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Destinations

'Why it took me 25 years to fall in love with Paris': One woman’s tale of love, loss and rediscovery

It took Sarah Catherall 25 years and three trips to fall for Paris, but after a long journey of changing perspectives and growing older, she finally did.

By Sarah Catherall
For centuries, the European city has oozed love and romance. Paris stirs something in couples who laze in its manicured gardens, get intimate in candlelit wine bars and stroll along the River Seine arm-in-arm at sunset. Films like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and the iconic Moulin Rouge! have perpetuated the idea that Paris is the City of Romance.

Young romance

Half a lifetime ago, I presumed I would be giddy in love with Paris when I visited the European city with my boyfriend. I was 25 and living in London on my OE; he was still in New Zealand running a business. We planned our Paris trip by fax.
"Baby, I can't wait to see you soon," he wrote. We had been together for more than a year, but for many months our relationship had been a long- distance one.
Paris was a romantic destination for a twenty-something journalist on her first trip to Europe. We stayed in a tiny boutique hotel in the Montmartre district, not far from the Sacré-Cœur. In the
mid-1990s, northern Paris was the place to stay, with its hilly, cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings.
Our room was exquisitely romantic with floral wallpaper and a double bed with a patterned eiderdown and iron headboard. We ate croissants with jam for breakfast, washed down with French coffee.
A day after we arrived, we had our first big fight when I realised he had lost our bag of duty-free. He shrugged his shoulders, while I fumed about the half a week's wages I had spent now gone. I went for a walk on my own, winding around cobblestoned Parisian streets. Later, we made up over a French meal and a bottle of white wine in a tiny café, holding hands and laughing like Parisian lovers.
I had this dream to get up the Eiffel Tower, but we ran out of time. He told me not to worry about it. It was overrated, and a tourist trap, he said. Instead, we went to the Louvre – the world's biggest gallery – waiting our turn to gaze at the Mona Lisa.
I didn't step into a shop because we were on a budget. When I travelled, I usually stayed at youth hostels or backpackers, so our small hotel was a stretch. I sent postcards from Paris to my parents in Napier, and my sister in Wellington. I never made a phone call from Europe – the cost of a phone call would rival my flight back to London. Our trip had been a mixed bag.

Heartbroken in Paris

About 15 years later, I returned to Paris with my best friend for my second visit. In the time between, I had returned to Wellington, married the above boyfriend, and given birth to three daughters, but three months before this trip, my marriage ended.
The break-up was so fresh. I was so raw. I swallowed an antidepressant each day to help numb my pain. On my second trip to Paris, I pined for my daughters, aged 10, seven and four. I was a solo mother, away from them for a fortnight. I should have appreciated the break, but I looked at small Parisian girls with immaculate outfits and ponytails and I ached.
On this trip, my friend and I travelled by Metro and we walked a lot. Parisian men were dismissive, and the women were so beautiful and elegant. In Paris, women are judged for their style and beauty.
I wandered the streets in my short dresses and flip-flops, feeling unattractive and out of place.
I was heartbroken and so the romantic elements – elegant women and perfectly dressed little girls – only made me feel worse. I was part of the generation where women were expected to partner up by the age of 30, and to start having babies. We were also expected to juggle careers, and to try to have it all.
I thought about that on my second trip to Paris as we walked around the sprawling city, and visited Notre-Dame – that my marriage had failed because there was too much pressure: babies, the business, building a home, my own career. My husband and I slowly fell out of love. Fundamentally, we grew apart, and brought out the worst in each other.
In the City of Romance, as I took the lift up the Eiffel Tower in 2009, I wondered if I would ever fall in love again. My therapist back in Wellington had told me I would be in a serious relationship within two to five years – she told me that was the average time that a separated woman would partner up again. I visited her regularly. I told her about my marriage and what had gone wrong. We were both to blame, I know that now – and her words soothed me.
Time heals and I rebuilt myself. I dated; I had a couple of long-term relationships, but there was always a feeling that something was missing.
Someone said something which struck a chord: "If it's not f...k, yes, it's f...k, no."

Making a link

Three years ago, a man connected to some of my friends popped up as a potential Facebook friend.
I added him. Two weeks after chatting by Facebook messenger, we met for a drink in a chilly Wellington bar on a Sunday afternoon. He walked in, and I felt like I knew him. Half an hour turned into four hours. Being with him felt easy.
In July this year, I returned to Paris for a third time with my "f...k, yes" attitude and two of my three daughters. I turned 50 a couple of weeks earlier in Madrid. I had this idea that I didn't want to celebrate such a momentous birthday in cold, wintry New Zealand, so I decided to take my family on a one- month European adventure.

Change of heart

Paris was our final stop before we headed home.
I would give Paris another shot – to see if, on my third visit, I could fall in love with it this time.
"I want to show you Paris," I told my daughters, aged 16 and 13.
We stayed in a hotel in a converted fabric factory in the 11th arrondissement, one of the up and coming areas of Paris. Students and young Parisians sat in outdoor cafés along Canal Saint-Martin, smoking and laughing. I'm too relaxed for fancy areas like the Champs d'Élysées, where you can buy a Chanel bag for $10,000 or join the queues to get into a Louis Vuitton store.
Running along the River Seine one early morning, I thought – places change and people change. Paris has changed, or is it me? The city was steaming hot, in the midst of a heatwave.
Over a lunchtime, my kids and partner biked to Jardin du Luxembourg, where Parisians lay in the shade under trees with dripping branches, curling up with books and napping. We biked past Notre-Dame Cathedral, stopping to view its blackened, burned exterior.
I had two goals on my third visit to Paris – one was to take my girls to the Louvre; the other was to go up the Eiffel Tower with my daughters and my bloke.
But Paris isn't like New Zealand. "No, no," the man on the hotel's front desk told me when I asked if we could book tickets. The Louvre was completely booked for the week; the Eiffel Tower lift tickets were sold out. The only way we could get up the Eiffel Tower was to walk the 392 metres.
I love walking, but I knew that I wouldn't get my two teens or my partner up to the summit.
First thing the next day, I tried again with the concierge on the hotel desk. She tapped her perfectly manicured fingernails, and smiled. "3pm?"
"Oui, oui, oui!"
Since I last went up the Eiffel Tower, 9/11 happened, so security to get up what was once the world's tallest tower was a nightmare. We stood in security queues in the blistering heat, staring up at the great hunk of metal, which fires up each night with 10,000 dazzling lights.

A different perspective

Finally, we were on the second floor. My bloke wrapped his arm around me as we stared out at the startling view; a sweeping vista of Paris – a city of soft white buildings with pale sand-coloured roofs, the UNESCO World Heritage Seine River snaking down the middle, carving up this beautiful city scattered out below in all directions. The top – the summit – was even more magical, and there weren't lines of people pushed against the sides.

Paris, je t’aime

I leaned against the rail and kissed him. My girls took selfies and snaps of each other. I smiled.
A decade ago, when I last visited with my friend, I would never have imagined this moment. I had found love when I least expected it, and here in Paris, I was bursting with it. The Eiffel Tower is no more special than the Empire State Building, which I've also gone up, or the Chrysler Building in New York. But it was the principle really, to experience it.
The top of the Eiffel Tower was a beautiful spot to see a city I fell in love with on my third visit. My view was good from up there – being 50, knowing myself, in a relationship with a lovely man, co-parenting with my ex, being exactly where I am supposed to be.

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