I find it amazing how I can travel a couple of hours in Europe and be in another country. One Christmas many years ago, I traveled with my family from Melbourne to Sydney via train. It took us 11 hours of yellow-tinged grass and countryside for us to not do it again. Thus when I hear stories of how easy it is to take day trips to Paris from London with the Eurostar, I beam with excited eagerness.
Paris is unkind to me. She gives me the meanest cough that stems from my lungs and makes me breathe short, rapid breaths. The air is unnoticeably thick here and cigarettes cloak the cobbled pavements. It is Paris Fashion Week but I must be on the wrong side of town for I see everything far from glamorous here.
I stay in a hostel in Montmarte around the corner from an alleyway that is crowded with middle-aged women foraging plastic tubs full of underwear to buy at €1. At night, the alleyway smells of urine - but the smell isn't as putrid as the gardens at Notre-Dame. I never speak to the girls in my dorm room. They all seem to distance themselves away from me. I think it's because I keep them up all night with my coughs.
I walk pass a luxurious silver sports car on my way to the grocery store one morning. I don't know anything about cars but I know that this one is one to envy. My eyes trace its body, from its angular headlights to the slight curve of its long bonnet. I wonder to myself if I should take a picture to show my boyfriend. But then my eyes stopped moving and I realise that I had stopped walking. Its passenger window had been smashed and both the black leather seats are now sparkling from the tiny fragments of glass. My eyes widen in shock and I feel my heart sink over something that isn't mine. On the way back to the accommodation, I walk pass the car once more. There is a young woman with long blonde hair sitting in the driver's seat. She holds the phone to her ear with one hand while the other is searching through her glove box. Her face glistens in the sun and I'm not sure if that is because of her makeup or her tears.
I am at the bank waiting in line to exchange my Australian dollars to Euros so I can have enough to spoil my mum with a pretty silk scarf. The lady behind the counter yells something and I take it as a cue to walk up to her.
"Parlez-vous anglais?" I ask her. It's the only French I've ever needed to say here.
"Non. Pardon," she replies as she waves her hand.
I take out my foreign money and ask her if she could change them to Euros but she does not move.
"You cross zee road and at zee corner, turn right until you find zee American bank," she says through pursed lips and she points at the door that I had come from. "We are closed."
I am at Sacré Cœur where large groups of African men are hassling other tourists to tie strings around their wrists. A 'no' does not mean anything here and one follows us up the stairs and I quickly grab onto my cousin's hand so that I don't get left behind. At Notre-Dame there are gypsy girls who ask to sign petitions. I make the mistake of signing one thinking no harm but she persists for me to pay 50 euros and after I tell her I can't, more girls crowd around me, grabbing my arms and demanding that I must. I have never felt so scared about myself and my belongings before. I have never felt so alone in a place buzzing with people.
By the last day in Paris, I walk through the park trying to fight back tears. I am frustrated and sad and sick. I find my way back to the hostel and crawl into bed under the thin white sheet of a blanket. I have never felt so homesick before. I miss my mum and my home and my bed and the way mum knows exactly what remedy to heal me when I tell her I'm sick. I miss my boyfriend and his home and his bed and his cuddles and his words of comfort that soothes me when I'm not feeling the best. I miss the local supermarket down the road where I buy all my necessary things; I miss the highway that runs through Melbourne and takes us to places with pleasant memories; I miss being comforted by sights and sounds of comfortable things.
I wake up to the setting sun and a damp pillow. I hate Paris.
It is 4 in the morning and I am on a bus to the airport. The roads are quiet but not empty. Every street corner there is a figure lying on the ground, on the steps, on the benches. Some have blankets over them and some have newspapers. Some have pets snuggling close to them and some are just by themselves. I feel so disconnected to them, as though I am only just watching a movie through the window.
Paris, the city of love and light. Of pastel coloured macarons and delicate patisseries. Of quaint little cafes that groove to live accordion music. Of beautifully dressed boys with chiseled jawlines. These are the things that I wanted to capture but the truth is, everything I had ever known about Paris, I had learnt through a romanticized lens and the reality of it haunts me.