[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hen I got back to Paris, I realized that I no longer spoke French. Well, this might be overstating things – I spoke haltingly enough to get by – but I no longer spoke like I did when I was in college, when I would dream in French and make jokes in French and even talk about politics. This was a surprising and unpleasant realization, like finding out that I was missing a part of my body. A finger. An arm. Gone.
I forgot if the nouns I needed were masculine or feminine. If I could remember a noun, I forgot how to conjugate a verb. My accent sounded unfamiliar to me. The voice of a stranger.
I sat in brasseries in the evenings, and listened to other people’s conversations, and felt apart from the city that surrounded me. For the first few days, I spoke very little. In fact, I was so quiet that I started to think I might be invisible. A cipher.
Because I couldn’t speak French, I decided to find my old apartment, where I had lived with a good friend during college. I spoke French when I lived there, and I thought that if I could find this lost place, I might be able to find my words.
I couldn’t remember the address, but I knew I would recognize the building from the street as we had a large artist’s window in the living room. The kind of window that belongs on the set of La Boheme. The window raked back into the living room at an angle, and the old panes were divided up and framed in iron. It was drafty in the winter, when we arrived, but in the spring, you could open part of it, letting in a warm breeze.
We lived on the top floor, where the former maids’ rooms used to be. Six flights up and then down a dark hallway that smelled of wood and water. There were a few other apartments on this level, but we never knew our neighbors. There was also an old toilet down the hall, just a closet with a hole in the floor.
Our friends called the apartment the Tower of Babel. When they came to pick us up in the evenings to go out, they waited in the street rather than climb the stairs.
It was a year of revelry. We threw countless parties, emptied endless bottles of cheap red wine. There was a large mirror on the wall in the living room, and I stood in front of it and put on lipstick before people came over. After the parties, I sat next to the window in my bedroom and smoked, which seemed very French to me.
We dated French people – me, a Catholic who studied architectural restoration (“vieux pierres,” he said) and would not have sex with me because it had to be “special” for him; and my friend, a French girl who was working for the Eurostar to improve her English. More than a year later, right before graduation, we fell in love, and we were together for years, living in the rainy Pacific Northwest. An apartment with no stairs. And we were happy for a time, and then, much later, we saw one another at our college reunion and said hello and how are you.
I went looking for the Paris apartment on a cold day. It had been snowing for a week, very unexpectedly, and although I had done my best to layer the clothes I had packed, I was always cold. But the snow made the streets quiet and empty, and you could walk long stretches – particularly in the city’s gardens – without passing another human being. I had my small red Plan de Paris par Arrondissement, which I carried around in my purse. I had lost my old one and had to buy a new one. It was a kind of conjurer’s book.
I remembered that our street came off the north side of the Parc Monceau, so I walked through the park, past the pond girdled with Roman-style columns, and past a carousel called the Jules Verne that didn’t used to be there. The carousel looked quite old, but I thought it might be new and just pretending to be old.
Rue de Phalsbourg did not seem right. Phalsbourg. I could not make it familiar. When I saw the next street name – Rue de Prony – I knew it immediately. Halfway down the block, away from the park, I saw the artist’s window – way up, on the top floor – and I wished that I could tell my friend that I had come back and found it.
I stood across the street for some time and watched the large wooden front door with the round brass knob in the middle, hoping that someone might come or go from the building and let me into the courtyard. I thought: if I could just see the courtyard, that would be nice, and then I could go home. But no one came, and my hands and feet started to get cold.
I walked back to the park and sat down on a bench and watched the people on the carousel until it started to get late. The carousel rotated counterclockwise, which was odd. It seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Maybe all carousels do.
The metro station on the park has an original Guimard sign. I had walked under those lights on many nights and had always thought they were flowers, the tops of stalks. But on this night, when they curled over me, they glowed a sickly yellow, like monsters in the dark.
Susan Harlan is a professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in English Renaissance literature. Her essays have appeared in The Awl, Public Books, The Manifest-Station, Skirt!, The Toast, Artvehicle, Literary Mothers, and Smoke: A London Peculiar, and she has a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled “The Nostalgic Traveler.”