by Thirza Vallois
My first encounter with Paris, in the 1950s and as a very young teenager, came as a great disappointment. Landing at the Gare du Nord, the first Paris I saw was shabby and unappetising, light years away from the “City of Light”. “Where ARE the Dior models from Vogue Magazine?” I asked my mother in frustration. A cab driver soon whisked us off to a more flattering Paris, but even aboard a “Paris by Night” coach and horse-drawn carriages (long since gone), the city failed to live up to the mystique I had anticipated. No way could it live up to London. Based on that first visit and the few that followed, I have no idea what prompted me to pick up Paris for my student years. It would be interesting to psycho-analyse why I chose to settle here for good. There was more to it than just meeting and marrying a Parisian. It was more like the slow process of falling in love with someone one at first actively dislikes. It is one of those perfidious tricks that fate plays insidiously on our hearts.
Not that I now love Paris unconditionally. I love it realistically and with eyes wide open. And sometimes I hate it. Being a bit of a chameleon, it took me no time to have full command of the language and integrate into French life. The combination of a good sense of observation and hyper sensitivity to a fault, enabled me to capture all the vibes, innuendoes and dynamics of the city. Some are nice; some are not. My love for beauty, music, art and literature, not to mention my keen interest in history, as well as current social and political issues, couldn’t find a better place to feed on and thrive in.
It all just happened, taking its natural course. As did my writing. Unlike so many aspiring writers who come to Paris with that goal on their minds, my writing sprouted, grew and matured spontaneously, when the moment was ripe. Interestingly, it happened in Paris and not in London, although I much preferred London to Paris in those days. Paris, gruff and Gallic, exasperated me, whereas London was a smooth journey. Perhaps it was precisely because I was comfortable in London that I felt no urge to write about it. It didn’t antagonise me. Paris on the other hand was so intense. Besides, so much in Paris was played out on the streets and public places. Of course in the 1960s London too began to buzz, in a way more than Paris, but it was more of a surface buzz. It lacked the depth of history and tradition, the intimate sense of community. In Paris you may still have “your” own boulanger or butcher who will tip you how best to cook your meat. London is confidently on the way to New York; Paris is looking there too, but over its shoulder and more reluctantly.
Of course Parisians too spend time commuting, shopping, eating out and night clubbing, and Paris too is gradually affected by homogenising globalisation, but for the time being it hangs on to its creative individuality. Despite the rampant increase of franchised outlets, a typical Parisian street still has its own character. Can you tell one British high street from another? Unlike London, which was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, and despite the major urban works under Haussmann and his followers, Paris has preserved a sense of historical continuity going back to the Middle Ages. Its building façades and cobbled streets can be read like a marvelous book, bursting with fascinating stories, some true, some legends. All are part of Parisian lore and history. Add to this the fact that inner Paris is quite small and compact and you’ve landed in walkers’ paradise, to be explored horizontally and vertically simultaneously.
Take for example a leafy courtyard you have chanced upon — a gift from heaven to be thankful for. How much greater is the gift when you can also imagine Leslie Caron/Gigi step down into that courtyard, or Gigi’s creator, Colette, emerge into the street from another charming courtyard, a couple of blocks away. Or Mozart aged 7, stepping out into rue François Miron in the Marais. Imagine him, aged 10 popping up further north, now the corner of rue de Bretagne and square du Temple, playing the harpsichord to the city’s most brilliant and glittering society. No trace is left of that venue, the Palace of the Grand Prior, the court of the illegitimate branch of the royal family. Imagine yourself enjoying a Häagen-Dazs ice-cream on place de la Contrescarpe, then finding out you are sitting on the very spot where five hundred years ago the land’s most famous poets gathered under the name of La Pléaide and wrote the manifesto that would propel the French language into future glory. By the by, you find out that up until then that status was bestowed on Latin alone, hence the Latin Quarter, the language of the university.
Despite the proliferation of facts and details, I don’t see Paris as their accumulation but as a whole. The details I glean along the way all come together, leading to the understanding of the city, my ultimate goal. Including current-day Paris. including the bits that are not so nice. Including the dark shameful pages one would rather push under the carpet. I see Paris as a gigantic tapestry spread at my feet, into which I weave the innumerable threads of my findings. Increasingly, I see Paris also as a mosaic of ethnicities (it’s not quite London yet, but it’s heading in the same direction), boasting along its central axis a string of miniature worlds of exotic diversity. Finally, I see Paris as a gigantic puzzle, one of those that come in thousands of pieces and take forever to complete. Mission impossible: There will always be that other door you didn’t notice before to be opened, a hatch at your feet to be lifted, a building site to remind you that Paris is a city in perpetual motion (oh, please spare us your highrises and other questionable projects), a never-ending story, a lifetime commitment once you become a Paris writer and get caught by the “bug”.