The first time I went to Paris I was thirteen, on a bus tour with my family. They drove us around the city, describing the monuments. We stopped at Trocadero, our own coach an ant in the populace of tour buses. Mum snapped pictures like a hungry crocodile, and I wondered what all the fuss was about – the tower looked pretty small from there. We went to the Louvre, at that time, sans la pyramide. It was crowded, I was about 135cm tall, and couldn’t see anything over the masses of bodies. It took forever, and my feet ached. That evening, the adults all went off to the Folies Bergeres. My younger brother and I stayed in the hotel and watched PG movies without parental guidance and ordered unhealthy food from room service. We left the following morning.
The second time I found myself in Paris, I was 21. I was again with a bus – this time on a gritty version of 18-35 tours. It was the first day, and I knew nobody. We had a day at leisure, and I had no idea where to go, so I delved into my knowledge of Paris – Les Miserables and The Scarlet Pimpernel. I caught the metro to Bastille, and found a phallic monument in the centre of a giant roundabout, petty thieves, and shops I could not afford to shop in. I didn’t know anything about the world class market around the corner. My tour group met later that day at Trocadero, and the bus took us swiftly in the direction of Morocco. I was happy to be on the way.
The third time I visited Paris, I was 28, newly married, and without children. We stayed with my friend Christine, who had chased a man back to Paris, and shacked up in a third floor, 30 square metre apartment in Place d’Italie. My other half had the craziest jet-lag I had ever seen, and would fall asleep every time he sat down, so Christine took me out and showed me how to drink coffee from a bowl. We walked and walked, the bought vibrant pied radishes (see recipe), spindly baguettes and butter from the market, then small house Champagne I had never heard of from a dusty off-licence below her digs. She taught me how to eat these pretty pink radishes the French way – slathered in butter, bathed in salt from the camargue, sandwiched in a crusty morsal of bread, and chased down with brut rose. On the weekend she took us to the Luxembourg gardens via the boulongerie, charcuterie and epicerie. We drank cheap and wonderful Touraine out of plastic cups, and dodged the grass gendarmerie, who opposed any turf dwelling. That night we dined in Montmatre, in a restaurant (now closed) that appeared to be Marie Antoinette’s attic, and drank Taittinger and Premier Cru Chablis by Jean Durup. And during the other three days, while Christine was at work, we took a barge ride up a Seine off-shoot, then just walked and walked and walked. I bought a shirt in the Opera junction that I still wear.
The fourth stay in Paris was coordinated with a wedding. Rodin’s garden, followed by Brasserie Lipp, fairytale to say the least. We stayed in the quartier Latin on Rue Mouffetard, in a two bedroom apartment with our children, and our new addition to the family – Mary, our maid. We discovered the pristine part of Paris – our friends stayed in the 6th, and we would meet them for sun-downers at Les Deux Magots, and admire their fresh purchases from Cartier and Louis Vuitton. We sipped champagne under the bejeweled dome of Galeries Lafayette, then took the lift to the top floor to catch the best free view in central Paris. We dined at Jacques Cagna – ooh la la. Each evening we returned to the loveable dirty romance of the 5th, full of the smell of fish and cheese from the astounding markets and stores nearby. We took the children to Monets Garden (a success) and Versailles (less so), and the Musee d’Orsay (a disaster). We visited Christine again, back in Place d’Italie after a 6 year hiatus, and our two Australian boys conversed with her two French boys in the language of play. We ate radishes by the kilo.
The fifth stay was fairly recent. We rented a three-bedroom apartment in Rue Gay Lussac (near the quaint Walton-favourite restaurant Les Papilles) that turned out to be a 1-br with two attic spaces with matresses and negative headroom. But we could creep out and sit on the 6th story rooftop like regular urchins, and see the Eiffel tower at night, glittering in the distance like an image from a movie. We climbed it, and I finally appreciated its height. I could see the whole of Paris from there – from the Space Odyssey block that is Tour Montparnasse to the mosque-like domes of Sacre Coeur. This view took us the next day trough the cobbled inclines of Montmatre, and we waved back at La Tour Eiffel from that blessed hill. We returned to the Luxembourg gardens, this time finding the boats and ponies rather than the shady nooks. We lay on the grass at Place des Voges. We ambled around the soft spaces of Tuileries then the geometric wonder of Pompidou and steel waterfalls of Les Halles. We ate oysters at rickety wooden tables on the temporary beach on the seine and washed them down with flinty Sancerre while the children splashed in modern water-play sculptures. We bought strawberries that tasted like cordial at the markets, and ate them all before we finished the walk home. My french was finally becoming good enough for Christine to attempt a conversation with me.
My sixth time in Paris will be different again. I will stay in the Marais. I will visit the Louvre without children. I will visit the Pompidou centre with them. I will dine at L’Ambrosie. I will write a book in the shade of La Maison de Victor Hugo. I will speak only french. I may well stay forever.