Now I know why, in mid-July, I couldn't write about my first year in France.
Because my true anniversary is September, à la rentrée. The dreaded gravity-well of Real Life. The inexorable return to school and work after the endless July and August holidays, the true beginning of the year. Budgets are drawn, goals are set, plans are made.
Re-entering, I am also reliving, reanimating, replaying and I see that I am not the only one. Ghosts and memories come knocking on my door. Instead of "speak of the Devil" the French say "when we speak of the wolf (we see its tail)", and I prefer this fleeting creature to the devil who rudely zaps into existence. Wolves tails flick out of sight behind every corner I turn.
Down at Chateau de Versailles for a spectacular fireworks and light show, my friend idly mentions an ex. It's all so old and n'importe quoi* that by the time the faint smell of gunpowder lingering in the air is gone, so is the topic. But many Ricard's and hours later I look at my phone et voilà .. a tail. I say something elegant like "what the fuck?" and look around me, stunned, and expecting a similar reaction. But AD just nods knowingly at me across a noisy, hazy room of friends, exhaling smoke and the proverb "quand on parle du loup..."*
Possible futures explode like spores of a dandelion from every action we make, and sometimes I can see a little way into ones I don't have. I never covet them. Despite everything that did happen and all that I thought and hoped might, this September I am starting out with the same untethered heart I had at the last one. I've got the same optimistic feeling of "show me what you've got", but thanks to a year, a bit more "Now prove it".
Cycling home alone at midnight after a dinner party, a cool breeze seems to carry me south. I near the Louvre, and smile over the conversations I've just had, as I weave between dozy taxis, past the quiet glass pyramids, and under the stone arches of the grand, former palace. The ancient roar of medieval struggles and shanty-towns seems to echo in my ears, mingling with modern-day jokes and cute, translated sweetnesses.
I stop dead in the middle of a street when I'm close to home and... nothing happens. I marvel at owning a sleeping city that is usually frothing with people and cars, and imagine all the dreaming that is going on behind closed windows. Single, you can love everyone and everything. Single, you can dream without bounds. Single, you are never disappointed.
I feel the true weight of the year that has passed, as I prepare for new students, see old ones again and frown at my wardrobe. Much is the same. Much has changed. I sat beside the Seine today, flipping through L'Equipe without focussing, overwhelmed by other thoughts. My mind snagged on a word I didn't know, because it was in a language that a year ago I couldn't read. I saw a movie without subtitles on the weekend, and followed it, even laughed at the jokes. People stop me on the street with questions, and the answers come. I'm far from fluent, but also far from the girl I was a year ago, who started every exchange with "Désolé, je ne parle pas français, parlez-vous anglais?".
Every brick in my quartier is a confidant to my life here. My daily march to the metro takes me by the proud bronze bust of the writer Georges Bernanos, strangely enhanced by someone who months ago gave him an elegant pink mustache and glasses. A bit later "sarkozy, ca suffit!"* appeared in another hand. Georges' face marks the passage of time. Reading that "Pour 44% des francais, Sarkozy aurait fait mieux que Hollande"*, next to a grave image of the latter, it seems incredible that that triumphant night of the Presidential election at Place de la Bastille, where the red left danced on the streets and Zaiko and I had to cycle all the way back to Gare de Lyon to get rid of our velibs was only four months ago.
In fact walking around, I feel almost guilty; in a city that can seem to be drowning in its own history, here I am, adding my own. How many memories can an object wear? It must be a lot, because the Eiffel Tower is still standing. I read somewhere that the grande dame, unasked subject of a billion portraits, symbol of an entire country, exerts a downward pressure on the Earth no more than that of a regular armchair. I have no idea how that works, but I like it, because the creaky wooden desk chair I sit on as I write this holds more than a thousand Eiffel Tower's-worth of Paris for me.
An anniversary forces you to look forward, as well as back. Where will you be at the next re-entry? How many more will you get? Over early-morning coffees, a student who works for a large funeral services group let drop that her company employs two investigators, who quietly stalk the cemeteries Montparnasse and Père Lachaise with notebook and pen, attempting, in those crammed forests of stone and lichen, to find plots so old and abandoned that they look like no-one would object if they were emptied and resold. Later, hours are spent poring over dusty records and out-of-date maps, digging through public archives and attempting to find living descendants. A treasure hunt through time.
The Buddhists will congratulate you for living in the present, and the digital age makes it easy for us to memorialise our every fleeting thought, but what of those who lived and died so long ago that it takes active research by a salaried explorer to summon their ghost in the public memory? The rain-eroded name carved onto that hidden tombstone could denote someone who saw the Eiffel Tower being erected, heck helped erect it. Life is folly, and even the most catastrophic events are finally soothed from the face of the Earth by the flow of time. When I leave my tiny apartment in a few months, the building will utterly forget me, just like it forgot the unknown others who shared this space on Earth with me before. And then...another re-entry.
I let the wolf slip away, and keep looking forward. Once the initial shock is over, September invigorates me and I know that my life is here, in Paris. Gamely elbowing for position amongst all the things that wore me down before the holidays. Its an explosion of exhibitions and plays, films and gigs all over the city. Impromptu DJ sets and tall drinks in Montmatre, sun-drenched picnics and late-night skates. Its reading Rambaud painted on a wall in inch-high letters and watching Sunday chess-players take knights in an elegant of symphony of ever-moving black and white armies. Its in every text message from a friend and every 1€ thrift-store scarf.
I'm looking forward because la rentree is just another moment in time, lightly embossed onto the pages of a history that is this my life, in this year, in this city, on this planet, in this reality. And, to say something that is not supposed to be morbid but simply possible, by the time Georges' bronze visage bears "Hollande, ça suffit!"I might not be here to see it.
*the translation of this phrase depends on context but here it is has a very dismissive “whatever” kind of feel. The topic is not important, relevant or interesting.
*”when we speak of the wolf...”
*”Sarkozy, it's enough!”
*”For 44% of the French, Sarkozy would have done better than Hollande [by this stage of his Presidential term]”.