It was dreaming that took me to Paris. At the overwhelmingly bureaucratic stage of crumpled Erasmus forms and missed meetings I told myself I was being suitably Bohemian by simply writing “anywhere entertaining” instead of choosing a university, but in reality it all just seemed too fantastic to grasp from the sleep-inducing warmth of that Appleton Tower lecture theatre we all knew so well. So I just let them decide my fate for this mysterious year abroad. And there I sat drifting in and out of consciousness as soft Edinburgh accents explained grants and credit systems, dates and figures on projector screens, while I perfected the shading on my doodle of a Vaughan Rogers-llama-hybrid. Detailed as his fur was, I was still no further towards an understanding of what was to come. And so, a few months later, I found myself sleepwalking onto the Eurostar at some horrifically early hour, lugging instruments and suitcases of half unwashed clothes and emerging into a Parisian morning at Gare du Nord.
Before my arrival in the city of love I had been warned. My image of Paris somewhat consisted of a bureaucratic hell where I would stand in queues, trembling beside cold, arrogant Parisians who, if they weren’t constantly on strike, were busy hating the English and drinking black coffee the price of gold. Oh, also I would be either homeless or a pauper. The last part seems to have some weight. Despite many years now of the Erasmus culture, thousands of baffled étrangers pile in around the Eiffel Tower, with little support, and are greeted with the terrifying prospect of flat-hunting in another language. That means half an hour to understand the terms of the rent, the fact that the gas is brought in in canisters because this used to be a squat, that you have unknowingly landed in the Banlieues (famous for high crime rates and riots), why the guy in the corner is playing didgareedoo, oh and just in case you were a bit distracted there you should probably tell them a bit about yourself so they can judge your suitability for their painfully cool artist commune. In fact, if you’re not careful you could begin to attribute more significance than is fair to that fact that, while we differentiate between strangers, foreigners and strange people in general, the French have only one word: étranger.
To be honest, I felt pretty damn étrange when I arrived covered in bags and boxes, spluttering bad French and not even sure that the Philosopher in blue trousers who had agreed to rent his study to me, when I met him in a bar in August, would still be there in his pimp boudoir with purely red lighting and a library of Nietzsche. Thankfully, he was. His blue trousers were a little wet from the washing up that required him to wear sunglasses because he finds it “too ugly for naked eyes”. And there I was, with my guitar, in my new home, in a new language, with the Eiffel Tower shining its rotating beam somewhere in the distance – a much-needed symbol to place me, unmistakably, in this famous city, a little bulb of reality amidst the dream.
And now, a month on, the acoustics of my street feel familiar, like the man who sells me my fruit and veg and the smell of the metro and the sound of the ambulances and even this strange language that felt like a big obtrusive pomme in my mouth when I tumbled out of the station. I have a license to busk in the metro and have just begun classes at the Sorbonne. It’s pretty daunting being lectured to for three hours in high-brow French and I suppose with time I will develop a better technique than spending time desperately trying to formulate one grammatical sentence in my notes, without being too behind. (And let me just take a moment of solidarity for anyone else with stationary-related wrath in France. WHY DO THEY ONLY SELL SQUARED PAPER?). Overwhelmingly large as the map appears, and frustratingly untangle-able the network of metro lines seems when you first arrive in a new city, it gradually starts to unravel into something manageable and (thank the lord) enjoyable. The key is to find little routines to take pleasure in. That way you reconcile the new and the foreign with the comfort of the everyday. Every morning I have breakfast on my tiny balcony, looking out onto the community garden just in front of my flat. I sip my coffee while watching people tend their tiny squares of plants. Those slow moments are the ones I will look back on in years to come that will make me smile. They are the crucial moments that allow me to make a strange, foreign place a home. They are also the moments where I daydream.