There is no such thing as a free ride, unless the ride in question is on the Paris Métropolitain.
But even then…
Sweltering, you descend underground into Laumière, shunted to and fro amidst the late-afternoon chaos. You are tethered to your petite amie by palms loosened with sweat – or loosened with something psychological, an unconscious choice. The boiling sea of heaving, sweating bodies pulsates and shifts around you, never casting the same shadow twice. Everyone has somewhere to be and nobody can spare a second of the time it takes to get there.
At the ticket gates, she usually scans her pass and raises her arms, you grab her waist, press your bodies together, and the pair of you slip through as one. Maybe you plant a kiss between the freckles on her sun-soft neck. On any other day, you revel in the intimacy, the sensation of sharing this modest act of defiance.
But this time there is distance.
It doesn’t feel intentional, but it doesn’t feel like an accident either.
This time she’s a step too far ahead and you’re weighed down with the ballast for a return flight. You pass through the turnstile but your heat-seeking charcoal holdall snags and the body-length barrier ahead snaps shut. You try to retreat but the turnstile – aptly named tourniquet – has locked in place, as securely as the barrier, leaving you marooned, constricted between the two.
You panic, but the only alarm bell ringing is deep between your ears, vibrating the length of your spine. She waits impatiently, back to the filthy tiled wall, toe-tapping, Parisian pout saying she’s as unimpressed with you as she is with the rest of the world. And this might be the beginning of the end of your world - the short time you have enjoyed - together.
A murmured commentary begins from the commuters in what passes for a queue behind you: “putain,” “imbécile,” “espèce d’idiot!” From the ticket booth, an attendant’s eyes watch over the top of a newspaper, rolling with haughty indifference as only the eyes of a Parisian official can do. You’re just another Brit, a tourist, taking the piss. If you’re going to jump le tourniquet, at least do it discreetly, if not quickly, if not stylishly. There is an art to it, a finesse, a certain je ne sais quoi that you do not seem to possess.
You hoist your holdall over the top and sprackle up after it, springing off the barrier with a gallant, gallus flourish, as though you’re hopping styles, field to field, in the Selkirkshire valleys. Suffice to say, no matter how much you think you look like the leader of your own private revolution, no dignity is recovered.
You get away with it, at cost to your pride instead of your wallet, and a heightened sense of sticking out like a sore thumb in a land of manicured fingers. You thought you could walk the walk, you thought you knew the lingo, but, as it turns out, you simply do not speak their language.
You don’t know the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens who advertise themselves on every ticket you don’t buy – and you don’t need to. You’re transitory, passing through in your own awkward way, never around for long – and the very definition of a poor student. A poor student in Paris: not a great combo. A poor vegetarian student in Paris: even worse. But you’ll be dining in Scotland tonight.
Now you’re on the other side, down some more steps, shrugging off her hand with your embarrassment. A welcome blast of air announces the train: the orange line to Gare de L’Est, where you will connect to Gare du Nord. You are bound for Charles de Gaulle - another place named after some dead French rebel.
You won’t be coming back.