Paris with my grandmother: One grandson's life-changing trip

Liam Drew takes us along on his Parisian adventure with his grandmother and explores the importance of spending quality time with the older people in your life

"So, we won't be taking these?" I asked, as Nan walked away from the escalator. "No," she said defiantly, heading for the staircase, "I don't like them."

My mum—Nan’s daughter— had warned me about this. But at 72, Nan was about to leave England and fly for the first time; I'd rather hoped that the novelty of a moving staircase could also be accommodated. It couldn't, which meant I ascended the stairs to the airport's departure lounge slowly, finding myself worrying once more about the logistics of our travelling alone together.

 

The trip we were about to make was the result of a conversation we’d had the previous year. Stood by her stove, watching her cook, I’d asked Nan if she had any regrets. She’d surprised me by saying instantly, "I always wish I'd gone to Paris."

It was the way she made it sound, like an impossibility. It was as if the fact that she’d not gone there with Granddad meant she would never go. That was what made me decide I would take her. Months later, I graduated university and—empowered by my first wages—promised her for Christmas that I’d take her to the French capital.

Now, in summer, waiting for our plane, I asked Nan if she'd prefer tea or coffee. She replied by asking if they had brandy. I smiled. First, because it was only 9am, but more because Nan usually drank whiskey and I loved the nod to France in her choice of Dutch courage. I duly ordered a beer and a brandy.

"As we wobbled into the air, Nan squeezed my hand, eyes closed, seeking assurance"

As this day had approached, I'd become increasingly anxious. Besides banal worries about something going wrong or an emergency of some sort, I was concerned about how it would be for just the two of us to be together for 60 hours straight. Nan and I were close—she'd been widowed 18 years previously, and for my brother and I she was the fifth member of our nuclear family—but although we often talked with an ease and enthusiasm that delighted us both, our conversations didn't always catch light. And when had we ever spent longer than a few hours alone?

Halfway through our drinks, I remarked on something my dad had said the previous night. Nan said, "You know that's what he's like, love. Doesn't want his little boy to grow up," launching us into a dissection of her son-in-law. The subject was familiar but the conversation felt fresh and nuanced, and I chided myself for having doubted our ability to always talk freely.

My nerves returned, however, when our plane turned out to be much smaller than I'd anticipated. I’d only previously flown on bulky jumbo jets; this flimsy plane with its mere 12 rows of seats—two on one side, one on the other—made me uneasy. As we wobbled into the air, Nan squeezed my hand, her eyes closed, seeking assurance and I feigned composure.

 

"I watched the torrent of novelty bombarding her and saw how far she's travelled"

At charles de gaulle, taxis seemed too alien and expensive, so we made the trip to our hotel by bus, and all subsequent journeys around the city via public transport. The hotel was prosaic and plain but perfectly Parisian. A tiny metal lift rattled to the top floor, where our attic room twin beds waited, laughably separated by only the width of their sheets.

I was relieved to discover, when we headed out to explore, that the nearby Metro stop was shallow and without an escalator. After I’d navigated the ticket machines and the station's tunnels Nan asked, perplexed, how I’d known what to do. Aboard the train rushing into the city’s centre, I watched the torrent of novelty bombarding her and saw just how far she’d travelled that day.

 

Alighting at the Hotel de ville, we stepped to the river to behold the grand architecture of the Seine’s islands. I was constantly aware of overexerting Nan but Paris is a city you must walk in, and so we did, strolling to the Louvre’s courtyards and from those to Notre- Dame. Despite my frequent inquiries throughout the trip, Nan always said —and I believed her—that she was happy to keep going.

Nan took pride in the apparent worldliness of her grandson and I was emboldened by this faith, inflated further each time she was overly impressed by something that I knew about Paris or French food or culture. Sitting outside the Notre-Dame, I told Nan which country or region each of the passing tourists was from. "But how do you know?" she wondered.

We had dinner in an over-priced, overly touristic café: the food was generic and a menu written in French and English punctured the atmosphere a fraction. It was fun later, however, to repeat our morning drinks order as une bière et un cognac and to sense in that first request the words becoming a motif.

The second morning we ambled around the gardens of the Palais de Luxembourg, then the Jardin des Plantes. And for lunch, we went to an old café near the botanical gardens, where I knew there would be no English on the menu.

The dark-haired girl who greeted us was attractive and my age, her smile disappointingly impersonal. But as I asked, in stuttering French, for the table in the front bay window, her eyes flicked curiously between her guests and whatever she grasped of our situation, from then on, she became warm and attentive; happy it seemed to partake in whatever adventure we were on.

Nan was always wary of foreign food—even though she loved the smell of garlic, she considered it too exotic to eat—and so she ordered pommes frites and salad. Her trip to the bathroom, however, gave her an authentic experience. Our waitress led her by the elbow to the back of the café, but when Nan returned she leant across the table to say, "I hope I went in the right room."

"I'm sure you did, why?"

"There was just a hole in the ground, which I had to crouch over...."

"Well, now you've peed like a real French person, Nan!"

Afterwards, we crossed the city by Metro, but when we went to exit the station we met two towering escalators, that flanked a neck-cricking central staircase.

"Come on, Nan. Look..." I said, extending my palm optimistically to the upward escalator.

"We'll be fine," she said, starting for the staircase.

Though it was her choice, I felt dreadful that Nan had to make that mountainous climb—and to compound my guilt, the twin escalators provided two uninterrupted streams of commuters who stared unflinchingly; curious, pitying and probably disgusted, wondering what weird game I was playing, making her climb. 

"I was absorbed by Nan's face as she stood, transfixed by the Paris of her imagination"

We spent the afternoon meandering the streets and leisurely taking coffee. Then, come evening we explored the Latin Quarter. When an alleyway brought us to an Irish bar, Nan said "Let's go in here," taking the lead for the first time.

I thought she’d been drawn to the familiarity of a pub but, in fact, she was thrilled by the hybrid foreignness of it, one alien country nested in another. The menu, though, contained dishes she might have cooked herself and we each dined on Shepherd's Pie.

 

After dinner, we walked until a lamplit square brought us to a halt. Open at one end, its three closed sides housed restaurants whose tables, dressed in classic red and white check, spilled across the entire cobbled piazza. The tables were full, and waiters zipped among them, cutting through the buzz of conversation and gesticulation and the dance of knives, forks, wine glasses and bottles. For good measure, a violinist played. We stopped to stare, but soon I was more absorbed by Nan’s face as she stood, transfixed by the Paris of her imagination come to life.

Eventually we begrudgingly walked on, but our luck was good—as we left through the square’s open end, a small round table outside a bar became free. In the light illuminating the bar’s sign, we ordered une bière et un cognac and sat chatting, gazing on the square, and watching the night's crowd stroll by. The silences were long and comfortable—and in them I felt, at last, Granddad's absence move about us.

Later, as we walked back from the Metro station to our hotel, Nan said, "Oh, Lee, I could have sat at that table all night."

"Really?" I said. "I'm so sorry. I thought you were tired… We should have stayed."

She offered no counterpoint, no suggestion that she thought I was tired too.

"Shall we?" I asked, nodding toward a dimly lit door—by no means the Latin Quarter—a bakery-type café offering little charm sat half open, snoozing on the job.

"Go on, then," said Nan, and we mounted the steps to join a couple of locals in the sleepy room.

"Une bière et un cognac, s'il vous plait."

When someone is gone, as Nan now is, the sadness at what's lost nestles with a lament for what will forever remain unknown—the incompleteness of the relationship, the conversations never had. Besides the procession of recollections I have of Nan as archetypal grandmother, there sits another set of memories, those of occasions when I saw a different aspect of her.

Seated with our drinks, Nan said finally, "Your Granddad would have loved this, Lee."

I left a gap for her to decide if she would go on. She did, and soon I was voicing my 23-year-old incomprehension of how a long life could be dedicated so absolutely to a single person and then to his memory. "But, Nan, you married him when you were only 21, didn’t you?”

"I did, love, but I knew." Where I had feared sadness, there was thankfulness. "He was so special. He understood me, he made me."

When she paused, I offered up my handful of infant recollections of him. Then Nan led the conversation further backwards, so that there in Paris, in a bland suburban café as a server waited to close up, I sat quietly before a stream of images of my young grandfather, and learned how, half a century before, my Nan had been transformed by love.

 

Liam is the author of I, Mammal: The Story of What Makes Us Mammals (Bloomsbury)