PARIS WITH LEO
“Do you know where we’re going?” my son asked as we pottered up the tight Marais streets towards the Pompidou Centre. It was his first trip to Paris – a gift for his ninth birthday, three days in the city of his choice with his Mum and Nanny.
“I used to come to Paris a lot,” I said, “on business.”
How I used to love that phrase. I first fell in love with Europe’s most beautiful city when I went there on a French exchange trip at fifteen. I became instantly infatuated with the ambience of the place, the ancient boutiquey quirkiness of the backstreets, the seductive café lifestyle, the grandiosity of the architecture and history – but mostly the groomed, stick-thin elegance of the people. To me, Paris has always been about style. From that first trip I decided that I was a moody, pencil thin fashionista trapped in the stout body of a gauche Irish teenager. I came back speaking a little more French, but wearing a lot more black eyeliner and smoking cigarettes, wanting to be a good deal thinner than I was and aspiring to go back there at the earliest opportunity and make myself ‘French’.
When I became editor of a young woman’s magazine in London, I used every available excuse to go to Paris ‘on business’ – sometimes meeting advertisers from cosmetics houses but as often as I could manage it on fashion shoots. These trips were rarely without stress. The models were poutier and thinner, the agents more fierce and discerning and the photographers more temperamental and precious than I was used to. Each trip generally involved a good deal of my trailing in the wake of some “fabulous” photographer as he waved aside model after stunning model in search of a “visage” worthy of his art, until I feared I’d be going back to the office with an spent budget and no pictures to show for it. When we did eventually get around to ‘the shoot’, hair and make-up would barely be started when we’d have to stop for lunch. No such thing as bringing in a few sandwiches and eating them on the hop, as we did in London. Each studio had a fully functioning kitchen and chef. Lunch was a three-hour affair – three courses, wine – the lot – all on my magazine’s tab of course, and all eating into my precious working day. After gulping back my grub in about five minutes, I’d have to sit and marvel at the models decimating their plates of salad before allowing themselves to suck on the daily single square of chocolate that was keeping them alive.
I would come back from the ordeal with a wonderful set of pictures usually good enough to justify another trip in a few months time. For my next trip, I resolved, I would be more Paris-Fabulous. I would be a few pounds lighter with a better handbag, and thinner thighs, a sharper haircut, a fiercer attitude and less of a propensity towards street vendors selling crepes smothered in chocolate. Invariably, with each trip I became chubbier, and more dishevelled and stressed out until eventually, I realised that the Paris fashion shoot just wasn’t worth it. My commitment to fashion waned over the coming years dissipated with motherhood, a couple of extra stone and a change in career. Although my love for Paris remained, the two things remained intertwined in my head and my heart and, as a result I didn’t return there for years. Not because I didn’t want to, but because somehow I still felt I would be letting Paris – or perhaps myself down. I wasn’t fabulous enough, elegant enough or sophisticated enough for Paris – until my nine year old got it into his head he wanted to come here and maternal loyalty meant I had to put my fears and prejudice aside. Although the last burning embers of caring what is on the catwalk this season has long since burnt out, I still found myself shuddering with shame over my first Paris fashion shoot. My bare fat, white Irish legs marching up through the Marais, my wheelie suitcase of clothes clacking loudly along the cobbled streets, elegant Parisians glowering at me, their lunch offensively interrupted by the sight of this inelegant ‘tourist’. I couldn’t find the bell for the photographer’s apartment hidden as it was behind one of those massive ornate Parisian doors so I stood on the street and yelled up at the windows until, burning with shame I sat on my wobbly case and waited for him to casually emerge an hour later.
My son was starting to nag; “Are you sure you know where we’re going?”
I had stopped outside a huge wooden door and was looking up – astounded. This was the building. The photographer’s apartment had been on the top floor, completely shielded from any sounds from the street. I had invited me to stay with him on my first trip then when I refused to sleep with him. had shrugged with almost insulting indifference. God – I was so self-conscious back then, and so utterly lacking in confidence. I had been so stunning and slim and fashionable in my twenties – and not even known it! I should have enjoyed my Paris adventures more, taken the whole thing less seriously.
I briefly told my son my fashion shoot story – about how I had stood here and shouted up at the window in front of all the posh Paris people.
“Mum,” he said closing his eyes for dramatic effect, “you are so embarrassing!” He smiled widely - he loves hearing how I’ve made an eejit out of myself, but mostly he was just thrilled to be there, in Paris, with me. In my MBT walking shoes, leggings and M&S cardigan.
“Come on,” I said, “I think I can see another crepe van over there, if we hurry we’ll get in before the Pompidou opens.”
“Can we have chocolate again?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied, “after all chocolate crepes is what Paris is famous for isn’t it?”