Monday, 16 November 2015

A Love Letter to Paris

Paris owns a small piece of my heart. I left a bit somewhere near the Left Bank, overlooking the water - that place where all those cliches about the City of Light really do exist: a couple simultaneously arguing and embracing as they stroll along the quayside, a gaggle of friends feasting on picnics of wine, bread and cheese, quite possibly discussing something very deep and philosophical. And now the sun is dipping behind those picture-perfect buildings, casting one last glow on the water to light the way for the bateau mouche gliding along the river...

That little piece aches today, though. It doesn't feel so happy in its spot by the Seine, so unusually quiet for a Sunday afternoon. There are no Sunday strollers today, no idling away the afternoon with a Gauloise and a cafe au lait. No mothers chide their children for skipping too close to the quay edge, no one lingers to browse the second hand book stalls.

It's not the Paris I fell in love with age 11, the Paris that loomed large in my imagination before I'd even stepped foot in France, a city pored over in French lessons, my Tricolore book suggesting life in Paris was a lot more exciting than life as I knew it. I wanted to eat tarte tatin, not a Mr Kipling's apple pie, drive round in a 2CV, not a Mini Metro, and go shopping in Tati, not M&S. 

Under the instruction of Madame Delavergne - my French teacher and the only teacher I can vividly remember from my secondary school days - I decided Paris was my spiritual home. Even a distinctly less-than-romantic school trip at the end of that first year failed to fade its glamour - yes, we stayed in a grimy hotel on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town, but we climbed the Eiffel Tower! We ate croissants for breakfast! We chatted to French boys on the cross Channel ferry!

The romance of the city became so embedded in my consciousness that I have often felt that in a parallel universe I'd be seeing out my days in a tiny, cat-filled apartment off the Boulevard St Germain. But of course, the years roll by and real life gets in the way of fantasy. We dream about drinking hot chocolates at Les Deux Magots or watching the world go by in the Jardins Tuileries when in reality we're stuck in front of a computer or trudging through the rain to pick the kids up from school. We get older and weighed down with responsibilities, and that trip to Paris we keep meaning to make never quite happens.

A few years back, though, we did leave our ordinary lives behind for a weekend, to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. I was just as excited as I was when I arrived in Paris aged 11. The industrial estate hotel was replaced with a tiny room in the Marais, we left the queues at the Louvre to wander around the Rodin Museum and spent all our money on expensive coffees and delicious eclairs at Angelina's. It was a special trip that reminded me why my younger self found Paris such a fascinating, intoxicating place.

But with age comes the understanding that even our 'happy places' aren't immune to the problems and tragedies of real life. Real life is messy, sometimes dangerous, and a magical facade can hide deep fractures that the casual visitor can't see. Real life problems can shatter through simple joys in a moment - eating with friends, going to a concert, lying on a beach - making the happy places of not just our imagined world, but indeed our everyday lives, seem fraught with danger. That's why that little fragment of heart feels broken today. 

So, what do we do? Do we stop visiting our happy places or doing the things we love? Do we let the destructive acts of the minority stop us living out our fantasy lives or finding small joys in the everyday? Or should we continue as before, defending the key cornerstones of not just the French way of life, but principles that guide people all over the world, wherever they live and whatever their religion: Liberte, egalite, fraternite.

Paris has inspired many expressions of love and wonder over the centuries, including some that can seem a little trite in the aftermath of last weekend's events. While I still believe that "Paris is always a good idea", this quote by the Paris-born writer and philosopher Voltaire has particular resonance at this moment in time:

"God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well."

Paris, je t'aime. 


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