Où mêne la vie

From previous trips to France:

1.     The first time, third grade, testing for vertigo by jumping up and down on the second deck of the Eiffel Tower. Much more frightening than the enclosed upper deck.

2.     Speaking no French in the cafés, but forming the sentences in my head. Horrified that when it arrived, my peanut butter sandwich had a thick layer of butter on it.

3.     The small wooden animals in the living room of my cousin’s house. Stacked into the air like acrobats. The photo, age eleven, of me on their front steps in a horrible, neon striped dress.

4.     Sixteen, driving through the south with my parents. Rolling bruise-colored fields of lavender. The castle town of Carcassonne and the fireworks bundled and guarded by policemen under every arch.

5.     An unfinished summer course during college, a home-stay in the Place des Fêtes with a harried mother and her son. Whenever I showered, they would scream at each other. The metal skeletons of the market tents left out in the rain. The immense decadence of Paris and listening, on the other end of a bad connection, for news of a turn for the worse, of my father’s illness, of the need to go home.

I never expected to return to that last part of the city, but one night I go to listen to jazz at a place near the square. I had forgotten the long escalator up from the metro, and I forget to hold the handrail as I look down. At once, my knees give a little at the sensation of falling backward, at the long tunnel sliding into the ground, at the strangeness of seeing again through the eyes of an earlier, more naïve self.

I’ve arrived in Paris just a few days after my 26th birthday. This time, I’m staying near the Bon Marché, in an apartment so generously loaned by Alice Kaplan, one of my French professors from college. Here, where there are other translators and even workshops for itinerant writers, I’ll be able to get some perspective on the work I’ve done so far.  

But places are not always predictable—for my birthday, Paol has given me a children’s book called Où mêne la vie? or Where Does Life Lead? It’s a joke of course—on each page a father answers his daughter’s question with various scenarios including adventure, success, art, and (in typical Catholic French fashion) paradise, hell.

Where does this version of France lead? To writing, to translating, to jokes that unexpectedly turn wise. And to remembering, but with humor as well as seriousness. As Paol writes:

bang bang     these memories

                        are rabbits

            you pull out of a hat

                 and then hooray