One minute. Just one hot minute more and I’d have missed that long-announced flight to Paris, an eventuality which would have materially altered the course of my life.
The Heathrow check-in lady raised an eyebrow in my direction and said laconically “You’re the last”. She added, “Too late to check that in; you’ll have to take it with you on board”. I looked down at the huge duffel bag containing all my belongings for two months of travel, five times more than I needed for this fleeting side trip. Sweaty brow and short breath bore witness to its dead weight, lugged across town in a panicky funk.
When I had come to, just after 7am, the plastic alarm clock had been bleating for well over an hour. By then, almost hopelessly late for the 9am flight, I realised that there was no time left to select just the appropriate kit for a side-trip. Groaning at my own stupidity, I scooped it all up, heaved it onto my shoulders and piled noisily down narrow stairs into the deserted London dawn, setting off on a costly cross-town dash in a desperate bid to make that check in…
Precious boarding pass in hand, I now hurried to the gate. This was pre 9-11. No X Rays and extra body scanning. Just walk up and board. Nobody was left outside the gate. I really was the last on. After drinking and jammin’ with friends until 4am, I was both hoarse and reeking like a distillery. But I made that flight, and Paris was now within my reach.
Everyone else was seated as I wrestled my bag self-consciously down the aircraft’s central aisle. Midway, I paused to check the seat number. Yes, 17A, that’s right… a window seat. Perfect for savoring the descent into another of the world’s great capitals. Approaching row 17, I could see that the only vacant seat was not the A, but the B, the unglamorous middle spot. My eyes furtively met those of the culprit who dared to covet my precious window seat. They belonged to a young woman, dark tousled hair and chic scarf. She looked back at me, as if defying me to unseat her.
Buying time before the coming reckoning, I lurched away to stow my bag, cramming the oversized caterpillar into a tight space towards the back of the plane. Drawing level again with 17, wits steeled for a showdown, the usurper disarmed me just as I cleared my throat. Laughing eyes and a faint dimple on the edge of her smile, she quickly played her ace:
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think anyone else would be boarding, so I took the window. Do you mind?”
The other passengers eavesdropped like so many concierges, waiting for my comeback, but quite convinced of my defeat faced with such a clever rhetorical gambit. The woman in 17C, unbuckled her seatbelt and rose to let me past. As our regards crossed briefly, she pursed her lips and rolled her eyes heavenwards, as if to confirm my inevitable surrender.
“No, of course not...” I conceded, shimmying as deftly as I could into 17B, still perspiring. “As long as you don’t mind me leaning across you to look out the window as we come in to land?”
I countered her ace with my Joker. The seat-thief laughed. Touché. Glancing to my right, the woman in 17C said nothing, but rolled her eyes again.
Settling in, I could now relax, ready to fill my in-flight imagination, relieved that my 30-quid 90-minute overland dash had not been in vain. I fished from my pocket the bright yellow volume of poetry that I had been saving for this trip. Thumbing its pages, I started to let words fall like petals and collect in the corners of my mind.
I had come across this poem — Paris, by C.K. Stead — several weeks earlier, not long before flying out for the UK. The thin, standalone volume winked at me from the back shelves of a second-hand bookshop along Auckland’s K-Road, as I dawdled home after a long night of forgetting. Its garish yellow jacket was enough to prise open bleary eyes. So was the cover illustration. A man in a raspberry suit and matching fedora sitting, eyes closed and head turned, beneath a tree with multicoloured leaves that has sprouted from his coffee cup. Birds, symbols and mysterious totem-like figures gather around him and in the shadows behind. Curious, I had dipped in.
“City so long announced come home to my dreams…”. The opening immediately struck a chord within me, still bruised from a passionate but destructive affair of the heart. Here, on the cusp of my first voyage to Europe, I appropriated the poet’s plea: “Paris, summon me to your table”. It gave my otherwise recreational trip a whiff of quasi-official purpose. Six kiwi dollars in loose change well-spent, Stead’s poem became part of my carry-on luggage, for degustation on the way to the City of Light.
This trip to Paris was to be one of two short Continental jaunts that hyphenated my condensed “O.E.” — antipodean slang for Overseas Experience — in late 1999. Already in my late twenties, I was most excited by the idea of setting foot at long last in Mother England, the land my ancestors had sailed from in the 1860s. Arriving in London, I oscillated between feelings of familiarity and alienation, like some illegitimate colonial offspring. This seemed to me to be the not-so-subtle subtext from Her Majesty's customs officer who had snickered when I said I was a student of English Literature. After a week or two of dossing in London, this outing to France was a chance to get a different, non-anglophone take on things, shortly before the world imploded (or not) due to the menacing Y2K bug.
The clipped nasal voice of the Captain broke into my drifting thoughts. Takeoff was delayed 45 minutes. Groans. Fidgeting. People calculated the effects of this slippage on their travel plans. These days, such news would bring about a frenzy of smartphone consultation. Back when Nokia still ruled supreme, people were condemned to thinking about the unknowns and announcing contingency plans via sms.
It was during this wait, and then on into flight, that conversation kindled between me and my pretty neighbour, keeper of the porthole. She was French, living in London for several years now. Hints of a so-British accent and friendly, she was going home to Paris for a short family Christmas. Her chattiness eroded vague preconceptions I had about French arrogance and aloofness. With no time constraints waiting for me upon arrival, I wasn’t bothered at all by the delay, especially if it meant flirting with a foreigner. Still, this was a short flight. I didn’t rate my chances of getting anywhere with a creature so different to myself.
That is, until she made her offer, right after the plane tilted forward to begin its descent.
“Look, I’m going to have some spare time tomorrow,” began my charming neighbour.
Woah, am I dreaming already?
“So if you’d fancy that, let’s meet at the Fontaine Saint-Michel and I can take you on a walking tour of Paris, show you some of the harder-to-find places.”
Fancy that? Below me on the page, the poet had found words for what my heart seemed to be whispering: “I accept your invitation and my defeat. Paris, put yourself in the picture.”
We touched down and filed through the skybridge and on, into CDG’s Terminal 1, a 1970s avant-garde camembert. Soizic — yes, by then I knew her name — and I had agreed on a rendez-vous for 1 o’clock the next day, at said fountain. We parted ways after traversing the plexiglass tube suspended above the terminal’s circular courtyard. She peeled off to wait for her bags. As I slid away, mine slung over my shoulder, I stole a glance at her over the carousel. She had lit up a cigarette like many of the other passengers, relieved to arrive but stressed to be behind schedule, disappearing behind a veil of blue.
Rather than grapple with the RER train, I opted for an autobus to l’Opera. This gave me a glimpse of the capital's tough northern suburbs, rounding the Stade de France, dipping into a tunnel before rising smoothly onto the Périphérique ring-road. To my left, the domes of Sacre-Coeur rose above Montmartre's zinc-capped rooftops and chimneys. Minutes later, the bendy 352 bus eased through tree-lined avenues, Haussmann’s canyons of limestone and wrought-iron window rails, to arrive at our destination alongside the grandiose Opéra Garnier.
On the sidewalk, now slightly hungover, the winter chill started to nibble at my extremities. My plan was to hoof it across to the Latin Quarter to keep myself from freezing. I set off southwards along the Avenue de l’Opéra, veering right, through the Place Vendôme, where Napoleon gazes across the rooftops from his column. Soon I was in the Jardin des Tuileries, a feeble winter sun hovering above the Louvre’s intricate roofline. Rows of bare trees stood neatly to attention around frozen fountains. Statues stared down whitely, cold ears pricking up to the sound of my boots scrunching the frozen beige grit preferred by French gardeners, as if to verify that I would stay off the immaculate parcels of lawn.
Satisfied with progress, I paused at a small kiosk several rows back among the woody sentinels, ordering a café au lait and croissant thanks more to gestures than my bastard French. Even the currency is out to confuse me, I thought, extracting franc notes and centimes from my wallet.
Wandering on past Pei’s pyramids and through the Louvre’s vast second courtyard, I found myself on the Pont des Arts, offering its postcard view of the Pont Neuf and on to Notre-Dame's spire and bell towers. Somewhere in that direction, between here and where my hostel bed awaited, lay my only really pressing objective: locating the Fontaine Saint-Michel.
The Young & Happy is on Rue Mouffetard, a narrow cobbled street in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Arriving at the hostel, now weary but fountain firmly identified, I noted an abundance of restaurants touting “cuisine française traditionnelle”, menus dripping with promises of authenticité. I decided this could wait 24 hours, after a decent sleep had dispelled my increasingly authentic hangover.
The following morning, I rose early. My roommate, César (seriously? I thought), snored on. Breakfast was served underground in the hostel’s classic vaulted cave. As I sat musing about the day ahead, another traveller came down the stone stairs.
“Mind if I join ya?”
Despite a telltale Aussie twang, Vivian turned out to be a fellow kiwi who’d lived for years in Sydney. She too was alone in Paris. Faced with the prospect of dining solo again that evening, I suggested we discover the delights of French cuisine together. Deal. We’d meet at seven-thirty tonight at the hostel, to compare notes after a day of roving around town.
Although I swear it was not on purpose, I managed to be late for the 1pm rendez-vous. A crowd was milling in front of the fountain in the middle of the Place Saint-Michel. From a distance, I could see Soizic (said “Swa-zique”), arms folded beneath a shawl, waiting. A little cross, perhaps.
“You’re a bit cheeky, aren’t you?” she said when I materialized in front of her. I shrugged. So sorry, dazzled by Notre-Dame, tempus fugit, blah blah… I clawed my way back. Bemused, Soizic accepted my offer of lunch and we strolled off in the direction of Odéon.
Sunlight bathed the terrace as we sat chatting and watching the flow of traffic, people and small dogs. In her true habitat, my new Parisian friend appeared even lovelier than the day before. She was pleased to decipher her town and its 20 arrondissements for an interested outsider, expressed a certain joy at being on home turf, away from London with its shorter days, grey skies and stuffy pubs. London had brought her independence, experiences, and affirmed her identity beyond family and social circles that might otherwise have shaped her in France.
Relieved of negotiations with condescending waiters, I felt able to relax and enjoy the lunch, capitalising on this opportunity to get inside knowledge from an infinitely more intriguing and interactive guide than my Lonely Planet from the Camden Public Library.
Fortified by a glass of claret, I tested my new friend’s tolerance for whackiness, leaping up from the table and disappearing down the street with my video camera. I returned seconds later, camera rolling, to feign meeting her for the first time, pretending to sit down uninvited and asking her to introduce herself.
“Stop it, you bastard!” I was impressed by the casualness of her rough reproach.
After more laughter, coffee and l’addition, we stepped off into the afternoon, through the narrow streets of the 6th arrondissement, across the Pont Neuf, heading for the charms of the Marais.
Blessed with a still clear day, as we walked it felt like we’d entered one of those painted streetscapes for sale in the bouquinistes stalls clinging to the walled embankments of the Seine. Unfettered by a fixed plan or destination, we strolled and talked about, well, “je ne sais quoi”. It didn’t really matter. It was fun to be delivered from the forced introversion of the lonely tourist. Venturing onto the thorny topic of nuclear testing in the Pacific and the Rainbow Warrior bombing, it was reassuring to know that not all the French agreed with it either.
For hours we wandered around this ancient part of the city, formerly marshland, hence the name, le Marais. Rue du Temple, Rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie, deeper into the neighbourhood, stopping frequently to peer into boutique windows, or beyond gates into immaculate gardens and hidden courtyards. Soizic the guide took her job seriously, pointing out distinctive features and places, describing not just the past but also how people live today in such a place, so foreign to my own experience.
Our path brought us near the Musée Picasso. Drawn inside, we were soon spellbound by his blue and rose periods and the relentless experimentation that led to cubist mashups, collages and sculptures. Paris was the ultimate incubator, an ecosystem of upstarts and innovators, in which the young painter’s genius flourished and uberized the prevailing conventions.
With the sun low and steadily marching towards the skyline, quaint medieval streets gave way to the magnificence of the Place des Vosges, grand facades and colonnades on all sides. The late afternoon light warmed the pink brick and pale creamy limestone surrounding this elegant square, once home to notables like Victor Hugo. Soizic steered me through the public gardens and on under the arches, arriving by design in front of the gallery of Déborah Chock, an artist whose works explore meaning using words and wordplay in exuberant, dreamlike paintings with titles like “Nous nous Approch' mes”. I began to feel as if I was in thrall to some kind of Parisian magic, a spell drawing our souls together as the painting suggested. Fighting back the temptation to try to kiss my guide or dance with her, or both, our walk resumed in the gathering dusk.
Well before we had begun sipping a second vin chaud at the Café La Fontaine, near Bastille, I had realised that I was fast running up to a hard stop, if I was to honour my earlier bargain with Vivian. Fueled by red wine and cinnamon, I extended an invitation to make it “dinner for three”. To my surprise Soizic accepted, advising her mother in a short incomprehensible (to me) call not to expect her until late.
A short taxi ride later, the three of us were seated cosily at La Maison de Verlaine, not far from the hostel, nestled below the flat where poet Paul Verlaine died a century earlier. Vivian turned out to be a pure entertainer and the evening’s conversation was riotous and side-splitting. Indeed, Verlaine and his chum Rimbaud might well have endorsed a certain you-only-live-once indulgence that hung in the air.
Long on wine, garlic, crème and salty butter, our choices lent toward the rather clichéd end of traditionnelle with cuisses de grenouille, escargots and tartare de boeuf, before tipping over into decadent with cheese, crème brulée and tarte tatin to finish. La Totale as the locals would say.
After midnight, firing on all cylinders, we moved on to a nearby bar, Le Requin Chagrin. For a Monday night, it was really jumping. We cut a path to the bar through revelers and thick, smokey air. Vivian, apparently, had not exhausted her capacity to surprise. With the hostel’s 2am curfew looming and Soizic away in the bathroom, my merry companion enquired, point blank and with a wink:
“So, which one of us do you want?”
The directness caught me off guard, causing me to take a long slug of beer.
Well, if you put it that way, I do rather fancy this French girl, I said.
“No worries,” replied Vivian still cheerfully. “But if you do strike out, I’m in room 13!” she laughed.
Soizic arrived back in time to catch the end of a conspiratorial chuckle, whereupon Vivian announced that she had had a marvellous evening and was now off to bed! After goodbyes, we were once again alone.
Our story was at a delicate crossroads. If I stayed out after 2am, I’d be shut out until 7am when the hostel’s curfew lifted. If I sagely respected the limit, I’d have roughly 20 minutes to try to steal my first-ever genuine French kiss. If ever there was a city for romantic moonshots, Paris is surely it. Taking care not to presage any particular outcome, I exposed the conundrum presented by the curfew. If we were to push on, would you, dear guide, agree to stay out with me until the break of day? Laughing and flicking her hair, my companion committed to the deal. I guess with only 10 days left before the dawn of a new millenium (or the onset of Y2K brimstone), it really was time to party like it was 1999.
Le Requin Chagrin closed at 2.30am. We went in search of safe harbour across the river. A taxi dropped us on a practically deserted street in Châtelet. With the mercury now well below zero and not a bar or restaurant in sight, braving the curfew momentarily looked like the stupid option. Soizic tapped on the window of a Police paddy-wagon idling on a corner. The cops indicated two streets on, down the end, quickly winding the window up to preserve heat. The Banana Café. Frankly the name didn’t scream “suave Paris nightspot” to me, but hey, if it was warm and served liquid refreshments, it had my vote.
Paying dividends once again, curiosity had led us into a veritable haven. Bar and coat check at street level, the real ambiance was underground in the vaulted cellar, where a huge Afro-haired black dude crooned over the ivories of a baby grand piano. Around the edges, tucked behind curved pillars, were semi-circle booths with tables and velvet benches, cradling a dreamy crowd well after bedtime. It was quite a contrast from the previous scene. But while movement and cacophony were gone, an intense energy remained, enveloping us as we were carried along by waves of romantic ballads.
Some 14 hours of walking, exploring, dining, laughing and teasing had led us here. Drawn close in our booth, we kissed. It proved to be a passionate encounter, intensified by the unrushed ascent we had made to that very moment. Savouring the escalation, we stayed for hours, suspended in the frame of an undeniably Parisian romance, a straight pair rocked gently, lovingly in the underground arms of Gay Paree.
With the end of our run through to daybreak almost in sight, we slipped away from the piano bar somewhere after 5am. Walking side by side, holding hands, pausing occasionally to kiss in ancient doorways and passages, we made for the river and the Pont Neuf.
It was not until later that I realised how strongly our experience resonated with the poet’s words: “The morning [...] is cool and dry and heady as you walk across the Pont Neuf already making for the end of the story...”. As if delaying the curtain fall, we danced cheek-to-cheek around Henri IV, and made our way down to the water’s edge at the tip of the island, continuing to embrace, clinging close to each other, lips and hands sharing warmth in the crisp chill of the late December dawn.
By 6am we were face-to-face over croissants and hot chocolate, cosy now behind the frosty windows of the bistro Le Nesle on the Rue Dauphine. In a few minutes, I would walk Soizic to the metro on the Boulevard Saint Germain and our dreamlike Parisian promenade would be over, for now, giving way to tiredness and memories of an exquisite encounter with a city and with each other.
You guessed. It wasn’t the end of the story. We met up again and again in the days that followed, and then on other shores: England, Fiji and New Zealand where Soizic’s curiosity and openmindedness won her a special place in the hearts of so many of my friends and family. I took up the challenge to learn and master French, after immigrating in 2002, embracing new possibilities, new challenges. We are together two decades later, and have four amazing children.
“As wine touches the tongue, as the eyes exchange,
as a voice caresses an uncomprehending ear,
do not neglect to dictate these informal strictures
with all their whims of glass, their glosses on lust,
to the Paris of Paris that’s nobody’s dream but your own.”
A sincere and admiring thank you to C.K. Stead and Gregory O’Brien who illustrated the poem, for the lasting mark your art has left on my experience. The little yellow book, Paris, remains for me, a true taonga*.
* A Māori word which refers to a real treasure, tangible or not.
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