Not much later, just after my 11th birthday, I informed my parents that I wanted to change schools and enrol in Late French Immersion. For two years, grades 6 & 7, I bonded with other pre-adolescent Francophiles. We learned to conjugate verbs at warp speed with the hope that we would seamlessly integrate with our Early French Immersion classmates in high school.
My first French word was "écureuil".
To improve our rudimentary French we watched endless episodes of the government produced educational series, Téléfrancais... "Je suis un ananas."
In grade 9 I entered my first, and last, French public speaking contest, Concours d'art Oratoire, and learned that my future was in writing not speaking.
The summer between grade 9 and 10, Parisian Nicolas stayed with Hélène. In flamboyant purple Converse, he was a few years older than me and I wanted him to like me so badly. I wanted to be brave enough to speak French with him. Instead he spent the summer alternating between flouncing and sulking. We took him camping and he refused to sleep outdoors. I knew he was missing some secret and fabulous Parisian life.
By the end of grade 10 I was excelling in French literature courses but flunking out of remedial math. I couldn't tell a triangle from a hexagon but was breezing through Le Petit Prince.
The summer I was 15 my Mom and I hosted a French exchange student from Bordeaux. She was beautiful with shiny, bobbed dark hair. She brought gifts of French perfume, loved the Beatles and didn't know Jim Morrison was dead, much less buried in Paris. Naturally, we taught her to swear in English, "I love Canada! I f *** Canada!"
In grade 11 I visited Montreal for the first time and was disappointed to be billeted with an Italian family. My French did not improve but I developed a taste for underage drinking, cigarette smoke and poutine. It was the first time I left Victoria and I remember thinking the city was alluring and chic.
I wrote my senior year French exam without studying and got a B+.
I went off to university and pretended to study theatre. I skimmed through the French classics, gained 20lbs and started to wear Birkenstocks with wool socks. My diet was Pop Tarts and Diet Coke. I found meaning in everything and imagined a life where I would devote myself to the arts and move props from stage left to stage right.
After graduating with about 3/4 of a theatre diploma, I met a guy who made me want to shave my legs and burn my hairy sweaters. He was attractively arrogant and ambitious. He rode his mountain bike 45 minutes each way to take business classes at the local college. He loved hockey but his favourite movie was The English Patient. I was so in love. And of course he broke my heart. It took five years but he broke it.
I recovered on my brown corduroy Salvation Army couch feasting on gin and tonics and VHS recorded episodes of Sex and the City. Cable was too expensive so my Mom sent me tapes every week. I was Charlotte. I was Carrie. Never Samantha. I admired Miranda's ambition. I cried. I devoured chick-lit novels and wished to trade places with any of their heroine's. Especially Bridget Jones.
Eventually I became tired of myself and realized there was one thing I really wanted to do before I either resigned myself to spinster-hood or maybe, just maybe, fell in love again. I wanted to go to London. And if I was going to go to London then I may as well go to Dublin, to Barcelona, to Athens, to Venice, and to Paris. Go to Paris.
I was 26 when I boarded the plane to Heathrow on February 15, 2003. I was wearing a brand new Lululemon ensemble, head to toe black. On my feet I wore black Diesel slip-ons. In my messenger bag, I had my passport, my Eurorail pass and a bag of jujubes. It was the first time I left Canada, except for short trips to the United States and Mexico, and I was totally alone.
I am 36 now and about six weeks away from boarding the exact same flight to Heathrow that I took in 2003. Alone. Admittedly a lot of things are different, the least among them that I won't be traveling in a Lululemon ensemble or carrying a messenger bag. But I have been searching these last few months for remembrances of Paris past.
Am I sure I love Paris enough to go at it alone? What if what I think I love isn't really there? What if Paris breaks my heart?
Ten years later it would be easy to lie and pretend that my first trip was all about Paris. That every hint of Frenchness from when I was 11 led me a Paris pilgrimage in 2003. Not true. I was meant to fall in love with London. Like every other North American I just wanted to have my picture taken in front of the Eiffel Tower.
What I remember first about Paris is feeling disappointed and scared.
This past week I found the printed stack of e-mails I wrote to my friends in 2003. A good friend had the foresight to keep them for me. I wrote about Paris that "I had lost my will to travel." I wrote that the bus from the airport dropped me off in "a grim parking lot" and that "I rode a sketchy bus to a hostel in Porte de Pantin"
By the end of my first week in Paris, I wrote, "Paris is incredible, perfect in my mind. I loved every last thing about the city... A romantic city. Paris is really beautiful. There are no words to describe how beautiful it really is... Enough to make you cry several times over. Being in Paris is like waking up your fave movie of all time and having a starring role."
This is how I felt about Paris in 2003.
Despite sleeping in hostel bunk beds, showering with strangers and eating brie off a plastic knife; despite the dark, cold days of February when I toured the city in puffy, black down coat that looked more like a sleeping bag; despite eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Pigalle with a Detroit attorney who wore white ladies' gloves and proudly declared he wouldn't speak a word of French.
Despite all of that, I fell madly in love. In those e-mails, I wrote my first love letters to Paris.
Those words I wrote ten years ago give my confidence as I get ready to leave for Paris in May. People do say to me, and I worry sometimes, that I only love Paris because I know it from a place of beauty, of comfort and of love. The view from the bottom of the Chanel staircase or our rented apartment in the 17th arrondisement. I know Paris from our honeymoon in 2007, from our seats at Stade de France watching U2 perform, or from our favourite brasserie with a view of Luxembourg Gardens.
I have loved Paris for a long time. All I really have to remember is that Paris is love.