I was probably feeling a little too pleased with myself. That must have been it. A Monday morning, up before the dawn, I had – swaddled in my faux fur coat, my comfy trainers on and coffee held jauntily aloft – sailed through all the usual scans and checks to take my seat on a Eurostar. It was a day trip to Paris; a hop across the Channel for little mooch about, for no other reason than it being possible, and something I’ve not taken advantage of nearly enough. Strange, how we can feel content in the assurance of possibility, but forget to actually DO the thing. I silently applauded two-months-ago-me who had snapped up tickets for £28 each way. (Nice work, two-months-ago-me, you deserve a croissant.)
Taking the 5.40am train from Kings Cross will deliver you into the cavernous echoing throng of Gare du Nord by 9.17am, which is precisely the right time to hit the nearest boulangerie. (Well, get well clear of the station first.) Take the 8.13pm back that evening and you can be home in Blighty by 9.39pm, ready to fall straight into bed. With check-in times and all, you’ll have a little over 9 hours to spend in the City of Lights.
But plans, as it is in life, can sometimes go wrong. The Eurostar emerged from the dark of the Channel tunnel into the bright morning of the Normandy countryside… and then lurched to a complete stop. We sat there a bit. We sat there a bit longer. Eventually we were informed the train had broken down, the power was switched off, and there we continued to sit for the next three hours. Eventually the train was rolled into Lille, where we were shimmied onto a replacement train to Gare du Nord. By this point it was 1.30pm. And I was gasping for a pastry.
Five and a half hours in Paris is better than no hours in Paris. But since my time had been so brutally slashed, so too was my itinerary. Gone was early morning browsing of the flea markets at Cliquencourt. Gone was the climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe (I’ve still never done that). Gone was the cultural musings amongst the art in the Musée d’Orsay. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful crisp autumn day in Paris, so I dispensed with the Metro – gone – and set off on foot.
I ventured through the gritty, pretty streets of the Marais, to Yann Couvreur, for un cafe latte and a fist-sized pistachio pastry scroll. My wanderings took me past Chanel, where I resisted temptation to enter the gates of style and instead treated myself to some elegant ballpoint pens from Papier Tigre. I browsed the racks of chic but eye-wateringly expensive vintage clothing and stacks of cool modern kitchenware at Merci, and crossed the river to poke around Shakespeare & Co, the bookshop I am determined to go to whenever in Paris. They have a new cafe attached, and curiosity – plus a growing urgency to charge my phone, which I was using as my camera – took me inside, where I plugged in my charger behind a stack of satisfyingly leafed-through books and ordered a noisette. (Only after the first sip remembered that noisette coffee has nothing to do with hazelnuts. I may well forget this again.) From there I strolled the backstreets of St Germain, past the cafes and restaurants with their rows of little tables on the pavement, stopping to buy the perfect Breton from Saint James and popping in to La Chambre aux Confitures to try the handmade jams. The day could not have been more perfect, the air cool and crisp, the trees that lined the Seine turned to an avenue of gold, and people wrapped up in smart coats and light wafty scarves. Paris in the spring time is lyricised often, but Paris in the autumn is especially glorious.
The afternoon was fading into evening by the time I crossed the Pont Royal and made my way through the well-kept Jardin des Tuileries. And now I was running dangerously low on battery (thanks to four hours on a powerless Eurostar). This was the moment I realised, unhappily, that for all my determination to ignore my phone I still relied on it, not only as a camera, but as my map and clock. The streets west of Pyramides loomed grey and empty, all glitzy hotels and offices and fine-dining – no cafes to be seen – and my always-comfortable shoes began to give me blisters as I roamed the blocks. Until at last, I staggered into Cafe de la Comedie, a little red-toned brasserie on Rue St Honore. The only table with a plug socket, I was informed, was the one beside the bar – a great place to sit and keep warm from the autumnal evening, to watch the comings and goings of the patrons and to listen to the weathered old barman sing quietly to himself as he polished the glasses. I ordered a Campari and gentiane de salers from the waitress with angel wings tattooed on her shoulders. Later, phone and sanity suitably recharged, I went to pay; a problem of minimum card spend was solved, thanks to my Parisian angel, by ordering a campari and soda in a coffee cup, to go. The old barman, amused, muttered something in French as he tipped ice into a cup and prepared my well-disguised dirty secret. One for the road!
I sipped my drink and giggled to myself, shrouded in a light Campari haze, as I made my way to E.Dehillerin. This famous kitchenware store is somehow both tiny and cavernous at once, its high-ceiling and basement-level shelves stocked to the rafters with all things cookery, customers squeezing through the gaps. Everything – from enormous stainless steel soup pots to the tiniest sugar spoon – is labelled with a number corresponding to their hefty catalogues. I had tried, and failed, to get here on two previous visits to the city, so was not leaving empty handed. I selected a lovely little paring knife with a wooden handle for just a few euros, E.Dehillerin etched into its blade. Whenever I use it I can remember being there, browsing the wares, cocktail in hand and ever so slightly tipsy.
Finally, with an hour before my check-in at Gare du Nord, I stopped for a meal. Walking-weary and coming off my Campari buzz, I found a table in a corner and plopped myself into the red-leather banquette. The good-humoured waiter even accepted my paltry French. I liked this place. Only once my steak bavette and frites arrived did I realise how hungry I actually was and swatted away the usual norms of etiquette and trying to appear elegantly Parisian. I hoofed that food down, my friends, and it was magnifique. Shortly after, having made it back to the station, I sailed right through the immigration process once again. It is the best way to travel. However, the Eurostar heading home was busier than the one I’d been stranded on that morning, and I would not be travelling alone. I took my seat next to a stubbly ol’ snowy-haired gent with a beaten-up jacket and an American accent; ordinarily I would put my polite Tube face on, and go back to my own train of thought but the day in Paris had shaken loose my uptight sensibilities and instead we got chatting. I learned he was a bassist in a couple of blues and jazz bands, one on either side of the Channel, and as a harmonica-playing blues fanatic, I was glad I’d taken the time to start a conversation. The rest of the journey was spent talking music, literature and the perils of the creative process.
Even though five and a half hours in Paris was less than I’d planned for, my brief escapade abroad left me feeling inspired, nourished, satisfied. A miniature adventure is still an adventure. Sure, sometimes things don’t go to plan. But we are living in times of uncomfortable uncertainty. Perhaps we need reminding that anything could happen at any moment. And so – why not take that damned day trip to Paris?