Lessons learned in Paris
Where I discover the existence of a new universe
Three thousand three hundred kilometres in three months. I thought that would sound like a big impressive number. It really doesn’t, but since my journey is not a race or a distance competition, that’s OK. Gus the Bus has taken me once around the country, and we are now back at the family farm almost as far up north as you can go in France. It feels like we’ve travelled through all the seasons of the year already, as it was still hot when we left in September, and we had some really really cold temperatures at the beginning of December, and now it’s the warmest January on record.
I’ve been places I never thought I would go with Gus the Bus. I never imagined we’d drive through narrow country villages, or up and down mountain passes. I never thought I’d be brave enough to take him into Paris city traffic. I could never have imagined we would sleep in the middle of a forest all alone with not a soul in sight. I hadn’t anticipated driving in -6ºC temperatures, or experiencing howling winds bashing us about at night. I discovered towns I hadn’t heard of, made new friends and reconnected with old. I don’t think we did anything terribly exceptional by any explorer standards, but they were new adventures for me, and that makes them memorable. And that includes emptying the toilet box for the first time, and learning to open and close my fuel tank lid properly eventually ! Sorry, no stories of paragliding, deep-sea diving, rock climbing or other extreme activities here…
As autumn slid into winter and the days got shorter, I found it difficult to wake up before the sun, or be outside after it had set, so my days got shorter too. So it turns out I missed out on all the Christmas lights in every village I passed through, seeing them only as big messes of white strings hanging between house walls. This, until Paris. On the first day, I parked in the muddy Camping de Paris, delightfully situated within the outer ring road, and walked to La Defense to meet up with my Parisian cousin. After a couple of hours I asked if we shouldn’t be heading back, as there was only about half an hour of daylight left, and he mumbled something back at me that I took for an acknowledgement but must have been complete disbelief.
Indeed, night fell and we were still walking the streets of the city. I discovered that even at -2ºC, it was possible to be outside and not instantly freeze to death. Walking as fast as we were, covered with a warm coat, gloves and a woollen hat, it was quite comfortable. And the city actually started to come alive after the sun went down. I remembered what I’d been told about Christmas lights and shop windows and winter wonderland. I discovered that people still live after dark, that life goes on in winter, that night is not a barrier to activity. I do admit I feel a bit silly writing all this - what kind of a recluse am I to stop living after sunset ? It just had not occurred to me to be anywhere but home after dark. Being surrounded by people in a city was really doing me lots of good, I’d been out in the empty countryside far too long… I really found it very exciting, I plan to come back and live in Paris one day for a whole year to get to know it properly…
If it wasn’t for my son flying in from South Africa, I would never have dreamed of attempting to drive big Gus around big city traffic, especially since his pollution status as a 2006 diesel isn’t really permitted within the clean-air inner circle. But I did it, and it really wasn’t so bad. I’m glad Google Maps was there to direct me inside and out of the spaghetti junctions, it all went off without a hitch. And I’m really glad my cousin took me out at night to discover another way of living. I feel like a changed person now ! All through the festive season I walked every night from my sister’s house to where Gus was parked and loved the sound of my footsteps resonating in the quiet, rain-soaked streets of Saint-Omer. A far cry from Paris, but like every other town in France, it has its Christmas lights and a Christmas market with a big Ferris Wheel and roller-coaster, all lit up and exciting. I didn’t use to understand the Christmas feeling, I’ve always been a bit of a Grinch, but now I do get it - all those bright lights and moving things and glühwein really do bring out a happy feeling to a time of the year that is grey and cold and would otherwise be quite miserable. From January I suppose the feeling is that it’s now just the last stretch before spring comes back, what with the days starting to lengthen already…
My son learned an important lesson too in Paris. He stayed a few days alone in the center in an apartment graciously on loan from extended family, and he went to a jazz club one night, as any twenty-something would, until closing time. Only to discover that the Metro underground closes at midnight. As luck would have it his smartphone battery was dead, and he found himself having to figure out how to get back home in -2ºC without a map. Navigating by the moon and some sort of beginner’s luck, he walked for an hour and forty minutes and eventually made it. Good thing he’d written the door code on his hand, and it hadn’t washed off, too. I am so grateful he only told me all this the next day. The mother would have been fraught with worry. Lessons learned: the Metro closes at midnight. Don’t leave home without a paper map in your pocket. You can figure out anything if you put your mind to it. (Hopefully that comes in useful for his studies in quantum physics…)
PS: I know I said I was going to introduce you to the inside of Gus this time round, but I got a bit carried away with Paris, so I promise my next post will be all about the domestic delights of bus-living :)
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