Swift and Slow
We woke up late, of course. What promised to be a calm morning of departure turned into something a little more frenzied. We finished packing, and replaced all of the previously-hidden in-room collateral before zipping our suitcases shut. I ran down to the Sainsbury’s for croissants (a fitting breakfast) while Mark finished tidying.
Out of our cozy, yet worn bolthole at 10:45 — as we checked out at the front desk, the Romanian clerk asked how our stay had been. “Perfect,” we replied in unison.
We walked six blocks to Royal Oak, lugging our bags over curbs and around bollards. Hammersmith & City line to St. Pancras — to the Eurostar, to Paris.
Our train boarded at 12:00, so we loitered about with everyone else who was due to get on the train. When it was time to queue for security, all hell broke loose — and we all clambered to get as close as possible to the ticket scanners, and then through into the departure hall.
Once we’d made it through, we noticed a middle-aged couple with piles of Louis Vuitton luggage. The man was wearing a white t-shirt with a cognac-colored leather jacket and perfectly destroyed denim, and the woman was wearing a large sun hat and an olive-green romper — “…It’s too cold for that,” I remember thinking. They looked too perfect — almost too polished, too put-together for a train ride to Paris. A few others kept coming up to them, greeting them and then answering their phones — colleagues? A big family?
Coach 5, seats 5 and 6. We boarded and situated our luggage, and sat with big sighs of relief. And curiously, the man in the leather coat sat right in front of us. Surely he belonged in business class, with the free wine and wifi? This time he was with a different woman, and two men — all arranged around a table, bottles of Evian precariously balanced near the edges.
The journey began — and would take us nearly 300 miles over two-and-a half hours. Past East London, Dartford Crossing, Ebbsfleet, Kent…
As we sat and watched the English countryside flit by, we listened to the man in the leather coat. It was eavesdropping on an intoxicating level — and provided more entertainment than any alternative.
“…the awards banquet last night, still have a hangover from the Moët… …the French accounts manager is meeting us at the hotel, yes? …just bought a house in the Cotswolds — my dear friend Kelly [Hoppen, an internationally-acclaimed interior designer] was part of the project with Philippe Starck, just a lovely bit away from the City…”
We googled furiously. Being millennials, he only needed to drop a few tidbits of names and information before we figured out that he was the CEO of a London-based ad agency, and was heading to Paris for a shoot. His assistants and colleagues flitted about, proffering bags of crisps and more Evian. It felt like we were witnessing a real-life version of “Absolutely Fabulous” — but with less fashion nightmares and more actual work.
At that point, I decided to acquire my own food as my stomach was growling louder and louder by the minute. I walked by our new friend, smiled and tried not to fall on top of him as I made my way to the cafe car. One terrible caesar salad wrap, a packet of Tyrell’s crisps and a Pellegrino later, I wasn’t particularly cheered up — but at least my blood sugar was somewhat regulated, and thus the other inhabitants of the coach could be spared from my hypoglycemic rage.
We slid into Gare du Nord in the 10th arrondissement at nearly 16:00. We rushed off the train to by Métro tickets, and stood in line for what felt like hours. I was grumpy — still sick, and hungry, and worried about getting to our AirBnb… There was a line in front of the ticket machines, all Japanese tourists with little knowledge of Parisian metro ticket machines (I can’t blame them — they’re not the easiest things to figure out, even when they’re switched to English). A French woman, a complete saint, volunteered to work them though the queue — taking their money, pressing “Carnet” on the screen and fishing the resultant tiny slips of paper and coins out of the cavernous jowls of the machine below. We smiled and thanked her profusely, as I performed the same motions.
I texted our Airbnb contact — a man named Olivier.
“Just off Eurostar — taking 5 to Oberkampf, 15min”
...”Bon?” Was there anything else I needed to know? Was that the right choice? My high-maintenance American brain was swimming — what if it was tiny? What if it was awful? What if Olivier hated gay people? All complete nonsense, obviously — but once I’m wound up, I keep spinning.
We descended into the métro station, boarded a fairly crowded train and exactly 15 minutes later, we alighted at Oberkampf. Parisian métro stations are not the most hospitable for really anyone, but for two tired Americans with too much baggage? Hostile, really. We climbed the stairs, and the toe of my brand-new shoes clipped the sharp metal edge of the stair tread — down I went.
Two old ladies walked around me, rolling their eyes. I picked my sunglasses up, wiped my dirty bloody hands on my jeans and carried forth — bursting onto the edge of Boulevard Voltaire from the tiny subterranean stair. “Fuuuck, that hurt.”
“EXCUSEZ-MOI MONSIEUR, J'AI BESOIN D'UNE EURO POUR NOURRIR MES ENFANTS…”
A woman rushed towards me as I stumbled almost into traffic, begging for a euro or two to feed her children. She was coughing and outstretching her hand, heading quickly towards Mark and I. I quickly tried to switch my brain into translate-mode, but French was taking a while to load.
“Uh… désolé… Je… Je n’ai pas?”
She too rolled her eyes and widened her search to others exiting the station. I huffed to keep up with Mark. “I know my French is terrible, but lord — she didn’t have to roll her eyes…”
We arrived at Rue Amelot after two wrong turns — the narrow streets and sharp corners of Paris a strange yet familiar land after London. We found what appeared to be our address, and waited patiently outside. Shortly after, a very tall redheaded man materialized on a bike. He was impossibly skinny, and wore the très-chic Paris hipster combo — skinny stonewashed A.P.C. jeans, a turtleneck under a vintage Levi’s jean jacket and a tiny wool hat that was nearly exactly the same color as his hair.
“Pardon… I was on the phone.”
We smiled. “No worries!” He fished in his pockets for a set of keys and opened the front door — “Canadian?”
He almost winced. “Bon.” And off he strode — up the stairs and down a hall, gesturing towards the ever-present communal hallway light switches. “This one, for this front hall.” He stopped to gesture to one specific switch, jumbled in a mess of others and surely impossible to find later — “Do not touch this one.” We barely kept up behind him, thinking “…What is that switch for?”
We made our way across the most Parisian, most picturesque courtyard and into a large door, and then we’d arrived — our place. It was totally lovely. A small studio, full of French paperbacks arranged in custom floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, three massive doors out onto the courtyard, a tiny but brand-new TV, perfect lighting… Olivier showed us the three keys needed to get ourselves back in, and how the radiators worked. I handed him 15€ for the extra lodging tax, and he gave me a euro coin as change.
And with that he was gone. We flopped down on the massive down-quilt-covered bed. “Do you want to go to dinner?” Mark shook his head no. “I’m exhausted.” “Me too.”
We began unpacking, and found the laundry in a closet with a perfect number of hangers, and then we discovered the super-fast wifi and French TV… “…Wanna just go to the Carrefour around the corner and get a bunch of snacks for dinner?” “Oh god, yes.”
One by one, we replaced our coats and shoes and made our way out of the labyrinthine building to the street, and then just half a block to the Carrefour — a perfectly placed French supermarket.
I have a great affection for European supermarkets — even Tesco is a step ahead of anything in the US — but French supermarkets are the winners, so far. The French take such pride in their food, in their regional products (and have for so long) that they expect perfection, even at their local market. As a result, the aisles are stuffed with glories.
Comté au lait cru, terrine de campagne, saucisson sec, citrus-marinated olives, a warm baguette, bars of dark chocolate, crêpes bretonnes, demi-sel butter, a case of Badoit… and an irresistible last-minute impulse: Lay’s potato crisps, cheeseburger-flavored. All of that locally-sourced, regionally-protected (well, save for the Lay’s) food for about 35€. We felt like kings, our Barbican tote bags stuffed to the brim.
We made our way back into our perfect little flat — and there we stayed for the entire evening. We nibbled and napped, did laundry, watched garish French reality TV, followed up with work emails… It was absolutely the best idea. It just reinforced that sometimes, to feel more at home in a place far away, you just have to act like you’re literally at home — trashy TV and snacks and all.
London always feels like a natural extension of our house — save the 9-hour flight, it’s comfortable and easy, full of familiar places and faces. Paris has always been a little pricklier — just when you get comfortable that you have a clue, it throws a punch and down you go. But this time — full of bread and cheese and meat, and surrounded by books, it felt just like home.
We fell asleep, content and cozy — the linen curtains dancing against the giant doors, the moonlight filtering in and casting shadows at our feet.