The October sky was leaden with an imminent deluge. That morning, we had been emptied out of our comfy coach to ‘explore Paris at our leisure’. Eight exhausting hours later and each step in my ill-fitting new trainers was sending a dart of pain up the back of my shins. I had never had reason to notice the existence of my Achilles tendons, until now. Nevertheless my feet continued to propel me on and on along the sweeping footpaths that followed the curves of the slate grey Seine. I felt unaccountably browbeaten by the dog-eared cone of a tourist map that protruded from my pocket as I self-consciously negotiated a path through the stylish strolling couples, in my cheap red raincoat. Back in Belfast it had seemed convenient the way it folded into a small ‘sac’, but it really didn’t cut it here in Paris.
A low mood lingered from a migraine I’d only just managed to stave off earlier. Jagged lights had begun to play on the periphery of my vision in the Musee D’Orsay queue and I had been forced to make straight for the café to swallow painkillers, shielding my eyes from the masterpieces along the way and regretting all those potent espressos.
By 6pm it was time to take the weight off my feet, regroup and psyche myself up for the evening’s sightseeing. Crossing a wide road I found a space on a terrace of benches at the riverside. Mindful of our tour guide’s continuous warnings about pickpockets I tucked my handbag under my knees, wrapped the strap around my hand for good measure and spread the map across my lap with a familiar sense of impending defeat.
A large drop splatted on to the tatty paper marked with must-see churches and museums. Soon the rain was fairly drumming on my unfashionable hood. I stood up, grimacing at the ache in my ankles, and set off in the direction of Notre Dame. Seeing I was not too far from it I might as well tick that one off the list. The streets were turning sleek and dark under what was now a downpour; clusters of people ran for shelter into elegant art deco cafes illuminated in soft oranges and creams. I wiped a finger across my glasses, buried my hands deeper into my pockets and battled on in the driving rain, disappointed with myself for feeling merely irritated in such epic surroundings.
I reached the Petit Pont and crossed over to the square in front of the Cathedral. Overhead a canon ball of thunder cracked across the ozone; the huge gothic façade, bathed in light, was beginning to materialise anew in the dusk. I joined the back of a small queue of tourists and within minutes we were efficiently marshalled through the towering ancient doors. In the hushed interior a service was underway. Incense spiced the air. Incantations echoed up into the cavernous vaults and answering chants rippled along the pews in low, comforting murmurs. The voice switched to English to welcome the tourists who had happened upon this evening’s mass. The small welcoming gesture brought a lump to my throat. I stood dripping, and watched entranced as up on high day darkened to indigo through a rose window.
I never did make it to the Louvre or climb the Eiffel Tower on my Paris city break, but somehow it didn’t matter after that night in the rain.