Paris, April 1956
My first day in France! I surely must have known that the French drive on the wrong side of the road, nevertheless it took me completely by surprise. It is only by sheer good luck that I have even survived my first day. Paris may be romantic arm-in-arm with your lover but for a woman alone and disorientated, it is nothing short of terrifying. My schoolgirl French turns out to be hopeless. I might as well be surrounded by people speaking in chemical formulae or algebra equations.
Throughout the miserable grey drizzle of the channel crossing to Calais, I was dizzy with nerves and a sort of horrified fascination at my daring. By the time I stepped off the train at Gare du Nord in Paris my anxiety had billowed into blind terror. I had been given directions to a hotel booked on my behalf, not far from the station, and spent a good part of the journey poring over the map obsessively.
Exiting the station, I was ambushed by a beggar thrusting her filthy hand at me and gabbling wildly. I would have happily given her something as I have been furnished with some French francs for incidentals (although it was impressed upon me that every centime must be accounted for) but daren’t reach for my purse lest she snatch it. So, ditching all dignity, I sidestepped and scuttled off with my suitcase clasped to my chest. What a blessing that the map was seared into my mind – proof that anxiety can sometimes be good preparation.
Now, ensconced in a tiny hotel room, Paris life seethes all around me but I’m too nervous to leave my room. Whatever made me think I could do something like this? Thankfully I packed some sandwiches and a thermos of tea to keep me going; that will be my supper tonight. Paris is all behind me now. Leaving the hotel in the blur of dawn, the taxi thudding over cobblestones and careening down narrow streets, I was fearful I’d be lost deep in that city, never to be found. I made a feeble attempt with the driver but apparently my pronunciation of Gare de Lyon was not to his liking as he snarled, ‘Garrrrderrrrleeoon! ’ On reflection, I may actually have said guerre which I am almost certain means war, not railway station – my first diplomatic blunder.
I am now on the train travelling through flat, rural landscapes comfortingly reminiscent of the home counties. It is quite a journey down the length of France to Cannes but I have my book – Miss Christie’s latest – should I get bored. I had hoped to refresh my thermos with tea at the hotel but that proved well beyond my language capability. Really, did we learn a single practical phrase in Mrs Barker’s French class? You would expect being able to order tea would be the highest priority.
Initially it seemed I might have the first-class compartment to myself, which would have been ideal as I barely slept a wink last night. But as the train pulled out of the station, a handsome young man burst into the compartment and flung himself into the corner next to the window. He exuded the pleasant yeasty smell of decadence and was dressed in the style of the Romantic poets: emerald-green velvet jacket over a white voluminous shirt. No luggage. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and was asleep in trice.