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On Being Back in Town: Paris

April 20, 2012

The view from my very first apartment in Paris, overlooking the boulevard péripherique.

Jeudi à jeudi, de retour à Paris. I haven’t been back to Paris in more than 1.5 years, which is pretty much the longest stretch of time I’ve been away from this city since the first time I came to do dissertation fieldwork in 2006. My last visit was really just a brief week-long visit (much like this one), so it’s really been 2.5 years or so since I’ve actually lived in this city.

This time, I was struck by how affectively small and un-intense my experience of return was.As I claimed my luggage at Orly airport, climbed onto the métro, and made my way over to my old colleague’s apartment in the 20th arrondissement, there were no big Proustian moments of nostalgic transport. My heart didn’t swell at the familiar crankiness of people on public transports, or at the rows and rows of crowded Hausmannian architecture. There was no rapturous joy in revisiting old haunts and walking through the familiar parks. This wasn’t to say that all of these experiences (and more) weren’t wonderful this time, but rather that the feelings they elicited were much smaller, smoother, and almost unremarkable.

Résidence Lila, my very first place in Paris, back in 2006-2007. None of those surrounding buildings were there when I was.

I have a friend back in Toronto, who I see once a year or so, ever since I left the city in 2004. We’re often only sporadically in contact through Facebook or email, but whenever I’m back in town (or on the rare occasion that she came to Chicago when I was living there) it’s as if I had never left. Every time I see her in Toronto, we pick up on conversations we had suspended a year before. We don’t so much “fall into” or “pick up” the same habits and routines together, but rather we simply continue them, without the sense that they had ever stopped.

View from near the top of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with a distant view of Sacre-Coeur

This was sort of the same sense I had returning to Paris this time. If a city can be like an old friend, my response to her this time was not, “Paris! I’m back! So many memories! You’ve changed! But things are still just like I left them! I’ve missed you!” Instead, it’s been more like, “Oh hey, there are you are. Right where I left you. Yup, your parks are still beautiful. Hm, that café is still there, and they still make awful cappuccinos. The Vélib bike-rental system still works (and sometimes doesn’t work) like it used to. That nearby neighborhood continues to turn into a BoBo petting zoo.” This trip feels much less like a homecoming, and much more like being at home again, even though I know that I’ll be gone in just a few days.

An empty lot on rue Piat, on the way up to the Parc de Belleville

Still, there are moments when I realize that I’ve been gone for too long, and that I’m not as much a Parisien as I was two or three years ago. When I first arrived into the city and took the RER B downtown, I got off the train at Châtelet-Les Halles to transfer to the 11 line. As soon as I got up to the main RER floor, my heart dropped a little as I remembered what a labyrinthine clusterfuck the Châtelet-Les Halles station is. Instead of immediately recognizing orienting landmarks and striking off in the direction I needed to go, I found myself—desperate and despairingly—looking for signs that would lead me to the 11 platform. But then, I crossed past the RER/Métro barriers and got onto that long triple set of moving walkways, and the layout of the station started coming back to me. I remembered that I would need to turn left after the walkway and then carry my luggage up that annoying set of stairs with no escalator. After a short hallway that intersected diagonally with two others, I instinctively knew that the next turn would reveal what I used to call the “tunnel of death,” the endlessly long tunnel with a moving walkway that connected the distant 11 line platforms to the rest of the station. When I descended the last set of stairs to the 11 platforms, I wasn’t surprised by the overwhelming heat of the tunnels and the trains; it’s as if I had never forgotten how infernally hot those tunnels get.

View from the top of the Parc de Belleville, with the Tour Montparnasse on the left of the skyline, and the Tour Eiffel on the right.

When I returned to the weekly open-air market of my old neighborhood this morning, all of my favorite vendors immediately recognized me: the fromagère, the green-grocer, the volailler, the charcutier, and especially that one charming Egyptian man at that fruit stand at the corner, who used to flirt openly with me (despite his stern-looking supervisor), making eyes at me, smiling, and inviting me half-jokingly to feel his fruits. Most of them smiled warmly and said something like, “We haven’t seen you in quite some time, monsieur.” But after a short comment from me, explaining my current home in Berlin, it was back to business as usual. The charcutier remembered how I liked my saucisson sec (insert bawdy pun here), and the fromagère had that boucle d’or cheese that I always loved.

My last apartment on rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. My place was on the very top floor, no elevator, less than 25m2.

Actually, some of my most intense experiences so far have been gastronomic (no surprise there, if you know me), but they haven’t of the Proustian, “Oooh, the memories!” sort, but rather more like, “OMG this is STILL fucking delicious! How many more of these can I consume without my gall bladder exploding? OM NOM NOM etc. etc.” For example, just this afternoon I biked across Paris to rue Bonaparte to gorge myself on the macarons of Pierre Hermé. My next status update on Facebook went something like, “MACARONS PIERRE HERMÉ, FUCK YEAH.”  In other words, these experiences have had less to do with reliving old memories or remembering the sensual experiences of a former home, and more to do with luxuriating in the simple hedonism of fantastic foodstuffs. Thankfully, my previous time in Paris has left me with a very selective list of where to find the tastiest anything in town.

A view from the cliff-top gazebo at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with Sacre-Coeur

If anything, the only moments where I’ve really felt like I’ve been away from Paris at all are when I’m talking to my friends, catching up on their lives and updating them on mine. When I see them for the first time in years, there certainly is a swelling of emotion, a sense of nostalgia, a voyage into memory, a re-telling of old and new stories, hugs and kisses. But these intense moments of homecoming have been almost exclusively associated with particular people, while my return to the city itself has been something of a non-event. I don’t really know what to make of it.

Solidays in Paris. Days of Solidarity for the citizens of Paris.

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