THE CITY OF MY INNOCENT DREAMS
by Anton Wills-Eve
quite simply what the prompt made me write
THE CITY OF MY INNOCENT DREAMS
I remember once being young enough to think that the world would never change. It would always be the autumn of 1960 and I would always live in our new home on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris. I would spend every day of my life going to early Mass and then walking the short distance to the Sorbonne to immerse myself in studying French, Italian, Spanish, history and music. Late in the day I would earn a lot of pocket money covering major European sports events for my father’s News Agency, because the American staff knew nothing about the subject and I was a fanatic. My paradise had come early and in the city of my dreams.
Paris was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Everything was just as I wanted it to be as well. I never had breakfast at home. After serving Mass I would stop at a favourite Tabac on the Boulevarde Saint Michèle and have a croissant or brioche with a lovely steaming hot chocolate. There were always other students on their way to the university and we often had chats about everything under the sun. Lectures started soon after eight and it was constant study of a whole series of subjects relevant to French Mediaeval history until noon. Then three days a week I had four hours of various languages in the afternoon. On the other days it was music, in my case piano tuition and a couple of hours playing to continue the passion I had developed from the age of three in England. But Parisians also love eating.
Some days lunch would be in the university canteen, others just with a girlfriend at some nice restaurant she couldn’t afford but I could. Always she was invited for her ability to share my interests and my sense of fun. After an expensive, gourmet meal we would find time some days to see the really nice parts of Paris which we did not know. This did not mean all my companions were foreigners, not at all. Many French students came from far flung parts of the country and Paris was as much their first adventure in an unknown city as it was mine. The main places people wanted to see might include actual buildings like the Sacre Coeur or the Eiffel Tower, although I never ventured up it for reasons I shall explain. But my favourite pastime in my free hours was the art galleries, especially the Louvre and the Impressionist museum in the Tuilleries gardens. History of art was part of my course so this type of enjoyment was also very useful..
But I lived with my parents and my mother was terminally ill. I helped look after her as well. She was dying for most of my life and actually lasted out until I was nearly thirty. You can see that sanity could only be maintained in that sort of existence if you had two really important things in your life. Love, both spiritual and human, and the will to do everything you had to to fulfil the obligations that went with both. The other was money and we had always had plenty of that. I had a generous allowance from my father and I earned a lot through him as I have said, but then I needed a lot with the life I was forced to lead. I have often spoken in other posts and blogs about the crippling agoraphobia from which I have suffered all my life and in Paris this would have been a visit to hades without money. I had to take taxis everywhere for the first nine months until I passed my French driving test and could use the car. I couldn’t walk over any sort of river crossing so had to take cabs, or occasional buses if the stops were in the right places, if I was travelling to the right bank from the left or vice versa. But then, living on an island I had to use transport of some sort every time I went anywhere, every day to university at the start just to get off the Island. I couldn’t walk across a bridge. I still can’t.
But the beauty and friendliness of the city and its openly affectionate people made my life more than just manageable, it made itself into a place I thought I could never leave. I was only eighteen at the time I am talking about so I had no career even vaguely lined up in my mind. This was another world, a whole new adventure and I just wanted it to last forever. I soon got to know a lot of my father’s colleagues, through covering sports events and going back to the office to write about them. This sometimes meant having lunch with Dad and other journalists and I always got on well with them. I was blessed with a love of languages and ability to pick them up fast so was soon almost a member of the office staff, while also a university student. But my whole life was centred round seeing as much of a new culture in a beautiful city as I could manage.
Apart from time spent with mum, my sister also flew over from University in England at weekends to cheer her up, I loved taking visiting English friends to see the places I loved. This was especially true of Versailles, a half hour train journey out of town, which I think I went to with visiting friends and acquaintances about thirty times in my first year in the French capital. I almost became an expert on the place. But I had another way of helping deal with my awful phobia. Mass in the morning always got me off to a calming start but by the late afternoon I usually had either had a lot of alcohol with my lunch or, if it was a very busy day, would do so when eating at night. I also used to spend post sports events evenings with a stop off at a favourite bar and drink until about two in the morning. I actually got my first ulcer during my second year at university through lack of sleep. At least that was what the doctors put it down to. Nowadays we know ulcers can be caused by many different things. But filling up my Parisian life, right from the start, with so much to do was the only way I could live with my illness.
The strongest memory I have of that first term at university was getting home one night when Mum was feeling really bad and needed more medication, and being told I would die first if I carried on drinking so heavily. But she added one extraordinary comment, about three in the morning. “Why are you never drunk? You should be falling over with what you’ve had!” I told her I used my alcohol intake to control my phobia and it wore off as soon as I drank it. She just laughed and said I really had to give up fooling people into thinking I was mentally ill. She called it a poor excuse for enjoying myself. I gave up that night and never tried to make her accept my illness again.
But maybe that was what I really loved about Paris then, still so patriotically post war and so de Gaullistly anti-English. They accepted me because I was a Scots Australian, that was fine. The city satisfied all my needs, provided me with the chance to learn what I loved and love what I learned in every sense. It was vibrant, incredibly human and openly unashamed of the fact – nobody could have said that of the London which I had left! The people were all Catholics like me, well nominally, and I was later to learn how difficult it can be to live a life you only have to acknowledge and not really practise. Of course I knew it was the romantic and free love centre of Europe, but that did not matter as it would have done when I was much younger. Flesh pots were Satan’s hotels in England, not in Paris. Nobody even seemed to notice them, something I took time to understand. But at eighteen I was sexually inexperienced and had no immediate intentions of changing that, much as many of my student friends might have made me want to. I preferred Mass, piano music, and enjoying the human company of people so different to anything I had known before. In short I was just starting my introduction to a city and its life that I never wanted to end.
What a shame all our lives are complete operas and such brief interludes as my autumn of 1960, in the Paris of my innocent dreams, was only an overture.