A Weekend In Paris

A warm pressure on my hand tears my gaze from the raging inferno that burns outside of the plane window. 

My hand. His. A thumb stroking the inside of my wrist and a sunset that transforms my travel companion into a being of light. All but his hands – freckled, sun-kissed – which are twinned with mine as Paris fades away thirty thousand feet below. 

It is evening above the clouds; home a fiery line in the distance and Paris falling into dusk now miles behind. I settle into my seat, head resting on his warm shoulder, and watch our procession through the clouds. Already, our trip is a memory. One that is all pink and sun-washed and tinged with tenderness. 

When I think of Paris, it is a photograph folded and refolded so many times that the lines of my remembrance can be seen above the picture. Each time I visit, I carve a new web of tracks across the city’s surface. Contours and routes that recognise my wondering tread and scribbling pen. This Paris was different though. I had another set of footsteps to follow, new paths to etch and memories that have nailed themselves to the recesses of my mind.

He turns his head to look at me. Our economy-class seats have us packed together like sardines in a tin can, but for once, I am perfectly content with that fact. He smiles, brown eyes showing flecks of gold in the evening light. 

I resume my shoulder-resting position and begin to trace lines into the condensation on the window. The swirls spread over Paris which is now nothing more than a pinprick. I go back and forth, indiscernible patterns forming under my touch, and I think how us humans like to leave our mark on things. But when it comes to Paris, I think it’s the one that leaves its mark on me. 

We hurry through streets that are both dark and neon at once; flashing signs for all manner of cuisines, pharmacies, bars and clubs winking seductively as we pass. We’re both exhausted from a day of travel, not to mention a little lost, hurrying as a bed sounds like heaven in this instant.  

“It’s down this street.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Chels. I’m sure.”
“But can you double check though?”

It goes on. This patient, accepting man who, now used to my need to control each variable, meets every second guess of mine with understanding. And whilst I’m fretting that we’ll be wandering these Parisian streets into the dawn, he finds our way. 

We arrive at a quintessentially French, no – quintessentially Parisian building; an echoing courtyard filled with night-blooming flora, cream painted shutters and an entranceway that holds a faded grandness. There’s a party going on – it’s a Friday night, after all – and the sounds of laughter mix with the faint buzz of life from the street. We let the heavy wooden door boom shut behind us and move slowly towards the studio flat, home for the coming days. 

We wake slowly, lazily, unaware that behind thick metal shutters it’s gone noon. Paris has started its day without us. After a hasty breakfast, we are regurgitated out and into lively streets, deciding to be tourists for the day. Wandering feet lead to the grand symmetry of Notre Dame, the worn banks of the Seine; the prisms of light outside the Louvre, the burnished bronze of the Eiffel Tower. It feels more like a summer’s day than late September, the fading trees of passing parks – Luxembourg, Tuileries – are the only indication of the inevitable autumn. His hand is reassuring in mine as we explore what magic the city has to offer. 

We find ourselves on Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It stretches seemingly into infinity in both directions, sunlight forming intricate patterns on the wide boulevards as it filters through leafy trees. The Arc de Triomphe stands resolutely in the distance, almost a mirage in the wavering heat. Unconsciously, we begin to move towards it, entertaining ourselves by ducking in and out of shops we can’t afford throughout the journey. 

The steps are slippery, and my boots struggle to find purchase on stone smoothed from years of service. The winding staircase is dark – I can see little other than the glint of a metal handrail and the movement of his feet a few steps ahead in the artificial glow of an occasional bulb. The shade is welcomed after the sticky heat of the Champs-Élysées, though. I pull myself up and up, feet heavy, chest burning. Around and around we wind in this state of man-made twilight. I’m so engrossed in putting one foot in front of the other that I ignore the coming of daylight until we stumble onto the viewing platform of the Arc de Triomphe; red-faced, breathing heavy. 

All of Paris breaks open before us in a wave of white and grandeur. The September sun is dazzling and it catches the bronze of the Eiffel Tower, the faded cream of Sacré-Cœur in distant Montmartre. He begins to explore, seemingly unafraid of the distance between us and the ground for a man disliking of heights. I unwind my camera from my sticky neck and begin to record this moment. Snap. Sunlight bouncing off a metal telescope. Snap. Avenues stretching from the Arc de Triomphe like lines of a compass. 

Snap. A silhouette captured against the backdrop of Paris.

            He’s studying Montmartre’s Wall of Love like one would a painting, or a piece of art. Among a mass of international declarations of love, he turns to me and says: “I can’t find I love you.”
It’s right here, I want to say, I love you – it’s right here

Montmartre is stained with remnants of bohemian Paris though much has faded under the strain of tourists that pass through these streets each day. Yet, diligently, we fight through the crowds to carve our own mark through this arrondissement. I watch a lady pray, arms crossed over her heart with awe in the sanctuary of Sacré-Cœur. We take in the sights, and each other – Paris on her knees before us. 

This version of Paris has been all dappled light, golden leaves, wandering with no real destination in mind. A hunt for French pastries, sunsets, art and wine. We’re walking through the dusk, apartment buildings rising around us like decadent ice burgs, and I can’t help but hope that he’s fallen in love with the adventure. 

Versailles is perhaps my favourite place in Paris. Or should I say, the Gardens of Versailles. Each time I enter, I feel separate from the crowds and bustling tours bussed in from the city proper. We pick the perfect day for a visit. The actual Palaces of Versailles are shut to the public – filming, is our guess – and so it feels as though we have the entire park to ourselves. 

It is quiet aside from the crunch of gravel under our feet and the caw of crows. Here, it is firmly autumnal; leaves golden, dappled light breaking onto paths that sprawl into miles of woodland. As we walk, I sneak looks at him, gauging a reaction as you would for someone watching your favourite film. He looks peaceful, more secure in himself when he doesn’t have to worry about pickpockets or heaving throngs. 

His motto for this trip has been “just wander, see where the day takes us” – it’s a contrast to my usual itinerary dominated planning, but I’m finding I enjoy the slower pace. I have more time to appreciate things I wouldn’t normally make the time to view. Like how he finds the human marks – graffiti, tags, artworks, murals – littered amongst historical Paris. So, wander we do. Under yellowing trees, through hedgerow mazes, past canals of swans and bronzed statues. We break often to admire the view: the Grand Canal, the Palace itself. Unfortunately, the place to hire row-boats is closed, so we settle on exploring Versailles by bike, instead. 

I can’t fully describe the feeling of racing along the paths of Versailles with wind in my hair. There are few words that summarise the reaction that comes over me, bare legged in September with endless paths ahead and the knowledge that he’s right next to me, experiencing all of this with me. All I know is that each time I look behind, he’s there, wobbling slightly on the heavy bike, bathed in the light of the sun. 

            I open my eyes. The sun has faded fully now, the stars beginning to break through as the plane circles around Bristol. At least I’m assuming we are circling Bristol. The curve of the land and the patterning of evening light is familiar to me, at least. A warm pressure on my hand has brought me out of memories. His thumb strokes the inside of my wrist, familiar and freckled. 

“Welcome home,” he whispers. But somehow, I feel as though I haven’t left home at all. 

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