Travel Stories: Nancy Kline grieves for a city that no longer belongs to her
08.23.10 | 10:54 AM ET
I am homesick for Paris, although that’s where I am.
It happens to me every time I visit. I grieve for this great city I have lived in and left, precisely because I’m only visiting. Like having a drink with an ex-lover: We don’t belong to one another anymore.
Becky and I have been here for three days now. This is usually when it strikes me, on Day Three, after I’ve recovered from the stunned blur of jet lag and the thrill of landing (the melodic French tones that accompany flight announcements at De Gaulle); after the dazed ride on the RER, silently rushing on its rubber wheels into the city; after the arrival at l’Hôtel Saint Sulpice, a sliver of a building jammed into a corner of the square, our chambre à deux personnes a little shabbier than it was on our last visit.
After breakfast—breakfast in Paris!—after the first bite into crusty French bread, sweet with butter and strawberry jam, after pouring coffee from the porcelain pot and, simultaneously, hot milk from the pitcher into a bowl so ample that it might hold heaped fruit, but instead it holds café au lait (cupping the bowl between two hands to drink is as voluptuous as cupping a lover’s face); after we kiss our French friends on both cheeks and they cry, Mais vous n’avez pas changé, vous êtes toujours aussi jeunes! although they demonstrate, beloved mirrors, just how much we’ve changed since we last met.
After we cross the river for the first time on this visit, breathing in the smell of newly washed sidewalks, and leave behind the Left Bank to walk toward l’Île Saint Louis, and walk and walk for three days straight, ignoring anything indoors, suspended in the gray grace of these streets, these shimmering buildings topped with red clay chimney pots, around us everybody speaking French. On the third day, at last, my homesickness swoops in: I don’t live here, this is not mine, it’s not my city!
I no longer know which bus to take to get to l’Opéra. I don’t know how to find out which films are playing, or what they are once I have found them (except for those still showing, after 40 years, in the same dilapidated cinémas where I first saw them at the age of 20). I have three friends left in Paris, and one of them is fading fast. Once, I had a universe. I knew my way around it, I owned it. What’s the name and address of that tiny restaurant where we used to eat soufflé au Grand Marnier when I was married to Michael? I remember how we had to order it the minute we walked in, before we’d even read the menu, and then hours later, many courses later, when we’d forgotten all about it, suddenly the waiter placed in front of us a dish that seemed to hold a toasty, puffed-up, fragrant hat, but when we plunged our spoons into it, we discovered it was warm sweet eggy air.
I lived in Paris for nine months that time. I was Michael’s wife, and I thought that we were married forever, really I did, even though I was in love with someone else, the second of my two great Parisian loves. They were both women—as Paris is, to me. My heart has broken twice here, the first time when I was 20, on my junior year abroad, the next when I was 35. But neither of those women was fully mine: One was straight, the other absent at the deep heart’s core. They were no more mine than is the culture of this city, or its language. Though I’m fluent, I will never speak French as immediately and naturally as I speak English. Perhaps it’s recognizing this always already present absence that overcomes me on Day Three.
I am homesick for Paris, even though that’s where I am. Now, on the third day of our trip, my French friend Amie has decamped to her boyfriend’s for the weekend, leaving us her garret on rue de la Bûcherie, which looks out over rooftops, chimneys and the spires of Notre Dame. I’m plunged into depression. (Amie suggested to me once that this is precisely why Americans come to Paris: You travel here, you get depressed, then you go home and write a novel about it.)
Life feels so bleak at the moment that I’ve lost my sense of humor. “Becky,” I say to my lover, “I need to be alone. Do you mind? Would you mind just—leaving? For a while?”
She doesn’t speak French, but I’ve taught her how to say s’il vous plaît: une omelette mixte et un café au lait, which guarantees that she won’t starve out there. And why should I feel guilty about asking her to walk the streets of Paris at twilight?
She grabs a handful of Euros and slams out, leaving me to my mood.
A short while later, I hear the key turn in the lock.
“There’s Bach around the corner,” she says, out of breath. She has run back to get me. She knows how I love Bach. “In that church. In fifteen minutes.”
She has come back hopeful, bearing gifts.
Becky is a generous woman. We share a life in that great city across the ocean where I was born and grew up. We live together in its huge cluttered verticality, near my grown-up children, my aging parents, our friends, our work. France is the only thing that isn’t in New York.
I look at her. She isn’t missing Paris, she’s enjoying it. Or trying to, in the face of my doleful self-imposed exile.
I pull myself up out of the uncomfortable Louis Something armchair I am sunk in. “What church?”
“You know, the one along the river, in the park.”
We squeeze into the minuscule French elevator, rush out in the silver twilight and race to St. Julien le Pauvre, the little Medieval chapel two blocks distant.
The doors are closing as we arrive, we are the last inside. The ticket taker leads us to the last two empty seats, in the front row, immediately facing the young woman cellist who, perhaps four feet away from us, begins to play Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites.
The church is lit by candles, its walls bear faded frescoes, the single line of melody is all that we can hear. Its resonant simplicity fills up the space, ungraspable, entirely present. I am seated next to Becky, whom I love. We’re listening to Bach. I am in Paris, which belongs to me, sometimes. I’m home.