7h00: Up and about, breakfast and teeth, check my checklist for a daytrip to the Big City!
8h15: Walk X to school. His mom just got him a scooter, so he’ll be fully occupied with keeping his balance on the cobblestones. Tell him S will pick him up.
8h30: My train leaves at 10h11, so hit a café to freewrite. There’s a good one on Rue de Paris, appropriately enough. Sip a noisette (espresso with milk) and spill enthusiastic verbiage into the back of the lime-green notebook I began just before departing for France.
10h00: Gare Lille Flandres. Print two tickets, allez-retour, and find my seat. High-speed trains are double-decker; up top, I can gaze at the countryside or, if below, I’ll read about how to be an “emotional coach” to my son – my penultimate parental gesture for the day.
11h15: Arrivé! Pre-purchased Métro tickets get me quickly onto the RER Express, and within 20 minutes I’ve crossed Paris, from 10th to 6th arrondissement.
11h50: The forecast is dubious around noon, but I’ve brought an umbrella, so I walk 1km from Luxembourg station to Rue de Cardinal-Lemoine, where both James Joyce and Hemingway once lived. New Paris streets! The leaves will be freckling the boulevards, the ambient babble of French voices acquires a deeper romance. I have written down directions but I might get lost amid the random, branching streets. I hope I do!
12h10: My first destination is Skripta, a papeterie. I buy some fresh pens and a new notebook, since my lime-green one is full. X also likes stationery, so I might grab something neat and cheap for him – my final familial thought for the day.
12h30: Lunchtime! Google lists many options nearby. If I’m not hungry yet, I’ll pick up a baguette and some fruit for a gouter later on.
13h15: Equipped and provisioned, I strike out north, perambulating down streets named after Medieval kings and Restoration philosophers. I pass churches older than my birth country, but I don’t go in unless one calls to me. The breeze beckons with a deep, sour smell – the Seine. But the streets, narrow and hemmed with tall rowhouses, withhold any glimpse of my destination until…
14h00: North of Rue Galande, I spot a squat Gothic church amid shady plane trees: Saint Julien-le-Pauvre. Adjacent, fenced and propped aloft with concrete, stretches the oldest living tree in Paris, planted in 1602. It is the austere overseer of Parc René Viviani, a 128m public space with a modern-art fountain, rows of green wooden benches, and a breathtaking view of Notre Dame. In the square in front of Notre Dame, there is a plague marking Paris’s kilometre zero – the official centre of the city. But my zero is here, on a bench in the park. As Parisians smoke and read and neck nearby, I crack my brand new notebook. Whatever will I write?
15h30: How the time has flown! My writing is exuberant, often self-indulgent, but pure and courageous and alive, drawing inspiration from the trees, the river, the brace of churches flanking me, even the air itself, which carries the particles of so many lives and breaths. Paris is less romantic to its residents, surely, but I feel as if I’m doing something noble in transforming their drudgery into sublime language. None the less, my butt is getting sore, so I walk and snag another noisette before returning to my bench.
17h00: A thousand passersby, a million thoughts. Slowly my observations coalesce, until some vague electric pattern catches my attention, and I grab it and dive inside: down, past the scum of doubts that pollute the surface of any new project, past the clamorous phantoms of other, better authors, past the grit and flint of real life (What time does my train leave again? Did S remember to pick up X?), past the bedrock of the block of each word failing to follow the last word precisely – deep and deeper, until I see the shape and feel the heat of the idea, the molten core of a new world, and then I swear to myself, up and down, to make it so, write it out so all can see its beauty.
18h00: I’m shaking, drained and wired. I walk past Shakespeare & Company bookshop and catch the Metro back to Gare du Nord. I grab supper and eat absently, as my mind is abuzz with the new project. I will have to pace myself, when I get back to real life in Lille. Too tempting to shut the world out and do nothing but write.
19h46: Return to Gare Lille Flandres. Write some more on the train, just organization stuff, making sense of the big picture as it looms large on my horizon. Walk home, giddy and fulfilled, in time to kiss my child and wife goodnight, smiling with the secret knowledge that they have a real writer in their family.
22h00: Lie awake in bed, dreaming about Paris and my new project. On the last daytrip, 10 days before, we’d toured the Catacombs. It was neat, but I felt like a tourist. On this visit, I will feel like an alien, of the artsy, David-Bowie variety, filtering the city through a weird new lens and transmuting it into beautiful, exotic art for both everyone and just myself.
6h30: Wake up shivering and sweating. High fever. Brief bouts of nausea with dry mouth. The cough I’ve had for nearly two weeks has worsened, from bronchitis into pneumonia.
22h00: Still in bed.
Attempts at reclaiming some vestige of romanticism:
1) Doing the math, I probably contracted my infection in the Catacombs of Paris. Six million dead people can’t be wrong!
2) If I die, I will have died in a loft in France.
3) My project will remain more exquisite and more perfect because it will never have been born.