Carnet de Voyage: Precious Paris Memories

Carnet de Voyage: Precious Paris Memories

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

I have been to Paris eight times – the first in 1988, the most recent in 2013. My memories of the city are fading but they remain precious to me. I peruse often a bookcase in my house, pausing on one book in particular, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a novel set in the 1950s about the Castillo brothers, Nestor and Caesar, from Havana. They make their way to New York City to live, their adventures and misadventures highly influenced by their own rich Latin culture. On my first extended trip to Paris – I was alone  – I read the entire novel on the plane, start to finish, without stopping.  I had never before read a whole book in one sitting. Was I as naive and excited as Nestor and Caesar Castillo were about their destination?  Oh, yes.  

From my Paris trips, I always wanted to bring back with me things I could hold and feel and treasure. Things that would spark my memory. And those things have done just that, even those things I no longer have. Old age has a way of tangling memories together into a savory stew of melancholy and pleasure.  

I recall my only trek to the Eiffel Tower, on a trip with my friend Sally who had never been to Paris before. Her husband had just left her for another woman. As scorned as she felt, Sally was determined to make this journey that she and her husband had planned together. I was his replacement, travelling on the same plane ticket which he gleefully had relinquished. It was January. I suggested a tour of the Tower, which was in truth more of a warm-weather outdoor activity. But off we went. An unusual winter tornado had blown through the city just before our arrival and, when we got to the Tower, two large trees lay spectacularly and horrifically on their sides next to the structure.  

In front of the Picasso museum

Our tour group was somber and quiet. The two of us went as high in the Tower as tourists were allowed to go in such windy, frigid weather. The iciness of the steel floor crept from my booted feet to my stockinged legs. “Let’s go. It’s too cold and too weird here,” I complained. 

 “Not yet.” Sally said. “Take a picture of me with the Arc de Triomphe in the background first.” Surprised, I was heartened by her request. She had barely acknowledged any interest in anything the city had to offer. I clicked a photo of her.  

When we returned home, I had the roll of film developed. The picture I took of my friend reflected her intense misery, mirroring the greyness of the sky and sucking the majestic grace from the Arc.  

Sally has never mentioned a desire to see the photo but I still have it, tucked away in a flat, thin paper bag in my dresser. Just in case. The photo does not really belong to me but I am its custodian.  

In Paris one summer, I bought a linen suit, a dull black and brown pattern, lined with brown satin. The suit was a bit too big, both the skirt and the short-sleeved jacket, but I did not care  – it had a “Made in France” label inside the neckline. The shop proprietor at first refused my American Express card as payment. After many useless hand gestures between us and my attempts at French words and phrases, he understood that I was not going to purchase the suit if I could not use the card. He took it, unhappily. With the ill-fitting suit in a distinctly Parisian boutique box, I left the place triumphant.   

Standing in front of a store window in Les Halles, I became fascinated with a watch, its face almost as wide as my wrist, its numbers scattered about, like large and small marbles thrown by a mischievous child on a playground  – except for the prominent twelve at the face’s top. I bought it quickly with my limited stash of francs.

Peggy wearing her beloved watch

I never wore the suit. But that watch, that watch. I wore it constantly for twenty-five years. The watch died several times over those years, the result of undiagnosable problems  – not just bad batteries  – and jewellers up and down the East Coast resuscitated it for me. One jeweller removed its entire insides and replaced all the French workings with stateside workings. Finally, no repair could save it. I still miss it on my wrist, where it drew me into occasional conversations  – sometimes contentious ones  – with perplexed strangers. “That’s not really a watch, is it? You can’t tell what time it is with that, can you?” a man next to me scoffed, pointing at my unique timepiece while he clung to a strap on the Washington D.C. Metro. “Yes, it is. And it gets me close enough,” I responded defensively. “I know when it’s about four twenty or almost two fifteen.” Why does anybody have to know exactly, to the minute, what time it is, ever? Then, defensively again, “I bought this in Paris.” I was tempted to swat at him. Get away from my memory.   

In a Paris flea market with dozens of stalls, a silver-plated ring with a deep, elongated up-and-down swirl seemed to whisper to me. I tried it on. It slid onto my finger with ease and nestled there with just the right tightness. “You are meant to be mine,” I whispered back. A cheap trinket. I loved it. 

I wore it all the time until it disappeared in my mother’s apartment where she lived after my father died. I removed my prized ring and placed it on the kitchen counter by the sink when I washed dinner dishes one evening. I forgot I had taken it off until the next morning. When I checked the counter, it was not there. I searched thoroughly the whole apartment, inside trash and garbage cans, under furniture, in drawers. Nothing. I searched the apartment again a few years later when I was clearing out my mother’s belongings after she died. Nothing. I have wondered if she found it, if it whispered to her, too, and so she took it with her to heaven. I like that idea. 

Jardin du Luxembourg, 1988

I once stayed at an old hotel, L’Odéon, in the sixth arrondissement. Every morning early, I arose and took a walk several blocks to Luxembourg Gardens. I loved the morning walks. Unlike New York City, Paris is, indeed, a city that sleeps, and it awakens slowly, yawning, stretching, getting ready for the day. Few cars, buses or taxis around at this hour. Clear and clean, the sound of high heels clicking on cobblestones. Public workers in orange uniforms hosing down the streets. Cafe waiters in white aprons chatting with each other, their voices echoing in the empty street as they put out wicker chairs and arrange small marble top tables that have been locked together for safekeeping overnight.  

I took a different route to and from the gardens each day. The neighbourhood, St. Germain, was not familiar to me  – I was afraid I would get lost. I took in the right pocket of my rain jacket a page from one of the hotel’s notepads, the name and address elegantly printed in script across the top. I was comforted knowing that I could stop one of my fellow early risers, point at the paper, shrug and ask for directions. I never got lost. 

Still inside the right pocket of the jacket is that page from the notepad. I forget the page is there until I thrust my hand into the pocket. Without taking it out, I feel the paper’s soft, curling corners. Then I remember.   

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

Originally from South Carolina, Peggy has lived in Nashville, Tennessee, for over forty years. Her travels to Paris began when her sister and brother-in-law moved there in 1987. After retiring from her career in fund-raising at Vanderbilt University, she started to write for pleasure and enjoys being a member of two women’s writing groups. She also has rekindled a childhood love of the ukulele. She performs solo and with others. Her favorite performance song? “Angel From Montgomery” by another Nashvillian, the late John Prine.

The Louvre Pyramid, 1991

Lead photo credit : In front of the Centre Pompidou in 1988

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