“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Day 78: From Paris to New York and Back

Yesterday I was out walking Zoe on the golf course on our campus when I heard my name being called in the distance.  Anté and Madeleine were just coming outside of the senior townhouse apartments and had seen and recognized my dog before they knew it was me.  I ran over to visit with them.

"It's hard to believe we were in Paris exactly a year ago," they both said, almost simultaneously.  We thought about it and realized that yes, it was on this week of February, a year ago, that we spent six nights in the City of Light as part of our abroad program.

"Do you remember what we did on Wednesday?" I asked.

"Your assignment!" Anté said, and he groaned.

It took their prodding, but it started to come back to me.  I had required the students in my course, Americans in France, to spend all of Wednesday stalking the ghost of a literary figure.  Madeleine chose Gertrude Stein, so she found and photographed the apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus where Stein had lived for 40 years, first with her brother, Leo, and then with her long-time partner, Alice B. Toklas, and where they held their salons and had hung paintings by every modernist artist they championed, among them Picasso and Matisse.  Madeleine went looking for one of Picasso's apartments too, and although she had found it, she couldn't remember, now, the name of the street.

She also spent some time drinking espresso and writing in her journal at Café Flore, which is something she would have been likely to do, with or without the assignment.

Anté's year-ago-in Paris Wednesday had been a bit more fraught.  He and Levon, who were both doing their projects on Hemingway, went to the Ritz to find the bar he frequented when he had more cash--long after the hungry days he writes about most vividly in A Moveable Feast.  The bar at the Ritz was technically closed, so he and Levon got thrown out by bouncers at the hotel.  They tried to explain that they needed photographs for their power point presentations for class, but that didn't translate well.

They also hunkered down at the Café Dôme looking at the red ceilings and the chandeliers so that they would have details to put into their day-in-the-life stories for class.

I asked them, for the sake of contrast, to tell me how they had just spent their Wednesdays one year later here on our Upstate New York campus.

For Anté, the day was quite different.  "I took an international economics exam," he said.  "I went to German class.  At 5 I have to go to the German language lab, where I'm a CA."  He looked a bit misty-eyed and then exclaimed, "I miss Paris!"

Madeleine had woken up early to write a scene for her fiction class.  She set it at Café Flore.  Her character eavesdrops on a conversation taking place at another table that disturbs her in that it makes her think of something in her own life she hasn't resolved.  She walks through the same streets where Stein lived, looks for one of Picasso's old studios, and eventually makes her way up to Montmartre.  "I'm not sure what's going to happen in Montmartre," she said.

photo by Veronika Horvathova
A year ago in Paris, some of the other students on the program went up to Montmartre to look for a concert a friend of mine had recommended, but when they got off the metro by the Moulin Rouge area they weren't prepared for all the male attention, so they hopped right back on the metro and returned to the student residence.  I remembered hearing them talking about this foiled adventure the next day at breakfast. 

A year ago, Anté and Madeleine had enjoyed their overpriced coffees at their respective high-profile Parisian cafés, and had eaten whatever traditional French cuisine was on the menu at the cafeteria of the hotel in the 13th arrondissement where the students on the program stay.

A year later, Anté ate salad from our campus dining service for lunch, and Madeleine had a wrap sandwich.

"But," she said, "did you know that at the liquor store on your street, Natalia, they have a really nice Côte de Rhones for $12?  It's really good.  I think I'm going to go get one and maybe have a glass while I finish writing the Paris story."
Madeleine and Anté

Madeleine did an independent study with me a year ago in creative writing. We always met in cafés and depending on the time of day we enjoyed a frothy coffee, tea, lunch, or a glass of wine.

"I'll buy one too," I said.  "Then we'll have come full circle."

I'm guessing Madeleine's character made it to Montmartre last night, by way of the North Country, with or without the Côtes de Rhône.  Paris lives on in the story's author's imagination, as it will live on in her teacher's forever.

When their nostalgia for Paris is too much to bear, the two friends watch Midnight in Paris, the Woody Allen film that came out just when they got home from their shared year abroad.  I think one of them owns the DVD.

Zoe sniffed around the townhouse lawns while she waited for the three of us to finish the conversation.  She would have been happy if someone had offered her, say, some baguette and brie, but the leftovers from an American-style wrap would have pleased her just the same.
photo by Veronika Horvathova

photo by Veronika Horvathova


  1. Just to let you know, I'm still following your daily posts and very much enjoying the journey. This morning's entry resonates deeply. It reminds me again of the magnificent beauty of remaining awake to what surrounds us, what lies within in, and how essential it remains to feel into those mysterious intersections that occur between the two. While rare, they affirm the essence, the fullness, the simple gift of life and our presence in it. Thanks for sharing these moments you find in yours.

  2. Dear T:
    It's so lovely to reconnect in this way, and thank you so much for reading the posts. I've been thinking a lot lately about the beauty of the familiar, as well as the beauty of far-off places, and I love what you say here about the "fullness" and "simple gift of life and our presence in it."

    With gratitude,