Last Days in Paris
Walking in Paris After Lockdown, Trains Again, Scientology Shelter, Viktor & His Beautiful Lies, & Notes on Endings & Forgetting
During our final week in Paris at the end of October, I ventured out for one last walk to Batignolles. Although traffic had returned to the boulevards, the city still felt somewhat deserted. I had stirrings of affection for Paris I’d never felt quite so intensely before the pandemic. We’d all been in this together for such a long time. Now, when I saw the clerk at the Franprix or the gendarmes along Jardin des Champs Elysees, our “bonjours” held more warmth, our nods more familiarity.
On that quiet autumn Tuesday I set out from our apartment in the 8th arrondissement under a gray sky, walking along Rue Rembrandt to Parc Monceau. Parc Monceau had been my oasis in the center of the urban storm, green and vibrant in a city of browns and grays. On countless days, I had escaped our apartment and the book I didn’t quite feel like writing to walk through the park and order a crepe from the snack stand beside the carousel.
That Tuesday I skipped the crepe, as I had one thing on my mind: coffee. I exited the park, veered right on Ave. Georges Berger, and crossed Malsherbes, where Berger becomes Rue Legendre. The light caught me at the corner of Legendre and Toqueville, in front of the old brick house on the corner (19 Rue Legendre), so out of place among the whitewashed buildings.
I crossed the busy Rue de Rome, where ugly modern apartment buildings towered over the train tracks. The first time we walked this route, the day after our arrival in Paris, we were searching for our nephew Jack’s favorite restaurant, Crepe Couer. We didn’t yet know that everything closes in Paris in August, and the few things that don’t close for the entire month do close on Sunday.
By the time we reached Rue de Rome in the 107 degree heat, our son was hangry, the hulking modern buildings made me depressed, and I had the sinking feeling we’d made a terrible decision in moving to Paris. We should be back home, where life was more pleasant and the fog kept a lid on the heat. We found Crepe Couer, but it was closed. The only open restaurant we could find, Brutus, had a line out the door. Once seated, we sweated and waited and sweated some more, thirsty and out of sorts. Eventually the crepes came, and so did the cider (though not the water, as we didn’t yet know you must request un carafe d’eu if you want water with your meal). It was delicious, and forever after Brutus was our favorite crepe place in Paris.
Trains in Motion
I had long since made my peace with Rue de Rome, and the long walk did not seem so long anymore. I stopped on the bridge over the train tracks to watch two trains gathering speed after the departure from St. Lazare. It was a beautiful thing to see those trains in motion.
It wasn’t only Covid that had brought the trains to a standstill. Before the pandemic, the transit strike had ground the metros and trains to a halt for months. The truth is, Paris had been on pause long before the pandemic, beset by endless labor strikes, protests, and violent clashes between riot police and casseurs that shuttered shops and restaurants in some neighborhoods for many months of Saturdays.
The pandemic was a new, deadlier pause, an unknown entity. Paris knew how to pick up the shattered glass and clear away the burned-out cars and get on with things the morning after a protest. Like most cities, however, it didn’t quite know what to do with a pandemic.
The Secret Square
During the summer, the shops and restaurants had reopened. Aside from the less crowded streets, the ubiquitous masks, and the signs in shop windows indicating how many customers could be inside at a time (usually three), it felt like business as usual. I passed the store selling pretty, flavorless cookies (Paris does many things well, but cookies are not among them), the concept store displaying ten dresses, four scarves, and a pair of buckled shoes, and the sidewalk cafe packed with smokers, and entered Place du Docteur Félix Lobligeois.
Mr. Reluctant P. and I call it The Secret Square, because we are certain that magic might break out there at any moment. The square is dominated by L’Eglise St. Marie des Batignolles, a modest old church whose columns are adorned with festive, colorful banners.
The Second-Best Coffee in Paris
I turned left at the church toward Square des Batignolles and walked the alley to Dose Cafe, which serves the second best coffee in Paris — the superlative going to Honor Cafe, a pop-up shop in a courtyard on Faubourg St. Honore. I had planned to sit at one of the outdoor tables and do a bit of writing, but it started raining just as I arrived, in that drenching way it often rains in France.
This is the moment a more stalwart writer would choose to write anyway, scribbling onto a napkin as the ink runs with the raindrops or something, but there is a reason, dear reader, I go several years between books. I make valiant excuses and come up with elaborate reasons not to write. Writing may be a calling, but it only calls to you some of the time, and even then it may call with the faintest voice.
Liberated from the promise I’d made to Mr. Reluctant P. that morning — “Yes, I’ll work on the book today” — I ordered a flat white from the takeout window and pondered where I might go to drink it.
What has Scientology done for you?
It was raining too hard to go to the park. Covid cases had reached 30,000 per day in France, so I had no desire to sit inside the crowded cafe. I walked back to Rue Legendre and turned left. I lurked for a moment outside the Scientology Center. If my French were more passable, maybe I’d even go in and watch the free film! I’d once witnessed two women arguing passionately outside the Scientology Center, and now, whenever I passed by, I secretly hoped for drama. A young woman emerged from the building, carrying a large box. Surely it contained salacious files on all their members, secrets gleaned from auditing sessions.
I ducked under the awning of the Scientology Center and stood there drinking my coffee. It was a pleasant feeling. Now if someone walked by and asked, “What has Scientology done for you?” I could say in all honesty, “It kept me out of the rain.” It would not be a metaphor but they might think it was. I could be an accidental ambassador for self-actualization by way of monthly payments. I had always wanted to pretend to be in a cult.
Passersby looked at me suspiciously. Maybe they thought I was a Scientologist, come to disrupt their sensible French ways. The first time I came across the Scientology Center, I was surprised that France, which defends its culture so vehemently against usurpers like Mexican food and American-style capitalism, would allow Scientology to operate here. A quick internet search later revealed that, although Scientology isn’t banned in France, a French court declared Scientology a fraud in 2009, classifying it as an organized gang, so it doesn’t enjoy religious protections the way it does in the U.S.
I stood there for several minutes, drinking my coffee, unmolested by organized gangs, watching the rain. As all-drought weary Californians know, rain is a thing of beauty, whether or not one thought to wear a raincoat. But one cannot take shelter under the Scientology awning forever, so I eventually found my way back through the magic square.
Getting Lost Again
Avoiding the crowds on Rue Batignolles, I took a left on Rue Boursault, walking past the stationery shop selling handmade leather notebooks, then right on Rue la Condamine, located appropriately close to Rue DuLong (thanks, I’ll be here all night), and across the train tracks again. Here is where I got lost, here is where I always got lost. I knew Brutus was around here somewhere, and if only I could find Brutus, I could almost find my way home.
I did not want to look at my phone for guidance. I’d walked these same streets hundreds of times, and I was tired of looking at my phone. I know there are people who have maps in their heads. I am not one of them. If only I didn’t rely on my phone’s GPS so much, maybe I would have a map in my head, I thought. But that is not true at all. I was getting lost long before smartphones. I got lost in Atlanta and Knoxville, lost in New York City where the avenues and numbered streets mostly make sense, lost in Miami where you always know that the long stretch of Miami beach and that giant landmark, the Atlantic Ocean, can only be to the East. I got lost in Mobile, Alabama, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, and often drove in circles before finding my own home. I am unskilled at many things but excellent at getting lost, and Paris was no exception.
Somehow I ended up on the back side of St. Lazare train station, floored that I’d never seen this particular view of St. Lazare before, thinking, “If I had known this was here, I would have walked here more often.” Only I must have known it was there, because how many times had I crossed the train tracks? Sometimes living in Paris felt like being inside a gigantic puzzle that’s always in motion, where pathways disconnect and reconnect at mystifying angles, and you are forever walking in the wrong direction. Sometimes I would say, “Why have we never been here?” and Mr. Reluctant P. would say, “We were here last week.”
The Ballad of Rue DuLong, The Eager Musuem Lady, and the Waiter at Valois
Eventually I was on Rue de Levis, and then somehow I was on Rue DuLong, and then I was on the noisy Boulevard Malsherbes, and then I saw the flower shop that I recognized, and then indeed I knew where I was. I walked through the side entrance of Parc Monceau on Avenue Valesquez, passing the Musee Cernuschi.
The museum, dedicated to ancient art of Asia, had been closed for reconstruction during our entire time in Paris, and had been set for its grand reopening the third week of March 2020. In early March a crane had hovered over the museum, as organizers optimistically put a light installation in place for the reopening party. Then Paris locked down on March 17th, the crane disappeared a few days later, and the grand reopening never transpired. Instead the museum had opened quietly sometime in September when I was back home in California. Walking past it, I thought, “I should go in,” but there was a woman standing in the doorway, looking eager, so I did not go in. Nothing discomfits me so much as eagerness.
Inside Parc Monceau, I zigzagged through the maskless runners huffing and puffing around the dirt perimeter, walked down the wide, straight center alley, and turned left to the main entrance. I exited the park beside the Rolex building, passed the Algerian Embassy, and glanced across Place Rio de Janeiro to Valois, where the waiter stood smoking in his orange apron. He had been standing there for two years, in the same posture, the same uniform. The only thing that changed, I suspect, was his actual cigarette.
With Greater Affection
Five minutes later I punched in the code at the entrance to our building and walked through the small courtyard, which looked green and lovely in the rain. Then I punched in the code for the rear building and took the six flights of stairs to our apartment.
The stairwell smelled like Europe, sweet and smokey and not entirely clean, although the building’s housekeeper came frequently and scrubbed it down, banging her vacuum against the doors. In the stairwell I passed the four children who lived above me, and the nanny who was always herding them here and there. The nanny and I exchanged the glance we always exchanged in the stairwell, which I took to be a glance of commiseration: she and I were saddled daily with these noisy, stomping, wailing children, though she perhaps held them with greater affection in her heart.
At our landing I put the heavy key in the lock, opened the door, removed my mask, and took a deep breath. Standing by the coat rack, I unwound the scarf from my neck, shed my soaked jacket, untied my wet sneakers and peeled off my damp socks, shedding layers one by one.
Observations on Not Being Observed
I called for my son but he was not home. He was probably at Trocadero, meeting his friends, enjoying his last days with them in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I sat in the chair in the living room, looking out at our unromantic yet strangely appealing view of the big office building across the street, the dozens of windows with no one behind them. The office building had been mostly abandoned for months, since the start of the pandemic, and I wondered where “my office friends” were, how they were getting by, if they were truly working from home or just sitting around watching futbol, enjoying the generous benefits of the French safety net, which ensured that French workers received about 80% of their salaries all through the pandemic, even if the companies they worked for were shuttered.
For our first year in Paris, my office friends had a direct line of sight into our daily lives. In their absence I felt liberatingly unobserved, but also, I’’ll admit, a bit lonely.
Home But Not Home
Sitting in the blue velvet chair, wet-headed and caffeinated, I had the distinct feeling I’d had so many times in Paris: I was home but not home. I could relax, but not. I listened to the rain pounding the balcony and felt a tug toward California, large swaths of which were still burning. We would be going home soon. Instead of a view of an office building, repeating squares of yellow light, we would have a view of our canyon. Instead of the pounding feet of the neighbor children, we would have blissful stretches of silence, punctuated by airplanes and leaf blowers.
If I tell you now what happened then, you may not believe me. I heard a trumpet on the street. Paris is not like New York City or San Francisco. It is not a city of buskers. I had only ever seen them in Les Halles or at the Louvre, certainly never in my neighborhood. I went to the window. Who could it be? There was a man with a trumpet walking down our narrow street, just below our windows. He played his trumpet, accompanied by a boom box on wheels. After the serenade, the first and last serenade I’d heard in Paris, he placed a hat beneath my window. I went to the milk jar where we kept our change, poured some one-euro coins into my palm, and tossed them toward the hat. I missed the hat, the coins clattered on the street, the trumpet man merci’d. “Non, merci a vous, Monsieur!” I shouted.
Now that our time in Paris was ending, I appreciated the fact that we had come here. If I had it to do over, knowing what I now knew, I would not move to Paris. And yet: now that we had completed the mission, I was almost glad we had done it. The whole point of moving to Paris had been to upend routine, to challenge ourselves, to do something different. It wasn’t the kind of different we’d bargained for, but what, ever, is what you bargained for? No one expected the pandemic (except the scientists), yet here we are.
Viktor and His Beautiful Lies, Plus Notes on Ending and Forgetting
An essay deserves an ending, but I don’t have one. I remember one last walk in Paris after the one described here. It was Sunday night, and we were flying home to California early the following morning. Our apartment had been packed several days before. We were living in a world of boxes. The Belgian movers had arrived unexpectedly at 7:00 on a Thursday morning with an order to pack everything before it was too late (a strict new lockdown had just been declared). They had left one sofa unpacked and had placed the boxed-up coffee table in front of the sofa, so we had somewhere to sit and put our bottled water and takeout containers (they had taken all the glasses, dishes, and silverware).
We would be traveling light on our flight back to California, for the movers had swept into our home with the forceful bossiness of organized gangs. I only had time to throw a few dresses into a carry-on suitcase and hide some of my son’s clothes in the laundry room. Soon, they wrapped our lives in butcher paper and secured every box with yards of packing tape. They had packed most of our clothes and all of our toiletries, every little thing right down to my iPhone, and put it all on a truck to LeHavre, from whence it would board a ship for the long trip to the port of Los Angeles. Due to this brutal efficiency, we would be traveling light, three carry-ons containing almost nothing.
That night, my husband and son and I left the apartment in the dark and cold and walked down FDR, across the Champs and left through the park. We turned right onto Avenue Winston Churchill, walking between the Grand Palais and the just-as-grand Petit Palais. We crossed Cours-la-Reine and walked onto Pont Alexandre III, that baroque and gilded bridge, my favorite of the Paris bridges. It looks ancient, even though it only dates to 1896. We turned right on Quai d’Orsay, took the stairs down to the lower quai, and walked along the abandoned river, past Pont des Invalides. At Pont de l’Alma we took the stairs up and crossed the Seine going the other way, back toward the Right Bank, which we never called “the Right Bank,” in all our time living there. It was always “this side of the river” or “the other side of the river.” Left Bank and Right Bank sounds romantic, I guess, but when you live there it’s just this side or that side.
I made my son stop to take a photo. He protested. I said, “One day you’ll want to remember you lived in Paris,” and he said, “Mom, it’s not like I’ll forget.”
Being 15, he believes he is immune to forgetting. At fifteen you are confident in your ability to hold all the pieces of your past in your mind.
We have been home now for nearly six weeks. Paris feels like a distant dream. We have settled into our sparsely furnished home. Sometimes I’ll open a drawer and see something the renters accidentally left behind, and I will recall that our home was temporarily home to some other family who is already forgetting it.
I bought a new SIM card and put it in an old phone I found in the boxes in our basement. Somehow my new pictures are on this old phone. Alongside the new photos I see messages from many years ago, arranging playdates for my son when he was young enough that I knew all his friends and all their mothers. Our furniture and clothes and many years of pre-digital photos I had meant to pack in my suitcase for safekeeping are still on a ship somewhere. Every now and then my husband sends an email to Viktor in Brussels, asking where he thinks our things might be, when they might arrive.
Viktor tells us our belongings are on this sea or that, nearing this port or that. I think Viktor makes it up. There is lyricism in his fictional accounts of the journey of our material lives, and I imagine him in his flat in Belgium, typing into his phone, reassuring the anxious Americans with equal parts pity and empathy. I imagine he feels the same way I felt when I bonjoured the clerk and the gendarmes: we’re all in this together. But maybe I’m just being sentimental.
The longer we are separated from our things, the less anxious I feel about them. The longer we are separated from Paris, the less Parisian I feel. I brought home a closet of colorful dresses I never wear. When I go out — which is rarely, and then only to walk or visit my beloved bookstores or buy groceries — I wear jeans, that most American of inventions.
I don’t know quite yet what Paris was to us. I imagine I’ll figure it out later. I don’t know how or if Paris changed us. My greatest curiosity is whether my son will return to Paris when he is older, whether he will choose to make a home there again. Or whether he will choose one of the cities he liked better — Budapest or Helsinki, Tallinn or Porto or Belfast. I think Paris meant more to him than it did to my husband and me. For the longest time, he hated it, and then he began to like it. By the time we left, he felt, as so many expat children do, that he was not quite American, and not quite European, but somewhere in between.
For the moment, of course, all of us are living in the in-between. On pause, but not. Working, but differently. Searching for the end to this long and lingering pause. We are all so eager to write the proper ending. We are all so eager to begin again.