I had been feeling sick for the best part of our journey on board the Eurostar. I was cursing myself for not being meticulous about writing in my journal every day, while fiddling with the bolt system of the washroom on the train. I was forced to bite my way through a comfortably icy cheese salad sandwich and decant an entire can of Coke, so as to suppress my romance with hypoglycemia.
My parents’ glares told me enough about what could happen if I had gastritis in Paris.
Two hours after boarding the Eurostar at St. Pancras Station in London, we had our final halt. Evening was creeping in when we emerged into the streets of our destination. For a moment, I stared at the palatial station of Gare du Nord, with its creamy yellow body, a colour which cannot be described with any adjective, but one: French.
In that moment, we were lost. Three Calcuttans, disjointed from travel agencies and tour groups, guides and maps and itineraries. In that moment, I was not with my parents – my parents, who were with watches, cell phones, maps and itineraries.
A man standing by a bistro on the pavement called out to me, “Bonsoir!”
“Bonsoir,” I said, turning pink for very silly reasons. Yes, for one brief moment, it was only Paris and I.
Paris, with her magnificent buildings; Paris, with her edgy youth; Paris, with her luscious history; Paris, with her art; Paris, with her “Ah, c’est la vie! Voulez-vous du vin?”
We had a taxi and an Indian representative from Thomas Cook waiting for us. While we drove through neon bars, street-side bistros, adult toy shops and spunky galleries, my parents told the rep about how we got ourselves included on a tour of England and Austria, but detached ourselves from them after London, to join a tour group which started at Paris and went on to Italy and Switzerland.
By seven o’ clock, we reached a small Indian restaurant called Hotel du Parc. This is where we were supposed to wait for the rest of our group, who were coming in from Charles de Gaulle Airport. Before we could make sense of things, the rep and the driver left us on the Hotel’s doorstep, and disappeared into the blue darkness.
Once again, it was Paris and us.
While we waited, we ate a very red chicken curry and naan. Thus began our experience of eating at various little Indian restaurants at some of the world’s most beautiful tourist spots. But, that’s another story.
I watched episode after episode of “Rizzoli and Isles” on the big TV, understanding only the minutest of the language at such speed. There was a bar adjacent to the restaurant, where a stereotypical goth woman, towering and twinkling with jewellery at odd places, served drinks to a group of loud men.
My mother grew afraid of the men. When two of them ventured into the restaurant, tugging playfully at a girl – who enjoyed it immensely – in drunken revelry, my parents could all but fly out into the deserted pavement. But, there was another group of drunk men on the pavement!
Our tour group was late.
I was flustered, because this was not Paris for me. If we were to disintegrate into worry, I wished we would do so at a pretty, fairy-lit cafe, where they served you complementary baguettes.
The Indian waiters struck up a conversation with us. One of them even called our travel agent, Heaven knows how, and assured that our group was on its way. My father was calmed by their conversation about Haryana and their ancient life in Punjab.
At quarter to eleven, they exploded into the hotel – a Gujarati couple with an exceedingly trendy daughter, two giggling honeymoon couples, a Bengali couple with an excited bookworm of a daughter, a young couple with a doll of a child in their arms.
Excited whispers, polite introductions, the exchange of oriental woes.
By eleven-thirty, shepherded by our tour manager, Mr. Sidhwa, we filed into a bus, which sped through Paris, past the Peripherique, into the sleeping midnight Roissy-en-France.
I was quick to fall asleep that night, thinking how my first day in Paris was not quite spent in Paris.
In the morning, before I was fully awake, I saw wall graffiti. And, that was how it dawned on me, that Paris was not a noun, but an adjective!
We set out on our first day of exploring the city, but I counted the levels of my ecstasy with respect to the wall graffiti. Creatures of spontaneity, these artists must be. While they were shooed away, their thoughts stayed plastered on the body of the city – a city which made textbook sense, but a feeling that bred poetry every passing moment.
I could never forget about how Paris began for me. I thought it did, at Gare du Nord, but it really began with the street art.