Through a cloud of Gauloises smoke, four men silently watched me as I made my way through the empty cafe to a table by the window. The waitress threw down a menu and stood, one hip cocked, impatiently waiting for my order.
I nervously scanned the handwritten menu, looking for anything familiar.
“Jambon,” I stammered, my brain registering a flicker of recognition from a long-since-forgotten French class. “Jambon, s’il vous plait,” I ventured. The waitress sauntered off, and within minutes, served me what was to be my plat du jour, for every “jour” that week. A ham sandwich.
Oh, and did I mention, I hate ham?
It all began with a crumpled sheet of instructions and an invitation. I was 19 and going to live abroad for the first time — and not just anywhere, but in Paris. The city of love and culture, of Yves Saint Laurent, Gertrude Stein and the Louvre. It was about as far away from my tiny village in Ireland as I could imagine. I dreamed of strolling along the Seine, having intense conversations with moody young Frenchmen named Pierre. Of leaving red lipstick stains on wine glasses and casually extinguishing cigarette butts on coffee saucers while listening to lovers quarrel on cafe verandas. In short, I’d watched far too many French films. It was going to be exactly like that, right?
Pretty soon it was clear that my journey from sheltered Irish country girl to French temptress would have a long way to go. Step one was just to make it out of the airport.
To say I was an unseasoned traveler was an understatement. In fact, this was only my third time out of Ireland. But I had always dreamed of traveling the world, and so when a model scout had come to Dublin three weeks previously and offered me a contract, I jumped at the chance. At the time, I was a first-year theater student, and modeled on the side for extra spending money. And now here I was, lost in the vast expanse of Charles de Gaulle airport, my excitement quickly turning to anxiety.
After circling the concourse multiple times, I approached an official-looking woman and asked for directions to the bus station. She rattled off instructions in French and eventually noticing my blank stare, briskly marched me to an exit. It took me forever to find the right bus, but somehow, an hour later, I found myself ringing the doorbell of the Ford Models agency.
My first month was much harder than I expected. The constant stream of rejection from castings started to wear me down. I got lost constantly. No one understood my halting, embarrassing attempts at speaking French. The beautiful apartment the agency had placed me in was owned and occupied by a rather creepy Portuguese man, who was far too eager to befriend his young tenants. I would sneak in at the end of a long day’s work, feet blistered, and try to make it into my room before he could insist I join him and his friends for dinner.
As usual, things never turn out quite the way we expect. One autumn morning, racked with homesickness, I strolled toward Les Halles and stood in the shadow of the St.-Eustache church. I turned, and a familiar name caught my eye: Quigley’s Point — an Irish pub! As the door swung open, a chorus of shouts and laughter enveloped me and lured me inside. My total immersion in French culture could start again tomorrow, but right now ordering a beer and a packet of crisps was just what I needed.
It was the voice that I first noticed. The thick Mayo brogue and quick laugh. He was standing to my right, and he had kind eyes and punky, bleached-blonde hair. He wasn’t the moody Pierre of my fantasies, but at least we could talk to each other. He had been living in Paris for four years and spoke fluent French, so there was that at least. He encouraged me to get away from my landlord, and soon I found my own place in the Marais with an Australian girl.
After six months, my French improved to the point that Parisian shopkeepers stopped pretending they didn’t speak English; content that I had made a good enough effort in their own language, they would speak to me in mine, no matter how much I persisted in French. I found a hidden spot on the Île de la Cité where I would pass hours on weekend mornings reading and watching people stroll along the banks of the Seine. I walked through the halls of the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou and Musée Rodin in awe. My modeling work had finally picked up. I was growing up and learning about the world.
There is a moment in your story when you can pinpoint the exact time you fell in love, be it with a place or a person. I can remember both like it was yesterday. I had just left a casting where I had, again, been humiliatingly rejected in front of 20 of my peers. Choking back tears I had rushed out of the building and ran to a nearby park hoping to find a secluded spot. My eyes burning, willing myself to get it together, I looked up to the sky hoping for some divine comfort and suddenly everything stopped.
I realized I was surrounded by the most beautiful square, Place des Vosges. With its rose-hued walls, the square softly glowed in the sunlight and radiated calm and beauty. My sobs subsided, and I was hit with the most over powering sense of gratitude. I forgot about the casting director who had just reduced me to nothing. I wasn’t nothing. I was a young Irish woman, and I was here, realizing a dream and living in the most beautiful city in the world.
My parallel love story — the one with my Irish boyfriend — was solidified one night with a dreamy kiss outside the Panthéon. I was madly in love with a man and a city, both inextricably intertwined. My boyfriend, however, had itchy feet. He longed to be somewhere quiet and rural. I followed him to the Alps, but I soon felt caged in by the mountains and the trees. I wanted loud markets, bustling streets. We argued and argued, one person’s dreams tugging against the other’s.
I headed back to Paris. He stayed in the mountains. Eventually, though, I would move on — to London, New York, Los Angeles and then Glasgow, each with their own magic and beauty.
But on certain sunny days, I am always brought back to my bench in Place des Vosges, and my heart swells for a beat. It’s true, you never forget your first love, and, for me, that will always be Paris. [Source]
Tags: caitriona balfe
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