My six years in Paris were spent with pen in hand, scribbling away in notebooks, on serviettes, café coasters and any scrap of paper I could find. I was in awe of the place. Beauty beckoned around every corner. Art and style seeped from every pore. Unable to restrain myself, I would stop to describe the ambience of a garden or an intricate doorway. I was constantly documenting a thought, a flavor or a dish. A box from Ladurée contained a growing pile of restaurant cards and menus, along with entry tickets to museums and galleries.
However, it was not just when lapin à la moutarde suddenly appeared on blackboard menus or the first fat bunches of white asparagus hit the markets that I would turn to my pen. As I sipped my café crèmes on sunny terraces I also vented my frustration on paper when the pages were ripped from my daughters’ schoolbooks. I recorded the sheer difficulty of everyday Parisian life and detailed the time and effort it took to carry out even the most menial task. Writing became my outlet and voice as I tried to decode the unspoken rules and rituals, to comprehend the contradictions and make sense of it all. Being unable to understand and be understood created constant despair. Attempting to purchase a torturously long list of school supplies that I could neither recognize nor pronounce, for example, was like navigating the Louvre sans map.
And so we soon discovered that the reality of everyday Parisian life did not match the glossy picture-postcard version we had naively conjured in our heads, especially with children in tow. Paris was Doctor Jekyll one moment and Mr. Hyde the next. The world we knew had been thrown out of the French window and in blew the antipode of our Australian way of life.
Our arrival in Paris set off a rollercoaster ride of discovery and a steep learning curve for us all. Living in another culture changes one’s perception of the world, of others, of oneself. It enlarges and enriches; shapes and challenges us. Life becomes one of exploration where you are constantly questioning and growing, looking backward and forward, and comparing. Slowly we began to make sense of our new world, to see it from a fresh perspective and to understand the Parisians and their culture. Slowly we became enamored.
Glancing back, I believe what truly captivated me is the fact that so many elements of French life are elevated to an art form. Great thought goes into the simple line of a scarf, the display in a perfumery window. Combined with this quest for perfection is a tangible immediacy that never failed to thrill and inspire me. I relished pushing open our apartment building door and instantly connecting with the rhythm of the city. Days became a series of snapshots of uplifting moments, a continual blur of beauty that (mostly) overshadowed the frustration. It was these continual ‘moments’ of joy, along with the small, repeated experiences, the daily rituals, that I felt especially compelled to capture. The metro and the smell of la boulangerie early morning became part of our lives and memories, just like the whirl of the antique carousel.
A number of years have passed since our Paris days but France remains deep in our hearts. The mountain of scribble, stack of twenty dog-eared notebooks and boxes of ephemera were packed away but the desire to convey the experiences of a newly transplanted family in Paris kept snapping at me like a haughty poodle. Finally, a couple of years ago I rolled up my sleeves, covered the floor with butcher’s paper and got to work. I decided it was time to do something with this pile of recollections and information, to decipher my notes and put them in some semblance of chronological order. Further drafts and exhaustive research followed, along with the re-visiting of people and places. Addresses were crossed off, others added, while the girls endured endless questions and conversations about Paris.
Finally, I have a book in my hands. A mix of memoir and travel guide, A Family in Paris offers the reader an authentic taste of the city – with a bit of grit in the oyster. Through a collection of anecdotes, informative travel articles and observations, it conveys the joys and the difficulties of la vie parisienne, dealing with the real issues in a light-hearted way. A Family in Paris is woven with cultural tips, snippets of history and honest advice. It is also a food and etiquette guide, suitable for those planning an international move or simply a holiday to this most famous of cities. It’s filled with things I wish I knew on that sunny spring day when our family arrived in Paris.
A Family in Paris is available here.
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By Jane Paech
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