One of the first foreign cities I visited as a dorky and curious thirteen-year-old was Paris. I went with Mum in the middle of an irksome winter and it wasn’t like Wow, it’s Paris! It was more like Well, it’s Paris.
But just like a singular encounter with a special person will always remain an affair, the world’s greatest cities – if only visited once – will always remain but a whiff of grandeur and mystery. They deserve a relationship formed over time during various seasons of the year, in different company and frame of mind.
Paris and I had a difficult time getting started. At first, we developed an unchanged routine over my many visits, always in the cooler months. The city provided frigid temperatures, wintry skies, and blustery rains. I responded by working my way through its museums and galleries, with unpleasant little sprints and an occasional caffeination in between.
Two decades after my first visit, Samira, my French Couchsurfing guest, shared delicious tales of summertime Paris and salsa dancing on the banks of the Seine, and with this came a realisation. I have to do this on my next birthday. Between the birth of a plan and its execution lie a few short months and a plane ticket.
On a wet Thursday morning I land in the French capital with a highly sybaritic plan to salsa my big day to the backdrop of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and other works of medieval genius.
Paris, Saturday May 30th 2015.
The Plan: Put on my killer new red dress and head to the river with a group of fun new friends I hope to meet on Couchsurfing in my first few days in the city.
The Reality: This is the same May when it rains so much in France that the flooding makes the world news. The Louvre’s artworks are being evacuated. Samira’s dancing pads are under water, and people living on houseboats are swimming back home. It’s sheer misery outside.
I put on my too-awesome red dress and head down to the hostel bar to meet anyone willing to help me salvage the day with a few cocktails.
The bar is buzzing. Stefan from Germany has a sweet but ordinary face and seems like a harmless entry point into an evening filled with stimulating conversation. “Don’t steal my idea!” he pleads before revealing his life plans. He has spreadsheeted the next eight years: time, money, everything. At the end, permanent financial freedom awaits.
“What if you meet someone?” I’m the queen of uncomfortable questions.
“I have a separate spreadsheet for that. It would delay my freedom by four years.” Stefan’s precision is admirable, as is his expertise. He’s writing three books all at once. “The first one is about how to live life. All from my personal observations, to help these people who have no idea.”
“That’s fascinating! And the other two?” I play along.
“I can’t remember exactly, but I have it all written down.” The German leaves me uniformly surprised. I untangle myself and move on to the next resident fruitcake, and more unconventional wisdom.
Xavier is an Argentinian who can’t manage with “any less than ten pairs of jeans and thirty T-shirts” in his backpack. I haven’t made enough progress on my drink to prepare me for this next epiphany: “I’m not into conspiracy theories but you know how we all came from dinosaurs, right? Well, with all this technology and us spending time on computers and phones and hunching over all the time, we’re going back to looking like dinosaurs. I know it’s far-fetched but I’ve read it somewhere and it makes sense.”
I plunge into a mild depression. Why can’t I ever have a good time in Paris? Come back when the summer has actually started, sing the annoyingly wise little voices in my head which I ignore far too often.
A couple of years later, it’s mid-June when I install myself in a hotel right in the heart of Paris. A handful of euros get me a smelly upper-floor room with ripped-up linoleum, a squeaky hospital-grade metal bed, agile bedbugs, and a toilet two floors down. Outside, a proliferation of old prostitutes parade their fat rolls and ripped fishnet stockings. The building shakes with loud sex from a gay couple on the floor below; my many neighbours throw their cackles, profanities, and snide observations into the well-like inner courtyard. But I’m not here to bask in the delights of this novel kind of communal living. I have two minutes to holometabolise from caterpillar to butterfly and run out. The stars have lined up in mysterious ways, and three of my most prodigious friends happened to descend on Paris at the same time. Like moth, we all gathered, and Paris provided the light.
Didi and I met in Senegal, waiting for a hopelessly delayed flight at Dakar’s crammed airport. His back story is movie-worth. An Ivorian raised by an adoptive family in Mauritania, as a teenager he ran away on a crude hand-made boat to seek refuge on the Canary Islands. Never the one to sit still, my friend has just moved to Paris to try his luck at the police academy, arriving days before I did.
Full of post-colonial antagonism, Didi jumps the subway tourniquets with ideological fervour, insisting that the Paris Metro was built on the bones of his grandfather. Truth is, he’s penniless. We picnic on the raw summer earth by the walls of the impenetrable Chateau de Vincennes. The following month, Didi fails the police exams, but a couple of years later, he’s a big businessman, heading ambitious projects both in Africa and France.
That same evening, I have a backstage invite to a cult Malian band, Songhoy Blues, in which my friend Ali is the lead singer. These world-class musicians and freedom fighters were driven from their native Timbuktu by the extreme Sharia law advocates who called their art “Satan’s music” and became the stars of the documentary They Will Have to Kill us First: Malian Music in Exile.
Tonight, they are performing at the sweaty, heaving La Maroquinerie, home to all things indie in Paris. Ali is warming up his limbs to Amadou & Mariam’s timeless tunes while the rest of the band heat up the dressing rooms with a political dust-up. They work themselves up to steaming anger, then rupture with laughter, remembering there’s still a lot to love about life.
The untameable spirit roaring in that little room is a preview for the raw energy of the show. The boys rip up the stage and have the crowd in flames. I stand dazzled, breathless, trickling with sweat.
The afterparty sounds riveting, but there is somewhere else I need to be. This day is not just any day. It may be the most exhilarating day I’ve ever had. And not just in Paris – anywhere.
Ever-so-striking Hector is already waiting in a tiny bar in Le Marais. One of Dominican Republic’s most talented and prolific contemporary artists, we met in Santo Domingo and developed a mojito-drinking ritual any time both of us happen to be on the same continent. He is touring Europe with his art lecture series, in Paris only for one night. We drink and dance what’s left of the dark hours by the gates of Saint-Denis. In the morning, Hector flies to Sweden with a tube of paintings and a small backpack. I feel a stab of emotion, sharp as Paris rain in winter. I never know if it’s the last time I’m seeing him. We like each other, but like all artists, my enigmatic friend belongs to his art and not to me or anybody else.
I’m finally left tête-à-tête with summer Paris. The Paris which basks in the sunshine on neat little chairs in front of manicured flower beds of Jardin de Luxembourg. The city of picnics and ankle-strap heels, far more relaxed and cordial than its winter self.
Well, here I am, after all these years. Show me what you’ve got.
What Paris has is Fête de la Musique, a day when the city – along with the rest of France and cities in a hundred and twenty other countries – goes into a state of music-induced bacchanalia. On the 21st of June each year, musicians and DJs take to the streets to play for free. From taiko drums to jazz and Afrobeat, from salsa to kizomba and twist, all along the Seine, in every square and archway, on cafe tables and park benches, Paris takes its joie de vivre to the extreme. For fifteen hours straight, I dance and drink vigne rouge, no longer feeling stupid in a fabulous idée fixe red dress. Why did it take me more than twenty years to learn how to have a good time in Paris? I want to catch this city by the tail, extend this dream by two more crêpes, but it starts throwing rain on my head, hinting that it will all be downhill from here. Au revoir, Paris! Until we meet again, some future June.