Places like people

When I was 14 my grandmother took me to Paris for the first time. We went on a bus package tour which I found embarrassing. I wanted to get away from all the retired German people as fast as possible but I was also thrilled, just thrilled to be there. I distinctly remember our first meal in Paris. We sat outside and ate omelettes with fresh corn in the salad and tomatoes. The omelettes were tender and cheesy and herby and delicate and delicious. I was struck by how elegant the servers were even though we sat on a sidewalk next to a busy road in a nondescript neighborhood.

At some point on our weekend trip we ended up behind Notre-Dame. I leaned on the stone wall looking over the Seine, or the little branch of it on the side, and I said to myself, I am going to live here. I knew it. It was love at first sight when I was very young. I moved there when I was old enough and stayed and stayed.

I always think of Paris as an old boyfriend, a wild exhausting one but one I still love. When I go back it is all so familiar that sometimes the déjà vu hurts my head. I spent most of my years in Paris doing odd jobs all over the place, living in different neighborhoods and either riding my bike or riding on the backs of motorcycles. I traversed that city in every direction and in every mood and every time of day. When I go back sometimes a street corner comes back with the vengeance of a Godzilla Proustian madeleine. I just have to stop because my body, still on a bike but much older, curves to take a street on which lived a person I loved for a moment decades ago and the strength of the memory, the body memory, moving down that street, squeezes my lungs. Paris, unlike say Southern California, doesn’t change. The streets of memory are the literal streets, the addresses are the same, some of the buses, and even the movie theaters.

We still love each other Paris and I, but that was then and this is now.

I also spent years in Philadelphia who I like to think of as the dangerous friend from another planet. We never really got along but I learned a lot while I was there. I think of La Mariée mise à nu in the museum which I visited so often because it was free for students. That artwork bothers me so much but I kept going back.

Why, Marcel, why?

Philadelphia in the 1990s was angry, dangerous, dilapidated and such a different America than the sunny constantly improving notions of the west coast. I rode my bike everywhere and found whole neighborhoods flooded, permanently it seemed, not because of rain. I rode across crumbling bridges and dodged dangerously irate cab and bus drivers. For years I had bad dreams, night terrors, of riding home in the cold and the rain through very dark streets, dangerously laced with slick trolley tracks. Everyone I knew had been held up at gunpoint at least once and I thought if I just rode fast enough home I would be safe but it was cold and cobbled and I never knew the best route. That feeling of dark urban dread stuck in my bones for years even though nothing bad, unless you count graduate school, ever happened to me there. I left as soon as I possibly could and have only been back twice in 20 years. We aren’t really friends but I hear he’s been to rehab and he’s changed a lot so maybe I should give him another chance. But maybe gentrification has just made him like everyone else.

San Francisco is like family to me. Some of my favorite people live in the Bay Area and I have been spending time there since I was toddler. She isn’t the person I used to know but I still love her. We are connected through our families, our history and I always feel at home in San Francisco. I love a San Francisco morning with extra strong coffee and some yummy pastry: maybe Japanese, maybe Korean, maybe Basque, maybe Armenian or Italian. We don’t have a very complicated history but it is hard to see her change over the years and lose the battle against capitalism. I lived there with many different roommates in drafty apartments but there was a tenderness and a level of acceptance that feels like family to me. My friends tell me she has gotten harder and maybe even a little meaner with time but I still love her for who she was to me.

I started drafting this and the list just kept getting longer. Rochester, NY – a bad relationship that I stayed in too long because I thought I should. New York City – the great love affair that never really took off but we still like to meet up for fancy drinks now and then. Santa Barbara – oh so much fun and felt so good but like one of those guys that is really good looking but kind of boring to talk to and so it can’t last. And then he goes and gets a lot of plastic surgery (rampant development) and you can’t even find the place you used to live. Portland, Oregon – my good friend’s dweeby younger brother who is a super-hip dude now but I still remember him farting and picking his nose. Geneva, Switzerland – such a good place to leave from, a friend I used so that I could go snowboarding, whitewater kayaking, daydreaming about literary aesthetics but I didn’t really like the friend all that much. She was a little uptight and boring but she was so well-connected. Ashland, Oregon – all groups. The first time in my life I was a part of so many groups – a mom, a soccer mom, a teacher, a staff member, a union member, a neighborhood member, a book club member, a French club member, a dance community member. What is it like to have a relationship with a group? I’m not sure I mastered this, but Ashland taught me so much, and really for the first time in my life, about community, and it’s so tiny that it’s kind of like a big group of people instead of a city.

And all of this was just meant to be an introduction to Toulouse! Every now and then we go out of town and when we come back I feel such a warm feeling. This city feels like a good friend. Our landlords are delightful, our new/old friends here are such lovely friends, and I feel so fond of so many people. I spontaneously hug random people in yoga class. The guys in my Spanish class regularly come with travel and book suggestions for me. We live across the street from a school for blind people and we see people with canes and wheelchairs navigating all over this town. Every day I appreciate people being polite, patient and relatively gentle with each other. I find that many Toulousains are mostly calm and tolerant, just the kind of friend we all want. It’s most enjoyable to feel this way about a city. It’s not the love affair of Paris or the constantly destabilizing adventure of Philly or the unattainable glittering appeal of New York City or the belonging to groups, but it’s where we landed and I’m so thankful for this feeling.

My son riding…
The simple pleasures of fresh baguettes and water nearby.
Fall prettiness.
Tiny streets, markings for bikes, and people walking home from the market with lots of leeks!

And you, do you think of places as people?

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