In a rather strange turn of events, my parents are moving to Paris.
It is odd because ever since I’ve know them (so forever, then) they have always lived in exactly the same house. So there’s that, but also the fact that I always kind of thought in my head that if anyone from my immediate family moved to Paris it would be me.
I’ve been thinking about a lot about Paris recently, mainly because I discovered to my horror that not everyone thinks it’s as totally charmant as I do. I was talking to one friend, and I think the word ‘grotty’ might even have been used. I mean, I’ve seen La Haine and I can’t pretend I haven’t noticed the graffiti-spattered banlieues as I whizz through on the train, but grotty? Paris? Really?
Then, of course, there’s Paris syndrome, which is not, as you may be forgiven for thinking, the sudden onset of stroppy and entitled behaviour akin to a toddler-esque diva, but a for-real disorder. A disorder of the mind, and in severe cases, the HEART. It is basically a mini breakdown that occurs when people arrive in Paris with an idealised vision of the city in their heads and it ends up falling short.
All of this has made me wonder whether I’ve got it all wrong. But surely I would have realised if Paris was, in fact, totally rubbish and overrated? I mean, I spent three years at university criticising books written by people far cleverer than me — did I learn nothing about how to distinguish the genuinely deserving from over-hyped?
Then again, when it comes to Paris, I am not rational. I am starry-eyed Ewan Macgregor, I am nostalgia-driven Owen Wilson, or more likely I am Woody Allen — head over heels and beyond rescue. I know deep down that my love for the city is based on false promises made by literature and scenes from films — Amelie, mostly — that cloud my unseeing eyes like rose-tinted Instagram filters, but that doesn’t stop all of the feelings.
I have memories too of course, but however real and valid memories are, they can also be deceptive. Memories of munching through endless croque monsieurs and tartes aux pommes in the mid-summer heat with lips still sticky from Orangina; memories created under the intoxicating spell of Disneyland; memories of deciding little and paying for nothing and having a splendid time.
I’ve only ever seen Paris when it’s sizzling. I have sat in Luxembourg Gardens and felt the sun on my face and gazed across at Notre Dame through a veil of cherry blossom, but let’s face it, the right amount of heat and blue sky can give even the grimmest of towns a sheen.
My last visit to Paris was post-university when I was totally obsessed with the Shakespeare & Company, the famous English-language left-bank bookshop that was a hotbed of modernist brilliance back at the beginning of the twentieth century. The bookshop still exists, and writers can go and stay there, sleeping in little beds tucked in between the shelves as long as they promise to do a couple of hours work and read a book every day. Writers that stay are called Tumbleweeds. I so desperately wanted to be a Tumbleweed.
I spoke to one of them. I could tell by his face he was bored. Not bored by what he was doing necessarily (rearranging literary masterpieces on shelves), but bored, no doubt, by the drag of the vacuous people around him, none of whom probably even understood the meaning of the word semiotics. When I started to talk to him, he looked even more bored. He wore glasses. He moved only the essential muscles in his face. He looked bored and stern, and that troubled me because he was basically living the dream. My dream.
I was hoping to meet the owner, George Whitman (who has since sadly died), to ask about staying at the shop at a later date, but he wasn’t around. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went now, but the jist of it was come back later. The subtext was I know you haven’t read Ulysses — don’t even think about it.
I walked away feeling glad I hadn’t turned up penniless with just my rucksack, and wondering if I ever would finally get round to reading Ulysses, and thinking:
I could take a French course at the Sorbonne and attend salons. I could recline on the banks of the Seine with amiable, accordion-playing Proust scholars and drink wickedly cheap vin rouge late into the evening. My ennui at my own semi-destitute state would be fashionable! I might even take up smoking. I could at least keep a pack of Gauloises handy to waft around mysteriously, a la Marion Cotillard.
I finally got my chance to move to Paris. I was offered a place to go and teach English in Versailles with the British Council. It coincided with a scholarship offer to go and work as a European Parliament trainee in Brussels though, so I went there instead. Career opportunities, like men, like buses, perpetually turn up in pairs, I find — even though Wendy Cope didn’t put that bit in her poem.
Would Paris have disappointed me if I had attempted to build a life there? Would I have found myself caught up in a one-sided romance and has to flee back to England nursing a bruised heart when the realities of metro boulot dodo didn’t meet my too-high expectations? C’est possible.
It’s unlikely I’ll ever move to Paris now, but I will be spending more time there from now on, and it will be my opportunity to get to know it properly. I hope I’ll be able to look at the city with fresh eyes, although I’m terribly sentimental, so I make no promises.
In the meantime, here are ten indisputably ace things in, from, about, or vaguely related to Paris, that even the most hardened naysayer can’t argue with:
1. The Aristocats… because everybody wants to be a cat.
2. The Eiffel Tower… obviously (unless you’re French. Or dead inside).
3. Cafe Gourmand… the most civilised way to end a meal and probably the real reason French women are thin.
4. Ryan Gosling… was in Paris once. Maybe even more than once. But definitely at least once.
5. The bouquinistes on the left bank… have the most romantic position of any booksellers in the world.
6. The Elegance of the Hedgehog… the touching tale of Renee the Parisian concierge and secret philosopher and her friendship with Paloma, the little girl who lives in her building.
7. Hausmann’s renovation… those wide boulevards and clever avenues weren’t just an accident, you know?
8. Les Mis… do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men?
9. Parc Asterix… has shorter queues than Disneyland and buckets of Gaulish charm.
10. Gertrude Stein… who made her life in Paris and helped many superb artists and writers achieve wonderful things.