“We wanted to create a store that reminded us of what you would find in New York,” the shop owner told me.
I had actually stepped into this little boutique on the Rue Boulard in the 14th arrondissement because it had seemed to me to be typically Parisian, with its artful disarray of bric-a-brac – glasses, vases, plates, old ashtrays, tarnished silverware. I didn’t recall ever seeing a Manhattan store window quite like this one, although I’m less observant than I probably should be. Or at least I’m slow to interpret what it is I do observe.
The recollection of place, or the evocation of a visit or voyage, is more important for the person who recollects or evokes than for the person who sees what’s evoked. You never really get what’s meant by what you see, or what others want you to see. It was enough for this boutique owner to think that she had created something that resembled what she’d seen in New York for it to be so for her. It certainly wasn’t for me to tell her otherwise – her impressions and memories weren’t mine. And of course I didn’t tell her that I had entered her store because I’d wanted to purchase a little something that would remind me of Paris.
So I picked up the dark green vase. It didn’t immediately say Paris, whatever that might have meant to me at the time. But I liked it. And since the boutique was in Paris, the street was in Paris, the neighborhood was in Paris, by default I made this vase a memory of Paris. And because I’d bought it when I’d first started spending a few months a year in Paris, it would remind me later in New York of what I’d initially had the courage to do: to live where I was not known.
I make myself at home in Paris, while New York is my actual home. I never feel that I really belong anywhere I find myself, so I return as much as I can to France. Being from somewhere else there suits me, as it has suited countless others before me. Perhaps I feel at home in Paris since, as a foreigner, not fitting in fits me, even in a city that has now become familiar. Of course, when I first decided to live for part of the year in France, I had wanted to expand my horizons and learn another language and to steep myself in a culture I had longed to comprehend. But I had probably also wanted to start again.
So I live in another place to see what’s possible, or to tell myself that my life still has possibilities. And to erase what has disappointed me in myself back home. We always ask ourselves that, of course – why haven’t we done enough? – probably even those of us who’ve achieved more than I could ever hope to. The trick is not to become entangled in that questioning of our purpose or of our worth, as much as I myself grapple with the twisted self recrimination of my considerable under-achievements. In any event, as Montaigne wrote, the life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own. An emperor’s or an ordinary man’s is still a life that’s subject to all human accidents. “Let us only listen,” he wrote. “We tell ourselves all we most need.”
Perhaps I want to listen to myself in another language, and hear what others evoke in their language of the places they see, because I don’t exactly know what I need or perhaps because I wish to ignore it. I now speak the language, but a lot still escapes me in French. I can thus misinterpret what I’m saying, or what others say, and forgive myself for not yet having understood, which is another way of saying that I am still always searching, even if I’m never getting what it is that I think I want. Even if I’ll never know what that is.
But what about New York did this boutique owner want to capture? I’ll never know, but it probably doesn’t matter. She probably couldn’t have explained it to herself, let alone to me.
When I stepped into her store that sunny afternoon in May several years ago, my French wasn’t really good enough to shape the question. I did have enough French at my shaky command to let her know that I was a New Yorker – this isn’t too difficult to say – and she’d brightened at that, as if I’d had about me something that’d she taken with her from her trip abroad, some sense of discovery.
Perhaps all it took was my mentioning where I came from to bring her back to when she had experienced something new and memorable there, even if I was nothing like her memory, but was simply someone who had been an un-encountered part of her New York experience – that great swell of people whom she sensed but didn’t meet – and who had entered her store to trigger in her that remembrance of place, of time, of herself at another point in life.
I had been an unremarkable customer off the street who, on speaking, had become a different kind of person to her, one who had brought with him another world, a world of promise. Even the most ordinary of us can sometimes elicit the memory of bliss in someone else.