Full Speed Ahead Into... the Past

Before I take you along my trip to South Africa, I have to tell you a story. A very personal story that has been on my mind for quite a few months now.

It all started when I realized that the passport I had only used once in ten years had aged gracefully but would no longer be valid for the required six months validity on arrival in Cape Town.

So I had to apply for a new one.

I looked for my birth certificate I had asked for in 2010 because we needed a new identity card.

My birth certificate was no longer valid either. Now I understand the need for renewing one’s identity papers every so often besides the fact that security is getting a lot tougher. But a birth certificate should be valid all life long, shouldn’t it? Your birth date doesn’t change. (Somehow I wish it could!) And when you get to be my age, your parents’ names are still the same. It’s been quite a while since I was eligible for adoption!

Oh well, so I complied, got me a new birth certificate and unsmiling pictures because by then I really wanted to go to South Africa. I was not to be unruly this time. I asked for my passport renewal and got my new passport a week later without any problem.

The day I was looking for my out-of-date birth certificate, I did a lot of rummaging through the many family papers I keep hoarding and I found my parents’ marriage certificate (a copy of it). Interesting reading. Because there was Grand-Père’s address on it.

You know how much I stand in awe of Grand-Père, the “Man with Many Faces”.

This address did not seem to tally with the legend. I had been told he had always lived in Montmartre. Rue Norvins, to be precise.

Now Montmartre is not Paris. It never was. It only became part of Paris in 1860. Its history is quite intricate. You are born in Montmartre or you have been living there for a long time and you won’t say that you are from Paris. Never ever. You are from Montmartre. That’s it. Still true… Being a “Montmartrois” is priceless.

The address on the certificate was 20, rue Notre-Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Wow, this was a long way away from Montmartre and its 18th arrondissement… Well, actually not really a long way away. But 20, rue Notre-Dame de Lorette was definitely not the “26, rue Norvins” in Montmartre, supposedly the family starting point in the Paris area.

I like Montmartre a lot and I love to take long walks there. I do feel at home there. Even though tourists are swarming through the district, there are always a few quiet and small winding village streets there to enjoy.

I have walked quite a few times by the “26, rue Norvins”. The imposing building is still there, not very far from the Sacré Coeur basilica. But now it is “2, rue Norvins”. Yep. “26” became “2”. There is even a plaque to remind you it used to be the “26” since quite a few very famous people used to live there. Artists, musicians and writers.

While walking there, something kept puzzling me. Every time.

I happen to have a picture of me and my Grand-Père on a balcony. I am very young and frowning. He is smiling and looks happy to hold me in his arms. At the time my parents had sort of split up and I was living with my mother and my Bonne-Maman in Normandy. 

I suppose my mother had brought me there to Paris to meet Grand-Père. She probably took the picture too. She never was much of a photographer. Blurry picture. But priceless picture.

I looked for it. There it was. I had been right all along. No way this picture had been taken rue Norvins.

Suddenly I felt I needed to go rue Notre-Dame de Lorette. What for? This picture had been taken such a long time ago. My life was very gratifying and I had a matchless voyage to get ready for. Why should I worry about finding whether Grand-Père had not been the staunch “Montmartrois” the whole family always claimed he was?

The sun was shining when I left Swee’Pea’s apartment. Actually I was sort of hoping that I would not find the “20, rue de Notre-Dame de Lorette”. So many ancient buildings have been razed in Paris to be replaced by modern edifices. So why should this one still be standing?

When I came out of the eponymous subway station for the first time in my life, so I thought, I felt elated. Such a beautiful place. So calm. No tourists. Quite a few extremely beautiful private mansions here and there which had been built by famous courtesans in the 1900s hence the name of the area. “Lorette” meaning socially high-ranking courtesans who were in favor with very rich men at a time it was totally acceptable to keep a beautiful mistress.

I found very easily the street I was looking for. And lo and behold, there it was… still standing. “20, rue Notre-Dame de Lorette”. 

I had brought the picture. Grand-Père obviously occupied the top floor, the one with a balcony that went round the whole apartment. Nice. Very nice.

There they were: the cornice and the balcony from the other building above us.

“20, rue Notre-Dame de Lorette”. Not Montmartre, at least when I was very young. Because he did live rue Norvins while I was growing up.

Does it matter? Well, not really. It was kind of surprising to find the balcony where the “Man with Many Faces” had held me in his arms. Gratifying somehow.

And yes it did matter. My family’s history is filled with secrets, most of them skeletons in the cupboard. I came across a few of them because I was very inquisitive and knew how to listen when adults started whispering.

The “20, rue de Lorette” is not a secret, more like an untold story. A lost piece of the jigsaw that was and still is the very confusing family saga on my father’s side.

So yes. It does matter because this means that no one can answer my questions anymore. Those who could have told me the real story are either dead or totally uncommunicative.

I suddenly felt really lonely, rue Notre-Dame de Lorette.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

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