I love Paris. The first time I left home, it was to move to Paris. When I went to university, I did it with the full intention of earning part of my degree in Paris. When I remember back to the days when I was young and pretty and smiling in the sun, I’m thinking of Paris.
So this is my love letter to Paris.
The very first time I went to Paris it was for a weekend during a three week exchange trip that I hated. The girl who didn’t want me hanging around went to spend a weekend with an old friend and I was dragged along. I was very obviously the third wheel. La porte-chandelle. But I remember this as the weekend I heard Don’t Speak by No Doubt, a song that will always make me think of that weekend. Luckily the memory works in a loop so when the song reminds me of the weekend it reminds me of hearing the song, and I’m not likely to think about that weekend for any other reasons. It was rubbish. Apart from Gwen Stefani on the verge of tears as she tried to persuade her lover to shut the fuck up and let her grieve.
The second time I went to Paris it was the first time I left home. During my gap year my mother saw an ad for job vacancies at Eurodisney and, knowing that I had deferred for a year my degree in French and Spanish, very discreetly and with astounding subtlety circled the ad, tore it out of the paper and stuck it to my bedroom door with a drawing pin before she left for work one morning. I applied, was called to interview, and was interviewed along with a girl who spoke about as much French as your average sixteen year old. We were both hired and told to be at Disney University one week later.
Yes, I said Disney University. I had to spend two days at Disney University learning about Disney, the park and general stuff I can’t remember before I was allowed to start work in a shop that sold trinkets, sporting goods and Star Wars memorabilia.
This was to be the first of my Mickey Mouse degrees.
Now as some of you may know, Eurodisney, otherwise known as Disneyland Paris, isn’t really *in* Paris. It’s at the very end of an RER line, about an hour outside the centre of Paris, but this is close enough when you’re working and earning and living away from home. And when grew up in a town that’s an hour’s bus journey away from the nearest cinema, HMV or McDonalds.
I made some wonderful friends at Eurodisney, and I met some utter, utter scum. I threw a party for my 19th birthday and tried to drink champagne straight from the bottle. It came straight back out my nose. I got so drunk with a friend whilst getting ready for a party that we forgot to get ready and went in our pyjamas and each other’s shoes. I went on a road trip in a BMW with a German and an Italian, and I bought Nirvana’s Nevermind from a street vendor in La Baule. I worked for eight hours a day, five days a week, in the shadow of Space Mountain listening to the Imperial March, taking only one day of unpaid leave because the boss didn’t approve of us taking the time off we were owed by law. This was fine, because it meant I’d built up quite a backlog for Disney to pay me for instead when I left.
I spent hours sitting in the sun on a dusty kerb with an American girl who was once Miss Colorado, and to this day when I smell Marlboro Lights, in an instant I am sitting in the sun on a dusty kerb with Miss Colorado puffing away, telling me dirty jokes and rambling about Taco Bell and drunk driving convictions, because who the hell wants to go to Canada anyway?
I had two days off a week, and I spent at least one of them in Paris, almost every weekend. Ordinarily I would go with some friends to the Frog & Rosbif on Rue St. Denis, in the heart of the red light district. We’d get there early and enjoy the fruits of the microbrewery until it was time to leave for the last RER home, which we often caught with pint glasses in our hands. One for the road, as they say. I went to the World Cup 1998 opening ceremony and afterwards, trying to find a pub, walked past the Auld Alliance because it was too full. I think it was later that night, in the Auld Alliance, that Stan Collymore went ballistic at Ulrika Jonsson. The first match of World Cup 1998 was Scotland v Brazil, and the next morning, after Brazil had their LUCKY WIN, I bumped into Ronaldo, not recognising him until a colleague told me who it was I’d just stood on. It was an accident. I promise. To this day it feels like a personal slight that Brazil got to go to Disneyland as a reward for beating my home team. My sister had sent me the Scotland World Cup song for my birthday, but not having been in Scotland for its release all I knew was that I’d been sent a CD of Del Amitri telling me, repeatedly and straight from the heart, “Don’t Come Home Too Soon”.
I got really rather good at French.
That summer came to an end and I returned to Scotland in September for twelve days, before moving out again into University accommodation to start my degree. After a year and a half I had to go abroad, six months to learn French and six months to learn Spanish, and knowing I loved Paris, and knowing I wasn’t so good at Spanish, I went to Spain first and saved the best (Paris) for last.
When I finally got there I was assigned a job as a bilingual secretary and translator at a global insurance firm. My boss was eccentric but very nice and his secretaries were very, very Parisienne, which is to say, not so nice to me, but I didn’t care. They were middle aged women and I was 21 years old and back in Paris.
I lived in a foyer in rue de Charonne, round the corner from Père Lachaise. I became very close friends with some people from my own university who I’d barely known before, and found that people I had considered friends were less suited to me than I’d thought. Or maybe it was Paris, maybe they were less suited to Paris Me. Maybe Paris Me was a bitch. Maybe Paris Me had a lower tolerance for bullshit.
This time round I went back to the Frog & Rosbif but it didn’t feel the same, so I started to frequent the Floozy & Firkin at the other end of Rue St. Denis, which had recently become The Oval but which I will always, always call the Floozy. Once, when a friend and I got a taxi home from a night out, the driver pulled over at the wrong foyer. We finally managed to ascertain that he had stopped there because it was a female-only foyer, and he didn’t approve of the mixed-sex foyer where we lived. This didn’t help us much but he point blank refused to take us home, so we just had to walk from one to the other. Laughing all the way, because what a ridiculous thing to do. This time I went to different places. I went out on the Champs Elysees, I went out in Pigalle, and Nation, and the Bastille. I loved, and love, Rue de Lappe. I particularly loved a bar that wasn’t there last time I went back, a Rolling Stones themed bar called Some Girls. The wallpaper was leopardprint and the music was kickass.
I went to the Jean Paul Gaultier shop and there were TV screens in the floor, so I stood on Naomi Campbell’s face. There may have been a little skip. I took a friend to Montmartre for her birthday, we ate crepes, and McDonalds, and sat in a Haagen Dazs cafe, and got portraits done by an artist in the market, which were not good likenesses of us but which were obviously a picture of one particular girl, if she had had short blonde hair (like my friend) or shoulder length brown hair (like me).
I lost weight, because I had no way to store food in my room. My employers paid for my food in the canteen so I would eat lunch and take a yoghurt for the next day’s breakfast, and in the evening I would either eat or not eat, it depended on what plans I had, and had very little to do with anything else. If I went out to eat, or stayed in to eat, I would eat. If I just went out, or stayed in, I wouldn’t. I didn’t mind, I didn’t notice. Until I went clothes shopping and managed to buy a pretty dress and do it justice. This was in spite of finding an amazing kind of takeaway I’ve only ever seen in Paris… a shop with a rotisserie in the doorway, full of chickens cooking and spinning and dripping their juices into a huge tray of carrots and potatoes, which fried/roasted in the chicken fat until someone came along to eat them. Excuse me a moment while I reminisce about that…
I also stopped drinking, which is a less fun story because my friends didn’t take it seriously. I would ask for fruit juice and I later found out I would be handed fruit juice with vodka in it. For weeks and weeks I thought I was having dizzy spells, in fact I was just tipsy. But imagine how scary it would be to feel tipsy when you KNEW you hadn’t touched alcohol in weeks?
I have been to Paris a few times other than these two mini-emigrations. I went there on a weekend by coach, from Salford to Paris and back between Friday night and Sunday lunchtime. I went for just under a week with my mother, which is when I went to Versailles and nearly missed the Eiffel Tower because the tree we were standing under was in exactly the right spot to block my view and walked until my legs nearly dropped off. I went on a day trip with colleagues, from London to Paris on a Eurostar day return, and had a wonderful time but nearly missed the last train home.
Overall my memories of Paris are beautiful. They make me think of sunshine and street names and exploring and making friends and learning slang and eating steak frites. I don’t think of the bad things that happened when I think of Paris, although if I think about those things I am aware that that’s where they happened. The only possible exception to that is the ‘toilet’ that was actually foot-shaped grips either side of a hole, in quite a trendy bar in the Bastille. That wasn’t exactly fun at the time, but it makes me laugh now. Paris is bittersweet because it made me miss the end of My So-Called Life when it was being shown for the first time, but at the same time it helped me to miss Billie Piper’s entire musical career.
When I think of Paris, I remember it as the place where I was free, the place where I was young and free and independent and responsible and if I could wish any part of my life on any young woman, what I would wish on her is Paris. Actual Paris or a place to make your own.
Find your Paris.