Reflections on growing up... at fifty.

Looking Up at the Eiffel Tower


There comes a time to write novel and one searches for the story in ones life only to find a collection of stories that lead to one. They may lead to one person, a friend, a lover, a family member, sometimes a stranger. Sometimes the known person becomes a stranger or vice versa. In this case they lead to a place, or returns to a place, a place that holds dreams and allures for many people, Paris. It’s a dream city for many, not necessarily for me though some of my experiences there have been dream like. Like dreams, my experiences in Paris are sometimes hard to remember, sometimes surreal, sometimes sensual, others confusing or painful.

The setting cannot be bettered. A city trapped in time by a perfect civil planning discission, don’t build anything new in the heart of Paris. A book found at a French café far. far away from France once showed photos of Paris streets side by side taken one hundred years apart, but for the fashion and the cars a lot of the photos of both eras could’ve been taken on the same day, nothing that a good film art director couldn’t put together in a few hours.

Paris is a set for souls from all over the world to play their fantasies in a never changing film set. The corner where Doisneau photographed a couple embracing in a mythical kiss is still there with the Place de Ville in the background. Many lovers have reproduced that photo for themselves, probably wondering where the Parisian passion went once they returned back home. I’ve been to Paris. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a lover, once with my parents, once with my wife and once with my sons. Sometimes I didn’t get there at all. Plans were made in romantic embraces that were eventually forgotten when paths took us in different directions. Sometimes Paris was the dream of one and not so much the other.

The first time I remember being there it wasn’t planned, simply on the way to somewhere else. My earliest memory of this city is standing beneath the arches of the Eiffel Tower holding a woman’s hand. I was four and the woman was my mother. I remember looking up at the tower where my father, my uncle and aunt were knowing that I had to stay down on the ground with my mother because I wasn't tall enough to be allowed up there. Like a fairground ride the Eiffel Tower in those days had a height restriction, or at least I think it had, maybe my mother had been too scared to go up and used me as an excuse to stay back. Fear was a reason for a lot of things my mother did in her life.

We had driven from Dusseldorf, Germany and we were on our way to Madrid. The drive took three days in those days and it was a journey of winding roads and cobblestone streets from village to village. My parents had migrated there just before I was born, actually my father had migrated there and my mother, like every decision in her married life, just followed. My father had finished his military service and left for Germany with his brother before getting married. Once settled in Dusseldorf he suggested to my mother getting married by proxy. My grandmother response to her first daughter getting married by mail, as it were, was nothing short maniacal and my father returned to Spain for a full-blown wedding. If it was the happiest day of her life for my mother it didn’t show in the photos, there was not one of her smiling, more a melancholic look that years later she would joke it was because she knew what was coming. Though my grandmother got her way in the end it didn’t show in the wedding photos either. In fact my father was the only one smiling come to think of it.

After a seven year courtship with, as my mother often put it, the only man she had “known” the joy of the day seemed to escape a couple of the key figures.

If they had waited seven years to consume their relationship, something my mother always held true but which I doubted the older I got, it didn’t take long after the wedding as I was born exactly nine months later in Dusseldorf. At Saint Vincent hospital where my father saw me lying in a crib next to another newborn missing a hand. Whether it was a case of thalimide as was the case around that time or not, the one handed baby tended to pop up in conversation for years after.

To a two-year-old child a tinned peach with syrup on a cake looks like an egg. An early memory of my father making a birthday cake, sponge, tinned peaches and whipped cream. It’s still the best cake in the world, specially if the syrup has soaked the sponge and you can get the peach, the cream and the moist sponge all in one bite. I looked at the cake as my father dressed it quizzically for ages trying to figure out why he had put a raw egg on top. I was in my mother’s arms and I remember looking at her horn-rimmed glasses looking for an answer and back down to the cake. My arms around her feeling her heartbeat, the most soothing sound in the world. When I’d sit on her lap I could hear her voice inside her chest twirling around her heartbeat and the world was safe. There was no other world that sound was my universe. Just two years before that sound had been beating right above my head inside her. And now I’m back there, floating warm and safe inside love.

My mother would look at me wondering why I looked so quizzical. “Una tarta, para ti” she said in Spanish. A cake for you. A smile, glasses and a beehive. For the first five years of my life my mother wore her hair in a beehive. How she would tease her long hair every morning, then brush it into a cylinder like fairy floss ten inches above her head was always a source of admiration. We were in Germany but our world was Spanish, it belonged to a far away country, one where you had to drive for three days to get to. One far away from the neatly dressed blonde people outside. Far from the landlady that lived in the big house out the front while we lived in the one bedroom outhouse in the garden.

My uncle was there, so was my aunt, in those early years they were always there, the two couples were inseparable, my father and my uncle worked in the same glass factory and my mother and my aunt in the same floor wax factory. I don’t know the name of the factory but the brand had a picture of a finch and we had a couple of spoons at home from the cafeteria. What factory has its own branded spoons in the cafeteria?

My godmother lived at the back of the house next door. She had a daughter my age and I think she was my godmother because they were the only other Spanish people we knew at the time.

This is the part that was never clear to me, at three months my parents drove me back to Spain to stay with my grandmother because it was hard to rent a place with children. My other uncle had the same problem and all three; uncle, aunt and cousin packed themselves in the car and went back to Spain.

But at three months my father decided the best decision was for me to live in Madrid with my grandmother, three aunts and a ten-year-old uncle. This must’ve broken my mothers heart and to this day I don’t fully understand what effect it had on me. Apart from the fact that my memories of this period are totally disjointed. At times I’m in Germany watching my father trying to defrost the lock on the car in the freezing German winter with a cigarette lighter. At times it’s a warm night in Madrid and we are in my grandmothers street and my uncle is kicking a balloon trying to keep it up in the air while La Bamba is playing somewhere, for years I thought La Bamba was a song about a balloon, it wasn’t. At times I’m sitting on a bar in Madrid and my aunt's boyfriend, who in the Spanish way of family had already become my uncle, is peeling peanuts and giving them to me. I think I was taking out a lot by my aunts and their boyfriends on the insistence of my grandmother as a way of keeping everybody on a path of decency.

At times I’m at the Spanish club in Dusseldorf, I’m walking up to the stage to pick up my Christmas present from the young priest, a cellophane tube with a toy shaving kit inside.

At times I’m going to church in Madrid with my two grandmothers, one dressed in black, my maternal grandmother wearing the purple religious habit with a chord around her waist that she wore till the last day I saw her.

The story goes that during the civil war republican soldiers surrounded her house and her mother as plea to God swore that if they got out alive her daughter would wear a habit for the rest of her days. The soldiers didn’t attack the house and my grandmother’s fashion choice was set for life.

At times I’m outside our house in Germany an “El Señor de los berberechos” turns up, this was a Spanish man that loaded up his car with tins of smoked muscles, oysters and sardines in Spain and drove all the way to northern Germany to sell to the Spanish migrants missing the food back home.

At times I’m in a supermarket eating a German sausage on a long paper plate with mustard and a glass of orange juice. If I tasted it today I could tell you if it was the same one. At times I’m at the Spanish club in Dusseldorf, my arms stretched carrying a painting of a bullfighter, Manolete, from the stage, across the dance floor, to my parents. They had won it in a raffle, the painter’s wife had died and two paintings were being raffled to send the poor woman back to Spain. At times I’m in my mothers arms at the same club, beehive hair and baby blue chiffon dress, her face panicked as a brawl breaks out at the other end of the hall and we can’t leave because the police have locked the doors. Eventually we leave and as we are walking down the street, my dad, mum, uncle and aunt, mum and my aunt burst into tears, the men tell them not to be silly.

And at times I wake up, though I know I shouldn’t wake up. I know my parents go to work early and for an hour I lie in bed alone until my godmother walks across from her house and, still sleepy takes me out into the cold and across to her house. I know this happens and I know I shouldn’t wake up but one morning I do. One morning I wake up when I hear the door close and my parents leave. And I sit up alone in that room in that huge bed and I cry, I cry because I’m alone until my godmother arrives, I cry while I look out the window, I cry looking at my colouring book with pictures of cowboys and Indians, the paper pages divided by wax paper pages to keep the paint from smudging. I cry while I rip the pages of the book, slowly, while I rip the cowboys and the Indians and the wax paper. I cry as I sit there knowing that I have been left there every morning, but today I woke up to see it. I cry until I fall asleep again and my godmother comes to pick me up just like every morning but today the colouring book is ripped to pieces..

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