We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport a couple of days before Christmas. One dog, one infant, nine books on how to get along with the French, and 11 pieces of luggage, three of which had already gone missing. We drove for 90 minutes in heavy traffic, the baby howling, the wife attempting to hide her exposed nursing bosom from the driver, and the dog scratching her bottom across the floor of the minivan. At length we arrived at our new home on the Left Bank, which we’d never actually seen, except in photographs. It was a small cluster of room-size houses in a tiny garden tucked away at the back of a courtyard of an old apartment building. We piled out of the car and rushed to the front door, a small teeming peristaltic bundle of needs and hopes and anticipations. The door failed to open. The key mailed to us by the landlord did not fit the lock.
For the next 30 minutes, we sat in the cold, dark Paris courtyard and waited, mainly because we couldn’t think what else to do. We were being punished for our sins; we had wanted to dance, now we were paying the fiddler. It had been fun, when people asked us where we lived, to say, “Well, that’s hard to say, since at the end of the year we’re moving to Paris.” They were all envious, or pretended to be, which was just as gratifying. For the past six months we had been playing our new role: People Who Are About To Live in Paris. Now here we were, in Paris itself. We knew no one. We spoke so little French that it was better to claim we spoke none. We had no purpose. And that, I should have reminded myself, was the point.
About 18 months ago, my wife, Tabitha, and I were on an airplane when I began to complain about adulthood. One of the many things I dislike about being a grown-up is the compulsion to have a purpose in life. People are forever asking why you are doing whatever you happen to be doing and before long you succumb to the need to supply an answer. The least naturally ambitious people can have ambition thrust upon them in this way. Once you’ve established yourself as a more or less properly functioning adult, it is nearly impossible to just go somewhere and screw off.
Five months pregnant with our first child, Tabitha pointed out that the feeling of being weighed down by adulthood wasn’t likely to improve anytime soon. Parenthood loomed. There was a time when I suspected this wouldn’t have much effect on me. I figured that the chemical rush that attended new motherhood might get me off the hook–that Tabitha would happily embrace all the new unpleasant chores and I’d stop in from time to time to offer advice. She’d do the play by play; I’d do the color commentary. Five months into the pregnancy that illusion had been pretty well shattered by the anecdotal evidence. One friend with a truly amazing gift for getting out of things he did not want to do wrote to describe his own experience of fatherhood. “Remember that life you thought you had?” he wrote. “Guess what. It’s not yours anymore.”
At any rate, since a door in our lives seemed to be closing, we went looking for a window. As we sat on the plane, one thing led to another, and before long we had spread out on our laps the map of the world at the back of the in-flight magazine. We had no idea where we would wind up; we just knew we were going someplace foreign. My vague desire to live in Africa got swapped, unfairly I felt, for my wife’s even vaguer one to live in Asia. Whole continents vanished from our future in an instant. After 40 minutes we had shrunk the world to two cities: Barcelona and Paris. A few days later we were at a dinner party. The man across the table, an old friend, mentioned that his sister had this old, charming place in Paris occupied by tenants she couldn’t stand. There it was: Our bluff was being called. We agreed to rent the place, sight unseen.
Now we are in Paris, in the cold and the dark, homeless and friendless and tongue-tied. Unbelievably, I hear myself asking: Why on earth did we come? Just then an elderly woman hobbles into the cobblestone courtyard and makes for the door nearest ours. Our new French neighbor! A distant memory lifts my spirits.
Fifteen years ago, when I arrived in London, to live outside the United States for the first time in my life, I was fitting the key into my new front door when an elderly woman called to me from the neighboring garden. “My name is Amanda Martin,” she said in an ancient voice, “and I’ll be your friend if you’ll have me.” Just like that, Amanda Martin had taken me into her life; I had a friend. She’d turned 100 that year. The queen had sent her a telegram to congratulate her. When you know someone with that kind of standing in society, you somehow feel you belong, too. Assimilation is just another word for acquiring a bit of the local status.
I eye our new old French neighbor with longing. And even though I know that the moment history looks as if it is repeating itself is exactly the moment it is not, I feel a little leap in my spirits. I walk over, open a door for her, and say bonjour. She doesn’t even look up, just keeps tap-tapping on by with her head down and right into her apartment. As she closes her door, the odor of stove gas wafts into the courtyard. A voice behind me says, “She so old she forgets to turn off her gas burners when she goes out.” I turn around. There stands a young man wearing a black stocking cap, a navy pea coat, and a grim expression. He looks like something dreamed up by Dostoyevsky, yet he sounds perfectly American. He motions to the door closing behind the elderly French woman: “One day she’ll come back here, light a match, and this whole building will be a crater.”
He puts his hand in the pocket of his pea coat. “I have your key,” he says.