Nuala McCann: We'll always have Paris

Wheels within wheels and time pours like sand between our fingers. Twenty-five years after I spent a year in Paris with journalists from all over the world, my friend and I return.

View on Eiffel tower at sunset, Paris, France.

WOULD we recognise the others? Who has got fatter or thinner, balder or hairier? What would life have lobbed their way? How has the pendulum swung?

One thing is certain – we have not fallen out of love with Paris.

On a warm June day, we watch from the window of our hotel as a young bride in cream silk strolls across to the steps of the Pantheon for a first photograph with her new husband.

How young they are, we sigh, how very young.

From the top of the building, the French tricolour flutters in the breeze.

And this is the city we have loved.

On the Place de la Contrescarpe, we sip wine outside the Cafe des Arts. It's a bit of a pilgrimage site, I tell my friend.

I first visited the bar with her 25 years ago and have vague memories of a raucous birthday party.

I've gone back regularly but have never quite managed quite the same number of glasses.

Once, when our son was about six, we came, not only to drink in the warm peace of a little square in Paris in summer, but also so that my son could try out the Turkish toilets – two footprints in the cement and a hole to squat over.... every school boy's dream?

Not exactly enchanting – I do recall a very drunk friend who stumbled and plunged one leg into one such toilet up to his oxters, but that is a tale for another day.

Let's remember the romance of the Cafe des Arts where students from the left bank mingle and blag tobacco from each, roll their own cigarettes and smoke as dusk falls on the little square with the tinkling fountain.

Once we went back there and as we sat outside, sipping a glass of Kir, I said to my husband: "Do you know what day yesterday was?"

"No, why?," he asked.

"I think it was our wedding anniversary," I said... we had both forgotten.

"Well, didn't we have a lovely day?," he said and, indeed, it was true.

Paris is the city of dreams – even if armed police on the bridges of the Seine cast dark shadows.

But sidestep that and meander down the Boulevard St Michel past the bouquinistes on the quai and over to La Cité and down the back of Notre Dame bathed in the honey light of a summer's day.

You can watch young lovers embrace on the Pont Neuf – the oldest bridge in Paris and return to the scene of all kinds of crimes of 25 years ago.

Try Chartier – the famous restaurant where the waiters in long white aprons walk briskly from table to table and elderly French madames settle down in their furs to enjoy the plat du jour.

I text a picture of the restaurant to my husband back home in Belfast, saying "Remember this?".

"Bleeding meat," he replies.

And indeed, when he received his meal on a memorable night 25 years ago, it was indeed a bloody affair.

"That heart's still pumping," he said, with not a little alarm.

You might have seen the ghost of Christian Barnard hovering in the background – scalpel at the ready.

We always ordered our steaks very well done after that.

And on we walked, getting lost in Paris because in our youth we never truly learned the streets – just hopped on and off metro trains, to ascend from the underground blinking at the glory of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or Place de la Concorde.

This time we walked and walked.

We visited the rooms in Paris which were our base that year and where we prepared to jet off around Europe and conduct interviews in languages we did not speak.

We visited the beautiful street where we lived with our friend the Greek journalist, Olympia.

We tasted fresh ripe melon from the fruit stall on the corner, still going strong – and it was as sweet as our memories.

We spent an evening with our journalist friends from across the globe. We had not seen them for 25 years and we talked about our joys and our sorrows – storms weathered, beautiful memories, corners rubbed off.

And we made a promise to meet again, because life is short.

How young we once were and how the wheels of time have turned and now we wear our years on our faces in laughter lines and worry lines.

And our children stand upon our shoulders and look out with lighted faces towards the future.


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