- Above the Roofs of Paris, a Non-Memoir
Tout pays où je ne m’ennuie pas est un pays qui ne m’apprend rien. (Any country where I am not bored is a country that teaches me nothing.)—Camus, “La mort dans l’âme” (“Death in the Soul”)
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I’m not sure “bored” is the right translation—s’ennuyer touches on several different moods, and I wonder if English handles well the reflexive verbs. But I think “boredom” means something else to the French, certainly to Camus, different from what it means to us.
I arrived in Paris the summer of ’73, late morning and a cloudless sky, with little money and almost no French, not knowing where I was going to sleep that night. I had no strong reason for being there. I was 20, and like the rest of the United States I was full of anticipation not based on much of anything substantial. [End Page 105]
Why look back at that time now?
I had finished my junior year in college and felt I should learn another language, thinking I might learn it better in place. French because several works engaged me—Camus’s The Fall, for example, for its absolute irony, what that pointed to, for its introspection, an inward cast that threw the outside world into a different light, unrelenting.
The last thing I want to do is write a memoir. I am not a remarkable person and I do not want to be in that position. Nor am I interested in being interesting, least of all to myself. Besides, it’s impossible to get anyone’s attention now. And if I’m supposed to make a confession, what am I supposed to confess, to whom, and why?
The Alliance Française was my first stop from the airport, the state school that teaches its language to the world. I enrolled for classes and at its bulletin boards ran into another student who told me about a hostel across the Seine where I was able to stay a week, having to change rooms twice. My plan was to remain for the summer. I had about enough cash to fund myself if I were careful. I started classes and kept looking for another place to live, beginning my branching out into the streets of Paris, hobbled by my lack of French and sketchy knowledge of the city. The first days were charged with uncertainty and possibilities beyond imagining.
Really those days were a static nothing. Only now do I realize what I felt was exposed. Nothing remarkable happened in the months after. I have nothing exciting to report, nothing that might entice, that might set me off from the crowd who preceded me. But plot works on the assumptions that we have power to act in the world and effect some kind of difference, that action matters, that change is always possible, always worth the while. I gain nothing by trumping up the superficial, and it may be the expectation of plot that I most want to defuse.
At the Alliance Française I ran into a Cuban woman from Michigan who told me about the room she was soon leaving in a house in Arcueil, a commune just south of Paris. I met her there to check it out. It was close to a Métro station and I could afford it. We talked for some time, opening up—travel does that to you. She had just returned from Italy, where she said standing before Michelangelo’s David gave her an orgasm—
If you need sex, watch René Clair’s movie. Better yet, read Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. None of us can top that. [End Page 106]
By the end of the summer I hadn’t learned much French and felt I had accomplished nothing, so I decided to stay. I did find some work that stretched my funds, again from the school bulletin boards, small jobs getting paid to hold conversations in English with French students and employees learning our language, for which there was demand. English had established itself...