Monday 17 December 2012

La vie en rose

Grace is leaning out of the window, her dark hair tumbled down her back. Outside, under blue skies, a small street sweeper trundles past along the gutters, casting rainbows in droplets of water and causing the streets to glitter in the morning sun. One of the net curtains catches and billows in a slight breeze.

I gaze past my daughter at a view I have loved for years: the glorious lofty towers and buttresses of Notre Dame. Our room, in this lopsided, timbered hotel on the street where I used to live, pushes up against a jumble of buildings on the quayside in front of the cathedral, allowing us to look directly out at the lolling gargoyles and stained glass above. It feels as though we are pressing our noses against God's windows.

"Another day in Paradise," Grace sighs, and turns to me. "When can we go in?"

"As soon as you're ready," I tell her, and she huffs, and closes the window with regret, and prepares herself for the boringly stressful process of dressing and brushing her hair. To divert her as I coax her into jeans and shirt, I put on MTV, where a bunch of Europoppers are leaping around singing an instantly catchy tune. The chorus goes: "I wanna travel the world, I wanna travel the world, I wanna travel the world with you." Grace grins at me and we start singing along.

My daughter is about to turn eleven and I have brought her to my favourite place in the world to celebrate and to show her all the things I love about this city, which I left the year before I fell pregnant with her. I am so full of emotions - love, pride, happiness, nostalgia, regret - that I fear I am in danger of spontaneous combustion, so I hustle us both along and out of the room as fast as I can. We clatter down the winding staircase - down and round and down and round (not for nothing do we get that view: later we will have to push each other up these same stairs to get to our fourth floor chamber) - giggling at the ancient paintings on show. There are lots of boobs and bums. "Welcome to Paris," I tell her.

It's still so early that we are able to walk straight into the cathedral. We light candles in one of the alcoves and whisper together, then I walk her down the right-hand transept and turn her by her shoulders and lift her chin to see the light falling through the rose window. She gasps and her beautiful face is bathed in pink and blue dapples.

Later, we walk to the Louvre. Grace, asked what she wants to do most of all, wants to see the Mona Lisa. As we walk I point out the Hotel Dieu and tell her about the history of the hospital known as 'God's Hotel', translate street signs and plaques to the intellectual dead that are as common in this city as litter bins. I draw her attention to the art nouveau metro entrance in winding iron and beautiful green enamel. We cross the bridge and there is the Hotel de Ville. Grace asks where the Eiffel Tower is, and I point it out on our left, peeping over the top of the fairytale turrets of the Palais de Justice. She claps her hands and jumps, and I wince. I know that secretly she really wants to climb the Eiffel Tower and that she's not asking me because she knows I don't (can't) do heights. I can't do heights and I can't (don't) ice skate. Outside the Hotel de Ville is a pretty, Christmassy ice rink. She looks and sighs. We walk on.

Arriving at the Louvre, we pass under the glass pyramid - Grace goggling at the panache of a people that would put this edifice of glass and steel in the middle of a 16th century courtyard and make it look like the icing on the cake - and pay for a guided tour. We are asked to wait briefly in an ante room for our guide to join us, and so meet the rest of our group: two young Australian students and three chatty Americans, one of whom went up the Eiffel Tower the night before and tells us with shiny-cheeked enthusiasm every detail, including how, actually, she's scared of heights and wasn't worried by the experience at all and how in fact it was the most beyond marvellous thing. Ever. Grace turns mute puppy-dog eyes at me. I switch on a big fake smile. At that point - thank God, I knew lighting that candle would come in handy - the tour guide arrives. She is a smartly-dressed woman of a certain age, with excellent bearing and immaculate make-up and sensible shoes. She tells us all to switch on our headsets so that we will be able to hear her over the hubbub of the rest of the museum crowds. One of the jolly Americans says that his headset is broken. Of course it's not, the guide tells him crisply. And indeed, it's not.

We start with the foundations of the ancient fortress that the Louvre was. The guide talks of stonecutters and moats. The jolly American asks: Didn't people just swim? The guide looks at him and says: No. The rest of us quail, but he continues: How deep was it? Couldn't they just have swum it? The guide looks at him again and says: Boiling oil. Soldiers. He falls silent. Grace is drifting, bored, dreaming no doubt of the Eiffel Tower.

But the next room is Greek and Roman antiquity and there is the Venus de Milo and Grace comes alive. Then there is Winged Victory and the Apollo Gallery and the Raft of the Medusa and The Odalisque and she is listening hard and sketching madly and pink-cheeked with happiness and excitement. As we walk into the next room the guide announces that we will next see the Mona Lisa and Grace is sweaty-palmed with anticipation. We see a huge crowd bulging and bobbing impatiently around a barrier three feet from a glass case behind which in a gilded frame a brown-haired woman smiles faintly at us all. Beside me a girl snaps her gum in disappointment and says, "Is that it?" When I look around for Grace she is already gone, has wriggled through and under and got to the very front of the crowd, where she is gazing in wonder at the painting. Her hair is all mussed up and her coat is askew. I look at her adoring this piece of art the way other eleven year olds adore One Direction and I love her so much, so hotly and suddenly and fiercely that I have to blink away tears and tune in to the tour guide telling the cheerful Americans about the radical use of triangulation by da Vinci and eventually I compose myself.

That afternoon we walk up the Champs Elysees to see the lights and the shops and the Arc de Triomphe. We pass endless stalls of Christmas tat, a winter 'fayre' which makes me laugh to see it here in this beautiful place, like Simone Signoret wearing Primark, and I have to tug Grace past because she's complaining now that her legs hurt and that she's tired. But then we come to Sephora and to my amazement, my Aspergers girl, who hates noise and bright lights and smelly smells, dives in and loves it. Her artist's eye loves the shelves of colours and textiles. She coos over vintage perfume bottles. She squirts and sniffs endless perfumes and makes rolling-eyed gag-faces to make me laugh at the more outlandish ones. Before we leave, I buy her her very own: Anais Anais. She holds it reverently and tells me she loves me.

There is more and more and more. It is a wonderful weekend. We go to the Musee D'Orsay on Sunday and Grace twirls with abandon through the gilded ballroom. We have lunch in a cafe, where the woman beside us leans over to tell me, "Your daughter is so beautiful I can't stop looking at her." We hold hands all day, every day. Grace walks on my left. It has been so long since I just held her hand all day. I have forgotten how she leans and pulls down slightly on my hand, how she has done this since a little girl. By the time we go home she has left me with an ache down my left shoulder and arm, across the top of my chest. She has, literally, tugged on my heartstrings for the last two days.

When she goes to bed, I miss her.


  1. Wishing you, your family and especially your lovely Grace a very happy Christmas. x

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