At a pause during a dîner d’adieu at Raoul’s apartment a couple of months ago, on the chic Avenue Junot in Montmartre, I stepped out from his living room onto the balcony, to catch a final glimpse of the Moulin de la Galette and the domes of the church of the Sacré-Cœur. I had just taken a last look at the perfectly framed Eiffel Tower through Raoul’s dining-room window. I was saying goodbye to a home I would never see again.
Raoul had sold his apartment, which he had inherited from a cousin twenty-five years earlier, to live full-time in the house where he grew up in Blagnac just outside of Toulouse, on the banks of the Garonne River. Like many French, Raoul feels a stronger pull for the terroir of his youth than for the city of his adulthood.
I myself have never felt grounded to a particular place. I am often an outsider in my own life. Although I am at home in both Paris and New York, I am still rootless and roaming. My personal relations are part-time and sometimes at a distance. My visits to my family are rare, fleeting and without engagement. I am not really a part of anywhere. I chose this. I didn’t let this happen by accident. I wanted to expand my horizons by creating a life in France, but I realize now that I probably also wanted to enable a rootless one. I possess little except evanescent experiences and then sometimes reluctantly. I deny myself ownership of what I see, feel and do, since I often consider that I’m not worth the effort to create anything lasting, be it a home, a relationship, or a career.
At the same time, I cherish those chances to live beyond who I am, to be present in the rare moments of belonging that I have found in the homes of friends in New York and Paris, who live as I wish I could, but never will, who are grounded and secure in themselves, who have built lives that matter. I have not yet learned what Montaigne called the most certain sign of wisdom, to know how to belong to oneself. I do care what I am to myself, as Montaigne advised, but only so much.
Several years ago, I spent six weeks in Raoul’s apartment, while he spent six weeks in mine in New York. I made myself at home chez lui, inviting French friends up to see the kind of apartment, with the kind of views, that impress even seen-it-all Parisians. Despite its cramped kitchen and wonky plumbing, Raoul’s was my ideal of a Parisian home: carved molding on the walls and ceiling, marble fireplaces and mirrors in every room, long windows that diffused the city’s shifting northern light onto the old parquet and worn furniture. It informed my sense of what it was to live abroad, to be part of another city. To have a different sort of life, a little like the one I have created in borrowing other people’s homes.
That apartment is now part of my past – it is part of the past of all of Raoul’s friends – some of whom have become mine too. We dined there in groups or simply en famille, as Raoul would say, with him and his companion Philippe. Birthdays, New Year’s Eve, Bastille Day to watch the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. Over the years Raoul has even hosted several dinners for me before I’d return to New York – a dîner d’au revoir, or see you again, rather than, as the other day, a dîner d’adieu, or farewell.
So, I bade farewell to his home, which is now another Parisian memory in a city that lives on remembrances of things past.
I’m sure I’ll see Raoul in Blagnac. His house there, old-fashioned and sturdy, bears the weight of another time, the traditions of another place, the security of attachment born of property and inheritance. I like it there.
But because it isn’t a home that might remind me of something I would wish to have, were I someone who I am not, it has never stirred in me the temporary reverie of belonging that I felt in his Parisian apartment, which now also belongs to another time, but one that at least, for a few faded moments, was also mine.