Memoir memories

I am revisiting writing a memoir. Feedback and comments welcome.

July 24, 1994.

Paris. Finally. My dream city, at my feet, and I was about to become a citizen, even if only for a week.

I’d just arrived, my head on a swivel as the taxi driver sped towards my hotel. He pointed out the Eiffel Tower in the distance. In the days before Google Maps we could still be surprised by such a vision. I was amazed at its scale, even at that distance. It loomed over ever other building. Well, not every other building, there was an ugly glass skyscraper to the left of the tower. I was horrified by it. It was just wrong, so I decided to ignore it. (I wish I’d known then how great the view was from Tour Montparnasse.) The driver pointed out the white onion domes on top of Montmartre. I copied the words he said. Le Sacre Coeur. It shone in the bright summer sun.

We sped along the raised expressway, my eyes constantly drifting back to the grey urban spread from horizon to horizon. London had that spread, too. I’d been surprised that so much of London was low-rise with the small cluster of buildings that made up The City seemingly on par with the cities in Australia. Sydney, I thought, was a more spectacular looking city, even if it lacked the museums and art galleries.

 ‘What is this city?’ I asked the cabbie. All those drab grey apartment blocks. It couldn’t be Paris, could it?

He looked at me in the rear vision mirror, one eyebrow cocked. He’d already asked me if my hotel was in Paris, confusing me and making me a little fearful. I know now that it’s important information for a driver. There are many street names that run across the imaginary line that divides the 20 arrondissements of Paris from the outer suburbs but back then I wondered if I was going to end up in some other city, or worse, bound and gagged in the trunk.

 ‘Paris. All.’ He waved his hands around like he was conducting an orchestra. Then he smiled, all big, white teeth. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but he assured me I was in Paris and I relaxed a little. I probably wasn’t going to end up in his trunk.

After a few loops around similarly-sounding streets exhausting the other possibilities for my hastily scrawled address, I stood in a leafy street, on the wide pavement looking up at my hotel. It was 4-star, clean if a little dated, but decidedly nicer than our creaky old London hotel. All these years later I can’t recall the name of the hotel, but in my mind’s eye I can see it in all its vintage glory. (I checked it out on Google Maps. They’ve refurbished, re-branded, and it’s now 5-stars.)

Check in was confusing. My French teacher had assured me my beginner-level conversational French would suffice because, and I quote, ‘everyone in Paris speeks Eenlgish.’ I’m not mocking a French accent here. The teacher was Australian born and bred but it seemed the entire class, her first, had wordlessly decided to ignore her fake accent. I say fake because one does not tend to pick up an accent on a semester abroad. The young woman on the desk did not speak English, or if she did, she was reluctant to do so with me. German and Spanish, yes, but English, ‘non, mademoiselle, je suis désolé.’ We muddled through, resorting to gestures and eventually I had the room key and vague idea of the breakfast serving times.

I can still clearly picture the lobby. All white, low-slung sofas and potted palms, with a bar at one end under a glass ceiling. I had become well acquainted with the hotel bar in London (wood panelling, stained glass. I felt quite grown up drinking there even if I didn’t look it.) At least when I went for a drink in Paris I wouldn’t have to deal with my mother’s judgement, only, it turned out, that of the hotel staff.

Key in hand, I waited for a few minutes for help, pretending to reorganise my daypack. When it was obvious no porter was going to show, I noisily dragged my suitcase to the lift. This was the 90s, before we all had sleek, hard-bodied suitcases with multi-directional wheels.

Now, my suitcase sat at the end of one of the twin beds in my overly air-conditioned room and after a quick freshen up, I made my way along the gaudy orange/green corridor. I wish I could remember for sure. I should remember, the colour so all-pervading I remember having a hunch that each level was probably a different colour. Instead of heading straight down to the lobby, I pushed the up button and stopped the lift on the three other floors to confirm my suspicion. From memory, there was a red, a purple and a yellow floor, each coded with huge laminated circles which I’m sure had been the height of interior decor sometime in the 70s.

I was giggling by the time I found the lobby. Did they know, I asked my terribly superior self, how silly it was, but this feature would come in handy a few days later when I dragged my drunken self into the elevator, trying to ignore the judgemental stares of the desk staff, and had to rely on the colour to guide me to my door.  

I waved to the desk attendant, but she called me over and asked for my key in perfectly adequate English (it may have been a different woman…) Mum was worried about me on my own and had warned me to keep my key, but I knew that wouldn’t ensure my safety; they always had spares anyway. I handed her the key to the room and bid her a cheery ‘bonjour’. I couldn’t wait to get out into the streets of Paris.

But then I wasn’t actually in Paris was I?

I had seen the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe from the taxi, but this deserted, tree-lined street didn’t feel like Paris. Not a single other person was out walking and the parked cars appeared to have settled in for the weekend. The neighbourhood was silent. It wasn’t just a quiet Sunday in the suburbs, it was deathly quiet, like Sunday in my hometown where everyone was either asleep, at church or at the pub. Where was everyone? I’d just come from London; it had been buzzing.

Had I misjudged Paris? From where I stood it had all the allure and mystique of visiting my nanna’s dull suburb back home. Okay, you have to remember that in the early 90s we didn’t have the world wide web. No Google Maps, no Facebook Live, no selfie sticks (thank goodness), so I only knew of Paris what I had read in books, seen on the television or in a film. At least I was appropriately attired; for the heat, if not the walk. The heat was stifling, even standing there in my sheer summer shift and kitten heels in the shade of the horse chestnut trees. I lifted my head as though sniffing the air. The heat wasn’t unexpected. We had been sweltering in England for four weeks which had been unexpected. (The heatwave, at least, had reminded Mum of home, but she still complained about it.)

I felt my forehead. I hadn’t been well for a few days. I’d been out a few times in London. I’d met a girl who had been through a terrible breakup and she was up for some hard-core partying. She was content to talk about her situation and I intimated I’d been through something similar. I didn’t tell her the truth. It confused people. I was 22, didn’t look a day over 16, and had been a widow for 8 months. I was in no state to be travelling alone.


  1. equinoxio21

    Do you remember the street name? That would be interesting. Now, about Ze inglish, I am sorry to report that the vast majority of my compatriots do not speak English. Period. And the few who do, generally have such a terrific accent no-one understands it. Sarkozy didn’t speak it. François Hollande thought he did. When he started speaking English in international conferences, the others begged him to switch back to French and let the interpreters do their bl..dy job if you please…
    A widow at 22? Dear, dear. I am very sorry for your loss. (Even after all this time)
    Stay home. Stay safe…

    1. Christine Betts

      Thanks so much for reading. The hotel was in Neuilly on Bvd Victor Hugo but you can imagine us driving along Avenue Victor Hugo searching for the hotel! My cabbie took very literally my belief the hotel was IN Paris 😂 of course I didn’t know the difference!

      1. equinoxio21

        You don’t say! I worked a summer job at a bank there. Centuries ago. 🙂 Quite a posh neighbourhood to stay. And in the cabbie’s defense, Neuilly is really almost inside Paris…
        Cheers. Stay safe

      2. Christine Betts

        It was a very posh neighbourhood- still is of course. I was bitterly disappointed it wasn’t a typically Parisian hotel but subsequent visits to Paris have seen me stay in apartments, hotels, a couple of fancy b&bs, even a caravan and campsite out past the bois de Boulogne. I’m not fussy ☺️ as long as it’s Paris.

      3. equinoxio21

        That is good. Though Parisian hotels are not always that great. There was a nice one, Rue du Dragon, near St-Germain. A camping site near Bois de Boulogne? hmmm. Don’t wander at night.

  2. Kate Kelsen

    Love it Christine! It reminds me of my visit. Cannot wait to read the rest! The last lines are beautiful and make me more intrigued to hear more of your story Xx

  3. jennaleanneflower

    Hey Christine! Just read through your post and I think the line, “I was 22, didn’t look a day over 16, and had been a widow for 8 months. I was in no state to be traveling alone.”, would be better to open with. It feels like you’re burying the lead because this is the most introspective piece of the story, and the reader has to make it all the way to the end in order to connect with you on that personal level. I really love that line and think it could help frame the rest of your story here. Best of luck!

    1. Christine Betts

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I do struggle with connecting with the reader. I never want to come across as a “victim” so kind of prefer to slip in personal details and often leave my readers thinking “did I just read that right?” 😄 I need to work in letting myself be seen. Xx

Comments are closed.