18 years ago I first moved to Paris, 22 years of age and the first time away from home, security and everything familiar. Two months ago I arrived back in what has become my home away from home. This is the story of how it all started…
1997, Paris, France, The Arrival, The First Time
It was raining and I couldn’t see the Tower. I’d just arrived to this strange intoxicating land, packed to bursting with abounding excitement and endless naivety, and yet it was grey, raining, and the Eiffel Tower was nowhere in sight! I knew it was in the area somewhere and remembered seeing it from all over Paris that last time, but right there, in that first, big, life changing, suddenly-becoming-a-grown-up moment, in those first few hours of being totally alone, completely a foreigner and possibly way out of my depth, it wasn’t here to greet me and I actually felt that I needed to see it in order to convince myself that I’d really and truly arrived. It had been less than a month since I’d decided to leave my home town of Dublin for the mystery of Paris and those few weeks had passed by in a blur of toasts, tears, goodbye drinks and very little preparation and I’d just spent almost an hour on a small coach coming from the gobsmacking cow shed that was Beauvais Airport with a gang of middle-aged, Irish housewives, nattering on about everything they wanted to do and see, all giggly at leaving their husbands behind to cook the dinner for the kids and their duty free bottles were already opened.
I kept thinking of Mum’s face during our farewell at Dublin airport, smiling bravely while her heart was breaking and staring at me with watery eyes that did their best not to cry, but failing instantly when she saw the tears forming in mine. My final memories of Ireland, clouded in tears, and almost missing the plane due to constant announcements for Damien Donnelly (that’s me) to pick up the nearest courtesy phone, various friends phoning in their goodbyes, along with one too many manic phone calls from a deranged doctor that I’d dated for all of 5 minutes before I felt the cold brush of his scalpel that I’d just managed to escape.
If, that night, 18 years ago, my only problem had been that I couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower, then it would’ve been a stroll in the park. However, this wasn’t really the main concern. Let’s see, I had three huge and heavy suitcases, two back-packs, a bum bag, four portfolios of varying sizes (I was going to be the new Jean Paul Gaultier, seriously! The Irish version, of course, possible in Arran sweatshirts and tweed pants!), I had no job, nowhere to live, knew absolutely nobody, had no idea which direction to start walking in and, to top it all off, I’d never studied french, if you ignored the little grammar book I’d been trying to understand on the plane. Nevertheless, for some insane reason, instead of worrying about this or even seeing any of it as a problem, I felt blissfully happy, incredibly free, and wonderfully unknown. I just couldn’t see the Tower. I think missing the reality of the situation was actually a blessing for me!
The coach, that had brought me from the aforementioned cow shed, left me and everyone else at The James Joyce (an Irish bar, can you believe it? When I’m trying to get away from the place) in Porte Maillot, which is like dropping someone off in the middle of the M1, in a rainstorm. This meant that I found myself standing on a foreign street, getting soaked to the bone in foreign rain, wary about what and where the foreign bed would be that I’d be sleeping in and wondering how long the foreign money in my pocket was going to last. It had been in my pocket for over two weeks already and had begun to diminish before I’d even left Ireland. As a true Irishman, it was into the pub and out of the rain, but unlike the true Irishman, it was a whiskey and coke instead of a pint of the hard stuff.
By the second drink I’d developed enough courage to phone up a complete stranger. A friend of a friend had given me the number of a friend of hers who’d been living in Paris for the past twenty years and, if I’d nowhere to stay, I should phone her up. Well, nowhere to stay was defiantly the case and, as it was closing in on 7pm, I wasn’t too keen beginning the search for a hotel on a dark and wintry night, especially when I hadn’t a clue as to where I was. (I told you- no preparation!). Thankfully, the friend of the friend of the friend in question hadn’t forgotten her own language and we were straight into conversation, although it wasn’t quite going in the direction I’d hoped. I hung up the phone and stared at the piece of paper, a phone number for an Irish college that acted as a hostel for students and young Gaelic travellers. ‘Give them a call and they’re bound to have a room, ask for Rosen, mention my name.’ The friend of the friend of the friend didn’t seem too keen on having a stranger over and I suddenly felt afraid and asked myself, for the first time, what the hell had I done?
I downed another whiskey, pushed the fears aside, and called the number. The first girl didn’t know Rosen, the second said the office was closed, the third asked if I knew what room Rosen stayed in and did I have a description, and then the second girl, returning to the phone, cleared everything up by telling me that Rosen ran the place but didn’t live there. Apparently, this wasn’t the office number but the student pay phone and, as the students had nothing to do with the allocation of rooms, they couldn’t help me out. Instead, they offered me their best wishes, urged me to call the office in the morning and quickly hung up the phone, leaving me with a dead line and a dead end! I was gutted and felt let down by my first encounter with the Irish community in Paris. I was already becoming a french snob!
So it was back to the friend of the friend of the friend. She had, reluctantly, said to phone her back if all else failed. When I phoned her up, I was almost at the point of tears and when I hung up, I think I actually shed one or two. My first impressions of her had been completely wrong. ‘Here’s my address, come on over and have you eaten anything?‘ were her exact words. Thanks be to God! I had somewhere to stay and I hadn’t wasted my money on the bottle of Brandy I’d already bought her in the duty-free. It was all wonderful again so I had another drink before deciding to splash out and pop into the restaurant upstairs to have my first French feast. I forgot that being an Irish bar, it was also an Irish restaurant.
After my first dinner in Paris, my new home town, I used the courage from the alcohol warming my insides to hail a taxi, speak my first bit of French and meet a stranger and her daughter, who she mentioned would stay in to meet me. Paris, here I come.
It was still raining outside as I left the bar and I still couldn’t see the Tower as a taxi manically whisked me through the foreign streets with more foreign rain on the windows, distorting the shapes and colours of this beautiful place. If it were a movie, the camera would have filmed me struggling down the Boulevard Gouvion St-Cyr, hailing and loading myself into a taxi that would drive off into the distance before the camera would pan back, zoom up over Paris’ famed Palais des Congrès before turning left to the Arc de Triomphe with the Champs-Éysées stretching out behind it and, of course, standing tall and proud down from the Arc, just across the river, would be the vision of La Tour Eiffel. It had been behind me the entire time, just beyond an arc and a rain drop, watching its newest citizen set out to discover the adventures that lay in wait for him behind the passionate puddles of Paris.