One of my favourite memories from my last visit to Paris is sitting on the steps across from Notre Dame with my Mum.
It was autumn, so we were wrapped up in coats and scarves. We were admiring the cathedral’s intricate gothic architecture, listening to the sounds of a choir escaping the doors, and eating giant, fluffy, meringues from a patisserie down the street.
We’d already passed someone blowing giant bubbles for children to play in by the Hotel de Ville, and seen an accordionist jauntily playing a tune on the bridge to the Ile Saint-Louis. After Notre Dame, we wandered over to Shakespeare and Company – my first visit to the famed bookshop on the Left Bank – and explored its narrow nooks and crannies. (There was a sign saying no photos, but my Mum snapped one of me at the vintage typewriter anyway.) We sat on a restaurant terrace for dinner that night, under outdoor heaters by the Seine, with a glass of wine each and little bits of bread and ham to snack on.
There’s something about Paris that’s magical, but it can be hard to pin down exactly what that “something” is.
I loved Paris long before I ever set foot in the city, although I’m not sure where my obsession came from. At eight years old, we were given our first “personal project” to complete in primary school, where we had to choose a topic to research, and put together a booklet about it. I was adamant I wanted to do mine on Paris, but my teacher explained the topic was too narrow; reluctantly I widened my scope to France. It would be another eight years before I’d see Paris for myself for the first time, on a family summer holiday.
I remember it being hot and sunny every day. I can remember standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe and looking down the long stretch of the Champs-Elysees. I remember seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but being more impressed by the Impressionist paintings in the Musee D’Orsay. We went to Versailles – the gardens are more clear in my memory than the palace itself – and up to the Moulin Rouge and Montmartre. Notre Dame quickly became my favourite building, and remains so now (although the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican gives it a run for its money these days)
I was 16 and enamoured with the shops, impressed with how stylish the Parisian women and clothes were. I bought French copies of Elle and Vogue from one of those round newspaper stands on the street, and invested in a pair of black ballerina pumps, a red beret, and a grey blazer, trying to emulate that effortless style.
It was only two years later that I returned to Paris, this time with my French class.
We stayed in a tiny old-school hotel set on a narrow street somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd arrondissements, and I remember eating my first rare steak in a cosy restaurant on a steep street in Montmartre (I ate snails that night too, for the first and last time). We each had a glass of red wine, although we weren’t really meant to be drinking at all, what with it being a school trip. Back then, I thought I would live in Paris; I had already applied to study International Relations and French at university, and when we walked past the Sorbonne one crisp, cold January morning, I could envision myself hurrying to classes with the other students.
I regret to say, though, that I forgot about Paris not long after that. At university in St Andrews, I gave up French to focus on politics, and with that, my dreams of studying in Paris were gone, too. I ended up in the USA, then China, and fell head over heels for New York City, an all-consuming obsession that left no room for any other destination. Another eight years would pass before I found myself back in Paris, on that autumn weekend away with my Mum.
That weekend away in Paris remains one of my favourite holidays.
Not only because it was a once-in-a-lifetime luxury experience that I will never be able to recreate – we stayed in a suite at the Raffles! – and because my Mum and I make excellent travel companions (we both agree you can never stop for cake too many times), but because it reminded me of how much I have always adored Paris.
I adore the architecture and the art. The narrow streets and instantly-recognizable blue street signs. Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe. The bread and the cheese and the macarons. The book stalls by the Seine. The Seine itself. The Eiffel Tower, recognizable from anywhere. The simple magic of walking down an elegant avenue that looks exactly like all your childhood dreams of Paris told you it would.
That visit reminded me that no matter how long you’ve been away, or how many times you’ve been before, the old saying is right: Paris is always a good idea. Which is why, of course, I’m going back…!