An Irish American in Paris
August in Paris with a heatwave in blossom! From the vantage point of a wintry Irish January hacking with a chest cold and facing an edit deadline, the prospect seemed hugely seductive.
I'd dreamed about attending the annual language scholarship sponsored by the Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI): a bountiful exchange of French language classes plus accommodation offered to Irish creative bods, around 10 students each summer.
I'd always been too busy to apply. Then serendipity dipped in my direction. I checked the institute's website by chance on the last day for applications. A month later I got the good news: I was to be Paris-bound for a few weeks come summer. It would turn out to be an adventure of a lifetime.
I'd never spent much time in France, unless you count my vicarious travels through books (Madeline at eight) but mostly via films. At 12, I adored Charade with Audrey Hepburn. In the 1970s it was Eric Rohmer's Love in the Afternoon. The 1990s revealed Three Colours: Blue.
My own attempts at travel were more prosaic: a Magic Bus ride through the pays to Spain because I feared flying, the Easter break-up with a boyfriend at Versailles, the day's return trip to film city-scapes for a documentary on the Irish courtesan Lola Montez.
In each case, Paris overwhelmed. I wasn't much of a speaker. I'd sat through a school French class but my brain addled with verb conjugations. I wanted to conquer that hurdle. And I wanted to fall in love with Paris like so many others before me.
I found when given the chance, it's not that hard.
The Centre Culturel Irlandais experience provided an added bonus: a great bunch of new friends to share the city with. I was joined by a dozen bright, engaged, curious fellow students, most of whom I'd never met before. They included a singer, a traditional musician, an actor, an artist, a journalist, a broadcaster, a writer, a filmmaker, a curator and more.
Our home from home was the magnificent institute building, an oasis in the 5th arrondisement. Originally an Irish seminary in the 18th Century, it acted as a hospital during several wars. I was lucky to have an attic haven out of La boheme with gable and skyline views overlooking the large courtyard.
This was where most evenings our group would gather for a natter or pre-prandial before heading off for city adventures. And what a city! Each morning at 0830 we'd venture out on our walk across the Luxembourg Garden as it too awakened. Sailboats on the pond. Friday ponies for children. Lovers lingering on shaded benches.
For three hours Monday to Friday, we attended French classes at the Institut Catholique de Paris. One quick oral assessment and I was placed in senior infants alongside students from Korea, Syria, China, Japan, Scotland, Peru, Slovenia, Turkey, Colombia and Mexico (including two nuns and a priest).
In the afternoons I was free to wander the various quarters on foot beginning with our own Latin: north to The Pantheon (where Catherine Deneuve's Salon Cafe seduces). Adjacent is the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Genevieve where Owen Wilson met his Midnight in Paris carriage for a journey into the past. South to the Place Monge with its weekend food and antique markets (scarves for €3 each; a dainty, hand-painted 1930s milk jug for €5). Sunday mornings spent at the foot of Rue Mouffetard where we danced and sang to the tunes of a traditional accordion player and enjoyed coffee and croissants.
One Sunday I followed Carrie Bradshaw's stilettoed footsteps to the Plaza Athenee where our heroine jilts Mikhail Baryshnikov in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower just before reuniting with Big. It's on the Avenue Montaigne with its limousines and Italian designer shops (Valentino, Ungaro, Armani, Prada).
Returning home, I sauntered along the quays of the Seine in the equally balletic shadow of Gene Kelly in American in Paris.
Another weekend I hiked to Montmartre seeking Hepburn's Funny Face. Near Sacre Coeur, I imagined Ewan McGregor's rooftop serenade to Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.
The Musee de Montmartre proffered several surprises: a cool oasis of a garden with pear trees and a view of the city below. Around the corner, the Dali Paris gallery.
I also visited the Louis Vuitton Fondation in the Bois de Boulogne (the latter recreated in Hollywood for Gigi): a majestic architectural treat of steel and wood that frames views far and wide.
One night, a group of us attended an evening salon at Jimmy Haynes's atelier in the 14th. Haynes is an 80-something American in Paris: writer, artist and theatre impresario. Each Sunday evening he holds a salon: simple food, drink and conversation between Parisians and expats. Booking details at www.jim-haynes.com.
On another evening, six of us dined at the Bouillon Chartier in the Rue Faubourg (a street featured in Frantic with Harrison Ford). I loved the restaurant's Renoiresque theatricality as it collided with designer shopping bags and baseball-hatted Asians.
I also liked La Chaise au Plafond in Rue du Tresor and its chunky French onion soup.
Across the road La Belle Hortense disguises itself as a bookshop but is actually a tiny bar, a kind of artist's retreat opening from 5pm and where a local writer led our small group in a robust rendition of La Marseillaise.
But if I had to pick a single area, I would think that I loved the Marais, north of the Seine, best of all.
I was very moved by the Holocaust Museum which tells the history of the French Jewish community. A commemorative wall lists the names of those murdered in concentration camps. And in an inner sanctuary, lit by a central flame, names are kept alive through recorded voice.
In stark contrast, today's Jewish quarter in Paris thrives on tourism. Bakeries and restaurants, Hebrew signage and Hassidic street sellers. Individual and delightful specialist shops featured calligraphy goods, antiques, buttons, gloves, handbags, chocolate, confection, musical instruments and more. The Picasso Museum too.
One of the loveliest features of Paris, is the number of green havens that take you by surprise, discovered by accident when squeezing through an arch or laneway, welcome on a hot summer's day: like the hidden space within the Musee de Cognac or the Square du Vert-Galant near Pont Neuf on the Ile de la Cite with its shaded views of Notre Dame and the Seine.
I also delighted in the many churches where pop-up concerts lured. At the Congregation du Saint Esprit in the 5th, and for free, we heard Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel. And, of course, on almost every other rue de Paris, some small cinema is showing a classic French film: this is a really a great way to improve language skills without even noticing.
One of the wonders of Paris, which makes all these film journey adventures possible, is the Metro system celebrated in Luc Besson's Subway with Isabelle Adjani: so easy to navigate, safe, efficient and rarely more than half an hour to any location you desire. All for less than €2 a journey (especially if it's too hot or too wet to walk).
When the heatwave finally broke near the end of my time in Paris, I watched a dramatic thunder and lightning spectacle from my Parisian garret and burst out crying at the beauty of a city it is never too late to fall in love with. Your heart will be the better for it, mais bien sur!
The deadline for applications for next year's language course bursary is January 10, 2019. Details at: www.centreculturelirlandais.com/en/residencies/bourses
Sunday Indo Living