Christmas Day. What a year it has been. For me, my family and the world. I lost my grandmother at the beginning, had to home-school my boys for three months, did a 10k, a half and a full marathon, went to Dorset for a rugby tour, Lake District for a holiday, Ibiza for a week and Paris twice. I also finished my Master’s, kept my blog and Instagram generally up to date and gotten myself a new girlfriend. All of this whilst working from home in my bedroom/study/office/playroom/TV lounge/library/games room/research centre/haven of solitude.
My trip to Paris three weeks ago presented me with mixed feelings. I’ve generally gone to Paris every year since 2017. During these trips I’ve found myself some time and space, had a little sit down and written. Originally it was for the Bachelor’s and that in turn changed to writing for the Master’s. The pieces for the Master’s weren’t actually for that purpose. I had intended to become an author of a book of which Paris was the focus. I was going to be utilising my entries for the Master’s as either a behind the scenes look or a launch pad for the chapters. I had wanted to write a handful of chapters that catalogued my route through the wonderfully beautiful city whilst making notes and documenting her history, culture and general well-being. With the catastrophe that was COVID-19 and the global mishandling of it, things got hairy at times. But nonetheless, I persevered.
With the Master’s came different perspectives. Yes, fountain pens and typewriters. But also the research that I conducted brought about a whole gamut of thoughts. Ernest Hemingway led to the Lost Generation. Then came the bars, restaurants and bistros that were frequented. These have been steeped in the mythological romance of the twenties. Vincent van Gogh was a surprise. The tortured soul visited Paris and ended up living there with his brother up in Montmartre (the name is in part derived from the Saint Denis martyrdom; he was decapitated here and ended up walking to what is now the Basilica Saint Denis where, after preaching, holding his washed head, he was buried – Saint Denis, not Van Gogh).
Van Gogh had a friend by the name of Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa whom he met in art school in Fernand Cormon’s studio at 104 Boulevard de Clichy. This solidified my interest in absinthe – an expedition for me all by itself. I started reading a behemoth of a nonfiction book which started to fill me with not excitement but knowledge of Paris beyond my own personal visits and virtual tours. As a Londoner, I’m no stranger to historical facts that build a fabulous city and turn it into a sprawling metropolis, that one can see today. A city tortured throughout the ages, transformed from humble beginnings, targeted simply because she sits on a river. And yet, Paris is something more than that. She holds her history in her arms and cradles it, like her child crying out for soothing.
My issue with Paris and my book is that there is too much. To know where to begin is a vast journey through a wilderness filled with numerous pathways, all leading to the same beautiful conclusion. I can follow the chronology of the capital; I can follow my own chronology of my visits. I can follow the paths of the author or the artist. I can even follow the arrondissements in either ascending or descending order. I’m glad I have such a creative issue to call a problem. I have the tools, the skills and the time. I simply need the plan.
This visit to Paris supplied me with a mixed persona. I was a mixture of tourist and local. I don’t recall feeling like a tourist in Paris before. We arrived at Gare du Nord and I walked us to Hotel Panache in the 9th. I knew roughly where it was, off Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, so we headed down Rue La Fayette towards it. Some prior reading about the Statue of Liberty took me to the name of the Marquis de La Fayette. Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, was involved in both the American and the French revolution. The fact that Lafayette (as the Americans called him) assisted with the defeat of the English by trapping Lord Cornwallis and his subsequent surrender, didn’t stop us from dining in the General Lafayette on the corner of the aforementioned streets.
Even when I’m using English and my poor French, I don’t feel like a tourist. I rarely use Google – or these days Apple – maps unless it’s for a specific location. When I woke up on the morning of our departure, I had to get some viennoiserie to go with the coffee that I was to supply to the girlfriend in bed. It was my best hope of waking her up. I used the word boulangerie on Apple Maps and, not five minutes away, there was one that I’d photographed back in August. I woke up, had a shower, popped on a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, my newly (for Paris) purchased cardigan and scarf and donned my cap (also bought for this trip). I took the lift from the fifth floor and simply strolled to Artisan Boulanger M. Denis. I didn’t even put my coat on, despite it being December. I greeted the shopkeeper in my usual way and proceeded to place my order in French. A croissant, a pain au chocolate and a beignet. It went extremely well, without a hitch or an inch of touristic visitor. I then returned to the hotel, bonjouring the staff on the desk and even ran up the thirty-four flights of stairs (or so it seemed). A quick flick of the key and I’m back in what feels like my flat.
When I’m stood outside the Pantheon, taking photos at a quarter to ten at night or ten to ten in the morning, I feel like a street photographer rather than an opportunistic tourist. Snapping away at the locations they filmed at for Emily in Paris still doesn’t make me feel like I don’t belong. I feel like a fan or a souvenir hunter. I’ve never felt like a tourist in Paris. Is that the superpower of this Englishman in Paris?
And yet, for the girlfriend’s birthday trip, I felt like a tourist. Not for all of it. Not for the walk around Montmartre. Not for the dinners at different restaurants, enjoying French cuisine. Not even walking back to Gare du Nord with our luggage. Nor popping into the crêperie at short notice simply because we’d not had one. So what was it that made me feel like a tourist? One very small thing. A trip to the Louvre.
I have been to the Louvre pretty much every time I have been to Paris. But on this occasion, I actually went IN the Louvre. What a place. This is a building that holds many different items. I don’t think I saw the entire variety but what I did see was spectacular. Statues from grand gardens, paintings from vast collections, furniture from years gone by. And yet, in three hours, only the top floor was covered. The strange thing is, if I were to visit a museum in London, I’d not feel like a tourist. I’d feel like a citizen on an educational trip. Like the time in my first year during my Bachelor’s. I went to the British Museum to look at the Benin bronzes for a greater feel and understanding. There were definitely French people in the Louvre. I don’t know how many weren’t Parisian, though. We were all taking photos, all looking around in amazement. We even lined up to view Mona Lisa, Lisa del Giocondo, the most famous of the Mona Lisa portraits.
I think I felt touristic as I was subjected to an alien concept. When I’ve been in Paris, I’ve done my own thing, not truly submerging myself in the French tourist culture and ideology. Whilst it’s not my usual trip, it was actually a nice change. And not writing anything at any time was exceptionally weird. To a certain extent, it was nice. But weird. I’m not sure I could do it too often. However, there are still books I can read and make notes on as well as photographs to take.
And so, after all this writing today, I’ve neatly finished this An Englishman in Paris – A Master in Mastering my Masters notebook whilst making the last entry of the year. It has covered five months of 2021 and given me hope for the future.
No, not a plan, just hope.
And yellow ink in my fountain pen.