To Paris, with love
I found myself in Paris in Montparnasse train station with my life packed into two suitcases and tears streaming down my face. I had just finally mustered up the courage to walk out of a doomed relationship, and jumped on the first available train. All I knew was once free, I had to go to Paris, yet had no clue what to do next. I was determined to make the most of the working holiday visa though, and Paris was where I was going to spend the remaining precious six months. Reconnecting with two old friends, they kindly opened their homes and welcomed me into their lives. Soon after though, I was alone again. It was especially tough when I had a moment of solitude without their welcome distraction. One night I stood in a supermarket unsure of what to even buy for dinner and went home and wept without eating a single thing. I was absolutely and utterly heart broken. Suddenly, Paris felt like the coldest, darkest, most foreign city, so very far away from home and it was nothing like what I remembered.
Slowly but surely, my luck began to shift. I moved into my friends studio in a beautiful old traditional building near the Moulin Rouge, in the very convenient 9th arrondissement. The winding staircase that led to my flat was on a vertigo inducing eighth floor, with no lift. I muttered a colourful vocabulary out of breath, as I exhaled up those slippery, uneven carpeted steps. From my window, I overlooked an apartment block and chimneys that led to the sky that stretched high as far as the eye could see. Seasons were shifting and snowflakes began to fall. Time was passing by but I wasn't ready to face the world and fell into a kind of self imposed hibernation, just staring out of that window. Parisian winters can be absolutely brutal and it was now apparently the coldest period in 25 years. TV became my solace and language teacher, and that window connected me to the outside world, from my safe haven. The city was so picturesque and quiet under a blanket of snow. On my usual struggle back from the laundromat dressed like the Marshmallow man in my 25 layers, I noticed something bobbing up and down out of the corner of my eye. On closer inspection, it was a pigeon picking at some dog manure. I gasped in disgust, then realising the irony of the situation, broke out into a fit of laughter. Life happens, and shit certainly happens too. Paris was now thawing out and so was my heart. It was time to face the world again.
With a wide eyed curiosity that only a newly single and young adventurer could unleash, I explored every crevice meeting fascinating characters. Freedom was the name of the train and I had a first class ticket out of misery. I could go and do what the hell I wanted, of course with whomever my heart desired. Relishing my independence, I caught the last metro home at night, discovered the quaintest bar on Isle St Louis, shopped to my hearts content in the vintage markets, and continued to happily get lost in the numerous winding side streets, and awe inspiring art galleries speckled all over town.
With each new neighbourhood I discovered, the more confident I became in my french and before long I had managed to find a job working in the prestigious Paris Fashion house, Courrèges. It was located in the ritzy 8th arrondissement, in the golden triangle of Fashion, on Rue François 1er just off Champs Elysées. Every time I saw a couple in a romantic embrace or a declaration of love, my heart would wince. But now it was healing at a rapid rate filled to the brim with my new exciting life. I had integrated into Parisian society well enough to be the face of a fashion house, and therefore finally felt like I had found my place in this little pocket of the world.
With a kind of structure and routine back in my life, a visit to the bakery for the freshest of baguettes became part of my daily ritual. A passing "Bonjour mademoiselle, ça va?" (Good morning Miss, how are you?) from the local shopkeepers and friendly monsieur et mesdames meant the world to me. This genuine but brief exchange, perhaps considered flippant to a passerby, somehow confirmed my rightful existence. With each shrug of the shoulders, and use of expressive nods, the more comfortable I became chatting away with anyone who would dare to speak with me. Having spent the first six months of my journey just listening and observing everything, I now couldn't shut myself up. It didn't matter either that my French wasn't at a native level and I made lots of mistakes. I even won an argument in French, with a taxi company who tried to falsely rip me off as a naive tourist. This was a pivotal point for me. I had an apartment, a job, an actual life in Paris AND I could speak the kind of French that locals understood!
Not everything was easy of course and nothing was handed to me on a silver platter. A particularly cringe worthy mistake springs to mind when a VIP client rang enquiring about a new order and I referred to the gravelly voiced Madame as a Monsieur, and was yelled at. Coqueline Courrèges herself was a terrifying woman who would have given many people nightmares. The policy at the front of house was that one had to answer the phone within three rings. Sometimes she would just call us from a random external number or even somewhere internally to make sure we would pick it up in time. I learned to jump over new deliveries, down the hallway into the all white and mirrored circular foyer like a pro without a crease in my well ironed Courrèges uniform. One day absolutely bored out of mind with nothing to do, I cheekily tried on a cult pair of plastic, iconic Courrèges go-go boots from the showroom. The lovely cleaning lady had just been admiring my mini fashion show, when she choked on her own breath. Madame suddenly flung open the main door. In my haste, I had only managed to get one boot off. I awkwardly balanced on one foot dressed in the shiny, vintage and VERY expensive boot strategically hidden behind the pillar. As she barked her orders, with sweat dripping down my forehead, I managed my obligatory, "Bien sûr Madame, toute de suite! " (Of course madame, right away!), and she was once again on her way. She fired staff left, right, and centre due to what seemed like trivial reasons, and kept everyone on their toes. But I will always have a soft spot for her as she was the one who hired and gave me a chance, surprisingly despite my lack of fashion know-how or language fluency. Forever thankful for that opportunity, I thoroughly enjoyed my time working there and sometimes wonder what would life be like now, should I have accepted the offer of being her right hand production assistant and stayed.
Plenty of good things of course came from working at Courrèges as well. One afternoon to our delight, a beautiful male walked through the foyer asking if he was in the right place for the fittings. Before I could advise the young perfect specimen that the fittings for Dior Homme was in fact the floor above, my colleague jumped in responding with a very playful yes followed by a sexy wink. Next thing, they all continued to pour into our confined space and we found ourselves surrounded in a sea of male models doing what they do best, just standing around looking ever so handsome. My colleague and I could barely keep a straight face breaking out into a huge cheeky grin from ear to ear, like a child who knew they had eaten too many sweets, but just couldn't stop.
The lifelong friendships that I gained from my time spent working there are priceless. They were to become my crutch to help me get through those lonely moments when life seemed too hard to make it alone in France. I was so lucky to have a quality circle of dear friends who warmed my soul with their love and generosity. Those long nights were filled with dinner parties in the cosiest of apartments filling ashtrays and emptying bottles, talking about our bohemian ideologies and how we would change our lives for the better. We stayed up all night, often to the crack of dawn, dancing to our favourite tunes on red wine spilt carpets. On one of these evenings, we discovered a neighbour shooting what was clearly a porno, right next to a big exposed window. In fits of laughter and encouraged by the lewdness, we collectively reciprocated our sentiments flashing our bottoms, mooning the exhibitionists. It was such an unnecessary, inappropriate act yet, so apropos in that moment. We were such silly, unafraid, proud and yet unsure, but excited and hopeful twenty somethings, just doing our best at life. These were some of the happiest times of my life. As a favourite past time, we would often climb onto one of our rooftops for an impromptu aperitif session watching the setting sun paint the sky in fairy floss colours. Looking out at that beautiful vista of those flickering night lights, I had finally felt like I was at home. I couldn't help but feel like the French had taught me the true meaning of the city's motto of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. That is why I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Parisians that touched my life and inevitably will always look at Paris through rose coloured glasses.