It has been said that If you live in Paris at a young enough age, it never leaves you. Following my sixteenth birthday, I spent a year in Paris on the Left Bank, and it is only now I realise just how much has stayed. Not just the fact that I say 'eh voila!' at the slightest occurrence, or 'quel domage' when a friend is down on their luck; or the fact that when in philosophical mood I trot out 'well, you know how it is, everyone has the faults of their qualities' always said with a slight shrug of the shoulders, and inevitably met with a blank look.
What has never left me is a feeling that life is unbearably special the moment there is a white cloth to hand to throw over a table; or a large slab of unsalted butter lying glistening on a plate; or a bottle of red wine uncorked, or a plate of tiny, freshly fried chips beckoning from a bowl.. But that is just food. The specialness of the Left Bank was that it was not swanky, as it is now, rather it was fashionably unfashionable, and certainly not indecorously rich, it was very much itself, and proud to be so.
The idea was that if you lived on the Left Bank you knew you were someone who realised that things owned you, and the more you accumulated the heavier your heart became. From our side of the bank the folk who lived on the opposite bank, the Right Bank were to be pitied. They thought their houses, their apartments, their jewels, their motor cars, all were to be envied, while we on the Left Bank, we knew, absolutely, they were doomed to feeling incomplete, restless, unable to settle for a little, whereas for us, a little was a great deal, because we lived in Le Quartier where art and philosophy and not mammon ruled as emperor and king.
Cities always improve with rain, their contours softened, but Paris needed no improvement from the skies, yet whenever it rained on the Left Bank the famous cafes and revered restaurants became ever more inviting, their marsh lights calling you into their special atmosphere of self conscious awareness, their security in the knowledge of their fame. Even the waiters appeared to be not moving but gliding, always seeming to be waiting for anyone and everyone to arrive, their expressions of superiority reflecting that they wanted you to understand that they had probably just attended the table which Camus or Sartre had recently vacated. The way they glanced at you with vague condescension you knew that in their minds, if not in anyone else's, they were about to rival Proust's output, pencilling volume after volume on lined paper in a damp attic somewhere above the Rue de Seine.
The students always look like students, so much so that if they crossed to the Right Bank their clothes would turn to uniforms, as apparent as those of the gendarmes. Few students would dare to wear anything except navy blue. Navy blue to the Left Bank was like green to the Irish, it was de rigeur. Polo necks were sported, navy again, of course - and scarves tied with an alarming chic, and shoes studied as critically as a book on philosophy. So much so that cafe conversation reflected fanatical praise if they happened to be the right design, or terrifying derision if they were in poor taste, the wearer risking all unless he or she realised their poor taste and jettisoned them, at once, enfin!
Down the narrow streets we walked, navy blue spirits of independence, a baguette bought at the street market under one arm, a small volume of French poetry under the other, a mass of untried adventures and new thoughts running through our heads, wondering, always wondering, what? I mean - what? What will happen next?
What happened next was that I left Paris, but Paris stayed, never to leave, a sitting tenant, the beloved coffee pot still used, navy blue coats still worn, a white cloth always to hand, each new day leaving me expecting to round a corner and see the lights of some restaurant or cafe beckoning me into its warmth, its particular atmosphere of superiority and warmth. .
Copyright Charlotte Bingham