As like many other Britons, France was one of the first countries I ever went to abroad, since crossing the channel is not a time consuming affair. But despite doing five years of French language at school and walking away with a B in GCSE French, I somehow hadn’t mustered any kind of affection for the place, even though my surname is French since my father’s family fled France during the revolution and settled in Scotland. Maybe I didn’t “j’adore” France because it’s been so closely integrated in British upbringing (as has the long standing sporting rivalry with our world war ally), and therefore couldn’t appreciate the contribution the French had on my daily life. I’d been to Paris twice on school trips in 2010 and 2012, my excitement fuelled by the media and one too many a romance novel. Whatever I was expecting, I didn’t get on those trips and I was bitterly disappointed with Paris and made no rush to immediately return.
However, after 2.5 weeks of travelling all over England with my American pal Madison (who visited me before going to Paris to study abroad for 5 weeks), I found myself being roped in to giving Paris a third chance. Madison loves France, and had studied in Strasbourg for a semester in 2015. She asked me to visit her on the weekend of Bastille Day and because tomorrow is never guaranteed, I was at the departures entrance of Birmingham airport on Friday 15th July 2016, 2.5 weeks after a tearful goodbye with Madison at Dollis Hill underground station in London. I’d opted to fly rather than have my first solo experience of the eurostar, because a flight was significantly cheaper. However, the price was the last thing on my mind when I awoke to messages telling me to check the news immediately. A terrorist attack had occurred in Nice whilst people were celebrating Bastille Day. Another devastating tragedy for France, as photos showed a country in mourning. It was news you don’t want to hear when you’re about to travel to the country that has been attacked, and it showed as my inbox flooded with messages to be ‘extra vigilant’ and to ‘stay safe.’ Fortunately, the flight to Paris was quick, but I immediately regretted layering up, for I was really sweating when I touched down at Charles De Gaulle airport. After some initial panicking and asking lots of people for help, I finally had a route and a metro ticket to my hotel. My anxiety settled when some locals helped me find my way and I could finally relax.
Madison was unable to meet me for a few hours as she was obliged to have dinner with her host family. I killed time with reading and social media. I made a short venture to an computer shop to buy a new adaptor as I’d mistakenly brought an American one with me. I bought a domino’s pizza for dinner because I wanted to have something I could finish quickly before Madison messaged me with a meeting place. We met at the stop Place de Clichy and I was concentrating so hard on not getting lost that I didn’t even see her when I stepped off the train and she shouted my name. We hugged and headed to the Sacre Coeur for an amazing view of Paris from the steps. The downside was that the area was known for pick pockets and I was grabbed a few times by men trying to sell crap to you. Madison saved me by stepping in and pulling me away and I grateful that I wasn’t alone. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t slightly frightened by the ordeal. Still, we didn’t let it spoil our night, and we gushed about the latest developments in our lives. I’d just graduated from Keele University with a degree in English and American Literatures and Madison had transitioned well to life in Paris. We ended our night walking the streets and heading over to Notre Dame before parting ways for our early start the following morning.
Day 2: Châteaux Galore!
The next day we were up bright and early for a day trip outside of Paris. The journey to our first destination Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte took about an hour, so I took the precious time to carry on reading the book Madison had lent to me, desperately hoping to finish it before I flew back to England. The first château was spectacular, and consisted of unbelievable interior design work and mounds of space. I went to Versailles in 2012 and I have to say that the attention to detail on artwork in France in general is just second to none. It’s truly a sight to behold, the owners must have been choking on their wealth. The gardens intrigued me the most. There is probably villages the size of it and I was just in awe for the duration of our visit. The location was ideal for iconic wedding photographs, as many couples were perched around the grounds with their photographers, trying to take photos worthy of a place on the mantelpiece. We had lunch in the café and brief browse in the gift shop before heading to the coach for our next destination: château Fountainbleau.
Unlike our first destination, this one was not in the middle of nowhere. The artwork and furnishings was equally as impressive as our first destination and we were once again in awe of our surroundings. Fountainbleau was considerably more crowded and after we’d toured seen everything we wanted to see, we headed outside to sit by the lake, topping up our tans and progressing through our books as we did so. There were a few rowing boats and ducks on the lake, basking in the sunshine and just basically being the picture of peacefulness. Our coach driver was nowhere to be found when pick-up time rolled around and we learned from other passengers that he’d been delayed. We got to know some of the other passengers whilst we waited, talking at length to an art teacher from L.A about travelling. When we got back to Paris, we went to the infamous bookstore Shakespeare and Co. and leisurely browsed the shelves. We were in there for so long that we used dinner of quiche and salad at a cosy place called la fourmi ailee, as a break from the shelves before returning the have a second browse! As the sun began to descend on a bustling Paris, a rollerblading performance caught our eye near Notre Dame. Paris was lively and clearly the place to be on a Saturday night.
Day 3: French football and the sweetest goodbye
On Sunday we were both feeling exhausted and under the weather, so I set out for the PSG stadium alone and agreed to meet up with Madison afterwards. I’d hoped that I’d be able to do a tour now that I was alone because I hadn’t wanted to drag Madison around something she had no interest in, but the stadium, and almost the every single shop in the surrounding area, was closed. I decided to walk around the stadium and take it in from the outside and there were other tourists doing the same thing. All around the outside of Parc de Princes were photos of stars both past and present of the club, most notably for me being Zlatan Ibrahimović (Sweden) and David Beckham (England). I took my time taking photos before eventually getting a coke in a bar with WI-FI so that I could message Madison. We met an hour later and went to McDonald’s for lunch, before heading to the cemetery where Oscar Wilde was buried, Père Lachaise Cemetery. The Importance of Being Earnest is my favourite play of all time and it’s also the only theatrical performance in which I have not lost concentration. His grave is so popular that there is glass case around it just to protect it. The graveyard is ridiculously huge. It’s unbelievable. I couldn’t imagine being dead and taking up so much space. After finding the grave of Proust, we slowly ventured to an Indian restaurant and got cocktails, as my knees were hurting from a long week and were threatening to buckle. Will they ever be what they were before? We both took time for social media and reading, in which I completed my mission and finished the Bill Bryson book that Madison had lent to me. We then ventured out for dinner of what were basically like the oatcakes you get in Staffordshire (not a literal cake) before setting off for the iconic Eiffel Tower.
On our way to there I spotted a bakery and finally got to devour my beloved macaroons. Madison got an ice cream, which was amusing because it was stupidly messy and she looked so adorable and young trying to eat it. We sat for a while in a local park and had one our talks about life, love and so forth. Because we became so close at the end of my time in Mississippi, we didn’t get to do many nights of being normal university friends like I did with Taylor. Whereas I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel with Madison and sadly not yet Taylor. It’s strange, but it doesn’t alter the importance of either friendship to me. We eventually get on the metro for our last stop of the night but when we reached the stop, we didn’t get off. I was confused. We literally went past the Eiffel Tower and still didn’t get off. I joked that I hoped she wasn’t going to punish me for our earlier difference in opinion by making my knees walk an unthinkable distance. “I’m only 21 and I need my knees”, I said jokingly. We eventually got off at Tropcadero and I followed Madison like a lost puppy to a square with the most breath-taking view of the Eiffel Tower, lit up in the colours of the French flag to commemorate the victims of the Nice terror attack. It was a spectacular sight. I felt a surge of love for France and my French heritage. It sadly didn’t sparkle for us, so we took one last selfie together and made our way back to the metro.
The Paris metro is fairly similar to the London Underground, except that rush hour doesn’t seem to exist because it is busy ALL THE TIME! People cram into the metro like livestock. I’m telling you, there was probably more room on Noah’s Ark! Anyhow, after two weeks away from Madison, I noticed that there were many moments when she would speak in an English accent over the weekend and not notice what she was doing, until I pointed it out. I joked that if it continued the next time our paths crossed (whenever that may be), that I’d find the subconscious convergence just as amusing. The reference to time seems to strike a chord with Madison, because she suddenly enveloped me in a heart-warming and almost tear-jerking speech on the metro about how our paths will most definitely cross again and she’d go out of her way to spend time with me again, in any corner of the globe. She said she’d even get a layover in Birmingham on the way to another destination just so that we could be reunited again. It’s in that moment that I realise that I am genuinely important to her, despite all my digs at her for her lack of response or communication with me. But she flew all that way to spend time with me and her words are exactly what I need to hear because I continually refuse to promise her a next time out of a fear of disappointing a face so full of youth and ambition. As we reach her stop and the goodbye looms, we hug for a long time. I don’t cry this time and she whispers in my ear that she’ll “see me soon”, so I let plant a kiss on her cheek and watch her go.
I wouldn’t say that I “j’adore” France (yet). I’ve only ever been to Paris itself for 3 days at a time, so I don’t feel like I’ve given myself the opportunity yet to truly know the place and develop a feel for it like Madison has done. The weekend with Madison was great, as our trips together always are, and I know that I’ll return to Paris again in my lifetime. Sometimes adventure is seeing things through the eyes of someone else, and after spending so much time with Madison, I know that I need to work on my travel independence again if I’m ever going to get through my travel bucket list. Madison is so many great things in this world but constantly remaining true to who she is and what she wants from life is something to be admired. The only sad thing about time is that rather unfortunately, and rather greedily, there will just never be enough of it spent with the people you care for the most in the world. ❤