Letters from France – Endings and beginnings

Dear Mum,

At the writing workshop last week in Paris, we had a discussion about endings and beginnings. In case you’ve forgotten, my Young Adult manuscript is a mother / daughter dual coming-of-age story set in Paris. The mother is newly separated, the daughter is on the cusp of adulthood, and each of them is leaving something behind to begin the next phase of their lives.

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My last night in Paris felt like an ending of something very special.

I decided to go to a performance of baroque classical and sacred music at a local church. On my walk there, I paused at the end of my lane and looked back at my open window. The window through which I watched my Parisian neighbourhood in all its glorious mundanity. For the first time since I arrived, I felt at home.

View from a Paris laneway towards a building with an open window

Waiting in line to enter the Eglise St-Paul Saint-Louis, I was reminded of the high tolerance of the French to a queue. While US tourists behind me complained loudly, the French just chatted amongst themselves. I have learned to follow their lead.

At weekend markets, I always head for the stall with the longest queue because I know the produce will be good. When it’s my turn at the counter, I know I can take all the time I like to ask questions and make my selection because I have earned the right. I am a different person in France Mum.

The musical performance was entertaining: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played at high speed.

The lead violinist took every opportunity to steal the limelight and work his colleagues to the bone. The result was a case of catch up that didn’t always quite get there. I was concerned for the young cellist who discreetly stretched and twirled his left hand during every brief respite from playing.

But the audience loved it – the return of live performance in France is as welcome as it is in Australia – and the church setting with its towering marble columns, chandeliers and ornate sculptures was almost as baroque as the music.

Afterwards I wandered out into the Rue de Rivoli – it was still bustling at 10pm – and made my way to the bar across the road from my apartment building.

The Royal Turenne is my local.

A flute of champagne sitting on an outdoor table with the insignia RT written on it

On my first night in Paris – could it only have been a week ago? – I foolishly ordered a ‘piscine’ of champagne at this bar. Piscine means swimming pool and I thought I deserved one after a 24 hour flight. I wanted to bathe in that goddamn stuff. What I wasn’t expecting was a vase full of champagne with ice cubes floating in it. Quelle horreur!

This time I didn’t make the same mistake.

I sipped my average-sized coupe of Taittinger and revelled in the late evening dusk of Paris in summer. Above me, suspended between two buildings, was a rising crescent moon. It glowed brighter as the sky deepened to a darker shade of blue.

A crescent moon shines against a deep blue sky between two buildings.

Endings and beginnings mama. We know all about that. This phase of my journey is coming to a close. Tomorrow holds the promise of the unknown. I can hardly wait.

Letter from France – Reflections from a window

A view through a window to an open window

Dear Mum,

It’s been a week since last I wrote. I made new friends at the writers retreat even though I told you I had enough friends and I wouldn’t. You were right yet again.

There were 13 of us from all over the world, 12 women and 1 man.

The standard writing class ratio. Most of them were writing non-fiction. Only two of us were working on fiction and both for a younger audience. There is too much to say about the past 5 days to put in a letter. I’ll tell you the long version next time I visit you and Dad. It’ll be springtime in your rose garden by then. I’ll make a cup of tea and we’ll have a long chat.

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In the meantime, I’ll just say that every one there had an incredible story to tell and a unique voice and that we shared the most intimate, painful, joyful, hilarious moments of our lives. It reinforces my belief that everyone has a story and deserves be heard. Of course not everyone wants to share their story, but for those of who are drawn to the writing life, it’s like oxygen. We need it to make sense of our lives, to understand the world we inhabit, to thrive.

In other news, I have discovered the best boulangerie in my part of the Marais.

The owner of Brigat’ is a friendly, bright-eyed man who slowed down his French for me when I asked him not to speak in English. Then he sped it up, telling me my French was beyond the need to parler lentement. So you understand why I like him mama.

His baguettes are warm when I buy them after my early morning laps of the Place des Vosges. I do a circuit and look down the road to see if his blinds are up or down. The sight of them furling (is that the opposite of unfurling?) makes my heart sing just a little bit.

I carry my baguette under my arm and make my brisk way to chez moi where I set myself up on the desk overlooking the Parisian laneway with beurre de Baratte and – occasionally – jam. But the butter is good enough on its own.

I watch the street wake up through my open window.

In the apartments across the way, blinds come up and French doors open to let in the morning sun. Diagonally across from me lives someone who loves to let in the Paris air as much as I do. Her bed must be directly behind the shuttered window, and when she opens it I can see the shape of her under her doona, raising her knees or turning over.

Sounds a bit voyeuristic, but in a city where I know practically no one, it’s reassuring. Companionable somehow. There she is in her bed, and here I am in mine, sitting up peeling an outrageously expensive Spanish orange. I’ve blanked out the cost of the 8 oranges I bought on my first day in Paris. Back home in the arctic Melbourne winter, excellent oranges were my one consolation and I have got into the habit of eating one to start the day. I counted the days of my Paris sojourn and ordered an orange for each. It had slipped my mind that they were out of season over here. And honestly Mum, I don’t even care about the expense. I’ve got you sitting on my shoulder telling me I deserve it.

When I’m home in my apartment, my main preoccupation is gazing through the window at laneway life.

During working hours there have been roadworks at the far end of the lane. Watching the baby digger zipping up and down, coordinating with the ‘mother ship’, I’ve noticed how this kind of activity involves a lot of standing around by road workers, shouting their two bobs’ worth to the drivers. If there are any tight corners to be negotiated, a small crowd of onlookers gathers to watch the manoeuvres. Once I saw a huge bus do a 20-point turn into a one-way street. Mesmerising.

After work and on weekends, small groups of handsome young men gather in my laneway, drinking coffee and talking animatedly. I don’t know why it heartens me so to see young men having conversations that involve both speaking and listening intently. They may not be discussing Proust but that’s what it looks like from my eyrie. I also love the unselfconscious kissing between these young men. I’ll miss my window onto the world when I leave for Burgundy, but I’m looking forward to my return here in mid-September.

Love Ib x