When I was eighteen, I went to Paris with my gran.
This might seem like the uncoolest thing to do in the world, but then that’s because you did not know my gran. She was an amazing, adventurous, intrepid woman, who, if she had not been stopped by ill health would have gone on to cheerfully conquer the world.
I’d been to Paris once before. I went for the day on a French trip with my school. I drank cold beer, and crossed the Arc de Triomphe roundabout. I blame the beer. I got lost on the Metro, and nearly fell in the Seine. My friend bought a flick knife, which was immediately confiscated when we got back on the coach. It was a rite of passage.
With my gran, things we were different. We took a ferry to Boulogne, backpacks aloft, and after a night in a shabby hotel where we ate magnificent steak frites, we took the train to Paris.
We walked for miles. My gran insistent that we stay in a hotel as near to the Eiffel Tower as possible. We stumbled, wearily into the foyer of the George V hotel, only for my gran to berate them soundly for their ridiculously priced rooms. ‘All that, just for a bed?’
We walked on. Eventually we ended up miles away in a much less elegant part of town. It was like being in the far east. People wore djellabas, fires blazed in the middle of cobble stone streets, the sound of animals being slaughtered mixed with pounding African music, and we ate cous cous for the first time in a Lebanese restaurant. It rained. It smelled of everything that wasn’t home.
Afterwards we found a hotel, which turned out to be a brothel. There were toenails in the greying bed sheets and the sound of sordid lovers pounding out their sad desires against the bed head next door. My gran sat up and chain-smoked all night long, vigilant in case we got raped in the night. I passed out on top of the sheets with everything but my boots on, dead to the world.
The next morning my gran shrugged it all off as a great adventure (which it was) commented on the fabulous sunrise, and we set off again, buying dungarees in a great cavernous shop that looked like a cross between Aunty Wainright’s emporium and B&Q, resting by one of Paris’ many splendid fountains, eating sharp shattered, crisp baguettes. I remember walking and walking, exploring everything, seeing everything, because we didn’t really have a plan, we just walked.
I fell in love with the city. We finished our stay in a chintzy hotel near the Gare du Nord, watching Neighbours in badly dubbed French while dipping flaky croissants into cafe au lait, and the smell of trains and hot metal drifted through the lace curtains.
The soundtrack to our travels that summer was my Best of Blondie cassette played super loud on my battered walkman. I remember listening to Denis Denis, as our train took us through the leafy suburbs to Versailles and thinking how lucky I was to be alive in such a time.
As we left Paris on a late train to Rouen, I finished reading A Tale of Two Cities and saw my reflection in the dark lit window, tears rolling down my face as the night streamed by.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
My gran got ill soon after that, and collapsed on her next trip abroad. No more backpacking for us.
Years later, I decided to take myself to Paris again. I had money this time. Not much, but just enough if carefully eked out. My ex husband, who I had just started seeing, decided to come with me.
I had found an advert in the Lady Magazine (always good for adventures, surprisingly), and sent off a cheque, in return for an envelope, straining at the seams with a huge brass key. It belonged to a small flat in the Bastille area of the city. Tucked down a street full of furniture repair shops, we found it behind a massive wooden door, pitted with iron spikes. Inside was our flat, a tiny cheese shaped wedge of dampness in a towering block, teeming with life.
It was never quiet. I don’t t think we slept for the entire week. One night the police raided the flat above, as a real hum dinger of a domestic kicked off. We all went outside and hung from the balconies so we could get a proper look. Babies squalled, dogs barked, voices rose and fell, and everything was magnified because it was August, and a blazing one at that. The heat made the air so thick it was like swimming when you walked.
I remember discovering the Marais; the shady squares, the smell of dust and the click of boules, the dappled shadows and sun on leaves. I remember a perfect bistro, Au Coin de Soleil, somewhere near the Pompidou centre. I remember one of the best steaks of my life in a restaurant somewhere near our flat. It was spilling over with people desperate to eat in that scruffy room that smelled of butter and onions and where your feet stuck to the floor. I remember coffee after coffee, drunk at rickety, glass-topped tables out of those chunky, white cups with impossibly small handles. I remember buzzing with caffeine, and life. Cigarette smoke wreathed round every memory.
I remember walking into the Sacre Coeur as the choir burst into song and feeling like I knew what God was. I remember jugs and jugs of wine in Montmartre one long, dreamy evening. I remember taking shelter in a bar opposite a sex club during a surprise rain storm, and being heartily amused at the expressions of the people entering and leaving the club. I remember paying homage to Oscar Wilde at Pere Lachaise and being disappointed that they had scrubbed up Jim Morrison. I remember wondering why there were so many tiny, rolled up strips of carpet in the gutters. I still wonder.
I remember being carefree, and young, and exhilarated.
I don’t want to add to the horror. There is enough of that. I can only give you my memories and my trust and belief that there are still marvellous memories to be made, and that one day they will outweigh the terrible ones.