Life before yoga: Was I petite Nicole? 2.
Hauling my 40 kilos (the minimum of a year’s worth of creature comforts) off the conveyor belt at 10pm, I grudgingly splashed out 40 euros on a cab, unwilling to break my back negotiating the Metro. The surly driver ejected my belongings with vigour when I arrived at the Auberge de Jeunesse around 11pm. There were a few people hanging around outside drinking, two of whom helped me get my luggage up the 4 flights of stairs to the room I was sharing for the week.
I looked around. It was clean and basic with white walls, a tiled floor, and bunk beds. A quick snoop at the belongings littering the available surfaces told me my roommates were Japanese and Brazilian. I was suddenly overwhelmed with reality and disorientation. No going back. Abandoning the empty and silent room, I ran downstairs to call Ali to let her know I’d arrived (resolving not to tell her I’d lost my Christmas present – a camera on the way, and been reduced to tears). I rifled my purse for change and took several attempts to operate the ancient pay phone in the foyer. I put the phone down at the end of our conversation – silence. I became aware of a lost feeling as I thought of the remainder of the evening stretching ahead. There didn’t seem to be anyone around in the hostel and my daily stash of confidence was well and truly exhausted -I’d carried out my plan. I was exhausted myself and thought bed might be the best course of action but I found it virtually impossible to sleep – every sound and movement bringing me round from my lucid dreaming. I woke each time, my heart pounding, unsure of where I was. The bright lights illuminating the bathroom in the early hours almost blinded me and I stumbled, blinking, along the corridor. A pair of knickers hung from one door handle, and at 2am a boy and girl were talking outside my door, their conversation punctuated with the sound of smacking lips, fumbled clothing; the girl trying to persuade the boy to go back to his own room. When she eventually succeeded, the door opened.
“Hi, I’m Sula. I’m really sorry if I woke you,” said a slim girl with skin like milky coffee.
“No problem, I haven’t really been able to sleep anyway. I’m Nicola. Nic. Nice to meet you.” I grinned at her.
“Did you have a good night?”
She returned the smile. “Gay bar in the Marais – it was kicking. How bout you?”
“I just got here tonight and I haven’t ventured out yet. I’m here alone.” I paused. “You got any plans for tomorrow?”
“We were going to have a look around the Sacré-Coeur – it’s cool if you want to come along?” And so hostel living commenced.
The 8am alarm woke us, followed by not-so-fresh bread, butter, jam and bad machine coffee, which I sipped wryly, thinking of the Kenco that started it all. Stepping directly from the hostel steps into a fresh pile of dog poo, I wondered if it was a bad omen… We rode the Metro up to Blanche station and trekked to the top of mount Montmartre (as I liked to call it) and were met by the imposing domes of the Sacré-Coeur squatting upon its throne. I registered that the postcard images I had seen of the famed church had edited out the dribbles of red splattered down the side of one of the domes, which in reality looked as though a can of red paint had trickled down its smooth sides starting at the peak. They had also omitted the groups of street vendors who harassed the tourists, trying to attach plaits of coloured string to their wrists as they passed, requesting 10 euros in return. Theirs was a particularly talented grasp of the English language, one pointedly stating “Fuck off smelly arse!” at me, and a tramp commenting in a smart English/French hybrid “Super Chapeau.” A jittery man, chattering away to himself, fed his lunch to the pigeons. I watched enviously, brooding over the memory of the insufficient hostel breakfast.
The interior of the Sacré-Coeur was breathtakingly beautiful, the surprising impact of which was our being jaw-droppingly childish. We whispered the contrast between the stunning decor and the extremely non-stunning nuns, concluding with the bitchiness of non-brides-of-Christ that the vow of chastity was perhaps a good choice for them, if it was a choice at all. Ouch! Memories of school outings to church swarmed back to me and the desire to swear, to rebel against it, overpowered me, strong as it had ever been. “Cunt!” I pronounced, almost smugly, as though declaring something groundbreaking. Fortunately, Sula followed suit after laughing herself silly, and we stumbled back into the bright light outside, praying to no God that the ugly nuns did not understand English curse words. A run of bad luck inexplicably(?) followed… and so deserveth me?
A fortnight glided by with the same routine, the alarm call getting later and later. Breakfast followed a similar pattern, until the staff began to virtually remove my chair from under me as I shovelled down fuel to pound the pavements through the freezing Paris winter. Those two weeks were a blur of alcohol and dancing, as my few contacts in Paris proved themselves to be good ones, getting me onto the guest-list at any number of local hotspots, including ‘La Scène’ where I had a close encounter of the porcelain kind after too much Grand Marnier. Let it not be said that I did not embrace all things French. One evening however, I descended the hostel stairs (clad in baggy jeans, an authentically Parisien basque, topped off with my ‘super chapeau’ trilby) and met Alex. “You look stunning,” he said as I joined the group who were congregated around the table, reminding me of the school canteen except that in place of plasticy cheese sandwiches in lunchboxes, a card game/drinking session was in full swing. Alex was leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, a plastic cup in his hand. His soft curly brown hair cast a shadow over his marble skin. He looked at me coyly from deep brown eyes set under a slightly protruding brow as though lifetimes of concentration, thinking, frowning and worrying had created a bump just before his nose started. Definitely not handsome, but there was something warm in his demeanour – an easy confidence and openness.
“Why thank you sir,” I said, slightly taken aback at his directness accepting the plastic cup of red wine he passed me.
“It may be in a plastic cup but it’s not a bad drop.”
“So, where might you be from? What’s your story?” I asked, sitting down in the chair opposite, waiting for his response.
“I’m here on a sabbatical for my Philosophy degree, but I’m having a bit of a hard time.” He paused. “My girlfriend is still over in Canada.”
“That must be tough,” I sympathised. “Same thing happened to me a couple of years ago when my boyfriend went home to New Zealand to study. It was hard to say goodbye but it was good for us in a lot of ways,” (at the time anyway).
“We’re not doing so great,” Alex admitted. “Catherine is mostly emotional, or just pissed at me, or both.”
“Well, we actually had conversations for the first time in about a year, while he was away. Before he left, all we did was argue. Suddenly, we were talking for hours on the phone.”
Alex nodded. “Like, distance makes the heart grow fonder?”
“Sure, but it doesn’t make the love last longer,” I returned, sipping my wine.
“So you’re not together anymore?” Alex’s question felt somehow loaded.
“No. In fact, we haven’t even talked for a long time. We split up a year ago. We survived: the separation, me going to live in New Zealand with him for six months, and coming back to London again – sleeping on friends floors. We were together four years, through some really tough times but it kind of faded you know?” I suddenly felt like I was sharing too much with a guy I’d just met, and reined myself in. “What about you two? Been together long?”
“One good thing about the separation was that I got to concentrate on my studies,” I said. “Basically – shit happens.”
The frivolous comment seemed throwaway after all the deep relationship junk. I sighed. “It makes you realise what’s right and what’s not in your life. It wasn’t and if we hadn’t split up, I wouldn’t be here now, getting drunk with you reprobates. But I wish you and your girlfriend the best of luck!” I raised my plastic cup in a toast and drained it. Alex laughed.
“I’m hoping this will give me that too.” He spoke, more softly than he had previously, leaning across to refill my drink. I put my hand over it.
“Sorry hon. I have to meet some people.” I stood up. “If you want to have a proper talk sometime, I’m all ears. Not that I’m best placed to give relationship advice.” I crossed to the door, turning to say, “I’m staying here for… a while. Maybe catch you tomorrow?”
He nodded. “Sure. Be great.”
“Good. A demain!”
Staying in a hostel was surreal. Being surrounded at breakfast by a sea of faces without a trace of recognition gave rise to a sense of freedom. It also meant that the ‘long-termers’ naturally drifted together. Alex and I would update each other on the events of the day, reconvening at the hostel when it re-opened in the late afternoon. “Hey Nic! How’s it going?” he’d ask, clearly pleased to see a familiar face and I, likewise, beamed back. Over more plastic cups of wine, I would relay tales of another fruitless day’s job-hunting and he would tell me about his day flat-hunting and his latest Catherine woes. He quickly became a source of support in what felt like a jungle of a city.
Every time a new person asked “So why are you in Paris?” it became more and more tempting to make something up. I’m on a secret mission for the Government or, I’m a poet seeking inspiration and good conversation. The possibilities for self-reinvention were endless, yet I usually replied honestly (I’ve never been much of a liar), “I was bored with my job at home and looking for a bit of excitement. I thought, who knows, maybe I’ll finally work out what it is exactly that I was put on this planet to do or maybe I’ll just meet a nice sexy Frenchman.”
At the time, I knew more than anything, I just needed some time out without responsibilities and worries. Something I’d never had the fortune of, even in childhood. I – like many others I’m sure – wasn’t able to take a gap year. In fact, I was lucky to be able to get myself educated at all. And whilst I had the opportunity to take this time out, I wanted to have a go at uncovering the veil of mystery that surrounded me in the beautiful city of Paris, one of the most well preserved historical cities in Europe (I probably read that in a guide book). And I wasn’t talking about visiting the museums and galleries. I wanted to find its soul.
As my alarm began to go off later and later, I missed breakfast altogether, inevitable I guess when you while away your evenings with bottles of cheap plonk followed by bouts of bar-crawling and clubbing. It was the morning after one such night when I discovered that, if left late enough, your wake-up would be cleaners kicking you out of your room and not the alarm on your phone. Heartlessly, they would turf you from your bed, no matter how little you resembled a real human being because the alcohol of the night before rendered you zombie-like; incapable of dressing yourself, let alone walking. I was flicked from my room like a speck of dust with the muttered reassurance that I could return at 3pm – scant consolation at 9.30am when the outside world was looking like a soggy grey sponge and you were mid-regurgitation of last night’s vodka and coke.
I remember one particular morning, ensconcing myself in my fattest jumper, coat and jeans and stumbling into the park around the corner. Lying like a corpse on an empty bench laid out for viewing before heading 6 feet under, I felt much the same. Tramps on the neighbouring bench raised their brown paper bags to me with a grin of comradeship. I smiled dizzily back at them, closed my eyes, laid back and thought of England. The Paris I surveyed horizontally from that bench was a far cry from the Paris I’d seen that ‘romantic’ birthday weekend which had entranced me with the desire to get under its skin. My thoughts wandered back to that weekend when I’d sat cosy in the candlelight surrounded by Parisien diners. When I walked into a restaurant at 7pm, boldly greeting the hot French waiter “Bonjour” and him correcting me with “Ah, you are English! Bonsoir madame.” I remember the group at the table across from us talking animatedly in deep, lyrical accents with a passion and expression that I’d felt a desperate urge to understand; to be a part of this bizarre yet beautiful world.
Back in the present, it didn’t feel beautiful, just callous and cold. Paris jeered at me as I pulled my coat up tighter around my neck and the cap over my eyes. As my time spent sightseeing (in clubs and bars) diminished into a blur of unsuccessful job-hunting days, Paris began to resemble a clip of film in fast-forward. I could barely discern silhouettes and the outline of buildings as streaks of neon light swept past wet, concrete streets. Bars, restaurants, shops; each one merged into the next in my vain search for employment as a serveuse, vendeuse or any work behind a bar. Managers greeted me disdainfully as pidgin French tumbled from my mouth – “Est-ce que vous avez une poste disponible?” – and I blankly failed to comprend a word of their response.