An early start on a grey Wednesday morning. Four o’clock rings the alarm, and a groggy me hauls ass out of bed, aching from last night’s latest preview performance of Auntie: Hackney Gospels at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a show which left me feeing buoyant, inspired and accomplished, receiving a warm reception, the powerful messages exploring homophobia, race and the immigrant experience resonating with a wide cross section.
A 21st century renaissance man such as il di Vino must regularly survive on less hours sleep than the doctor recommends, but logistics have a way of stripping away one’s ability to be fabulous! Getting ready in the morning is not easy for most of us, but when one is as scatter-brained, indecisive and disorganised as I am, things are always that bit more fun. Scrambling about in y-fronts, bleary-eyed, still packing your bag because you were too lazy to do it the night before, tripping over miscellanea with toothpaste running down your chin does not a glamorous image maketh, but all this was irrelevant. I was about to more than make up for it with the most glamorous image of all: my first trip to Paris!
Forever thrifty, despite outward impressions, I had booked a return ticket, the outbound journey the first departure at 5:40am (5h40 a la francaise) for £58, £29 each way. My perpetual lateness is only a worry when money or tickets are booked, so a slight urgency rang in my ears as I readied myself. I check my scribbled checklist one last time, confident that I had packed what I needed and forgotten what I didn’t, I stood outside my front door, waiting for the 390 to arrive. Waiting. And waiting. A quick glance at the timetable told me my bus would arrive at 5:05am, which would get me to St Pancras at 5:20am, cutting things rather fine if I were to catch that 5:40am train! My Eurostar email advised me to arrive 45 minutes before my journey. But that 45 minutes must have a buffer period, right?
I was right! I soar through security, greeted by a woman who clucked her tongue and said “Look at you! Right this was, diva!” my early morning serving of sex appeal, black leather cowboy boots, leather trousers and a silk shirt buttoned down to the navel with matching headscarf probably the most rock star look the Eurostar had seen on their 5:40am service all year.
Giggling, bouncing and sauntering away, I have my first taste of la France, in the predictably misanthropic passport security men.
“Vous pouvez sortir votre passeport!” he barks, I delighted by his dedication to characterisation. Without a smile (from him, of course) I pass through, approaching my awaiting steed. Joy and felicity meets me at the train, the French stewards giving me an impression of gallic charm that would carry me through to the moment where I write this post, still charmed and secure in the fact that Parisians are actually bloody lovely!
The Eurostar’s interior is probably less glamorous than I would have liked, the whole colour scheme a variation on stained grey, but I place the episode where Eddie and Patsy take the Eurostar to Paris circa ‘92, and m’assieds next to a ruddy-faced commuting Londoner, one not fussed on conversation but very fussed on reading right-wing newspapers. We’re off, and I take this blessed opportunity to finally sleep, a luxury of the modern world.
“Mesdames, messieurs, bienvenue en France.”
A jolt of excitement – I’m really here, in the country I have dreamed of going to, but have hesitated, waiting for that bon moment. At sixteen, feeling bleak and isolated in the bleak and isolated Wigan, a fantasy of supreme sophistication, one where I’d ounce from city to city in the nest couture, effortlessly flitting from language to language as I go from fabulous cafe to fabulous bars to fabulous boutiques, each time meeting friends and making new ones. When Carrie arrives in Paris, her breath taken away by the view of the Eiffel Tower; when she falls in Dior; when Eddie Murphy meets a divine mixed-race beauty who speaks six languages in an elegant Parisian restaurant; the scene in which we meet the leopard-clad Francesco Mondino in Inglourious Basterds; these gems of media had all borne an obsession with living up to this fantasy.
Breaking away from the baseless vulgarity of my uncultivated surroundings meant distancing myself from the urge to conform we learn from birth. Sitting for hours on grammar websites, using films to perfect my accent, making friends with visiting students to obtain une experience francaise a l’etranger. It meant realising that I found fitting in so difficult because I was never meant to. It meant yearning for a life that can only be achieved through a celebration of individuality, a submersion in the world of intellectualism, each day seeking new avenues to live out my comfort zone. The six years of work I put into this identity of the impossibly fluid Gavino di Vino came to fruition as I stepped out of Gare du Nord, the fantasy at last becoming a reality because of my bravery to stand out.
I chose to study Russian and Spanish because when I was 15 years old, I decided I wanted to be different from everyone around me.
This desire started long before my teens, but watching Sex and the City on a rainy, lonely evening lit that little language light bulb above my head and changed my life.
The final episode where Carrie goes to Paris sticks in every fan of the show’s mind. As was always the case, the people and the lives possess an otherworldly glamour, unattainable to the average boy or girl living in a parochial world.
Carrie steps out of her taxi: the doorman lifting open the boot of the car with their white gloves to reveal her white and pink leopard print luggage. Carrie holds onto her hat, as if to steady herself from falling off the dream cloud of fantasy that Paris represents.
I adored the poise, the purpose and the elegance that the characters held, attributes a 15 year old teen, drowning in the fog of self-loathing and insecurity, inspired by my unpleasant surroundings.
The final scene of ‘American Girl in Paris’ decided my life-long love of languages.
Enter a fabulous mixed-race woman, actress Karine Plantadit, with a majestic afro in full flow, speaking effortlessly and confidently in rapid French, her mannerisms exuding sophistication.
Her presence among bleu blanc rouge-dominated high society fills me with a dull but genuine feeling of hope. At that time, the world had made me feel second rate and unworthy of success because of the colour of my skin, the shape of my lips, the texture of my hair. But seeing how this woman carried herself ignited an intellectual, spiritual and emotional flame.
One day, I want to be HER!
And from that, my desire grew, spending hours using the internet to learn the required vocabulary and pronunciation in order to formalise my apprentissage by taking a pre-assessment to do an A-Level course, despite not having the required GCSE.
I had opened for myself the language of another world.