Winter has set in, Paris is freezing. Each day as I make my way to the Sorbonne, my fingers threaten to fall off- finally, as the weather really sets in and following the first night of snow, I find some really awful fingerless gloves in a souvenir shop full of berets and tea towels. The trees are bare and the sky is grey as it looms threatening from above- will it snow again, I wonder? My book bag is heavy and I’m not sure that my brain can take one more piece of information.
The French are both brutal and methodical in the way in which they teach- the complete opposite of my education in Australia. The days leading into the final exams are spent in the classroom with more new articles, prepositions and subjunctives to learn and understand, and our exams are imminent with just days remaining in the Autumn semester and so much revision to complete. How will I ever pass? I question my ability to even sit through the three hour exam, let alone remember anything in those precious moments when it will really count. I’m conjugating verbs in my sleep and when I wake, I make coffee in the present, past and future tenses. My morning walk to school is made up of conversations with myself (out loud) and finished off with enjoyable interludes in French with café staff along the way. My heart is breaking for the homeless as they do anything in their power to keep warm.
One morning, the tallest man in Paris throws open the shutters on a beautiful building that I have used as a marker to ‘turn right’ up to Boulevard Raspail for the past three months. His dining room is grand with a domed ceiling hand painted in a style to rival the work of Chagall at l’Opera Garnier. I want to go in and explore his apartment, one of millions in Paris that span seemingly square kilometres in size, and that would no doubt hold more than a decent handful of secrets. He smiles and shouts ‘Bonjour’ as I walk by, my eyes transfixed on his ceiling.
Nibbling on a croissant moments later, I duck as a pigeon swoops me and when I look up, an old woman chuckles heartily, it wasn’t a pigeon, rather, her pillowcase has dropped out the window – ‘I thought it was a pigeon’ I laugh, as I throw her pillow slip back up to her, she’s still unable to speak, having found my duck for cover across the footpath obviously quite funny. She catches her pillowcase as it becomes snagged on a pot plant hanging precariously from her balcony- ‘bravo,’ I smile back to her. Next, I make my way past the two guys who whisper ‘Madame’ at me every morning, paper cup outstretched. Only days before, I watch an old woman walking her dog slip one of the men a ten euro note- in that moment I felt as though I’d learnt something very important.
The written exam passes and I feel momentarily relieved. A long lunch with my classmates follows and we are so happy as we sip champagne at Café Marly overlooking the Louvre courtyard. History is abundant in these parts, and we don’t even register as a speck on the horizon when it comes to weighing up those who have been here before us. Nevertheless, in that moment I feel a little bit French, so much that I consider getting a beret tattooed onto to each eyelid.
Days later, I enter a classroom at the Sorbonne and make a presentation in French about a family playing Monopoly with their grandparents. Whilst this doesn’t sound like rocket science (and trust me, I know it), I am so determined to get all the tenses right and not forget a thing and, until the moment when I first see the photo I have no idea what the subject matter will be. Half an hour later I’m triumphant as I walk out the doors of the Sorbonne one last time, my pen lids are chewed within an inch of their lives.
I experience a feeling of freedom that I haven’t felt for months.
The Chinese girls who I have befriended at their nail parlour on the banks of the Seine make me coffee and quiz me on my exams later that afternoon. The boss is in skinny jeans (as always) and her stomach leans down towards her knees and the waistband of her hooded jumper sits high above her waistline. She’s aware of my pending trip to Australia the following morning, and takes it upon herself to boss me around importantly, ‘you need to look happy and bright for Australia, its summer there you know’. The following hour is filled with hysterical conversations had in French with competing Australian and Chinese accents, and to this day I’m still not sure if she wanted me to fix her computer or observe it in its glory, still wrapped in bubble wrap and in the box. I’m sure she said that it was three years old.
The night before I leave, I visit Sasha and his team at the café down the road and enjoy a plate of smoked salmon, before going home to vacuum the floors and clean the apartment. My bag is packed and for the first time in my life, it is under the allocated 30 kilo weight limit.
The following morning I bustle down to the laundromat with two bags full of sheets and towels. It’s early, and the old man who runs the business and rivals Father Christmas in both size and jolly demeanour and, who also drives the smallest car ever made on this earth, doesn’t arrive to open the door at 7am. I shuffle around to Bubbles in Rue de Seine whose opening hours I’d observed the day before, just in case.
Strange Guy, who can normally be found sleeping in a doorway in Rue de Buci with stray cats, and who I haven’t seen for at least three months, is snoring underneath the dryer and another man who sits in the corner has a southern cross tattoo emblazoned across his neck. He’s in Paris from Perth with his wife for their honeymoon, and he nods on when I advise that this sight is not unusual.
It’s still dark when I leave for the laundromat, and I place a heart shaped chocolate tin full of Maxims chocolates on Nadine’s stairs with a note letting her know that I’m going home for a month but I hope she and her son Jerome have a wonderful Christmas together. When I return an hour later, my bags laden with clean sheets and folded towels, she is waiting for me, making me promise that I’ll return to Paris in February. Do I need anything, she wonders before offering to buy me a printer for my book. I tell her that all is well and that I have everything that I need- I’m just so grateful for her kindness. She tells me that the feeling is mutual, before I thunder down the stairs with my suitcase and a basket chasing me from behind, and she dashes off, making me promise that I’ll wait for her, ‘just ten minutes’ she tells me. As I load up the taxi and ask the driver to wait, Nadine comes flying around the corner, her perfectly coiffed bob and normally straight fringe now parted after a dash to the bottle shop. A beautiful bottle of Bollinger is slid into my hand luggage, and she blows me kisses as I drive away, ‘you must send me a postcard’ she cry’s as I head off into the distance.
The taxi driver has twelve siblings and wonders why I haven’t got a husband, or even a boyfriend? I explain that his guess is as good as mine, but I’m heading home for Christmas to meet my nephews and have a reunion with my family and friends. As we wheel into Charles de Gaulle he hands me his number, advising that we must enjoy a coffee together when I return in February.
Suddenly I’m in the departure lounge, reflecting on my final week in Paris.
It was hectic and hilarious and the perfect seal to one of many chapters of the most wonderful experiment I could have ever embarked on. I’m dreaming in French, stumbling for answers in French but in those final days, I feel one step closer to understanding most things in a language that I have struggled with but am beginning to feel the tiniest bit more at ease with. For now, I have waved goodbye to the maître d’s in Rue de Buci, the musicians in the street, the Chinese couple in the Tabac- ‘passe de bonnes fêtes en famille’ Madame smiled as I finished my last espresso for 2017. As I loaded the taxi, I gave a fleeting smile to the old woman with swollen ankles spilling into Mary Janes who walks two of the fattest dogs outside my door each morning, before sailing across the périphérique to Charles de Gaulle.
This is for Mum and Dad, James and Johnny, Willy, Alby, CC, Edwina, Soph, Jack, Tim and Nick and each and every one of my wonderful friends. It’s a special time of year and for the first time in a long time we are all together at Christmas – I feel so grateful for the sounds of the birds, the open Australian sky and the swaying of the gumtrees.
Happy new year to you all – my friends in Australia, France and the rest of the world. Here’s to a happy and peaceful 2018 and thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading and for your support in 2017.
Pictured: yours truly captured on a walk with Mum along the most beautiful coastline in the world.