The first time I saw Paris

This blog is dedicated to the memory of my father, John Campsie, 9 April 1921 – 8 February 2014. He passed his love of travel on to me and encouraged me to learn French.

The first time I saw Paris, it was a mistake. We were actually supposed to be in Greece, not Paris. And it was all my fault.

I was eight years old. At the time, my family was living in North Berwick, Scotland, because my father had taken a year-long sabbatical from his publishing job in Toronto to write a book. During the Easter holidays that year, he planned to take us first to Malta, his birthplace, and then to Greece.

At first, our holiday went pretty much according to plan. We flew to Malta, and spent one night in a hotel that my father remembered from his childhood in Valletta in the 1920s. Time had not been kind to the hotel – everything seemed mouldy and damp and the waiters in the dining room were elderly and hard of hearing. The next day we moved to a modern hotel.

On Sunday, we went to a service at St. Andrew’s Scots Church in Valletta. In the 1920s, my grandfather had been the minister at this church, as well as a chaplain to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet stationed in Malta. That is how my father had come to be born there – in the manse beside the church on Old Bakery Street.


The photo shows my mother, my sister Alison, and me dressed in our Sunday best outside the church. The house just beyond the stone church, with the knobs on the top, is the one where my father was born.

During the service, I started to feel queasy, and then very sick indeed. My mother took me outside and we wandered about in the sunshine for a while, until the service was over. I spent the rest of the day in bed. The following day, I was still very sick, and my parents got a doctor, who discovered that I had a perforated eardrum. He prescribed antibiotics and told us, “She cannot fly in an aeroplane for at least three months.”

So we had to scrap the plan to go to Greece. Instead, my father had to figure out a way of getting from Malta back to Scotland by land and sea. This must have been enormously stressful for him, but I didn’t know that at the time. When you are eight years old, you assume your parents will solve all problems. And he did.

I recovered enough to see something of the island – I have my father’s 35 mm slides showing trips here and there in a rented Morris Minor convertible. But I had to wear one of my mother’s scarves to keep the wind out of my ear.


Eventually, we set out on our epic journey home. First, we had to take a djasa (one of the colourful local rowboats) out to a steamer that would take us to Sicily. This is the photograph my father took while we were crossing Valletta harbour with our luggage.


The crossing was choppy. We landed in Syracuse, where we spent the night. Octopus was on the menu of the restaurant where we ate, something none of us had ever tried before. I understand that there is a way to prepare octopus that makes the experience of eating it less like chewing boiled rubber bands, but the chef in Syracuse did not use that technique.

The next day, we took a train to Messina, ferry to Reggio, and another train to Rome, where we stopped for a couple of days. My father’s pictures show us in the Forum and the Boboli Gardens and touring the Vatican. Here Alison and I are standing on the entrance gate to the Palatine Hill, with the Colosseum in the background.


Looking back, I am astonished that we found a hotel room, because it was Holy Week and people were pouring into Rome. But my father seems to have solved that problem somehow. The name “Hotel Lux” sticks in my mind. The hotel is still there, near the train station. It may well have been where we stayed.

Here is a rare picture of my father in Rome. Rare, because he was usually behind the camera, not in front.


We left Rome on Easter Day itself, on an almost-empty train to Turin. That in itself is remarkable. Who do you know leaves Rome on Easter Day?

From Turin, we went to Torre Pellice for a few days. This was another place my father had known as a child: in the 1920s, he and his family had spent several annual vacations in a nearby village called Angrogna.

I gather his family holidays consisted largely of taking long walks and admiring mountain scenery. So that is what we did, too. I have pictures of us hiking along mountain trails and eating picnics beside streams. Here we are in the Italian Alps; I am looking enviously at my sister’s camera. My father seems very formally dressed – perhaps it was a Sunday.


I don’t know what Angrogna is like now, but back then, it didn’t seem to have changed much since the 1920s. My father happily recognized his family’s old haunts. Indeed, the photo below, which he took on that trip, resembles a watercolour my grandmother  painted several decades earlier, with the addition of a few cars. And the three of us. (What do you suppose had caught our attention on the left?)


After a few days of mountain walking, we set off again, by train from Turin to Paris. I suppose we would have arrived at the Gare de Lyon. That must have been my first view of the city.

Where did we stay? My memory is that the hotel was not very big, on a narrow street opening into the Place de la Madeleine. The only street that fits that description is the Passage de la Madeleine, on which is located the Hotel Lido at number 4. It was well-established at the time and apparently quite cheap. So that might have been the place. Or not; memory does play tricks.

What did we do? Here my memories are overladen by those from subsequent trips and, alas, my father took only a couple of photographs. But there is one of us walking by the Seine and another of Alison and me pushing around a toy sailboat on the pond in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I do remember that.


After a few days, we moved on. Train to Calais, ferry to Dover, train to London, train to Edinburgh, train to North Berwick, journey’s end.

So that is how I first saw Paris. We went back as a family when I was a teenager, and there were two memorable school trips before I returned to study at the Sorbonne. In 1983, my father and I found ourselves in Paris – once again by mistake. We were supposed to be in Russia. This time, it wasn’t my fault. But that is another story altogether.

000006Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by John Campsie.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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48 Responses to The first time I saw Paris

  1. Anne Spiselman says:

    What a wonderful post! I would love to see more of the slides from Malta and Sicily.
    As someone who is geographically impaired, I’m not sure about this, but I think another narrow little street that opens onto the Place de la Madeleine is rue Vignon, and it has a little 2-star hotel on it, or used to.

    • Thank you for the suggestion. I wonder if that was the place. And the other slides are wonderful — not only did my father have a good eye, but he had the sense to use Kodachrome. The colours are still true.

  2. melinda says:

    so sorry for your loss…..touching post, glad you have some photos from that journey

    • Thank you for your comment. I have an entire slide carousel from that one holiday, and also my father’s projector to help me see the images. I think I will end up having them all converted to digital format.

  3. Ian says:

    What a lovely and moving story, it is a wonderful way to keep the memory of your father alive. I will be printing this one for keeping. God bless. Ian

  4. victualling says:

    Delightful! I love the little kilts.

  5. Ron Fox says:

    Thank you, very moving.

  6. Marjorie says:

    The perfect dedication to a wonderful man. Your memories indicate how patient both your parents were and how knowledgeable. You are very lucky.

    • Yes, we were so lucky to have accompanied our parents on their travels. I think I must have been two or three when I first crossed the Atlantic with them. And I look at how carefully my mother dressed us, often in matching outfits. Hard to imagine a mother pulling off that feat in foreign hotels day after day! Amazing.

  7. What a delightful trip down memory lane. My condolences on the loss of your father.

  8. The loss of a loved parent is terrible. I wish you long life.

    Most people don’t go back to visit their parents’ country until their parents have passed on. Then it is too late to relive mum and dad’s experiences WITH them. You were fortunate… you got to see Malta and Southern Italy through the eyes of your father and to benefit from his knowledge. And to keep evocative photos forever.

    I spent a week in Malta and loved it, but I had no family connection – just an academic interest in the knights.

    • You are right about the privilege of seeing my father’s childhood home when he was able to show us around. And we all went back to Malta (my brother-in-law, niece and nephew included) years later, when he retired. What a magical place it must have been to grow up in.

  9. sandralea says:

    My sincere sympathy to you at the loss of your beloved Father! Wonderfully written tribute to him – and your Mother! It’s so nice to have those beautiful memories!

  10. Richard McDonough says:

    Nice story, wonderful tribute.
    First visits…and lasts…are special. People who enrich you through curiosity and travel are angels.

  11. Ana says:

    Wonderful tribute to your father. What great memories!

  12. A lovely story…wonderful to know more about you and your family Philippa.

  13. Beth Milroy says:

    Loved this tribute to your dad, Philippa.

  14. Jenny Harper says:

    Thank you for replying about your book return. You certainly know Europe, since you lived there as I did. May your father rest in peace and please give my regards to your mother. Looking forward to hearing from you when you have some time.

  15. boulet says:

    Thanks for sharing those pictures and the story. Enjoyed it very much.

  16. Heather franca says:

    Please tell the story of how you ended up in Paris again instead of Russia! That sounds like it could be as interesting as this post.


  17. Richard Ewen says:

    Beautiful story wonderfully told. We are sorry about the loss of your father. This tribute is magical and fitting that you could share it with other readers. I was separated from my father around the age of 8, so the few pictures I have of him are strangely similar to the pictures of your father: dark suit, receding hair, debonair stature. My father was born in Glasgow.
    This journey must have been fabulous for you and how nice to have experienced so many other countries. Thank you for sharing with us what must tug a little at your heart.
    Mary and Richard Ewen

    • Thank you for your thoughts. So many of my most vivid memories of my father involve travel. He spent considerable time planning our holidays before we went, and more time reliving them afterwards with the photographs he took.

  18. Eric & Susan says:

    Hello Philippa. I just read about your first trip to Paris and the memories of your father. I am sure he would have enjoyed reading about the trip. It is beautifully written and a loving tribute to your father. We are do sorry for your loss but hope you find comfort in memories such as this. Sincerely, Susan & Eric.

  19. Diane says:

    What a wonderful tale! The photos and narrative made it seem like a movie perhaps starring Hayley Mills. Thanks for sharing – what a terrific memorial to your father.

    • Thank you. One of my favourite movies is “The Moonspinners” with Hayley Mills, set (and filmed, I think) in Crete. That’s a place I have never visited, although my parents went there later, when I was an adult and they were travelling on their own.

      • Sherievon says:

        Thank you for sharing such a personal and moving story – the photographs are wonderful and to be treasured. I have so few photos of my father – you are very lucky.

  20. lifewrite says:

    Lovely story and memorable tribute to your father. Clever use of ‘perhapsing’ to weave the fragments together. I’m sure he’d be proud!

    • Most of what I know about writing, I owe to my father. I’ve been rereading some of his letters lately; it’s almost like hearing his voice again. Thank you for the comment.

  21. barbara g. says:

    Dear Norman, Thank you so much for such a touching and eloquent passage to Philippa’s blog.

    I’m so very sorry to hear of her father’s passing and am with you in thought and warm sympathies.

    Kind Regards, Barbara

  22. Susan Richardson says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your first visit to Paris with a broad audience. I knew your Dad at the ROM though not well. I am so sorry you have lost him. What wonderful and vivid memories you have and you do write beautifully. I retired just a couple of years ago. A colleague from ROM publications dept. passed this to me. I am so grateful. As others have said – you are so fortunate to have had such a wonderful father and great memories of your time with your parents. The story is full of love all around. In sympathy – Susan R.

    • Lovely to hear from you. My father’s years at the ROM were among his happiest. Do feel free to join us at the memorial service this weekend, if you can. Many thanks.

  23. Ellen A. says:

    Wonderfully natural and joyous photos. A pleasure to read, and to travel with you all on the unexpected adventure that your parents so gamely improvised. God bless your father. He must have been an extraordinary man. So sorry for your loss.

  24. Adam says:

    Sorry to read about your father, but it seems you have some lovely memories of your time together – and some fantastic photos. May you have many more trips to Paris!

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I have located, but not yet had a chance to view, the slides from that unexpected trip to France with my dad in 1983. He had a good eye. We forget today what it was like to take a photo when you could not immediately see the results, and to carefully hoard expensive film over the course of a holiday. Such a different world back then!

  25. Dierdre Duewel says:

    Thank you for introducing us to your father through this article, and for taking us on such a lovely trip with you.

  26. I was looking over past columns you wrote and came across this one that is one of my favourites. It is almost a year since you posted this column and the anniversary of your father’s death, so let me offer my hope that your memories (and the photos) sustain you but that they also serve as a wonderful reminder to embrace life as your father clearly did and to always have search for broader horizons that need to be explored.

  27. Tony B says:

    Greetings from Australia – Your father was a hero – I also lost my father in 2014 and will be returning to malta in August this year to follow in his foot steps – I will spare a thought for your father as I pass by the Manse in old bakery Rd.

  28. You are so lucky as you have a great dad who encouraged you to travel and started travelling in your first step of life. Though visiting Paris at the age of your 8 was by mistake, it was memorable. Photography was magnificent.

  29. Pingback: My life in France (Part 1) | Parisian Fields

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