Friday, 24 October 2008

Ma Sœur, la Proustienne Involontaire

It felt almost like a pilgrimage. Strapping on my most serious and anticipatory navy-blue expression (and yet, being distracted by hedgehog chestnut shells), we trekked up the cobblestone path of La Père Lachaise. All of his twisting wine-bottle words and his swirling bedroom and his greatcoat and his folds of blankets like meringues and his coffee and his madeleines and his distant cathedral spires and his coach-seat meditations and the seeing of familiar faces in strangers… all of these things wove around the rain-stained headstones, pointing with silk-gloved fingers towards – of all things – a number. Plot 85.

One back from the road, in a shiny rectangular box, lay Proust. I stood there, awaiting the teaspoons and thimbles and buckets of melancholic satisfaction sure to hit me like a chestnut out of a Parisian tree.

I felt a vibration. But it was not the awaited chestnut. It was not the inner rumbling of a pilgrim’s joy. It was my Sony Ericsson W200i announcing an incoming call.

‘Hi, it’s Laura!’
‘Hi Laura! Where are you? You sound tired.’
‘I’m in bed.’

The seriousness fell off me like a liquid dress. There was a puddle of sentences at my feet. I could see my sister, phone to ear, lying in her absolute favourite place to be: her bed.

Proust would definitely have approved!

Monday, 20 October 2008

Another Slingshotted Sultana from Paris

I visited Paris with my friend Marc, who may or may not have been increasingly irritated by my futile outbursts of ‘why wasn’t I born here?’ every third pavement stone or so. I know it is an incredibly obvious observation to make, but these Europeans with their easy style, double-cheek kissing greetings and access to Hemingway cafés are just so… different.

I sat at a café in Montparnasse (where, like all Parisian cafés, all the chairs face out to the street, so you talk side-by-side watching the little posh dogs trot by rather than face-to-face (a setup making philosophical musings less likely)) and watched people coming and going – girls smoking and reading French papers, men having animated, hand-flailing discussions, darkly-dressed High School boys greeting each other with quiet, earnest expressions – and it wasn’t just the language barrier that made all of this frustratingly impenetrable. It was their mysterious lifestyle: their meeting friends at this café, strolling here from tiny unknown streets in their dark clothes and their assured, two-kiss mindset.

It was their childhood.

Earlier in the day we had walked through Parc Monceau and there was a group of school kids in navy blue uniforms jostling and scuffing their feet on the dusty white gravel and taunting each other in tiny French voices. It was just regular kid stuff, but as we walked out of the gold-rimmed gates and onto a boulevard leading to the Arc de Triomphe, I saw how the places people do their ‘regular kid stuff’ in can turn them into multilingual, darkly dressed, earnest discussion-havers, or confused, sunny Australians who can only say ‘I think we’re out of milk again’ in one language (and yes, these are the only alternatives. You’re either a French philosopher or an Australian in need of a quick trip to Coles…). Australian kids play Bullrush in grassless playgrounds off of the Northern Road. French kids play pétanque in a park off the Champs-Élysées. We went on excursions to Warragamba Dam or Questacon in Canberra. They go on excursions to the Loire Valley or the palace of Versailles.

Now, before all of my Australian friends get the wrong idea and call me an unappreciative cretin, I should say that I loved growing up in Australia. When Mum would stop off at Tony’s fruit and veg shop on the way home from school to buy us a Bubble-o-Bill, I really felt that life couldn’t get much better. But it is impossible not to compare, and to wonder about impossibilities.

Marc, for example, grew up in Basel: a region of Switzerland that borders France and Germany. Apart from the ability to say ‘we used to pop over to France for our lemons and to Germany for our baba ghanoush (incongruous as that may seem…), if you add to this happy location an Italian grandmother, English mother and Swiss father, you end up with someone who can speak about 16 languages fluently and who can walk down tiny but familiar streets to cafés where the girls are reading about politics, the hand-flailing men are discussing Russian history, and the darkly-dressed High School boys greet each other with quiet, earnest expressions because that is the way it is done.

Slightly different to a Bubble-o-Bill on the way home...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


It has taken a while to get things together since my last update, because I have visited Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Barcelona since then and have been overwhelmed into silence. I’m like one of those Fritzl children finally emerging from the dungeon: wide-eyed, illiterate, lost, and about to shut down from sensory overload.

But even though I feel like I’ve just eaten ten mud-cakes, eighteen croque monsieurs and forty-six tubs of rum and raisin gelato (which may not be too far from the truth, so long as you add in twenty tapas lunches and seventy-eight espressos…), and will need to lie down for a few months to let them digest, I don’t want to wait until I’ve forgotten what a croque monsieur tastes like before I get started. So forgive me if I’m only serving you slabs of icing and then oozings of cheese, followed by a slingshotted sultana into the shoulder, but I need to let the flavours out in whatever way they come!

The first slingshotted sultana: Paris Perfumes

One of the first things I noticed about Paris was how nice it smells. As opposed to London or Sydney, where you get intermittent stabs of B.O. or that otherwise ubiquitous deodorant choice for men whose nostrils have been silenced in favour of overblown advertisements pushing the blatantly false idea that women will be yours by the aircraft-hangar-full if you douse yourself liberally in this eye-wateringly strong scent: Lynx body spray; on Parisian sidewalks you drift by the most foot-stoppingly, head-turningly, breathe-in-ingly good smells. They are always ‘just enough’. You only notice it once the person has already passed. A woman in a bright blue coat and leather boots passes you with a floral, woody, understated loveliness. A 20 year old boy is somehow mature enough to choose something subtle and appealing: like grey toasted hazelnuts. An old lady with the most well-coordinated, stylin’ outfit you have ever seen on someone that age makes you turn to follow a sweet, warm scent of hot milk and almond shortbread.

Sometimes there will be a group of three ladies talking on a street corner. As you go past, the perfumes rise and fall in polite competition, saying ‘you first,’ ‘no, after you,’, ‘oh thank you, but I will only be brief. It is your turn now, and then yours, my dear.’

More sultanas to follow shortly…