I had never understood the real meaning of loneliness until I lived in Paris. Or, more accurately, until I attempted to live in Paris. I had also never experienced quite such a clanging disjunction between fantasy and reality.
I had always fancied a spell in Paris – but of course. Who wouldn't? Letting out my London flat, I rented a friend of a friend's studio of almost clichéd loveliness in the attic of an ancient crooked house right in the Latin Quarter, its windows overlooking a scrawl of zinc-covered roofs, and taking in a flying buttress or two of Notre Dame. It was like being in The Aristocats. I was right up there in the rooftops, in the Fifth, the Seine at my door, the Deux Magots and the Tuileries a stroll away. There was a tiny bedroom on a platform that led to a roof terrace, and a studio room with a table under a skylight at which I could write. For I had come to Paris in my twenties to finish my first novel, to have new experiences, stumble upon romance, and turn my A-level French into fluent, colloquial, thinking-in-French Français.
On the first evening, I lugged my borrowed typewriter and suitcase up the ladder-like communal staircase winding into the sky, laid out my manuscript and the vast romance-hunting wardrobe I had brought with me, and sat there, and wondered what to do next.
However, I needn't have worried, for I had company. The morning light revealed that the flat was also home to an infestation of cockroaches. And so my first day was spent out shopping for "un piege pour les cafards". My accent – always so authentic-sounding in a Devon sixth-form classroom – met with blank stares or impatient hostility in what was, I quickly came to realise, almost exclusively a tourist area. I sat in cafés hoping to talk to people. But I found I couldn't just talk to strangers. Also, there was nothing to eat. I was a vegetarian, and the French simply didn't understand alternative protein sources to blood-dripping rumps and goose livers. I ate bread and cheese every day, my accent faltering at the grumpy stares at Felix Potin until I could barely mutter the word "baguette". I who had read Racine couldn't order bread. I was a lonely vegetarian. Had I ever sunk lower?
What did one do, all day, in Paris? I had planned to write my book, interspersed with sightseeing and unspecified socialising. Gagging for a sign of human company and crying over my as yet unsold manuscript, I felt like a friendless freak suspended in aching beauty. Of course, I should have applied for a French course to meet people and improve my mutterings, or looked for a part-time job, but I had, typically, just landed there.
Not talking to anyone was driving me crazy. I had followed up the few leads I had and was invited to a couple of dinner parties, but after years of over-busy social life in London, I had become an awkward mute, knowing I was failing to understand the codes, the tutoyer-ing versus the vouvoyer-ing. I simply couldn't hack it.
So I went to Shakespeare & Company, the famed Left Bank bookshop that had always welcomed brilliant émigrés. Over the years, I had heard of all these people who just turned up there, and were offered accommodation on spare couches upstairs, along with jobs and literary patronage, artistic potential spotted. I gazed hungrily, circling, attempting to catch the eye of the staff; went to an evening of appalling American poetry. No one spotted me, befriended me, even glanced in my direction. I was invisible, and fast losing my last shreds of confidence.
How I begged London friends with office phones to call me. Some of them visited at weekends, and I loved them as never before. My phone bill was literally bigger than my rent. In the end, in my despair, I answered an ad placed by an English nanny in the next quartier, who simply wanted to meet other Brits in Paris. The young nanny from Newcastle saved me. I was determined, then, that I would be kinder to strangers, to outsiders, to newcomers to London who didn't know the language and had somehow fetched up there and been given my number, instead of stressing how busy I was. I had finally understood what loneliness meant, and how it can soak up every fibre of identity and confidence. Home had never felt so lovely.
The cinquième became the setting for my second novel. It sounded glamorous on the press release: "She has spent time living and writing in Paris". Only I knew the truth.
Joanna Briscoe's latest novel, 'You', is published by BloomsburyReuse content