Paris, je t'aime: Another love song for a city
Love song for a city. You feel for Paris in these harsh days. But would I go back? Yes, always, in a heartbeat
HERE’S just another silly love song for a city. When they came on a busy Friday night and shot them down, they plundered a small piece of our hearts too.
“We’ll always have Paris,” Bogie whispers to Bergman at the end of Casablanca.
It was our city too. At just 19 years old, I saw Paris for the first time and fell in love.
It’s not just the Eiffel Tower and how it lights up at night and how everyone spreads rugs and sits underneath on warm summer evenings, sipping wine and waiting for the tower to twinkle on the hour.
It’s not even the Sainte Chapelle with its stained-glass windows arching skywards so that you feel swept up in a kaleidoscope of colour, reds, greens, yellows, blues, flashing like butterfly wings.
At 19, I au paired for the daughter of a countess and a captain in the French navy. We lived in an apartment at Versailles and I sipped my first real coffee and learned baby French with their babies. 'Lou lou' is milk; 'dodo' is sleep, why don’t you? and 'pipi' is self explanatory.
I had a day off every week from the children, and the couple wrote me up walks to take on my own through the Tuileries gardens, past the old-fashioned carousel and the children pushing toy sail boats with small wooden sticks across the fountain.
Down sweeping boulevards I’d stroll and marvel at that moment on the Avenue Kleber when, all of a sudden, the Tour Eiffel looms up and you catch your breath.
And then I said au revoir and returned to Ireland.
And the years went by and I went back for a whole glorious year to walk the avenues and toast the Beaujolais Nouveau in small bars tucked away from the tourists and ride the metro like a local – that smell of hot vomit, that’s just the metro – and I’d not even bother go see the Mona Lisa under the glass pyramid... la joconde, she’s such a small painting really, huh?
And if you asked me then where was my favourite place in Paris, I might have said it was that room downstairs in the Orangerie where Monet’s water lilies are displayed stretched out across the walls – so that you sit surrounded and drink in the blues and the turquoises and the deep dark indigos.
There is peace – a silence that you don’t find often in a busy bustling city. The American student writes reams in her journal and you sit back and look.
The year of Paris passes and I say goodbye for a few more years only to return once more with a husband and small child. And how life goes in circles – when I was 19 and just a girl, did I ever dream I’d bring my own small boy back to this city?
But here he is, a happy six-year-old, chasing pigeons along the white dusty paths of the Jardin du Luxembourg.
We stroll through the Tuillerie Gardens and he runs for the fountain and we get him a little wooden boat with a purple sail and a stick to push it across the pool.
And he comes back laughing because the man said he was a visitor to the city and because he was Irish, he should have double the time for free.
Later, our boy begs to go to the Eiffel Tower and we sit underneath and wait with baited breath for the moment when the lights twinkle and we cheer and toast the city.
But this time around, the tower is not what enchants me. I love the people. I’ve even grown fond of the haughty waiters in the city’s cafes, in their starched white aprons and the way they look down their noses at everyone.
I love the man with the mysterious third nipple and the begging cup, I love the woman with the itsy bitsy poodle peeking out of her shoulder bag as she trips lightly down the street.
I love the hawkers with their miniature Eiffel towers and their leather belts and their cheap bags and all the world weaving their way through and laughing as it goes.
I remember an African girl in an orange and green and yellow long dress, posing for the camera, her dark hair swept up in combs and feathers – a bird of paradise.
A French girl in peacock blue, strode past, her halter-neck dress revealing the edge of a rose tattooed under her left breast and, over her bare right shoulder, some lines of poetry etched on to the skin.
A man in a cream 1950s raincoat, his blonde hair swept back and a cigarette in his hand was intense and moody and straight off a film set.
And once, in a metro tunnel, I saw a woman whose big toe nail had been filed into a straight sharp point and painted silver... a dagger in the darkness.
It’s just my silly love song for a city. You feel for Paris in these harsh days. But would I go back? Yes, always, in a heartbeat.