Some things never change - my impressions of Paris at twenty



After a busy weekend in Geneva, I wasn't quite sure what I would write about today until I read Claire L's comment about transcribing her mother's travel journal from her trip to Paris in 1955. It reminded me that I have an ancient letter of my own - one from June 1983.

Twenty years old and on my second trip to Europe, here is an excerpt of what I wrote to my parents after staying with the family of Eric, the Parisian exchange student whom we had hosted the previous summer:

Dear Mom and Dad,

...Yesterday morning Mrs. M and I went to the market. I can't explain how enjoyable it is to go shopping and see the fresh food. Although I don't enjoy seeing dead chickens with their heads still attached. We bought quail eggs. Supposedly you take three the first day, four the second day, and five the third day -- this cures allergies [hay fever]. Also we purchased fruit, cheese, fish, etc, etc. Later Mrs. M sent me on my big mission -- I bought two baguettes by myself. I went into the patisserie (bakery) and said very boldly, "Je voudrais deux baguettes s'il vous plait monsieur." (I would like two baguettes, please, sir) Ah, what knowledge! She also has me explain to the family what we have done during the day and always checks to make sure that I remember the smallest detail. Under her tutelage, I have learned the Paris metro system (I couldn't tell her that I already knew it), the bus system and, in some ways, my way around Paris. Now she says that I am a guide for Paris (because I guided us through the metro) and a bread buyer! You weren't aware of my capabilities, huh?...

Today Eric and I went to the Versailles train station to make my reservations for Geneva. He parked in the taxi parking place (which everyone does here) but unfortunately his car got towed away. It took us one hour to get the reservation because the people were so slow. I wanted to start organizing them in a better fashion....

It is so fun with the habit of kissing both cheeks. When I met the two girls (Eric's friends) it was peck, peck, when you say "good-bye" kiss kiss...

Oh, yes--I mentioned to Mrs. M that my birthday was Friday because she asked if I was Valerie's age. So today they gave me a bottle of Chanel perfume...

What else can I say -- there is so much because there is nothing like Paris. I have a special good feeling when I am here and it feels as if all of my senses are alive...

Mom--We have been having goat cheese. Something you would like very much. Also, there is something called "fromage frais", fresh cheese. You mix this cheese which is very soft like yogurt with fruit and sprinkle the top with sugar. Ah, it has a taste you can't imagine. Better than almost any dessert I have ever had. ...

Everyone take care. I miss all of you and very often I see something that I know one of you would especially like. Then I miss you more because I wish that you all were here to share these experiences with me. Love, Mary Kay

PSS... I just returned to my seat from the bar where the train staff had a small celebration for my birthday. I was going to celebrate by myself with a bottle of wine but soon many people were participating. When I returned from the bathroom they had a small butter cake with 20 matches stuck in the top. So then I blew out the 20 matches/candles. I think that all of the passengers thought it was a good idea to have a birthday celebration. And I believe that they were pleased that I could understand and speak French. We went through many small bottles of wine and one person said that it was the first time an American had drunk good wine.


Is it any wonder that I'm so happy to live in Paris?! If you would like to see some photos from my first trip, please click here.

Whether you're 18 or 98, I would love to hear about your first impressions of Paris.

Comments

  1. What an incredible letter! You're so lucky to still have it (but it makes me wonder to what depth your collection goes--hoarding?) And even back then you were appreciating the French way of life and not complaining about it--it set you up well for what was to come.

    And it's typewritten--did you travel with a typewriter? I would never have typed a letter.

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  2. Oh, Joseph! You guessed - I'm a hoarder. That's why I never show any photos of the inside of our apartment. It's stacked high with old letters and mementos from around the world.

    But in all seriousness, moving every couple of years keeps the clutter level way down. My mother kept all of my letters because I never wrote a diary and she felt that I would want to have them some day. Shortly before her death, she started sending the letters back to me, a couple at a time, along with notes about what she felt re-reading them so many years later. Writing this, I've got a few tears in my eyes because I really appreciate her thoughtfulness and foresight.

    The original letter wasn't typewritten. My mother transcribed the handwritten one (maybe because it was illegible?) that I wrote while on the train to Geneva so that she could send it to our relatives. Most of my letters were written on aerograms - do you remember the piece of blue paper that you folded into an envelope for international mail?

    I've had a long love affair with Paris - sometimes more, sometimes less. What made me laugh is that I wanted to "organize" the French when I was 20. Now that's funny! Re-reading this letter also made me realize that I had visited the Louvre. Something that I had completely forgotten.

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  3. This is fantastic, Mary Kay! I wish I could say my letters home (postcards, I never wrote full letters!) when I was that age were so eloquent! It is fun to rummage through the old memories sometimes....

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    1. Thanks, Abby! It really is fun to rummage through old memories sometimes, especially when they're such pleasant ones about Paris!

      For some reason, I don't get the same amount of pleasure reading through old emails. It makes me long for the days of pen and paper.

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  4. I'll let you know what I think of Paris when I get there, eventually! :)

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    1. You'll get here, Bridget! And when you do, you've got a place to stay. Just don't wait too long!

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  5. How I wish that my mom had saved my aerograms--even just some of them! I remember that same feeeling of wanting to organize them and I wanted to teach them how to stand in line! 40 years later, I still would like to teach them those lessons! Thanks for sharing your letter!

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    1. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who wanted to organize the French. And as for still wanting to teach them how to stand in line, you should have seen me at the butcher's shop today!

      It's a shame that your mom didn't save any of your aerograms but at least you'll always have your memories of Paris. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. I was 14 years old, summer of 1986, ending a two week tour of Europe with my French class. We FINALLY arrived in Paris, the highlight of the trip. Having taken French only one year I was amazed at how much I grasped and was able to use it at restaurants & shops. First thing I did was manage to buy a battery - "pile" - for my friend's camera. I was so proud. We left the morning of Bastille Day so we got to experience all the craziness of the parties the night before. At 14 I KNEW to the depths of my soul Paris was where I was supposed to be. I still get that feeling when I got back. A feeling of calmness, of being grounded. Hard to explain but those who feel this way know what I mean!
    PS.....I have my journal from all my trips and it's SO fun to go back and ready what you choose to write about!

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    1. Amy, I know exactly what you mean about feeling grounded and knowing that you're where you're meant to be. I felt that way during my early trips to Paris and then became less enchanted with the city. Now, Paris has worked its way back into my heart and I don't think that it's going to leave.

      You're so lucky to have journals from all of your trips! In spite of my best intentions, I've never been good at writing in a journal for more than a couple of days. Did you write more about the things that you saw or the way that you felt? If it's about the things that you saw, it would be fun to retrace your steps!

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    2. I mostly wrote about what I saw.... and on my last Paris trip & Scotland I wrote in detail about what I ate! This last trip however was all documented on Facebook & emails back home so I actually printed, then pasted the pages into the journal. I'm toying with the idea of setting up my own blog before my next trip. Watch for Amy's Travel Adventures Abroad. I'll get it up and running before then :) I may use Wordpress or Blogspot ---need one with a good mobile app.

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    3. Writing about what you ate - I can relate to that!

      If I would have known anything about blogging before I started, I would have used Wordpress. I think that it's a much better platform. I'll be on the lookout for "Amy's Travel Adventures Abroad"! Please let me know as soon as you write your first post!

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  7. That's a wonderful, enthusiastic letter. And when you wrote it you had no idea you'd be living here a few years down the line.
    I hadn't realised that about quails eggs and hayfever. We kept quails for a while but got very few eggs out of them. They are the ditziest birds going and sadly the cats grew quite partial to their heads ...

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    1. Steph, Even though I didn't know that I would be living in Paris in 2012, I have to admit that it was one of my short term goals when I was 20. I just got distracted along the way!

      Quail eggs are supposed to be really healthy for you. Perhaps your cats were a bit confused as to which part of the quail they were supposed to eat! It sounds as if things can be a bit grisly on your farm, what with the beheaded quails and the sheep suppositories!

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  8. Mary Kay...what a lovely momento of your mother for you to keep! This letter is priceless, and how wonderful of you to be able to hear what your 20 year old self thought of Paris.

    My 14 year old self was fascinated with the history of Paris. The fist time I left my parents on a fantastic school trip, when we stayed on Boulevard St Michel we were bused to all the great places. Versailles, Invallides, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre. My imagination was fascinated by imagining myself as Parisienne lady living in days gone bye. I fell in love with Paris then, it made me feel so good, I loved to speak my French. ( sadly I have lost that now). My friends and I also had great times flirtng with the French boys, who made us feel so exotic....provoking great anxiety in out teachers! LOL!

    When I returned aged 50 for a belated honeymoon with my current husband, we had such a romantic time, I always associate Paris with romance and glamour and fascinating history. She still makes me feel good!

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    1. Only 14 years old and flirting with French boys? Denise, you surprise me!

      Isn't it wonderful to have such a wealth of memories - from those of a young school girl to a married woman - of your days in Paris. There's something to be said about going back to a place because it helps you find yourself. At least that's how I feel about Paris. I frequently catch glimpses of my younger self in the young women I see visiting the city for the first time.

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  9. I wouldn't call myself a "hoarder", but I do in fact have a couple or more banana boxes stuffed with old letters and journals from the time when I was young and used to travel and live in foreign countries like Egypt.Now, we've been living in the same house for more than 21 years - and I always thought I'd re-read them as soon as we're moving to another place. Your post reminded me of all these letters and I'm tempted to go downstairs to our basement and dig them out... First time I was in Paris at the age of 16 (!) I ordered "ris de veau" and expected a rice (french: riz) dish with veal. Instead I got "sweetbread", probably the only dish that I just couldn't eat!! Well, this explains why I chose to study English and not French :-)

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    1. Heidi, I wouldn't call you a horder either! Did you dig out your old travel journals from the basement? Do you plan to share them with your children at some point? I'm sure that they would like to meet the young woman who was to become their mother.

      As for "ris de veau", I still haven't eaten it...although I will one of these days. When I do, I'm sure that I'll smile and think of you expecting to be served rice. And I'm so happy that you studied English rather than French because otherwise we may not have met!

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  10. What a priceless memento! Thanks for sharing this with us. You certainly sound like an intelligent, charming, and poised young lady. When I read my old diaries, I cringe from embarrassment at how ditzy I sound. No way would I ever publish my musings!

    My first trip to Paris was brief, just a 2 day side trip from London, but I immediately fell in love. I was broke and traveling alone. I stayed at a youth hostel and couldn't afford to eat much more than baguettes and cheese, but I was so happy to be in Paris. I walked around for hours at night, just soaking up the loveliness.

    To Denise- so glad to "see" you again! This is nycgirl from TA. Your first trip to Paris sounds wonderful. I would have loved to go to Paris as a teenager and flirt with the French boys!

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    1. Baguettes, cheese and cheap hotels reminds me of me first trip to Paris! I think it's somehow part of the charm. At least it was for me because I remember thinking that I wouldn't mind being a starving artist/author/whatever if I could only have a little room in Paris.

      I don't know if Denise saw your comment or not, but she has a blog now in case you want to "visit" her there.

      Thanks for sharing your memories from your first trip!

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  11. And there I thought I was the only person on this earth still writing actual notes, letters and cards on stationary and even confiding them to the French postal system.... LOL :)
    I too always have written and always will - and before my dad was too ill to do much he returned some of my letters written in Canada to me... the ones he felt still strongly after all those long years after! They are my treasure because they remind me of those times, bring back memories, good and bad ones, and make me feel thankful for so many things...
    My first and only experience with Paris was some maybe 16-18yrs ago when I travelled here on a whim and only for a few days. I stood for hours in a queue to get into the Musée d’Orsay, it was a miserable, cold, rainy and wet day, I fell up or down on one of the now most probably defunct metal metro stairs because I’m just such a ‘pushover’, I had a simple but marvellous meal in a bistro of the Quartier Latin – and NOW, after four years of living nearby Paris, I still haven’t been on the Eiffel Tower… :)
    I LOVE your mom for typing your handwritten letters – what a sign of love and pride in her child!!! I wish I could do the same thing for my son – but as I said before, I seem to be the only member of this family who actually CAN write!

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    1. Aren't old letters precious, Kiki! How perceptive your father was to save them and return them to you at the appropriate time. I often think that we've gained a lot with the internet and emails but that we've also lost a lot. Good for you for using the French postal system. I only use it for bills and such. It is, however, always such a pleasure to receive a piece of real mail!

      Well, I've been to the Eiffel Tower a couple of times but unlike you, I still haven't been to the Musee d'Orsay. Isn't it interesting what things we choose to visit first in Paris and what things we save for later. I keep telling myself that I'll get there some day yet for many people it's the first thing that they want to visit in Paris.

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  12. MK!!! This is just so precious and wonderful! Your writing style is still the same... all the wonderful details. Sounds like you such a great time during you stay in Paris!! My time abroad in Barcelona was amazing and I have two great scrapbooks as memories.

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    1. You're lucky to have two scrapbooks of memories from your time in Barcelona! It seems as if it got under your skin the same way that Paris did mine.

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  13. Thanks for sharing your experience. I would love to spend a holiday in Paris.

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