Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why Proust has his madeleine, and I have this

Because I am in the midst of a mega-funk of rather epic proportions, and because there is nothing at all to say, anymore, I bring you memories of a lost time, gleaned from the depths of my (very) irregularly kept journals--my version of A la recherche du temps perdu.

September 9, 2010

I'm lately given to pangs of nostalgia for my French days. Nothing new in theory, though the power, the intensity of the of the memories is. Watching some travel show or another (not even that long ago and already I can't remember which one) hyping some trendy new bar or restaurant in Paris, and then suddenly, there it was--rue Jean Pierre Timbaud; Hervé's street. Not a particularly long or well-known street, but there it was on the screen, and I was almost overcome. How many times I walked up and down that street, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes alone. The code to his front door that I've forgotten, or perhaps not--maybe it's still lying dormant somewhere in my memory. And suddenly it becomes important to remember it; there's the urge to send him an e-mail out of the blue, asking him that but nothing else, though I couldn't tell you why. Walking up all those stairs; how many flights was it, again? Quatrième étage or cinquième? The 5th or 6th floor in English, and I couldn't tell you which, only that it seemed an impossible feat, every time. And every time I would complain, but he never got upset, only put an arm around me and half-joking offered to carry me, and though I never tested him on it, I think maybe he would have. Entering into his small but not particularly cozy apartment; making pasta for dinner. Olives, wine, bread. Cherries for dessert. To bed, and the noise carrying from the courtyard that I never got used to. Ear plugs to counter it, and Hervé's snoring. Never sleeping well, but there were stories in the dark. 

My arrival in France when I didn't know anything or anyone--not too different from the end, really, but with more sense of possibility, that anything could happen. Waiting at the bus station, sitting on my suitcases. Remember the jacket I was wearing, and the scarf. It was cloudy and cold after the mid-Atlantic heat of Indian summer. Nervous, but only a bit. What if no one came to pick me up? No need to have worried. Marie... Marie-what? Marie-something, and now I can't remember. Marie-something, a whirl-wind of excitement and welcome. Her apartment in Meaux, the windows, the light. Walking along the canal there. Or was that later, in Chelles? Again, I can't remember.

And then Fred and Patrice, whose names and faces I could never forget. A whiff of nostalgia like no other. The house, the relief at having a home. Patrice's immediate acceptance of me. Meeting him at the train station bar, not so much discussing French literature as nervously name-dropping titles and authors to the best of my ability. "Ah, Balzac, yes... La fille aux yeux d'or, and... Le père Goriot, yes?" Meeting Fred back at the house, Patrice saying, "So when do you want to move in?" Fred revealing to me later that after I left, he chastised Patrice; "I thought we were going to talk about it and then decide. Why did you tell her she could move in?" And Patrice's response, which I will always cherish: "No, it's ok--she reads Balzac!" 

The cigarette smoke, the smell, the mess, but never happier than when we were all three together, teasing, joking, laughing, feeling like I was in the right place. Then the slow decline--Patrice no longer working, leaving the house less and less, in his bathrobe all day, playing computer solitaire. Fred traveling constantly, leaving for days and weeks at a time, returning for a couple days, always late at night, packing up and leaving again. Patrice and I alone, sharing the living room but not talking, Fred the glue that no longer held us all together. Patrice no longer paying rent, the drawn out eviction process, the slow dissolution of my little French family that I loved, but that never let me get too close. A sea change.

A change of apartment and then misery, abject misery. Then, finally, acceptance and the knowledge that it was all only temporary. The simultaneous threat and escape hatch of my return to the U.S. and my parents' house. Quel cauchemar.

The people that I met and lost along the way. Marie-something. Thinking I had found a new friend. Spending vacation with her at her mother's house in the south and then never hearing from her again. Racking my brain for what I could possibly have unknowingly done or said. Never finding a good answer, only that maybe she recognized in me what she wanted to hide in herself. Was that it? 

All the friends I never made, but this time at least my foreign otherness provided me with an excuse. But Hervé was open and good-humored and unhesitatingly accepted me, refusing to see that there was any difference between him and me and them. Through him, his friends, who also accepted me, though they never got too close. Perhaps it was the temporary nature of it all; though we never talked about it, perhaps it was understood that that's what I was there to do--ultimately, to leave. Only Hervé chose not to see this, and so, I'm afraid, got hurt in the end. His second date declaration that he never wanted to get married, and then, months later, his hesitant second-to-last-night half-suggestion, half-question: "And if we got married, you could have health insurance...?" And stay, forever? was what remained unsaid. It sounded a totally unserious and hypothetical proposition, and so that is how I took it, also knowing I could never marry him. We both cried when I left, but my tears were for it all: France, Fred, fresh baguettes, and Hervé, of course, while his tears were only for me. Or maybe they were for the Canal St. Martin and weekend markets and walking hand in hand; for toothbrushes bought and then discarded.

I have left France three times (more, really, but three times I have left a life behind there), and I have never left without tears. It always feels like something is being ripped away from my unwilling fingers, something I have lost and may never get back. Or something I want desperately but never had to begin with. A dream. A wish. Hope. Something nameless but life-changing; something to catch and hold onto and to never let go. Leaving, I always had the sense that whatever it was, it was slipping through my fingers, and the plane over the Atlantic carrying me further and further away. Back to where I started, to the same life. To the change that never changes anything.         


  1. I have no words for this post! I'm very sorry you're in a funk :(

  2. Everyone is entitled to a funk party, but I hope yours is short and you find your bliss again.

  3. What a beautifully written post. I'm just sorry it was the result of being in such a funk :( We all long for places and things and people from the past, don't we? I long for Canada every day. It's kind of the opposite feeling for me: When the plane takes off from Toronto airport to take me back here, I often have to fight the urge not to burst into tears.

    If you plan on coming to France in the next little while, you are always more than welcome to stay with me. You can show me around your old Grenoble stomping grounds :)

    Feel better copine, xx

  4. You are such a beautiful writer. I hope the funk lifts soon.

  5. This post is beautiful, Rachel. I am always amazed at how you are able to put every feeling so perfectly into words. Really.

  6. This is sensational. I wish that I had put my trips to London into these kinds of words--the feelings, trying to uncover the attachment, understanding how a new place and an old life could each so strongly resonate with me, and trying to determine which one was really "me." I found all of that here--so honest and earnest and nostalgic and hopeful and sad. It's so, so perfect. I would read a million pages of this; so let me know when you plan to publish your journals. ;)

  7. and now you know you should have never left... sometimes we have to risk everything and in that we risk we either walk away with pockets overflowing or broken and beaten but in the end we our better for it, the greatest disappointment is not knowing and not knowing can eat at you forever...

  8. Sometimes, there is nothing to do but ride out a funk. Hope you are okay and seeing the proverbial light at the end of the funk tunnel. Also, how did you fare with the heat and the loss of electricity? Here's hoping things are getting better for you.

  9. Quatrième étage or cinquième - 4th or 5th floor ;)

    1. In the U.S. we call the ground floor the first floor, while in France the ground floor is zero, and floor one is what we would call the second floor. Hence the 5th or 6th floor. But thanks for trying. :)