People often ask me what it is about Paris that I love so much, and it’s not a question I find easy to answer. Is it the atmosphere? The culture? The lifestyle? Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days away on the annual school trip to France, taking in both Normandy and my beloved Paris. Although not there to run on this occasion, Paris continues to be a very special place for me and during the course of the trip I found myself reflecting on some of my experiences in the City of Light and thinking about just what it is that keeps drawing me back there.
The trip began with a couple of days in Normandy, primarily spent giving our pupils the opportunity to learn more about the D-Day (or Jour-J as they say in France) landings on June 6th 1944. This is always a very moving part of the trip and an experience the pupils very much appreciate. For me, one of the most moving parts of our time in Normandy is our visit to Arromanches, which featured heavily in this year’s commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We visited the 360 Cinema there and this year the film had been updated. The new film very powerfully conveyed the events and emotions of D-Day and the weeks afterwards, often bringing it down to a very “ordinary” level which anyone could relate to, for example scenes of a young child clutching a kitten amidst the destruction and devastation of a Normandy village. As a cat owner, this gave me a real emotional jolt, but I was completely unprepared for my reaction to later parts of the film.
Having visited the area before and seen similar footage in the previous film on show, I was prepared for many of the images I saw, however I was unprepared to be confronted with this:
This haunting image, which I have seen before, of Hitler in such close proximity to the iconic Eiffel Tower makes me shudder. I cannot stand to think of such a man walking the streets and boulevards that I have come to know so well, particularly since it is widely reported that Hitler’s plan was to completely destroy Paris before it was liberated by the Allies. He wanted there to be nothing left but rubble. What would this beautiful city be like today if these plans had been carried out or if the Allies had failed in their liberation? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
However the most emotional moment of the film (for me) was yet to come. The film charted the progress of the Allies across France after D-Day, culminating in the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Towards the end of the film, we were shown scenes depicting this liberation and the celebrations which followed:
And this was what got to me. The lump in my throat which had been forming throughout the film threatened to overwhelm me and I truly thought I was going to cry right there in the middle of the cinema. Why? Because these scenes show the Champs Elysées, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, a place very special to me and thus bringing the film once more to an “ordinary” level for me to relate to. These are scenes of ordinary people flocking to celebrate their liberation from tyranny on a street familiar to all. For me, this is a street bound up with a lot of strong emotions. I’ve stood in the middle of the Champs Elysées waiting nervously to run 26.2 miles on two occasions, one of which was my first ever marathon. In my mind, the scenes became a kind of “split screen” of then and now. I was struck by the weight of history and emotion represented in what I saw before me, in comparison to my own, more recent, experiences.
The Arc de Triomphe is also the focal point for the finish of the Paris marathon course, and anyone who has ever run 26.2 miles will understand the wave of diverse emotions that wash over you the moment you cross the finish line. Perhaps it was because my most recent visit to Paris prior to this trip was to run the marathon, perhaps it was the combined emotions of learning more about the sacrifices of those who fought through this period in history, but seeing these scenes on screen triggered a similar wave of emotions that seemed to engulf me out of the blue. As I emerged from the film, I was speechless for a few minutes as I reflected on what I had seen and how I had reacted, a reverie broken only by the voice of a curious pupil wanting to know more about what they had just watched. Had I been alone, I would have likely found a quiet place to sit and reflect further, but on this occasion duty called.
The following day we arrived in Paris and launched straight into a jam-packed itinerary of sightseeing. With my Arromanches experience still fresh in my mind, I found myself giving much more thought to the history of the city and my own love of all things Parisian. It was while sitting on a boat along the river Seine on a glorious day that a new thought struck me. Perhaps the reason I feel so comfortable in Paris is because it’s full of people just like me…
You see, I’ve been on this very same boat trip several times, and while I love the views of Paris from the Seine, this time I focussed more on the people of the city going about their daily lives along the riverbank. And what do you think I saw? I saw runners. I saw cyclists. I saw people reading a book in the sunshine. I saw, in short, people living a life I’d love to lead:
And perhaps that’s what it is. Perhaps every time I visit Paris I feel like I’m part of this lifestyle. A lifestyle of running, cycling and sitting having a leisurely coffee whilst watching the world go by. These are the simple pleasures I enjoy, but in Paris it seems like it is a city designed for this kind of life. It’s a place with a big city vibe, but a compact feel (as a comparison, London is something like 17 times bigger!) and can easily be explored on foot or on two wheels. And a two-wheeled life is made much easier in France thanks to better cycle lanes and, in Paris, the famous Vélib cycle hire.
Throughout the remainder of my time in Paris, this thought stayed with me and I became attuned to noticing the number of runners and cyclists I saw everywhere – runners completing stair workouts and hill reps in Montmartre, shoppers returning from errands with their purchases stacked in bicycle baskets and my own ever-present memories of running along the very streets I was now leading my pupils along. I remembered the crowds shouting “allez courage!” and “allez les filles!“; I remembered the support of the firefighters along the route (“les pompiers sont avec vous“) and from the top of the Eiffel Tower, I could see the entire marathon route stretching out before me, a sight which truly brings home just how far 26.2 miles really is, and remembered running through those tree-lined avenues and beautiful parks. I was immersed in my own memories, and it was just what I needed to give me the determination to get my running back on track after months of injury, and begin preparing for the challenges to come in 2015.
Even my shopping time was dominated by thoughts of running. Early on in the trip I purchased a copy of Running Pour Elles and enjoyed reading about La Parisienne, a massive women-only race which takes place in Paris in September. I also checked out the pages dedicated to running kit and spotted a few things I would like (one can never have enough kit after all!). So when I found myself outside Adidas on the Champs Elysées, I couldn’t resist going in.
And when I came out, I was in possession not only of a new pair of running tights, but a brand new pair of running shoes too – the Adidas Clima-Heat Rocket Boost, which claim to keep my feet warm and dry in the winter months (as well as looking really cool!). Just the thing to get me running again as the days become shorter and the weather colder. I’ve been keen to try out some Adidas shoes for a while so I can’t wait to run in them!
So while this may not have been a running-related trip, it’s clear that running somehow still figured strongly in my mind through my emotions, my observations and my own memories. I think this comes from the fact that Paris was both my first ever marathon and the marathon at which I set my current PB – two very special experiences. Next year, I’ll be back to run it all over again and create new memories in my favourite city.
In addition, my first experience of this particular school trip took place the same year as my first marathon, so it would seem that the two are inextricably bound up in my mind. Paris clearly resonates with me on a deeply personal (and emotional) level of experience and achievement, and that will presumably surface every time I return to the city, something I hope to do many times in the future and imagine, even just for a day or two, that I am a Parisienne.
“Être parisien, ce n’est pas être né à Paris, c’est y renaître” – Sacha Guitry
(To be a Parisian, you don’t have to be born in Paris, it’s about being reborn there)