The Last (And First) Time I Saw Paris

Karen Radford Treanor 


© Copyright 2017  by Karen Radford Treanor

Runner-Up--2017 Travel Nonfiction

Photo of Karen in the trench coat with its own stories.
Photo of the author.
"My French may be a bit rusty but I don't think it's incomprehensible", I muttered to my granddaughter.

"Well, we got here eventually," Jess said, pocketing the fancy phone with which she had guided the cabdriver to our hotel. "And probably they speak a different sort of French in the Congo, or wherever he comes from."

My travelling companions weren't going to let trivial complaints get in the way of their enjoyment of Paris, so I swallowed my grumbles and followed them into the miniscule lobby of the Hotel du Mont Blanc. Bethany had selected the hotel sight unseen on the basis of its being near Notre Dame and the Seine. It was located on a tiny dog-leg street, Rue de la Huchette, barely more than an alley. A pleasant concierge pretended to be impressed with my language skills and handed over the key to a family room on the 5th floor.

The ascenseur was tres petite, and could not carry more than two passengers and one suitcase at a time. Beth and Jess and one bag ascended; Jess returned and got the rest of the bags, and I walked up to our room, having decided that the 1890's open cage elevator was not something I could comfortably use. I have never liked elevators since the day the one had carried me up and down nine floors a number of times before thumping to a standstill on the ground floor again.

We dumped the bags and had a quick wash, discovered the television had no English language channel, and set off to check out the neighbourhood. We could see a number of restaurants and shops across the way, and a patisserie on the next block; then Jess found a jewellery store. All our wants were accommodated in this one little street.

What to do when you have only four days in Paris? The Louvre is a must, we decided, so we walked there along the Seine embankment and down several handsome streets that probably had changed little since the Empress Eugenie rode along them in a barouche or landau or some other romantic-sounding but probably bumpy carriage. The Empress was one of my girlhood heroines, and I greatly regret not having seen the part of the Louvre that houses a suite of Second Empire rooms. The museum is so enormous and has so many galleries that there is no way one could do more than sample its wonders in an afternoon's visit. We spent much of the time in the ancient history sections, but eventually found our way to the Mona Lisa just to say we had seen her. Call me a philistine, but I have never understood the fascination for this small, greenish portrait. There are so many other pictures that seem more worthy of one's admiration, such as the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the "Lady with an ermine", but as they say in Paris, "à chacun son goût", or "I may not know art but I know what I like".

A good bit of the time in the Louvre was spent in a long, long line outside one of the very few ladies' toilets. It's surprising that the country that invented the pissoir can't come up with sufficient facilities to accommodate the plumbing needs of women. One desperate mother of a 5 year old girl made a dash into the nearby men's room, which had no line outside it. She was quickly chased out by an offended grand-père .

We had been told that we must visit Versailles. My husband had extolled the wonders of the Hall of Mirrors and the golden furniture, and my other daughter praised the gardens, but we now had only three days in hand, and several urgent errands on our list. Something had to give, and as we came to the Place de Pyramides and its spectacular golden statue, we spotted the booking office for the tours of Monet's house and garden. Versailles was forgotten. Bethany and I had been life-long devotees of Monet, and Jess was willing to indulge us, so we booked seats on the bus for the afternoon tour next day.

We walked back to Notre Dame and somewhat footsore sat drinking rosé at a little bistro across from the cathedral. "We can't come to Paris and not go in there," I said, toasting the view of one of the world's best known churches.

"But not tonight," said Jess, who was keen to investigate the jewellery store on the corner. While she bought a gorgeous ring for her twin, her mother and I haggled with a shopkeeper nearby and got a discount for buying two aprons featuring the iconic black cat on a bright yellow background. I then felt guilty for haggling and bought some overpriced pencils and fridge magnets for friends at home. I would never have made a career in the souk.

We ate at a Greek restaurant whose dining area was at the top of a truly frightening staircase. It was early for Parisians, so we had the undivided attention of the waiter. He made several unnecessary trips up the staircase, we assume to admire Jess's big hazel eyes, or possibly her mother's impressive frontage—but probably not my silver locks or much-travelled trench coat.

Back in our compact family room we channel-surfed with little success, but managed to extract from the news bulletins the facts that there had been a bad earthquake in Ecuador and M. Hollande was visiting Egypt—perhaps to apologise for the depredations of a former French leader in the bad old days. Jess then discovered that we had no way of connecting the phone charger to the wall socket—quelle horreur! How could we find our way around without the useful smart phone? The girls did not trust my abilities with a paper map for some reason, so Jess made the descent in the budgie-cage elevator and shortly returned with a conversion plug. "The concierge says he gets all sorts of people in here who can't charge their phones, so he has a drawer full of useful plugs."

Next morning we breakfasted at the patisserie and walked over to Notre Dame to gawk at the windows and light a candle at one of the chapels. Unlike most English cathedrals, the interior of Notre Dame is very dark, perhaps to enable you to appreciate the stained glass windows more fully. I was following what I assumed was Jess's willowy form and distinctive jacket, and looking at interesting things as I walked. Then "Jess" began speaking German to a companion. Hundreds of other tourists made finding my family unlikely, so I went outside and sat on a granite bollard until the girls turned up.

I was considering striking out on my own when Beth came out in a gush of other tourists, shortly followed by Jess , whose lack of French language skills didn't seem to prevent several tall young men from offering their help as guides.

We had tea and toast at a café, walked through the Tuileries Gardens, and found our way to the bus stop for the trip to Monet's house at Giverny. On the way out of Paris we saw several buildings undergoing renovations. Many of them were clad in a sort of scrim screen on which had been printed a simulacrum of the building underneath. We had seen this in London also. It was not only more attractive than a raw reconstruction, it probably made everyone safer from falling masonry, dropped hammers, or oversprayed cleaning fluids.

We arrived at Giverny in brilliant sunshine to see with sinking hearts a huge car park, filled with tour buses and cars. So much for hopes of drifting through the iris accompanied by the song of the lark alone! Our briskly Teutonic guide quick-marched us through the Japanese garden, chivvied us through a tunnel and into the flower garden, pointed out the toilets, and turned us loose until 5 pm when we were adjured to be back at the bus.

The flower garden was everything one could expect after seeing Monet's paintings of it over the years. Much loving care has been expended on keeping it in fine condition. It is crammed full of every cottage garden flower you could think of, in a riot of colours. I took off my glasses and a replica of a Monet painting from his later years unfurled before my short-sighted eyes. Entranced, I managed to trip over a tiny Japanese man with an enormous camera, who had crouched down to examine a clump of ranunculus. He didn't seem much hurt, but scuttled away to a safe distance. "Sumimasen," I called. I'm not much of a linguist, but I can apologise in eight languages.

The house was in the form of a large cottage, with a studio in which any creative person could be happy. The walls were crowded with many Monet pictures, mostly reproductions now. My favourite rooms were the large dining room, painted butter yellow, and the blue-and-white tiled kitchen. The gift shop was like most gift shops of the genre—lots of over-priced tat, made anywhere but Giverny, and some very nice but rather expensive things that after a bit of thought you realised you could live without. Having not had lunch, we gravitated to the tea room where we were delighted to discover that the Normandy tart came with a tiny glass of calvados. That perked us up and energised us enough to walk back to our hotel after the bus returned to Paris.

By the time we got back to the Rue de la Huchette, the Calvados had run its course, so rather than travelling again, we had supper at a nearby gyro shop, a fast food joint run by a couple of North African folks. For a very modest price one got a huge flatbread stuffed with lettuce, yoghurt sauce, your choice of kebab meat, and a pile of French fries. Bethany commented, "My brother Eamon should be here, this is his type of tucker: meat and fries." Overcome with the amount of food, we donated some of it to a gentleman beggar who sat in a folding chair at the bend in the street, accompanied by two well-kept little dogs. "Pour votre chiens", I said, not wanting him to think I thought he couldn't afford food for himself. Strange, the odd thoughts we have about people who make us uncomfortable in our own comfort. Perhaps if I comprehended the language better I'd have understood what the man at the crêperie window said—possibly "The old coot has more money than all of us!" or something similar. The clear implication was that I was a foolish tourist.

Up betimes the next day, and across the road to the large plaza in front of Notre Dame. The plan was for the girls to climb the tower while I visited the crypt. As will surprise nobody, the plan fell apart at once. As soon as the girls disappeared into the cathedral I joined the queue on the steps down to the crypt. Opening time came and went, and eventually someone turned up to say they could not open the security shutters. The time lock was stuck and the shutters could not be opened. Most of the visitors drifted away until I was the first—and only—tourist in the line. I went back up to the plaza and sat on a cold stone stump for half an hour. By the time the girls found me, the crypt had been decrypted and we went down to do the tour of the foundations of Paris back in the days when it was Lutetia. There were Roman ruins, dark-age remnants, and a few things that were even older. The real estate folks are right, it's all about location. What our ancestors thought made a good place to live often matches our own criteria.

Now running behind schedule we hailed a cab. One of our listed errands was to visit the Magasin Sennlier, an art supply shop frequented by many of the great French impressionists. My artist daughter wanted to get some supplies—and perhaps inspiration. We drove down the Quai Voltaire to the modest frontage, which did not look much different to when it had supplied Cezanne, Monet, Picasso and many other pretty good artists.

Bethany opened dozens of drawers and poked in pigeon holes before selecting a handful of pastels. "Get lots; you won't likely get this chance again," I counselled, having more than once regretted not buying something found in a far-off land and never discovered elsewhere. "Think how it will impress the galleries that show your work when you say that pale blue is the same brand and same formula that Claude Monet bought here in 1898."

Purchases made and safely stowed, we caught another cab and went to the "Must Do" on my list, which was to visit the cookery wares shop frequented by Julia Child, the first professional cook I remember. Her shows on Boston television were mandatory viewing for Mother and me

Dehillerin was a cook's paradise. Dark, crowded, a bit dusty, it was full of every sort of high-grade pot, pan, knife, kitchen gadget and baking tray that you could imagine, and a few you might not. Should I ever hit the lottery jackpot, I will be back at that shop next day with an empty suitcase or three. I bought a baguette tray and a small melon ball gouge and then firmly clamped my wallet shut despite much temptation. Jess bought a madeleine pan for her sister Madeleine—I mean, how could you not?

"Shall we stop at a bookstore and get a copy of Proust to go with it?" I asked.

"If that's a sly dig at the lack of literary studies in my nursing course, it zinged right over my head," Jess told me. "I'm guessing you'd prefer me to have passed Operating Theatre Procedures 101 if you end up at my hospital."

Abashed, I offered to shout lunch at a very superior-looking boulangerie across the street. Well fed, we hailed another cab to take us to the top of Montmartre, yet another place one must see when in Paris. Bethany and I wanted to see the Dali exhibition. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially when the lights went out, leaving us to wander amongst the shadows cast by a few emergency bulbs. Power was restored and we continued the tour, but there's just so much pen-and-ink soft porn drawing that your average grandmother is interested in. A few of the second-grade sculptures and one world-famous one (The Space Elephant) cheered us for a while, but when I exited through the gift shop I found my fellow travellers already waiting.

We admired the outside of Sacre Coeur but were deterred from a tour of the interior by the crowds; opting instead to walk down the 400 steps to a wide main street, on which the Moulin Rouge was situated. After ten minutes I begged off and sat on a park bench while the girls trudged further along. Jess was determined to get tickets for that evening's show, and her mother wasn't about to let her go alone. I did crossword puzzles for quite a while, gave a modest contribution to a female street beggar who had an enormous and clearly well-fed cat on her lap, and was beginning to worry when my companions reappeared.

"I've changed my mind about the show—I went to the Moulin Rouge gift shop instead," Jess said, swinging a garish shopping bag. Finding ourselves near—but not very near—the Eiffel Tower, we decided on another taxi. Who could go to Paris and not go to this iconic structure? The tower is enormous, far bigger than you expect if you've only seen M. Eiffel's creation as a backdrop in some rom-com film. We did not go up inside the tower, nor did we buy anything from the official gift shop. A quick look in this relatively small building and we all agreed that the little shop near our hotel had the same things at two-thirds the price. Feeling that we'd been a bit lazy today, we walked the whole length of the Champ de Mars before snagging another taxi to return us to Notre Dame.

We wanted to have an early night, and were abed by 9.30, but this proved to be of little use due to the people across the hall who screamed back and forth in Slovenian and constantly banged the doors. I was about to leap up and scream back in pure Australian—"Will you drongos please put a bloody sock on it!"--when they suddenly went quiet. Praying it was terminal laryngitis I put the pillow over my head and eventually drifted off.

April 20th: the last morning in Paris. Everything we owned had to be repacked so that all the hot weather clothing for our next stop was readily to hand. Nobody in their right mind needs a tweed jacket in Singapore, but I knew I'd want it again when I changed planes in Melbourne and headed home to cool Tasmania. Solomonic decisions about the disposition of clothing kept me from feeling too sad about leaving, but both my daughter and granddaughter were enthusiastically planning their return here as soon as budgets and work commitments allowed.

Jess and our bags took one last trip down in the scary elevator, and Bethany and I went down the stairs.

"I'm going to have my 50th birthday dinner at the restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower," Bethany said. The concierge smiled as he held the door open for us. No doubt he'd heard many tourist comments of that sort over the years.

I hummed "La Vie en Rose" as the cab wriggled out of Rue de la Huchette for the last time.

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