Whenever I go to Paris, I arrive in a different season, stay in a different arrondissement. It means I get to know another part of the city each time I visit, but it also dislocates my usually infallible internal compass. Every time I go to Paris, I feel as if I have landed in a new city and cannot seem to fix the bigger picture in my head. And strangely, every trip to Paris seems to be accompanied by some minor disaster. Yet, despite those challenging moments, and my own inclination to despise this excessively eulogized, pampered and opulent city, I follow it’s siren call again and again…
The first time I see Paris is in July 1984, just after the Chernobyl disaster. I am only nineteen, reluctantly boarding a coach with a girlfriend, one of only a handful of coaches braving the nuclear wasteland of Europe this summer. Thousands of North Americans have cancelled. Our coach is a mishmash of left-overs. We tear through seventeen countries in seven days, or maybe it’s seventeen days, seven countries. Either way, it remains a blur. A cute Italian bus driver, a couple of very cool South American girls in their early twenties, an older couple from Canada who kept complaining: the food (‘Where is McDonalds when you need it?’); the water (‘I have to clean my teeth with pop’); the time (‘Oh, were you waiting for us again?’). Paris? I have no memories, just a group photo under the Eiffel Tower.
It’s 1991. I backpack into Paris in early September with my boyfriend, arriving at dawn on an overnight train from Vienna. We have booked beds at a youth hostel in the 1st arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Seine, in Rue du Pélican, but we are locked out between 9am and 5pm. We ditch our luggage and spend the day drifting through the city: Notre Dame and Le Palais Luxembourg; the Botanic Gardens and the Pantheon; the Louvre and its latest attraction, the amazing glass pyramid; through the Tuilleries and the promise of an Impressionist exhibition at l’Orangerie, down the Champs Elysée and across Le Pont Alexandre III to the Eiffel Tower. I love the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the generous open spaces, the cleanliness, the distinctively duplicated Hausmann buildings. I am irritated that many parks lack lawn, boasting only dirt or gravel, and those that are blessed with lawn are covered in signs forbidding us to sit on them.
Two days of autumn rain descend, and we move inside. I fall in love with the Orangerie, the Musee D’Orsay, Monet’s water lilies and Degas’ ballerinas. We trudge to Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery, to find Jim Morrison’s grave drenched in flowers and graffiti. We take sandwiches to Montmartre, eat them on the steps of Sacré-Cœur, and buy prints of wet and wintry Parisian scenes as souvenirs.
Fast forward fifteen years to February 2006. We are about to leave our home in the UK, return to Australia. I have been aching to take the Eurostar, – it practically ran past our back door – so we decide to have one final fling in Paris. The One & Only has booked a quaint hotel in Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement. We kennel the kids with friends for the weekend. We plan to make an early start, so we can lunch in Paris – except I forget my passport and we have to turn back at Ashford. We chew through soggy toasted cheese sandwiches on a later train, and don’t reach the Gare du Nord until mid afternoon. Dragging our cases over the roughly cobbled streets of Montmartre, we marvel at the bouquet of picturesque patisseries, boulangeries, charcuteries, épiciers verts… only to find there has been a flood, our room is indisponible. Our first attempt to relocate finds us in a room only two inches larger than the bed, in a hotel where the police are in the middle of a drug raid. A second option has a miniature lift like a birdcage, and a non-smoking room scented heavily with cigarette smoke. The deliciously gay receptionist allows me behind the bar to make a restorative G&T, while he rings around neighbouring hotels. I joke softly to the One & Only that he will have no chance of seeing my new lingerie at this rate. Pierre overhears: he calls another hotel and asks for la chambre la plus magnifique avec le plus grand lit. He hasn’t realized I speak French until I start giggling. He turns pink as a peony.
The weekend is salvaged with a sumptuous room above the Gare du Nord, an equally sumptuous dinner in the hotel restaurant, and a red rose from mon amour, which more than makes up for the half day we lost rescuing passports and finding a room.
Two months later, we fulfil another promise and take the kids to Paris Disney for Easter. After a full weekend of dipping and plunging, whirling and whooping, I drive for hours around the city ring road through rush hour traffic, so I can introduce them to Paris proper. This time there is a train strike and the hotel can no longer accommodate us, as no one has been able to leave. I have no idea where we end up: somewhere on the western fringes of the city, I think. It is a grubby wasteland, culturally sterile, complete with a long, dreary Metro ride to the city centre. For two windy days, I drag three grumpy, unimpressed kids through the city, trying to find something to interest them. As we clamber up the Eiffel Tower, icy winds roar around us, threatening to dislodge us and fling us into the river. In less than thirty seconds, we clump back down and buy four thick windcheaters at inflated prices from a stall at the bottom, so we can defrost. We drive south the next day with a sigh of relief.
Another decade, another trip to Paris. Now it’s July 2016. I catch a train from Lyon and pop in to stay with friends in their glorious nineteenth century apartment in the 9th arrondissement and discover yet another nook of the city I don’t know. My friend and I lose ourselves for hours among the ganglion of narrow cobbled lanes on the west bank. We discover Le Maison de Victor Hugo, and the Vignes du Clos, where we pause for a glass of wine at a tiny pavement café.
Six months later and we are living in Luxembourg, five minutes walk from the station. I itch to take a train south to Paris. Sadly, northern Europe frowns on spontaneity and, despite the mid-winter jitters, last-minute tickets are exorbitant. So, we drive instead, and park under l’Opera. From our window beneath the eaves of the Saint Petersburg Hotel, we watch the snow drift lightly over the rooftops. It bears no resemblance to the area I stayed in last summer. We stroll briskly through chilly, grey streets, past chilly grey Parisians; the wind pelting up behind us and knocking us sideways. We meet up with old friends we haven’t seen in twenty years and discover, amongst myriad antique shops, a heavenly little café tucked away in an ivy covered courtyard, where we indulge in coffee and cake.
On our last trip (for now) we catch the train from Luxembourg to Paris for the first day of the French Open. It’s only a two-hour sprint on the rocket-fuelled TGV. We stay in the 16th arrondissement, so we can walk to Le Stade De Roland Garros, skirting round the Bois de Bolougne – a place I have only read about in novels. The room is too small to swing a cockroach, and the bed falls apart as I sit down to lace up my walking boots. But we find a new view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero, where we gaze across the Seine to the more famous brother of the electricity tower. I practise my French and prove yet again that the Parisians aren’t impressed with me or my attempts to converse in their piffy paffy language (my grandfather’s word.)
We spend a day melting in the sun at the tennis and dine on the riverbank, a cool evening breeze whispering in our ears.
We discover the Canal Saint-Martin, where tree lined roads accompany it down to the Seine. In the 19th century, half its length was covered over to create wide boulevards and public spaces above, and we meander joyfully to the Gare de l’Est where we meet our train back to Luxembourg.
Farewell Paris. We won’t forget you.