Le Hibou.

Le Hibou.

Having spent quite a lot of time in Paris now, I feel very lucky to be able to say that I haven’t often fallen victim to the ‘the French’ and their ‘Frenchness’.  I’m frequently asked how I manage with their aloofness and rude ways, and to be honest, I find them quite friendly and accomodating – maybe it’s because I’m usually on my own, I’m not sure.  Or perhaps I’m delusional.  All, are possiblities.

Waiters in restaurants smile and taunt me with English as much as I ask them to speak in French, but this is to be expected (its no secret that I speak English, really) and, with a certain amount of determination I usually win and am presented with a French menu upon complete insistence.  I battle my way through quite basic conversations- my theory is that I will never speak French if I dont make an effort to make it my business to do so.

Two days ago I skipped out of Galleries Lafayette with a new suitcase and a new found confidence after the sales assistant was complimentary of my abysmal effort – reassuring me that I could do it and I just had, when I told him that I speak only a small amount of French, ‘you are speaking French now,’ he reminded me.  Last week in another episode en français where I apologised for being something of a half wit, I was reminded again that I just had to persist and that I was doing well. These types of interactions with French people make it all the more easy and I must remind myself, that these positive interactions are far more common that not.

Until last night, when I had my first true moment (out of a million moments in France and in French) where my confidence was thrown to the Seine and my inhibitions challenged.  I’d welcomed Dad earlier in the day and we’d walked for almost 19 kilometres, taking in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Jardin des Touleries, the Jardin du Palais Royal before a delicious lunch at Cafe Marly on the edge of the Louvre courtyard.  This was all topped off with a meander home across the pont des Arts with the Eiffel Tower to our right- exhausted, and for him, beginning to really feel the pinch of jet lag after almost 25 hours in the sky the previous day.

Later that night we sat down for a drink after an afternoon siesta and we were joined by my uncle and his wife, they too had flown in that day and the chatter (as you may imagine) was pretty rapid, and at all times in English.  I ‘bandied’ a bit of French around with the waiter and at one stage asked him if we could have a menu for some food. ‘WHAT,’ he barked, in English and almost aghast (as if I’d asked if he could clean my shoes), ‘YOU need everything in English, read this,’ before thrusting a menu at me as if it was on fire and about to burn his precious hands.

I can be a bit sensitive at the best of times, I cower in the corner if I see ‘les pompiers’ in the streets in fear that if something so handsome spoke to me, I’d probably just have to lay down on the pavement and close my eyes, and on previous visits to Paris, I’ve quite simply just not done things in the fear that I’ll make a mistake.  After many visits to this city over the years, followed by the past two winters spent here being committed to this ‘challenge,’  I arrived back 3 weeks ago with no particular end date in sight and I have to say, I’m getting better at giving everything a go.  I constantly remind myself that I’m not here to be afraid, quite the opposite. This experience is designed to be a turning point in my life, a book mark if you like, in the many chapters already written- marking an exciting time where I set out to achieve things that perhaps five years ago, I would never have imagined possible nor a reality.  My life could have turned out very differently.

‘I would like the French menu,’ I stuttered in English, before adding in French, ‘I need to practice my French- please.’  Ill prepared for such an experience and not used to such behaviour, I lost my way and had I not been with three people who I love dearly and who were making my day by simply being there in that moment (and making me laugh as we reminisced about too many things to even make mention), I probably would have come home last night and written an email to myself titled ‘why?’.  

Why would you leave home and all the things you love; why would you make your life complicated when it could be so simple; why would you put yourself through this linguistic torture when you are funny and happy in a language that is familiar, and quiet and shy in a language that is challenging and SO DARN COMPLICATED.  Well, I know the answer to all of these questions and hence, the email was never written and today was a new day filled with many happy interactions with the people who fill this city, and with the added bonus of having  mon cher père (my dear father) by my side.  We listened to the beginning of mass at sacré cœur after a long walk up the hill from St Germain to Montmartre, before taking the metro to the Marais where we had lunch at Cafe Hugo on the edge of my favourite square in Paris, Place des Vosges.  Afterwards, we visited Victor Hugo’s apartment and listened intently to a rented earpiece as it described a life so fulfilled and interesting- all of this information singling out yet another legacy left in a city that I have really grown to love.

Tonight, Dad and I sat at Le Hibou (the owl) which is one of my favourite cafes in Paris.  We reflected on the day over a well earned cold apéritive, and the waiter was as friendly and charming as I have become so accustomed.  After giving him a thumbnail of French (still scarred but suitably bandaged!), he  looked at me and smiled ‘you will order in French,’ before skipping away, leaving us to decide on what to have for dinner at the end of another wonderful day together.

On the subject of owls, it takes a certain amount of wisdom to successfully manage whatever life throws at you.  And, while I’m not exactly performing rocket science, nor am I undergoing childbirth or coming to terms with ill health, it is all relevant to  this particular moment in time – each little ‘loss’ will ultimately turn out to be a win.  And that is why I try not to ask ‘why’, rather, I remind myself that I just ‘will’.  

This whole experience is not about speaking French, nor is it about even trying to understand the French system (I must just quietly add, that each would be an added bonus should they ever come to fruition) – its about a personal challenge, ignoring the things I ‘havent’ achieved and accessing those that I may have once thought un achievable.

Van Gogh wrote ‘normality is a paved road- it is comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.’  I’ve seen this quote twice this week and right now, in this moment in time, it couldn’t be more true.

Pictured:  home as I made my approach tonight, the sun still well and truly up at 8.30pm.  The top right hand window (open) is where I sit as I type this post.

Gentle rain.

Gentle rain.

I woke in Paris this morning with soft rain landing on the windowsill before it rushed into the gutter and dripped onto the street below, which made for a perfect excuse to be inside and writing, rather than feeling the guilt I’m often burdened with for not being outside and in the beautiful sunshine.

Yesterday, I made the trip back from London on the Eurostar which is the easiest two hour journey from one great city to another.  London was fabulous as always and it was so wonderful to see faces I don’t often see and to talk a million miles an hour (something I don’t do too often here, my life in French is very different to my life in English).  

It rained for the first two days in London causing my hair to stand on end in a fluffy mess and naturally, I was ill prepared for this and spent the first 48 hours in a perplexed state and quite often caught in the rain.  One cabbie gently advised that perhaps I had brought the rain with me, because the week before had been ‘gorgeous – if you were at the ocean that is.’  London had experienced a heatwave like no other in the days leading into my visit, leaving the city blanketed in steam and hence, explaining the fluffy chicken style that my hair had adopted.

Tuesday night was spent with Steena, a very dear friend of our family who has lived in England for her entire adult life.  Sitting around the kitchen table feasting on a home cooked meal (as I have with them so many times before) and reminiscing about the old days, we commented that nothing has changed, everyone just gets a year older and life seems to whistle by at an exponential rate leaving us wondering where on earth time actually goes.  Her children are now complete grown ups who were aged between four and 12 when I first met them many years ago.

On Wednesday I met up with Tor who joined me on my recent trip to India and whose life has been spent between Melbourne and London (having lived for most of her childhood in London). And as an adult, her heart is torn between the two cities which is probably a nice problem to have.  As we feasted on Cumberland sausages and mash at the Westbourne, we reminisced about the times spent there years earlier, in particular when I arrived in London all of 24 years old covered in bindies and with arms full of bangles after my first winter in the Indian Himalaya. My suitcase was full of bootleg whiskey and custom made pyjama suits and we laughed pretty hard about how times have changed, or have they? On Thursday we ate lunch at Thomas Cubbit just a short walk from Victoria Station, and laughed even harder with two of her great friends from school who are now Mums to three children each, which  served as a reminder that things do change to a certain extent, but the memories remain as strong as they are fond.

The following afternoon I caught up with Georgie, who first met my oldest sister CC in the Kimberly in northern Australia in 1998 – my first year out of school and the year in which I made my maiden voyage to the Northern Hemisphere.  I remember landing in London after that flight (built on extreme proportions of time), and feeling giddy and completely excited with it all.  In the summer of 1998, I came to Paris for the first time with my best friend Skye.  We didn’t really see much of the city of lights, rather, we ate snails and frogs legs in a caravan park well beyond the périphérique and I hold a vivid memory of chopping all of her beautiful blond locks off with nail scissors purchased at a pharmacy on the Champs Elysées, leaving her looking like a much shorter haired version of Cameron Diaz in that scene out of There’s Something About Mary. 

Georgie has become a family member of sorts, having been a great friend to all the sisters and cousins throughout their travels to this side of the world and she is a joy to be around. Friday night saw another reuninion, this time with Harriet who I met during my ill fated Adelaide experience (another story for another day).  Harriet was 19 when she arrived in Adelaide, fair skinned and ultimately English, and she is now 24 and working in her dream job in London.  We share some very funny memories from our time in Adelaide, during what I can only describe as one of the greatest turning points in my life (and ultimately part of the reason I am free to pack up my life as I knew it and live in Paris aged 38) and as we sat at the bar of Kricket, a modern take on an Indian restaurant in the heart of Piccadilly, we wailed with laughter at some of our memories from that particular moment in time, and thanked the universe for delivering this day!  

The morning has now passed along with the rain, and the sky is beginning to clear – the afternoon looks promising and as I type this, the sounds of the bells from Notre Dame chime in competition with the sirens screaming in the distance.  

I was so excited when I turned up at Gare du Nord yesterday with my suitcase dragging alongside me and my feet not too far behind.  For some reason unbeknownst to me, the handle on the aforementiond vessel for clothes has decided it wont pull up no matter how many times I try and tell it to do so, and it now lies in a dead and hopeless heap on the floor of the apartment and I’m at a loss as to work out how to dispose of it.

Dad arrives tomorrow which fills me with great excitement and there will be regular updates of our activités du jour! Until then, I’ve got a suitecase to dispose of and a stomach to fill- my detox lasted all of 12 hours and now all I can think of is a baguette filled with ham and cheese- nothing ever does really change.

After an action packed week away, it is really great to be ‘home.’

Pictured:  Cold french champagne and oysters from Normandy enjoyed at Bibendum in Chelsea. Bibendum, commonly referred to in English as the Michelin Man, is the symbol of the Michelin tire company and, if I don’t get out for a walk sometime soon I will be one step closer to looking just like him.