Long before Facebook profiles and its drop-down menu of relationship status updates, a family European vacation would leave an indelible mark on my unsuspecting heart. That’s the thing about first loves—they reduce you to a sad cliché.
At the age of 17, I had never heard of the song, J’ai laissé mon cœur à Paris, much less understood a word of French, but that was exactly how I felt—that I’d left my heart in Paris. It had been a jam-packed itinerary covering most of Western Europe and while I came away very impressed by the beauty of Venice, underwhelmed by London, and bored stiff in Vienna, by the time we’d reached the City of Light for a two-day-one-night stopover, it was akin to waking up to magic that would end before it even began. That’s the thing about packaged tours and its aim to cover the maximum number of destinations in the shortest time: you come away ultimately empty. Personally, I didn’t enjoy being herded across the Continent like sheep, stopping only for pee breaks and to take pictures at touristy monuments I didn’t particularly care for. The next morning, checking in my baggage at the Charles de Gaulle, I thought about how I’d been brought all this way across the world to fall in love, only to leave half-sated. The next time, I promised myself, I’d be back on my own terms, and I’d see the city my way.
Not quite. I was 20 and as part of my European Studies major at University, I embarked, with my coursemates, on a three-week immersion trip to Montpellier and Paris. And I got really sick at Montpellier. Really, really sick. An 18-hour-long flight and four-hour TGV journey into the South of France would prove too much for my delicate constitution, but I didn’t know that yet. Neither did my host lady, a kindly 70-something divorcee who lived alone with her Siamese cat, Pixu. As my welcome meal, she served up a generous slice of goat’s cheese, and as a result, I spent the better half of the night retching and the next few days feverishly delirious and trying to recover from a nasty stomach infection.
She said “Ça va?” a lot, and in reply I said “Le médecin” until she actually summoned a doctor who, after repeatedly poking me in the abdomen, prescribed me some dodgy gel-like substance, which surprisingly did the trick. If nothing else, I emerged from that unpleasant experience with a newfound respect for the efficacy of French pharmaceuticals, for very soon after, I felt well enough to attend my French classes—or skip them entirely to go shopping at Place de la Comédie. On weekends, I joined the language school on sightseeing trips to various attractions of the Languedoc. I got to see the Pont du Gard, which was pretty amazing, as was Provence, but otherwise, I couldn’t wait to be done with the rocky, provincial landscape and Mediterranean weather and take a train back to Paris where it was cooler, in more than one sense of the word.
From this point, my memory is hazy. I arrived in Paris in some kind of funk, frustrated and upset that I was finally here but not in the state of mind I’d expected to find myself in. Somehow everything seemed to have lost its luster. It was rainy and grimy everywhere, the Metro smelled rank and I just wanted a warm, comforting bowl of Asian noodles instead of my fourteenth baguette. There and then, the last thing I felt like doing was resume my love affair with the city that had begun (at least one-sidedly) a few years before. While my classmates were busy soaking up the sights and sounds, I wanted nothing more than to leave. Maybe Montpellier had dampened my earlier enthusiasms or maybe I was just too depressed and homesick by then. Paris was ready for me, but I wasn’t this time. Not yet.
It would be close to a decade before Paris and I met again, this time on my honeymoon. While I should have had larger expectations in light of the disappointment that came with the earlier two visits, I was uncharacteristically blasé about the whole thing—how very French, hein? My only intention was to to try to love it the way it deserved, and hopefully, it would love me back in return. And fortunately it did, many times over. I got to see it properly, even if not all of it, but the parts I came to know, I savored and adored. For my husband’s sake, we covered the famous spots like the Eiffel Tower and went to see the Mona Lisa, but it was the unexpected places that seized my imagination and the little, ordinary moments that I will forever remember.
The haunting serenity of the Père Lachaise, its maze of effigies in peaceful slumber. The perfect symmetry of street lamps down the steps of the Rue du Calvaire. A planned picnic along the Seine that turned into a rain-soaked stroll across the Pont Alexandre III (we ended up with KFC that night). Contemplating the French Revolution in the Musée Carnavalet—couldn’t take my eyes off the storming of the Bastille. Victor Hugo’s over-the-top residence amid the hipster neighborhood of Le Marais. Arab restaurants or steak-frites as our no-brainer go-tos for a satisfying meal. Walking everywhere, including the delusion that we could easily make it by foot from Place de la Concorde to L’Arc de Triomphe in under an hour (a painful lesson, but we learn). Mastering the art of observing strangers in a disinterested fashion while dodging excrement from above and below (hubby was to encounter merde of the pigeon kind). Trying but failing to like Europop. A pocket-sized guidebook hastily purchased from the airport that would serve me very well—much better than any clunky Lonely Planet or Rick Steve’s ever had or would. And Musée d’Orsay—I would camp there if I could.
Even if we didn’t cover everything on the map, Paris on my honeymoon came pretty darn close to perfect. It was singularly the most beautiful time of my life and if I were to die tomorrow a sad cliché, I would be grateful to have had that one last affair. Granted subsequent trips might prove unsatisfying or perhaps one day I’ll grow out of my childish fixation and open my heart to new travel experiences.
That seat in my heart marked ‘first place’? It’s taken.