Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A little dreaming

Here I am, sitting in a windy summer garden to begin my blog post to you and I am loving it. Despite growing up in Wellington where one is fully entitled to become thoroughly sick of the wind, the rustling leaves around me are a welcome respite from the intense heat of today. (Actually it reminds me of a chapter from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in which a village is plagued by incessant winds for years. I remember thinking how this seemed, like the other scenes in the book, to be magical and enchanting ... only be caught in one of Wellington's chilly gusts and recant my earlier observation immediately. But maybe I was too quick to do so ...)

We are in Montpellier, in the south of France. The heat surrounds us like disappointment or excitement might, completely and insistently. It reminds us both of Seville and while we moan about it now and then, it is refreshing in its own way. And with the beach nearby and the infectious festive spirit pervading the city, it seems silly to take a few sweat patches too seriously. Also of course there is the mere fact of being in the south of France - the subject of so many trashy books, celebrity gossip columns and retirement dreams. More importantly (and appealingly), my dreams.

Before we came here another of my dreams came true - Paris. (Paris, Je t'aime. "Sitting in a park in Paris, France/Reading the news and it sure looks bad" - Joni Mitchell, all time favourite. And all those high school French classes, of course.) We took a spontaneous trip with our friend in Reims, whose brother lives there - or more precisely in Clichy, which is technically just outside of Paris but still along one of the main metro lines. In the end we stayed seven days and we loved it.

First and in a blindingly obvious way we headed to the Eiffel Tower. Less cliched was that we took a bike ride in the wee hours of the morning and arrived in time to see the city's icon transform from a dark shadow into the postcard version of itself as the sun rose. This meant we had one of the world's most popular tourist attractions all to ourselves and I had plenty of time and space to marvel at just being there. (Also to take about 150 photos, many of which unsurprisingly turned out to look pretty similar.)

While in Paris we saw most of the other tourist attractions I had read about during French class ... The Sacre Coeur, a magnificent cathedral overlooking the city from the charming Montmatre neighbourhood. The Louvre, complete with its late addition controversial glass pyramids and its overwhelming collection of art. This included, of course, the secretive Mona Lisa, who I believe is done great justice to by Nat King Cole. It is also, as rumour has it, both small and mostly obscured by the protective glass (uncommon in the rest of the museum) and hordes of tourists in front of it. The Notre Dame, where mass was held amidst the teeming visitors armed with digital cameras. The expansive, expensive Champs Elysee, flanked by springtime green trees leading to the Arc de Triomphe, weirdly marooned in the middle of a frightening round-about - a beacon of history among the most modern vehicles money can buy. Finally, on our last day, Hotel des Invalides, an incredible museum where World Wars One and Two come alive and Napoleon's remains lie buried in an enormous tomb.

That's the postcard stuff (funnily enough we didn't end up buying any postcards ... sorry everyone!). I found it all very exciting, but looking back it is the less generic experiences that remind me that yes, I was in Paris. On our third day we found ourselves in the rain at 7.30am, not knowing where or if we would be staying that night. Hauling our enormous, increasingly wet bags around, we found a small bar that was open, apparently for the benefit of a few early morning beer drinkers, and ordered some much needed coffee. Subsequently we spent three hours in the nearby McDonalds, taking advantage of their wifi and looking for a way to stay just a few more days. In the end a friend of a friend came through and we were able to spend another few nights with them, right in the 10th district, just a few strides away from the Sacre Coeur! Well I've never been so happy just to have accommodation, to be honest.

In fact it rained nearly the entire time we were there. One afternoon I was caught on the Pont Neuf (walking across the Seine from the Notre Dame to the Louvre) in a huge downpour, thunder bellowing behind me and my umbrella refusing to behave. I rushed to the safety of the metro station only to find that the hordes of people and my relative unfamiliarity with the metro lines was just about equivalent to or maybe worse than being harassed by the storm.

I had just come from Shakespeare & Co, an English language book shop and library/reading room in the heart of Paris, which used to be frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and was used as an office by James Joyce (in fact, the original owner, Sylvia Beach, was first to publish Ulysses). Apparently many of the staff currently employed are also aspiring writers. Its collection of books was truly impressive, and the reading room upstairs has a certain magic to it - the ghosts of many writers and dreams and ideas lurking amidst so many old, dusty editions. Outside a fiddler's busking also seemed to echo another time. Frankly though, like many famous places in Paris (including those listed above), the place's charm was a little obscured by the number of tourists, and the jostling and loud voices that must follow from such a large number of people wanting to see or experience the same thing at the same time.

In the evening however I arrived early enough to get a seat in the tiny reading room to hear Debra Sparks give a lecture entitled "Where Do Stories Comes From?". For an hour or so I felt transported into the role of "writer moves to Paris to work on novel by a small window overlooking the Seine, smoking cigarettes and occasionally walking down the street to buy a baguette or to meet with other expat writers to discuss the newest chapter". I took some notes, stayed quiet when it came to question time so as not to interrupt the stream of "questions" beginning with "well I have this manuscript ...", and because the books were outlandishly expensive, bought a book bag when it came time to leave to remind me of my Parisian writer's reverie.

(As a side note, I made another two unsuccessful trips to other English language bookshops renowned for their selection of books and tea, which had sadly both closed. Happily though there is a cafe/English language bookshop here in Montpellier called Le Bookshop, which I like very much despite the fact that they didn't give me a job when I asked for one ...)

Probably my favourite parts of Paris were the most ordinary - walking the hilly, cobbled streets of Montmatre, drinking coffee from wobbly tables on the pavement and stopping to buy fruit on the way back to the apartment. Also - as strange as it may seem - eating at the lovely Thai restaurant just around the corner recommended to us by our hosts. It's funny what can make you feel like a local sometimes.

And now we find ourselves in Montpellier. A warm city close to the beach, full of cafes and plazas and a Mediterranean feel. And, it must also be mentioned, an inordinate amount of beggars sitting on street corners and hassling people at tram-ticket machines, as well as seemingly perfectly well-off strangers who ask for cigarettes (I have a very low tolerance for this). We spent a few days staying in a tiny apartment with another friend M met in New York, and then moved on again to a big house with a lovely garden, an adorable geriatric little dog and a cast of eccentric characters. We spent ten days there taking regular trips to the beach and lolling on the shady terrace, acclimatising to the immense heat. During our evening forays into the city centre we saw people playing music and dancing in the street - once for the nation-wide Fete de la Musique and once for no apparent reason except it was Saturday (and a few hen's parties converging out of happy coincidence). We have now settled for the next few weeks in an apartment on a charming and busy street, so stayed tuned ...

With love as always, Z.