When I was invited on a trip to Paris by Airbnb and Trip4Real not two weeks after the devastating terror attacks which took the lives of over one hundred locals and tourists, I didn't hesitate in accepting.
Facebook had told me one of my friends, Lyndsay, was in Paris and safe. And after speaking to her about the experience, I was more than ready to pack my bags and set my alarm for my early morning jaunt across London's St Pancras.
Trip4Real, our hosts - an online start-up focused on local city dwellers helping travellers see more than just tourist sights - had debated about whether to carry on with the trip. But when we all said we wanted to travel, for solidarity, we ploughed ahead with our plans.
You can read about the first day in Paris, speaking to local survivors, here.
After a fun-filled, if exhausting, first day the nine of us regrouped at a gorgeous Parisian Airbnb apartment located a stone's throw from the Bastille, just six stops on the metro from Gare du Nord train station.
After a 2am bedtime thanks to new friends and lots of whisky, we all got up and dressed, and hopped in a waiting Uber to join the others.
Before making the most of our last few hours in the City of Light, we enjoyed a typically French relaxed breakfast of creamy Illy coffee, warm toasted pastries and tangy fresh orange juice from the local boulangerie. Rather than wait a moment longer I left the group, who were heading on a bike tour of the Seine, to do some solo exploring.
Although a bike ride along the Seine with our Trip4Real Local would have been grand, I had my own plans for the day set, and emboldened by the locals' comments of how friendly Paris can be away from the tourist trail, I decided these plans were Notre-Dame and a stroll through a local neighbourhood - wherever that may be.
Notre-Dame has always been something I wanted to see - my fascination began with Victor Hugo's Hunchback, though that's a far cry from the Disney version - but with queues trailing miles around the cathedral for entry, and an ever-increasing military presence building, I decided a stroll down the Seine would be a better use of my time.
Funny that, for so long, I've accepted queuing as part of being abroad. You queue to see the 'good' bits, right?
Except the day before, with our Locals leading the way, we hadn't waited one moment. Not even for lunch. The contrast between my disappointment at not being able to see Notre-Dame and how easier travelling with an expert is really hit home, showing me how valuable a local can be especially on short trips where time is precious.
Down to the Seine path I went, which is set lower than street level by about 15 feet, followed only by runners enjoying a quiet Sunday morning to tread the pavement, looking utterly gorgeous as they did so. It was so peaceful, listening to the lapping water against the concrete river banks and the odd excitable puppy being taken for a walk by hand-holding couples.
Surfacing after an hour or so, I followed a group of French friends who were excitably babbling away, stumbling into a local neighbourhood. And where better to enjoy a French coffee than a cafe that didn't cater in any way to tourists?
Having to go back in time fifteen years to remember my basic French lessons was a feat. "Je voudrais... une... er, un... ici?" The woman looked puzzled but I was determined. Despite the crowd of no doubt hungover people patiently queuing behind me. "Qu'est-ce que c'est, er, that?" I motioned toward some baked goods, couldn't understand what the poor woman said in return, but ordered it anyway (it was a custard tart based item) along with a soya latte.
I even decided to do a good deed. I bought the person behind me - a girl in her early twenties - a latte! Thanking me in broken English, I tried to explain in even-more broken French that it was my pleasure. She left with a huge grin, and I settled in for an hour of people-watching in front of the glass window.
It's fascinating, a typical street in Paris. There were no tourists as far as I could see. Lots of dads with children in tow, and ladies sitting outside at local eateries enjoying a Sunday brunch warmed by bright red heaters glowing fiercely. There was a group of homeless men huddled in the corner, laughing together despite the chilly weather. A man in a suit walked over with a tray of hot drinks from another local shop, which they eagerly took with a gracious 'merci Monsieur!'
These are memories I'll keep with me forever that I'd have missed if I was still in the Notre-Dame queue, and I've resolved to do more of that when I travel. Just sitting, watching, blending into the experience.
Catching another Uber (all taxis were being advised to steer clear of the streets thanks to heads of state from around the world due in Paris for a Global Climate Change summit) I met up with the rest of the group, before being introduced to Charley, an Airbnb host who was planning on taking us on a tour of the canal, before a Sunday brunch at his favourite local restaurant, La Rotonde.
He chatted about everything, from life in Paris to his travels around the world, his girlfriend and hosting with Airbnb, and how the city had fared since the terror attacks.
He had been one of the Parisian locals who had opened their home to anyone, anyone, stranded or trapped after the terror attacks.
Airbnb had alerted all hosts about the attacks, asking if they could help and waiving all charges for those who were unable to get home. And as a huge Airbnb conference was taking place the Friday of the attack, with over 5000 hosts in attendance, Charley had welcomed stranded hosts into his apartment.
Being on lockdown, there was nothing to do but wait. Waiting, he said, was the worst part. As it became clear the attacks were systemic, methodical, and calculated, Charley and his three guests couldn't help be concerned for the thousands of travellers who were now trapped in hotels and houses around the city.
As daylight emerged and the dust settled they, Charley said, felt as if they had a huge responsibility to bear. They couldn't just 'host' their guests - shove a key in their hand and let them get on with it.
People would be afraid, he admitted. And we agreed. I thought back to Notre-Dame, standing in the middle of bustling crowds being watched by soldiers armed with guns, and I most certainly had felt on edge. Waiting for a crazed person to strike. It was a tinge of slightly irrational fear I wasn't going to let stop me, but I certainly couldn't stop it.
Now, he continued, hosting was all about showing people Paris is a city of love, and friendship. Their guests would be looked after, and he felt all Parisians had a part to play in that.
Leaving La Rotonde, we strolled by the canal, taking in our last sights and sounds of the city before heading home.
I thought, six years ago, Paris was done for me. I'd seen the tower, had my moules, and that was that. But there is so much more to experience when a local is helping you along. Now, I have ten thousand items on my Parisian travel list, all through talking to locals, and their 'no don't go there, go here!' and 'that's a tourist trap, try this instead' advice.
If you're a fearful traveller, let a local reassure you. If you feel like you've only experienced the tourist trail, then a local will help you uncover more. Even seasoned travellers will be helped by a local's history and knowledge.
As the sun set and we packed our bags, we were all sad to say goodbye.
Paris is wounded but healing.
As times get more turbulent, it'll be the people of the city we rely on to show us the humanity behind the headlines.
Images via stocksnap.