Surprise, surprise, I’m writing this blog post on a train – speeding through the French countryside, direction Paris, somewhere in the vague vicinity of Dijon. It’s a perfect “golden hour”, the rolling wheat fields and villages of tiny terracotta-roofed cottages bathed in the gorgeous glow of the setting sun. I’m reminded of how much I love my adopted country, and not just the city in which I’ve made my home.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in life in the capital; Parisians are teased for, and sometimes accused of, forgetting that French life exists beyond the Haussmannian boulevards and towering monuments, and for better or for worse (depending on your perspective), the mode de vie in Paris is certainly something entirely its own. But it was France that captured my heart first – the country, the culture, the language, the people – long before I’d gotten to know gay Paree. And in fact, brace for the bombshell, Paris was not even the first French city I fell in love with. It was Lyon.
Lyon was the first city I ever discovered alone, my first experience hostelling – my first taste of solo adventure. I initially arrived on her doorstep, fit to burst with excitement and so eager to explore, in 2013. I was 19 years old and I’d spent the previous five weeks living in Savoie, in the middle of the Alps, the au pair to a wonderful French family with four young children (and an exuberant puppy called Milka). That year had thus far been, and would continue to be, the hardest of my life, but in Savoie, I stepped out of reality and into a rosy dream I’d entertained in some shape or form for as long as I could remember. Swimming in mountain lakes, delicious dinners on the patio watching the sinking sun set Mont Blanc ablaze, and a vast platter of assorted cheeses. After. Every. Meal. The parents were two of the kindest and most welcoming people I’ve ever known, and the children were sweet and loving (if not total angels 24/7, because y’know, kids).
The goodbyes were emotional, but my adventure was only getting started. I was to spend the next three weeks exploring a handful of French towns and cities via rail. I’d spent countless hours poring over maps and travel blogs and ticketing sites, painstakingly piecing together an itinerary that would allow me to discover the country that had long since captured my imagination on the skinniest of shoestring budgets imaginable. The route I’d settled on inadvertently took me on a tidy loop around the outer edges of the country, featuring stops at a little village not far from Marseille; the medieval hilltop citadel of Carcassonne; la ville rose (or “pink city”) of Toulouse; magnificent Bordeaux; quaint Rennes; and last but never ever least, Paris.
However, my first destination was closer to “home”, or rather, to the place that had felt like a decent approximation of it for the last few weeks. My alpine experience wasn’t over just yet. As I already mentioned, because I’m terrible at building suspense, my first stop was Lyon.
And if you want to know why it was pretty much love at first sight… You’ll just have to read Part Two.
Aha! Not so terrible at building suspense AFTER ALL.