“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
My first weeks in Paris were pretty miserable. After post-graduation bliss in Durham and a sun-drenched London summer, Paris was a disappointment.
Too many of the clichés about France were true. Setting up a bank account, getting a phone SIM, enrolling on my Journalism and International Affairs course at Sciences Po: every step was painfully, bureaucratically slow.
Paris’s lack of dynamism was also wholly underwhelming. Where was the enterprise? The bustle? I felt like I’d arrived in a city trapped in a time warp.
And I had no foundations. I spent six weeks living out of a suitcase in temporary accommodation. I missed my Durham friends. I was starting a long-distance relationship and I was unsure if I’d made the right decision to up-sticks to France for two years.
Paris was jarring with my expectations. In those first days I gave serious and sustained thought to packing it in and returning to London.
That was 20 months ago. From disappointing beginnings, it’s been a steady, upward trajectory. With two days left in this city I have many happy memories and no regrets. This is what will stay with me from Paris.
I learnt early that everything they teach you in GCSE French is hopelessly wrong. Take ordering in a restaurant. I got crêpes with my school friend Rebecca on my first full day in Paris and was stunned by her order.
‘Je prends une crêpe, s’il vous plait,’ she said.
Je prends? Whatever happened to good old Je voudrais? ‘Je prends’ translates as ‘I take’, or ‘I am taking’. To my British sensibilities it sounded so astonishingly rude.
But alas no. You prends, you don’t voudrais. And these were my first steps into a world of language far removed from what’s in the textbook. Meufs (women), mecs (guys), nanas (girls), the learning curve was steep.
The first weeks of classes at the Sciences Po Journalism School were frankly poor. Disorganised teachers, a haphazard course structure and a stand-offish and rigid administration.
But it got better. We received advice and tuition from experienced field journalists from the likes of France 24, Al-Jazeera and the BBC. They encouraged a hands-on approach: not much theory, just go out there and report.
It was lots of learning by doing, and I liked it.
Paris is a playground for journalism. The city is small and easy to navigate on public transport. The density of world-famous cultural sites is staggering. There’s a wealth of material to work with if you’re reporting for an international audience.
To be sure, the French can be sticklers about access and take fright at the sight of a tripod, but if you’re discreet and careful the opportunities are there. This piece about a potential selfie-stick ban at the Louvre was my favourite from first year.
But by far the best part of Journalism School has been my fellow journalists.
We’ve worked, moaned, laughed, despaired, coffeed, picknicked and partied together, and Paris will forever be the place where I met Rob, Nellie, Rebecca, Catherine, Pierre, Maria and Federica. In the darkest days of Sciences Po Journalism School madness, we knew each other’s pain.
The other big thing I’ll take away from reporting in Paris is perspective on the UK.
I came here something of a little Englander, a BBC / Times / Economist reader through and through. I fast learnt that the world does not revolve around us. Britain is not the most important country in the world, no matter how much we assume or wish it were so.
I’m grateful to the Americans for introducing me to The New York Times (which they blasphemously call ‘The Times’), and enjoyed the international approach of the Journalism School. We took inspiration from media worldwide and that was good.
I’ll miss Sundays in Paris. My routine was to take the metro to the Eglise Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet in the Latin Quarter for a luminal morning Tridentine Mass before munching on a pain aux raisins from one of the patisseries on Rue Monge opposite.
I’d then cross the Pont de l’Archevêché and admire one of the city’s most beautiful sights: the Notre Dame in the morning glow.
I’d amble home via Shakespeare & Co. and the 95 bus through the Louvre before working and reading in the afternoon. In the evening, I’d jog up to Sacré Coeur, weaving through the crowds of tourists and buskers, to take in the panorama of Paris as the city settled in for dinner, drinks and a smoke.
International Affairs at Sciences Po blew hot and cold.
My favourite class was with the development economist Paul Collier. He lectured like a name-dropping debater: rigorous analysis laced with impacts and pertinent examples, spiced up by his latest chat with the Nigerian finance minister or the chief economist at the IMF.
But the pedagogic method was often irritating with too many modules per semester and too little time to achieve any depth.
Attendance was compulsory at two-hour classes, frequently delivered in a monotonous, ‘I’m going to talk at you non-stop’ style.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t recommend Sciences Po in a heartbeat – I certainly would, for the international experience, the being in Paris, the doors it opens – but just know what you’re signing up for.
Terror struck twice.
First, in January 2015, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, gunned down by the Kouachi brothers. I was actually out of the city, working on the foreign desk of The Sunday Times in London.
It was a dark fluke: from being a bit-part researcher and assistant largely confined to supporting correspondents in the field, I was now working full throttle on the biggest story in the paper.
Having a network of French contacts and speaking the language proved highly useful.
Second, November 2015.
It was an extraordinary month. I was in Oxford on the night of the attacks and Catherine was alone in Paris. It turned out Salah Abdeslam had wandered around the 18th arrondissement mere streets from our apartment.
When I returned days later Paris was a city transformed. Never had I felt mass fear. Everyone expected another attack. Nowhere was safe.
I remember sitting in a restaurant in Montmartre with Catherine and her mother Marion who was visiting a week after the Bataclan massacre. I felt defenceless. I made a note of where we should hide if anything happened.
Of course, it was irrational. There are 2.24 million people in Paris. 130 tragically lost their lives in the attacks. The chances of being hit that night were 17,200 to 1.
And yet. You couldn’t help but think that it did happen. Somebody was that one. And you couldn’t help but think it might be you next.
Six days after the attacks, with the manhunt for the surviving terrorists in full swing, I was called in to work for Al-Jazeera. Their Paris bureau needed an extra pair of hands and I eagerly said ‘Yes’.
It was electrifying working in an international newsroom during a breaking news story of such scale. I went live on BBC Radio Jersey from Saint Denis hours after the final lethal raid on Abaaoud’s flat. From a budding foreign correspondent’s perspective, that was pretty neat.
I became surplus to requirements when another terror attack hit, this time in Bamako, Mali. Paris was no longer the big story.
Senior reporters and correspondents stood forlornly in Place de la République, their producers telling them their live broadcasts were being cut. Such is the speed of change in news.
Catherine and I had five favourite places to eat in Paris.
- Café Le Nazir. We always had French onion soup and duck, followed by chocolate mousse for Catherine, creme brulée for me.
- Le Cafe du Marche. The duck here is amazing. And the staff were always attentive and friendly. Plus it’s super close to the Eiffel Tower and Invalides.
- Le Camion Qui Fume food truck, MK2 Bibliotheque. We’d get stunning burgers before watching a film.
- Au Pied du Sacre Coeur. They do a €14 3-course lunch menu of traditional French cooking in the week. Big portions, fresh ingredients. I brought my Auntie Sarah and Uncle Stephen here too.
- Le Ceni’s. Catherine and I liked walking up to Place du Tertre from the flat and squeezing in next to the tourists for the 3-course set menus. Le Ceni’s was the best.
His perspective on Paris in the 1930s endures: Paris is not the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre.
It’s the smell of the streets after the spring rain. It’s the walk through Luxembourg. It’s leafing through books at Shakespeare & Co. and imagining all the stories that have been told. It’s sitting in a café and having the courage to try writing your own.
And no number of terror attacks will destroy Hemingway’s Paris.
There’s also a delightful cameo from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the book, who anxiously asks Hemingway’s opinion of the recently published Great Gatsby at a time of mediocre sales. These men had no idea of the literary immortality that lay in wake.
They also go on a boozy car journey from the South of France up to Paris that astounds for its audacity and sheer recklessness.
Two years is ample time to work through a Parisian bucket list and Catherine and I ticked many boxes.
Amongst other things, we had a superb day at Disney, twice saw world tennis stars on the red clay of Roland Garros, climbed Sacre Coeur, perused Monet and Van Gogh at the Orsay, went to the Opera, visited Mont Saint-Michel, drank by the Seine and gaped at Versailles.
We also snuck in a week in Prague and twice visited the marvellous Christmas gardens at Tivoli in Copenhagen.
It’s been a charmed and incredibly fortunate existence for which we’re both extremely grateful.
Debate continued to be an enriching and fulfilling hobby during my time in Paris.
The intellectual challenge and stimulation of speaking in debates is addictive and I had the luck of representing Sciences Po at tournaments across Europe. We debated our way across Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, making new friends all along the way.
The highlight was reaching the final of the Oxford Inter-Varsity tournament with my partner Anaika and giving a speech in the Oxford Union chamber.
We also made the knockout stages of the World University Debating Championships, which we worked really hard for.
I pulled two all-nighters in Paris.
The first was to see in the Conservatives’ first parliamentary majority in 18 years, the most striking election result of my short lifetime. It’s nights like that you dream of as a political journalist.
The second was for Sciences Po’s annual Gala, held in the Paris stock exchange. After a Gatsby-esque evening of black tie and free-flowing champagne, I left at 4am, three hours before I was due on a Eurostar to the UK for Catherine’s Aunt’s wedding.
So I took the night bus home, had a snack, watched Star Wars, and then I was back out again. I felt surprisingly fresh at the wedding but alas couldn’t touch the champagne.
Speaking of Star Wars, I spent much of late 2015 in a state of boyish excitement over The Force Awakens.
The saga was such a big part of my childhood. I watched them on video over and over. It was my favourite story. Good vs. evil on an epic scale, and good wins. Plus lightsabers and the force and the Millenium Falcon and ewoks.
Catherine fuelled my anticipation with a Star Wars advent calendar and I even made a video report about the film, by far the easiest piece of TV I will ever make.
Disappointingly, you can’t learn French in Paris by osmosis.
Nine months into my time here I realised I had a problem: my French still sucked.
Surrounded by English at an international political science school and in an Anglo-American social group, it wasn’t happening.
Well-meaning French friends and the staff at Starbucks seemed to be conspiring against me by responding in English to my best conversational efforts, unaware a little part of me wept every time they did.
My solution was to suck it up and sign up for a French debate tournament. I could do the debating part, so now it was just the French. The prospect of public embarrassment and humiliation was to be my motivator.
I was fortunate to meet Romain Decharne, the President of the Francophone Debate Federation and perhaps the best-dressed man in Paris, who warmly welcomed me into the French debate community and – to my great relief – always spoke to me in French.
I also prepared for the tournament by reading French novels.
I struck gold with ‘La Verité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert’ (The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair) by Swiss-author Joel Dicker. It’s 800 pages of gloriously clean prose and a stunning plot. Reading significantly improved my vocabulary and grammar and I wished I’d started earlier.
And then the tournament was upon us.
At the opening ceremony, Romain invited me to impersonate William Pitt the Younger as a special guest to Talleyrand’s trial (the French love dressing up, who’d have guessed), resulting in some 18th century Instagram opportunities and having to hastily read up on British foreign policy c. the French Revolution.
The tournament itself gave my French a big boost.
And despite our rhetorical inferiority and language limitations, we actually won. The final was a fiery affair at the Sorbonne and my partner Nissrine was magnificent. We convinced the judges it’s better to live 100 days like a sheep rather than one day like a lion, and I’ll never look at a sheep in the same way again.
Paris is over. New challenges and stories await. Next it’s London, Bloomberg, moving markets and breaking news.
I’m excited. But there’s sadness in leaving. Sad to leave the streets, the faces, the smells, the sounds. I will carry these memories lightly, my own precious moveable feast.