Lingering in Paris

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I treated each day remaining to me in Paris as I realized I should have treated each day of my life anywhere: as something precious.

I’d extended my first three months in France by an extra week. I just couldn’t let go. I had to be back in New York to officiate at the wedding of a niece, so a real deadline loomed for my departure. But I cut it close – I’d booked my flight for two days before the wedding and actually dreaded the hour when I’d have to shut the door for good on my temporary home.

I had wanted to live in France as if I were living in New York, that is, normally. But the normalcy of New York was different from that of Paris. The daily language wasn’t the same, of course (though I’d begun to think in the language I was learning), but the routines that I’d created to give a structure to my waking hours were somewhat similar. Paris was different than New York, however, because Paris was new to me. It was new every day. And I was new there.

This isn’t to say I considered my New York life to be old. I didn’t take it for granted and I was never less than grateful for the beauty of the everyday.

No matter where I am, I look for the moon. Whether I see a silvery sliver between skyscrapers or an orange globe over a water tower on Amsterdam Avenue as I cross 85th Street and Broadway, or whether I notice the moon hesitating between wispy clouds or looming low and gleaming atop the lion at Denfert-Rochereau as I head toward the metro, I stop to stare above. Just for an instant of quiet admiration when I’m thankful that I’m there. Such moments are yours alone, even if, like me, you tend to annoy your friends by asking them to pause and look up at the sky knowing that you can’t truly share personal amazement. You can only share what you’ve become, as you become it.

Yet you glimpse the sudden fleeting beauty far beyond your grasp as you go about the ordinary, and you realize that nothing should be ordinary in your day, however routine you make it. I need such constant reminders that life exists outside of where I am, and also that where I am is special, no matter the place. In Paris, a museum city, beauty can be writ large on monuments and attractions, but what has moved me more in France, and by extension the U.S., is how so much of life’s joy has come from curiosity regarding even something negligible.

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On the Rue Brézin, in front of the apartment building where I lived for my first few months in France.

In Paris I was acquiring not only a new vocabulary in another language, but a wordless language of daily wonder. I had become aware that even something as simple as making coffee could give me another slant on the day, just because the coffeepot, the coffee, and even the cup and spoon were not what I had been used to using. Or perhaps I cherished them because I realized that they would not be forever for me, or that a particular moment of newish routine could only exist there and then. Paris made me present in a life that had threatened to slip by unnoticed as if any day were just like any other, a day devoid of interest except for exceptional events, regardless of my best intentions to be engaged by what I had rather than what I might have.

We tell ourselves to appreciate what’s right before us but we often only do that when we are aware that it’s finite or local or unique. Or when someone else has the courage to concede she doesn’t know and you suddenly understand that you fear so much admitting that you have no idea about such-and-such that you end up ignorant despite your efforts to improve yourself. This has happened to me. I wasn’t afraid to appear foolish by speaking French poorly, but I was reluctant to be thought a fool because I didn’t comprehend how simple things might be done abroad.

The other day, at a family-style dinner that included coco de Paimpol, white beans that are grown only in Brittany, a French woman whom I’d met minutes before asked me if we had similar legumes in the U.S. Just before that same dinner, her mother had asked me if in America we clinked glasses in toasting one another, as they do in France. We have, and we do. But they’re not quite the same – neither the beans nor the salute – even if they’re somehow similar. Nevertheless those questions made me wonder if I’d ever asked the same about France.

Not directly. But I surely had compared what I thought I knew with what I was finding out by daily half-eyed observation. I would probably never have posed the questions that those women had asked me, out of fear of seeming too ignorant, regardless of how ignorant I appeared, or was, or am. I have doubtless lost much by not asking why or how or what.

But I had still absorbed some of those differences, perhaps, without articulating the questions regarding them. I was in another place and I had at least become open to its influence, its people, its culture, even its local beans and its toasts. I was, in fact, no longer the same, through an accumulation of foreign banalities. And I didn’t want to remain as I had been even at that instant of knowing how far I’d come.

I’d dreaded leaving Paris because I was afraid of falling again into a New York routine, without realizing at the time that that my old routine itself would seem new because I’d come to rely upon another way of doing things that hadn’t staled elsewhere, and actually never would. Even if I didn’t ask the questions, I was acquiring the answers by living where I’d have to make do with what I didn’t know and proceed step by step toward understanding another way of life. I would always be new somehow.

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