Sketches from a Semester Abroad
On an anchored bobbing boat three guitarists from Bordeaux begin. The inside of the boat is small and packed with patrons in their twenties, gripping overpriced beers. They nod their heads to the folk onirique, looking vaguely bored but at ease. The windows fog up in the heat of the crowd and I slip away and up to the deck. The river’s current curls up against the boat, lapping at its hull as faint strums emerge from inside. There is a hushed Saturday-night hum: Threads of music and dancing and rising conversation mingle, wafting up from both sides of the river. There, on the deck, I find my wildly gesticulating friend.
He is three drinks in, his cue to start philosophizing. Catching sight of me he grabs my arm and pulls me into the circle, bringing me into the discussion, asking if I’d like a cigarette. When I return home I will still not know how to use a lighter— still hold the cigarette wrong, probably. I am only the most social of smokers. I say yes and take it and join in. After a bit someone pauses, cocks her head towards me. She knits her brow: “You’re not French, are you?”
“T’es pas française, non?” The party is packed and the music throbbing; my head pounds with the pitch of a language I wish were more familiar. I catch about every other word. My eyes are fixed on her lips to make out the sounds and I hope this doesn’t scare her away. Our conversation is laced with uncertainty: I think she is talking about a movie, a film festival—on vacation, perhaps?
The next thing I know she grabs my arm and beckons to a few others. She shuttles us into the bathroom, the only part of the apartment that is still quiet and dark. She brings in her laptop and turns on the screen. Huddling together, squinting, my right leg wedged uncomfortably next to the cool porcelain of the bathtub, we watch as a young man in a bowler hat wanders up a gray deserted street, looking dejected. For the next 10 minutes that’s all he seems to do. The credits roll and the girl’s name appears; this film is hers, a production of her sophomore fall.
Our murmurs of admiration puncture the short silence. We file out of the bathroom and disperse. The party has arrived at the point where the boys (mostly gay) are all hugging each other and the girls (mostly beautiful) are all clustered in corners discussing boyfriends and dates. “I wouldn’t have known you weren’t French”—before she heard my accent—one says to me. It is possibly the best compliment I have ever received.
Down the spiral staircase and out into the night: the stuffy heat of Clémence’s sixth-floor apartment gives way to a hushed breeze. I shut the door and one ringing note of chatter recalls those still in rooms above. Clémence lives in Montmartre, on the hill that sits atop the city. I have an old map of Paris from 1889 in which this hill is more striking: The urban landscape has not yet expanded into the eighteenth arrondissement and Montmartre regards it majestically, its walled cemetery buttressing this artists’ haven from the chaos down below. Today Paris has crept up to and around Montmartre. The neighborhood’s Place des Tertres is crowded with aggressive caricaturists and overpriced prix fixe brasseries and tourists wandering dazedly, drunk with too many sights. A little farther down the hill there is still a neighborhood feel.
In a few months I will move in here to the Rue des Trois Frères, when I am kicked out of the apartment I am subletting, because the owner wants to move back in. I will befriend my graying portly half-Spanish neighbor with a wooden cane who lives across the inner courtyard and owns the laundromat next door. Every afternoon at two I will peek into the corner bar on my way to the metro, and he will be there, perched on a stool, a pint on the counter. From the window he will recognize me and I will wave.
For now I walk to the nearest Vélib stop—Paris’ bike-sharing program—and pull out my card. The metro closes at two or two-thirty in Paris, depending on the caprice of the driver, and I live across the city, too far for a cab. I love late-night biking anyway: The lane usually shared with busses and taxis I have all to myself.
I follow the sloping street down to Boulevard de Rochechouart, passing the tawdry glow of Moulin Rouge and the Irish and Australian bars the Parisians seem to love, then the sex shops and cabarets, their shock factor as faded as their feebly blinking signs. From Clichy it’s a straight shot down to the Gare Saint-Lazare. I wonder briefly how different Paris was before Haussmann and the second Napoleon, before this century began, when the city was still a maze of medieval alleys. It was those two who hatched a plan to catapult Paris into modernity through broad swaths of pavement. Now it’s those boulevards that define the city, that carve and divvy it up.
From the shuttered gift shop kiosk I take a left to Opéra, passing the Palais Garnier to the river, as black and still as the roads that led me here. The river and its bridges are my favorite part of Paris, still. Even if I wish I could say somewhere hidden and unknown. There is something about crossing places that I have always loved: bridges, trains, the international arrivals hall at Philadelphia Airport. You are neither one place nor quite the other and in this liminality there is such freedom. From this bridge, one last long trajectory awaits me, down Rue de Rennes to my apartment by the Tour Montparnasse (the ugliest building in the city, but with its most spectacular view from the roof).
Before that I pause by the Place Dauphine and look out to the edge of the Île de la Cité, where the island tapers to a point. One of my first weeks in Paris a new acquaintance took me and two others to an underground jazz club near here, a damp-smelling wine cellar with bottles of Bordeaux and Bourgogne lining shelves along the back. The night began as a concert; we the only ones under 60 The musicians left the stage and a space was cleared on the floor until they filed back in, beginning the music again. After a few minutes a few elderly couples took each other’s arms and began to dance. We soon joined in too and were there for hours. A middle-aged French-Algerian man fell in love with my Swiss friend. When we left close to dawn it was raining hard outside. We wandered over here, to the edge of the Île, which Simon told us was the exact center of the city. In the summer everyone comes here to drink and to talk, he said. We looked out at the silent chilly stretch and tried to picture teenagers with beer bottles wearing cut-off shorts. The rain poured down and my hair clung to my neck. I wondered what the next months would be like.
Now it is spring and the first groups of young drinkers are sprinkled around the tip. I take in the dark beauty pierced only by streetlamps—a silence disturbed only by the recent memories of chez Clémence—and wonder how I will be able to leave.
Five months later, back at Harvard, I will walk up to the Yard from Eliot for the first time since December. In the midst of all this brick (such a contrast from Paris’s stone) I will notice the Hubway stop on the corner of Dunster St. and Mass Ave. This must be Boston’s version of Vélib, I will think, and a sharp pang of nostalgia will rise, spread, igniting in me traces of the city I have left.
It’s a funny thing about traveling, that it’s unclear what you set out to find. In the 1800s Americans went to Paris because the best medical schools were there, and the best collections of art to copy. In the 1920s it was where you could find everyone worth talking to or talking about. Were these reasons or excuses? For me, at least, if I’m honest, I was really just running away. Away from cloyingly big thoughts and adolescent angst I never quite grew out of, in a place where people were doing a million things well and everyone but me seemed so fine. That it was Paris I was going to seemed to justify my self-imposed exile: I was running towards somewhere, somewhere no one would question, instead of just away.
I packed my suitcase full of vague ideas of beauty and history and what my French classmates, rolling their eyes, called le cliché américain de Paris. I wanted to speak French—which I could read and write—but still struggled to wrap my mouth around its aspirated syllables. I thought all that energy devoted to learning a new language would sop up that silence éternel des espaces infinies (a phrase from Pascal I learned in a high school history class, and whose melodramatic force always struck me). Mostly I wanted to be not at Harvard for a while.