Finding One’s Way in France

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At a country church here outside of Paris, I once looked into the “livre d’or” – the visitor’s book or register – to see what some folks had written. One inscription that has stayed with me said, “May Camille find her way.”

Isn’t this what we all want?

That anyone – a parent, a relative, a friend – should write such a hopeful and tender request in a visitor’s book meant that Camille (a him or a her, since in French “son chemin,” could signify either his or her path or way, while the name Camille is both masculine and feminine) was weighing heavily on this person’s mind. And also that Camille was, as we all are, of course, worth such worry.

Most of us are always finding our way, whether we articulate this or not. I came to France a few years ago not to find my way, or not exactly, but to look at another way of living. Perhaps that other way would become my way, or perhaps my way would broaden by contact with another mode de vie. I wasn’t lost, but neither was I on top of the world or truly notable. I didn’t even know if I had left my mark in unnoticed ways that somehow made the lives of others better. But I had wanted to see another country and city and culture, to learn another language and, by extension, to change myself by seeing how life is lived somewhere else by people who are different from me in their upbringing, outlook, expressions. And regardless of where they live or what they know or how they speak, they all, I would discover, search to find their way.

The other night I dined in the 14th arrondissement, at the home of the couple with whom I’d first exchanged apartments, back when I began this continuing adventure in creating a parallel life between Paris and New York.

I had arrived purposefully early, to explore the neighborhood that I had called home for four months a few years ago almost to the day. I wanted to see what had changed, or perhaps more accurately, to see where I had lived and how it spoke to me, since I now spend most of my time in Paris on the other side of town, in the 17th arrondissement.

On leaving the Denfert-Rochereau station, I turned onto the pedestrian Rue Daguerre, une rue commerçante, with its notable fromagers, poissonniers, boulangers and bouchers. Most were as I remembered – though at 7:30 p.m., most were closing for the night. It was still lively, though, even as people were hurrying to whatever destination that lured them on a Saturday evening.

Then I turned onto the quieter Rue Boulard, which crosses the Rue Daguerre and links the Rue Brézin (where Silvia and Pavel live, the couple with whom I was dining) and the Rue Froidevaux, near the Boulevard Raspail, which took me years ago to the Alliance Française, where I studied French.

A remarkable bookstore was still there on the Rue Boulard, and still doing business. I wouldn’t have expected it – it always seemed to teeter, like its mounds of old volumes, on the edge of falling. Its window bears no name, but through its open door I saw the same colossus of uncategorized heaps – perhaps even more than a few years ago – with a single, narrow and doubtless treacherous passageway between the musty towers. The same proprietor as before, his Rabelaisian belly barely able to navigate between the stacks, was helping a customer with a book. How he found it I don’t know – but he and the customer were involved in a deep bibliophile conversation that appeared to give them both pleasure.

Les Vins des Rues, the restaurant next to the bookstore, was closed. I had dined there with my late friend Georgia shortly after I arrived. Like her, the restaurant is no more, but I remember marveling with Georgia one night there over how we both somehow managed to be here, two grateful non-drinkers soaking up France.

Things elsewhere were the same, though the Place Jacques-Demy, opposite the chic butcher Hugo Desnoyer (which supplies the presidential palace) lay forlorn under the gray drizzle. I missed the lively marché that runs there twice a week, and where I first began to hazard a conversation with a vendor in the open air (asking for vegetables was a big hurdle for someone new to French).

I then walked along the Avenue du General Leclerc, past the Mistral Cinema, dowdy and comforting, which was still showing second-run films – I had seen there the truly terrible remake of Clash of the Titans on an unbearably hot night during my first summer in town. The shop known as Sami, where I’d bought dishes for various kitchens of various Parisian apartments where I stayed, was still on the corner facing it, selling reasonably priced quality porcelain. The Monoprix, my first French supermarket, was still there on the next block, crowded with Saturday-night shoppers just before closing.

I wandered around toward the place Alésia, and the Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge church with its old clocher – which brought to mind Charles Trenet’s haunting song, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours,” with its melancholy evocation of a village steeple, and the choices we’ve not made over a recurring wistful past of unmade choices.

I turned onto a narrow street with late 19th-century apartment buildings that, as always, led me to imagine the contours of the lives within, then onto the Avenue de Maine and then around to the Rue Brézin to Silvia and Pavel’s place. I stopped to pick up some sparkling water at a Carrefour Express, which had replaced a dingy supermarket that I had always been reluctant to enter when I first stayed at their place.

Their apartment was as before – though they now had a flat-screen television rather than the old box that I had had to make do with when I was staying there. Otherwise, the same furniture, the same professorial indifference to décor. And they were the same friendly, interested couple – I hadn’t expected them to become suddenly unpleasant. But because my French is much better than it was a few years ago, I heard more clearly their strong accents – his Eastern European, hers Italian – and realized how much at least a part of me had changed, since I’ve learned to speak, at least with a certain facility, another language. I can now hear more clearly how foreign we all must sound to each other despite our fluency. And I could see how we had each left our linguistic and cultural homes to find a path elsewhere.

Pavel asked me if I still liked France as much as I had mentioned to them that I did, back when we had seen each other shortly after our respective stays at each other’s homes. I still love it, despite the maddening strikes, the omnipresent smokers, the ingrained bureaucracy. But such feelings are, I said to him, the exasperations of someone who has grown accustomed enough to a place that he feels he can both adore it and criticize it. More important, however, I’m still aware to, and grateful for, what France can show me.

When I walked back to the metro after dinner, under a steadier rain on quieter streets, I realized that I had explored the neighborhood as, perhaps, an adult would on returning to his childhood home and finding things the same but smaller. But the 14th arrondissement wasn’t smaller – it was itself. In fact, I felt the same thrill of discovery as I had a few years ago, even though today I am much more at ease in the French language and I feel quite at home in Paris. Still, I hadn’t anticipated how much I would long for and cherish that half-forgotten sense of coming across something that would ever remain elusive, even as it was somehow familiar.

I wasn’t young when I first started living in Paris, but I was new, in a way, and naïve in a way, but I was also open, in a way, to what I didn’t know.

I realized that the streets I had just explored as if for the first time, and the buildings whose architecture I had once again admired, weren’t any smaller than my memory, though I myself had been smaller when I initially encountered them. And I realized, too, that I had perhaps, after all, found my way: by choosing to live, for at least a few months a year, in a place that would continue to challenge my assumptions about what I knew, or what I know, or what I believe I understand.

Perhaps my path is one where I am constantly shaken up by realizing how much the world can surprise me. Such a path isn’t a career, of course, but does it really matter? I had forgotten how much I had thrilled to wonder about the everyday somewhere else – as if I become extraordinary simply by acknowledging, at least now and then, how lucky I am to be able to see such things and to live as I do. That’s a sort of path – wherever it might lead me. That doesn’t really matter either in the end, though, does it?

But I hope that Camille, whoever he or she is, has finally found a path as well, whatever that might be.

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