Polly Devlin’s five-year-old affair with Paris is coming to an end – but not before she has one last flirtation with the city
This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in June 2013. We’re opening the archive so you can read a Polly column every week …
So, who’s adorable then?
The last removal van has gone. Only in Paris could you stick a bollard nicked from Chiswick (and oh yes, returned) at the bottom of a street, sling a hand-painted sign saying fermé across it and not have one driver or person object. Cars reversed obediently, the gendarmerie walked past; the drivers of the removals vans, rookies all to Paris, were amazed. In London they would have been fined and given points and moved on within five minutes. They stayed much of the day.
M Kiekken who owns the antique shop opposite and who became such a good friend (and who had found me the apartment in the first place) watched with anguished relish as the furniture – much of it French and to his taste – was ladled into the vans bound for London. He had watched it all arrive over the past few years, always on a Saturday. This is germane because the only way I can furnish a house is by trial and error, by putting This here and That there then shaking my head – it doesn’t work – but since the This and That were in another country entirely, things got a leetle complicated. The channel intervened for a start. Eurotunnel and myself are like that. The Effort! The Miles! The Pas de Calais, the most boring landscape in in the world! Picardie! No roses blooming ever! The AutoRoute du Nord! Aragh. The Paris périphérique! I could do it in my sleep, like an old horse. And I adored every minute. But the thing is M Kiekken had only seen the stuff going in – he doesn’t work on a Sunday so he never saw a stick coming out and thus became persuaded of one of two things; one, that I had bought the whole block and was gradually furnishing it; or two, the more likely, I was one of those people one reads about in the silly season when police and social workers have to carve a way through mountains of mouldy detritus to get to the body of the person finally mired under their hoarding habit.
The last of the pictures were carted down, the last carpet rolled, the last bit of Dysoning done and I was alone in a place where on and off for five short and idyllic years I had fulfilled a dream.
I walked around the empty apartment. The French windows were open – well, they would be French – and the courtyard lay in its spring glory, every window box abloom. On the street side the Seine glittered at each end, the apartment still looked lovely and I suddenly wished I was a minimalist and could live in bareness.
The next morning, my last as a resident of Paris, I did something I have never done. I sat down to have a long luxurious morning coffee in a café sidewalk on the rue du Bac. Paris was intent on giving me a good send-off, intent on punishing me for leaving her. Enchantment in the air, and not just driven by pre-nostalgia and incipient yearning. The sun was beaming down; the sky was that intense cerulean blue that Paris mornings have in late spring; the markets in the rue de Seine and the rue Mazarin were buzzing; an old lady in Chanel tottered by, tugged by two bichons frises, which will give you an idea of her size, and at one of the tables on the sidewalk a couple with a Jack Russell sat down opposite me. They would have given Robert Doisneau a run for their money: both beautiful; she like Juliette Greco crossed with Rachel Weisz with a smouldering Gauloise, he like Bernard-Henri Lévy, only with a kinder face.
It was simply two happy people – though I was filled with sadness too – basking in a spring morning in the joie de vivre of the city of light
They smiled at me I smiled at them and I asked if I might pet their adorable little dog. They were happy but I must not on any account feeed ’im. I restrained myself and went back to the spot where at the next table a young Japanese beauty and an American man were having coffee. He was smoking and trying to break the habit and I asked him if he had ever tried an electronic ciggie. He avowed he had not and never would and I said wiping mine on the soiled paper tablecloth that he could try mine. This he did and declared himself converted – anything to shut me up – but the Japanese girl hugged me and thanked me because she said she hated the smell of tobacco and it literally was coming between them.
A party of elderly women, very American, very black hair, very red lips, very big bags, came along looking for wherever to sit. There was only room for four within the café so the fifth one loitered a mite disconsolately and I said why don’t you sit at my table. She sat down gratefully because her feet were tired. They were a party from Pittsburgh, they had never been to Paris, they were walked off their feet, they adored it, it was so good of me was I English she didn’t think the English spoke to strangers, just goes to show. I said, “I’m not English I’m Irish and the English don’t speak to strangers they don’t hardly speak to each other. I’ve been married to one for over 40 years and he still hasn’t addressed me.” She squealed with laughter and regaled the others with what I’d said so loudly that everyone stared at us and the Parisians passing by rolled their eyes at what Paris had to put up with. A couple of well-groomed older women came and sat at the last vacant table to my left. They were neat and tidy and pretty; both English from Yorkshire. Diane and Anne. Anne had moved to Florida to be near her daughter but her son-in-law wasn’t all that pleased; Diane had lost the love of her life a few months before and was grieving and they had come to Paris to be happy. They looked 50 and I was astounded to find they were over 70, so vibrant they were, so full of life, so optimistic, all adding to the gaiety of the morning with Paris at her most seductive and everyone around, Japanese, American, English, Irish, chatting and laughing. I noticed that the pretty girl with the dog had left and the man was sitting by himself. He smiled at me. For me, one of the wonderful things about getting older is that you are never on the pull. In fact, women over a certain age are invisible but in Paris they are not and it is good for the spirit. There was no hint of flirtatiousness in his smile nor in my returning one. It was simply two happy people – though I was filled with sadness too – basking in a spring morning in the joie de vivre of the city of light.
I finished my coffee and prepared to take my leave when a shadow loomed over my table. Anne, Diane and I looked up. The beautiful Frenchman was leaning over my table. He took my hand. He kissed it. He said, “Vous êtes adorable” and walked off into the market. I sat goose-fleshed with pleasure and romance. Anne said, “Is this a set-up?” They looked around for the cameras. “No, no,” I said “I’m as stunned as you. More so.” “Do you know him?” Diane asked. “No.” I said “I never saw him before in my life.” They looked at me with utter puzzlement. Diane clapped her hand to her open mouth. “You’d think it only happens in the movies. Or bad advertisements, but however it came about, it’s the most romantic thing that I ever witnessed.” “It is to me too,” I said, completely pink with pleasure and feeling like Audrey Hepburn in any old film. “But I can never tell anyone,” I said, “and no-one will ever believe me. And anyway my friends and especially my daughters they’d hate me for telling it and start pushing each other over.” “We’ll bear witness,” Diane said. But I didn’t hold much cop by that.
So I left Paris on wings given the most tender and beautiful of send-offs, utterly unsolicited, by a good-hearted handsome stranger who knows what Paris and sad women are all about.
Writing Home, a selection of writing by Polly Devlin, published by Pimpernel Press, is out now.
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