There's a strange sense of symmetry as I write this as, in many ways, I feel the same right now that I did on the day that I'm writing about. I say this because I only had two hours of sleep last night and still have a long day at work ahead of me. On that day I'd had no sleep at all and had even more challenges ahead. It's curious to think that I can be in the same physical state, yet the circumstances I'm in produce such a different feeling. So here I go....
I arrived in Paris - in Europe - for the first time at 7am on a Sunday morning. I was exhausted, hot, sweaty, grumpy, confused and probably delirious. I can't sleep at all on planes, so I'd been awake for the last 33 hours. Despite that (or possibly because of it) everything seemed like a marvel - the airport that looked like a particularly ugly football stadium, the posters advertising perfume and department stores (French department stores!), even the man who stamped my passport and waved me through rudely without looking at me. As my life partner / travelling companion and I rode the travelator through a dimly-lit, stuccoed tunnel, it seemed like a magical cave full of wonder. I stared at the grimy yellow walls and imagined what fairyland would be at the far end. We waited a long time at the dirty-smelling baggage carousel, but that was perfectly fine - because I was in Paris! Finally Georgina tumbled down the chute and onto the carousel. Twice now my suitcase had arrived overseas with me problem-free. It may be because I named and tagged it like a pet, or it may be merely because reputable airlines are actually quite competent. Regardless, I took possession and wheeled it out of Charles de Gaulle Airport in a daze.
We stood on the threshold - the beginning of our holiday, our adventure in Europe - in other words, the kerbside passenger pick-up area at the airport. After we made a quick call at a phone booth (a French one!), a man in a mini-bus came to pick us up and take us to our hotel. We thanked him in our limited French and he drove out into the early morning sunlight.
No longer clutching onto Georgina's handle, knowing it was safe on the bus, I gazed through the window, allowing myself to become mesmerised. We shot past fields bordered with fluffy trees, the same ones from the paintings I've studied. Slowly they gave way to industrial buildings, furniture stores and sports stadiums. In turn, these became quaint apartment buildings, exactly the same as the one Amelie had lived in. It didn't matter whether it was a tree or a billboard, a cow or a wrought-iron balcony. Everything was lit with that soft, golden sunlight, oozing lazily like honey, making everything seem so much more special. The streets were deserted as we glided through them; they passed in a blur of beauty and history, every tiny detail steeped in meaning. I gasped in delight at every corner we turned, every vignette that unfolded in front of me. How long did it take to get to the hotel? I don't remember and I don't care. This was the experience I'd always dreamed of.
This was a special moment that I'll always treasure - seeing the Paris I'd always imagined. I managed to grasp it in for few fleeting minutes, before the real Paris crashed into my senses - the city with the heat and the dust, the hawkers and the pickpockets, the crowds and the lack of public toilets. Because the most romantic city in the world is still a city, after all.