Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where you’re coming from

I have been to Paris before. Coming from the States when I was 15. Again when I was 17. Then that same school year from Rennes; by then I was 18. And in the early spring of 1999—with Paul—on our way to Italy and everything after.

This time, different. From a francophone country back to France is different. Marrakech to Paris is not the same as from JFK. Nor, of course, is traveling (sans the second parent) with a two and a half year-old. Hazel l-o-v-e-d the barriers and ropes and spaces between at all ticket counters and customs desks—see-sawed her way through and under and around (and peed in front of the ticket counter at Orly on our way home, dear girl, where I left the light yellow puddle exactly where it pooled), joyfully careened with shouts of glee and great swooping circles of her arms through any wide open space she could find, turned the curving metal and plexiglas airport direction sign into her “car” and, for awhile, refused to come out to go to our gate. Then—quiet bliss. She slept the three hours home.

Three hours—that’s it. Most surprising was the speed with which we passed from one country to the other and back. I’m conditioned by the American precluding embrace of oceans—and the oceans of acreage between. At home three hours gets you halfway to Cleveland, or to Boston if you’re starting in the middle. To another country only if you’re close to an edge, north or south.

But what I mean really is that it was a weird sensation coming from where I’m coming from—did I expect this?—to move through this city (the beautiful part of it, not the part that looked like any city does with the architecturally dead space beneath overpasses and the grimy places near highway entrance ramps)—this city of even cobbles, graceful lines, gold statues sailing skyward from the tops of carved buildings, open spaces designated for children, the self-cleaning talking public toilets. Odd after these last seven months in Marrakech. The difference in faces—more variety. The un-crowded buses, a metro. Many fewer people speaking Arabic. As we passed a café I watched, in the span of a second or two, a woman keep one eye and a hand on the open page of her book while pulling a cheese-strung bite of French onion soup to her lips (across an ample bosom bared enough to reveal at least that), and a guy at the next table with a bright orange t-shirt stamped San Francisco, California in black. We ate an expensive meal on the Champs Élysées in a restaurant full of people drinking wine with lunch, a sea of tables full of groups of all sorts—women and men together. Lots of black boots and belted black coats and blue jeans, and one blonde ice-queen clutching several swank shopping bags with mobile phone pressed to her ear, squinting delicately up the sunlit street above a tickling fur ruff. Walking past the Porte Saint Denis outside the apartment where Céline grew up, she pointed around us and in English said, “You see all these Asian women standing around? They are all prostitutes.” I kept noticing them there during the week, dressed for the weather in boots and furred coats, leggings, standing about in doorways and at curbside, checking phones and looking up and down the sidewalk, talking with one another. One evening at dusk as we came home from the Louvre, a woman smiled at Hazel and me from her doorway, a beautiful warm smile out of made-up eyes and lipsticked lips. Same feeling as here—maybe some of these women are just waiting for a friend? (Assumptions, always, on both sides).

The apartment was full of maroquinerie—brass and silver trays, framed photos of the Jardin Majorelle, a leather pouf, embroidered cushions, silk sofa covers, a silver service for dispensing incense, tiny boxes in thuya wood. During our week stay the teenage son of a friend from Marrakech (she is French, converted, her husband is Moroccan) came for a couple days so he could attend an art school forum (“There’s no real art school after high school in Morocco,” he said). And another friend, a Moroccan woman who has made her home in Paris for thirty-nine years (she is a house cleaner), came and went throughout the week like family. And this is what I felt my eyes were opening to—this easy passage, if you have the money, between former colony and former colonizer. Céline and her mom told the story of their florist—“We knew him when he first came from Morocco and had a tiny stall! Now he has a huge store, a big business.” What assumptions did I have before? I don’t know that I thought at all about that tangle of complicated story that of course must form the bulk of the connection between France and Morocco—the innumerable families of mixed heritage—the years of interaction. And where will Céline’s daughter choose to live? Even posing the question makes me wonder about my own fascination with where you are (Now we’re in Marrakech)—does it matter? Who determines what it says or means—that you live in one place or another? And why are you where you are?

We touched down in Marrakech under heavy evening skies and stepped from the plane onto a tarmac already spotted with warm rain, which turned into a regular downpour by the time we made it into the waiting car (Céline’s husband). Turning onto the main road back into Marrakech, our headlights caught a herd of sheep and their shepherd hurrying across the spattering pavement—in dark wet rush hour. If I’d been looking for a way to capture exactly the difference between Paris and Marrakech, here was my image. It makes me wonder about the innumerable lived moments, lost because there is no such thing as an impartial and omnipresent eye that divulges if you ask: what was that general thinking, in 1912 or so, when he came to Morocco to claim it for France and build roads and lay down train tracks? That was the frame I was inside—here is the seat of colonial power, here is the colony.

There was a lot of chocolate in Paris and a lot of it in Céline’s mother’s apartment, so in some ways it was a relief to leave the epicenter of all that Hazel desires. And it heartened me that she ran to grab slices of cucumber (dressed in Paul’s mom’s sour-sweet vinaigrette) within minutes of walking through the door.

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