London and Paris, 2010

I can’t sign the lease.

We chose this apartment months ago, from Australia. All that remains for me to do now that I am standing in the doorway with the landlord is to sign on the dotted line, hand over a deposit, and collect three sets of keys – then my two friends (arriving the next day) and I will have somewhere to live during our semester-long exchange in London. I had planned to sleep there – probably on the floor – that very night. But the roof has mould on it. The photos we had seen showed daylight, but the basement apartment is in near-total darkness at lunchtime. The third “bedroom” is a cordoned-off portion of the lounge-room.

I walk back out into the rain; find a cafe; find folk music to calm my racing mind; find a very expensive hotel for the night; find Indian food and a beer.

You’re not as brave as you were at the start
Rate yourself and rake yourself

The next few weeks are a cloud – commuting to classes from a shared room in a hostel, rushing from lectures to property inspections, learning that in London a “mansion” – like the one we ultimately find an apartment in – is typically not luxury housing.

Take all the courage you have left
Wasted on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head

We host elaborate dinners and eat at every pub around us and don’t feel too frightened when we are temporarily evacuated following a gas leak. Our apartment has peeling paint and a lightbulb that drips water from time to time, but it’s big enough to host dinners and, on a standing-room-only basis, all of our friends.

Your grace is wasted in your face,
Your boldness stands alone among the wreck

 When Mumford & Sons announces a London concert it feels auspicious – we have been singing Little Lion Man religiously. But so have lots of Brits, and other Australians – the song topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 in January of that year –  and we don’t get tickets. They are also playing in Paris, but we can’t possibly go to France – except, actually, of course we can.

The night before Paris is the sort of vaguely-themed club night that only exist for university students, and I predictably arrive for our 6am budget flight having not been to bed. I’ll sleep when I arrive – except we don’t get keys until the afternoon, and my friends decide that we will climb the Arc de Triomphe.

 But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line

We eat crepes and order escargot at a Chinese restaurant and are nearly run over by a group of students cycling at night in masks. I wonder if we’ll see a proposal on top of the Eiffel Tower – we don’t – but everything is picturesque and delicious.

The concert remains the focus of the trip, and so of course we are early and right in the middle at the front. The band speaks in French between songs and I understand none of it, but I scream and dance and take terrible photos that, like almost all gig pictures, no one will ever look at.

Weep little lion man,
You’re not as brave as you were at the start

Our flight back to London is delayed by a day, and we battle with a lecturer who threatens to fail us for missing a mandatory class. I don’t know where the set-list we collected lives now.

 Didn’t I, my dear?


Claire Roberts is a writer and lawyer, now based in Sydney after many years abroad. She is - intermittently - working on her first novel.