Paris Ghosts
by Sue Jackson

Romance from long ago


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My impressions of Paris are a kaleidoscope of images that occurred in the early part of a bitterly cold December in the early 1980s. I was so desperately in love that my view of the city was through unfocused, passion coloured spectacles. I had yet to realise that this man was not Prince Charming, but that was twenty years ago so it's all water under the Pont Neuf.

Four days before our departure, I was attacked by a cupboard in the kitchen which fell off the wall emptying its contents in shards of china and glass onto my face. I was lucky; it missed my eyes, but I did look as if I'd been badly beaten up. Was this as an omen? My non-prince's horse went lame at the prospect of spending a romantic break in Paris with a now mutilated girlfriend, but chivalry eventually resurfaced and we departed early one freezing winter morning.

We arrived on a grey afternoon and found a cafe we liked the look of for our first Parisian snack. Part of the cafe's attraction was the red and white checked tablecloths, but on hearing that we wanted a mere omelette, these were whipped away and the waiter departed in outrage. He reappeared with our cutlery which he threw onto the rough wooden table in disgust. These were followed by two glasses of wine, which spilt apologetic red tears as they reached us. Our meal was brief, and while Chris was ebullient, I was tired, cold and disillusioned. Even the tablecloths we had been denied were made of paper. Our next meal was delicious and more than compensated for the first afternoon's unfriendly disaster. It wasn't until I'd finished that I was told what constitutes sweetbreads. The sweet, rubbery taste lingers in my mouth to this day and I haven't eaten them since.

Our most successful culinary outing took place in the prettiest restaurant I had ever seen on the Left Bank. It was small, situated near Notre Dame, and the tables were covered in pink linen tablecloths, heavy with starch and ironed with a sharp precision. In the middle of each table sat a delicate vase of wafer thin glass housing a proud pink rosebud. The food was excellent, the company was select (other young couples staring devotedly into each other's eyes) and by the time we had finished the meal, accompanied by a generous quantity of excellent wine, we were ready to conquer the world. In fact we conquered the vast proportion of a litre bottle of Armagnac which was deposited on our table minus cork. Time disappeared after that in a floaty haze of alcoholic wellbeing, and soon the waiters and managers joined us at our table. They entered into the party spirit with us, the bottle was finished and we were presented with our bill. Unfortunately we had been robbed that afternoon on the Metro by one with such deft fingers that the loss was not noticed until early evening.

Consequently we didn't have enough to pay the bill, and our pathetic, desperate offer to do the washing up was rejected as it had already been done. By some fluke of Armagnac, the owner shrugged in that special gallic fashion and said don't worry (or words to that effect); we could pay when we went back there for our final evening. We returned to the pink restaurant one last time, but the magic had gone. And we were sober.

We spent two nights in a very luxurious hotel on the Isle St Louis. I was enchanted by this unexpected island in the middle of a city, which made up for earlier disappointments. The highlight of this hotel was their room service: breakfast arrived only on demand, and a tray was deposited outside your bedroom door with a discreet knock. Cafe au lait, croissants and jam in bed, lying in the flaky crumbs, greasy hands wiped on crumpled sheets.

No wonder I was in love. The honeymoon lasted two nights. By then we had been robbed, and by some imbalance in Chris's accounting, I was the only one with any money, so we had to decamp to a cheaper hostel in a less salubrious area. Our room this time was larger, with a huge iron bed above which hung an ancient black telephone. This was rung at times of great importance, the first being to summon guests, in shrill tones, to breakfast. This meal was served at strictly set times, in a long dark dining room with long wooden tables and hard wooden benches. We queued up to collect crispy baguettes, slowly stewed coffee, butter and apricot jam which we ate with the other guests, in sleepy silence.

We explored on foot by day, a favourite being the romantic area of Montmartre which always brings to mind Henri Cartier-Bresson's joyous photograph of two boys dressed in shorts skipping down an alleyway.

Montmartre was a delight of secret passages with promises around the corner, dark twisty streets imploring photographic memories. Outside one shop a dark hairy body swung silently by its heels. A wild boar, I was told, and the shop was a butcher's. I couldn't look at its eyes. Coming from London, I was surprised at how compact a city Paris was, how easy it was to walk everywhere. It was a friendly city, and we felt safe walking, wrapped in our love, pickpockets soon forgotten. I had a sneezing fit in front of the Mona Lisa, surprised at how small she was, how dark and solemn.

We walked through parks in the freezing December winds, I posed in the bandstand at the Jardin de Luxembourg while Chris clicked and froze that moment forever.

I am due to return to Paris next week, this time with a selection of friends, colleagues and students. It could not be a more contrasting visit to my last. My husband is kitten-sitting; despite his artistic talents, he cannot afford the time for cultural visits. The black and white bandstand photograph, curled at the edges, I have still. The lover and his scars are long since gone.



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