Night was falling as the train approached Paris. The noise of the carriage, the chatter of children and the rumble of the wheels had almost lulled me to sleep as the vision unfolded… a domed palace in the sky glowing white against the deepening blue. A dream perhaps… or a dream come true. I had seen it like this once before, almost a decade earlier and had never forgotten, cherishing a wish that one day I would go back…
And here I was. Incredibly, unbelievably…on my way to work there.
Tears pricked my eyelids as I was overwhelmed by a sense of homecoming that I could not have explained. I had dreamed of this for so many years, drawn to the city by the heartstrings.
The Byzantine curves seemed to float above the horizon… the Sacré-Cœur… Sacred Heart… it seemed fitting in so many ways. The Basilica stands on the top of the Butte and it was this of course that made it seem to hover in the sky like some Eastern mirage. To me it was just as magical as anything conjured from a Genie’s lamp.
It really was a dream come true; a dream I had held close for a long, long time… almost half my life back then. I was young and had just walked away from a disastrous marriage, leaving everything except what I could carry behind. With nowhere to go and a job that paid little and had no future, let alone a violent husband following me around, I had moved back to my parents’ home. The big house had gone; they lived in a tiny cottage they were renovating. There was no room and it could not be for long. I needed a solution.
I applied for every job I could possibly attempt. Going through the paper one night I came across an agency that offered work abroad… mainly domestic, residential posts. The terms sounded like one of those ‘too-good-to-be-true’ things, but there was an open day coming up. What had I to lose?
I joined the group of about forty attendees in the big hotel conference suite. We were interviewed individually by a very professional couple. It continued to seem improbable. I was waiting for the catch… the registration fee… the scam. None came. We were instead given a very realistic picture of the chances of obtaining one of these posts. Minimal really. We were given possibly the bleakest picture of life in service, far from home in a strange country with no-one to fall back on. After the lunch break less than half remained. The others did not return.
We were asked to fill out sheaves of forms. We were warned that it took on average six months before you were offered a position and it would probably not be where you wanted… might be in Britain or abroad… no guarantees. We were required to state our first choice and how long it would be before you could take up a position. Paris… and a month’s notice was mine. The day ended with a further lecture on not getting our hopes too high. I expected nothing to come of it.
Two days later the phone rang. I remember the floor dropping away beneath me. Could I be in Paris by the end of the week? ‘No’, said logic. ‘No chance. You have to give notice at work; no passport, no money… nothing…’
“Yes. Yes, of course….”
I was so white when I hung up that my mother thought someone had died.
The next few days were manic. To add to the problems the passport office was on strike… I had to travel to Liverpool, right across the country… the furthest I had ever travelled alone… to get one urgently issued. My paperwork being a mess due to the legal system of names, a legal adoption by my mother and her second husband and suchlike, they turned me away. A day running round between solicitors and getting that sorted then back to Liverpool for an anxious wait. Very anxious… I had already booked the train…
My mother saw me off from the station. It was only when I was on my way to London that I realised I didn’t even know what my employer looked like or where we would meet… Only that I would be collected from the Gare du Nord…
I had navigated London… crossing to the station I needed for Paris. That was scary enough. I still had the ferry and the French train to come… and I had no idea what to do. I had been part of a group on my only other trip outside England. I had never travelled far or alone.
I stood on the deck of the ferry watching the white cliffs of Dover fade into the distance with mixed emotions. I was afraid… excited… homesick… Was I making a huge mistake?
Almost twenty four hours later I wrestled with the two heavy cases that contained my worldly goods; heavy because, of course, I had brought books. Clad in the tweeds my mother had deemed suitable for an English Nanny/housekeeper… though completely unsuited to my tender years… I staggered towards the end of the platform.
“Suzanne?” A tall, figure in denim, a scarf casually knotted around her neck; she smiled and reached out her hand. She looked just a few years older than I but infinitely more sophisticated…elegant… confident… all the things I was not. I was amazed when she introduced herself as my employer, took a suitcase and ushered me out to her car.
Nerves dissolved into abject, gibbering terror as we drove at some speed and with apparent disregard for traffic and pedestrians alike, right across Paris… on the ‘wrong’ side of the road too. Madame laughed and reassured me, pointing out the sight as we drove.
We had reached the Place de la Concorde… I recognised it by the Egyptian obelisk; another dream… when Madame dropped the bombshell.
“You don’t mind?” asked Madame.
They were leaving for Spain in two weeks.
And I who had never been anywhere… I was going with them!
Thus began the adventure…life with a couple of journalist art directors and their small daughter. Travel with them… food, jazz, wine and theatre. They treated me as a friend rather than a servant and I came to love them all dearly. They took delight in unfolding their world for me, teaching me so much about so many things. They were a dream come true for a provincial English girl and the kindest of people. They still are. We are still in touch after all these years. I cherish the dream that I might get to visit them again one day…
And I know that dreams dreamed from the heart can come true.