Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Au Revoir, Paris

(This blog was written at the end of my sojourn, but the long hours in class and café conversations—and even longer walks—took their toll on my poor spine and kept me away from the computer. Now at home in NY, I am struggling to recover.)

             French uses three different words for “Goodbye.” Adieu, a strong, decisive finality of parting. Au revoir, as in “see you around,” or “see you again,” and À bientôt, indicating a tight time frame of “see you in a jiff,” or at least “later today.”
            I am sitting outside a patisserie on Rue des Écoles, so named for the various Sorbonne colleges that have made this street famous. In fact, the Latin Quarter was once the home of the language that dominated the world of science. 
            In some magical way, this intellectual history should seep into my brain, the way Parisian glamour must come to inhabit my skin. But the pigeons picking at my feet, the city-lending bicycles, the passing middle-aged couples—American retirees making Paris their home for a few months—offer no hint of such osmosis. Still…. The romance of Paris is forever present, pulsating in the sights of the brasserie across the street painted in red; in the ornate carvings on the building next door, with filigree faux balconies; and in the glimpse of a man who comes out of the patisserie carrying three unwrapped baguettes.
Rue Moufftard

            Through the door left ajar behind me whiffs the voice of the chatting proprietor. The tattooed, gray-haired pig-tailed, muscular man might have been one of the students who in 1968 rebelled right on this very street, flinging cobblestones at the police. His butter-filled, flaky croissant makes the transition to the world of working middle-class adults worthwhile. 
            Today is May Day, and several blocks away at l’Odeon, one of the parades fills the streets. The French take this labor day seriously. All shops and services are closed. People buy one another the flower that symbolizes the day, Lily of the Valley, muguet. A Frenchman asked me to compare Israel’s and France’s socialism. My response: “Israel started as a socialist country but has moved away from this ideology, while France is sinking deeper into socialism.”
            It is very cold, in the upper 40s, the kind of temperature I would certainly not tolerate in NY, sitting outside with my deca crème, (decaffeinated coffee,) not even under a space heater that dries my hair but leaves my toes to freeze. This afternoon I am signed up for a walk in the path of Ernest Hemingway, but the persisting cold spring is discouraging. The urge to grab more of every moment is strong, though. There is always another public art to look at, another alley to discover, another surprising storefront not to be missed. There are prints to be leafed through at art galleries, there are French words pouring around me to be caught and mulled over. There are events, and people and blooming flowers. Did I mention shopping?
Store window--of an exterminator....
            A major debate has been raging here about what we in the US call "Same-sex marriage," but they call "Mariage pour tous," (translated: Marriage for all.) Against demonstrations and heated TV discussions, the parliament has passed the law this week. In my French conversations I explained the nuanced difference in the name: While in USA "same-sex" marriage means that two people of the same sex can (or should be allowed) to marry, "marriage for all" includes plural marriage! This oversight might have serious implications given France's growing Muslim population. Some immigrant families arrive with multiple wives, but many such unions are formed within the community in France against the law. 
            Having multiple wives in the French socialist environment that provides generous benefits for children greatly profits the man. While wives number two, three or four  appear to the authorities as single mothers and therefore are entitled to a host of benefits, the reality is that in their strict, honor-bound society these women would have been killed for just speaking with a man, let alone for bearing children out of wedlock—unless their union is indeed recognized internally by their tradition. It is left to see when these marriages will be claimed legitimate under the new law of "marriage for all."
            In forty-eight hours I will be at the airport, about to board the plane that would deliver me back to my life in New York. I came here to immerse myself in French. I took dance classes and played Mah-Jongg in French, and had been quite certain that my former fluency would pop up, the way memories resurface. But through the long hours of classes and equally long hours of conversations I came to the disappointing realization that while my language skills have indeed improved, it must be all relearned, verb by conjugated verb. My facial muscles must be retrained. (Research shows that French have a particularly strong and animated upper lip.) Had I really known all these idioms and word turns? Had I once talked as fast as the locals? Had I understood French films? These past four weeks I’ve also learned to appreciate the contribution of the two subsequent generations that have since my youth enriched the language—or butchered it, as their critics claim.
            With holes in all my socks and debilitating back pain, but light in my heart, I return home. Au revoir, Paris, but not Adieu.
Harmonie, by Antoniucci Vitori
 (To read previous Paris posts, please click  )

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