Montmartre made me want to be Parisian. I had drinks with an old friend the other night, and she reminded me of how I repeatedly changed my handwriting when we were teenagers. “I suppose,” I mused, realising how many years it’s been since I’ve felt compelled to reconsider if I like the style of my penmanship, “that I did devote rather a lot of time to figuring out exactly who I wanted to be.” Truthfully, as a teenager, I was a weirdo – a charming weirdo, hopefully, but that’s probably debatable. And more than anything, I didn’t want to be normal. Somehow I knew, instinctively, that life held more possibilities than my hometown offered. I found those possibilities on the cobbled streets of Montmartre.
The streets behind Basilique Sacre-Coeur were teeming, the day we visited on our school trip. It was a sunny March afternoon; hawkers, tourists, con men and petty thieves were all out in full force. I walked the cobblestones in white runners, a red fleece jacket protecting me from the cool spring breeze. At fifteen, I struggled to say the word no – about anything, ever. I worried about what people would think of me, about if they would like me if I wasn’t agreeable and positive, about if they would exclude me if I wasn’t. But at the same time, I changed my penmanship and sketched outfits I dreamed of wearing, defining the person I wanted to be while nervously clinging to the version of myself that I believed people would like better.
I was in love with Paris, and perhaps it was that love that emboldened me, though I certainly looked the part of a mild-mannered, unchallenging young girl. Which is no doubt why one of the local con men approached my male friend and me. We ticked all the boxes on the easy target checklist. He was only halfway through the first sentence of his speech about where we should follow him to see what his friend had for sale when the word I found so hard to say left my mouth, firm and emphatic: “No.”
A barrage of insults followed us as we walked away, all of them directed at me. And I laughed. That day, on that crowded street, I learned a powerful lesson about the person I wanted to be. She was Parisian. But more than that, she was clever enough to know how to take care of herself and unabashedly unafraid to do it, regardless of whether people liked her for it.
We lived in Montmartre, years later. We still visit often, when we’re in Paris. Our favourite restaurant in the city is near the cathedral; we like to browse the APC outlet and visit the old windmill, the last one left in the capital. And every time I walk down those cobbled streets behind the cathedral, past the souvenir shops on the way to Place du Tertre, I smile to myself. I could have settled for who I was. Instead, I gave myself permission to consider who I wanted to be. And I will never regret it.