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.