I was twenty. Husband, who then went by the name First-Proper-Boyfriend, was eager for us to meld into an item, a fixture, a permanent ‘we’.
I was less eager. I was scared. I didn’t want to hurt him and I didn’t want to break up.
So, I ran away. I ran away to Paris.
I got a strip of four black and white photos, gave two to Boyfriend for his wallet and the other two to the passport office. I telephoned an au-pairing agency and convinced them of my passionate interest in childcare and the French langauge. I bought a large blue suitcase and I packed it.
I have a very distinct memory of sitting on that Aer Lingus Cork to Paris flight. I had such plans. I would learn to speak French with flair. I would learn about wine and cheese and Art and how to tie a scarf. I would leave my shy, awkward self in Cork and find a new me. This was my first big step to becoming an independent woman of the world.
My confidence lasted all the way to the car park of Charles de Gaulle airport where I accidentally sat in to the driver’s side of my host’s car instead of the passenger side. Jean-Luc, laughing as he hoiked my massive blue suitcase into the back of his teeny-weeny Renault, kindly re-assured me that their previous, English, Au-Pair had made the same mistake.
Every weekday, I took care of three small, beautiful boys. I couldn’t get over how gorgeous they were and was stupidly enamoured by the fact that they spoke fluent French. The boys couldn’t get over the fact that I, stupidly, didn’t.
Every Saturday, I was free to explore Paris. I hated the metro so I walked everywhere. I queued for the Louvre and stood, unimpressed, in front of the Monalisa. Sacre-Couer, Notre Dame, Jardin du Luxembourg, l’Arc de Triomphe, Georges Pompidou, I ticked each off my list with a thrilled sense of self-improvement. I spent a small fortune on a green leather wallet in Galeries Lafayette. I sat for a portrait in Montmartre. The Musee d’Orsay stole my heart. I loved it so much that I stopped ticking my list, left my camera at home and just went back, week after week. I would bring a book and sit on the balcony with an enormous glass of grenadine-tainted juice imagining myself metamorphosing into a true Parisienne.
Every Sunday, Jean-Luc and Carol’s extended French/Spanish/Vietnamese family gathered for a meal which lasted six or seven hours. The aperatifs, the wines, the wineglasses and the Armagnacs were debated and discussed loudly and with great good humour. Everyone brought food, everyone hugged and laughed and talked, everyone helped clean up. They can’t all have been that nice, can they? Well, they were nice to me.
I had never before seen a large, extended family behave so warmly. I had never before seen a family gathering end without a row. Polite kisses on each cheek and a promise of Bastille cake next week, how simply wonderful?
I had never before lived in a family that behaved like a team. I had never seen parents have quiet discussions, make descisions and live up to promises. I had never heard parents argue loudly and then make up, loudly. I had never before seen a couple tidy out the basement together or hold hands while they watched a film. I had never before seen a Husband walk downstairs every morning and pad back up again with a cup of coffee for his Wife. I hadn’t, before that summer of ’92, known what a happy family looked like. I don’t think I believed that a happy family was a truly possible thing.
That’s what I learned in Paris. I learned that melding into an item might be a very good thing.
Paris did change me. I left some of my cynicism behind. I may never be described as chic but I do know how to tie a scarf.
I flew home in First-Class thanks to Jean-Luc’s brother who worked for Air France. I drank champagne alone. I felt like a new person.
I felt ready to say yes to a permanent ‘we’.
I still have that green leather wallet in my bag. It’s battered now and stretched, the zip is broken and no-one else knows how to hold it without letting all the coins fall out. It’s filled with library cards, loyalty cards, a few old passport photos and some notes my kids wrote to me. It has travelled everywhere that I have. A little bit of Paris with me always.