It’s… how do you say… it’s all on your head.”
“I know it’s on my bloody head! It’s right in the middle of my bloody forehead!” I exploded, starting to laugh, despite myself. (I knew he meant to say “it’s all in your head”, but I couldn’t resist taking it literally.)
He laughed and gave me a hug. “Come on,” he said. “Time to catch the train.”
Half an hour later, after we had said goodbye and gone our separate ways, I stood outside another station in the pouring rain, bitterly regretting my decision to wear the canvas shoes with holes in the soles. But despite the rain, my lack of sleep and the awful croissant, and despite the fact that I hate saying goodbye to Olivier, I felt a little better.
Paris is not magical. It is real and alive and imperfect. But it has given me many things, including a boy who loves me despite my flaws, and who knows how to lift me out of even my blackest mood and make me see the funny side.
I was serious about the coffee, though. If anybody knows somewhere that does really good coffee in Paris, please let me know!