Shadow Lines, Part III (9 of 10) – Paris, France

One Summer Day
Author’s Note: This is the third, and hopefully, final installment in my coming to terms with fatherhood series. The events described here took place during one long hot summer’s day in July 2002. The views in this piece are my own and represent only my own twisted view of life.

ONLY the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity hope which know no pauses and no introspection.

One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness – and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn’t because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind had streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation – a bit of one’s own.

One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together – the kicks and the halfpence, as the saying is – the picturesque common lot that holds so many possibilities for the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes. One goes on. And the time, too, goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.
– Joseph Conrad, The Shadow Line, 1899

It is 9am on a gloriously sunny summer’s day. Paris is just beginning to come to life and I am just beginning to shake off one too many bottles of champagne from the previous night. I have a new lightness of step that comes from being, after too many years away, back in this wonderful city. Today I am going to have a couple of short meetings, a heavy, and quite hopefully boozy lunch, then take a flight back to London in time to catch the red-eye flight to Singapore. Life, as they say, doesn’t get much better than this. But, just as I am about to step into the waiting taxi, my cell phone rings and life again does a rapid one-eighty.

‘Philip?’
‘Yes.’
‘Drop what you are doing. The GHG has just gone into labour.’
‘What! She isn’t due for another 8 weeks.’
‘I have you booked on the next flight out of Paris. I have a fast car waiting at the airport for you. Good luck and call me when you are checked in.’

Stop.

Let time freeze for a while, and let me reminisce a little, before I cross this last shadow line.

I had first come to Paris about 12 years ago with my first real love. I was 18 at the time and blissfully happy. At this time I hadn’t learnt words such as “Caesarean section”, “mortgage”, “post-natal depression”, or even “responsibility”. Summer was spent in the museums and cafes of Paris, whilst winters were spent in the cosy vodka cellars of Poland. We thought we had invented teenage love and were virtually inseparable for the five years we were together. Paris was very much ‘our city’, and I hadn’t really been back since we had split up many years ago. I thought it would be too painful.

I remember that we split up just after we had got back from Paris. I remember how dead I felt inside when she told me that she was leaving me for a plumber who was old enough to be her father. It hurt terribly, and I couldn’t see what he could offer her that I couldn’t.

Of course now that I am older, wiser and a homeowner, and after all the troubles I had last winter with frozen pipes, I think she made the right decision. I mean, it’s virtually impossible to get a plumber at the best of times, especially one who is prepared to come out on a cold January night (o.k., hands up, all those who thought I was going to make a cheap joke about her pipes?)

After her I worked my way through a steady stream of stunningly pretty girlfriends, which left my father grinning ear to ear and my friends wondering how much I had to pay them to go out with me. But, for one reason or another I never quite found the time to return to Paris. Twelve years on, armed with a night to spare and an expense account to hammer I set off, with a not-too-enthusiastic colleague, to see if any of our old haunts were still around.

I had specifically asked for a central hotel, but expense accounts not being what they once used to be, and the fact that Paris is insanely expensive, we ended up in a hotel close to Dieppe and were forced to take the Metro into town. Now, you can criticise the French for a lot of things, namely burning our lambs, not bathing often enough and having a crap football team but you have to applaud the way they deal with their mad folk. Most civilised countries pay some kind of lip service to care in the community, but France goes the whole hog and simply buys its nutters a Metro ticket. Or at least that’s how it seems.

By the time we had reached our stop I was covered in drool, had been serenaded more times than when the GHG discovered alcopops, meet a reincarnated prophet and a man who thought he was a dog. And all this, for the price of a Metro ticket.

First stop on my misty-eyed reminiscing tour was Notre Dame, which for my money has to be one of Gothic architecture’s greatest moments and France’s finest tourist traps.

The very first time I went to Paris I had taken a coach from London, and we had arrived in central Paris just after sunset. It was a beautiful evening and the square in front of Notre Dame was packed with tourists, locals and every kind of crook you could ever hope to meet. We were both tired from the trip and more or less fell upon the first benches we found. As we sat there debating where we should look for a hotel the church door’s were thrown open to the night, and the organist began to bang out Toccata and Fugue by Bach. It brought my skin out in goose bumps, and still today, no matter when I hear those first opening bars I can feel my stomach flutter and it takes me back to balmy summer nights in Paris.

Twelve years later there wasn’t any organist to welcome me back, and in fact the cathedral wasn’t even illuminated. I was a little disappointed, but there was still the requisite mix of portrait painters, buskers, pick-pockets, wide-eyed American tourists, garlic-chomping French and moody-looking new age hippies. But Notre Dame is still wonderful, and I can still spend hours wondering what the gargoyles are thinking about and wondering what Quasimodo would make of Paris in the 21st century.

From there we headed deeper into what I am pretty sure is the area known as Les Halles and deep into what my colleague, rather uncharitably, called, ‘a tourist ghetto’. The hotel we had always stayed in, L’argonaut, was still there and the Greek restaurant below was still doing a smashing trade in cheep food and plate smashing. I can clearly remember the first night we stayed there…

We had spent several hours wandering ’round the city’s budget hotels. Most of them were either too expensive (we had a budget of about six pence at the time), too dirty or fully booked. L’argonaut was cheap, clean, friendly and well-positioned. It was, we thought rather naively, heaven sent.

We soon changed our minds when at 2am the restaurant organised a lively plate-smashing session, which lasted until the sun came up. Every night was the same, and we soon became adept at gingerly stepping over broken plates and bleary-eyed waiters on the way out each morning. I was pleased to see the hotel was still there and that it still had its crumbling façade and look of tired decadence. I could even see the light was on in our old room. Before we dived back into the tourist throng I caught a glimpse of the silhouette of a naked women at the window, and it bought back waves of nostalgia. I wondered if she was young, in love with life and Paris, and soon to be heading out for a night on the beers.

We dived in and out of the crowds, letting the mixture of languages, smells and sites wash over us. Teenage backpackers fumbled with maps whilst old men puffed on pipes and looked on. We passed the little café where we ate breakfast everyday, and the ancient bookshop which always stocked those pretentious French plays that I loved so much when I was a student. (Psychologists might like to work out how after 8 years of tertiary education I am now stuck reading Harry Potter books and tabloid newspapers when at 18 I only read French philosophy in French); then it was past a quartet of angelic violinists (my colleague reminded me that public masturbation was probably still a crime, even in Paris), past that Indian restaurant with the large water pipe on the tables and into my favourite street-side restaurant where I once met the world’s most stupid tourists.

‘Excuse me, what are you drinking?’
‘Its an aperitif’
‘Oh, that’s great, how do you say that in French?’
‘L’apertif’
‘And what was it?’

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