I had always said to my then girlfriend Sarah that I would never propose to her in Paris; ‘it’s too cliche,’ I had said, but it was a ruse, a little white lie, that ensured a certain element of surprise.
I wanted it to be a surprise for Sarah had hardly dropped any hints about a ring, apart from the occasional walk past a jewelers when she might have said something like, ‘oh that’s a nice princess cut solitaire with prong-settings and accompaniments, isn’t it?’
Paris lends herself to romance, she offers idyllic flowery gardens, romantic bridges, magnificent royal palaces all connected by metro trains adorned with a standard of graffiti found nowhere else on earth.
Last weekend, Sarah and I retraced our steps along the banks of the River Seine where we were engaged 5 years ago.
It’s so much easier going to France now – when I was a child we went on day trips on train from London to Dover and then on a one-hour ferry ride to Calais. Once we got there, there was just enough time to buy a round of Camembert from a Prisunic, a pen with little pictures on their barrels of women in swimsuits which when turned upside down showed a smooth flow of undress, and combs that looked like flick-knives. France made us feel all grown up and naughty.
The time in France was short-lived; all of a sudden the teacher would make a roll call and we would be corralled back on to the ferry, headed back towards the white cliffs of Dover with barely time to practise any of the French we had been taught.
In England then, school children across the land were taught an eclectic mix of French from standard text books. We learned useful phrases like ‘le singe est dans l’arbre’ (the monkey is in the tree) and, the one I especially recall, ‘le jambon est sous le chapeau’ (the ham is under the hat) which is perhaps the most ridiculous sentence I have ever read or, till just now, written.
The French people we met in Calais as school-children were mainly supermarket checkout staff or dock workers, not zookeepers or butchers , so we never had the opportunity to practise our French sentences.
Side-note: One day though I do hope to gain redemption for my childhood toil. I will pack a piece of cured ham, pop it under a panama hat, get on the Eurostar and at border control in Gare du Nord I will get the attention of a customs official and I’ll tell him I have something to declare.
When he asks me ‘Qu’est-ce que-c’est monsieur?” I will smile at him wryly, open my holdall, point to the panama hat and say to him:
“Monsieur, le jambon est sous le chapeau.”
It will be a beautiful moment.
It didn’t matter that we got rushed back from France as school children though; we felt like grown men; we had our contraband, the ferry had fruit machines to gamble the rest of our money on and the teacher would be too busy dry-heaving in to a paper bag in a bout of seasickness to notice any of this.
Last weekend we just sat on the Eurostar, whizzed through Kent and a short tunnel, zoomed past wide fields of haystacks and wheat fields; we finished our Marks and Spencer BLT sandwiches beside grumbling parents and bored kids on iPads and voila – Paris nous arrivons. (People talk about how awful it is that our younger generation is getting addicted to iPads; in their defence, this is preferable to getting addicted to fruit machines.)
Yes, back then a day trip to France felt like a major expedition and an opportunity for minor mischief. Things are so much easier now though I still feel though the view of the waves from a ferry porthole is vastly superior to the view afforded by a window-seat of the channel tunnel.
We walked along the cobbled tow-path on the right bank, artery for joggers and skaters, past pop-up beaches of deck chairs and bars made from wooden pallets, and embankments where dreamy young lovers sat with their feet dangling above the river. The memories of our engagement five years ago came flooding back …
A man feels a certain sense of nervousness before proposing. It’s the planning, the little rehearsals on the use of correct words, the coining of an intro sentence (‘we’ve been together now for‘ … ‘ever since I have known you” … or perhaps simply the direct approach, ‘I got you a ring‘). Add to that the possibility of a location not being quite right and the possibility of rejection, and you have a heady cocktail of nerves that can turn nerves of steel and ice in to jelly and butterflies.
I’d got a ring made in Hatton Garden in London two weeks before our Paris trip and the nerves had started to kick in right then. Where was I to hide it without Sarah finding it? There wasn’t a hiding place or a false door in the whole of our flat that she didn’t know. The sock draw: too obvious. The cat’s box of toys: what if the cat swallowed it? In the bookcase: what if I forgot which book? In a suit pocket: what if I sent the suit to the dry cleaners?
So you see, my quandary was beset with a myriad of risks which is why I chanced carrying the thing in a rucksack for 14 days. I was like a marsupial with a little baby in its pouch, every now and then checking it was still there, incubating at the bottom of a dark pocket. The fact that it was worth more than a towering pile of xBox games made me even more nervous.
I worried further that the border security people might want to examine the contents of my rucksack so I had a cunning back-up plan: this would entail a hasty proposal by the pile of plastic trays, just at the end of the x-ray machine conveyor belts, on a bended knee, while holding on to the food wrappers, boarding-pass and passport, and perhaps a belt and shoes that they sometime tell you to remove. Behind us impatient travellers would be smiling but secretly thinking ‘get on with it’.
We passed the place we lunched at that day, Cafe St Regis on the small island in the river. My plan was to ply her with wine; I foolishly felt this might improve my chances. At one point my nerves must have shown for the she looked at me with furrowed brow and said, “Are you feeling okay?”
I searched for an answer and said,”It’s just indigestion.”
And so arrived white lie number two: she knows I don’t get indigestion.
We took a walk downstream. The sun was out. Ahead of us was Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. This would be it. The clouds parted. The Seine shimmered. Paris had done her part. Now it was up to me.
On nearing the bridge a traffic jam of tourist buses appeared, each window filled with faces and cameras. It had the intimacy of Grand Central Station on a Monday morning and I wasn’t going to be proposing on it.
Luckily there were a series of stone steps descending to the level of the river. The Seine, that magnanimous generous river, had provided me with a life-line although I was still winging it to say the least.
My heartbeat quickened. On the cobbled path by the shimmering Seine, where ducks played, I spotted the perfect spot. It was just 20 metres ahead. Not too crowded. We walked closer and closer. My nerves made each step feel like a wade in jelly.
‘Shall we go back to the hotel?’ she said.
‘Let’s freshen up before going out tonight? Latin Quarter?’
‘Urm, okayyy… let’s go to the metro stop ahead of us, it’s over that bridge?’
‘Haven’t we just passed a metro stop?’
‘Err, yes but there’s a … nicer metro stop ahead of us.’
That’s the problem with living a lie, even if it is a white lie; you get drawn in to making more and more ridiculous statements until sooner rather than later, you’ll get found out.
Fortunately as Sarah and I had been together for 4 years, she knew that I am slightly eccentric (I call it individualistic); she takes it all in her stride; she has seen the best of me and the worst of me and frankly she can’t really tell the difference. This is why she still hadn’t figured my motive; my oddness was par for the course; my plan was still on.
We arrived at the spot. The crowd and ducks had left. I said my introduction sentence, I asked her to marry me. The Seine shone between ancient stone bridges; I pulled out the ring – it too shone. I went down on bended knee. The top of my bald head shone. There was lightness and joy all around.
She said yes and that was it – one of the best days of my life. My nerves disappeared; I needed a drink. We didn’t tell anyone till we got back to London after 4 days celebrating in Paris.
Last weekend, we went back to the bar we went to five years ago, for our first celebratory drink. Where else but the Sarah Bernhardt Bar. Back then we had ordered a bottle of champagne, which the waiter wiped several times to remove a layer of dust; it’s a simple functional place at a traffic crossroads that perhaps doesn’t sell a lot of champagne.
We ordered glasses of wine and some frites this time, and as we left we explained to Marc- Etienne why we had come. He looked happy about our retracing of our steps and said, ‘see you next time, don’t leave it five years though.’
I’m sure we’ll go back sooner than that, perhaps next time with a ham and a hat.