There is a wonderful line in the movie Shirley Valentine when from the gloom of her modest home in Liverpool, she turns to the camera and says “I have allowed myself to lead this little life, when inside me there was so much more. And it’s all gone unused. And now it never will be. Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don’t ever use them?”
Shirley Valentine was released in 1989, I was 19 years old, and yet those words stuck with me. I saw a woman who merely existed through life and I promised myself that this would never be me.
Fast-forward 20 years and that promise had become a distant memory. I remember the moment clearly when I was living in the Netherlands. I had seen my children off on the school bus, my husband had left for work and there I was sitting at my kitchen bench, stirring my cup of tea starring mindlessly into the grey sky outside. I had become Shirley Valentine minus the apron and perm.
The BBC was playing on the radio in the background as I went about my daily housework and I heard someone talking about an exhibition coming to Paris. It would be like nothing the world has ever seen. Picasso and the Masters was a collection of not only Picasso’s work but that of his influencers both old (Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, Titian) and modern (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Cezanne). The exhibition was to be held collectively at the Grand Palais, Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.
So on a cold winters day in December I told my family that I would be taking off for the weekend. I was going to Paris. The three of them looked at me like I had well and truly lost my mind, and they were correct. The life I was living was not me and just like Shirley, I had dreams and hopes that were quickly disappearing.
I rented a modest room in Montparnasse; on the left bank of the river Seine known for it’s famous artists are writers. Even though my French was rusty at best and I had no idea of where I was going, I felt alive. I made my way by cab to the Grand Palais. “You are here to see Picasso Madam” the driver asked and I excitedly went about telling him my life story and how excited I was to be there not realizing until I went to pay my bill that those initial six words were probably the extent of his English language. It didn’t matter, I had arrived and as I lined up out the front with the hundreds of other people who had come to see the exhibition I felt like the happiest girl in the world.
Something happens to me when I am in a museum. I become fixated on the smallest detail; the slightest brush stroke or the contrast in the colors knowing that the masters mixed them all by hand. I was transported back into a time that took my breath away over and over again.
After eight solid hours it was time to depart. My head was buzzing with all I had seen and I wanted to sit somewhere with my small note book in hand and take notes. I had long wished to visit Brasserie Lipp on Boulevard Saint-Germain. A Left bank institution, Hemmingway had referred to it in his book A Moveable Feast. The art deco restaurant dates back to 1926 where he wrote his pre-war dispatches. I ordered a Pernod on ice, a typical Parisian drink that looked like milk and tasted like aniseed.
I observed the people around me and wondered about their lives. Beautiful, mature women elegantly groomed and distinguished men in three piece suits. This was certainly not the trendiest place in Paris but it was exactly where I wanted to be. Waiters with freshly starched white jackets over black pant, the waft of cigar smoke hanging in the air. I loved it; every single bit and immersed myself in the atmosphere. In that moment I was neither a mother nor a wife but I was me, an unknown woman in a city where one could happily get lost and never return.
I woke the next morning and swung open the windows to take in the crisp winters air. Across the road from my hotel was the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and so before I headed to the station to catch my train home, I lit a candle and said a prayer. Normally my prayers were for my children and family, wishing them safety and a blessed life, but this time it was for me. I prayed that I would never lose my way again and that regardless of where I was in the world, I would always take the time to enrich and reward myself.
Standing at the platform at Gare du Nord waiting for my train to arrive something beautiful happened. It began to snow. As everyone ran to take shelter or open their umbrellas I stood looking up to the sky allowing the fresh flakes of snow to melt on my face. The season was changing and with it brought a new lease of life, a new happiness and a newfound respect for the woman I now was and continue to be.