I was in Paris many years ago as part of an Inter-rail trip around Europe that I embarked upon myself. Alone. On my tod. I cringe when I think of how naive I was to think I could travel on my own, without mishap, for three weeks, based on the relative success of a single weekend away in London with a friend from college, and an uneventful two weeks in the Canaries with said same friend. I was so unqualified it was pathetic.
I know I spent a night in Paris. Perhaps two – and maybe twice – one day/night each time? I’m not sure. I know I was definitely there though because I walked off an overnight train from somewhere and was half-way up the platform before I realised that my arms were swinging. And they should have been holding the bag that had my passport, my Eurocheques (remember them?), my credit card and my cash.I did what any self-respecting naive innocent abroad would do when her mammy seemed oh so very far away and unable to right her world … I sat down on my rucksack on the platform and cried.
A lovely French woman in her early 30s, whose name I can’t remember, took pity of me. I remember applying the word ‘chic’ to her in my mind and it finally embodying something tangible. She contacted security. They located my stuff. And then she took me home to her flat and let me sleep for a few hours until she had to go to work. She even fed me breakfast.
I know I took a tour. There is no way I wouldn’t have (is there?). But I have zero recollection of seeing the three pillars of Parisian sightseeing: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Elysées . I had thought that when I went back a couple of weeks ago, unchecked memories would come flooding back – but they didn’t. The grave of the unknown soldier that lies under the Arc rang a faint bell, but so faint that it might well have been my next-door neighbour’s phone.
The Eiffel Tower is still standing (even though when it was built in 1859, it wasn’t meant to be permanent). It’s besieged by thousands of tourists who patiently queue to ascend to the top (it’s the most-visited paid monument in the world ~ 6 million a year last count). I didn’t feel the need. Since I discovered that the same chap (Gustav Eiffel) who designed it also designed Nyugati Station in Budapest and the Statue of Liberty’s spine, some of its magic has been diluted along with its exclusivity.
Mind you, its tenacity is admirable – it was to be demolished in 1909 but was saved when some bright spark had the idea of repurposing it as a radio antenna. It was originally intended for Barcelona, in Spain, but the Spanish rejected the plans… that’s a little like some not-so-bright spark in Bloomsbury turning down the US rights to Harry Potter as they didn’t think he’d appeal to Americans (don’t know where I heard that… bloody memory… it’ll come to me). On some days, it’s taller than others, by about 15cm, because of the temperature and the paint that takes to coat it weighs as much as ten elephants. Or so they say. The best view I had of it was at night, from the Trocadero, when its twenty thousand lightbulbs were lit up. Absolutely stunning.
Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 to honour his army, who, the previous year, had been victorious against the Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz. He told them that they would ‘return home through arches of triumph’, but it wasn’t completed till 1836, by which stage Napoleon was dead and the army had presumably already gotten home.
As a structure, it is magnificent, every metre of its 49m x 45m x 22m expanse. For me though it’s the tomb of the unknown soldier buried there in 1920 as a reminder of the 1.5 million French soldiers who died in the Great War – that’s where the poignancy is. Apparently, every day at 6pm since 1923, French veterans and serving soldiers rekindle the flame. I can’t vouch for though but if it does indeed happen, it’s a lovely thought. I’m not in favour of war or fighting of any kind, yet those who have laid down their lives so other can live free deserve to be remembered.
The Arc sits at the top of the Champs-Elysées , the city’s favourite boulevard. Did you know that in Greek mythology, the Champs Elysées are where heroes stay after death? I didn’t, but Napoleon’s choice of location makes sense now. Just under 2 km in length, it’s 70 m wide – and takes a while to cross. It’s really only been back in fashion for about 40-something years, after being resuscitated in the 1980s. Now it’s home to all the biggest, most exclusive brand names in the world. Curiously, apparently none of the many famous painters who ever lived in Paris have painted it, so one has to wonder what the hype is about? Yes, they’re home to the Jardin des Tuilieres and provide a suitable address for many notable buildings but Andrássy in Budapest is longer at 2.3 km even if at its widest (45.5) it doesn’t even come close – and it rates just as high, if not higher, in this mind.
I’m still getting my head around the fact that I have zero recollection of my first foray to Paris, apart from the abiding distaste it left me with. I find it hard to believe that it was so uneventful, so forgettable, that I simply erased the trip from my memory. But going back this time was like going there for the first time – albeit with a lingering sense of deja vu that refused to be pinned down. Would I go back a third time? Definitely. Perhaps it’s a city that matures with age – my age.