Ditching my bags at a Paris hostel rubbed with graffiti and grime, I had no maps or guidebooks, just the name of the city’s oldest district, Montmartre, scribbled in my guidebook. It used to be the playground of Hemingway, Dali, absinthe and cabarets. It sounded perfect. I took the metro straight there.
As I stepped out of the carriage, the streets were still in full swing, the bright white basilica Sacre-Coeur more magnificently curved and lascivious than any church should dare. Darting away from shady men asking if I’d like to ‘boom boom’, I climbed the steps to the church and looked out across Paris to the Eiffel Tower. Sitting on the church steps, surrounded by dozens of exchange students and couples, we cheered as an Arab busker belted out Springsteen and Bob Dylan hits. As the sun fell over the lilac rooftops and cigarette butt chimneys of Paris, I drank beer with a French man with bad teeth who sat in the cold beside me.
I bade au revoir and wandered into the night hungry. Pavement bistros were full of handsome men and women tapping cigarettes and debating with red lips. Everything looked as beautiful as I imagined, but I felt lost among the hopeless romance of it all. The idea of dining alone surrounded by people laughing and dining a deux was more lonely than I could bear.
Instead, I walked the little streets of Montmartre until my feet turned blue. Turning onto the main avenue of sex shops and sad characters hanging under red lights by the Moulin Rouge, I couldn’t stop remembering my vow to never to visit Paris until I had found ‘the one’, the love of my life. Here I was, alone in Paris, and ridiculous as it was, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself.
The next day I climbed the Eiffel Tower in the rain, walked along magnificent streets that smelled of chestnut blossom and April showers, and finally went back to the cavernous hostel, damp, tired and alone, always alone.
A big group joked on the hostel’s veranda overlooking the canal, smoking and laughing in a way that only beautiful can. It was evening and I wanted to be there, with the hip kids, not here with the nervous-looking backpackers surrounded by crumpled maps and water bottles.
I made up my mind, bolted my shyness inside, then went outside and said hello, or more accurately, opened the glass door and exhaled, “I’m bored.” They were awesome people from all over the world who had been working in the hostel for a month or a year or more. We joked about this and that, everything and nothing, and for once I forgot about my timidity.
A few girls and guys from the group asked me to dinner at theirs. With relief I said yes. We walked down a leafy street to their tired high-rise in the 18th arrondissement, all the while followed by a homeless man with no shoes, too mad or sad to say anything other than, ‘Bap bap bap bap’.
One of the guys, a sweet twenty year-old, Boca from Sao Paulo, turned out to be a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant. He cooked us chicken with noodles and radishes, which we ate on the balcony with good wine.
Being alone doesn’t always last long, and at that moment I was glad that I was not with a boyfriend, trapped inside a bubble of meals for two and private hotel rooms; a place which precludes innocent, new friendships in foreign places. My new friends and I drank more wine and went out to the Bastille area, dancing in the dingy bars and the cobbled streets of Paris until 5 am, asking the bartenders for glasses of milk in a way that seemed funny at the time.
The next day, my old university friend David arrived for the weekend. We took old memories down leafy streets, creating new jokes all the while as we imagined spending millions on antiques and fancy watches down the moneyed streets of Marais.
We went to the bookstore Shakespeare & Co, with its cherry blossoms and tourists who’d all seen Midnight in Paris, and traipsed the sad little string of streets on the Rue Mouffart, enjoying Croque Madames and onion soup in warm little bistros as the wind howled grey outside.
On Sunday night I stayed with an old French friend Pierre. Getting up early, I went back to that sweet bookstore Shakespeare & Co that morning, and played their piano up the ramshackle stairs. It was beautifully quiet up there. Finally, alone in Paris I felt at home.
That’s why I travel. Because sometimes, without even a penny in my pocket, I find myself eating a Michelin-starred meal in Paris. Because sometimes, even in a city I’ve seen in the movies a thousand times before, I find more beauty than I ever realized was out there. Because sometimes, there’s a city that makes me believe in Man.
“I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.” — Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris