If we’d written the script we couldn’t have done it better. Our plan for fond farewells betwixt mother and son in the city of Paris really did help to take the edge off Joe’s imminent return to Melbourne. To save himself $300, number one son had booked his return flight out of Charles de Gaulle instead of Heathrow and, with his bargain £21 coach jaunt via Victoria, he was set for one last adventure before the dreaded long haul. Needless to say, his financial saving was seriously offset by my expenditure for the final 48 hours, but, heigh, I love an adventure too!
One of my most serious skills gaps is the ability to read a map – and this gap has not improved with age. In fact, it’s grown considerably wider as maps are printed smaller nowadays and I have to hunt for my specs. Emerging from Gare du Nord for the ‘1000m stroll to Hotel Marena’, I was immediately accosted by a taxi pimp determined to sell me a ride. ‘Non, non, Madame! Je suis there en dix minutes’, I announced in my very best Franglais. That same blessed woman approached me again with an infuriatingly smug expression when I reappeared back round the corner twenty minutes later…
My main failing when it comes to any sense of direction is my total conviction that I know exactly which way to turn when faced with a long straight road which the map tells me leads direct to my destination. Walk in the direction of the sun, of course! One hour later, having pleaded for help from three separate sets of gendarmes, a boulangerie, two pharmacists, a group of old boys and three youngsters with their dear little grandma, I had to admit this is a poor map reading strategy. Thank goodness it was still only mid afternoon beneath a cloudless autumn sky when I finally staggered into the foyer of our petite hotel.
It was small but perfectly formed in every way (just like me in fact. Apart from the skills gaps).
Except that Joe was missing and the interim missives from messenger were few and far between. Once I’d had a brief lay down, one blipped into my inbox stating that his coach was just outside the city and ‘go find the nearest metro, mother, how hard can that be?’ ‘Bloody hard,’ I whimpered, but had to concede he had a point. Travel tip number one – when in a foreign city, map the route to the most local underground station and stamp it indelibly on your mind. You are then free to explore, with no fear of not finding your way back to base (this truth stood me in good stead on the Sunday morning when, yet again, I followed the sun and got completely, utterly, bewilderingly lost).
Time ticked on. I sussed out the metro (St George’s, such a pretty location), sampled the local expresso and tarte limone, negotiated several heaps of dog doings, peeked into a classy secondhand shop where glamorous mesdames languishing around the counter exhaled their roll ups in my direction, muttering about my lack of style (why is it when others speak in another language one egotistically presumes they are talking about oneself?). I grew worried. No message hailing ‘get ye to the metro, mother, now!’ No welcoming bleep on the phone. Disaster. Just as I announced my fears to Facebook there was an ominous hammering on the bedroom door. Opening it cautiously (God, that was a scary film last month when the room inhabitants let in a rapist, for him to firmly lay the blame at their feet and absolve himself from all responsibility for what he was about to do by saying ‘if you stay in a hotel like this, always put the chain on’).
Duly reunited, Joe had a quick shower and despite having travelled for more than 12 hours (‘the perfect transport mode if you are time rich and wonga poor’), he announced we were going to hit the city lights! I was well up for reliving my depressingly unmisspent youth, so we set off, strolling aimlessly towards the Moulin Rouge and a little light refreshment. As an unexpectedly mild Friday evening in October, the locals were out in force, clearly distinguishable from the tourists anxiously clutching their maps (“10% off at La Fayette if you show this”) and pointing their smartphones at anything that moved. I could tell my son is a travellor, as he definitely veers towards the locals, deftly dodging the traffic and seeking out of the way hostelries where the young Parisians chose to gather.
We finally settled on a laid back Japanese tapas (huh?) restaurant where a table wasn’t available for 30 minutes (it was now gone 9pm). What the heck! We can start on a bottle of Chardonny and take our appetite to the next level whilst waiting! That place was so relaxed about customer care that it was midnight before we left but, do you know what, it didn’t matter one jot. We had so much to talk about! Though there was a serious bit of role reversal going on with son giving me career advice. And damn good it was too!
My earlier recce meant I knew we were close to the Sacre Coeur and the best view of the French capital, so we swayed our way in a general uphill direction in pursuit of the promised bright lights. I kept expecting to reach a mountain of steps but somehow we waylaid those altogether, suddenly emerging into the artist square of Montmatre which I remembered so well from my previous visit 18 months prior, with younger son Tom.
That view truly is at its best beyond midnight beneath a clear night sky and an almost full moon – the crowds have gone, the Tour d’Eiffel catches you by surprise on the mid horizon and the public loos are shut. Ah. Suddenly this was a pressing problem but with his cosmopolitan ways, Joe came up with a plan. Whilst he kept the waiter chatting by requesting a ‘tiramisu table a deux’, I nipped into their loo. The guy wasn’t too happy when I emerged!
It was now long past one and I was convinced we’d never find the Marena again, sleeping out the night on the cobblestones beneath the furnicular railway, hopefully nicking that mattress I’d spotted just behind the recycling bins. Oh me of so little faith, Joe’s homing instinct is second to none and we were tucked up well before 2am.
The next day passed in a haze of wonderful food, wine cheaper than coffee in the Luxemburg Gardens, bookshops, Boris Bikes which we couldn’t fathom out (probably just as well), culture vulturing at the Pantheon, queue jumping at the public water fountains, strolling along the bank of the Seine, and an inimitable farewell supper at the chic organic cafe we discovered at the end of Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne in the 9th arrondissement. Somewhere else I plan to return to.
All too soon our 24 hours drew to a close, at Gare du Nord we struggled to comprehend the ticket machine and Joe finally strolled confidently through the gateway en route to the airport. Is there anything as hard as keeping that smiling face in place for the final wave?