Coming back to live in Paris is a bit like re reading my high school copy of the Great Gatsby. One July afternoon in the summer of 2010, I found a copy of Gatsby on the book shelf in my house. I sat down in the large red armchair in the living room and opened it. I sat there fixed for hours and read the book from cover to cover. Fitzgeralds words captivated me in a way that literature never had before. Each scene came vividly to life in my mind. He raised questions about wealth, love, human relationships, and life that hung in my mind for years to come. Gatsby was my coming of age book and Paris my coming of age city.
When I was sixteen, I lived in Paris for two months. It was my first time living away from home and it did not go as planned. I was supposed to be an au pair for a well-to-do family. It was going to be my fairytale summer: I would learn french, look after the children, explore the city, and maybe even fall in love with a frenchman. When I arrived in the city however, the family announced that there was a change in plans. They were headed to their home in Switzerland the next morning, where they already had childcare, so my services would not be needed, except for the odd weekend when they were back in city. I was welcome to stay in their apartment since I was already there. They left the next morning at 6 am and with them took my plans of a perfect summer. I was alone in a city where I did not speak the language, had no connections, no income, and no plan. My parents gave me the option to come home, but living in Paris was my dream and I was not going to concede so easily. That summer changed me. It was incredibly difficult. I was often lonely and facing the barriers of independence with little guidance. There were many teary, expensive, long distance phone calls where I contemplated going home, but by the time I returned to the US I discovered my unwavering love of travel, confidence in myself, an assured independence, and a permanent bond to the city of Paris.
This is the first time I have been back to Paris since that summer and it is just like cracking open my worn copy of gatsby. I clearly remember the key characters and the general plot, but the details are something vague to be rediscovered. The structure of the city remains unchanged but the particulars have faded in my memory. Coming here I am thrown back into my adolescence. I see the bar where I had my first drink, the cafe where I had my first full conversation in french, the grocery store where the proprietor taught me the words for different foods. These are happy memories, like page 28 of Gatsby when “the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses,” which taught me the beauty of a perfect metaphor. These places act as monuments to my moments of triumph.
In Gatsby there are pages I still cringe to read Myrtle’s death, Jay Gatsby’s funeral, and anything involving Tom Buchanan. These are the pieces of the book which forced me to confront my own character and my own approaches to people. In Paris there are places that are more memorials than monuments – markers of lessons learned. The place where a man my fathers age asked me to go home with him; the street corner where I burst into tears because no one could understand my french; the place where I yelled for one of the begging Roma children to leave me alone. These are not proud places, but they all taught me something.
Before I left the US, my father said that returning to Paris this summer, on my own terms was some form of poetic justice. At the time I brushed off the comment as the ponderings of a someone with a BA in philosophy. Then my last night in Rwanda, bored, I pulled out my copy of the Great Gatsby. I usually keep in with me when I travel, a back up book if you will, but it had been years since I read it cover to cover. Tucked under a mosquito net, in an air bnb in Kigali, I revisited the summer on West Egg with Nick and Jay.
It was odd to see which parts of the novel fifteen year old me had highlighted, underlined, or noted in the margins. The pieces that stood out to me now were so much different. Lying in bed, I reflected on the book and on Paris. In many ways the Great Gatsby, has been immortalized by its final line “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The whole time Jay is trying to go back, to a time when Daisy loved him, when things were pure, and when he thought he was happy. As Nick explains, he was obsessed with the unattainable – recreating a moment that had already disappeared.
This summer I am not trying to go back. I can see all of the pieces of Paris that changed me when I was sixteen, I can see the city I fell in love with, but I am not disillusioned about the time I spent here. Four years ago this city was in charge and I was at its mercy trying to learn a little independence. This time I’m doing it my way.
One of my favorite passages in Gatsby reads, “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened – then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” To me thats Fitzgerald, he writes in personified images of beautiful familiarity. We have all been captured by a voice and we’ve all seen children waiting out the last moments of sunshine. Gatsby forever unites those images and gives us a new understanding of a previously simple emotion.
In some ways that is also Paris with its history, both personal and shared, that have shifted my conceptions. Traveling and living abroad changes my worldview in same manner as Fitzgerald, by redefining the bounds of understanding.