My first visit to Paris was a remarkable experience, which I will never forget. I booked the Dover-Calais ferry and drove with my wife from London in the cold Christmas weather. We intended to stay until the New Year in a hotel located in a suburb of Paris and visit the city every day.
It was a great feeling to arrive in Paris and see the city of light – a modern city with a very deep sense of history. I will never forget when I first drove through, passing the canals and seeing the monuments. It was like a huge open-air museum. It was love at first sight.
It was dark in the evening, Christmas lights illuminating the whole city. It was bright, almost like daytime. The streets were very busy, full of shoppers marching from one shop to another. I was fascinated seeing The Palais Garnier, which is the Paris Opera House. I parked my car in a small one way street nearby. When we reached the main road, there was an underground station with a big, lit-up sign displaying the word ‘Métropolitain’. I did not make note of the road name, as I thought that the name of the station would be sufficient for finding my car again. We visited the Opera house and walked towards Place de la Concorde. We then walked back to find our car. I located what looked like exactly the same ‘Métropolitain’ sign that I had noted in my head, but it was not the right street.
I became anxious and confused. I approached people who were passing by. Some just ignored me. I told a French man in English that we were looking for ‘Métropolitain’ station. He pointed towards the station. I asked an American couple who were tourists. The guy said, ‘why don’t you go inside the station and find out?’ I approached the woman behind the counter and asked her the same question. She said, “c’ est Métropolitain”. I repeated, “but this is not the same.” She laughed, “Tous sont métros de Paris, ils sont tous le Métropolitain.” She continued in broken English, “All … Métropolitain.”
I finally realised my mistake and understood that the ‘Métropolitain’ sign was the symbol for all metro stations in Paris, not the name of one station! This was just the beginning of our nightmare. How were we going to find the car? It took us nearly over two hours walking through many streets that all looked the same. I wondered whether to call the police. It was a miracle that I finally managed to find my car.
It was late in the evening and we were hungry. We decided to eat in a recommended Lebanese restaurant in a street very close to the Champs-Élysées. We parked close by, so that I could watch my car easily. Every now and then I looked through the window. Suddenly I saw a car at the top of the road shaking back and forth. It was stationary, but was moving up and down. After a minute or so, I saw the car in the front come out and leave. The waiter saw my astonishment and said, ”The cars in Paris are parked bumper to bumper – it’s difficult to park, and impossible to leave.”
We were staying in Épinay-sur-Seine in the north of Paris, 11.3 km from the city centre. The next morning, we walked around the small town. It was Christmas and all the shops were closed. We were happy with our hotel, but we decided to check the prices of other local hotels. I saw a very nice building marked ‘Hotel de Ville’. I approached the building, but the door was closed. After a few minutes a man opened a window. I asked him, “how much is it per night?”. He replied, ”Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?” I repeated my question. He simply said, ”Il est fermé”. I could not understand him. I asked him again, “I just want to know the prices”. He shouted, ”Il est Noël. Le bureau est fermé” and closed the window. We wondered what kind of hotel this was and left.
When we were in the centre of Paris, I saw another Hotel de Ville. It was a magnificent large building that looked like a palace. I suggested to my wife that it was possibly a five-star branch of the same hotel. It was only when I visited the tourist office to get directions to various sightseeing places that I found out the Hotel de Ville is actually the city’s municipal office!
We stayed in Paris for ten days and had a fantastic time. I loved everything about this romantic city and vowed to never hesitate to come back to experience it again and again. But I promised myself that I would learn the language!
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Ditching my crushed velvet tracksuit for a hat, coat, and bag, I zip out the door. You see, last week, over whisky glasses at the Café Saint-Jean in Abbesses, I had shared with Brigitte a tangled skein of a tale. Recently found in a 1922 newspaper at one of the bouquinistes down by the river, I had not been able to stop thinking about it.
As the story went, a young woman took a taxi from Place Pigalle to the Pont Neuf. Arriving at the bridge a bumpy ride later, she handed the driver a five-franc note, climbed up onto one of its nook-like bastions, and tumbled over the parapet. Her body wasn’t recovered until later that evening, some distance downstream.
According to the newspaper, Alice was a seamstress, still sharing a flat with her parents in Montmartre. She had recently fallen head over heels for a pearl dealer from Sri Lanka, but unfortunately her Prince Charming turned out to be not all that charming. He had fled France just before tying the nuptial knot. But had she jumped, or merely slipped? Perhaps it wasn’t so cut-and-dried. Perhaps Brigitte had found a clue.
At the Pont Neuf, she’s easy to spot, enjoying an Instagram moment with King Henri IV. With her teased updo, Brigitte looks rather like a 1960s pop-rock siren, garbed in a coat torn at the shoulder, most likely during a recent shimmy up the rigging of the little schooner she keeps parked at the Bastille marina, her home away from home.
“Affronte ta peur!” she often tells me.
After exchanging kisses, we commandeer one of the bridge’s coveted bastions, and look over the edge.
“Listen, I’m not so sure the broken engagement pushed Alice to the end of her rope. I think maybe that’s a red herring,” Brigitte says. “Or perhaps a golden fish. It’s just barely within the realm of possibility, see, that she was on another mission entirely when she took her unexpected fall.”
Gripping the balustrade, she gives me the lowdown.
Apparently, during the final weeks leading up to Alice’s fatal plunge, a heat wave had plagued Paris. To make matters worse, pet fish had started perishing at an alarming rate – certainly enough of them to make the papers, anyway.
“Paris Mourns Its Goldfish!” read the headlines. Aquariums everywhere had begun sporting ribbons of mourning black after their little gilded denizens had been found floating belly up.
Luckily, it didn’t take long to trace the fish death epidemic back to the water supply. Fearing contamination in the cholera-inducing weather, the city had added a new disinfectant to the reservoirs, “which, excellent as it may be for human consumers, spells disaster to the little fishes, because it renders the water too chemically pure”. Not that bad water would have affected very many people back then, since wine was typically the choice of beverage instead: it was much safer to drink.
Brigitte pulls the newspaper out of her bag and begins to read. “Many a glass bowl today stands empty. Owners of surviving goldfish are being advised to fill their bowls with dirty river water, which is not very easy for inhabitants of Montmartre and other parts of the city far from the Seine.”
I remove my sunglasses.
For the love of her own goldfish friend, could this be the real reason why Alice came down to the river that fateful day? Was it losing her jewel-dealing beau – or trying to save her little living jewel – that had led to her desolate demise?
Of course, we’ll never really know for certain. However, after Brigitte surprises me with a thermos of vin chaud, hauled all the way down from Montmartre along with two thimble-like cups, I can’t help but feel beyond buoyed by the sheer power of friendship.
With our thimbles in the air, we salute big-hearted Alice. May the fish be with you!
From France Today magazine
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After 10 years at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Theadora moved to Montmartre in 2003 to write for the travel website Eurocheapo.com. She founded her own blog, "People, Places and Bling: Theadora's Field Guide to Shopping in Paris."