For the author, commentator and journalist, finally discovering the Paris of her memories was bittersweet.
On paper, it looked like the perfect sojourn: a six-week fellowship in Paris researching a biography of a 19th-century Frenchwoman at the heart of a major political scandal. I was excited, of course, but also apprehensive because I’d never been away from home or my husband for so long. While I consider myself reasonably independent, I suspected this adventure would take me out of my comfort zone; I just didn’t know how far.
I was offered an apartment rent-free and, on the advice of friends, I didn’t hesitate. What they failed to tell me was that even famed Montparnasse has charmless dead zones with no street life, no café in which to become a habitué. Worse, parts of the city that I first visited as a child with my Parisian mother had become so Disneyfied that when I attempted a little nostalgic flânerie between digging in libraries and interviewing sources, I struggled. The atmosphere I had known all my life seemed to have disappeared under the sediment of tourist clichés.
Needing to keep my spirits afloat, I got a pot plant for company and put flowers on my desk. Next, I required a daily sampling of artisanal cheeses. Having located an outdoor market, I timed how long it took the fromager to serve a customer. Because the purchase involved detailed enquiries about what Madame had bought the previous week and whether she’d like to try something that had just come into season, the transaction took, on average, 12 minutes. At last, a French tradition I cherished! The third essential – a decent cup of coffee – was seriously elusive until I hit upon the website Good Coffee in Paris.
As the weeks slipped by, I didn’t surrender to the doubts I was having about my project and I survived inevitable bouts of loneliness. I even came to terms with a fiendish washing machine that kidnapped my underwear for days at a time. I had earned a celebration so, in my final week, I decided to treat myself to lunch at a good restaurant.
Until I turned into rue de Charonne, in the 11th arrondissement, I was resigned to the Paris I loved being gone forever. But, suddenly, there was the city that had been eluding me: humming ateliers, many specialising in cane-furniture repair, their windows stacked high with chairs. There were greetings from sales assistants and neighbours were stopped in conversation on the pavement. It felt almost like a village. I waltzed into Septime without a booking. “Just sit up at the bar and we’ll feed you,” the maître d’ offered – the friendliest greeting of my entire stay.
I took a flight home the next morning. Within minutes of landing, I learned that rue de Charonne had been targeted in the Paris attacks. I immediately visualised the street and wondered about the safety of those who had welcomed me so generously. But as the months passed, I saw media reports about Parisians returning to the street and its café terraces, defiantly going back to their way of life. When it’s time to finish my research, I’ll join them.