The first thing I did in Paris was take a photo of a baguette. Or, more specifically, an ageing man holding a baguette, hooking it under his arm as if that’s what the nook on the other side of your elbow was always meant for. He strode confidently down the open street, marching past gaggles of tourists with their cameras out and ready, and crepeieries, a word I never knew existed until that day. I followed him closely, not just because that’s the way google maps was telling me to go, although it was. I was following him because he looked like he knew how things worked, and if there was one thing I’d learnt during my little gallivant across Europe, it’s that the safest way to cross a busy road wasn’t to wait for the traffic lights to turn but to follow somebody who knew what they were doing.
Eventually, as we past a woman sitting alone at a restaurant, her shoulders bare and free from her loose fitting dress, great clouds of smoke drifting lazily from her crimson lips, I detached from my baguette wielding guide and turned down a steep road. The buildings were tall in paris, and seemed to consistently play host to balconies, staring down. I saw the odd person up there, blowing smoke out into the world, watching with hardened confidence. I ignored them as they acknowledged me, and I searched for the sign to my hostel.
I found not one hostel but two, standing perfectly opposite one another. Through the wide glass windows to the front of the buildings I could see tables and chairs and people, lonely and a little bored, clearly disappointed with the social energy. Still, I was only here for one night, so as long as the bed wasn’t a rock I think I’d be happy.
Upstairs, I let out a breath. I always found myself somehow exhausted after finding a hostel. I wouldn’t realise it until I stopped moving for just a second but turning up somewhere new and not knowing what to do, it was stressful. It was all stressful, to be honest. The whole massive, insignificant thing. What was meant to be a fun little adventure, an excuse to actually do something before I threw myself head first into the terrifying reality of my future, had become some twisted battle with my own mind, one where each day was less about the crazy places I’d found myself in and more about trying to smile rather than cry in public. I’d wasted so much time, I realised up on the third floor of that hostel. This was the last day I’d have here for a pretty long time, maybe ever, and even now, even as I acknowledged my ungratefulness, I was dwelling on myself and my inexplicable feelings.
I glanced over to the balcony, and felt a bead of sweat run down my back. If I was going to mope, it would be better to mope out there, in the humid evening shadow. I grabbed at a cheap plastic stool they’d left in the room and dragged it outside, and I sat there, leaning over the iron railing, watching the tiny little people go about their day below. A man wandered down with his great flapping dog, his clothes as loose fitting as his pets skin. Sexy people with sexy stares went by with purpose, while sexy people with sexy smiles watched them from café windows. I leaned back, and grinned at the sheer frenchness of it.
I had been dreading Paris, a little. I knew I’d love the food, as my audible moans upon first biting in to a freshly baked baguette would later prove, and I suspected I might like the fashion, a place where my absurd hair cut didn’t make me feel entirely out of place and where it was the men who had the burden of donning stupidly skinny jeans while the women had useable pockets galore. But my image of France is a romantic one, and so far it hadn’t exactly done much to dissuade me from that idea. A place for couples, a place for lovers to stroll great bridges, umbrellas held high. A place sure to make someone lonely and a little bit desperate like me pretty grumpy. But what I’d found, so far at least, was that while the sexuality and romance of Paris was most certainly present, it wasn’t so pointed as it had been in places like Italy. It was full of adults flirting and smiling and going on dates, proper human adults, not those annoying teenagers who are apparently the same age as me but have somehow already found the time to hold hands with fifty different people in their short lives. It wasn’t a taunting romance but a comfortable one, a place where the idea of love and companionship doesn’t die when you notice wrinkles and a strand of grey in your hair.
Or maybe that was all nonsense. Maybe Paris was a city like any other, dirty and beautiful and terrible and great. Maybe I should stop being such a tourist, and stop getting a little bit excited every time I saw a croissant. Maybe, just maybe, a little bit of why I wasn’t so sad to see those people in their cafes, leaning back and looking for love in their perfectly casual way, was because I was getting a little bit better at being on my own.
I’d felt it before, in Switzerland. I hadn’t fought off tears in public, not even once, which I’d spent about thirty percent of my time in Italy doing. I was struggling, struggling to feel particularly happy I was there and not at home, still wallowing of course but at least doing so in the comfort of an oversized bed. But I wasn’t crying, and right now, on that hostel balcony, watching over the far away street below, crying wasn’t something I could do even if I’d tried.
A thunderous bang erupted through the sky. I jumped, and saw the shadows of heads turn through the windows in the hostel opposite. It was the clap of thunder, louder than I’d heard in years, and a few moments later the sky was alight with alien blue, a crooked zig zag of blinding colour marking the darkened sky. My heart was beating, and I laughed at myself, at how scared I’d become so quickly. My eyes drifted across, and I saw someone else, the same floor as me but staying at the hostel opposite, sitting on their balcony and looking around. They saw me, and for some reason I waved. To my surprise, they waved back.
This was okay. No, it wasn’t just okay, it was good. It was my last day here and that hurt, to think it’d taken this long to really appreciate how cool what I was doing could be. But it didn’t hurt that much, because this was only okay because I was okay, and I wasn’t okay when I’d set off, and I’m still not now, but I’d learned a hell of a lot about how to handle myself in Europe, and on that balcony beneath a glowing sky, I managed to make use of those lessons.
A girl shuffled out onto the balcony next door, and she looked surprised when she noticed me. I should have been panicking right then, because that’s what you do when a strangers nearby, but I didn’t. I’d chatted to Swiss performance artists and Australian holidaymakers and Italians terribly confused as to why Mario shared their nationality, and one Transylvanian woman much too eager to talk about the bear problems they were having. I could talk to this girl, whoever she was, whatever had brought her out onto the balcony this evening. For a little while, at least. We didn’t share very many words before the sky opened up and the rain began to pour, but we did share a few, and that was okay. I didn’t need anything more, not to keep my mind away from itself, or to make me feel less lonely, or to make the journey feel somehow more worthwhile. I was happy to have said hello. I was happy to have sat on that balcony for much too long, thinking and musing and smiling at the stereotypes of France I couldn’t help but seeing. I was happy to have come all this way, even if it wasn’t very far at all, because I’d done it on my own, and I’d finished with a smile.