For liberté, égalité, fraternité

Moving to Paris four years ago turned out to be an unmitigated disaster from which I had to ask my mother to bail me out. (It’s a funny story, maybe I’ll tell it sometime) I have been thinking a lot about the recent attacks and what Paris did for me. All I can say, and it is no mean feat, Paris taught me to love. In no way is she perfect, yet being embraced by Paris delivered me the joy of embracing Paris.

 

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It was Autumn 2011. My then French boyfriend was concluding his brief visit to Scotland. We rented a car and made a hasty loop from Edinburgh through the highlands to Inverness. At the time, and still now four years later, I had not learned to drive. As I dozed quietly my boyfriend drove the 6 hour stretch alone, catching only a few surreptitious glimpses of the sleepy heathered glens.

Soon we were at the airport saying our goodbyes. Not to each other, for once, but this time to my mother. We flew from Edinburgh to the southernmost tip of England, from where we flew to Rennes, his hometown in France. As the tiny aircraft lifted from the runway my boyfriend turned to me.

‘Listen, I have to tell you, something…’ I listened silently. ‘So, my father is to collect us from the airport…’ His thought drifted out the window as we veered toward the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Your father?’

‘Oh, yes! Well… ‘, he confided, ‘he has a moustache.’

I cackled, loudly. The couple in the adjacent row glared as I struggled to contain my chuckles. He continued, ‘it’s a really really typical French moustache, I know I must to tell to you before you meet him. Please don’t laugh when you see him.’ Still sniggering, I contemplated whether my boyfriend thought his girlfriend was in fact a Francophobe.

The plane made it to the French coast. The forest green floors of my country were replaced by burnt sienna fields basking in the early harvest sun. A tawny sun blush replica of my boyfriend with a thick moustache collected us in the arrivals hall and drove us away. Thin, manicured pines which elegantly lined the country road. Beyond the roadside lay a peppering of posies and through the open window came an aroma of warm burnt lavender.

His parents lived in a house in a little cul-de-sac, with large glass windows, framed by a blooming garden. My French was complete rot so his parents and I settled into a friendly patter of likes and dislikes. His father and I pottered around the garden, speaking broken Franglish. He guided me to a corner bush and pulled from its branches a handful of matt brown shells. He cracked one open for me to taste. I still remember the front hall, rather than a bowl full of keys, there sat a wooden bowl brimming with unshelled hazelnuts collected from the garden. His mother asked if I liked cakes. The next morning she produced a golden sponge, 14” in diameter, finished with thick rings of pineapple floating over the surface of the cake. My boyfriend’s nieces braided my hair.

He introduced me to his friends, a mixed bag of artist artists, martial artists, and intellectual artists. We sat on La Rue des…. , on tables which spilled out onto the pedestrianised streets. Beers clinked with co-workers, preserved sausages were broken with friends, and laughter precipitated from the cobblestone street.

After a few days I left for Paris alone. Arriving at La Gare Montparnasse I was reunited with an old friend. We embraced while I relayed some continental bisous from my boyfriend. My friend guided me through the underground burrow of the the Paris Metro. We exited from … emerging finally into the Parisian streets. By now it was dark. Yellowing trees stood watch over the busy paved streets. Tenement buildings stood tall, wearing regal doors which reached high into elongated doorways, wearing the iconic medal of the Parisian balconettes. The the detailed stonework was feebly lit by the pale street lamps. Figures flickered behind backlit curtains like the shadow puppets of Paris.

We made use of the Parisian public bike scheme and rented two Velibs. We cycled up steep side streets puffing crudely at passers by in wool scarves and long overcoats. Three blocks further at the top of the hill I could see a gap filled with neon signs and the outline of a trashy red windmill. As we reached the plateau the intense incline gave way to a florid array of red lights. We left the bikes and carried on by foot. Wading through crowds of princes and paupers, we passed dark doorways obscured with bulky curtains promising good times. Bar floors were mobbed with people dancing and and drinking on this modest Wednesday night.

My friend lived at the top of a ridge which separates The Moulin Rouge on one side from le Sacre Couer on the other. After dumping my belongings in his petite apartment, we set off to join the flocks the among the luminescent noise. I exchanged kisses with strangers who would soon become friends. We laughed and we danced and we loved.

In the morning my friend’s flatmates, an Irish girl and a French boy, awoke early. The Frenchman left the apartment almost silently, allowing only the door lock to click abruptly into place. He returned within an hour with paper wrapped croissants and a single red rose. My friend explained the phenomenon.

‘He buys her a rose every day and asks her to marry him. He says he’ll keep doing it every day, until she says yes.’

It was in this way that I came to live in Paris.

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