Autumn, not Spring, is the time for rejuvenation. Spring breeds dread. Daffodils always seem to spend more time dying then growing. April in Paris is not something you want to see. As a phrase, it is tender and pink and fresh but in a grotesquely naive way. Autumn in Paris are darker words and yet more glowing, more night sky but more lights too. And the s at the end is champagne hiss and a held-tight illicit kiss. You have no desire to see April in Paris but then you have no desire to do anything in April, usually. And here you are again, in Autumn, in Paris.
On the bus to Port Maillot you finish Between Dog and Wolf. Elske Rahill is in France somewhere too according to the page before the story. Somewhere along the trip you read: “I think, well, thanks, but what a waste, what good is all this to me when you will be dead soon anyway? Leaving only us kids with all our potential, all our future, all our waste of beauty.”
You go straight to Châtelet. Châtelet is home. Here is where you worked and lived and made friends and loved and drank. Châtelet is Anglophone bars and sex shops and kebabs. It has character and aggression and vibrancy. Tourists don’t come to take pictures of Rue Saint-Denis but it is the spiritual home for a certain type of expat.
Ninety years ago, they wrote in Paris on Parade that “it has therefore become the fashion with the frivolous after a night spent with the gaieties and champagne of Montmartre to repair to Les Halles at dawn.” You read that long after you had done the very same thing and you found it comforting to know that others have seen the deep worth of this quartier of neon and prostitutes and comfort food.
You can’t help but feel the empty sense of joy every subsequent generation has felt when they find they have something in common with the twenties. Châtelet back then was where they ended up. But it’s where you started. Progress.
You walk the length of Rue Saint-Denis and then realise that you don’t really have anywhere else to go. The problem with life in Châtelet is that you don’t get out. It’s the centre of the city, the plughole that sucks you down into the eye of the storm. You find yourself safe as long as you don’t try and escape the whirlwind of alcohol and easy living. You will see more of Paris in these three days than you did in an entire summer fifteen months ago.
You go to Au Père Tranquil, less than one hundred metres from where you used to work. There are no toilet seats and the bathroom smells aggressively of pine. It’s casual and aware of its surroundings. You’ve brought work with you this time. The paper goes to print this weekend. You’re interviewing Dylan Brennan on his first collection of poetry the day after you get back. You read the pre-print copy he sent you over eggs and bacon and think of questions to ask him.
“The men smoke dried bark and drink/firewater toddy until the waves/come to a halt and limestone sways/instead of the salt horizon.”
“You will soon rebuild the city that by your hands lies ruined.”
You’re sick, make no mistake about it. You had been toying with the idea of a throat infection before you came but you had successfully ignored it until now. But after the early morning flight you are officially ill.
You feel like you’re still on the plane, like you’re still running on the x amount of recycled air that a plane brings up with it and allows you to breathe. It coasts through your sinuses long after you’ve sucked the good out of it. You saw it in yourself in the mirror at Beauvais. Airport and night club mirrors have a way of showing us what’s going on under-skin. You can smell the inside of your nose and it smells like the air at 36,000 feet.
Will Cox arrives. He’s in the process of buying 2,500 sheets of paper and scouting for an old suitcase so he can bring them by bus to London to fold the same amount of Belleville Park Pages. The two of you wander around the Marais with a beautiful American girl he knows, just arrived to Paris. She’s sleeping in Shakespeare and Co, which, by virtue of this, is made romantic again in your eyes, though every impractical. Some present day romance, some non-dust jacket romance.
She leaves and the two of you wander up to Belleville for a view you’ve never seen before from a place you’ve never been. You wonder where this is on the views you’ve taken in from other heights. You have pork and chive dumplings somewhere along Rue de Belleville that make you take back everything you’ve ever said about Chinese food.
Will leaves you and you get lost and wander down (you think) from Belleville to Châtelet. You return to Rue Saint-Denis, back to the Paris you know. You find all the people you knew. You look for the drunk of July 2013 and find it very easily. It hadn’t left, other people had been keeping it warm along Rue des Lombards.
You happily tick the boxes of Châtelet. Jaeger, sambuca, kebabs. But you won’t be snorting Cointreau this trip. No racing Smirnoff Ices against other barmen. You drunkenly congratulate yourself on progress.
You tell an old friend that you used her and her boyfriend’s names for characters in your play. You realise then that you must have started writing it before you left, fifteen months ago. It’s being rehearsed back in Dublin right now. You’re directing, but not from here.
At one point you walk down Boulevard de Sébastopol, in old renewed company, on high, and a thought flicks in that you’d love a fight. A happy fight that you win easily and walk away from. A moral drunken physical victory over something worse than you. You don’t know why this thought occurs or where it recedes to.
Four hours later, drunker and among yourselves, it returns. And on Rue Saint-Denis you have to stand, force yourself, between old and new friends, to stop a fight on the street. Everyone is slowed and hyped by alcohol. It’s ugly and loud and you feel embarrassed for yourself that you felt you wanted something like this earlier. You realise you’re the soberest there. Progress. No one is hurt but you end up on a different couch than you were meant to sleep on.
In the morning everything that was serious is now over and you are now very sick. You walk out of the apartment block somewhere north-east of the Paris you know. There is chaos in your cheeks. You didn’t bring toothpaste but between the pomegranate lip balm and chewing gum you should be fine.
You can’t get in contact with anyone. You forgot to bring your French sim card or an adapter this time. Not progress. You’ve forgotten some French too. Partly, you came to bury the memory of a girl but you find a draft in your phone that you don’t remember writing from last night to call her. Not progress.
You have a nauseating but workable hangover that would have tipped you over the edge three months ago. But you are in a positive headspace and that allowed you to get as drunk as you did. You decide to do some work. You wander around looking for wifi and the last Parisian you.
You find Le Voltigeur by instinct. You remembered it as Le Voltaire or Le Voltairgier (someone who does Voltaire?). You met Derry O’Sullivan here last time. He spoke about years in Paris and old poets. The staff had been rude then too. You want to return to old places like this to find the old you and measure yourself against him.
Last year you read that Fitzgerald considered the young writers who carried notebooks with them at all times and who wrote while out pathetic. That stung you at the time. But then he died an alcoholic at forty-four. You’re back in Paris with your notebook and you’re diabolically hungover but very much alive. You won’t take all your leads from him.
The day before you left you read Barthes’ Le dernier des écrivains heureux, which was written in the time it takes to drink an allongé while laughing. You’re reassured how little work can be put into work as you sit shaking in Le Voltigeur. You scribble pages and pages of this. The table shakes and you use Afternoon of an Author to steady your writing.
You try and find a point, those sharp things, to these pages. Take an epigram from Elske? “And I think for what? What is all this beauty for?” Take one more thing from Scott, a title perhaps? “My Lost City”? “How to Waste Material: A Note on My Generation”? Something anyone said about being young and in Paris?
What does it mean to be either? You think that an absurd and at the same time boring thing to write about. Nobody would read that and rightly so. No one should read it as no one should write it. No one should write or read anything about what it means to be anything.
So you give up on a finding a point. You just keep writing. You decide to offer news. News of Paris – Fifteen Month Ago. That’s what they’ll ask for anyway.
“What news of Paris?” they’ll ask. And they’ll mean “Did you see the hole I left on the fabric of the place?” “Could you see traces of my shadow at Place des Innocents? At Carthage II?” “When you were looking to see if you had changed did you see old me? How was she?”
You revisit old haunts not hoping to see a change in place, or time, or others, least of all in ideas. You hope to better recognise a change in self. To compare the two prints you have made on something stark, in this case Paris.
You wonder if anything that you’ve written so far is news? Should you describe things? Is that news? How is the air in Paris? Beautiful? Grey? Autumnal. November makes grey beautiful. November is a lifestyle choice.
Parisians can walk around with their mouths slightly open and not look stupid. This is something they have over the rest of us. We look brain dead while they look transcendental.
Light bleaches the tops of the buildings, sinks down, the heat presumably stays up there.
This isn’t news. What can you offer that isn’t rudimentary and tiresome? Your personal experience? Yes, if it is primary and given in good faith. You leave Le Voltigeur for new personal experience.
You find a bookshop along Rambuteau that sells Décapage and buy a copy to read Rob Doyle’s new inédite. You have half an unfinished essay on violence and fiction and his Outposts waiting for you at home.
You had intentions of making it to Le Forge or Le 104. You don’t, but you make it to the Pompidou to see Duchamp. The last time you visited had been at night. You scaled the outside to get a better view of your Châtelet and you fell off. To this day it is the most painful thing that has ever happened to you drunk.
This time you pay in and go up the tubed escalator like everyone else to Georges, the cafe on the top floor. You drink a €7 double espresso. Museums always have one very good cafe with very good silver-marked cutlery. You bring some home.
You return to the bar where you used to work and regroup. You’ll drink wine tonight somewhere Frencher: L’art Brut. This is the first time you’ve ordered a drink in French in Châtelet. Progress. You and your friends squeeze out into the night. It’s colder than the summer. You actually checked the weather before you came. Progress. You drink hot chocolate in Les Éditeurs. You’re content.
The reason that you came back was because you thought you had bad memories of Paris. Not enough love, too much alcohol, not enough writing, not enough exploration. You believed that you were coming back fifteen months later to rectify your past. You saw the man who wanders around your Paris memories as lost and you pitied him.
You were coming back to project new memories back onto this body. To re-remember yourself into your own history. To have a Paris that was only ever good. To exhume an old you and excavate his experience and tell him to enjoy his Paris more because he, you, is happy now. You were coming back to see things you had already seen and tell yourself new things about them. To give a past you good news. You were going to tell yourself what it was to be young and in Paris.
You wanted to spend your time fulfilling an unfulfilled memory rather than enjoying your present Paris. But thankfully you failed. You didn’t spend your time with a dead you. You spent it with friends. And you didn’t rewrite memories but you made new ones. You didn’t revisit old haunts and find old ghosts. You saw new life.
You sold yourself short by thinking that you had to come to Paris to gloss your past. If you were happy to come back then that was enough. You need to be very much in the present to be nostalgic and you are both. You had already moved on.
You spent your three days in Paris and in the present. You’re in your historic moment which is all you will ever have, and not for long enough. Don’t spend it chasing it, hounding it back into history, in search of lost time. To spend time backtracking to see if you’ve used it right is an unforgivable waste of the material of life.
You didn’t come back to remember you came to live. Neither Paris nor the present are holding on to your past and neither should you. The old marks you made have faded but you made new ones. There are no more copies of issue 7 of the Belleville Park Pages in the Abbey Book shop with your name on it. But there is this.
You think of everything you know of Paris now as knowledge and not as memories. And knowledge can never be sorrowful or pitied. You’re moving with your historic moment. And if you pity a past you then you’ve made progress. If you have good news for a dead you then you’re moving forward.
You spend so much time hoping to find yourself part of a lost generation. But you cannot find something that is lost, thankfully. Nor should you waste time looking for what you can’t find: lost versions of ourselves or anyone else. Paris is not for the past.
Paris is going on without you. As it should. As you should. As you do.