Every now and then the stars align and a suggestion mooted becomes an actuality. The initial idea, prompted by a birthday card showing three women of the slightly older variety in a convertible on a road trip, was my husband’s idea. One of our party needed something to look forward to following an illness.

Well we’re not in a convertible – one of our group not being keen and, truth be told, neither am I. It’s not that I’m fussy about my hair, but wind and sunburn take on a whole new meaning when you’re wheeling along the highways and byways of the southern states. Oh, and we haven’t done any flashing.

Two of our group flew from St Croix, USVI to Orlando, Florida, and before you throw your hands in the air and think – in common day parlance – OMG these biddies are going to Disney, we weren’t. Instead we met up with the third member of our triumvirate to spend a happy few days seeing Winter Park.

Now I’m not really a suburban kind of gal, but it was pretty, though maybe a little too manicured for my more Bohemian side, however the museums and galleries were a delightful surprise. But before we could admire the culture we needed sustenance which came in the form of a three-tier slab of carrot cake. 

If glass is your thing, hotfoot it to the Morse Museum of American Art. It houses the largest collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world – pieces that bedazzle the mere mortal with intricate designs that seem to glow from within. Dedicated to the Chicago industrialist Charles Hosmer Morse, the museum was founded in 1942 by his granddaughter, Jeannette Genius McKean. Keeping it in the family, though they weren’t married until 1945, Jeannette installed Hugh McKean as the first director. But it wasn’t nepotism alone that got him the gig. McKean was a talented artist who, in 1930, had been selected by the Tiffany Foundation to work, along with other artists, at Laurelton Hall on Long Island – the home of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Their work was ‘gently critiqued’ by Tiffany himself, who often joined the artists for evenings of organ music in the great Fountain Court. 

It was not surprising then that when McKean learned that Laurelton Hall had been destroyed by fire, he and his wife made a concerted effort to purchase anything that could be salvaged. One such element was part of the 1893 Byzantine-Romanesque style chapel designed by Tiffany for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Other bits of the chapel that had been sold off over the years were found and now form an exquisite space that gleams with an incandescent glow as one looks in awe at the thousands of glass tiles, the mosaic windows and baptismal font – truly a space as Tiffany said, “in which to worship art.”

Winter Park overlooks Lake Osceola which we felt duty-bound to sail around. The homes of local worthies from days gone by were pointed out – their foibles as well as their good deeds. One chap was having difficulty in plucking his wife from her New York roots and so built an exact replica of their home up north in order to tempt her to the Sunshine State. Personally, crocs clambering up my gently sloping lawn would put me off.

However, meandering around the grounds of the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens made me forget to never smile at a crocodile. The gardens were filled with statues of men and maidens, some disrobed. Many allegorical, some magical in the fluidity of the marble that seemed to almost breath in the soft breeze shimmering off the lake to tease the leaves of the full-bodied magnolias, the trembling asters, or the drooping and aptly named Angel’s Trumpets.

Winter Park was fun but we needed to head west and so, abandoning Laurie’s rather lovely baby blue Mercedes coupe named Lady, we picked up a sturdy black mammoth we instantly named Bruiser. First stop the Gulf Coast south of Tallahassee where we shared space with a group of Harley-Davidson riders from Germany in a hotel very close to the wonderfully named Sopchoppy. 

Now you may not know this, but Sopchoppy came into existence in 1894 after a railroad was built to encourage people to settle in the area with the promise of fertile land and a pleasant climate. The railroad company was referred to colloquially as the Gopher, Frog and Alligator Company – perhaps a clue as to why the town is only home to approximately 457 bodies. I could go on about how the township got its name but really I’m sure you’d much rather know about the annual Worm Grunting Festival. I have led a sheltered life and had not come across such an activity before but understand it to be quite an art. Worm charmers – yes, there is such a thing – hammer wooden stakes into the ground, then rub them with metal slabs. The resulting vibration tease the worms up through the soil where they are gathered and sold for bait, with the grunter gathering the most worms, I’m sure, being bestowed the title of Champion Worm Grunter.

But the miles were calling and we couldn’t linger long in our next stop, Apalachicola – say that very quickly after a couple of Margaritas. It is a pretty town on Apalachicola Bay in which the original French Consulate is now an inn, and where a charming independent book store offered literary temptations. After succumbing to temptations of another variety, where decisions had to be made as to whether a hand-made milk-chocolate covered pecan would be better than dark-chocolate covered fudge, a conundrum decided by purchasing both, and a few others, we hustled across I10 and through the by-roads of Alabama to Montgomery where…. 

This is a blog I wrote in April 2015. In April 2019, following the scandal of celebrities and the well-heeled ‘cheating’ to get their kids into college it is just as relevant.

Education, and parenting, can provoke heated debate regardless of where in the world we happen to live. The ‘tiger mom’ of Amy Chua, who espouses a structured and highly disciplined approach versus the ‘panda dad’ of Alan Paul, who believes “it stifles creativity and innovation”.

Then you have Texas Lt Governor Dan Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board, who believe pre-K education is a “godless, socialistic” plot and “a threat to parental rights”.

Like most things there has to be a median way.

In his book Anatomy of Restlessness, Bruce Chatwin wrote, “Children need paths to explore, to take bearings on the earth in which they live….” He believed some of our earliest memories are based around paths, whether to school, to the end of the garden, to the shops; in essence wanting to find out where a path may lead. The journey being as important as the destination.

My “I’m nearly four” year-old granddaughter recently started kindergarten, and is thriving in an environment that allows her to learn, to find her own path and to have a few hours a day independent from her mother.

And there’s the nub. Independence. It seems to me, our role as parents is to set our children up to succeed in whatever endeavour they decide to undertake. We try to guide them. We hate to see them suffer, whether from a snub in the playground, a lost ballgame, a bad grade, or a first broken heart. But if we try and ensure all failure is taken out of their little lives, how will they know how to handle failures that will inevitably face them as adults? There are very few of us who have not had a disappointment of some kind, and it is how we manage those later failures that gives measure of the man or woman we have become.

An article on the BBC website triggered thoughts on how much pressure we put on our children to succeed. Parents in Hong Kong taking extreme steps to ensure their toddlers are accepted into “the most prestigious nurseries.” Only then, these parents believe, will their children gain entry to the best primary, and secondary schools, and ultimately the best universities. One mother has a tutor for her eighteen-month-old daughter, who will need to know how to build a house with bricks, know where the eyes go on a felt face, and in the more extreme nursery interviews, be able to identify different kinds of eggs. Really? Of the five eggs pictured, I felt reasonably confident I got three correct. Tutoring is set to begin for this child’s brother when he reaches the grand old age of eight months. These toddlers are also tutored, and tutoring does not come cheap, in ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and not to be greedy, not to hit little Jimmy, and so on.

Parents in the US desperate for their daughters to get into a sorority have been known to spend up to $8,000 for a two-week sorority prep class, wherein their daughters are taught how to behave. Call me old fashioned, but I thought that was a parent’s job. A study by the University of Mary Washington, published in Journal of Child and Family Studies, reported that children with hovering parents were more likely to suffer from depression, and a lack of self-worth than those with parents less inclined to micromanage their offspring.

There is, of course, a difference in giving children a leg up, and all out cheating. A photo doing the rounds on social media recently showed parents climbing the walls and hanging from the windows of a school in Bihar, India, waving cheat sheets at their children inside taking end-of-year exams. Apparently US colleges expect applicants from China to have falsified transcripts, fake letters of recommendation and not to have written their own essays.

But it’s not just in Asia this proclivity to cheat for our children occurs. Tutors writing college papers for wealthy students is not unknown here. One young tutor earned enough to pay his own college tuition from such an undertaking. An extreme example is of an American mother, Catherine Venusto, a school secretary, who hacked into the schools computers to change her child’s grades. Not just once, but a hundred times. Again, really?

I do understand, and agree, education is the way out of poverty, but parents cheating for their children is not going to help them think. If we want independent, free thinking and confident young people we have to allow them to think for themselves, and to make some mistakes. That does not mean abrogating responsibility for their safety. It means giving them the opportunity to find their own path, even if it means some fraught moments for us. And parenting is full of those gut-wrenching moments. 

In a recent guest blog for ExpatChild.com on the ‘empty nest syndrome’ I wrote, “Helicoptering our children has I think made the ‘empty nest’ that much harder to bear. Our children have become the focus of our lives, rather than a very precious part of it; necessary of course when they are tiny and truly helpless but not so much as they grow.”

We have to let our children go in incremental steps and a good first step is kindergarten, but on their own merit. Not ours.

Pride is a sin, or so I’m told. But like most things, it’s moderation that really counts. And I’m not talking about pride in other people’s accomplishments – our children, our spouse and so on. No, I mean pride in ‘weself’.  Although a little pride is what gets us out of our pajamas each morning. And as a writer, if I didn’t have an element of pride in my work, I’d never pluck up the courage to send it out and risk the plethora of rejections that inevitably come back. 

I do confess to also being proud of my sense of direction and, on the whole, my ability to take directions. Do please note I wrote ‘directions’ and not ‘direction’ – I’m not so good at the latter. I am also a good map reader, which is why I despise Google Maps. Something to which I will not resort unless in dire circumstances – like I’m running very, very late… because I got lost!

But that’s all changed now I am spending more time on St Croix. I am now regularly totally and utterly directionally challenged. And that is on an island roughly 84 square miles in area, with the highest point being Mount Eagle at 1,165 feet. Roads numbers do not always tally with actual roads. Island maps show roads that once may have been passable but are no longer – you know those little dash-dash-dash lines that promise entry and egress but in reality peter out.

Like Houston, St Croix is afflicted with pot holes. Neither the powers-that-be in Houston nor on St Croix have not actually figured out the sense of ‘do it properly, one time’. But we have a sense of humour about it. My favourite bumper sticker here is also most comforting. It reads, “Not drunk, dodging potholes!” I almost drove off the road laughing.

I wasn’t laughing though a couple of weeks ago. We had visitors from Australia. Long-standing friends who are used to the vagaries of life – be it unplanned adventures, inclement weather or crazy hosts. Rorie is the epitome of a laconic Aussie farmer. Mary’s sense of humour has been, I’m sure, tested greatly throughout their long marriage, as has his. Be that as it may, they are great chums both to each other and us. We had decided on a driving day, and so our aptly named truck, Otto (Over The Top Off-roader), was geared up and taken for a spin.

I thought we were heading along Scenic Route East – a misnomer really, apart from the east bit. The tan-tan is as tall as an elephant’s eye and the glistening Caribbean Sea is merely a pencil mark through the scrub scrabbling up the hillside covered with creepers. Mainly Bride’s Tears, spaghetti vine and some kind of pea, all attempting to turn the bush into a palette of pink, yellow and purple. Pretty but invasive plants intent on strangling local flora. In any event, after the nails-on-a-chalkboard scratching of thorns along Otto, Mount Eagle seemed to be where we were heading. I wasn’t quite sure how we got there, but there was no turning back until we reached the summit.

I think I told you Rorie was a cool-cat, unfazed by the peculiarities of life in the left lane – oh, let me explain. The Virgin Islands, for some inexplicable reason, manouvre left-hand steering-wheeled vehicles on the left side of the road. It can at times produce, for those sitting in line of oncoming traffic, a dashboard-clutching drive. Anyway, Rorie was doing very well.

Until he wasn’t.

Mary was trying to catch glimpses of the ocean, or anything other than more tan-tan – and was rewarded with a flash of grey mongoose on the dusty red trail ahead. There was no left lane here. But she could afford some element of sang-froid. She and my husband, our driver, were on the hill side of the rapidly narrowing track, and her gaze skimmed over the bushes and through the trees, not down the hill where remnants of rusted vehicles peeked from under vines, giving testament to an ill-advised spin of the wheel. 

“Steer left a bit, mate.” Rorie’s words were calm. I had lost the power of speech as I leaned out the window and saw an inch of rubbly road then nothing but a tangle of scrub waiting to claim us in the ravine below. Okay, maybe not a ravine exactly, but a steep gully that would not make any of us feel good should we flip into it.

“I’m in 4 wheel-drive,” John said, his voice soothing.

“Not much use if there’s only air under the wheels!” Rorie commented.

The view from the top was worth the drive and, taking the right fork, the road more travelled, on the way down the hill, we eventually found our way to where I had thought we were going….. It turns out my pride has been misplaced all these years. I am directionally challenged. 

But then guidance on St Croix is a little vague. Landmarks long gone are still used as reference points. I have since learnt if we had only turned right, where the tall palm blew down in the hurricanes eighteen months ago, and not at the signpost that categorically stated Scenic Drive East, we would have been fine.

That’s another idiosyncrasy of Crucian driving!

The Pole

February 23, 2019 — 12 Comments

An air of calm efficiency encased the stark room. Two trim, attractive women came up the stairs carrying a folded mat. One went to the floor-length windows and lowered off-white roller blinds to shut out the night reflected back into the room by a wall of mirrors – if not the vibrating cacophony of cars driving past with radios blaring this year’s songs vying for bragging rights of Soca Monarch of the Carnival.

The other woman went to a wall upon which were attached eight lengths of 9’ tubular steel. Removing one from the brackets, she carried it to the middle of room, and looking up, manoeuvered it into the fittings strategically placed in the ceiling and began threading it in. The process was repeated four times. More women arrived, helping each other, straightening and tightening the poles until they were vertical and secure. Quiet murmurs accompanied the installation. 

The instructor, a tall slender young woman with hair in a tight bun, a sheen of sweat across her shoulders, watched intently as she gulped water and caught her breath after finishing the previous adult ballet class. She riffled through a straw basket and finding shorts and a crop top, went to change.

Upon her return she sat on the floor, legs outstretched and waited for her class to follow suit. And then the warm-up started. An entirely different set of exercises to those of the previous ballet class, but no less grueling. I noticed she was the only one to do the entire set with her heels hovering above the floor – her stomach muscles taut – as she guided her students. There was no talking just booming music to encourage the seated, sweating women – a mix of ages and ethnicities, all clad in variations of their instructor’s attire.

The warm-up complete, the instructor sprang into action. Her movements athletic as she reached and swung her legs over her head and wrapped one knee around the pole, the other leg stretching to a long, lean balletic point. It was, to use a much vaunted phrase, poetry in motion as the pole became an extension of her body.

Her students watched intently, their respect almost tangible as she went through a flowing series of graceful movements before dismounting with a calm, controlled release.  She divided the class – at least one spotter for each student of pole fitness as they attempted to emulate their teacher’s fluid movements. Some sprang with an alacrity that smacked of youth and confidence, others were more hesitant, their approach less agile, their strength less obvious but all with a palpable determination. Perseverance, interspersed with moments of laughter, floated around the music-filled room as poles were sprayed, swabbed, climbed and swung around until each tensed stomach was heaving with effort.

Each new exercise was demonstrated with a grace and ease, instruction clearly given, and as students attempted the task set, a gentle adjustment was given, a leg crooked more firmly around the pole, a quiet word of encouragement and when a seemingly impossible feat was achieved spontaneous applause gave added incentive.

But apart from the determination swinging around the poles, it was the complete lack of body consciousness that was astounding. Every student’s body was a machine to be manipulated into a rhythmic alliance with the pole. Eroticism associated with pole dancing was non-existent. It was a class of women intent on mimicking the actions of their instructor with no element of embarrassment with regard a hand touching a tush, or a breast brushed as adjustments were made, help given by the spotter whose turn on the pole would be next. The easy understanding and acceptance of each person’s different abilities.

It reminded of a play I saw in London a few years ago. Written by Dave Simpson, The Naked Truth told the story of a pole dancing class begun in a church hall. Ordinary people of all shapes, sizes and ages wanting to try something different – for a variety of different reasons. It was funny, but also elevating on many levels, with the finale being a show put on for the village to raise funds for breast cancer – a pathos highlighted when one of the students died from the disease.

There is something about the freedom given to a group of women, and men, whose learned lack of self-consciousness allows for a greater sharing emotions, of thoughts and fears buried deep which are given the freedom to surface. Perhaps the lack of physical restraints allows a greater freedom with regard the sharing of sometimes intimate details.

Pole fitness will surely be given a boost with the new Jennifer Lopez movie, Hustlers, in which she plays a pole-dancing stripper. But for those everyday people intent on learning a new skill, of challenging their body to new feats, of opening their mind to new experiences, pole fitness is is a growing expression of movement and mind.

And in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a pole-fitness teacher of balletic grace is able to to draw the shyest student into the pole’s encompassing circle to learn a skill that appears to defy gravity.

As the class ended, mats were folded as satisfied smiles and encouraging laughter floated around Harlow Studios. Each woman went home exhausted, a little fitter and perhaps a little freer in mind as well as body.

The world outside drew everyone back into its orb as another car raced past – a soca tune a reminder that Carnival is around the corner.

Melancholy Confusion

January 5, 2019 — 6 Comments

It is January 5th, Twelfth Night, the eve of epiphany, but here on St Croix, it is known as “Three Kings’ Day” and is marked by the adult carnival parade – a not particularly chaste celebration of the Magi’s first sight of the infant Jesus.

But as with most things Crucian it does have its roots in history when the enslaved were given time off to celebrate Christmas. In the 1700s the streets of Christiansted and Frederiksted would be filled with costumed singing and dancing merrymakers, who would also visit other plantations to spread the holiday cheer. The modern manifestation has been in existence since the early 1950s when Three Kings’ Day marks the end of the month-long celebration with ten days of fun at the Crucian Christmas Carnival. Calypsonians compete for the title of king or queen and this year was won, for the fourth time, by Caribbean Queen aka Temisha Libert for her calypos, Promise and Karma. The first advising the incoming governor, Albert Bryan, to say true to his election campaign promises, and the second perhaps warning of what would happen if he doesn’t! Moko jumbies keep bad spirits at bay, cultural activities and fairs showcasing arts and crafts, food and drinks, keep the revellers happy, fed and lubricated. The final day, “Three Kings’ Day”, sees shimmering scantily clad men and women chasséing down the streets of Frederiksted to the steady beat of music belting out from trucks. It a noisy fun-filled spectacle that sets the crowds up for the coming year.

Twelfth Night, or the beginning of Epiphany, was always a subject of debate in my childhood home. Do the decorations come down on the night of the 5th or 6th of January? According to the Church of England it should be the 5th and so, over the years, I have come to adhere to their ruling. I can only assume the confusion came about due to one parent counting the 12 days from the day after Christmas Day, and the other from Christmas Day. Perhaps having the international date line between their two countries had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, I find the day a little melancholy. The tinsel is down, the fairy lights are stored away despite knowing a fuse needs changing, the baubles that have survived the cat’s delighted playing are packed away and my favourite tree decorations are wrapped in tissue and bubble wrap and wedged into stout boxes ready for any eventuality. The whole enterprise reminiscent of an international move, which was my initial reason for such careful storage practices. For many years we did indeed move every twelve months and I’d be damned if my Christmas decorations didn’t travel with me.

Perhaps the melancholy comes from knowing my global relocations have spluttered to an end. That is not to say I am unhappy in life or in my current location. How could I be? I am healthy and happy, as are my family. I have the Caribbean glinting in the sunlight and trade winds rustling the coconuts palms outside my study. A new book being released in March adds an element of satisfaction, and the thrill of starting another engages my mind in pages of what ifs and maybes. But the excitement of wondering what country we might call home the following year was intoxicating, and I miss it. 

Or perhaps my melancholy comes from saying goodbye to a houseful of friends who have stayed with us and shared our 12 days of Christmas – a noisy, busy, laughter-filled time of tempting smells from the kitchen and far too much rum and wine on the gallery.

Or perhaps it because this year we did not share our Christmas with our children and grandchildren who are scattered around the world. That, perhaps, a direct reflection of their upbringing in different parts of the globe. We all lead our own lives and only rarely do they truly entwine for a few precious days of shared memories, and when new ones are made to be stored away, like the decorations, and brought out occasionally for delightful reminisces. That is the price we all pay for a nomadic existence. And whilst I might think ruefully, and with a smidgeon of envy, of families who each year gather around the same Christmas tree in the same house in the same town, I know that is not our family.

We are global nomads. Each married to or with a partner from another country. We live in three different countries and as different cultural mores are navigated, with some becoming amalgamated into our own family culture, I reflect on the differences. But more importantly I reflect on the shared values. 

Because as Three Kings’ Day draws to an end, my melancholy vanishes and I have my own epiphany. It doesn’t matter where we live, or who we live with, or what language we speak. What matters is that when we do share time together, whether in reality or the virtual world of FaceTime, we are a family despite the miles between us.

Hee-haw – Who’s the Ass?

December 19, 2018 — 7 Comments

I was meant to be wrapping presents, washing windows, winnowing waste and generally preparing for an influx of much-loved visitors over the festive season. But I decided my time would be far better spent going to the races. Not to the dogs, of course.

Music blaring across the grassy expanse guided me to the entrance where I handed over $5 and was welcomed by a gentleman in white tails and top hat. This rather natty attire was somewhat marred by the white shorts but I gave full points for his well-turned calves – wasn’t that how men were judged back in the days of doublets and hose?

It was my first time at donkey races though I consider myself a keen supporter of mutton busting – that popular event at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wherein small children straddle a sheep and cling to the surprisingly greasy wool in the hopes of staying aboard until the finish line. But I digress, and I am not in Houston.

I am on St Croix, the delightful, beautiful and verdant ‘big’ sister of the US Virgin Islands. 

Donkey racing I have learned was introduced in the 1960s, perhaps to pay homage to the simple ass who was once a common mode of transport. Like most stories from this wonderful island it is rather a convoluted one – we thrive on story telling here so, to copy a rather hideous phrase much in use at the moment, please bear with me a moment while I explain.

Donkey racing was started by a group of gentlemen whose habit it was to mass at a local shop to discuss matters of low, or high, importance of any given day. Politics and politicians are always good fodder for a gossip because we all know we could do better if only they would listen to the people they are meant to represent. Here I go again, off on a tangent – Crucian eloquence must be rubbing off on me. In any event, and I’m not sure of the date, one of aforementioned gentleman, a chap named Minard Jones, decided to open a bar at which his pals could lubricate their vocal chords. This group of snappy dressers marched in a parade – we do love parades here – sometime in the 1950s in top hats and tails, and forever after have been known as Gentlemen of Jones, no doubt in honour of their pal Minard. Over the years these gentlemen have become active in various community events on St Croix, which brings us rather neatly back to the donkey races.

We run at our own special pace on this island – Crucian Time and anyway it was Sunday afternoon, and no one hurries on a Sunday, least of all donkeys. They, the donkeys, were corralled in pens at the base of a gentle slope – surprisingly not a bray amongst them. Clustered around were various people carrying bridles though saddles were not to be seen. My interest perked up. This would be entertaining, and no doubt authentic to their beginnings as a means of getting around back in the day.

First up were the children, six of them in a range of heights with one youngster’s legs dangling almost to the ground. A donkey, unimpressed, reared up sending his rider ignominiously to the turf before the red flag had even dropped but the boy ruled the day and mounted once again. The children were led around the track by volunteer runners, or haulers, depending on the donkeys’ willingness to budge. Some of those astride grabbed the reins, others grabbed the mane, with one tiny tike in a sundress and boots who, once lifted aboard, inched her way over the withers and clung to the bridle itself. Smart move, and as they pelted past, her curls streaming behind her, I could see she was a regular on the donkey circuit. Others were not as graceful on their steeds, slipping around bare bellies until the fortunately soft grass became an inevitable and inelegant end.

Watching lightweights on the backs of animals known for their recalcitrant nature was amusing, if a little nerve-wracking for the mothers I’m sure. Next up though were the men. Six stalwarts prepared to make an ass of themselves. Men ranging in size from slim to not-so-slim provoked a different sentiment. Pity for the donkeys and a sincere hope they found the energy to buck, or at least shake their riders off. The men, being manly, were meant to race holding their own reins but some, after a number of false starts, or no starts at all, were also assisted by the hard-working volunteers. 

It is difficult, I’m sure, to stay atop a donkey uninterested in its rider’s well-being but there is nothing quite like anothers self-imposed discomfort to bring out the best in spectators. So we laughed. It was gratifying when the men slid and slithered to the ground despite iron grips and gritty determination and the crowd had no compunction in cheering the asses on, although I wasn’t entirely sure which set.

I did not stay for the remaining races – the time between each event stretching even my willingness to avoid housework – but a loud hee-haw to the Gentlemen of Jones for donkey races well run!

Paris – ooh la la!

November 27, 2018 — 1 Comment

I came to a staggering stop, gasping to catch my breath as another forty or so steps glared down at me. The chill of a Parisian November afternoon felt at the bottom of the hill had given way to an unpleasant clamminess and I loosened my scarf, undid my coat, and tugged at the neckline of my woolen sweater. I even dispensed with my gloves. Gathering what small amount of fortitude I had remaining, I hauled myself ever upwards. The effort was worth it. In the 38 years since my last adventure in the French capital very little had changed and I gazed in wonder at the glistening marble dome of the Sacre Coeur. Inside the same smell of candles mingled with a thousand tourists and devotees. The priest, I’m sure the same one, intoned a passage from an aged Bible. A nun, her arms spread not in supplication but in order to conduct the choir, wore the black and white vestments of her vocation, her hair chastely hidden. The voices were still sweet as they soared in harmony to the arched domes high above. Christ continued to gaze at his followers from the ornate stain-glass windows.

A sense of continuity, of history that is all pervasive in European churches is on one hand comforting, on the other, almost anachronistic. Nothing changes. Possibly a reflection of my somewhat conflicted feelings about organised religion.

We left the murmuring worshippers to see Paris stretched below. The grey louring sky punctuated by famous landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bourse cloaked in tenting, and curling through the city like a sleek satin ribbon, the Seine. Lights began to wink through the misty evening and an image came to mind of a thousand gas lighters striding the streets before electrification in 1878.

Coming down from on high, tawdry shop fronts selling pink rubber dildos shaped like the aforementioned tower reminded me we were nearing Place Pigalle, and the famous sails of the  Moulin Rouge and ooh la la Can Can dancers in frilly knickers. I clutched my handbag closer and strode along, daring interference. Paris’s red-light district is not the place to show uncertainty. Entreaties to enter one sleazy, curtained establishment after another made me hanker for the windows of the Wallen, the rosse buurt of Amsterdam where girls and women display their wares from the windows – the older the prostitute the higher up the building she goes. Somehow the Dutch equivalent seems less vulgar.

My companion for the weekend was my sister Val, and heading in the vague direction of our gracious host’s flat on rue d’Hauteville we realised we needed sustenance. Perhaps an aperitif and hors d’oeuvre. We were in Paris after all.

The reason for the trip – as if one needs a reason to visit Paris – was research. Though the manuscript for my next historical novel, Transfer, is  firmly in the hands of OC Publishing, Val suggested that rather than research, the visit would be confirmation of various places mentioned. To that end, dinner was to be at Le Bouillon Chartier – founded in 1896, it plays a minor part in the book. Very little seemed to have changed from information gleaned from various websites – certainly not the decor, nor the uniform of its bustling but pleasant waiters. The food was unremarkable but the ambiance unbeatable, and yes, the bill was totted up on white paper tablecloth. No calculators allowed.

The next morning, flaky crumbs of fresh croissants clinging to our lips, we made our way across Pont Neuf where the Seine shimmered in the cold brilliant sunshine. Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité tempted us but we continued along Boulevard Saint-Germain to our destination, Musée de Cluny. We were not disappointed. The “Lady and the Unicorn” woolen and silk tapestries were magnificent – works of art from Flanders in the Middle Ages depicting the five senses. The sixth tapestry with the words “À mon seul désir” has a more obscure meaning, possibly representing love and understanding.Cluny

Museums are thirst inducing so we found respite and refreshments at that most famous of writer’s establishments, Les Deux Magots, where I could imagine Hemingway and Baldwin sipping cognac as they solved the problems of the world, or at least the comma. Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre chatted with them. Now it is patronised mainly by tourists, and people like me hoping some of their genius might still linger and alight on my shoulders.

Another ooh la la moment came after recrossing the Seine via the footbridge, Pont des Arts, when the ground rumbled from the throaty revving of about sixty motorbikes waiting at traffic lights. All the riders wore yellow safety vests and we learned they were part of an organized demonstration against rising fuel prices and the Macron administration. The bikes roared past us, then again as we walked north but apart from shouts and roaring engines there was little of concern.

The tear gas and police cordons of the following weekend did not thankfully impinge on our Paris sojourn, and I left the City of Light comforted that whilst German and Allied tanks might have rolled along the elegant boulevards, and discontented citizens might harangue politicians, it is still a city of culture and excitement, imbued with that wonderful air of  je ne sais quoi!

And I won’t be waiting so long time for my next visit to Paris!