My little 'un's choice of pram reading the other day (a Michelin book of Paris maps!) reminded me of something. I'd been thinking about my trips to Paris thus far and some of the insecurities that wove a common thread between the two. But there was something else, a key consideration that I'd somehow overlooked on my haste to take the blame for the inadequacies that came to bear when visiting the City of Light (or, recently, just reading about it!).
My first trip was booked on a whim using frequent flyer points. I booked a year ahead, declaring that I wanted to spend my thirtieth birthday in Paris. Closer to the time, my sister decided she wanted to join me. This was a very welcome development and my sister and I are close, she's terrific company and she'd also been to Paris several times and is a fluent French-speaker (and has a great sense of direction, unlike me).
Unfortunately, at the time, she was going through a major upheaval in her life, one that tore the fabric of my tiny family into a zillion pieces. I wish I could say we were more supportive of her and each other but, sadly, all four of us could have done a lot better. Grief, hurt and confusion don't always bring out the best in us... especially when we are at odds on how to communicate our way through it.
So although we did have a splendid time, and I had a fantastic 30th birthday (and fell in love with Paris), a massive elephant followed us around from room to room... occasionally making its presence felt by way of dramatic SMSes from home, covert emailing and, once, an acute argument that saw us storming off to separate parts of the city. (Peace was made in a tiny shoppe selling pens and quills and ink and sweet little stationery.)
My second trip was with my husband, then boyfriend of seven months. He was attending a trade show in Paris and I decided to meet up with him afterwards. I was so looking forward to this little jaunt, returning to my favourite city with the love of my life, who also happened to be a fluent French speaker and a regular visitor to France (he also has a great sense of direction and does a great job of reading maps and trawling through guidebooks where I lack the patience).
We had travelled a considerable amount together around Australia and New Zealand, mainly during my work trips. What I hadn't realised, was that although my sweetheart was a seasoned traveller, he was not a relaxed one. For the first time, with the structure of my work commitments framing our time, decisions needed to be made about where we would go, how we would get there, and what we would do. There were also delicate money discussions to be had.
My poor sweetheart had also had his bag stolen on the train to Paris, just before I had arrived (he had been visiting a friend in Holland). So the few days before and after my arrival were spent filing police reports, calling the travel insurance company, visiting the Australian Embassy to get a new passport, replenishing lost toiletries, mourning the loss of his new camera, iPod, glasses etc.
It was not the most auspicious start to our supposedly romantic holiday. And I was reminded of this on an hourly basis by my mother, who kept sending me SMSes to not-very-subtly enquire as to whether we had become engaged. Upon receiving news of the stolen bag, prior to my departure, I had gone into "damage control" mode, gathering as much information and making myself as useful as possible from home. This was not greatly appreciated and turned into the learning curve that I'd rather hoped not to have. It was about miscommunication, it was about confused resentment about the roles we each assumed the other would play, it was about not packing warm enough clothes, it was about succumbing to hideous colds on the way home. It was about being prescribed sleeping tablets, supposedly to help my body clock overcome jetlag, that had a frightening adverse effect (I later learnt that it could have been much worse!).
On the morning I was due back to work, I had a panic attack. I was tired, unwell, unslept and afraid... and particularly dreading the effusions of well-meaning colleagues stealing glances at my wedding ring finger. The trip had revealed to me just how much work I'd need to do to function in this relationship, on myself but also on the way I communicated my needs, seeing as we were in for the long haul. I felt tired, daunted and alone.
Gradually, I became grateful for the learning curve. It taught me to be decisive rather than accommodating. It taught me to rephrase direct questions so they sounded more like invitations to wonder. It taught me that I could utilise my travelling companions' fluency in French to ask for assistance, badly but earnestly (given their reluctance to speak), and when worse came to worst just put myself at the mercy of Parlez Vous Anglais? It taught me to "Tell the truth, faster" as SARK would say, rather than simmer until implosion.
It taught me to leave behind my romantic ideas of what a holiday was supposed to be, and enjoy the tiny moments of joy that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
And, looking back, I see that it taught me that Paris will one day mine to explore, lost in translation, without other people's baggage.