I saw Paris for the first time the way a lot of people do, in a photograph. Quintessential Paris in an 8 x 10 frame.
As I grew older, I thought it no coincidence that I had developed an appetite for croissants, relished the scent of lavender and preferred stripes over solids. I had amassed a collection of scarves so vast they barely fit in my petite apartment, and my shelves were adorned with books about Parisian style and French fashion.
But I was nearing my thirtieth birthday and had still not visited Paris. And while I don’t know where the hysteria behind turning thirty comes from, I can attest that the panic is real and that I was no exception. Turning thirty is a lot like New Years’ Eve – an event filled with great expectation with a belief that the outcome somehow predicts the rest of the year or in my case, the next ten. With the next phase of my life on the horizon, I had two choices: I could stay home wishing that I was in Paris, like I had done every other year, or I could wake-up in Paris when that fateful September day arrived.
I spent the next six months saving; settling into life on a snug a budget. I reasoned that the finale would justify the sting that accompanied passing by my favourite shops which had once been a regular stop on my way home from work.
When September had finally arrived, I was happy to bid farewell to my self-inflicted restraint. I printed my ticket, gripped my passport and prepared for the seven hour journey.
My hotel was located in the sixteenth arrondissement and as I left the Metro station, I was enchanted by the cafes and bistros that dotted Avenue Victor-Hugo. It was three in the afternoon and each eatery was filled with the melodic sound of Parisian banter, accompanied by bouts of laughter and clinking glasses.
My room was “cozy”; Cherry mahogany furniture and a bathroom with just enough space to fit a toilet and shower. By the time I had unpacked, dusk had fallen and I ventured back down Victor Hugo in search of the Eiffel Tower. When my peaceful walk was interrupted by hoards of people drifting in the same direction, I knew I was getting close.
Although I had seen the Eiffel Tower many times before in pictures, its grandeur was palpable and I was overwhelmed by emotion as I approached it. This iconic landmark represented style, indulgence, luxury and class. I sat on the steps of the Trocadéro and watched it sparkle. As it grew later, I headed back to my hotel, tiptoeing past a picnic blanket of people surrounded by candles, sharing a bottle of champagne and a baguette. I gazed at a couple dancing; their figures so dark I could only see their outlines glimmering against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. Entranced, I nearly collided with a man wearing a tuxedo riding a bicycle. If heaven is a place on Earth, I’d found it.
I spent the next several days roaming the streets and exploring the city. I became fascinated by how at-ease French women are with red lips, even in the morning. I studied a woman on the train wearing a weathered cotton t-shirt, an unkempt bun and bright red perfectly painted lips. The equation was wrong by many fashion standards, but somehow it worked. I indulged in every pastry imaginable, and wondered how these women kept such svelte figures, when I was prepared to shop for new pants out of necessity.
Halfway through my week it was official – my thirtieth birthday had arrived. I started thinking about what Paris was like in its thirties – a mecca of jazz, aristocrats and artists; virtually the centre of the universe. Perhaps thirty isn’t such a bad number, I thought. Paris had made it through its thirties still retaining the same allure, and while I may not be able to play jazz or paint a decent picture, with any luck, maybe I could do the same.