My first trip to Paris occurred in the mid-1970s, an era when men were still beheaded behind prison gates, and those who survived wore flairs and platform shoes. My father drove from Luxembourg, along nail-bitingly vicious French motorways, wrecked boxy cars wrapped around trees or motorway bridges at regular intervals. Men openly urinated in the hard shoulder, a cigarette in one hand, a flaccid (hopefully) penis in the other. The word ‘Christ’ was hissed more frequently than at high mass on that journey, an imprecation to a deity my father did not embrace except when driving in France seemingly. After several hours of driving, an undertaking that goes someway to explaining the predisposition to baldness in my family, we arrived in Paris. It was ghastly. Truly ghastly.
In the 1970s Paris was, as London, buried in tat. Buildings oozed soot, bedecked with enormous hoardings for alcoholic drinks. My father, financially cautious to a fault, decided to search for hotels in what might euphemistically be described as ‘the budget’ range. I stepped onto a Pigalle pavement and looked up at the Hotel Whatlefuck, or something similar, our new home for the next few days. It was, I’ll be honest, tense. I quietly absorbed my mother’s fury, and my own apprehension, as we pushed our way through clusters of ageing prostitutes in flesh bitingly tight leather boots and ascended to a room in a garret, much in the manner of a film set, a room so depressing that convicts on Devil’s Island would feel their spirits crash were they forced to overnight within. I was obliged to sleep in the same bed as my mother (note to self, book counselling twice next week) our territory divided by a huge sausage-shaped pillow called a bolster. There was a sink, à la D-wing, the type of ceramic design used by befuddled business men as a substitute urinal, and there was flocked wall paper too, punctuated by grubby little light switches. We were provided by the gargoyle left in charge of the teak reception with a tourist booklet, containing what was dangerously close to hard-core pornography. A wooden window shutter pulled down at night, sealing the occupants in a syrupy, hot darkness, rather like being buried alive, before awaking to a continental breakfast of stale croissant and apricot jam.
This was my first meeting with the City of Lights. We visited the compulsory tourist attractions, including of course Notre Dame, the painting used to illustrate this blog and hopefully enticing you to part with some of your disposable income. (I ship to the USA and Europe by the way.) We always seemed to visit cathedrals as a family; it is what people do on holiday I suppose, though as a child my interest in the intricacies of Gothic architecture was not as developed as one might have hoped and which was competing for my attention with the well-thumbed tourist leaflet in our room. It was my first visit to the city.
But it was not my last. I returned many, many times, each time building my own relationship with it, layers of emotions and memories, slowly owning streets and places. I have come here with three ex-boyfriends, and with my spouse, (not all at the same time, obviously. How sophisticated would that be!) I came to this wonderful city a week after my release from hospital three years ago, my lungs still riddled with the clots that almost killed me, gasping for air in the Louvre and injecting my bruised soft stomach with heparin, pretending nothing was wrong, crying softly in the toilet. I have come here in fantastically cold winters and mithering summers, in childhood, youth and middle age. Paris is part of me. I cannot imagine a world without Paris. I might not stay long, or come more than once a year, but there is an eternity about my relationship with Paris that is life-long. When I miss her, I paint her. I watch her in old movies. I dream of my next visit. There is no city quite like Paris.