I have to drive a lot these days. More than I ever thought I would, and with it comes the challenge of what to do with all that time. I listen to all the albums of a particular artist in different order, I listen to Learning German CDs, I make phone calls to people I don’t get to see much. And of course, there are books on tape.
I’ve never really been a big Hemingway fan; I read A Farewell to Arms and “Hills Like White Elephants” and For Whom the Bell Tolls in high school. There were things about those stories I liked, but I never felt the connection to Hemingway as a writer that so many people do. Yet I thought I would give The Sun Also Rises a chance, if for no other reason than it has a very beautiful title. I slipped in the first CD and within a matter of minutes I was hooked, letting the sentences drift easily into my ears. I wondered why for a moment, and then it occurred to me: it’s because the story is so much about Paris.
Before I lived in Paris, I didn’t really understand how one could have a love affair with a city. I’d been to a number of major cities in the U.S.: San Francisco, L.A., D.C., Miami, and NYC many times. They were interesting and wonderful, but perhaps I’d not spent enough time in them, or perhaps I just wasn’t ready to love in that way. I had also never been to Europe, and the first time I went, I moved to Paris.
I’d spent the few years prior studying the French language and culture with the goal of living in France. Yet the timing felt strange, I wasn’t as sure or dedicated to going as I had been before. It was a strange time in my life: my parents had just divorced and we’d sold the house I’d grown up in, my sister was moving to Switzerland, I was leaving a long-term relationship, and then the country, my language, familiarity. I felt very numb about the whole experience as I packed up three big suitcases and said goodbyes. I’d also been informed that because I was a higher-level French student, I’d be placed with a family in a homestay as opposed to the small, dorm-like apartments the lower-level students would reside in. This was a surprise, and one that made me even more apprehensive. I’d heard some tremendously negative homestay stories, and mostly, it would be completely different than living by myself–I was twenty-one years old and wanted to experience Paris as such. Regardless, I knew my time in Europe would allow me to get away from the oddly shaped pieces of what was the life I’d known.
I spent my first week and a half in the dorms, as was the custom, before beginning the homestay. But I hardly remember those initial ten days. I know that I walked around, went to the Louvre and Père Lachaise, saw a movie and drank lots of coffee and beer at the cafes and brasseries by the Bastille where the dorms were. It was nice, but I wasn’t in love yet–not even close.
In late August, a sweet, old Frenchman arrived at the dorm and helped load my big suitcases into a very small taxi and we rumbled down narrow streets to the 15th arrondisement. We packed my bags into an impossibly small elevator, which moaned as it ascended. When we reached the top floor, his wife was waiting for us, all smiles and bright red lips.
“Oh, mon dieu!” she laughed and continued in broken English, “You haf quite ay lot of luggage!”
Their apartment was beautiful: a spiral staircase wrapped up to a loft, red and white curtains hung on windows overlooking a terrace, there were bookshelves filled with my favorite French authors. We sat down in the living room immediately, and my host mother brought out strong, wonderful coffee and homemade chocolate cake.
“Now, what do you like to eat and what do you hate to eat? I won’t make it,” she declared, clasping her hands together.
Later that first evening, I walked back to my new home after drinking wine with friends on the Champs de Mars, the park that surrounds the Eiffel Tour. I was in disbelief at what seemed extraordinary luck and fumbled to get the strange hunks of metal which were my very complicated French keys to open the front door of the apartment. I twisted and turned in vain, and then suddenly, a hand on the other side of the door swung it open. A handsome young man with intensely blue eyes and an inquisitive smile was standing at the threshold. He was one of my host parents’ two sons: 28, a naval engineer who loved to travel, rock climb, discuss history and eat ice cream. Over the course of the next year, we would live across the hall from one another and I would quickly fall in love with him.
He has a lot to do with my loving Paris, but I think my love took shape in him as a common representation–when set free, it expanded into so much more. It was connected to all the components of the city and that time in my life, one of the most intense kinds of love I’ve ever known. I pressed myself into his delicate antiquity, which was that of Paris–I breathed it, and I wanted nothing more than for it to take me in.
I spent bright mornings strolling the long boulevards that seem to stretch on and on but always come together to form a horizon. I spent fall afternoons crossing the Seine by way of the elaborate Pont Alexandre III when the brown leaves snowed, I leaned over the Pont Neuf to the chrome water in winter when everything felt white and frozen in time. I indulged daily and without question in buttery items from the city’s countless patisseries, I worked to construct a chicness found in the boutiques or the fashion houses lined up along rue Saint–Honoré.
I deepened my interest in French literature and philosophy in bookstores, cafes, around the dinner table and with him. Speaking and being spoken to in French, this language that’s like a song, opened a new vein of cognition and a different sensibility in me. Paris was the landscape of what I wanted to be: I wanted to have a history that I believed in fiercely, I wanted for art and words to be acknowledged, but also for softness and aesthetics to be appreciated. And I was embraced by a family again; to feel tenderness and a sense of belonging in the setting of so incredible a city was the greatest gift I could have been given. I felt a unique and profound freedom.
One evening my host mother, a French literature teacher and an incredible French chef, taught me how to make her heavenly raspberry charlotte, a dessert constructed of all this whipped, pink sweetness and ladyfingers, topped with rows of the red, bud-like fruit. We did this from her tiny Parisian kitchen, which had a window that looked out to stunning Haussmann-style apartment buildings. That view wrapped itself up tightly in me and then, suddenly, it felt like very cold water was reaching up from the floor all the way to my head. I was struck with a clear and overwhelming panic: what would I do when I wouldn’t be able to have that window?
I could feel my time there dissolving, each day was one less I could call the city home. The strike of anxiety that arrived that evening in the kitchen grew, and I researched numerous ways to stay, spent nights and hours considering it. Ultimately, it seemed the easiest would be to return to California, finish my degree ahead of time, and come back as soon as possible. Paris is not a cheap place to live, and for the first time in six years, I hadn’t been working, but rather living off of ever depleting savings.
Regardless of this resolution, I kept hoping that something would change it, that perhaps he would decide he loved me enough and would help me stay. My mother came at the end with my sister and grandmother. She rented an apartment on rue du Champ de Mars for a week and cooked a fabulous dinner for him and my host parents. She was lovely and gracious, completely appreciated how wonderful he and they and my life there was. But it was also impossibly difficult to have her without my dad. It felt wrong and strange and different. Wasn’t this–Paris, my host family, him–my life now? Everything back in California was in disarray. I’d slipped out before it could start to be put back together and I didn’t want to have to.
On an afternoon when the gray of the Parisian sky seemed a boundless stretch, I left it behind. I arrived back in Paris from London where I’d gone with my mom and sisters for the weekend to visit friends. We were to leave early the next morning for California and I still had to collect my things from the room I’d called mine in my host family’s apartment. I’d already said goodbye to my host parents who’d left for their country home in Brittany the week before. He was leaving that afternoon for Martinique. We thought we’d have plenty of time to see each other, but my flight had gotten delayed. I sat on the RER, weighted with disappointment. My phone rang with his call and I told him in the steadiest voice I could manage that I would not be able to see him, that I had not made it in time. “On ne se croit pas alors…”
When I finally got to the apartment it was empty, but his recent presence there was evident. I smelled him, saw his mug in the sink still with a bit of Earl Grey tea left at the bottom. I walked several times back and forth through the empty rooms, knowing I had to leave but feeling unable to. If I couldn’t stay, I wanted to take everything: bottle his smell, save the tea bag from his mug, clip a swatch of fabric from their sofa. Instead, I took the short note he’d left me and pocketed other random things: buttons, receipts, ticket stubs. I needed them as talismans.
When I returned to California, I was overwhelmed with what seemed a harshness I’d never detected previously–even the undeniable beauty of the state felt disingenuous and somehow artificial. Hearing American accents was gnawing, the suburban supermarkets and restaurants lacked the simple but rich and perfectly made food I’d come to expect. There was no fresh bread on every corner. Even the sky there suddenly felt composed of a blue far too shocking for me to look at. I longed for chilly, gray skies.
My mother sensed in me more than sadness or even disappointment but fear, perhaps the very one that had slid into me that night in the apartment, while whipping eggs whites and staring into the Parisian skyline. “What are you most afraid of?” she’d asked gently.
Paris had held me up after the foundation I’d stood on my whole life had melted. I was afraid that without it, I had nothing more to stand on.
So I dreamed and daydreamed of returning. While I finished my degree in a whirlwind twelve weeks, three of the four classes I took were in French Literature. I was speaking the language and reading Balzac, Zola, De Beauvoir and Gide‘s accounts of the city we collectively loved and understood. Paris transformed from being simply a city I loved to being magical, a place where everything had felt possible, including an identity and a real future that I believed would annihilate who I’d been and transform me into an intelligent, chic, new person, one whose history could be a country’s and less her own.
Two weeks after finals, I boarded a plane back to the City of Light. I had a few plans, but nothing firm. Mostly, I was hoping life would somehow configure itself to exactly what it had been a few months before, that the one which had fallen from me only a year prior would be seamlessly replaced.
Initially, I stayed for three months–the longest I could on a visitor’s visa. I did not find a permanent job, he did not become a permanent lover. I felt so ferociously sad, that I failed or the world had failed me. All I wanted was to be taken in by that city, to watch the flat, gray roofs of Parisian apartments, to hop on the metro and zoom across the city every morning, to have small cups of strong espresso in the afternoon, to dine slowly, late into the night, forever.
Mostly I had been hoping that I could trade myself for Paris.
It’s true–in time and with more persistence I could have married someone else French, I could have found a job with a visa and stayed. But eventually I would have come to realize what I did when I returned a second time to California the following summer. I started to let myself breathe Paris out–slowly–because I was suffocating. It didn’t evaporate and neither did I. Rather, we molded together: more and more ex pats seemed to appear in my own neighborhood, an incredible French bakery opened downtown run by a Parisian pastry chef, I met others who loved French culture and had also called Paris home for a time, or those who simply liked hearing my stories, who liked watching my eyes light up when I described my experience there.
I did keep going back to Paris and then to the South of France several more times over the next year and a half. I had other lovers, new experiences, maintained my relationship with my host parents and even with him. It was all still there, just different: it was the narrative of a real life, which means things move in shifts and curves, they bend and don’t stay the same or simply follow a straight line.
When I was little, one of my favorite books, one that my mother and I would read in the window seat of our local library again and again, was about a little girl’s quilt–a quilt made of the fabric of worn stuffed toys, of old clothes and pillows and sheets. At night, when the girl dreams, the patches on the quilt become worlds that she is transported to. Yet her dreams are never located in a singular patch–they all blend into one another, every night creating new landscapes that she can explore, composed of all the people and places related to the pieces that are her special blanket.
Paris is a fabric that I’ve made so much out of, it’s become a bold series of patches in my life, sewn alongside of but not instead of anything, anybody, or the rest of my history. I hadn’t known it could all become something when put together. As with the little girl’s nighttime adventures, Paris is always entwined and interjecting–it’s never gone, and usually it enhances what it touches. When I see a picture of Notre Dame in the dentist’s office or a postcard of the Eiffel Tour in a bar, whether in San Francisco or New York or Wisconsin, Paris is merged with where and who I am in that moment. When I listen to a recording of The Sun Also Rises, I am not alone in my car but sitting with Lady Brett Ashley as we zip down rue de Lappe or rue du Rivoli. I see Paris now as giving me new entrances to the world, not as a singular truth: I will keep following Hemingway even though he leaves Paris for Pamplona.
Since France, I’ve traveled a lot more: elsewhere in Europe, South America, West Africa, Australia, Mexico. And since Paris, San Francisco has been the city I’ve called home: I love it unquestionably in a deep and profound way. But Paris was the one that taught me how.
Please send “The Last City I Loved” submissions to marie AT therumpus.net.