Monday, 29 December 2008

Alone in Paris on Christmas Day

This morning BBC Radio 4 ran a feature by a reporter who spent Christmas Day alone  in London. It it was a dull couple of minutes. The guy droned on about cooking dinner alone - forgetting the sprouts, admiring the Queen's handsome appearance in her 80s.... he didn't say a word about feeling left-out, marooned or just plain old lonely.

Lonely and left-out. I was sure that was how I would feel when I found myself alone in Paris on Christmas Day. I knew people in the city but good Frenchmen and women that they are, they had all taken off for the provinces and elderly parents. I tried to duplicate a lone London Christmas and sign up to help those worse off. I was actually staying in an apartment next to the Salvation Army refuge so called them on Christmas Eve to offer my services. A jolly man with a thick African accent answered the phone. "You can spend Christmas Day looking after me if you want," he suggested. I declined. 

The day dawned. I'm not a practicing Christian - this was not my celebration and so it should have been ' just another day.' Why couldn't I just get up and go about my business indoors - do some writing, a bit of reading? But the change in the world outside the Paris apartment was almost palpable. The silence of the boulevards, I was convinced,  hung heavy;  the families and friends gathered together all excluding me seemed almost visible. I'd once seen a Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander, where Christmas celebrations included forming a very Scandinavian conga line and dancing from one opulent red-velvety room to another, singing all the way. In my lonely state, all of Europe was engaged in similar festive pursuits - that long conga line stretched from County Cork to the Urals but made a stonking great detour just before it got to me.  I was alone in the  13th arrondissement with just the cats for company.

Then I remembered that unlike London, Paris does not close its public transport on Christmas Day. I rode the Metro from Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand to Chatelet. I made my way up the steps into the daylight fearing a Parisian version of High Noon. But the cafe next to the subway was open . So were most of the restaurants on the street. I wandered through  the crowds to the Marais and a modern art exhibition just off the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.  In another gallery of naive painting on the Place des Vosges, I bought a couple of postcards and watched a Jewish wedding party make their way into a restaurant. In a cafe opposite Notre Dame, I drank a hot chocolate on this very cold Christmas Day and listened to two women from New York discuss the general hopelessness of men.  In a video shop on the Rue Mazarine, I joined a scrum to buy cheap DVDs and came away with a 5  euro copy of David Lean's "Rencontre Breve".  

By the time I got back to the 13th arrondissement apartment, all thoughts of happy Scandinavians doing the conga without me were long forgotten. I settled in with Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and the cats and watched duty and loneliness triumph over love in a season that wasn't even Christmas. 

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