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I accepted with no other conscious prejudice on my walk than that of avoiding the wider avenues or streets, the most obscure invitations of chance. However, a kind of familiar gravitation led me farther on, in the direction of a certain neighborhood, the names of which I have every desire to recall and which dictate reverence to my heart.—Borges, "A New Refutation of Time"
I don't know who I dream I am.—Pessoa, from a poem [End Page 69]
I'll be honest. I had a couple of large sadnesses to confront that summer in Paris. So I suppose it wasn't surprising that it repeatedly happened.
You see, I often found myself at this one spot at the end of my meandering walks through the balmy, traffic-empty streets of the early evening. The walks were in an everyday pocket of the Grands Boulevards, toward Place de la République—the outdoor cafés along the boulevards crowded but not noisy, if that makes any sense, the puzzle-barked plane trees even greener and leafier than the last time you noticed, if that makes any sense, too, everything in almost too-clear focus amid the thick honey sunlight that does linger till nearly ten in July and August in Paris—and, yes, after an hour or so of rather aimless and surely comfortable walking, I usually seemed to end up there again. And the "there" I'm referring to meant climbing the odd serpentine stone steps behind the stately Gare de l'Est train station; it meant continuing on along that decidedly shabby dead-end street, Rue d'Alsace, which overlooks the vast, cluttered railway yards, to sit down again in one of the big cushiony seats—old and salvaged from maybe a French Pullman car, set out right on the cracked sidewalk—for me to order a simple syrupy black coffee at the café called, tellingly and almost too appropriately—Au Train de Vie.
But even that doesn't get at it.
Or it isn't quite exact to say I repeatedly ended up there, because it was somehow beyond that. It was as if I had to go there, or more so, as if a voice was telling me to go there again because it was where I was supposed to be, where I, well, I needed to be right then and at that time of my own life in Paris.
And now, months later and back here in Austin, I've been thinking more about this—thinking a lot about it, in fact.
I've been thinking of it and specifically how it all reflects a feeling certainly metaphysical that many of us have experienced. And I realize it's something about which two writers I personally admire have had a good deal to say, not only that icon of French flâneurs, the surrealist Louis Aragon in his dreamily meditative volume Le Paysan de Paris, but also the acknowledged master of the metaphysical itself, the Argentine wizard Borges, with the same sort of experience often happening to him as well, probed in a poem like "Street with a Pink Corner Store" or the haunting essay that confronts the phenomenon head-on and analyzes it fully, "A New Refutation of Time." [End Page 70]
All of which I'll get to in a bit, but first maybe at least some filling-in is needed concerning my sadnesses that summer of 2011.
Truth of the matter is, I'd been outright lucky enough to receive from my university in Texas, where I teach creative writing, a grant to turn a short story of mine—a piece from a literary magazine and set in Paris— into something longer. The project would have me spending the summer in Paris. I would do the writing there and also research in more detail the actual setting of the scenes in the narrative.
Having taught in Paris on exchange several times over the years, I had a number of friends in the city, and they all contributed...