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Paris(Recently I returned from an adventure in Europe. The next few posts will be dedicated to that trip.)

We ride the escalator into Paris . The Place de Republique looked so navigable on a map drawing down in the metro. Now it’s honking, whizzing, brimming to the rim with people and vespas and cars and other two-axle vehicles. Completely disoriented but optimistic, we roll our luggage past a stage being erected under Marianne’s elbow while she, the perfect symbol of the French Republic, looks on with gusto. A shirtless, muscular man climbs a pole protruding up, binds it to horizontal rods, while two others fasten the ends to the rest of the framework. Backstage skeleton bits coming together as we treck past, bobbing up and down cheerfully in this sea of clanking, barking instructions, motors, sirens. We stay in Paris for only a week, yet this is long enough to feel the eighth notes trilling the heartbeat of city life.

On Tuesdays and Fridays the empty alley on Blvd. Voltaire fills with farmers, butchers, and creamers selling produce. Sun-kissed, cracked hands weigh and package greens, handing neat sacks into milky white fingers. The rhythm of the city pulses and we are in it too – stray syncopated notes, unexpected but miraculously integrated.

In the mornings people are focused, people are few. They must be working, or something. By four or five the metro stops are full again, the brasseries start maxing out their capacity. By 8 or 9pm all of the coffee shops, restaurants, eateries and drinkeries are bursting at the seams with what appear to be the Parisians themselves. Nobody’s rushing to home and hearth. Why bother, when you can sit packed like sardines at an outside table squeezed next to another table and another table, drinking wine and smoke? Awash in human voices and odors, people are drawn to the brasseries even as the streets become more empty at night.

By eleven the sun sets. Youth en masse flood the banks of the Seine, sitting side-by-side with strangers, four, five rows deep. Why the exodus towards the water? Why the choice to spend the evening surrounded by people when you’ve already been surrounded by people the whole day at work? Could all Parisians be extroverts?

We walk and the city breathes, exhaling hot air through the grates under our feet. Trap doors in the walls blow underground wind and train noises over us. When we ourselves descend below, into the innards of Paris, other smells creep in: ureah plus a thousand digestive stenches from people and machines. Arterial tunnels coil and uncoil, expanding in all directions from the central nodes of human traffic. Cold air licks us from high-end boutiques, cabbage and brie smells tickle us from their stands.

Especially on Saturday, life continues deep into the night. This time we ride up to Place de Republique to the thumping low frequencies and high guitar squeals of a concert. The stage that we first saw being assembled now stands complete, a band plays, the whole square is teeming with people. They bounce, they sing along, they skate-board along the sharp edges of the architecture. They belt out their conversations. We escape the deafening wall of sound and duck into Rue Malte. Though the beat continues, it’s tolerable now – it’s as if we’ve bypassed the throbbing heart and are now somewhere in the sinews of this living, gurgling, breathing creature. We still hear it, know it, but are not damaged by it.

The festivities go on for a long time, but by two or three people are finally settling down. You can tell by the infrequency of the sirens, their doppler-effected wails – a final lullaby. Sunday morning it is quiet: nobody on the streets, the shops are closed, only beer cans rattle down steps and wrappers slither across open spaces. Even during the day life stirs lethargically, never gaining full momentum. So the sun sets on another week in Paris – an insignificant tally mark in the age of this city. Years will go by and it will stand unperturbed. People will weave in and out of its colorful tapestry without it ever noticing. So we too depart, missing it more than it will ever miss us.

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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