I guess I should start this blog with an admittance: I should not be allowed to book any more flights, to anywhere, probably ever.
Well, because without checking anything, we woke up on Friday morning, pushed on through our stonking Red Hot Chilli Peppers hangover, packed our bags (which as parents to a 2 year old consists of 1 x 20kg bag, 1 x pushchair, 1x travel cot, 1 x military-sized rucksack, and 4 x additional carry on bags) and flew from Manchester to Paris-Beauvais, which as it turns out is closer to Aberdeen than it is Paris. I knew this without even knowing this when we landed in what seemed to be an old corn field and then walked into a box-room terminal with half a conveyor belt, by which I mean some men carried our bags out and placed them on a static conveyor and then urged us to sift through them until we found ours. It was kind of like searching a lost riverbed for large specks of gold.
Anyway, the two clues of old field and half-a-conveyor belt didn't exactly shout Paris International Airport and, rather annoyingly, I was right and, at times like this, I hate it when I'm right.
So, having collected our 113 bags from the static conveyor belt, we then had to catch a bus to actually get into Paris, which took just under an hour and half, and then navigate a completely foreign metro system whilst carrying said 113 bags - a mission that could have been made slightly easier if there were escalators in Paris. But there aren't. Like none. I'm not sure if it's because Paris hasn't been made aware of them yet, or if they don't think they are useful, or if it's just because they don't trust them, sort of in the same way my Granny still doesn't trust microwaves ("oh, ye need to believe me when I say they use dark magic") but Paris does not have escalators. It's insane, and really annoying for those with bags and kids and whatnot.
So, what we had to do every time we came across a set of stairs, was this:
I would grab as many bags as I could and then run them down/up the stairs.
I would then leave said bags at the bottom/top of the stairs.
I would then run back up/down the stairs to help Tor lift Phoebe and the pushchair up/down the stairs.
Sounds simple-ish, right? Well it wasn't, and I'll tell you why - Paris (and the whole of France) have had a seriously shit time with terrorism recently, and there I was leaving bags unattended on a Metro station platform.
I can't tell you how shit I felt. I felt like such a shitdick. I don't even know what a shitdick is, but I felt like one, a big one, and the eyes of of each passerby confirmed that feeling. They were the eyes of people terrified of terrorism, torn apart by bombs and bullets and speeding lorries, petrified of suspicious bags, like ours. As we carefully carried Phoebe and the pushchair step-by-step, we would watch as wonderful Parisians clocked onto our unattended bags nonchalantly sat at the bottom of the stairs and we would see panic suddenly flicker across their eyes as they looked around for the owners, clearly scared by the possibility of yet more terror, before finally exhaling huge lungful's of air as they saw Tor and I at either end of our pushchair, carrying the sleeping Phoebe down another flight of escalator-less stairs, mouthing the words 'sorry' and 'pardon'. It was pretty much as far as one can get from an ideal situation, but on the other hand it was also amazing to share such a profound connection with such total strangers, like there was this mutual respect for the safety of one another as we shared smiles of relief, each appreciating the innocence of our our unavoidable mistake.
So, yeah, I can't book flights. I accept that. What I can book though is book accommodation. God damn, I'm good at booking that shizniz. I mean, we hit the jackpot. A one-bedroom apartment between Moulin Rouge and Montmatre, does it get any better than that. (Obviously that was a rhetorical question because we could have got a five-bedroom mansion with a private cinema, bowling alley and gumball machine overlooking the Louvre or something, but not for £250 for 5 nights, booyah).
We adored our one-bedder. It was so Parisian, so quaint, so homely, so easy on the pocket and so, umm, so, umm, well, perfect, so gorgeously perfect. It was also just the right size to accommodate Phoebe's new game called abracadabra, which is possibly the greatest and worst game I've ever taught her. Basically, she stands in the middle of the room, waves her arms about and shouts abracadabra at the light and it turns on. Magic. Of course, in reality, it is just Tor or I flicking the light switch at the right time, but Phoebe doesn't know this, which is amazing because she so truly believes she is magic - it's the most adorable thing ever, and great exercise for her imagination (and our general physical condition), which is win-win, right?
Why, you say? Well, because one day Phoebe will be at a friends house, or at school, or upstairs in her bedroom, and she'll wave her arms and mutter the word abracadabra and her world will come crashing down. it will be like the Mayan apocalypse, except something worse than the world ending will happen; her hopes of ever getting into Hogwarts, becoming a Gryffindor prefect and winning the Tri-Wizard tournament will disappear into thin air with nothing more than a whimper, and it will be all my fault. Fortunately though, that didn't happen in Paris because, like I said, the apartment was perfectly sized, meaning we could leap up, run across the apartment and flick whichever light switch needed flicking before Phoebe could finish say abra. Viva la magic. Viva la apartment.
Anyway, on to to the holiday.
So, Day One we explored Paris. This consisted of a typical Parisian breakfast (the PG version of pain au chocolat and croissants and not double-espresso's and a ten-pack of cigarettes). Tis was followed by a quick trip to the Grande Palais and then to the Eiffel Tower, where we enjoyeda long stroll through the longest most Christmassy market I've seen since 2002. There was ice-skating and vin chaud and so much food, so much hot, traditional food. Mmmmmm. Unfortunately though, we very momentarily deviated away from the whole Christmas thing and decided to have paella for lunch, which was slightly odd but totally delicious. We then burned this off by heading into a park and chased after Phoebe who was chasing after pigeons. I think this lasted hours, but it could have possibly lasted days, I'm just not sure anymore. The combination of pigeons and perpetually running in circles and dodging the militia of men selling Eiffel Tower keyrings was so disorientating and kaleidoscopic it was almost Kubrickian. I'm not even sure it's still 2016 to be honest.
The evening, well that consisted of cheese, cold meat, bread, cheap wine and the obligatory post-meal smoke. Rude not to, really.
Day Two wasn't too dissimilar to Day One, except we swapped the Eiffel Tower for the Jardin du Luxembourg and instead of chasing pigeons, we quickly learned the art of falconry, lured these winged beasts onto our arms and fed them directly from our fingers, wings flap-flapping in our faces n' all. It was wicked-amazing, as the slow-mo videos I snapped will attest.
But best of all was seeing my dear Emilie. It's hard to describe who Emilie is to me, or what went through together, not without writing a book (lightbulb moment!) but I have never been through a more emotional journey with anyone except those in my immediate family and those ladies lucky enough to have had a relationship with me. Ina word, Emilie is wicked-cool, and it was wicked-cool that she finally got to meet my mad ones for the first time, and them her, and at Jardin du Luxembourg, a proposal-worthy spot for even the most romantic of people.
That evening - as we ate yet more cheese, more cold meats, more bread and drank more cheap wine - we then learned of the terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas Market. This shook me to the core. How can anyone - regardless of whatever labels they want to stick on their chests - drive a lorry into a crowd of people, innocent people, people out in the winter's air sharing the joy of love and life with their families and friends, all of them there to share the same experience of total exultation. How can anyone do that! Why would anyone do that!
But it wasn't just the questions of how and why that shook me to the core. It was also the fact we almost went to Berlin that weekend, instead of Paris.
When looking at flights, I was scared of booking Paris. I had this feeling in my gut that something bad might happen. That terrorism wasn't done with Paris yet. That Christmas would be targeted. I was worried and I wasn't sure if Paris was worth the risk. As a loving parent and partner, protective and proud, I wasn't sure if Paris was worth the risk. So I was on the verge of booking Berlin instead. The whole point of our Christmas getaway was to blow Phoebe's mind with all things Christmassy and where on earth embodies that loud and beautiful spirit more than Berlin, more than their infamous Christmas Market. It seemed like the perfect place to take my girls, to take Phoebe, but I changed my mind at the last minute for two reasons:
I didn't want those bastards with their bombs and bullets and lorries to scare me, or my family, and stop us from enjoying the city of love, and
I remembered Paris had Disneyland.
Day Three we went to Disneyland - the people trap operated by a mouse - and it was epic. We flew with Peter Pan, explored the labyrinth from Alice in Wonderland, went dizzy on the teacups, made tick-tocking noises as we met Captain Hook, mustered up our best brave faces in the haunted house, got wet and wowed in Gusteau's kitchen, following Ratatouille's Remy as he evaded Chef Skinner, and learned that sometimes a kid can wee so much, so very very much, that no nappy in the world would have been equipped to handle it. This happened just as we were going to meet the Frozen characters. But a little (or a lot) of wee wasn't enough to stop us; we had a date with destiny. We had to get to Main Street for a parade, we had to get Phoebe to Princess Anna and Queen Elsa.
So, with wee-wet sleeves from where we Phoebe was sat in our arms, we ran from Adventureland to Main Street and took up our front row positions, the music from Frozen blaring out in French as tens of thousands of people lined either side of the road, desperate to catch a glimpse of their favourite princesses. That's when the magic happened. Sat in a beautifully adorned horse-drawn cart, Princess Anna approached us, Phoebe sat in my arms (because mum's were too wet at this point), eagerly looking for her idol. It was incredible. I've never seen anyone more amazed. Phoebe was totally paralysed by awe; love ad awe. Her heroin was no longer just a cartoon, no longer just colours on a screen, but a person, a real person, and there, in the midst of all that hysteria, amongst all those thousands of screaming kids, Princess Anna succumbed to the unexplainable power that Phoebe seems to hold over everyone. Sat in her pristine white carriage, Princess Anna locked eyes with Phoebe and blew her kiss, Phoebe returned it with one of her own, only for Princess Anna to leap up, stretch her hand out above her head and snatching it out of the air before placing it on her heart. If there was any macho-man in me, it left in that instance, because I was left batting away the tears, my eyelids working overtime, like car window wipers in a winters blizzard. Our Phoebe got to meet her favourite character in the whole world, her idol, her hero, and her hero exceeded every expectation. She went above and beyond. She blew a little girl's mind, melted her heart, made her smile from eye to eye, and in the process she reduced me to nothing but a blubbering mess, and her mummy too. Disneyland really is the happiest place on earth (although I still wouldn't mess with the mouse).
Day Four my mind was blown. It started off just like every other day:
Pain au chocolat, croissants and strong coffee.
We packed our rucksack full of food to feed as many of the homeless people we could because, well, nobody should go hungry and homeless, especially not at Christmas (I hope you're listening police and politicians of Denver, USA).
We once again snuck our way onto the metro without paying full price (I know this is wrong but I'm not cash rich and their system is so easily exploitable as it relies so heavily on trust and, well, I'm not sure it's wise to trust a struggling writer enjoying a a pilgrimage to Paris).
We walked down the gorgeous streets with our mouths agape, all of us staring up at the picturesque buildings that edged their way into the bright blue skies above us (I've travelled a lot, I've been exceedingly blessed in that sense, and Paris is truly the most staggeringly beautiful city I've ever been to).
Anyway, my mind was blown when the bewitching madre to my bambino, Tor, surprised me with a surprise visit to 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, The Shakespeare and Company bookstore. That place should be visited by everyone. It has so much history; dusty, dank, rebellious, cult history; thick with wonder and even thicker with inspiration. It is a beating heart of culture, a place of promise for all those with any desire to create, to create art in whatever form, whatever way, or just to be near it. I have always wanted to be a writer, always been in love with words and sentences, stories spat out from between teeth ground down by life, and yet I fell in love with my dreams harder than ever in that place; amongst the exposed brick and the wishing well used to feed starving writers. It is the closest I have ever come to experiencing magic, truly feeling the power of mysticism. There are books of every kind and every view in that place, pieces of advice passed down from the greats, notes from book lovers and love letters to lost souls, and its windows overlook the imposing magnificence of Notre-Dame for all to enjoy, the motto of this little rag and bone shop of the heart being, 'be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.' I may have only been in their for half of an hour, but it changed my life. that place gave me the most important thing a person can get and that is perspective, and that chance was given to me by my disarming girl. Thank you, Tor. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And that's where it ended for us; on a high, almost, sort of. So, with the fires of that bookshop warming my belly, we went back to the apartment, enjoyed an assiette of fine foods, put our exhausted, darling Phoebe to bed and enjoyed one more night of cheese and meat and bread and wine. Oh, bollocks, we'd run out of wine, a situation that fast needed amending.
Tor went first. She ran down to the local Franprix with two euros rattling in her pockets, sucked in by the bright shop windows, only be turned away at the door. They closed at 9pm. Of course it was only 8.50pm, but that was irrelevant. This was France, and so she went on a quick hunt around Rue Richer for win, vin rouge, but failed to find anything under 11 euros. 11 euros!! Preposterous. So she came back to the apartment and tagged me in, the bloodhound. I jumped in the elevator, power-walked down the long cobbled runway that led out on the street and beelined for some Monoprix half a mile away. Of course, like most things with me, this didn't go smoothly. I was suddenly harassed by a bloke with a beard and a very fast french speaking tongue.
"Monsieur, monsieur," I said. "Je suis Anglais. Je ne comprend pas." "English?" He siad.
"Yeah, man." I replied.
"Oh dude, you gotta help me find the music studio."
"Shit, I know where that is. I'm living above it. It's just down there, take a right-"
"F**k that, dude, take me to the door, take me to the Stairway to Heaven."
"But I'm on a mission, a wine mission."
"Please man, do it for the rock n' roll."
So, we turn back, me and this dude who looks like Jesus but smells like Snoop Dogg, and we start jogging through the cobbled streets until I finally escort him to the studio, we hug awkwardly and high five even more so, and then I'm back on my mission, my wine mission. I get to Monoprix. It's open. But the wine section is closed. Grrrrr. So I walk to Montmatre. I see another dreaded Franprix, but this one is still partying, so I wait outside the exit and sneak in as someone comes out.
"Non non non, ferme, ferme."
"Je suis anglaid, man." I say bag, hands clasped in prayer. "It's our last night in this fine city and to have no fine french wine is a sin, a travesty, a crime against everything Paris stands for, please sir, I just want a Cote Du Rhone, just a goddamn Cote Du Rhone."
The kind gentleman-worker agreed, and let me in.
And so with a bottle of vin rouge in my coat pocket, I skipped back to Rue Richer all merry and giddy, nodded to me red-eyed and Jesus-looking friend in the window of the studio, whistled my way up to our apartment and got mildly drunk with my gorgeous Tor, laughing as we hung out of our fourth floor kitchen window to enjoy a crafty cigarette. I loved that kitchen window. We would watch those we could see in their apartments above and below and opposite, pottering around, doing whatever as we made up backstory's for each of them, guessing at what vivid and complex lives they may have once lead, or still be leading, as we slurped on our tasty cheap wine and mentally prepared ourselves for the next day, our last day. It wasn't just that we needed to prepare ourselves for the endless travel as a result of my Paris-Beauvais mistake (damn you Paris-Beauvais), or plan how to best tackle the escalator-less stairs of every metro station, or how to let each metro passenger know that the pile of unattended bags are ours. No. We had to mentally prepare ourselves for the unavoidable heartache of leaving that place; le Gai Paris. We were going to miss that extraordinary city more than we could have ever fathomed, and we knew it before our departure even happened.
We had a most amazing time walking the streets of Paris, dancing and laughing, playing and eating. We lived in the moment, we broke the rules, we were free from routine and mundanity, and we knew it, we felt it, we soaked ourselves in it. But it wasn't until we were waiting for our delayed flight from Paris-Beauvais to finally leave the tarmac that the most distinguished thought of them all fell into my mind; if I am destined to dance along a vegabond journey, and I am starting to believe I am, then I am going to make every effort to give Paris a prolonged chapter in my story, in our story, because it is one of those places - one of those rare-rare places - where magic lives and breathes, one of those rare places you can truly lose yourself in the moment, and when the guillotine drops that is what life should be about; it should be about living in the moment, whether you're smiling, crying or falling in love, life should be about that moment, that very moment.
From the bottom of our hearts, where each beat first rumbles and grumbles, I want to thank you Paris, for being everything we hoped and more, everything we needed and more. The Mad Ones love you like you are one of our own.