Monday, June 04, 2007

La Ville de Mon Coeur

Ah, Paris....

City of my heart. City of my dreams...

I first came here 25 years ago on a French exchange trip. It was my first trip abroad (my already well travelled kids will probably mock that in years to come) and the experience was rendered with that extra bit of magic that all such first experiences have.

From the very first moment, I loved everything about Paris: the cafes, the buildings, the bouquinistes. The Metro seemed impossibly smart and smooth next to the Underground, the compactness of the city compared favourably to London's urban sprawl, and my first views of Notre Dame as I crossed the Pont Neuf took my breath away.

My exchange visit, alas, was somewhat less successful. I stayed with a rather sulky girl, who engaged in internicine warfare with her incredibly strict mother to a level I couldn't comprehend. There were rules in my house, but in the main, as I wasn't going out sniffing meths in the local park, my mother very rarely said no to any activity I suggested.

My French friend, on the other hand, lived under a set of rules I would have found suffocating: no parties, no boyfriends, no telephone calls, no seeing her best friend (whom Maman had decided was a very bad influence). So of course my FF did the lot. Despite Maman having put a lock on the phone, the minute she was out of the house, FF would be searching for the key, ringing up Bad Influence and arranging to meet several streets away. Meanwhile Maman, knowing damn well what she was up to, would test her out by coming back unexpectedly or lurking on street corners to see if a rendezvous had been arranged (which nine times out of ten it had). When confronted with the evidence of her misdemeanours FF had perfected a brilliantly blank stare, and Gallic shrug. Her ability to lie in the face of incontrovertible proof was quite extraordinary. If I hadn't been so stressed about getting caught up in the consequences of it, I'd have been a lot more admiring I think.

Because of course, I did get caught up in the consequences. Every time FF set off on an escapade with BI, I was sworn to secrecy, and made to promise that I would tell Maman nothing. Lying doesn't come easily to me, and certainly didn't then, when my normal role in life was to be Miss Goody Two Shoes, so when the spotlight of Maman's interrogation fell to me, I retreated into the only defence left to me: namely blank incomprehension. If I pretended not to understand the question, then I couldn't lie...

The worst occasion was when FF and BI decided to go shopping at the out of town shopping centre, several miles away, despite having been told not to. Maman clearly didn't trust her one iota, because as we got off the second of two buses to our destination, BI spotted we'd been followed. Really. She had tailed us for fifteen minutes. We then spent a farcical hour diving in and out of shops to hide from her. Eventually she caught up with us as we leapt on a bus home, but being slightly plump and out of condition, she didn't make it onto the same bus we did, so we left her raging on the pavement. And when she got back, FF STILL denied we'd been there. As the French would say... incroyable...

My other chief memory from the period is discovering the joy of French cuisine and cheese, only slightly marred by the fact that the TV would be on in the corner during every meal. As it was my first experience of speaking French on a daily basis, I struggled to follow the conversation when I could see out of the corner of my eye, pictures of British soldiers piling onto troopships, and catching the occasional frustrating mention of the words: Malvinas and Task Force. I hadn't any idea what was going on (my hosts didn't do politics, and apart from one uncle who kept teasing me that we were about to lose a war - what war? He never actually got to that bit), so my first question when I got home was, Are we at war? to the huge amusement of my family. Galtieri had invaded the Falklands the day I left England. We'd been at war for over two weeks, and I hadn't had a clue...


My next trip to Paris was altogether more delightful. I left England on the day of the first Live Aid concert to go and be an au pair for a French couple my sister had met during a year spent in Paris. The sun shone and the Channel was the calmest I've ever seen it. It was the first time I had taken a trip abroad, alone, and I felt (laughably probably to most gap year students now, but opportunites to travel were less then) like I was having a real adventure. My host met me at Gare du Nord, and then I was whisked to a Bastille Day party in the town I was staying in, where I chiefly remember struggling to understand everything that was said to me, but mainly feeling made incredibly welcome. Two days later, on my 20th birthday, they thoughfully provided a cake and a small party. I was very young, and slightly homesick, and they pitched it perfectly. I knew from that moment I was among friends.

My charge was four years old and an absolute dream. Her wonderful parents made me feel at home straight away, and I spent a merry summer in their house, taking long trips to the park during the day, and indulging in fascinating intellectual and political discussion at night. I had little experience with children, beyond babysitting, but luckily despite a slight sense of mischief (Maman says I can have as much hot water as I want in my bath - Maman, says no such thing it turns out, as several days running I inadvertently use up all the hot water in the tank) I fell in love with the little girl I was looking after, and she gave me not a moment of trouble. In fact she was so easy, having to cope with my own children came as something of a shock, I can tell you.

At the weekends, my employees generously paid for me to have a carte orange, so I could go and explore Paris. I had many wonderful days alone, strolling through the near empty Paris streets in the sun (this was August, so most Parisians were away). It was quite quite glorious, and I spent many happy hours in Montmartre, or strolling down the Boulevard St Germain looking in the bookshops. I had no money, and this being the early days of my courtship with Spouse I missed him hugely, but the joyous freedom of those days will forever be imprinted on my memory.

Conversation round the dinner table was also a hugely enjoyable part of the experience. My charge's father speaks the best English of any foreigner I've ever met (in fact, he probably speaks it better then some English people), and at the time his wife didn't speak all that much English. Their daughter had been brought up to be bilingual, so she understood everything I said to her in English, but being a bright little button, she quickly twigged that I could speak French so though the idea was for me to encourage her to speak more English, I fear I rather failed on that score. However, my French leapt forward hugely, thanks the rapid rate of translation from one language to the other round the dinner table, and by the time I returned to England I had got the point of dreaming in French. Indeed, on my first day back in London, so immersed had I become in France and the French way of living, I felt like I had come back to a foreign country. That love of France has never since gone away.

Something also happened to me for the first time on that trip, which has occurred several times since. Despite a working knowledge of both French and German, I find there is always a gap of understanding of the subtleties of the other language, and an inevitable lack of knowledge about certain aspects of the other culture. But with certain friends I have met abroad, that gap and lack matter not one whit. Because something happens which transcends language somehow and you reach an understanding with the other person, which goes beyond speech. I can't explain it better then that. But I like the French phrase: l'ami de mon coeur. I have several in Germany, and here in Paris, all those years ago, I made two for life.

And now, thanks to them, and their wonderful daughter, I was back. Visiting the city I love most in the world, and showing it off to my children. Something I couldn't have envisaged in the slightest back then.

We didn't have much time, so we took a quick flit into the city in the morning, emerging from a Paris subway to spot our first sight: Notre Dame towering magnificently over the Seine. Those tall Paris apartements were just as I remembered them; the cafes spilling out onto the streets (I know cafe culture has tried to come to England, but we just don't do it as well); the bouqinistes setting up by the river - it was all as perfect as my memories. My heart did a little leap, as we drove up and down the river, past the Louvre, the Jardin de Tuileries, the Place de Concord, and (rather hairily) around the Arc de Triomphe. The kids were thrilled to bits at the sight of the Eiffel Tower (as was mil who has never been to Paris before), and we amazingly were able to park up near enough to leap out and get a few pictures. Time alas, was running out, so we couldn't stay long, but that brief snatch was enough for me to know I have to get back for a proper visit, and show the children what a magical place it is.

Ah, Paris...

Vraiment, et pour toujours, la ville de mon coeur...

6 comments:

Kate said...

That sounds absolutely blissful - you should be including Paris in a book (if you haven't already!).

It's about 15 years since I was last there and after reading your posts I feel like getting on Eurostar tout de suite...

liz fenwick said...

I loved this post :-) I smiled the whole way through with your memories and feeling your joy!

Jane Henry said...

Kate, funny you should say that... my first novel featured a trip to Paris (praps I should revive it). I had forgotten just how much I loved Paris till I got there. I thought going to Venice a couple of years ago might have eclipsed the feelings but, nope, they're still there!

Thanks, Liz... am amazed that you can blog while you're away! Hope your trip going well too...

Dumdad said...

Welcome back!

Great post - you've got the flavour and ambiance of Paris perfectly.

I also went on a French exchange trip when I was about 17. The family was in banking and extremely rich with a chateau near Versailles and a huge chalet in Toulon with a private beach and an apartment block in Paris.

Father and mother and two sisters were delightful. Unfortunately, my exchange was a stuck-up prig who didn't drink or smoke and went to bed early; as we shared a bedroom I had to follow suit. And I guess my shoulder-length hair upset him too.

Still, I enjoyed the family picnics on their motor-launch in Toulon and the tennis and the cuisine and the wine.

Pity we didn't hit it off. And he was very awkward on the return trip although I did my best to make him feel welcome. C'est dommage.

Jane Henry said...

bonjour DD... My return trip was a nightmare too. Let off from Maman's leash FF went mad and insisted on going out every night (I was still at school doing exams, I think!). She kept copping off with unsuitable boys and when my mother suggested this wasn't on, she rang her parents to say we were illtreating her, they made a complaint to the group organiser etc... I ended up having a stand up row with her on an underground ride all the way from Tower Hill to Southgate. Tout en francais as she wouldn't speak English. So at least my language skills improved....

Still, it could have been worse, one of my friends got arrested in Paris with her exchangee. The French girl had been shoplifting and my poor friend hadn't realised.

Does anyone EVER have good French exchanges I wonder?

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