It’s just gone 8am and I’m speeding towards the Channel Tunnel at 221 km/h. I have a whole carriage of the Eurostar to myself – talk about social distancing. The journey marks the end of a two-week trip back to England, the most time I’ve spent in my native country since I emigrated to France almost three years ago, and I’ve had a wonderful fortnight catching up with family and friends.
As my train pulls out of St Pancras, I am suddenly struck by a vivid memory of the first time I took the Eurostar to Paris. I was 20 years old, about to start my third and final year at university, and it was my second solo trip to the City of Lights. It was an uncharacteristically impromptu adventure – I had originally booked the journey in order to be an au pair with a Parisian family, but the arrangement had fallen through about a week before I was supposed to travel and I was left with an unrefundable ticket and nowhere to stay. A penniless student, I had just resigned myself to a wasted fare; at least the au pair family had paid for my return ticket. But I woke up early on the intended day of travel and as I lay in bed, thinking about the journey I was supposed to be making that afternoon, I made a snap decision. To hell with practicalities. I was going to go to Paris.
I really didn’t have any money to spare, but where there’s a will, there’s a way and twenty minutes later, I’d booked myself a dormitory bed for two nights in a… er, careworn hostel towards the outskirts of the city, and an overnight bus back to Birmingham (where I lived at the time) for the princely sum of £12.50. Good to go.
All but leaping out of bed, I threw some clothes and toiletries into a rucksack and headed straight into the city centre, stopping briefly at the post office to collect a modest envelope of euros, before hopping on a train to London. I was officially on my way – and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.
I barely stopped grinning all the way to St Pancras. The thrill of the spontaneity was exhilarating; when I’d gone to bed the previous night, the most extravagant plans I’d had for the following day were to install myself in a coffee shop with a hot chocolate and a novel for as long as I could reasonably get way with not buying a second drink. Yet here I was, a matter of hours later, en route to my beloved Paris. There was a lot to be said for this whole “carpe diem” business, I decided.
Navigating the check-in process and boarding the Eurostar was no less exciting. Due to a lack of other options at the time of making my reservation, I was travelling in Standard Premier, which meant a single seat with plenty of legroom and no neighbours (back when that was actually a novelty and not, y’know, the law) and, later, a meal served with actual crockery. There was even complementary wine. Too keyed-up to focus on my book, I spent almost the entire journey gazing out through the window. Beaming.
Sat in a similar seat, with the same view rushing past me now, I am again filled with excitement, but for very different reasons. Reminiscing about that spur-of-the-moment visit six years ago, I am overwhelmed by the comparison with today’s journey. The fact that travelling to the same city I was, back then, so unspeakably delighted to be stealing another two days in – the city I had been dreaming of since I was a small child – now means going home… Not just in terms of having a sense of belonging, which was something I had always experienced in France, but in the more concrete way of having an address, friends, a job, a whole life here… The feeling that thought gives me can only be described as genuine joy.
I’m smiling again, just as broadly as that twenty-year-old daydreamer, staring wide-eyed out the window at the blur of passing fields and farms, counting down the minutes to Paris. To home.