(CNN) — April, autumn and midnight; they all sound better in Paris. It’s arguably the only city in the world that draws over 30 million people each year to its monuments by associating them with a single emotion: love.

Yet for me, for a long while, the mere mention of Paris provoked feelings of sadness and humiliation because I had my heart broken under the Eiffel Tower.

Almost a decade later, I finally did something to change all that.

It was April 2011 when I arrived from London one afternoon on what was my very first time in Paris, for a three-day weekend with my boyfriend who was living in the city.

Our plans were simple: see the sites, walk along the Seine and eat at as many restaurants as possible. The Eiffel Tower had been at the top of my list of things to see since at nine years old my mother gave me a souvenir model of the landmark from her own trip here.

As I emerged from the Metro station, spring sunshine caressed my face. My heart raced with nervous excitement as I walked to meet my boyfriend at our rendezvous point: the Eiffel Tower.

Even though it was my first trip, everything seemed oddly familiar to me from pictures and movies. Cafes at every corner were as busy as beehives. Waiters weaved hurriedly in and out wearing black waistcoats and white aprons, their slicked-back hair barely moving as they masterfully balanced trays.

I stared through a window, trying to make out a menu on a chalkboard. As I turned around, the traffic had stopped and people crossed the street in unison. Wherever my gaze fell, it was as if I’d walked on to a stage mid-performance.

“I’m going to enjoy being here,” I thought.

My boyfriend had been based in Paris for part of the year, for work, and gotten to know the city pretty well. We planned to spend the long weekend together before I returned home to London.

“Meet me on the road coming towards the Eiffel Tower at three o’clock. I’ll slow down and you can jump in the car. The river will be behind you,” were the instructions he had texted me.

At a time before everyone was using Google Maps, the directions sounded straightforward. Even though he didn’t mention any names of roads, it sounded simple enough that I didn’t question him further.

Running out of time

I’d had an early start that day, making the crossing from the English port of Dover to Calais on the northwest French coast. From Calais it was another three-hour journey by train.

I arrived with an hour to spare and walked aimlessly around Paris until, suddenly catching a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower peeking out over the skyline, I let out a gasp. Mesmerized, I walked towards it and thought it taller, wider and far grander than I had ever imagined. That it looked exactly like the Eiffel Tower souvenir didn’t escape me.

As it was close to the time to meet my boyfriend, I set off to find the road “towards the Eiffel Tower.” After 20 minutes of walking around, I was nowhere closer to anything that fit the description.

The only road directly toward the tower was Pont d’Iéna over the Seine. All other major roads ran parallel around it. Frustrated and running out of time, I circled back towards the Seine. I reached for my phone and found a furious text message.

“Where are you?! I cannot believe that you’re not here!”

What followed was a back-and-forth exchange that laid bare the problems in our relationship that I knew were there but had hoped would be forgotten in Paris.

But not even the City of Love could help us.


“I can’t find the road,” I responded via text.
“I cannot believe you! It was a simple instruction.”
“I don’t know which road you mean. I don’t know where I’m meant to be.”
“Tell me where you are.”
“I’m in front of the Eiffel Tower with the river in front of me.”
“That’s not where you were supposed to meet me.”

This chaotic messaging continued for a few more minutes before I saw him walking towards me. It had started to drizzle. The sun hid behind the clouds and my clothes felt damp against my skin.

“I gave you a simple instruction! All you had to do was wait for me over there,” he raged, waving his hands in the opposite direction.

“Can we just forget about it now?” I asked, my voice breaking in frustration.

“No, we cannot just forget about it! I had flowers for you. I threw them in the bloody bin!”

Tears by the tower

Upset, tired and devastated by his angry words, I burst into tears. He stormed away without uttering a single word of reassurance as I stood crying in the middle of Paris.

We’d known each other as friends for five years before we’d become romantically involved. As someone who’d had a sheltered upbringing, I had found his carefree attitude to life wildly attractive. I’d admired his spontaneity without noticing his reckless nature.

As I cried, I thought of the countless times that I had excitedly explained to him that I had wanted to see the Eiffel Tower for as long as I could remember. While he’d been away, we had also exchanged long emails and text messages about making happy memories in Paris together.

But now, all the anger and arguments of the entire relationship tumbled down on me all at once and I felt pinned to the ground. I couldn’t move. This moment of disappointment would change everything because with it came an invaluable gift: glaring clarity.

Instead of following him to the car, as he expected me to, I turned away and walked slowly back to the Metro station in the rain.

I wanted to get out of Paris.

I had never been more sure of a decision. The Metro took me to Gare du Nord and I bought a Eurostar ticket to London at three times the cost of what I’d paid to get here. Right now, it was worth every penny to put a great distance between us.

As I sat waiting for the train, a barrage of text messages arrived on my phone:

“Where are you?!”
“If you get lost again, I will not come and find you!”
“I’m driving back home!”

I ignored all of it. I didn’t want to figure out what had made him so angry as I always did. What I’d hoped would be a beautiful moment of reunion, under the Eiffel Tower, ended our relationship. I returned to London and never contacted him again or made any attempt to recover my belongings that I’d left at his place. I cut all ties, which included mutual friends.

For several years after this, even a passing mention of Paris filled me with dread.

I didn’t dare tell anyone that unlike others who’d fallen in love or been proposed to in Paris, I’d had my heart broken there.

It was too pitiful a tale to repeat. Pictures of the Eiffel Tower no longer reminded me of my mother’s gift but triggered panic.

Happy return

Years later, as social media boomed and the prettiest pictures of Paris filled my feed, I’d respond silently in my head, “Not for me.” I felt about the city how I felt about my ex: not a place I wanted to go back to.

It would take a decade before I could face returning, but eventually I decided it was time to heal my relationship with Paris.

And so I set about planning my return. I booked a business class train ticket from London. When the confirmation was delivered to my phone, I knew that I was committed to a journey which had been a long time coming.

On the morning of the trip, I arrived at the station in London and boarded the train with hundreds of other tourists and French expats.

At Gare du Nord station, the final destination, my transfer whisked me through the streets of Paris. I caught sight of the Eiffel Tower as we drove along the Seine and all I could do was smile.

From the back seat of the car, I felt just as excited as the first time I saw it.

My hotel was classic Paris – a marble entrance and gold-gilded accents. From my room, I could see the Eiffel Tower from every window, and even the bath. I stepped on to the terrace and all of Paris stretched out around me like a tapestry laid out for inspection.

I whispered to myself, “I’m back.”

Over the next three days, I walked everywhere. I took any opportunity to sit outside cafes sipping wine and watching the Parisian way unfold past me.

I read for hours sitting on the grass at the Tuileries Garden, ate cake from tiny bakeries for breakfast and slurped soup in Michelin-starred restaurants. In this city where people-watching was a lifestyle, I was but just another stranger going about alone; no one batted an eyelid.

I breathed deeper with each step and understood why Paris is the most visited city in the world.

People may come here for different reasons but each time I’ve returned since has been for how Paris makes me feel.

There’s a connectedness and fluidity in everything that happens here. The Instagrammable patisseries exist to serve the people, residents look out of tall windows at the pretty streets below even when there are no cameras pointed at them, the Metro takes you anywhere and the Eiffel Tower watches over all of it.

None of it stands disconnected from the other, is contrived for tourists or staged to attract visitors. What I feel as I walk around is the beating heart of the French experience.

I sat on the terrace of my hotel, on the final night of my solo weekend, with the Eiffel Tower in front of me, lights pulsating around its beautiful 19th century architecture.

And it dawned on me that maybe I didn’t have my heart broken here. What Paris had given me, all those years ago, was the greatest moment of clarity that changed the course of my life.

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