I awake to a drizzly grey morning in Paris. It is the type of gloomy weather day that only European cities manage to pull off.
From the tiny guest bedroom on the second floor, my window overlooks a charming internal courtyard that could easily be a vignette from 1940. My friend’s flat, interestingly, occupies parts of 2 floors (the 5th and 6th) and is a combination of three, originally, separate apartments. The dental molding, ceiling rosettes as well as traditional chevron parquet floors throughout the apartment, ensures you know you are in Paris.
Heading out to buy some pain au chocolat for our breakfast, I am engulfed, as always, by that thing that, to me, is Paris; an infusion of historical dust, a slightly debauched past and a timeless casual elegance.
This morning, with the Seine grey, the plane and chestnut trees soggy and dark, and the street sounds muted by thick fog, I imagine I am in a film noir. Thoughts of spies, romance and micro film accompany me to the Boulangerie.
A couple of hours later, with a breakfast of pain au chocolat , café au lait and the usual morning chin wag under our belts, Sue and I are standing with a small group of expats and our guide at the entrance to the Cemetery Père Lachaise. We are here for the tour, “The Women of Père Lachaise”.
As we make our way along the pathways of this indescribably beautiful place of rest, the drizzle and humidity are temporarily forgotten. Everywhere you look, you are met with a memorable snapshot. There are monumental architectural feats here, as well as simple tombstones. We are surrounded by lovely flowerbeds, shrubbery and impressive maples and hazelnuts that tower overhead. It is as if these massive branches are purposefully protecting those laid to rest below. Throughout there is a dense dignified silence, broken only by birdsong and the occasional low hum of voices.
Our tour guide is able to evoke, with old photographs and moving anecdotes, the varied lives and times of the female courtesans, writers, poets, mathematicians, dancers and singers that are buried here.
This is where I meet Colette. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. A child bride (at her first of 3 marriages), a mime, an actress, a journalist, a writer and a Nobel Prize Laureate. She was known for her literary talent as well as her sexual fluidity and nonconformity. She was a free thinker, free spirit and rebel during her lifetime (1873-1954).
I had already been exposed to two of her novels , I discover, but in movie format. The movie Gigi with Audrey Hepburn and the film Cheri starring Michelle Pfeiffer are based on Colette’s novels of the same name.
Totally fascinated, I decide I need to dig deeper into this formidable woman’s life and works. At the end of the tour and after a bite in a café, straight out of Hemingway’s, A Moveable feast, we head to the bookshops. I find the collected stories of Colette as well as her biography at Galignani in Rue de Rivoli. Weighed down by these two chunky volumes that promise hours of reading enjoyment, we head off to the Palais Royal and Rue de Beaujolais number 9. This was Colette’s final address during the last sixteen years of her life.
I sit on the stoop where she regularly sat, under the arcade. It is a never ending source of awe to me to think about the universal overlap of people in locations around the world. Think about it…layers upon layers of invisible footprints that walked on the same street, shore, mountain path that you now walk on and that others in the future will walk on. In this exact spot where Colette sat, others also sat as I do now, and others will sit here in the future. Individual lives sharing the same space over and over again, depositing their individual presence.
Sue reminds me of the time and we start heading back to her place. Once there, I quickly organize my belongings, pack my suitcase and generally tidy up, as this is the last night of my three day mini vacation.
After dinner we both curl up in matching armchairs by the french windows that overlook the Seine. We sit quietly, each one lost in her own thoughts, totally comfortable in each other’s company, watching night fall over Colette’s Paris, my Paris, everyone’s Paris.