Memories Made of France


All of us wonder at some point or another why we do what we do, or why we’ve done what we’ve done. Or how much of our lives we’ve wasted through indecision. Or bad decisions. Some of us, like me, don’t remember a lot of what we did many years ago but we continue to stumble along regardless, as if a casual fall will lead to an epiphany.

I have often asked myself why I spend so much time in Paris, especially at times like now, when I’m returning after a few months back in the States. Or I ask myself why I have tried to make a parallel life in Paris and in New York, to seek to understand a culture that isn’t my own while at the same time keeping ties to a life with which I’m familiar if sometimes a little outside of.

I have wondered if, in seeking to live for months in France, I have indeed been escaping something, as people who drink sometimes do, relocating (doing what’s known as a geographic) in the futile hope of starting over. But I wasn’t and haven’t been escaping my life in New York. I certainly haven’t had to start over, at least not again. Being unknown and unaccomplished, I didn’t flee notoriety or the vagaries of fame when I first started ma vie parisienne five years ago, and I’d already begun my life over when I’d stopped drinking almost a couple of decades earlier. I’d long ago faced the mortification of squandering years of my life, and I’d fashioned a decent career where before I’d simply held jobs. But you can always restart again and again from any point, if only to keep yourself off-balance about what you can expect from the life you’ve allowed to happen around you or the one you hope you can make happen. Perhaps that what I was doing – upending unfulfilled expectations.

Or maybe I just wanted more than what I’d given myself, or what I’d blacked out from my experience. You can indeed, I think, experience something that you no longer recall; its effect remains even if it’s not retrieved in any conscious way. Or at least I hope so. Over the last few weeks, several people I’ve known for quite a long time have mentioned days we’d spent together many years ago, recounting with alarming detail incidents that I had totally forgotten or never actually remembered. I said to one friend who’d tried to lead me down memory lane that in fact my memory from back then was filled with dead ends. I’ve had a lot of blank spots in the life I lived, as if I’d been deprived of my senses from time to time through abandoning myself to drink. I thought I’d moved beyond that kind of self-recrimination, but hearing again parts of my life I don’t remember having lived shook me, as if I had erased myself and were in danger of marching again toward oblivion.

Perhaps that was a reason for creating a life in France – to forge actual memories, or at least to live through incidents that I have a good chance of recalling. Immersing yourself in another culture and in another language places you on alert as you make your way through customs and phrases and even the quotidian whose familiarity lies just out of reach. This isn’t in the way of unremembered memories, but of grasping the essence of something you will never fully comprehend but whose elusiveness leads you forward toward a half-understanding. This is enough, or it is for me, to keep me coming back to France – to be alive to the ordinary in a fuzzy translation.

But it’s also perhaps a way of creating the kinds of memories, or of living the kinds of experiences, that although I can’t share with people back home (nobody cares about the incidents of your life unless they’ve lived them with you) I can still use, in the selfish way of people who spend much of their time alone, to provide other perspectives. I always need to remind myself, without damning myself with too much insignificance, how myopic I can be. But we can’t help the narrowness of our realities, regardless of how we try to expand our lives.

The singer Michel Delpech died recently, and he was beloved by many French, as someone whose songs made up the soundtrack of their youth in the 1970s. Despite my continuing studies of French cultural touchstones, I didn’t know him or what he sang, and his death meant nothing to me. And even were I to seek to understand the impact of his music on people who heard it and whose recollections reignited flickers of their past, his importance in France will always be academic to me rather than truly felt. In the same way, what my friends told me about the escapades we had had together were for me stories about someone else, someone I was supposed to know but who had vanished into another person’s reminiscence.

Perhaps I have chosen to live in France, as well as New York, to create sensations that recall not the life I had had or had squandered but one I can enjoy for itself rather than for how it might be narrated by others. In Paris or New York, as unremarkable as I am, I can still affect the course of someone’s day, even if this resonates in a very private and unremarked sphere, like the tinkle of a bell at a side altar in a little-visited church. At least having forged a life in France and maintained one in New York, I will have remembered what I’ve done. And perhaps it has taken France and French and Paris and Parisians to show me that I’m not as alone as I usually tell myself I am, and that I’m actually worth my own remembering.

4 thoughts on “Memories Made of France

  1. It’s always a pleasure to read your prose when you try to be more and more conscient of your “états d’âme” . Universality is never far, and you love the human being in you enough to paint the whole thing in a warm colour .

    (Michel Delpech was not a great artist, just a sweet guy, but for some curious reason a few of his songs are indeed like touchstones in the stream of my generation’s teen years . Some little things sometimes carry much more than themselves, as you know .
    Here is one of his 5 hits whose theme was completely surprising from this shallow nice fellow : ).


  2. Thank you for this. I saw quite a few tributes to Delpech on French TV — his death led the news, in fact — but as I mentioned, I didn’t know his songs at all. I appreciate your linking to this one.


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