My wife and I flew to Paris on January 2nd, arriving at Charles de Gaulle on the morning of the 3rd -- her birthday. After dropping our suitcases at a VRBO apartment in Montparnasse, we had a quick lunch and a beer at a brasserie around the corner, on the bustling thoroughfare of Rue Daguerre. We slept for a few hours, then celebrated Patty's birthday with a classic French meal at the Cafe du Rendezvous, on the corner of the Place Denfert-Rochereau. In two meals, I made two early mistakes with my rusty French: thinking I ordered a small beer, only to find that I'd really ordered a pint and a half; thinking I'd ordered a medium-to-well done steak, only to see a pool of blood squirt out from it at the first touch of a fork. In each case, by the way, I manfully finished off everything I was given. The next morning I walked about 200 metres to the nearest boulangerie and brought back a warm, fresh baguette for breakfast. The apartment was a well-appointed third-floor walk-up on the Rue Lalande, with a living room/kitchen room, a bedroom, and a bathroom with washing machine tucked under the counter. It was relatively spacious for a Parisian apartment, with a view from the bedroom window onto an interior courtyard, and a view out the front window (leaning out and looking to your right) of the ivy covered southern wall of the Cimitiere de Montparnasse. Our flight and the cost of renting this apartment for 16 nights were covered by Columbia College Chicago, because I was in Paris to teach a Creative Writing/American Writers in Paris class to ten CCC students. Believe me, I realised as soon as I walked up the Rue Daguerre that this was an opportunity to be extremely grateful for.
Here is a list of my previous visits to Paris:
1975: a school trip organised by my French teacher at my high school in the north of England. Duration: just over a week, perhaps. A long coach journey to the channel, crossing the channel by ferry to Calais (no tunnel then), staying at a large youth hostel on the outskirts of the city, being driven around the city to the sights in the same bus that got us there and took us all the way back to the frozen north. Me pining for one of the girls on the trip, but most of the girls being more interested in sneaking out to the fence that ringed the grounds of the hostel to flirt with the Algerian boys who gathered there each night. Getting a silhouette-portrait done in the "artists'" square in Montmartre.
1979: Passing through Paris with my high-school friend Peter on our way to visit his penpals in southern Spain. Either on the way there or the way back, we had time to kill between trains, and we somehow ended up in a room filled with very stoned and very large men of different races, which Peter was cool with because he was a very cool guy, but which terrified me because I wasn't.
1982: Passing through Paris again on the way back from somewhere else in Europe, in the middle of the night, waiting to catch a train back to England, and trying to keep warm by standing on the large grates that vent the air from the Metro, sharing space with an assortment of homeless French people and frazzled backpackers from different European countries.
1985-1986: Only a year out of college, accepted a job as a copywriter at an ad agency, which came with a hotel apartment on the Rue de l'Echelle, just off the Palais Royale and a stone's throw from the Louvre. Duration: five and half months. The first time I was there as anything other than a child or a very poor, penny counting student. I've written about part of this elsewhere. What comes to mind now: despite being 23, not too bad looking despite my beard and flea-market clothes, I contrived to spend nearly half a year in one of the greatest cities in the world, in a business fueled by drugs and alcohol, IN THE 1980s, and somehow contrived to get laid precisely zero times.
1986-1990: Various visits, 2 days here, 4 days there, sleeping on the floor in the apartments of people I worked with in the ad agency.
1990: A week in July, hastily arranged because of the end of a bad relationship with a French woman who I met in England. It's a long and complicated story, but it goes something like this: we went out for a few months, I broke up with her, she had a breakdown, got checked into a psychiatric hospital in England, I agreed to accompany her back to Paris (thinking I at least owed her that and thinking I was helping her, though probably it made it worse), being greeted at the airport by her parents and a few friends, the friends hating me, the parents thanking me and calling me 'Sir', spending a night with her at her apartment in Aubervilliers (just north of the city), me staying with a friend in the Ile de la Cite after that ... a tangled web, in other words.
|1990, from my sketchbook: looking over the rooftops from St Paul |
towards the Bastille
1996: A week in January, travelling from London to Paris via the recently opened Channel Tunnel. Stayed in a hotel near the Place de la Republique. My then-girlfriend and I were both vegetarians, so I remember spending a lot of time finding a suitable place to eat every day. This was the first time I really spent time looking at Delacroix's paintings, probably the first time I read his Journals, too.
2000: One day business trip, visiting a client in a business park south of the city, stopping off at Les Halles on the way back to Charles de Gaulle for an hour, sitting at a terrace table with a view of the Centre Pompidou and enjoying the early summer sun on my face while I ate a sandwich and drank a small beer (an actual small beer, I guess I still remembered how to order one then.)
2008: One night at the start of a trip to Normandy with Patty. We were researching a travel article, stayed at an Ibis hotel near Gallieni, on the other side of the Peripherique, then travelling across the city to the Arc de Triomphe to pick up a rental car -- and discovering that there is a huge multi-level complex beneath Etoile, with expensive delis and, of all things, a Europcar office.
Adding it all up, the time I've spent in Paris comes to more than seven months, from more than a dozen visits, and includes a long-ish stretch of time when I lived and worked there. I realise as I reflect on this that even though I spent more than twice that length of time in Spain, and still speak Spanish far better than I can French, it was that five and a half month spell in Paris in 1985-1986 that was the most significant for me in that it showed me how life outside England was possible. I didn't particularly like the copywriting job I was doing, but it was the first time I had lived abroad as a self sufficient adult, and it left me with a permanent need to be a foreigner, someone who enjoys the feeling of being outside the culture of the country where he lives. Like many expatriates before me, it gives me the ability to enjoy the best that a country has to offer, and it gives me a sufficient distance from my roots that I can look at them more objectively.
To a certain type of Englishman, France and Paris have always represented a higher level of civilization, in language, culture, and the everyday arts of eating and living well. Yes, that's a romanticized idea of a country and city, perhaps -- but for this most recent trip, when I was reading and teaching about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Baldwin in Paris, there's no harm in that.