I arrived in Paris late. My rucksack was heavy and I wanted to go to bed. I’d been on the move for fifteen hours since waking up at 4:30am and boarding my first train in Konstanz at 6:30am.
Mumma was meeting me off the Metro at Pigalle. She’d travelled out the same day but had arrived earlier and already checked into our hotel. We were staying at Hotel Sacré-Cœur, not far from Montmartre.
Montmartre and the surrounding area is famous for being home to The Moulin Rouge, and frequented by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Mattise, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Suzanne Valadon. Drinking, smoking, collaborating, and living here, Montmartre became known as a haven for artists during the period of 1872 to 1914.
It was here that we were staying.
Here that would be home for the next three nights.
Mum was excitable and chatty. I showered. The hot water washing away the day’s travelling. I could hear Mum shouting something to me from the bed room, “I can’t hear you!” I called back.
When I got out of the shower Mum handed me a clean top she’d brought with her from Britain. I’d been wearing the same clothes for five weeks. I felt like a new woman. “I’ve got peanut butter and Marmite too.” I looked into a paper bag and there were two small jars she had decanted both spreads into. I was thrilled. I’d been craving peanut butter and Marmite for two weeks and had been unsuccessful in finding either.
I got dressed and we walked out into the warm night air.
The pavements were busy with people weaving in and out of one another. Everyone was smoking thin cigarettes, tapping ash out onto the street as they walked. Cars honked their horns.
We walked up the street until we came to a restaurant called Le Marmite. We ordered some food, two drinks. Shared stories from the past four weeks. There’s always so much more to say in person than there is over the phone or in a text. Some things can only be suitably expressed with the accompanying body language. With eye contact.
A man to the left of us was picking up cigarette butts from in between the paving stones and out of the guttering. I squeezed mum’s hand. With so many people walking around smoking, I found it hurtful that no one paused to give him one.
He worked his way methodically along the pavement. Focusing on every square foot as he went. Gathering them up in his spare hand.
Eventually he was sweeping them out from underneath my seat. I had no change. Mum dug some out of her pocket and gave it to me. He thanked me, and then carried on working around each of the little tables.
The staff at Le Marmite seemed to know him. They said hello, thanked him, smiled. We overheard one of the men say, “Je t’aime” – I love you – as he bid him farewell.
Once his hands were full of the cigarette butts, he emptied them all into a near bin and started the process again.
A woman from behind the bar came out and gave him €5. Maybe they’re paying him to clear them up?
Back at the hotel we opened a bottle of champagne. I got in my PJs and snuggled under the duvet. Mum was standing on the balcony of our little room with her plastic cup of champagne, “Have you seen the Eiffel Tower yet? Look at it go! I love it when the light does that thing.”
I smiled, my eyes closed. “I’ll look in the morning.”
I was so happy. I was here with my Mum. We’d never been on holiday just the two of us before. This was going to be special. But it also meant that I was nearing home. Nearing Sion.
The next morning we set out for the Sacré-Cœur.
It was hot. The sun beating down on our skin, and on the white stone as we climbed up the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.
When we reached about half way we sat on a bench to look up at the huge church beaming in the sunlight.
There were tourists everywhere.
A woman sat on the row of steps in front of us, posing for her boyfriend to take a photo of her with the Sacré-Cœur in the background.
Her face was taught. Skin pristine. Clothes immaculate.
She pointed her chin up, and tossed her tight, shiny, pony tail, high up on her head, from side to side.
Her boyfriend took photos. Gave her the phone. She looked at them. Handed the phone back. A frown creasing her flawless complexion. She held her hands out in front of her in a gesture of displeasure, looked over the rim of her sunglasses at him. Leant backwards and resumed her pose, staring off into the distance as he took more photos.
We watched this exchange for at least ten minutes. The woman in the same position, only breaking pose to examine the photos and hand the phone back.
It was fascinating.
Was she even aware she was in Paris? That the Sacré-Cœur sits on the highest point of the city, marking the defeat of the Franco-Prussian war?
I could only conclude that the purpose of this photo was not so that she could remember the moment. A day in Paris visiting the Sacré-Cœur with her other half. Time spent with a man that she hopefully loves in a city steeped in culture and history. Would she remember these things? Or would she recall the number of likes and comments her photo received? The frustration and anguish she felt towards her boyfriend as he failed repeatedly to catch the perfect balance of light and shadow falling across her face. Her hair splaying in the sun, face tense with frustrated concentration as she posed, nonchalant. What would that photo mean to her? Would she ever even look at it again? The gratification that it would bring, would it be lasting? Or as fleeting as the seconds it would take for people to scroll past, like, and move on? Would it be worth the ten-fifteen minutes spent capturing a false representation of their day in Paris?
It wasn’t just her. She was the pinnacle. The extreme. But there were others posing in the same position as her. But at least they were smiling. Enjoying themselves.
She was consumed with obsession and despair in her attempts to capture something that wasn’t real.
These other women – and they were all women, with the exception of two men – were at least enjoying themselves. The importance of the perfect photo still evident. They would retake and retake. Take it in turns. It wasn’t about capturing the moment, but capturing the perceived moment. There was nothing real about the positions they chose to pose in. They moved from genuine happiness and excitement with one another, to a false representation. Why not capture the true moment? If you’re jumping for joy, jump for joy. Why sit down and look meek and mild?
Because taking the photo for these people – and we’ve all been there, we’ve all done it at least once – isn’t to remember the moment, but to post it on social media. Every time they took a photo they were thinking about their audience. They weren’t thinking about the moment. Wanting to capture the instance of happiness or sadness. To remember and seal it.
Some of the photos mum took of me in Paris were less than Facebook-genic. She took some of me sleeping, one of me eating cake at Paddington with a mixture of despair and elation on my face. They captured the moments. They weren’t perefect. But they were true. They will always remind us of what we shared.
We sat in what is called the Montmartre Village and drank wine outside a small red cafe called Le Tire Bouchon (meaning ‘The Corkscrew’). Mumma walked around and took photos.
In a tight square of cafes and restaurants all with outdoor seating, a square of artists sat backing on to each other displaying and selling their various different works. At least half of them were doing on the spot portraitures. The styles varied but they were all unlike the characture artists that are commonly found in Britain.
Throughout the rest of the day we walked to The Wall of Love, visited a museum detailing the life and soul of Montmartre in its heyday, walked to The Moulin Rouge, saw No.84 where the famous Le Chat Noir had been home to, and treated ourselves to dinner out.
“What do you mean?”
“Look how ugly it is. Look how tacky it is. It’s such an important piece of history, and it just looks awful…”
She was right, even No.84 was slightly sad. The poster seems to be more historic than the actual building. Nothing marked it out as anything out of the ordinary, bar a small metallic sign that had been graffitied and was only noticeable if you were really looking for it. The doorway partially obstructed by the shop next door selling overpriced Eiffel Tower toys and tea towels.
It felt as though Montmartre had been swallowed by tourism and forgotten its roots.