Despite now having an extremely busy jammed into the gap that separates my present self from my sabbatical self, France remains with me in powerful, often disconcerting ways. Some days, it washes over my mind in rich colours and textures, like a quilt that’s both exotic and familiar all at once. At other moments, it almost feels like what I imagine grief must feel like.
We’re into the one-year-since crawl, now; each week, I can check in with my memories, to evoke whatever I was doing one year ago: trying to get a French cell phone account; walking my five-year-old son (?!?) to the first day of kindergarten; catching pneumonia in the Catacombs of Paris. Each instant flashes, freeze-frame, but then the image quivers and skips like a projector reel on the fritz. How do I feel about having lived all that life? Did it change me, or am I passively watching it in re-runs out of boredom?
The French language gets tricksy when it comes to issues of memory. The most common phrase for “I remember” is je me souviens — you’ve seen it, perhaps, on license plates. It’s a reflexive verb (that’s the me part), so literally it means, “I remember myself,” though a less pedantic take would be, “I remind myself.” The French understand memory to be a circuitous, internal process, and indeed it does feel both reflective and self-perpetuating. I don’t necessarily want to think about hitting my head on a piece of playground equipment in Square Dutilleul, or about the photo shrine to the dead young skateboarder set up on the outer wall of Lille’s cathedral, or about all the dogshit (sooooo…much…dogshit…). Yet I’m clearly the only one responsible for sustaining all those memories.
Or am I? The French phrase for “I miss you” is also reflexive in its construction, yet it flips the agency around: Tu me manques literally means “You miss me,” but the sense of it is, “You create a gap within me.” How romantic.
But that really is the feeling of it, now — these weird aching flashes of memory feel like an assault from Lille itself, as though it somehow had the power to reach around the globe and forward in time, to pull me back towards it. Staggering up two flights of stairs, barely able to breathe; holding a bag so my child could vomit on a mountainous bus ride; these memories make sense to come at me as stabs, or itchy scars. But why do I get the same unpleasant feeling when I suddenly flash back to, say, my kid falling asleep on my shoulder during Act Two of The Magic Flute? Or playing D&D in French, or eating lunch with my girlfriend in a Parisian park? Those are good memories; it shouldn’t hurt to recall them.
This past year, I’ve have a lot of run-ins with replicas. First, there was Bruges, billed as an authentic medieval town, but actually a 200-year-old slum restored to 1,000-year appearances. Then the caves at Chauvet, which invite the public to view a faithful representation of the 35,000-year-old art in that other cave just down the road. And finally, there’s Louisbourg, rebuilt in the 1960s on the exact spot where it was demolished in the 1750s.
I mention these simulacra because my reactions to them are strikingly similar to the mixed feelings that now accompany my memories of France. It’s complex, to appreciate an environment that seems authentically ancient, yet you know it’s fake, and yet the fakery itself is stunning in a different way.
Those memories — they were all genuine experiences, of course, and they came invested with a higher-than-average dose of joy and sorrow, anxiety and wonder, confusion and contentment. Now, bubbling up like trauma, they still retain the patina, the simulation of those feelings. I know that the feelings no longer need apply, and that it’s strange to cling to them, especially when they hurt. Yet, in the same way, I can be impressed by a recreation of history — this time, the one inside my mind.
It’s time to go to sleep. When you awake, ten years have passed. You haven’t even organized the pictures from your trip to Italy. Where would you find the forgotten time? Pickled in a jar on your kitchen counter? What should you do with the pictures of tainted memories? Books you never read. Postcards from faraway friends you never answered. A homemade apple pie you meant to bake one day. You open an old shoe box under your bed and out fly dusty moments of your life you never meant to keep. In ten more years these moments will grow moss and give you a soft bed. There are no answers. Just sleep.
— Chiori Miyagawa, “Yesterday’s Window”