Ten years ago, I moved to Paris. It was a life-changing experience and one which I remember fondly.
Well, I remember bits of it fondly. Most of the Summer months were spent pissed out of my gourd on cheap bordeaux on the banks of the Sienne, trying to busk enough money to afford a baguette at the end of the day.
It was awesome. It was tragic. It was cliche. It was oh so boho. I remember one night melting candles into leftover bottles in my squalid room one night, laughing my ass off at how much of a cliched bohemian writer I’d become.
Hah. What an absolute prick. I loved every minute of it.
But one memory stuck out in particular. I cannot help but come back to it tonight as such heartbreaking news emerges out of the city that treated me so well.
Ten years ago, the shoe was on the other foot and a stranger’s words left a hugely lasting impact.
July, 2005. London had been attacked by four suicide bombers, leaving 52 people dead. I happened to be on the same train as one of the soon-to-be murderers, but that’s a story for another day.
About a week later, I was making my way through the city with everything I owned on my back, en route to Paris. The atmosphere in London was horrible – a tangible dread hung over every street… like, moreso than usual, because let’s face it, London isn’t exactly the most superlatively chipper place on the planet even at the best of times.
I’m sad, but not ashamed, to admit that I was scared that day. I eyed people suspiciously, and added hours onto my journey by consciously avoiding all public transport and tourist hotspots.
After countless trains, a couple of buses, one taxi, a ferry and a considerable amount of time later, I made it to Paris.
There’s little I can say here that hasn’t already been said before about the love/hate relationship the English and French share with each other. To exacerbate things, that Summer we had just won the bid to host the Olympics – a surprise result, and right up until the last minute everyone thought it’d go to France.
In a nutshell, they weren’t dancing around and singing Frère Jacques about this.
On arriving at Gare du Nord, exhausted, the first thing I did was hit a bar. It was one of those exceptionally local places – the kind where the old record player screeches to a halt the second a stranger walks in, and every old man in the bar cranes their neck just to give you a good eyeballin’.
This did not faze me. I strode to the bar, trying my best to blend in. By coincidence, my disguise was practically perfect; I looked like a pretentious twat anyway, so I was fairly confident the French would mistake me for one of their own.
I ordered a drink, but my accent must have given it away. The big, drunk guy to my right gestured in my direction.
“Angleterre?” He slurred.
I’m not one of those assholes that insist everyone speak English when I go abroad – far from it – but France is one of the few places that not only delights in making sure you feel damn uncomfortable if you can’t speak a word of their language, but also doesn’t tolerate you trying your best to speak French. If you ain’t speaking fluently in their tongue, they get annoyed…
… and take that anger out on you.
In French, naturally.
“Il est malheureux sur les Jeux olympiques, non?”
Oh christ. He was taunting me about the Olympics. I nodded solemnly and apologised sincerely, pulling a little sad face that suggested I’d do everything in my power to reverse the decision on my return to The Land of The Eternal Cold Virus.
I turned back to my drink, hoping to avoid all further conversation. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the guy’s hand grabbed me by the arm.
“Hey.” The grip tightened.
Fight or flight kicked in. What the hell was I supposed to do? Hit the guy? Steal his garlic cloves and unicycle away? Stall him by constructing an invisible box he’d be forced to mime his way out of?
I turned, fully expecting to be either offered a delightful wine-tasted afternoon at his vineyard in the Loire valley, or punched in the nose.
To my surprise, neither happened. He spoke in English.
“The bombings. Last week. It’s… uh… how you say? Very upsetting. You have my sympathies, mes ami. You have all our sympathies.”
He gestured around the bar. Every single person in there nodded solemnly.
“As long as you are in Paris,” the man continued, “you consider this your home.”
For the rest of the day, wine was consumed and friends were made. Tears were even shed from both sides as the alcohol really got flowing. That day, all faux animosity was dropped.
Britain and France stood side by side in the face of heartbreak and horrible tragedy…
… just as we do tonight.