Thoughts for Black Coffee & Cigarettes

When I reflect on my life so far, I often picture my father standing at a table, piecing together tiny puzzle pieces. What seems fragmented and disorganised at first eventually becomes a beautiful picture. Whenever he wants to complete the next section of his puzzle, he can simply walk to our dining room table and start rearranging the shapes until they connect. For me, I have always felt as though I had to travel outside of Australia in order to connect my pieces. 

And that’s exactly what happened in Paris. All of a sudden, I was able to finally complete my puzzle.

Looking towards Pont Neuf from Quai du Louvre

I always thought that Paris would be my first. 

But like everything else in my life, my first time overseas was not as poetic as I had hoped it would be.

It would have been easy, too easy in a way, for me to go to Paris first. I had lusted after the thought of waltzing down Parisian alleyways since I was a little girl. To this day, I cannot pinpoint exactly where my fascination with Paris began. It is more a collection of moments from my childhood. My mum speaking French while I was in primary school, my favourite movie set in Montmartre, the time I discovered Carla Bruni and Camille whilst scrolling the depths of Tumblr, all of my favourite artists originating, or living, in Paris. The food, the people, the history. Somehow, everything always came back to Paris, and thus visiting became my ultimate dream. 

'Once I visit Paris, I will be able to die happy,’ I can remember exclaiming to my mother.

So I started learning French, via the tutelage of a woman who I will only ever know through her crackly voice coming through the receiver on my home phone. This was back in 2006 when my family still had an old-fashioned landline with a cord. ‘Un, deux, trois,’ I would pipe down the phone back to the faceless woman every Friday night.

A few years later, I had fooled my mother into believing I was sick, and although depression and anxiety is an illness, at the time I didn’t realise I was mentally unwell. I opened our DVD cupboard and felt like watching something new, and that’s when I saw it. Right in the back corner, the sticky plastic wrapping catching the light and my eye. I pulled out the DVD, unwrapped it and turned on the television without any clue as to how the film would shape me in the moments to come.

At a time where I had never felt more alone or different from my friends at school, here was a character I identified with so strongly, I felt as though the director had hijacked my deepest thoughts and made a movie out of them. The cinematography intensified my obsession with photography, which was blossoming at the time, and the music quickly became what I called, the soundtrack to my life. I scribbled that thought down in my 2012 journal when I secured tickets to see the composer perform live in Melbourne. 

My fascination only continued to grow when I graduated from high school and started studying Fine Art. In the first few months of 2013, I can vividly remember sitting in a stale university tutorial room. The air conditioner was cranked up to almost freezing, humming and droning out the silence as ten of us watched two-dimensional images blinking in front of our eyes via a projector on the wall.

The task was to analyse an example of gothic-inspired architecture in Melbourne. I sat out the front of St Patrick’s Cathedral, staring down the gargoyles, and walked inside, observing how the nave resembled the roof of one’s mouth. The exterior’s blue stone glistened in the afternoon light, and as I was meticulously sketching a section of the flying buttresses, I imagined I was sitting in the square outside Notre Dame in Paris instead of the late summer sun in Melbourne.

Sitting in that classroom all those years ago fuelled my depression at the time. I was cursed with looking at all these beautiful cathedrals through the eyes of someone else, forced to imagine the carvings coming to life in front of me. Being the youngest by a few years, I was one of the only students who had not been to Paris to see all this wonder for myself and I couldn’t stop dreaming. 

Jardin du Palais Royale

I seriously contemplated going to Paris twice. The first was two weeks before my final exams during high school. I had this wild idea that I could take myself to Paris to celebrate the end of my mandatory education. I had found flights, a cheap hostel in Clichy and despite the fact that I was only working 3 hours every weekend at a dead-end retail job, I thought that I could stretch my budget. Needless to say, that didn’t work out. 

The next time was about six months later. I had skipped an art history lecture as my train was delayed and my anxiety couldn’t handle walking into a 200-person lecture theatre late. I took myself to the library and began researching about being a nanny in Paris. I figured that if I was going to go through the torture of looking after someone else’s children, I should do it in a place that I would enjoy living in. I had found the perfect family. 20 minutes from the city via the métro, a young boy aged 5 who needed to be taken to art galleries and museums on his days off from school. An interest in art is mandatory, the ideal candidate description declared. I was sold. Convinced that this was my true life calling, I went out for dinner with my boyfriend at the time to tell him that I wanted to leave my degree in fine art and move to Paris. He didn’t like the idea of me being away for nine months. Stupidly, I decided not to apply.

I kept telling myself that it was okay. That I needed to finish university, satisfy what everyone thought I should be doing post high school, continue to grow a life with my boyfriend and eventually it would happen. Inside however, I was plagued by the feeling that the longer I left catching a flight to Paris, the more the city felt like a dream world that my mind had made up to escape from reality. Anxiety continued to litter my body. I imagined a black liquid slowly replacing the blood in my veins. Poisoned, that’s how it felt.

A few years later, we broke up. I finally sorted out my depression and anxiety enough to realise that the life I was living with him was not the life I wanted. Mustering some kind of self-respect after literally being dragged through hell by my own mind was a new level of scary. Releasing myself from the clutches of something that seemed to be my lifeline for a long time was even scarier. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘The only thing harder than leaving was staying.'

A year later, I was lying across the back seat of a Mazda 3 in New Zealand, quietly watching the milky way fade into morning somewhere between Queenstown and Glenorchy. I promised myself, next year I will turn 23 in Paris.

A street in Montmartre

I guess, in a way, I was transformed by Paris in the same manner that I first fell in love with it 16,781kms away; little by little until all the pieces came together. 

I had envisioned it would be perhaps the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower in person. I used to imagine myself, tears welling in my eyes and running down the Champ De Mars with a big grin on my face. 

In fact, the first time I saw the tower was on the top of the hill in Montmartre listening to La Mer. It was about 8pm and I had just settled into my hostel room. I took a selfie to commemorate the moment and looked out my window, into a courtyard where the interior of three different buildings met to make a triangle of concrete and sewage pipes.

I’m in Paris, this is not a dream. 

I’m in Paris, this is not a dream.

I’m in Paris, this is not a dream.

Ignoring my good sense, and the warnings of my Mother, I left the hostel and climbed the stairs up to Sacre Cœr. A gang of young men congregated around the funicular and yelled out to me as I walked past. I was too busy listening to Edith Piaf to really take notice. I walked along the front of the cathedral with a sea of lights flickering below me. And then I saw it, through a fence and over the rooftops, the lights of the tower sparkling in the distance, and my heart stopped beating for a moment.

And then a tour bus pulled up and I was encapsulated by a wave of Chinese tourists with their bulky cameras and lenses. 

It’s funny how things work out. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the tower and the moment I did see it for the first time will forever be etched into my mind, but it wasn’t pivotal in my transformation. 

Instead, it was every little back alley tucked away from the prying eyes of tourists, with Valentino posters adorning the smelly city walls. The way boys would smoke while their mopeds buzzed along boulevards. The chairs at cafes, lined up like theatre seats so that the people drinking coffee can watch the show; those passing by. The passion for life, country, drink and art, for nothing more than the sake of pleasure rather than seeking purpose. 

I could put my hand on a wall where Monet once painted, or walk past Moulin de la Gallette where I could pull back the curtain of my mind and picture Van Gogh’s painting as though I was seeing the swirled lines as clear as day. I could drink with the ghosts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald a la Midnight in Paris, watch an unknown artist copy the great Renoir at Musee d’Lorangerie. I could even dance the night away in a brothel turned apartment. Getting far too drunk on hibiscus vodka punch, and talking about Jean Luc Goddard in a cloud of tobacco smoke with French boys wearing turtlenecks. 

It was the people I met. My hostel roommate who I spent an afternoon discussing Ancient Egypt with as we wandered around inside the Louvre as the light faded outside. The old man who owned an old-school French bistrot. He spent two hours enjoying a single pear, cheese and a bottle of wine while I sat and ate the most delicious plait du jour cooked by his wife.

Toulouse Lautrec’s great, great nephew (and a great artist in his own right) who walked around Montmarte with me in the rain at 1am, to help subside my asthma attack before giving me his puffer. He disappeared for the rest of my trip like a ghost, or maybe an angel, I’m not sure which. 

The photographer who I discussed everything with, with such passion and vigour. His mind like the constellation of the night sky, wonder-filled, mysterious and a million miles away. He said to me, over sickly sweet black coffee and croissants, on my last night in Paris, ‘Think of yourself, what have you learned from that experience? Everything that happens to you makes you the person you are today.’ 

And I replied, ‘I guess if you truly love and accept yourself, you accept the decisions you have made in the past leading up to this moment.’

Triggered by Paris, thoughts and emotions were welling up inside of me about my ex-boyfriend. Two years had passed, and I thought that I had processed and moved on from that part of my life. But after this conversation, I realised that in order to achieve some kind of neutrality about the situation, I needed to reach a level of clarity within myself. I was searching for the answer to the why.

Why did I stick it out for so long when I wasn’t happy? 

Two weeks after this conversation, I was lying in my tiny single bed at my parent’s house. My iPhone torch illuminated the space under my blanket and I sat and read the journals I kept from 2011 - 2014. It was here that I discovered my why with newfound perception. Through the words I had scribbled down as a teenager trying to work everything out, the answer had been at home all this time. I just needed to find myself before I could put the final pieces together.

It was as though the conclusion to a chapter I just couldn’t end had finally been written, the puzzle I could never solve has been finished and I could finally move on to the next chapter. 

Palais Garnier

I ended my trip to Europe in the same place that I started, walking over Tower Bridge. My favourite spot in London. It’s a beautiful thing to return to the destination you started at. You can look out at the city, the same landscape, and everything is still the same. It’s almost as though you never left. But only you know that you have changed exponentially, and that is the beauty of travel. 

MemoirCarolyn WestComment