How I experienced the world's most romantic city alone
It's 4:30 a.m. St. Pancras station is cold and mostly empty, a drained kind of empty that anticipates a second swell. The girl behind the café counter makes it a point to be reserved, and when I leave a tip she blushes. I sip from my coffee before turning back to face the station. Black, two sugars. I didn't sleep last night, but I don't care. I'm going to Paris.
Minutes later a voice tells me that my train is boarding. I leave the platform and start in search of my row, picking up on different languages as I move further into the car. I fall back in my seat and the next time I open my eyes, I'm in Paris.
The tour I've signed up with for the day is convening on a platform just inside of Gare du Nord, where our guide is taking a headcount. She holds my attention with her signature French lilt, turning the last few words of each sentence up a few octaves as if she's asking a question I must answer. The undeniable allure of Parisian women, I decide then, is that they demand to be considered closely, from the self-aware way that they walk to the sweet cadence that plays over their every word.
As my group heads toward our charter, I notice that most of them are married. The third wheel to at least six different couples, I let them choose their seats and eventually settle on a window seat toward the front of the bus.
The Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Musée d'Orsay. I see them in flipbook fashion, but with true color and movement. Before I know it, I'm out of my seat and in line for a riverboat cruise down the Seine with a clear view of the Eiffel Tower.
On the topmost deck, I stand under the Eiffel Tower's shadow and hear Louis Armstrong think to himself, "What a Wonderful World." I see couples that are unremarkable in their own right, but together seem lit up by something I can't see. They are in Paris and they are in love. I am in Paris and I am in — I am in nothing and this freedom brings a peace of mind that you only experience a few times in life, if ever at all.
I memorize the details, the way the sun hits the locks on the Pont des Arts and how Louis Armstrong's voice swells as we sail under the gilded bridge, thinking of how I might tell the story one day when I'm settled. How I was in Paris, when neither he nor I were yet he and I, the only other time I felt whole.
The boat docks, as they're so often bound to do, and I take an elevator up the Eiffel Tower to Le Jules Verne, where I drink a glass of Champagne and enjoy 360-degree views of the Trocadéro Gardens. I am in a dream, and so I forget my sleeplessness.
When I remember the time, I rejoin my group at the bus for our journey back to Gare du Nord. Somewhere between here and the 10th arrondissement, I realize I need another coffee for the trip back to London and decide to stop at the café across from the station.
A man is sitting by the door with a change cup and five stuffed dogs that he's carefully arranged around a bowl of water. He says something to me in French. I must stare long enough for him to realize I don't understand, so he repeats in English, "We all need water." He smiles a real smile and I return the favor because this is Paris and even something as sad and strange as the scene before me reads poetic.
The hostess seats me at a table outside where I can watch people coming and going from the métro. In Paris, almost all of the chairs on sidewalk cafes are street-facing, as if the streets themselves are worth remembering.
Calling me back to attention, my waiter asks for my order and tells me I'm very pretty, which I know is a lie since I've now been up for 36 hours, but I laugh and thank him anyway. He asks where I'm from and I tell him.
"Your first time in Paris, petite fille!" He winks and continues, "The trick is to leave home, yes?"
The real trick is to go, I think. Before you have a reason to leave or a person to leave with, go fall in love with the places you've only ever read about, and leave knowing that if a place like Paris is within reach, then every other beautiful thing is closer than you think.
I nod back at him, but I know better.