Monday, May 25, 2009

Tender mercies

In the summer of 1991, I went to Paris to do research. I had just finished my second year of graduate school, and the common thing to do at that point was to go off to your country of specialization--in my case, France--and begin preliminary dissertation research. I rented a room in a foyer, a boarding house for jeunes filles, that was run by a not terribly friendly order of Lebanese nuns. My room overlooked an interior courtyard and had a bed, a desk, a hotplate, small fridge, sink, and bathroom. Tiny, spartan, adequate.

It was my first time living in a city. My first time living alone overseas. I knew no one. My advisor had given me an introduction to an American scholar who lived in Paris. When I met him for coffee one day across the street from the Bibliothèque nationale in the rue de Richelieu--it was a decade or more before the Bibliothèque de France--he told me my research topic would never work. There was not enough material, he said, unconsciously mimicking Woody Allen, and too much had already been written about it.

I was miserable. I missed C dreadfully. I hardly spoke French. The métro smelled bad. I was too shy to buy a roasted chicken from the traiteur. I didn't know what I was doing there. It was in the days of postcards and those flimsy blue air-mail letters, and calling cards in phone booths. I was, in short, alone and lonely and increasingly unsure of myself and my purpose, wondering why I had ever thought I wanted to study France.

Then a postcard came from a former student of Madame Mère, another transplanted Southern girl who was travelling through Europe. She would be passing through Paris; could she stay a couple of nights with me? She'd be with me the last few days that I was in Paris; her dates fell just at the end of my--now foreshortened--stay. I had intended to stay the entire summer but, one day in the depths of gloom about my prospects as a French historian, I had walked by a travel agency and had what I now know was a coup de foudre, a sudden insight: I could leave. I was having a lousy time and I could do something about it. I walked in and changed my ticket. Then I walked down the street to a phone booth and called C: I was coming home a month early.

A week or two after that, the former student's visit coincided with that of friends from college who had--of all things--a car. I cleared my desk at the B.N. and we went off for a day at Fontainebleau. While my friends napped in the shade of the forêt, the traveller and I sat on the edge of Henri IV's canal and talked. And talked. Later, we stopped in a village for dinner. The only commerce was an auberge that backed up to the Seine. We sat in the garden next to the river and ate coq au vin and drank red wine, and I began to remember why France had beckoned me. The next day my new friend helped me move out of my room and got me as far as Montparnasse station on my journey back to America; she added my jar of Nutella to her backpack and went off down the rue de Rennes to her next adventure.

You won't hear from me for a few days this week because I'll be meeting up with that friend in Paris. Husbands, children, doctorates, houses, and several cross-continent moves later, L is one of the great constants, and tender mercies, in my life. And so, it turns out, is Paris.


  1. A "coup de foudre" is love at first sight. I think that the expression you are looking for here is "une illumination".

    Have a great time with your dear friend!

  2. What a lovely tale.

    Have a smashing timne with your friend,


  3. I'm getting ready for a week with one such friend in Philadelphia. I loved this post and hope you had a wonderful time. Thinking of you all.