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It was love at first sight and I was astonished that it should be happening to me because the first sight had nothing in the least alluring about it. The roads from airports to cities rarely do. I was like a man who bewilders his friends by becoming infatuated with a particularly unprepossessing woman-warts and a squint and a harelip. 'What on earth does he see in her?' I've often wondered myself. What did I see in that dreary road which was taking me to Paris?
This sudden incomprehensible love affair might have been a little less mysterious if I had arrived in France with gooseflesh anticipations of romantic garrets and dangerous liaisons in them, the Latin Quarter and champagne at five francs a bottle, and artists' studios-all the preposterous sentimental paraphernalia from absinthe to midinettes. But I had not included any of these notions in my meagre luggage, I had no preliminary yearnings towards the country. Rather the contrary. In Australia I had spent much of my time with a young woman who had visited France just before the war and had gone down with a bad attack of what someone called 'French flu'. She babbled so fervently and persistently about France and Paris that she infected me with a perverse loathing for both.
The fact nonetheless inexplicably remains. A hundred yards from the airport we passed a café ('Le Looping', with the two o's aerobatically askew to make the point clear) and puppy love overwhelmed me-puppy love from which this old dog has not yet shaken himself free. 'Le Looping' and the handful of unremarkable customers sipping their drinks on the terrace instantaneously bewitched me.
I knew,with no rational justification, that I was in a country which for me was unlike any other country. It was as though some indigenous evangelist had caused me to be 'born again'.
One life abruptly ended and another began. There and then I shed my twenty-five years. To this day, in my own head and heart I am twenty-five years younger than the miserable reality.
The passengers in the airport bus were a drab lot. It was only eighteen months since the war had ended. There had not been much time to spruce up. In my besotted state, they seemed to me as fabulous as troubadours. The houses along the road were dismal little pavilions badly in need of a coat of paint. I gaped at them as if each one were the Chateau de Versailles. And in the distance the Eiffel Tower looked so impossibly like itself as depicted on a thousand postcards and a thousand amateur paintings that the sense of unreality which I had been feeling deepened still further.
What had brought me to Paris was my eagerness to visit a writer I had admired since my school days. He and his wife were to become two of my closest friends. We saw a great deal of each other in the years ahead-in Paris, in the South of France, in the Loire Valley. Of all the countless occasions on which we laughed together, argued, drank wine, loafed on a Mediterranean beach, listened to music, none was as sheerly magical as that first evening in Paris.
Our relationship took shape from the very beginning. We were already friends by the time we left their studio and strolled together down the Boulevard de Montparnasse. For some reason, twilight in Parts, then at least, was not like twilight in any other city. It enveloped you in a wonderful blue and golden luminosity and it had its own special unidentifiable perfume. That one-and-only twilight dreamily descending on us was so unlike anything I had known that I had my first vague glimpse of a mystery which was to become more and more apparent as time went by: Parts was the city of the unexpected. You always felt as though something extraordinary were about to happen. Sometimes it did, sometimes not; but the expectation never diminished. One went on waiting.
Twilight aside, most things were in short supply in 1947. Fortunately, the writer had been familiar with Paris for thirty years or more. He was already on the right sort of terms with the proprietor of an unassuming restaurant in one of the side streets. So we were served with a mixture of raw vegetables, a sorrel omelette (I can still recall the metallic taste of that sorrel) and, thanks to the proprietor's peasant brother, some wild duck. The wine was a muscular red with a powerful rasp to it but (a symptom of French flu?) I thought I had never drunk anything so delicious. It was served in cups as if we were in the prohibition speakeasy era because otherwise less privileged customers would have been clamouring for some and there wasn't any too much to be had.
Afterwards we walked back along the boulevard towards the studio. We stopped midway for a glass of brandy at the Dôme. Tourists had not yet ventured to return to Paris. The other customers on the terrace were all French, completely nondescript but fascinating because they were French. There were practically no cars on the roads. Those there were either had great charcoal-burning furnaces fixed to the back or carried dirigible-like bags of gas on their roofs. Every so often a fiacre went clip-clopping past. The air was almost startling pure. The stars were sharply visible in a translucent sky. I turned to the man at the next table and asked him for a light-speaking French for the first time in my life. I managed to make three ludicrous grammatical blunders in the course of that one short sentence. If he was amused by my linguistic ineptitude he was too polite to show it. La politesse francaise-that still existed, too.