Paris – City of Liberation

View over the Seine towards the Louvre as the sun set on our first day

I cannot pretend to be a fan of the expression, “bucket list” but I have wanted to immerse myself into the culture, history, art, tastes and smells of Paris, for many years. I have been there before of course, but it was always with a specific agenda, frequently set by the needs of others. This time, I wanted to lose myself in this most magical of cities, my way.

My first visit to Montmartre

I was fortunate to have three great travel companions, friends and colleagues from work. Christine, an American is head of language acquisition (modern foreign languages to you and me) and speaks fluent French (among other languages) – it’s always useful to have a mate who can speak the language of the country you are visiting, I find!; Janese, who is Australian has taught all over Asia and the Middle East before rocking up at our place as a science teacher of some renown – she has a stash of hilarious stories and a few photographs for embellishment which are guaranteed to brighten a dull moment; and Stefanie, not so well known to me before this trip, is from Kansas and is the librarian in the primary school. We shared a room and I found her calm and good natured disposition coupled with a sometimes wicked sense of humour, wonderful to travel with.

We got together a few times before we left Munich to plan our itinerary, and one of many travelling tips I picked up from them was to book a walking tour with Urban Adventures around Montmartre. I would never have done this of my own volition, but it proved to be money well spent.

We stayed in the 13th Arrondissement also known as the Asian quarter. This is to the South East of the Latin Quarter which meant we were near enough to the centre of things to be able to walk in every day, but sufficiently off the beaten track so as to have a sense of Parisienne Community. Our hotel was opposite a primary school for example, and whilst this drove my room-mate mad (she being a Primary school teacher), I was very happy to be woken by the cries of playful noisy children every day!

Everywhere we turned in the 13th Arrondissement, another stunning mural caught our eye.

A water tower at the Gare d’ Austerlitz gets the street art treatment

The photos will speak for themselves but by way of some explanation we began our stay with a walk through our local hood to admire the street art on the buildings. Truly stunning and highly recommended. We then followed the Seine upstream to the Latin Quarter on what was a beautifully sunny Autumn morning.

After a lot of mooching about, a visit to the Shakespeare bookshop followed (really worth it) followed by a glass of rosé in the sunshine in a café in the Latin Quarter. Well – you know!

Lunch at the oldest restaurant in Paris followed which was another unexpectedly, sensory experience – with several dining rooms, decor that consisted of books and artefacts (including one of Napolean’s hats) and fresh white linen on every table, I would have been happy to walk around the place like a museum. As it happened, the menu was wonderful too and here I had French Onion soup and a wonderful beef dish. Very special.

After this wonderful lunch, and the with the weather still fine, it was heavenly to stroll through the streets of Paris. With the plane trees; signs to the metro; a language that is not mine; beautifully dressed women with small dogs; houses of typically Parisienne architecture; cafés spilling out onto every pavement; groups of friends and solo travellers alike talking earnestly over wine or coffee, frequently smoking and reading a paper – and shops! hundreds of small boutique shops, like England used to have, as well as some of the more well known outlets (we passed a ‘Simply M and S’ at one point and I nearly screeched in horror!).

Ah Paris! I have memorised every minute of that walk around the Marais district. (btw - this shot was taken before I bought my new coats. Here, I am wearing my 14 year old anorak...)
Typically Parisenne Architecture

Now, shopping with 3 girlfriends after a lunch that includes wine has pros and cons. The pros are definitely that the sometimes tedious (yes, really) aspects of shopping, like hanging around for your mate or trying to find something you like in your size, somehow don’t exist!

The cons are that you become some kind of driven, manic consumer, hell bent on finding THE item of clothing that you really need! So it was that, in a wonderful Japanese store, I purchased not one but two coats and a pair of pyjamas (and 3 pairs of socks) to die for. If I tell you that the last coat I bought was my hiking anorak in 2005 and my big black warm winter coat was bought 3 years before that, you will understand the significance of this apparent recklessness! Boy did I have fun!

All shopped out, our pre-booked visit to the Musée d’ Orsay was next on our itinerary, another first for me. We had booked the tickets from 17.00 to avoid the queues, and in this respect we were successful. However, I confess to feeling a little fatigued by this point of the day and I only managed to absorb 2 of the rooms (and yet, this is another great reason to return!). Being in the d’Orsay at dusk was a beautiful experience in itself, and most of the photos here are taken from the building looking out – not of the paintings! An old railway station, the d’ Orsay building has a massive clock in the cafeteria through which you can see Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur. Just looking at this view was, for me, to feel as though I was in the middle of a unique work of art.In that moment, in that priceless moment, time stood still and I just allowed the colours and the textures and the light and the scents and the mood and the atmosphere of everything that I could see and smell and hear, wash over me. I got goosebumps. And this was before I saw any art…

The coda to our first day ended  with a champagne cruise up the Seine in the dark! Although the experience on the boat itself was somewhat underwhelming (you only get one glass of champagne after all!) the views were stunning and it was a wonderful way to end our day. A day that had started in the 13th and ended on the Seine, we quickly calculated we had walked 15km. The weather had been so fine we hardly even thought about it. However, we did take an uber home…!

The Eiffel Tower from the River Seine at Night

Friday saw us use the metro to cover bigger distances more speedily. the weather was mixed with dark grey clouds looming ominously throughout most of the day but, mercifully, we avoided a deluge. Our day began in Montmartre, another area that I had never seen before. Here we met the aforementioned tour guide and he took us and a few others in and among all the side streets that constitute this fascinating area. It is on a hill and as we sauntered casually, our guide gave us a fascinating insight into French politics and attitudes, as well as the sights, sounds and history of what we encountered. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was – everything I had ever imagined and more.

Day Two

By the time we got up to the Sacre Couer, I actually found that building slightly under-whelming. Ridiculous I know, but in the context of our walk, it almost seemed unnecessary. We had a great lunch up here in a little café with red checked table cloths. I ate my first vegetables of the trip!! As we headed down the hill, I phoned my Mum and filled her in on precisely where I was and what we were doing. I knew she would be very happy that I was there.

A little more post lunch shopping at a tiny boutique followed (so many bargains during Paris’s fashion week!) then we headed off to the Pompidou Centre.

Now modern and contemporary art can really divide people so I was pretty happy that Stephanie and Chris decided to be risk takers and accompany me to this den of iniquity. Janese was going to join us despite her stated, “I can’t stand modern art” but somehow the enthusiasm left her round about the second bend of the extremely irritating access line (not even a queue) and we bid her a temporary farewell as she headed for the shops.

Every single time I go to a contemporary art exhibition, I find something, often a highly unusual art work that either really moves me to tears or just bowls me over with wow-ness. The Pompidou Centre was no exception and I went from room to room feeling inspiration dripping off the walls. So many unusual ideas and concepts expressed in such original ways- I know I will be referencing them in my writing and possibly my own visual ideas as a director. The Musée d’Orsay was equally inspiring but in a different way. Something about modern art that just punches you in the guts…

That evening, we had a wonderful Thai meal in a restaurant near the hotel. Cheap as chips but far more tasty.

Saturday was a bit rushed because my compadrés  were flying back to Munich, (I stayed an extra day) and the weather was very bad making travel around the city much slower. We went to St Chappelle (stunning) had a quick fondue lunch in St Germain then  headed to the Eiffel Tower. Did I mention the queues in Paris? No? Well watch out for this. We had tickets for everything but even with these, in October, we spent more time than was helpful waiting to get up the tower. My friends had to leave me at the first level in order to get their flight. It felt weird to begin with, heading up to the summit without them but sure enough, I found my solo traveler gene and took one for the team. To say I was elated when I got to the top would be an under- statement. This was, quite simply, a life time’s ambition fulfilled.

My final day, toute seule saw me end mon vacance as I had begun it – with a walk around the local area. This time however, I headed South East towards Bercy and the Simone de Beauvoir Bridge which is near the Francois Mitterand National Library Francais.

Now Simone de Beauvoir has a very special, if slightly unusual place in my heart. When I was a little girl, maybe 10 or 11, at any rate, sometime in the mid 1970s, I came across a copy of “The Second Sex”  – Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal text, on the bedside table next to my mother’s bed. What struck me then, apart from the shocking use of the word, “sex”, was the photograph of a completely naked woman (mercifully, with her back to the camera!) who had, even to my young eyes, the most beautiful long hair held over her head, a straight back and full, voluptuous figure. The biggest shock was that this woman looked just like my own mother. Although I didn’t realise it until decades later (in fact not until my own body was in major need of repair), discovering this book and linking it to my Mother was a critical moment in my own ‘coming of age’ and subsequent maturing as a woman. Totally unaware and unable to articulate it back then, on some level I think this was the first time I ever thought of my mother as a sexual being, that is to say something, someone, other than ‘just’ my Mother. This concept terrified, and enthralled me simultaneously. There was beauty and strength in that picture and yet, as a youngster, I felt threatened. I could not make sense of it.

Throughout that period, I became more and more aware of the books my mother was reading: Margaret Drabble, Lynn Reid Banks, Germaine Greer…I saw the books lying around the house and found the titles and covers intriguing. We never spoke about them (and I would probably have been horrified if we had) but I was conscious of them and knew that they were very important to my mother who, having  recently divorced, had  bought a very small property of her own and started to live a very different kind of life from the one she (and I) had lived before.

Fast forward 10 years and I am at university being taught Performance Arts by, amongst others, some ardent feminists. They introduce me, first hand to the works of Judy Chicago, Susan Sontag, Caryl Churchill et al as well as to what they referred to as “The canon” including, Simone de Beauvoir. How grand did I feel to have heard of this woman!! I shot straight to the top of the class! And now, with my reference point firmly in place, I   was able to research and study for the “Women in Performance” Unit. As I read, I began to understand more and more about my mother and in addition, some big pieces of my own life started to fall into place. Amongst other things, I discovered that the sex discrimination act did not come into being until 1975. Until this act was passed, it WAS NOT POSSIBLE FOR A WOMAN TO GET A MORTGAGE IN HER OWN NAME, without the consent of her husband (single women don’t even bother applying). Isn’t that incredible? How had my mother managed to get a mortgage on 41, Chuckery Road, before 1975 as a divorcee? Full of such questions, I eagerly cornered my Mum during a  weekend visit from college and we were able, as adults to talk about some of her personal experience of that time as well as the cultural changes that had affected her, as a woman, in her life-time. Those conversations have remained with me to this day.  Even back then, I was very aware that the outlook for me as a young woman, was quite different. The mortgage, it transpired, had been granted by an extremely grateful bank manager whose life she had saved. She was a Sister on a men’s medical ward at the time and did that kind of thing every day!

In the mid 1970s, having chosen a particular path for herself and her children, my Mum set about moving down it and I know there were some bumps along the way. But what strikes me now, is the courage, strength and determination she managed to show when I am sure there were times when she frequently felt like she was falling apart.

And I know that when I first moved to Germany, and I felt like my world was falling apart, I frequently remembered that brief period living on my own with my Mum (my brother was away at boarding school). Somewhere deep inside I gained some strength from knowing I had a role model in how to survive.

In recent years I have reflected a lot on what my mother and other women of her generation have given to me during my life to date implicitly and explicitly, and what she/they continue to give to me. With that has come an additional awareness of what was given to her by her mother and the culture that she was raised in. It seems to me that whatever the state of the relationship at any one time, Mothers teach you stuff! We learn so much from them! They make you who you are! and you don’t even realise it at the time…

So you see, that is why finding, and then crossing the Simone de Beauvoir bridge in Paris on my Grandmother’s Birthday was kind of a big deal!! I think it’s just great that Paris recognizes women like this. Women who have inspired other women. I can live the life I choose without being defined by anyone else or limited by economic circumstances. And if I want to go to Paris and see a shed load of Art with or without company, I can! What a fortunate woman am I.

The Simone de Beauvoir Bridge with the National Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand in the background

With a daughter and now grand-daughters, I am conscious that there’s still a long way to go before Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité is fully extended to the female sex (and in some parts of the globe more so than others) but I hope I never take my freedoms and privileges for granted.

Sarah Halliday xx

October 2019