It’s always difficult returning to Australia after being in Europe because I feel more European than Australian. I spent two weeks in France, mainly in Paris but also in the small village of Vezelay in the rolling countryside of Burgundy. The reason was to carry out further research into the lives of the characters from my novel, because they were real people.
And so I was able to visit their homes, eat in their favourite restaurants, walk their familiar streets and gaze upon views familiar to them. I wanted to be them for a few weeks. After all the months of reading books about them, absorbing their letters and their writings and gazing at grainy photographs of them, I wanted to open up my senses to the things that they would have experienced.
The long flight back gave me time to reflect on what I had achieved. Did I find the facts that I needed, feel the feelings that I hoped for, see those sights? The yes beats louder than my heart. It was a glorious time.
I won’t go into the details of my novel because it’s still in a draft stage but there were endless pleasures to be found in this research. I stayed in a comfortable hotel in the Marais, perfectly positioned for pretty much everything. Having planned to buy a travelcard, mainly because I had sprained my ankle badly a couple of weeks before leaving Australia, I was delighted to find my foot held up rather well. And remembered that walking in Paris is one of its foremost pleasures. I didn’t want to miss a thing. While the Metro is excellent, you tend to miss those little things – the alleyways of the posh 16th arrondissement, the hidden gateways in the Marais that lead to gorgeous gardens filled with birdsong, the odd remnants of the older city before Haussmann cleaned it up in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Cities are all about looking up, finding the odd domes and strange windows and extravagant friezes that are easy to miss if you’re only looking forward. I found myself stopped in my tracks by certain buildings whose details revealed something important – a Guimard apartment building with its curving Art Nouveau facade, the name of the architect barely legible now; a garage whose large windows, red-and-white tiles and striking lettering spoke of another era when even functional buildings were celebrated; the Monsieur Hulot Modernism of the buildings in Boulogne-Billancourt.
I took great pleasure in the Parisians, of course. From my favourite breakfast lair – the Heurtier in the Marais – I watched the smart and stylish go off to work, wafting past in their scarves (despite the heat), the air filled with luscious perfumes. I sat in old brasseries, always made to feel welcome, nothing odd in the slightest about enjoying three courses on your own. One lunchtime I allowed myself a salad and a glass of rosé in the Cafe de Flore, enjoying the clatter of the busy place, a large table of Chinese tourists next to a table of perfectly groomed French ladies whose facelifts were in need of some attention (a drooping eye here, a touch too much lip there) and the pleasure of seeing an acting great, Charlotte Rampling, showing them how it should be done – elegant, understated, natural.
After six days in Paris, I drove down to Vezelay, the hilltop village in Burgundy whose great basilica houses the bones of Mary Magdalene (apparently). During the Second World War, this little place had been home for many of the French avant-garde – Le Corbusier and his wife Yvonne, Jean Badovici, the Zervos couple, the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard and many others. Pilgrims still walk down its streets on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, the roadway through the village studded with little brass seashells. The Zervos’ art collection is housed in a grand house in the village – Picasso, Leger, Miro and Chagall beautifully presented. The summer air was filled with one of my favourite scents, the lime flower – tilleul in French – which is for me the smell of France, each tree filled with bees.
After the idyllic tranquility of the village, it was hard to return to Paris. But what a return it was. Being the longest day of the year, the 21st June, it was the Fête de la Musique, something I had heard about but never experienced. Basically it’s the night when music rules the streets of France. The gay bar across from my hotel blasted out clubbing music from its windows (“Well that’s a bit much,” I thought to myself in my British way before realising what the date was) and the Place des Vosges was filled with choirs and rock bands and men playing bagpipes and jazz bands lost in the shadows of the seventeenth century arcades. Although the alcohol flowed, I didn’t see a single drunken tragic such as you’d expect in Britain or Australia. Despite the loud music everywhere, the atmosphere was happy but almost repressed. I wondered if the French ever really let go, or if my own expectations of fun have been skewed by the countries I have lived in.
I left Paris feeling sated and yet, after a quick trip to Britain and my few days back in Australia, I’m most definitely ready to go back again. Thankfully I can do that in my head, through the pages of my novel. The glow shines on.