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serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

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Photograph by Liza Head

I wonder how many people live in the very present moment, all the time? Or maybe even half the time? I wonder what the intensity of immediate experience would be if I could really be present in it. As it is, my life is a continuous transitioning from past to present to future to past. I am a time-traveler who’s lost their way.

Yesterday during service there was a picture of a Bible with a red, rustic ornamental design around the edges, and immediately I was taken back to the Cluny museum in Paris, thinking about the tapestries there (with similar ornate designs). When we were in France with a group from school I remember we traveled to a city with a famous cathedral and a huge, 70-meter long tapestry that we walked along with little tour-guide recorders, listening to the sing-song story-telling of a lady in French describe the battles and sieges depicted in the deep blue and red hues of the weave.

I also had the overbearing, yes, overbearing memory of a large, airy hall in the 14th arrondissement where an eucumenical group hosted a large exhibit of old and even ancient Bibles in different languages. There were booths and models of the Temple, educational material on the culture and history of those times. I had volunteered to help set up and organize the event. Maybe it was the city hall or something like that. The face of Claude, a kind, older woman who introduced me to the movement, came to me with impressive impact. For a few moments it was as if I had to catch my breath. This always happens when I recall something I haven’t thought of for a long time.

Now, a day later, I sit enveloped in the feelings not of that memory, but of my dream. My parents had invited several folks to visit, and due to logistical issues we all arrived on the same evening. There was an old friend of mine whom I met as an undergrad at UCSD. She was a graduate student TAing for one of my classes, and we’ve kept in touch, more or less, since. There was an even older friend, let’s call him Jamaal, whom I met in school and who played and continues to play a pivotal role in my life, though I have not spoken to him in many years. Last night before I went to sleep Greg and I had talked about the feel of black people’s hair, and my memories of Jamaal’s hair, its springy, pronounced softness, like thousands of micro-wires glowing with copper-colored energy, penetrated into the dream and through it, to now. As I slept we were trying to figure out the complex issue of who would sleep where. My parents were befuddled and slightly embarrassed, it was deep in the night that everyone arrived. My sister and her husband were there, also a colleague from work, Greg was there…and also a cat.

On my way to work, I listened to Yuri Shevchuk’s solo album that he recorded in Paris, called “L’Echoppe”.  I thought about how neat it would be to learn to play accordion. Also, about a duet song I want to record with a friend of mine who lives in New York and studies opera. I thought about autumn and winter in Russia, about Moscow and about that unsettling, ever-present sadness which trails after me like a pathetic (in the Greek sense of the word), miserable dog. I realized that the only thing that separates people that I consider “deep”, from those that are not so much is that underlying current of sorrow. As many wise men said, the more knowledge, the more grief. This I thought on my way to work.

And I do wonder, how it was that I did the waking and the feeding of progeny, the teeth-brushing and driving, and even the teacher-talking and child-instructing, while so much of me was not “in the present”. Rather, fluttering around it like a moth bobbing up and down on the heat waves of a candle. Maybe there’s nothing special about it…maybe that how everyone is.

Last night I dreamt about Paris again. Unlike the previous night, this time I actually got to walk around the city. I woke up with an intense feeling of excitement and awe. A sense of incredulous eagerness hung around long after the dream had passed.

This is how I feel when I think about Paris, when I remember living there. In that city it seems like a grand surprise awaits you around every corner. You might wander into a deserted inner courtyard with ivy draped over 200-year old window sills, you might come upon a Chinese fish and poultry shop replete with curious knick-knacks. You might just read about a sound and light show happening…yes…tonight, in the Parc de la Villette, and you just might hop the next RER and go. When I lived there, when I visited, joy followed me wherever I went. And how could it not when you constantly expect to run into something wonderful, magical. There, even the gray rains of autumn are lovely. The frisk coldness of February mornings as you hurry across the Seine are punctuated with a sense of historicity. To think – people have rushed across these bridges for centuries, beholding the strict outlines of the Louvre and the hollow curves of St.Eustache. So many mysteries, so many treasures.

Still under the effect of last night’s dreamings, I climbed into the car. I was puzzling over why Paris and the French language have such an allure for me when I absent-mindedly turned on the CD player. From it the melodious, nostalgic tones of French song legend Joe Dasen brought me back and I smiled. Yes, this may have *something* to do with it.

Our family has listened to Jos Dasen ever since I could remember. His recordings played on our old record player, and sunk into the very depths of my unformed identity. In the critical days and years of my childhood, the simplicity of mornings, the warmth of evening tea with the winter winds howling outside, the strong love of my parents – all mingled with Joe Dasen. His soft French pronunciation, the lovely melodies, the happy songs left a powerful impact.

And so it is no wonder that I came to love the French language, that I took classes in French starting from 7th grade when they were first offered, and by the time I had graduated from high school, had visited Paris twice. During the first visit I made a promise to myself to return in five, six years, to live and study there as a college student. I did return, and that year of my life was like no other, before or after.

Judging by my dreams, my love for Paris is as strong as my love has been for the most important men in my life. The dreams are almost always tinted with longing, with excitement at the prospect of a reunion, with a powerful sense of loss. It’s as if Paris was the lover who died at the height of our romance. Now I look for it, yearn for it, miss it. But it is nowhere to be found. Most dreams end in frustration. I am in Paris but cannot wander around freely. I am stuck in some shabby corner of a dilapidated house, gazing out at the Eiffel Tower but unable to come closer. If I do walk around, I invariably get lost. I discover dank passageways, strange people beckon me to come closer, I lose my bearings in a labyrinth of rues and avenues. Eventually I wake up and make mental notes to explore those parts of Paris that I dream about more fully next time I am there.

Why does it keep coming back to me? I have not been back in 7 years, and yet, it’s as if I just left. Maybe I had not stayed there long enough? Maybe its influence on me was so powerful, that the aftershocks are rocking me still. I came there in the fall of my third year in college with my boyfriend, ten months later I left a married woman, pregnant. The man I married was not the boyfriend I came with. Maybe the drama surrounding those ten months is what’s causing my brain, unconsciously while I sleep, to continue sorting and resorting through the collateral damage.

But I think it’s more simple than that. Hemingway summed it up best when he wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

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