I never imagined I would feel at home in Paris.
And yet, three years almost to the day after stepping off that plane at Charles de Gaulle, I find myself in my favourite café, just another local tapping away on a laptop. Tonight, it’s Bob Marley and Nine Inch Nails on the stereo at Les Pères Populaires, but the soundtrack changes – punk, jazz, old-skool house, French electro. It’s not always possible to hear the music over the burble of conversation. On this early evening, the light fading, people are reading, writing, drinking beer at outside tables beneath the scaffolding that currently enfolds the building.
It would be romantic to say that I stumbled by accident onto Les Pères Pop. But that would be a lie. I did not happen upon this cosy corner, lost, one afternoon while exploring the southern end of the 20th. No, I read about it on the foodie website Fooding and purposefully sought it out. I’m glad I did. It feels like my lounge room (if my lounge room had a coffee machine and full bar), but I suspect most of the patrons would say the same thing about it, filled as it is with mismatched sofas, Formica-topped tables and school-type chairs.
Often I come just to take advantage of their excellent 1€ espressos. If you arrive late in the morning, and the croissant basket on the bar is empty, they let you bring your own from a nearby boulangerie. From the luxury of choice, I usually pick Grégory Desfoux (57 rue d’Avron) or Le Triomphe.
But I also come to write. Working on a travel article last week, I was thinking about the magic of editing, and now what occurs to me is the similarity between that process and shoehorning yourself into a new city. Both involve chucking out the obsolete, awkward or illogical and keeping the good stuff. You begin the journey full of enthusiasm, but the way forward soon becomes less clear. Ideas that seemed to flow effortlessly no longer link neatly. It is hard to see how it will ever work out. Of course, initially, it doesn’t, no matter how simple the brief.
Inevitably, tangents beckon. The word count balloons. Passages that seemed lovely in isolation don’t fit with the rest of the story. Letting them go is difficult. Then, slowly, from the sludge, the piece emerges, although often what ends up on the page is not what was expected. The allure of fiction is that it can be useful to submit to the tangents. Commissioned journalism is not so forgiving, but its beauty is the discipline. One feeds the other.
(Blogging is too new for me to comment on that process at this stage.)
Anyway, my travel article eventually appeared, raw and ragged, on the screen, then on paper (because I still need to read a printout), then in the hands of a friend as we sat in another café, in an altogether different part of town, the sleek Coutume Babylone, near Hôtel Les Invalides. Over more excellent coffee and carrot cake, my reader offered useful and sensitive suggestions, giving me the confidence to cleave, strengthen, clarify.
When I arrived in Paris in October 2012, I didn’t have a plan, just a brief. I was seeking a change from the life I had led in Sydney, but within recognisable parameters. I imagined I would use my existing skills to continue working in journalism or, perhaps, redirect my experience and newly acquired CELTA qualification into English teaching. I was in love, which carries its own delusions. The rest – language, social network, culture – would work itself out. It’s France, right? We’re in Western Europe. How different can it be? Why should I worry?
These were, I realise in hindsight, the wrong questions. I should have asked myself: how ready am I to accept change? Not very, as it turned out. But the flailing is like getting words on the page. You try things out. You fail. You explore tangents. You find treasure. You edit. You are edited. Friends keep you going. You change. And eventually you begin to feel at home.