Lisa Maguire Fiction

Walk, Memory

Posted on | June 4, 2012 | No Comments

This evening I am going for a walk in Paris.  I am mapping a tour for a friend who has never been there. She wants me to show her the ‘real’ Paris, far away from tourists.  But she will be a tourist, stuck in that familiar trope of wanting an ‘authentic’ experience.

The tourist Paris is plenty fun for a first timer, but no matter.  I am planning a walk of side streets, North African bath houses, ancient Roman amphitheaters, 18th century chocolatiers, Chinese bowling alleys, and taxidermists.  It has been an entertaining couple of hours. Aided by the photo street views from my trusty online Pages Jaunes, I can follow the walking tour as I map it. I am back in Paris, prowling my favorite neighborhoods.

It is doubly enjoyable to be doing this tonight, since I am planning a trip to Paris myself in the fall.  I can indulge not only in nostalgia but anticipation.  My mother and I are spending a few days there in October for no purpose except to wander the streets and indulge in a little leche-vitrine.  I have not been to Paris for many years, and I can think of no better way to return to the city than with the person who first took me there and taught me to love it.

My mother first went to Paris with my father in 1966, and can remember the by-gone Paris of haute cuisine and bad mattresses, where the casual traveler never saw children in the street, and where all the young women looked fabulously chic, even if they were just stepping out to the bakery.  She tells me about eating onion soup in the old Les Halles market at 4 am.

The ‘real’ Paris is difficult to convey to a visitor who doesn’t speak French.  So much of the pleasure of living in Paris is found in movies, theater, newspapers, and, of course, conversations. If you arrive in Paris without knowing anyone, it is easy to stay that way unless you make a big effort. I came to make friends in the city over time, but I know Paris really well because I was a student and spent a lot of my abundant free time walking and exploring on my own.  The city became my companion, and I grew to love it like a person.

Although I lived there for only two years in total, I was also a student of France, and spent a lot more time in Paris in my head. As I walk around my real Paris, it is a palimpsest of the Paris(es) I know from books.  I can retrace the steps of Rastignac, Marcel, and Nana.  In the streets of the eastern sections of the city, I can picture the barricades of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870. When I walk along the Quai d’Orléans of Ile St. Louis, I can see through a doorway of a hôtel particulier into the opium den frequented by Charles Baudelaire and his pal Honoré Daumier.

It is hard to name my favorite places in Paris, since there are so many.  Because I was a student there, I think I would have to say that I miss its libraries most of all: the old Bibliothèque Nationale, with its long wood reading tables and green lamps; the medieval Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève, the library of Erasmus, and its tiny secret library-inside-the-library, the Fonds Jacques Doucet, with its high-ceilinged reading room encircled by catwalks and rolling ladders, and tall windows that offered a view of a walled garden; the grand siècle Bibliothèque Mazarine, where Proust was employed, although he seldom bothered to show up.

There are so many other places: the ancient Roman arena tucked behind the porte cochère of an apartment building; the green market on the Rue de Buci, the Fontaine de l’Observatoire and its green copper turtles; the waterfalls of the Buttes de Chaumont…

There was a Japanese movie some years ago in which recently deceased people found themselves in a waiting room where their souls were being processed before entering heaven. Heaven was a single happy memory re-lived forever.  The newly-dead have to choose a memory before they vanish into the next world, taking with them only that memory to experience over and over for eternity. The film of course points out the richness of life, because how can anyone single out the very best moment?  Life is filled with them. Paris is like that.  If someone asked  me choose one memory of Paris, or a place, I would not know what to pick.

My best memories of Paris have the quality of dreams—did that really happen to me?

I can remember going to a piano concert a hospital, of all places.  It was a beautiful 19th century hospital, and I remember its highly polished wooden floors.

I had a drawing teacher who sent me all over the city in search of subject matter.  One of the more bizarre excursions was to the old Natural History museum in the Jardin des Plantes, to draw dinosaur bones.  The Jardin des Plantes had been Lamarck’s laboratory, and the old museum still contained its original collection:  shelf after shelf of animal parts pickled in jars.

I recall being woken very early on a Sunday morning by an organ grinder playing to an empty street right under my bedroom window. I threw open the window and told him to shut up or move on.  He flipped me the bird and cursed me out to the tune of a valse musette.

I remember going out with my Irish friend Fiona, tagging along with a group of her Corsican friends. After a tour of the Corsican bars, it was about 5 in the morning, and one of the Corsicans shimmied up a tree in a public park and came down with his arms filled with lilacs. We drove to Vincennes in a little Peugeot overflowing with flowers.  We went to a bakery and bought fresh warm croissants, and ate them watching the sun come up over the Château de Vincennes.

It’s hard to share this kind of deep love for a place, but I hope the walk I have planned for my friend shows her something. I am confident it will be the first of many visits for her, and she will begin constructing her own Paris of the mind.  My mother, who has loved Paris for almost 50 years, has no doubt constructed something of her own palimpsest-Paris of memories.  It will be great to compare our cities.


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