Home is where the heart is: a Parisian Year Abroad cut short
Sammy Cole, Foreign Correspondent in Paris, reflects on her curtailed year abroad and her bittersweet return
Since returning from my year abroad in Paris about three weeks ago, my daily life has considerably changed. I am hugely grateful to be back with my family, for the delicious home-made meals and for walks around the countryside with my dog. But I miss going into the office every day in Paris and my evening runs along the Seine. I would very much like to ‘prendre un verre’ (have a drink) or two with my friends in our local and frequently-visited bar.
My last moments in Paris were very hectic. In fact, the weekend before I left started off as a bit of a disaster. On Friday 13 March, my friend Naomi and I were in fact travelling back to England, her for a party in London and me to visit friends in Exeter. We took the same train from the centre of Paris. Once we were safely on the train and travelling towards the airport, Naomi looked at me in horror. “Sammy, I can’t find my purse or my phone.” Someone had grabbed her phone, purse and passport. We both kind of just stood there for a minute in a moment of shock. This marked the beginning of a pretty hectic weekend.
Once we were safely on the train and travelling towards the airport, Naomi looked at me in horror. “Sammy, I can’t find my purse or my phone.”
I woke up bedraggled on Sunday morning in Exeter after watching my friend throw some punches at Fight Night. I was half-dressed, probably still drunk and in my friend’s bed. Upon looking at my phone I saw numerous messages from my friends in Paris, warning that the French borders could close by Tuesday. Overnight, the government had ordered the closure of all non-essential shops and clamped down on social distancing measures. I immediately panicked and I think this is when the reality of the current crisis hit me. My mum was calling me and telling me that I needed to come home. My Paris friends were messaging me with their plans to go home. I now had maybe 48 hours to get back to Paris, grab all my stuff (I had two t-shirts and a dress with me) and get back to my family. There was no way I could stay in my cramped little apartment in Paris under total confinement. I cancelled my Eurostar back to Paris that I had booked for Tuesday and bought one for that afternoon.
Arriving back in Paris was spooky. The difference between Paris and London was striking. Gare du Nord was a ghost town, with darkened shop windows and no one around. Usually bustling streets were completely empty; I could even hear the sound of little scurrying rats against the ground.
Gare du Nord was a ghost town, with darkened shop windows…
Miraculously, on Monday, I managed pack up my things, and somehow lug four huge bags back to England on the Eurostar along with three other friends. Thankfully I had just enough time to grab my final croissant from our local boulangerie. I don’t think it really hit me that my year abroad could really be over. I was just grateful that I was safe and at home and in bed. I think I spent the first two days just sleeping. On my third day back, I went for my first run and found myself quickly running out of breath with a tight chest. I didn’t think much of it. The next day, I woke up with a high temperature, sore throat and very tight chest. In the days that followed, I learnt that out of the 3 other people I travelled back from Paris with, 2 of them had lost their sense of taste and smell (a sign they are carriers of the Coronavirus), and the other friend developed similar symptoms to me. I am still shocked at how differently the virus affected all of us. Of course, none of us can be completely sure that it was COVID-19 without a test, but my symptoms matched up almost exactly to those described on the NHS website. Luckily, my friend and I had rather mild symptoms, with a temperature only for a couple of days and we both fully recovered within 2 weeks. Despite being locked away for 7 days in my room, I still managed to pass my mild symptoms onto the rest of my family; only my mum escaped unscathed. I consider myself very lucky.
So the past three weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, but I now have been able to properly reflect on my year abroad. I can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that it’s over. For the last few weeks we’d all been talking about the approaching months, when the days would begin to lengthen, sitting by the Seine in the evenings with a bottle of wine perched precariously on the river bank. Not to forget the infamous Parisian rats scuttling about right by our feet.
…sitting by the Seine in the evenings with a bottle of wine perched precariously on the river bank.
Of course I know that I am lucky – I’ve spent 8 months in Paris and I have so many great memories. I remember at the start I was terrified about moving to a new country, where I knew no one. I remember dreading waking up in the morning to go to my first internship, to speak French all day and then passing out at 10pm in the evening. It’s a massive thing going to another country and you forget about all the small challenges that come with it – setting up a bank account, going to see a French doctor, even visiting the supermarket for the first time! But these are all experiences that I have come out of with a funny story to tell. We’ve even had to pay the French police a visit after my friend got pickpocketed on our very first night out in Paris. I would pay to hear us struggling to speak to the police in very broken French.
I have completely fallen in love with Paris; with its beautiful streets that are so full of character, with the sunsets over the Seine, with the beautiful Château de Versailles, with the individual bars and many clubs. I particularly loved the Marais, with its stunning streets dipped in the colours of the rainbow, and the most delicious food. I’m glad I managed to grab a sought-after falafel wrap from l’As de Fallafel before I had to leave. I have met the most amazing people. We have gone on some very memorable nights out, and fully experienced the Parisian techno scene, which I’d say wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I think the most gutting moment was hearing about the Paris half marathon being cancelled because of concerns surrounding the Coronavirus, but a couple of gin et toniques definitely helped me get over that. I didn’t know what to expect when I first moved to Paris, but I have left with the most phenomenal memories, and I know I will go back some day, hopefully in the (very) near future, to experience life in this wonderful city again.