This post is close to two months overdue, and I can’t quite justify that by claiming that that comes down to my having to grapple with something particularly difficult or tangled about my two months of research time in Paris earlier this year. In fact, what strikes me now, as I finally force digital pen to paper, is how utterly familiar it all felt.
Parts of my family have lived in France for close to sixty years, now, and I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t very consciously a part of my life. What was different about this particular sojourn, in fact, was me: for the first time, I came to the city of light as an adult, with my own priorities and work to do which had very little to do with family ties. For the first time I lived within, rather than without, the arrondissements; for the first time, French food and French habits were quotidian rather than special, a way of life instead of a treat looked forward to in the brutal, un-air conditioned summertime. I had been to Paris in winter, but once the jetlag wore off, it was hard, perhaps harder than it has ever been for me at any time and in any place, to force myself to get out of bed before the sun. (Sunrise as late as 9am is so unexpectedly tiring and the concept of living in the global North had never felt so depressing.)
Living in France struck me as brittle, intensely personal, and slightly off-kilter; there is a constant sense, as an outsider, that you will never quite figure out why it is that the shops or museums around you close at such-and-such an unexpected time, or are shuttered on seemingly random days of the week. Attempts at change (I do not say improvement) stutter and falter. When I was a child, I remember a group sense of being appalled at the dog feces that were strewn all over Paris; now those are gone, the happy victim of tougher laws on pets and their owners, but they have been replaced by what I think to be an inordinate amount of spit, which hardly seems more acceptable. The Metro, so tightly-packed, so efficient in moving a vast, dense, loud populace, is both as filthy and as disappointingly inaccessible to anyone not able-bodied as ever. Paris Plage brings the beach to the Seine in summer – this January, the Seine took its revenge, flooding so high that the water-level galleries of the Louvre were closed as a precaution and roads which cars usually tear down were left stacked in sticky mud.
And yet I kept circling back to the sense that I knew this place, that my lessons in AP French in high school had not gone to waste, and that, despite a background sense of alienation, there was an ease, and a satisfaction, in the way one exists in France. I laughed at myself on a weekly basis when I realized I was walking down the street from my local Carrefour with a half-baguette sticking out of my pocket, literally a walking stereotype. The hospitality of my hosts here, so willing to talk and to share and be bluntly curious (and nosy) about things, was such as I haven’t quite experienced elsewhere – one, the kindest, who put me up in an apartment on the mainland near Saint-Malo when I was researching in Brittany, drove me to the local destinations of both Dinan – a knotted, rambling, defiant medieval relic – and Mont-St-Michel, where I wandered on the sands and wondered what it would be like to let the sea rise up above my ankles. When I lost my wallet there, the peculiar informality of Breton (or rural, or non-metropolitan, or maybe just French, I can’t decide which) manners meant that it was mailed back to me by a local gendarme within three days without even a mention of any procedures needed to check my identity against the recovered credit cards and IDs. (This was in a great deal of contrast to the bag-checking procedures mandated by the state of emergency in Paris, but even there, one sensed that those doing the checks grumpily thought that it was all a bit unnecessary.) On my first night in the province, I shopped in line behind an elderly alcoholic buying single bottles of cider in grubby notes and a handful of change, and went home to watch a local news bulletin about the danger of wild boar rampaging into urban centres. In much of France, good and bad stereotypes alike seem to take pride in being proved true.
There is a particular pleasure that good food, good company, and beautiful surroundings all engender – one that you hardly realize you are treasuring while it lasts, and that you gently, but constantly, miss thereafter. Recreating it can happen wherever you choose, of course, if effort and circumstance converge; I have been lucky enough to discover just where this confluence seems to come most naturally. I may never be French, but France always beckons.