In the last days of enjoying long childhood-afternoons, in that transitory place between child and adult, I went to live in Paris. While at boarding school, I was profoundly affected by Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He cast a portentous shadow over Paris and its beauty was insufficient compensation for the confusion of its streets. In time I’d find Paris the most thrilling city I’d ever lived, but not until I’d found my cold, dark room in a garret above a century-old bookstore with shelves full of books by left-wing philosophers.
The decision to go to Paris was whimsical, partly for a dark, brooding woman who looked like Zelda Fitzgerald –or perhaps Lou Andreas-Salomé, I can no longer recall–but also borne of a vision of roaming the endless hallways of the Louvre and other art galleries, confronting the secrets of the masterpieces. By day and night, Paris unfolded as I walked its streets, returning to my room with gifts of young artichokes, Mont d’Or cheese and village Burgundies, which were stored on the small balcony that served as our refrigerator.
Over a wet autumn, I read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, craving solitude so I could read beginning to end, surrounded by his confidantes, patronesses and lovers. I visited Proust’s grave at Père-Lachaise Cemetery and afterwards ate cold, salty oysters in his honour. To reread passages of Proust today is to be swept back to chestnut trees shedding dark reds and golds in the Luxembourg Gardens, flower beds lapsing to winter, and the taste of duck pâté, spread roughly on a baguette with a wood-handled pocket knife.
On my last day in Paris I ate sweetbreads for the first time at Les Deux Magots, where Beauvoir and Sartre argued philosophy with their entourage, and made un petit express last an hour so I could eavesdrop a conversation at the next table about the limits of knowledge. I copied a line into my notebook from the seventh Duino Elegy, “Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller.”