The sun rose on my last day in Paris and as usual I missed it by a few hours. I had given Paris a good nudge over the week and as I washed my face I could almost hear mums voice in my head…‘you’re exhausted. You should spend the day in bed, or at least relaxing. Pack your bags…get ready to go home…’ Sorry, disembodied voice in my head; I was exhausted, but determined to enjoy my last day in Paris.
I managed to get to the hotel dining room just in time to enjoy breakfast for the first time. The waiter checked the list and raised his eye brow. ‘We did not see you all week…Mrs O’Keefe…’ Somehow he said this in a way that implied all kinds of shenanigans, but maybe that was just my imagination, or my conscience.
As I sat and ate my pastries in what would now be called ‘retro’ dining room, I spied Jim from the tour group and the New Yorkers chatting across the room. They waved excitedly and formed a line to weave between the tables. It was really sweet how excited they were to see me. I couldn’t recall the last time any one was that pleased to see me. They asked if I had any big plans for the day, and I said with a sigh that I didn’t have any set plans but that I intended to enjoy my last day in Paris. They were all leaving the next day too so we made a plan to meet in the lobby in a few minutes and go paint the town blue, white and red.
Now back in 1994 you could front up to the Bateaux Mouches office in the middle of Summer and get on a boat. I am not sure you could still do this, I would think you need bookings these days. After taking too many photos of Paris including the tops of other passengers heads, we decided we would walk to Montmartre. The New Yorkers led the charge and Jim and I followed. He was a really sweet guy and I could see that he wasn’t used to spending time with women.
After wandering around Montmartre and having a forgettable tourist lunch in the square, we said goodbye. It’s a different world now; people are able to link up on social media now, but back then we exchanged addresses and fax numbers.
I had some francs burning a hole in my pocket so I took a taxi to Au Printemps. I spent too much on lacy French lingerie, silk blouses and CDs. These days I buy books as souvenirs, back then it was CDs.
I decided to walk back to my hotel, taking in the quiet Saturday afternoon streets. I’d had an amazing week and I was sad to be leaving, but I was looking forward to getting back home to my family, my house and my dog. I’d left my dog with Dad and my house in the care of a friend who turned out to not be such a good friend after all.
Other than my family and a few friends I didn’t have any reason to go home. I had a good job but I’d never struggled to get work. I knew I wanted to spend more time in Paris and travel more so the idea of moving to Paris was appealing. But at that moment, I was exhausted. I wasn’t tired of Paris, I was just tired.
I had planned to meet the Guide again, at L’Opera, but I was running late. I walked past the Garnier Opera only an hour before our planned meeting time and I knew I would be hard pressed to make it. Nevertheless, I walked back. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to spend any more time with him. I was emotionally fragile but he was a wreck. I thought I wanted to move to Paris but his life was very complicated. I didn’t want him to think I was only staying in contact for the help he could give me.
I kept walking, snapping photos, admiring the light that only late-afternoon Paris can do. I knew I would be late if I met him and I’m not sure if I was shocked or impressed to see The Guide and his daughter, Grace, waiting for me in the leafy square in front of the hotel. He looked at his watch theatrically and tapped his foot. He introduced me to Grace who stood shyly behind him. He began to tease me, asking me how I was going to get to L’Opera on time? Did I have a flying carpet? A time machine? I told him I had been having such a great day sightseeing that I lost track of time. He looked pointedly at the oversized Swatch Watch on my arm but he laughed.
I dumped my shopping and freshened up. Grace became more animated as I asked her questions about her holidays, her favourite foods, her favourite actors and singers. ‘Thank God,’ the 14 year old said, ‘you didn’t ask me about school! I hate school!’ Saved by the bell, I thought, that was my next question. Grace had been in Ireland for the school holidays. She was 14 and lovely and well travelled. I felt like a colonial hick next to her. I couldn’t get over the fact that she had just caught a ferry, a coach, a train and a ferry all the way from Ireland unaccompanied. I couldn’t imagine my mum letting me do that at 14. She wasn’t happy with me going to Paris on my own at 23.
We ate dinner in a very swish Chinese restaurant in the Opera quarter, one that the Guide took his well-paying clients to. It was some of the best food I have ever eaten and the first time I experienced Yum Cha. After dinner, Grace took us to her favourite place. The Ritz. I’m sure my face was crimson with embarrassment as we wandered through the Ritz like we owned it. We eventually made our way back out another doorway but I felt as though I was holding my breath. I was mortified the whole time that we would be chased out by a guard.
We giggled like we were all 14 as we crossed the Place Vendome and the Guide launched into guide-mode. ‘Oh papa, please no lectures!’ she groaned.
I didn’t mind the lectures. I would have to learn the history and the language if I was going to find work as a guide. This man, I learned as we walked the quiet Paris streets, spoke 8 languages. Perhaps I was not going to make the grade after all.
There was a fair in the Tuilleries and Grace convinced me to go on a ride with her. I have never been great with rides and narrowly avoided regurgitating all that gorgeous yum cha. The Guide said the look on my face was the funniest thing he had ever seen.
Criss-crossing the river, we finally ended up on Isle St. Louis eating Bertillon Ice cream. Grace wandered across pont St Louis to watch the buskers and The Guide took my hand. “I haven’t told Grace anything, about us. She doesn’t know about her mother…leaving…it would be awkward.’ I nodded and after a minute found an excuse to take my hand from his. She seemed like a smart girl. What was she going to think about her dad taking me out, meeting her. My life so far had not prepared me to navigate anything that complicated.
We wandered back to the car and he asked if we were tired. It felt strange, as though I was on a play-date with his daughter. Grace looked at me and shook her head. The Guide nosed the car into light traffic and zoomed along the Rue de Rivoli, around Place de la Condorde and up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. He drove the tiny car a little too fast but Grace let out a whoop and egged him on. I have never been a fan of this kind of showboating, but I decided not to let on. I was someone else in Paris, remember?
After navigating the Place d’Etoile, we ventured out to La Defense, the slightly seedy central business district just west of the Paris. The guide pointed out that if you set out on foot from La Pyramide, past Cleopatra’s needle and straight up the Champs-Élysées, through the Arc de Triomphe, and keep walking, you would eventually wind up at La Grande Arche, a white hollow cube, tall enough to contain Notre Dame Cathedral. I believe the angles are slightly off but that too has some kind of symbolic meaning to it. Paris is all about angles and dimensions and fitting stuff into other stuff, so to speak.
I was blown away by the night life out in La Defense. The tall muscular Algerians looked and dressed like American Basketball players but they spoke French. This blew my tiny mind. Equally mind blowing, for this small-town girl, was the other kind of night-life at the Bois de Boulonge. The Guide pointed out the male prostitutes, in drag. I tried not to stare, and it might have been the low light, but they were gorgeous. I doubted I had ever seen a real-live prostitute before, this was a whole other world. I commented on how beautifully dressed they were and how they looked more feminine than I did. My new friends stared at me. Grace took my long hair in her hands and told me I was one of the most beautiful girls she had ever seen. I started to cry. Now that was a compliment! Coming from her father it would have been a terrible cliché but from this stunning and elegant 14 year old it felt real. (She visited me in Australia years later and said she thought I looked like an angel who had fallen to earth. It was such a French thing to say, but you can never have too many compliments like that.)
We made a few more laps of the city, the monuments lit dramatically and eventually we took the exit from the Avenue de la Grande-Armée towards my hotel. I didn’t feel tired and I knew I wouldn’t sleep but my flight left early the next morning. No wait, I thought, my flight left in a few hours.
We climbed out of the little red car and I hugged and kissed them both. I was sad. I mentioned that I was thinking about moving to Paris, to find some work. Grace’s face lit up with that childish enthusiasm we all love. His brother, also a tour guide, spent many months in Asia and I could stay in his apartment. He couldn’t comprehend why I would want to leave Australia to live in Paris and he talked about visiting me and going surfing, and I told him I would take him to Darwin and The Great Barrier Reef. I had fallen, just a little, for my Frenchman, but despite our crazy plans for the future, neither of us held much hope of anything more than a holiday romance; the age gap was just too great. I imagined him meeting my Dad, now that would have been interesting.
The next morning I made my way to the airport and back to London to collect my mother and sister. Mum said I seemed relaxed, happy and she was glad I had a good time. Halfway home, somewhere over the middle east, I told mum I was going back, back to Paris, to live and work. ‘What’s his name?’ she laughed, ‘Pierre?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘that’s his brother.’
Words can be so powerful. I have reached my goal of 30,000 words written this month and as much as I love Paris, I am glad this project is done and dusted. I have found that I much prefer writing fiction. I have changed names and some circumstances so as not to embarrass or ‘out’ anyone involved and while I have toyed with the idea of writing a memoir of the time, to be honest, even 26 years later, I still have not really processed every emotion around the death of my first husband.
The next project I am working on involving Paris will be 100% fiction – a return to time travel! And of course, I am still working on an idea about an epidemic to end the world beginning in Paris involving a few zombie monkeys.
Vive la France!