A writer reflects on a childhood visit to Paris, and relives precious memories with the woman who inspired her to travel.
Marching past the impeccable lawns of Champ de Mars in a cloud of lavender and chamomile, we followed my grandmother’s lead. Like Moses and the Red Sea, she parted the crowds with sheer presence alone; brandishing her walking stick as if it were a sanctified staff. Except Moses didn’t wear pleated skirts or clip-on earrings.
All around us, the city swirled. Tufts of candyfloss floated by between sticky fingers as merry-go-round music whirred and horses brayed. Staring up at the endless lattice of black girders, I wondered how something so vast could even exist. Hawkers jangled miniature Eiffel Towers on oversized chains, and I felt suddenly queasy with the scale of it all. But, as ever, Nannie Cynth was fearless.
Sensing my reticence, Mum happily stayed with me on the ground as everyone else disappeared into the longest queue I had ever seen. Dad took Nannie’s arm like an anxious child as I promised to wave to her, knowing I would still be able to pick her out from a thousand-feet away.
After spending the next five minutes teaching Mum how to ask for a chocolate ice-cream in elementary French, she finally plucked up the courage to order me one. Seconds later, I was presented a cone crowned with two bright pink scoops…
Mutually thwarted by our very awkward Britishness, we offered a très enthusiastic “merci” and legged it rather than argue. Plonking down on a nearby bench, I set about eating my feelings, trying to convince myself the views from up there wouldn’t have been worth stomaching vertigo and rickety elevator rides for anyway.
That wasn’t true, though. Paris was entirely unlike anywhere I had ever been before. It wasn’t a city in the way that Birmingham was a city, or Stoke-on-Trent. It didn’t have grubby backstreets and big industrial buildings with broken windows. It wasn’t hazy with smog or cluttered with brutalist shopping arcades, leisure centres and retail parks. Everything was immaculate.
From the sleek and slender townhouses adorned by ornate balconies to the avenues trimmed with identical trees, the symmetry was exquisite. Boutiques so exclusive you needed an appointment; bulging domes of gold, green and stone; glass pyramids erupting from concrete courtyards like enormous diamonds; palaces, bridges, spires and – overseeing all – the infamous iron giant.
Our tour guide for the week had introduced it to us by recounting the tragic story of ‘The Flying Tailor’, who died after jumping from the tower’s first platform whilst trying to prove his design for an aeronautic suit. Paris could make you believe anything was possible.
After dark the city effervesced like champagne bubbles twinkling in the crystal flutes spaced evenly around our table at dinner, draped in flawless white linen. An accordion sang with jaunty melodies as a fellow traveller showed me how to turn pressed napkins into water lilies, just like the ones we had seen in Monet’s Garden. I handed Nannie the creation, whose silver-toothed smile recognised something of herself in my visibly wonderstruck heart.
She had always been an explorer. Ever since running away from her unhappy home when she was just a girl, she had relentlessly pursued the call of something different; something more. An ardent Francophile and aficionado of Paris, she had already enchanted my restless soul with the scrapbooks she’d compiled of previous visits, and I required absolutely no persuasion when she became adamant about taking an epic family holiday there. At last, I thought. At last.
The surrounding town still slept around us as the coach pulled up outside the local train station that July morning. It felt so clandestine; scurrying about in the amber light of dawn. The journey to Dover may have been long and unimpressive, but I was too busy planning my Kate Winslet impression for the ferry to mind. Waving goodbye to those ghostly white cliffs, I stood out on-deck, letting the salty spray settle on my skin. I leant into the wind and the promise of adventure ahead.
What followed was a glorious whirlwind of marble staircases, chandeliers and living statues; lavish continental breakfasts on carousels and baguettes filled with stinky cheeses. Bastille Day celebrations were in full-swing, and I watched in awe of the drunken revellers swaying on the banks of the Seine as we sailed by on a river cruise. When one of them turned around and triumphantly mooned in the direction of our boat, Nannie threw her hands over my eyes and tutted disapprovingly as I laughed. But her look told me she knew exactly how I was feeling: that Paris had claimed me, too.
Even the suggestive shopfronts of Pigalle couldn’t deter my love. Nannie warned me not to gaze too intently out of my window—which obviously had the opposite effect—as our driver attempted to speed the coach toward holier turf.
Churches and cathedrals always smell the same. The Sacré-Cœur was no exception, with its musty notes of varnished wood and melting wax. Grey columns rose up into arches and vaults, which met garishly painted ceilings and coloured portholes. It was undeniably beautiful, but intensely foreboding. Places like this felt too close to death for my liking.
At an altar, Mum paused to light a candle for her own mum. There were dozens of flames dancing in memoriam as they illuminated the faces of the ones left behind. All too soon, another candle would be burning, far from here. On the hearth in my house. For the one who had started the fire within me.
I had no idea, but we were already losing Nannie by the time we crossed the Channel. The cancer had come back, more cunning and cruel than before, and no amount of joie de vivre could cure it. This trip was to be her swansong; a chance to make some enduring memories with her family whilst sharing with us the city she adored. A bold move; one of many made in her lifetime. You can’t take me yet. I’m not done.
In Paris, moments can be frozen and kept forever. That’s how I still see her salt-and-pepper hair reflecting in the steel platters of French toast, bacon and avocado; her mischievous grin as we attempted to peek through blood-red curtains into the closed auditorium of the Opéra Garnier; her furrowed brow whilst meticulously framing artful shots with her camera in the Louvre.
She knew long before I did what Paris would come to mean to me. When I returned for the first time without her, a fresh grief throbbed in my throat as I sank into the cold slabs of Place du Trocadéro. The Eiffel Tower sparkled on regardless.
Several years on and merely metres away, the man I love would ask me to marry him.
It was all because of you.
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