Hello. It’s my birthday today. I’ve had a fabulous morning; my usual breakfast was replaced with a bowl of floral gum sweets (courtesy of the youngest) and I’ve received a bounty of good wishes from so many people that I feel utterly happy and truly blessed. I have lots of style ideas to talk to you about (and I will end with a list of style posts) but today I’m writing one of my wordy pieces because tomorrow we’re going to Paris. I thought I’d tell you why this trip means more than just a weekend away and I’m hoping you’ll keep your fingers crossed for me – you see I have an inauspicious relationship with the city of love.
Paris aged 20
My first ill-starred trip was long, long ago when I was studying for my degree in French and Spanish. Because it was joint honours, my third year had to be split into two and so I planned 6 months in Paris followed by 6 in Valencia. I spent my first year of university really looking forward to it. Then in the second year I fell deeply in love with a boy we’ll call R and suddenly the thought of a year away from him was inconceivable.
We spent the long summer holiday before my departure backpacking around Europe with each day heightened by the anticipation of our imminent separation. We arrived home two weeks before I was due to leave, each of us repeatedly wishing that I didn’t have to go when suddenly I started to feel very ill. Severe glandular fever was quickly diagnosed, I had jaundice and hepatitis; my liver was so swollen it looked as though I was pregnant.
The medics informed me that Paris was cancelled, in fact it looked as though my whole life would be cancelled at least until the following spring. The realisation dawned on me that Paris wasn’t something that could be avoided – to complete my degree I would have to repeat the year; my university course would turn from 4 years into 5 which was unimaginable. I turned full circle and now my only aim in life was to get to Paris! So I battled and fought to get better. After 6 weeks the doctors conceded that as an adult they couldn’t stop me from leaving; my mum cried for days but I went. I was thin and weak but very determined.
There is a strange campus in Paris called the Cité Universitaire with a hall of residence for every country in the world. The Collège Franco-Britannique is built in the style of a foreboding London Victorian mansion building and arriving in November, it looked a dark, austere place. I soon got to know a small group of girls from other UK universities who had been there since the start of term and discovered that the one thing that they all had in common was chronic homesickness. My room was gloomy, my energy was low, my grant was small and Paris felt like a very big place. However I knew that I had two choices. I could either stay in with the others and watch them cross off the days on the wall charts that they had made or…I could ‘do’ Paris.
So, I enrolled on a course in art history which filled my early mornings, in the afternoons I would go somewhere that I had read about in my ‘Rough Guide’ and I spent my evenings with the girls. I certainly got to know Paris but there is something terribly lonely about exploring a city on your own. They were bleak days and I was overjoyed when it was time to go home for Christmas.
However when I arrived after a long journey by train and boat, I was met by a family with serious faces. Whilst I had been away, my much loved dad’s health had declined. He needed urgent open heart surgery which was booked for the week after I returned to Paris. I begged him not to make me go back until after his op but he firmly told me that I mustn’t miss out on the time in Paris that I had fought so hard for(!)
On my return my friends were brilliant; there’s nothing quite like female solidarity on occasions like this. On the night before his operation we all decided to camp out in one room but whilst I was there, I missed a call from my dad who had been advised to get in touch as final checks had revealed that he had deteriorated further and there was a high chance he wouldn’t make it through.
The following day, I had been told to wait until 4pm before calling the hospital. When the time came, we all crowded into a phone box – remember those – the news was cautious but good. After our long night and day together we needed to celebrate so as a tribute to my Northern dad, we went to find the only Fish and Chip Shop in Paris. I’m so sad that I’ve lost touch with those friends now, I must try to track them down.
I spent 3 more anxious months in Paris whilst my dad recovered slowly at home. My loneliness was punctuated by the rare weekends when R managed to visit. For a few golden hours the fabled magic of the city would touch me until the inevitability of Sunday evening arrived and he had to go. Like a wartime film, I can still replay the desolation of that train pulling away from the platform.
Our last tearful farewell at the Gare du Nord came before my long onward journey to Spain when I knew our separation would be so much longer. For hours afterwards I walked in a furious daze through the streets of the city, trying to outpace my misery. Eventually I came to an exhausted halt and found myself on the Ile St Louis just as night was falling. As I looked around, a happy scene seemed to be unfolding inside every restaurant, with a midlife couple laughing together over a relaxed dinner. I stood in the shadow of Notre Dame and comforted myself with the thought that at their age I would be settled and happy and doing that too… so now you know where number 8 on my 12 Things To Do Before You’re 50 list comes from.
Paris aged 39
I’d like to say that by now Paris and I were on better terms but for some reason each time I have returned has been tainted with worry. You see Mr MC and I have already tried to have dinner on the Ile St Louis once. We went to Paris for our wedding anniversary leaving our then very young boys with my mum and dad. Soon after we arrived I called home to check how things were going and I could tell something was wrong.
At a doctor’s appointment that day my dad had been told that he had incurable prostate cancer. In one moment of miserable symmetry, the extra time that I’d been granted with him in Paris in 1989 was neatly being recalled in the same city 17 years later. I did my best to keep smiling but the following morning I woke up with full blown flu, the proper ‘shivering till your teeth rattle’ kind. Because we had planned to be out and about all weekend, we’d booked a very simple room in Montmartre and that’s where we spent our time, gazing out at the Eiffel Tower and wishing we were at home.
Paris aged 41
And finally the last of my ill fated trips to Paris was with Mr MC and the boys. At the end of 2007 we had booked a Christmas week for the following year that would culminate in a long promised New Year’s Eve visit to Disneyland Paris. As you will remember, during the 12 months that followed everyone’s world changed.
By Christmas 2008 we were in the very depths of recession, the pound had plummeted against the Euro and every small business owner like us was living on a knife edge. And then 3 weeks before we were due to make our trip, my mum was rushed to hospital where she developed life-threatening sepsis. Yet again it seemed, Paris was not to be. However she pulled through and insistently waved us off from her hospital bed with her blessing. We had a happy time but it was overlaid with deep anxiety.
Paris aged 49
So this time Paris I’m coming atcha! Mr MC and I haven’t had a weekend away together for 5 years and we really need one. We’ve spent less time together over the last year than ever before and we need to reconnect. I’m determined to make some happy memories.
I booked this trip when my last job was really grinding me down in the knowledge that at least the salary could pay for something good. I also have some Euros on a currency card left over from the money left by my mum and dad. It seems fitting that I should use them to pay for that dinner on the Ile St Louis, I’m sure they’ll be watching and wishing us well.
I just hope that everything goes our way this time and that the cloak of sadness that has always veiled Paris for me can finally be lifted. There are signs that it might. I have been spending very sensibly since finishing my job so I was feeling bit sad about not having anything special to wear for our Parisian nights when I was offered two very special dresses by brands that I have never worn before. So I hope you’ll join me for my Cinderella moments, I’ll post them on Instagram. In the meantime remember to keep those fingers crossed and stay in touch.
Just after I finished typing this post I received a call from my dear ma-in-law to say that she had crashed the car as she was driving here from Newcastle to look after the boys. Thankfully she is ok although her car isn’t and Mr MC has gone to rescue her. That, along with the fact that we are leaving the middle boy on crutches (that’s another story), is giving me a familiar sense of foreboding….
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