Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. Like the romance of train travel, the romance of Paris, the romance of proposing to the girl who makes your heart skip a beat.
We left from London on the Eurostar – the train straight from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. I had butterflies in my stomach. But the wc on the train had a delightfully bizarre poster of the Mona Lisa and our seats were not so much next to a window as next to the bit between two windows. Otherwise known as a wall. These hilarious little niggly things calmed me down a bit.
Our hotel was in Ménilmontant, out in the 20th arrondissement, the proper Paris of street art and musicians and a Jewish kindergarten guarded by soldiers.
There was a moment of panic when the hotel staff couldn’t find our reservation despite all of the (many) confirmation emails I could produce, and their confusion that yes, these two ladies did want just the one bed.
After several conversations in harried French which I understood but pretended I didn’t, we got our bed. Likewise someone slunk into a room and removed two bags which apparently belonged to a ‘Sarah’ they believed to have been me and showed us to our room and all was well.
“Sarah! It’s a very common name!” yes it is. But it’s not my name. And maybe don’t give away reservations based on first names? Perhaps try surnames or reservation numbers?
(aside from this it was an excellent excellent hotel and we would recommend it highly)
In the few hours we had between arriving in Ménilmontant and the gig which was the spark for our trip to Paris we set out on the streets to find Père Lachaise – the famous final resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Abelard and Heloise (among others). It hadn’t been on our list but what is a list if not just a suggestion, really, and we were in the neighbourhood. Sort of.
We found Jim Morrison’s grave by following the young people. Nearby was the grave of a 21 year old victim of the BATACLAN massacre.
Side note: this trip had been booked for months when the attacks in Paris took place and while we paused for the shortest of seconds we never really considered cancelling.
I did myself proud in my efforts to get us completely and utterly lost. We ended up repeatedly finding the grave of the father of homeopathy when we were looking for Abelard and Heloise because I am the actual worst and somehow forgot that the key to one map will not work when you’re looking at a completely different map. How I manage to do things like this while still being extremely capable baffles me.
We found them eventually. By which I mean Pip found them. I was no help. At that point the sky was rapidly darkening past pink into night and I am not nearly goth enough to hang out in a French cemetery at night. Besides, we had a gig to get to.
It’s technically illegal to smoke inside in France but also it is still France. We found a little bar and we sat on the terrace and had a drink and ate dinner and around us people smoked and spoke in French and it was all entirely perfect.
The entire reason we went to Paris in December was to see Courtney Barnett. She’s an Australian singer and one of our favourites – we discovered her together, in the car on the way to work, so entranced by the song Avant Gardener and its laconic singer we sat and waited until the very end.
She performed in a silver box inside La Gaîté Lyrique, an art and music centre in the 3rd arondissement. Our bags and jackets were thoroughly checked on our way inside and it was a tiny reminder of the horror three weeks prior.
But we got beers and moved inside the venue and it was just one of those perfect nights. A guy sidled up to us as we were chatting “Excuse me, are you Australian?” “… close but no, sorry, Kiwis” “Oh! Great! Me too!”
His name was Cam and he’d lived in Wellington and worked in Politics and knew the opening act but not Courtney Barnett, and us the opposite, so we shared knowledge and danced together and I was having such a good time I could have proposed right then and there.
She played all our favourite songs and it was their last show of the tour so they were all a bit loose at the end and oh she’s just really very good.
Afterwards we ended up at a bar halfway between the gig and the metro with our new friend from New Zealand talking politics because we are ridiculous people. In the grand tradition of excellent nights, it was, all of a sudden, a lot later than we were expecting – thankfully, Paris is not nearly as terrible a city as London, and the metro runs right through to 2am. Ish. It was close. But we made it.
Our hotel delivered a bag of pastries and proper French bread to our hotel room which, the morning after the night before, was an actual lifesaver.
While we put ourselves back together again, ready to brave another day in Paris, I dug her engagement ring out of my backpack and put it in my jacket pocket. One upside of vintage ring boxes is they are quite small and discreet. One downside to vintage ring boxes is that they SOMETIMES COME APART IN YOUR POCKET.
At the metro station I jammed my hand in my pocket to hold all the bits together and nonchalantly wandered down the platform to quietly panic and put it back together again. She had no idea.
I truly believe I am destined to never visit the catacombs in Paris. I’ve tried twice and both times I’ve failed. This would be much easier to handle if it wasn’t so damn far out from the very centre of the city. Each time it’s at least a half hour trek out of the way. So that happened. We won’t dwell on it.
Our first stop in the very centre of Paris was Notre Dame. It was a Sunday and it was cold and there were soldiers with massive guns all around. We had planned to go right to the top (of course) but the queue was over an hour long so we walked around the inside, listened to a bit of the service, and departed just as heathen as we entered.
We stopped at the bridge-covered-in-locks because it was Right There. It was full of tourists and really angry old French ladies so we didn’t stop long and I was relieved I had passed on that as a proposal location. The locks are sweet but either some people have extremely adventurous poly relationships or it’s become locks for the Squad as well as for lovers.
Since we were in the vicinity I took us to Shakespeare & Co., the crazy english language bookshop right on the river. There’s now a coffee shop right next door where we had delicious coffees, god I think I even had a long black. The story goes that the owner of Shakespeare and Co, George Whitman, knocked on the door of the shop next door every single weekend asking them to sell it to him so he could open a literary café next to his bookstore. They turned him down for two generations (his daughter Sylvie continued, albeit monthly, after his death in 2011) but in October 2015 the café opened and in December 2015, we visited.
There’s something magical about being in Paris when it’s cold outside. We walked through the naked trees of the Tuileries, we ate freshly made crepes (lemon and sugar for me, ham and cheese for her) and both agreed that we liked I.M. Pei’s pyramid entrance to the Louvre and hated the Roue de Paris ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde.
We braved a queue to visit Monet’s water lilies at the Orangerie (and all of the other amazing art as well) and that was the afternoon ending – dusk comes so much earlier in the winter time.
As the light faded around us we walked down through the lights and the tat of the Christmas markets on the Champs-Élysées – every second stall selling crepes or waffles or vin chaud – turned left and all of a sudden we were there. The Pont Alexandre III. It’s a glorious beaux-arts style bridge which is absolutely beautiful and the place I’d chosen as the backdrop to my proposal.
Of course I was so distracted I don’t have a photo of the bridge itself.
The sun was setting, the sky was pink, the Eiffel Tower a silhouette in the distance, and I had a ring box clasped in one hand in my pocket.
Some things you don’t get to know. Some things are just for her and me. Some things I could never get into words. The blood rushing through my ears, the sudden choking up as I asked her, the actual shock on her face, our shaking hands.
We found a place to sit down – at one end of a concrete bench. At the other end three thirteen year olds sat smoking weed. The youngest looking one, the one who was drew in a book while the other two made out, came and asked us for a cigarette.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
We couldn’t call our families straight away. Thanks to the tyranny of distance and time zones it was about 5:30am when we got engaged (!) so we visited the top of the Eiffel Tower. It was dark and windy by the time we got up there (you queue to queue to queue to travel in an elevator to queue to queue then another elevator ride and you’re there. To get back down is only third the queueing. That’s still quite a bit) but the lights of Paris stretching out in every direction was worth it.
Heading back to Ménilmontant we were exhausted and happy. Picking a bistrot recommended by our hotel we ended up at a tiny bar after 8pm at a tiny wooden table, giddy and starving. Run by a waitress with red curls and an iron fist she recommended wine and we ate duck confit and steak bavette and drank viognier to our engagement.
For a change, with our weekend breaks, we had taken an actual day off work. Monday was another full day in Paris with the Eurostar in the late evening.
We saved the Louvre for our final day so we could dedicate proper time to it. We spent hours and hours and still only saw a quarter of it
One of my favourite moments was walking into a room filled with ancient Greek vases, looking around and realising that we were the only two people in the room. That doesn’t happen often in the Louvre.
We looked at art until our eyes and feet could take no more and then we made the worst mistake of all. We tried to leave the Louvre. It used to be that you walked out a door but now you’re herded into a horrible labyrinthine mall and it is disorienting and difficult to leave. Horrible horrible horrible.
(In Belgium you eat mussels and drink beer)
Our weary feet took us to Belgium for lunch (or rather a strange restaurant that said “welcome to Belgium” as you entered and “welcome to france” as you left) before we took advantage of the last day of our travel card and took the metro across the city to Monmatre.
Sidenote: maybe it’s because it’s not nearly quite so far underground or because the lines don’t intersect as much but the Metro in Paris is less stressful than the Underground in London.
(A truth universally acknowledged is that in every city, there will be an Irish pub)
One bonus of an early sunset is watching the lights play across the sky without feeling the scratchiness that comes when you need to find somewhere for a drink or dinner. We climbed the hill and stairs up to the Sacre Coeur as it was pink with sunset light and saw the Eiffel Tower silhouetted across the city.
Our final moments in Paris were spent in a square surrounded by twinkling lights, the Place du Tertre where street artists plied their wares until it was too dark for them to see and we sat at the terrace of a little restaurant with my scarf as a blanket and a glass of wine in front of us.
At one point three soldiers who were patrolling came across a cardboard box abandoned in the centre of the square. The carefully affected caution they took was something to behold – two of them flanked the box, looking around the square, while the third nudged it with his boot and opened a flap with the barrel of his gun.
It was nothing, just a cardboard box, but their reaction reminded me it could have been more.
We ate rainbow macarons on the eurostar back to London and I marvelled at just how ridiculously perfect the weekend had been. All the stars had aligned.
A final moment, at the end of our journey, as we paused on the rail bridge looking out to the lights of the Chelsea Bridge and London beyond I thought “we’re home.”