It was 1973 and my parents were in Paris. I was left at home with my older siblings and coincidentally, a French housekeeper. The plan was that while Dad would attend meetings during the day Mum would go sightseeing. They’d meet up at night in some little bistro and share their news over a romantic dinner. On the first day Dad gave Mum 100 Francs to spend, a fortune in those days. Given she was a French teacher she would have had no worries about speaking the language and being understood. I went to Paris for the first time 35 years later. Unlike my mother I speak no French at all. I had to rely on my husband Kim, who luckily for me can speak the language well.
I adored Paris. It was everything I expected it to be and more. The sights, the people and the food were exactly as I had hoped. We stayed in a tiny room in the 5th arrondissement with a bathroom so small you had to go outside to get from the shower to the toilet. Nonetheless, we loved it. We were a stone’s throw from Rue Mouffetard and most of the major sights were in walking distance. We strolled to the Louvre and giggled at the sight of a crocodile of handholding kindergarten children solemnly listening as their teacher explained the Kandinskys. Another day we wandered up the Seine and entered Notre Dame Cathedral. We were silenced by the glorious sounds coming from the choir locked in an intense practice session and trembled as their voices rose to mingle with the glorious stained glass panels on the back wall. On a cold bright spring day we sat in a park on the aptly named Bourgeois Street and watched as shivering African nannies supervised tastefully dressed blonde toddlers as they played in a sandpit.
At the end of every day we explored the boulangeries, cafes and bistros along Rue Mouffetard. We stood with our noses pressed up to the glass, gawping at the cascade of chocolate in one window, the wall of cheese in another and the hundreds and hundreds of different types of salads, sausages and scintillating meats on display. All around us thin, elegantly attired Parisian women glided by with breadsticks tucked under one arm and Foucault under the other, managing to look both fragile and tough at the same time.
When my father came back to the hotel to change for dinner, he found my mother sitting exactly where he had left her. On the bed beside her was the 100 Franc note, intact. She had sat in the hotel room the whole day, too afraid to go out in case she made a mistake when she spoke French. I don’t trust easily either, and it was difficult and frightening to always have to ask Kim to translate for me. Translate he did though, and I learnt that having the courage to trust yourself and others opens up the world.