Saturday, November 19, 2011

In Search of Lost Time

Remembrance of evenings past 

In the fall of 1998, I arrived in Paris for the first time.  As much as the overnight train from Milan dulled my senses, it was exhilirating.  The world opened in front of me, one of the world's great cities unfurling itself, the menus and the language and the people and the movements of those who were living their Parisian lives before me, just another backpacker passing through.

I reflected on those days this week as I returned to Paris, this time for work and a trade show.  It is no longer a new city to me; I have lost count on the number of returns to the city but estimate perhaps 7-8 by this point.  In many ways, the city has changed - it is much friendlier to English speaker, I am much better versed in traversing foreign cities, and the fast-growing metropolises in Asia which I have since visited make Paris feel older and less dynamic.  But more poignant, I have changed.  Of course, I am no longer a young student in terms of my backpacking days, but the extent of change is greater and more profound; I am also no longer young in terms of my world weariness.  When the world was "newer" to me, the sights, tastes, and smells were more intoxicating, like the awakening of a baby to the greatness of the world outside the womb.  Now, it is better understood and more common.

Perhaps the reflection has more to do with the special sanctity of the Parisian walks that I have experienced several times over the course of my visits to this city and the revelries they have produced.  I had returned in 1999 and stayed with an Italian girl with fantastically curly hair; as she worked at UNESCO during the day, I would walk the streets and discover museums and arrondissement; we would then meet for  dinner and then encounter the social adventures of the night, when Paris duly earns its moniker "City of Lights".  I recall one morning when I ventured out to Versailles and reveled in the baroque lavishness of King Louis XIV, a topic that I devoured in an European History class that filled my last quarter at university and propelled me to graduate early and head back to Europe.  As I sat on a park bench in the gardens of Versailles, breezing through "Old Man and the Sea" and allowing my gaze to wander onto the great golden fountain at the center of the grounds, I was swept into an inspiration to craft a short story, a gift to Gabriella for her hospitality and shared moments in the city.  She was enchanted upon reading it that evening, and it led to building collective dreams of creative pursuits and to capturing the essence of the moments we shared in that maid's quarter high above the rue.  This reflection with so many others ordered my understanding of what magic Paris could propose and reveal in just a few short hours.

I enjoyed similar walks this week, if now only to stretch my legs; and as a sentimentalist, I lingered over some spots that once enchanted me.  In most instances, the spots are still there - a bar tucked away on the Left Bank behind Notre Dame, St. Sulpice, the vintage bookstalls along the Seine.  But as my feet carried me by habit through the same paths that once held my sway, I felt as if I was chasing ghosts that I could not grasp.  The spirit of my student days was but a wisp encircling certain spots that held such vigor only a short decade ago. 

Of course, Paris is still a lovely city.  It reminds me to be more artistic and to capture the inspiration that such ambulatory reflections trigger.  I also think of what connection this matured view has with the wild-eyed view of myself as the backpacker.  Alas, in chasing my own ghosts, I also was in search of lost time (yes, the reference to Proust is appropriate and intentional), realizing that the melancholy of youth's evaporation is more a celebration of the journey that triumphantly returned me to the same but different place, better for the wear and more tuned to celebrate revelries that have shaped a richer worldview.
Post a Comment