I spent last Sunday at my sister’s house, in the suburban fringes of post-lockdown Melbourne. A week prior, her’s was a forbidden territory for me and now I could travel to see her at my liberty. Such are the times. Coming in and out of lockdowns and the prospect of a family gathering is always highly-anticipated, but once amongst my family members en masse, in real life, it has also felt overwhelming. Spending so much time alone will do this to a person, I suppose. This year, my sister was able to celebrate the birthday that she last year couldn’t … she was fortunate to find herself on the right side of lockdown 4.9999.
As I nestled into her extremely comfortable couch with my dad and brother, in part cake-stupor, part introvert-paralysis, we observed the changing screensaver images on the giant television. We established Siddhartha was the photographer’s name and not the name of the dense city that panned the screen. We pondered over intricate and multi-coloured waves of sand in a desert and how the photographer may have captured these from a cave. Clever guy. The conversation was not without tongues firmly in cheek, but when the screen filled with latticed steel, captured in such a way as to obscure the eventual form it created, we all turned our heads from side to side, trying to gauge this abstraction.
‘Is that the Eiffel Tower?’, my brother said at last. Slow, foggy brains soon began to grasp that the steely illusion before us was, indeed, the Eiffel Tower.
Stories followed about experiences at the Eiffel Tower, why it was built and how it had endured. I found my voice as I recalled the times I’d been, experiences from distinct seasons of my life. It’s absurd to think that at this steel structure thousands of marriage proposals have taken place, exuberant school groups from all of the world have crammed into its lifts and millions have waited an average time of 1.5 hours to ascend to its narrow heights. Along with its steel counterparts, the Empire State Building and Wrest Point Casino in Hobart (if you are to believe a sign at Hobart Airport comparing the three ‘greats’), it has no doubt bared witness to a wide array of strange human behaviour. I hear the Eiffel Tower is soon to reopen after an extensive lockdown period, ready to bless future nuptials with its graceful lines and shadows and be trodden on by many a beret-headed étranger with multiple cameras at the ready.
In my cosy new Lady Pad (yes, for the family and friends following along, ’tis true. More about that in another post) I have dug up my Tour Eiffel pics for some fantasy travel and because, well, I’m missing travel and that feeling of connection to the world, a whole lot.
My backpacker year. I worked full-time (and then some) shifts at a bookshop in the dungeon of a Melbourne shopping centre, begged and borrowed where I could and, then, with my dear friend P, bought round-world tickets for an epic adventure. I remember not feeling terribly excited about France. One side of my family is largely French and having grown-up with the language, thought it wouldn’t feel terribly exotic. I was so wrong. France surprised me in many a bewitching way. It also taught me early in my travel life to have my wits about me. The language that I had absorbed all those years through osmosis came in very handy, but what didn’t were all of the padlocks I’d been told to buy for my backpack and daypack. There were so many padlocks that even without possession of a bumbag and cargo pants, I was a tourist target.
At Tuilieries metro station, I made the fatal error of un-padlocking my high-adventure daypack to remove the very silly money-belt that I’d thrown into my bag at the previous stop, in full view of all. I bought a ticket, threw the belt back in my bag and zipped it up again, noticing a peculiar young guy with a broad-rimmed hat following closely behind me as I went through the gate. It was only when on the train and drawing my bag around to my front that I noticed it wide open, money belt nowhere to be seen. We got off at the next stop and caught a train back to Tuileries. While P tried to call the embassy, I began rummaging through bins, panicked, crying and feeling so little very suddenly. I found the belt in one of those bins. The young fingersmith had taken my Australian dollars, but left my passport and bank cards. I thanked Sacre Coeur that he wasn’t a better thief and that night P and I treated ourselves to moules-frites and a movie to calm the nerves. The city of lights had given this green international traveller a serve and I, in turn, was not only won over by her undeniable beauty and soul, but humbled and sufficiently schooled. There were no more padlocks after that.
Our day at the Eiffel Tower was a gorgeously sunny one. We decided to skip the 2-hour queue and climb instead, which seemed a good idea given it was cheaper and significantly faster. But when I embarked on the climb and looked above and below as I gradually ascended, I quivered inside. The height was one thing, but being encaged within the steel and with full visibility in and around its ‘see-through’ steps, I felt the onset of vertigo that lasted for a good couple of hours. I can’t remember if I cried; I probably did.
The sense of accomplishment once we reached the second stage and got the lift to the third (the only way to get to the third, thank god), helped me to feel better about life. When we came back down to earth and lay our weary bodies upon the grass of the Champ de Mars, a senility kicked in. Poor P. Hopefully she’s forgotten about all that. My lasting memory of this Eiffel Tower day, apart from the vertigo, was from when we walked back to the metro station along the fence line of the Champ de Mars. In the bushes behind the fence, I spotted an odd man in a trench coat, perfectly placed with the Eiffel Tower as his background. He revealed himself while laughing like a hyena, an image of phallic failure forever burned into my brain.
Five years later I returned to Paris in its burgeoning springtime, married and with a proper day job to support my travel habit. Paris was to be the tres romantique experience I had dreamt about since 2002. I can’t recall if it really was, but I know the Paris I had overhyped to my young husband disappointed him greatly, at least at first. A Melbournite who had lived in spacious comfort all of his life, he scoffed at the size of our hotel room, the bed, the wallpaper, the dodgy train ride in from Gare du Nord … at everything. I almost gave up and left him at our Left Bank hotel, but instead I opened the windows and urged him to look out. He was reluctant, so I then ordered him to dress and not lie down for a nap as he’d intended. After some protestation he conceded. We walked out of our hotel, down Boulevard Saint-Germain, across Pont Neuf, past the Louvre and into the Tuilieries gardens, where I bought him a vanilla bean ice-cream and pour moi, a crepe. Paris had silenced him with her magnificence and I felt mildly vindicated. We walked everywhere on each of those Paris days for hours on end, sampling and breathing in Paris life, me feeling oh-so-adult with a leather backpack this time. I remember this trip to Paris with one particular fondness – the-then husband attempting to say ‘Excusez-moi’ (excuse me) everywhere we went and managing an ‘Excuse me-wah’ every, single time. It was hard not to laugh, especially on one morning in the tiny and painfully silent breakfast room. He had decided he wanted honey on his bread, so stood up abruptly, collecting the table cloth with him. The clanking of porcelain was followed by his yelling out of ‘Excuse me-wah’, from where he was bound. The breakfast lady had no idea what he was saying and our fellow diners bore their gazes into us both. I’d like to think they too, wanted honey, but didn’t have the chutzpah to ask. On checking out I remember the Brazilian-French concierge telling us he would like to come to Australia one day, because he believed it had beautiful beaches and was ‘the land of pale nipples’. Before the husband could process this and conclude Paris was overwhelmingly ‘too hard’, I pushed him out onto the street.
The last time I was in Paris. It feels just like yesterday, this one. I had been living in Europe, beautiful wintery Sweden, to be exact. After an unforeseen break-up and a few shaky nights in London after my departure from Malmö, I found my feet in the home of beautiful friends in Wiltshire, where I recuperated and worked for a while. When I felt strong enough to plan my eventual return home to Australia, I decided to do so with some travel along the way. I said yes to a friend who was celebrating her 30th birthday in Paris, and for the third time in my life I took the Eurostar across to France and into Paris, this time alone, but with a growing confidence in my newfound independence. I’d had my hair done in Wimbledon and an outfit ready for dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant on the second stage of the Eiffel Tower. It was to be a special and luxurious few days.
Dinner was the exquisite experience I had expected. There were four of us ladies, one who had flown to Paris from Melbourne for the occasion, another joining us from The Hague and, of course, the birthday girl, a statuesque blond beauty who had been travelling solo around Europe and India for several months. The conversation was loud and lively, the birthday girl even more exuberant and flirtatious than normal. I loosened up gradually, enjoying the company of confident and accomplished women in a magical place. It was a true ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. We left and wandered out into a nearby square, where we were approached by two lovely ‘French’ men. They focussed their attention on me, however, and this didn’t go down well with the birthday girl. After lifting the veil on their ‘French’ accents and discovering they were London lads, I had a chuckle with them and explained that as charming as they were, I was there to celebrate my friend. ‘Tomorrow then?’, one asked me, to which our birthday girl replied, ‘if you want a real woman, I’m right here’. I managed to enjoy the rest of our high adventures in the city after that night: an afternoon tea at Angelina, some shopping at Galleries Lafayette, taking in the temporary exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. But alas, the birthday girl and I drifted from each other not long after our sojourn.
Ten years on, I naively hope that 2022 will be the year I return to Paris, this time with Little G, who is fascinated by the Eiffel Tower and is in constant discussion with his imaginary friend, Pierre. G speaks to me of collecting Pierre from his apartment and driving him to a cafe near the Eiffel Tower, where we will dine on crepes and sip hot chocolates. Perhaps we will, this time in the sparkly summertime Paris of my first trip, a few backpacks and life cycles behind me and a new season of travel and life to embark on.