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Newspaper: Dover Sherborn Press
An American In Paris: On Bidding Adieu
It’s funny how it takes leaving to make a place home. I’d long noticed and envied the jet-setting ways of my fellow classmates, and had both read and heard copious refrains regarding the ease of travel within Europe, but it took me until early November to actually decide on a destination, Barcelona, and a date, Nov. 30. My Barcelona fact-sheet was mostly blank, and what wasn’t — location and language, was either obvious or erroneous. I chose it partially because the airfare was 1.58 euro plus tax, and partially because I figured four years of high school Spanish would make communication feasible, if not fluid.
Unfortunately the dominant tongue in Barcelona is Catalan, which bears about as much in common with Spanish as Creole does with English. No matter, from the second I stepped, squinty-eyed, onto the tarmac and out of my winter coat, I was happy to be there. It’s a fantastic city, a combo of space-age sparkles and dingy post-WWII warehouses and millennia-old tunnel-like passageways decorated with drying sheets and dying geraniums. There are plenty of museums and mountains and museums on mountains and beaches and three-table restaurants filled with old men drinking shot-glasses of café.
It was absolutely nothing like Paris; gone was the attitude, as well as the image-consciousness, and the marble and iron ceded to rosy brick and glass. As I explored, I found myself constantly making comparisons, but with Paris instead of New York. Saturday afternoon, watching the sun play tag with the sea from a mountain-top 13th- century military base, I said something to my companion about not being ready to go home. I didn’t mean Sherborn. Barcelona linked Paris to me, just as I am getting ready to leave it.
I’ve always associated the month of December with endings as well as festivities and shred-fests. Perhaps this will change after graduation, but the sense of finishing up and of shutting down is especially potent now. The city is wrapped in lights, tasteful, icy sliver ones along the Champs Elysées, multicolored Santas and their sleighs spanning the twists of the Marais, and with Christmas Markets, whose vendors sell markedly tasteful, agrarian and artesian wares: honeys that run the gold gauntlet, from the shrouded dawn to the blazing dusk, foie gras in crocks with runny labels, miniscule painted wooden crèches, and sterling filigree ornaments. Ambles through them, and through the rest of holiday Paris, among the jabbering, mulled-wine rosy Parisians, are exciting but also sad, full of premature nostalgia.
My acting class performed our nouveau slaughter of Simone de Beauvoir’s diaries at the American Embassy last week. What struck me the most was not the Monticelloesque mansion, but its inhabitants, for it had been more than three months since I’d last heard adults speak English without a French accent. I felt like I was in a movie, a French parody of America, and that at any minute the broad, round vowels would become clipped and nasal. That our play was a mix of French and English seemed fitting, in its reflection of my current standing. Certainly, I haven’t become French, but it would be impossible to live in a strange land without adopting bits of its culture, and invariably these are the bits who find no counterpart among our own.
For me, it’s been mostly the idea of time, the realization that there’s enough of it for the dutiful and the decadent. I’ve stopped running by interesting shop windows; sometimes I even go inside and browse while the shop ladies glare at my muddy shoe prints. I never used to enjoy going to the supermarket, and I still don’t, but I really do like bouncing from one specialty purveyor to the next, queuing behind the ermined imperious and listening to their severe specifications. When you buy your baguette, you point at the one you want, from a bin of 50. I like that.
Too, I like the friendliness of history, how you can let your eyelashes brush 600 year-old paintings, or admire your goblet of beer in the same café that Voltaire frequented, or Marat, before his skin got too bad. It isn’t fair to compare our historical preservation policy with France’s, for we are so much younger, and have so much less, but it is nice to see ancient buildings being lived in, instead of only looked at.
This is not to say that my return will be one of snooty Galois smoke rings and upturned nose. In fact I feel far more sentimental and appreciative of America here, if somewhat less American. Growing up, the common attitude towards our country was laced if not buried in scorn and knee-jerk cynicism. I’m not sure whether it’s been the absence or the distance, but certainly my heart’s grown fonder.
The other night my father asked me if Paris had been everything I’d hoped. It was more, for it’s a city where it’s hard to go wrong. A city whose tourist traps, apart from the arcades that line the Rue de Rivoli, are well worth visiting. A city for which itineraries ought to be abandoned or abandonable. There’s something to be said for most places, if you search hard enough. Paris requires no searching.
[An American in Paris: Loving it in the Fall]