Writing about flying this week got me thinking about the happy years I spent in Paris, a city for which I feel a greater affinity than any other in the world. It’s my soul mate, and every time I return feels like the first time.
I went there following 9/11 when, thinking about what my one regret would be, had I been on one of those doomed planes, it was that I had never lived in Paris. A week later, I was on the rue des St Pères in my apartment.
I had been in the UK putting together a TV show for the new television channel UK Food. It was very simple: celebrities would be invited to my apartment and cook for me. I would sit on a stool, drinking wine and interviewing them (I wonder who could have come up with that format, eh?).
The channel was launching in Paris in the same week as I found an apartment and, when the producer came to see it, I said: “Let’s do the show right here.” Literally. And we did: 15 programmes in 21 days. Celebrities flew in, we shopped for the meal, had drinks or lunch in a hostelry, then returned to the apartment for drinks and a meal.
It was hilarious. Sue Johnston’s wig kept falling off as we argued over how much chilli to put in the pasta sauce. Julie Peasgood had a complete giggling fit when I was under-impressed with her dessert. Basically, she melted some butter in a pan, threw in some bananas and marmalade, and… er, that’s it. “What does it taste like?” she asked. I said: “It tastes like you’ve thrown some butter, bananas and marmalade into a pan.”
Sam Giles (currently Emmerdale) was the funniest. She’d been a last minute replacement for Sue Johnston, who had (Take One) arrived at the airport to discover her passport was out of date. Guests were required to explain the significance of their dish, so we had to hastily throw a story together for Sam, who had to cook a seafood risotto (all TV is fake, people). “Just say you had an Italian boyfriend who made it for you,” I said, time being of the essence.
“Okay, but whatever you do, don’t ask me what his name was.”
Red. Rag. Bull.
Champagne cork popped. “Welcome to Paris, Sam” (handing her a glass). “What are you going to be cooking for me today?”
“And why is that?”
“I once had an Italian boyfriend who cooked it for me, so it’s a very special dish.”
“WHAT. WAS. HIS. NAME?”
“Errrrr… J… R… A.”
Then, we were in complete meltdown. The more the director told us to get it together, the less we were able to perform. Sam’s story expanded with every take. Now, Roberto (as he was now called) had a grandmother who had come to his house one Christmas and… ” On and on. My back was to the camera and with every new detail, my eyebrows reacted with wonder at Sam’s extraordinary narrative.
We decided that maybe it was the word seafood that was setting us off. Or maybe risotto. Whatever, we just couldn’t do it. Three bottles of champagne and 17 takes later, we had it in the bag.
“Hello, Sam. Welcome to Paris. What are you cooking for me today?”
“A rice dish.”
You had to be there, really.
It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in a city that never loses its magic for me.
The warmth and smell from the Nutella crepe stand as I ascend the steps from St Germain des Prés metro, where the posters are nearly always advertising another performance of Mozart’s Requiem; the Hausmann influence of Boulevard St Germain, where the buildings never cease to awaken a sense of history, their gentle curves smiling like friends who are always glad to see you; the scent of rain and the flash of a red umbrella that turns the city into a work of art; the cliché of traditional waiters at Les Deux Magots – no place in the world, for me, awakens the senses like Paris.
I always felt I belonged there. As a child, my imaginary friend was called Andre – actually, not so imaginary; I WAS Andre. Despite never having been abroad or had any experience of France, even from reading books, it was my world. When I first landed there, many years before 9/11, I wept uncontrollably, as if my spirit was crying in relief that I had come home.
Even today, and loving my life in the USA, I feel as if I am merely on leave of absence from Paris. A bit like Gertrude Stein: “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”
As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I remember those who lost their lives on that truly terrible day in world history; but I also give thanks for the gift of Paris it inspired in me.
To leave one’s life saying Non, je ne regrette rien is what I hope for.
It’s a cliché, but La vie est courte.
You see? Even Life is short sounds better in French.