Going back to a place I’ve left isn’t one of my favorite things to do. I always feel like a trespasser, intruding into a life I’m not a part of anymore. Once I leave, I like to be gone for good. Of course, this can’t be true for New York, since I want to go back one of these days; but I’m not ready to go back quite yet. The finality of my move away—with the boxes and the cut ties and the UHaul—made it temporarily permanent. I left, and I need to be gone for a little while.
This weekend, I went back to Paris for the first time in three years. In that time, I was certain my memories had made things different from what they actually are. I couldn’t even remember the name of my favorite used bookstore, and my internet searches suggested that the store had closed or moved. As this visit approached, I didn’t think I'd recognize the city at all—it would, surely, be too different. I knew I'd be just another American tourist, but I was afraid I'd also feel like one.
Paris had changed—but it was still a city I knew. My traveling companion, Rachael, and I ate at my favorite restaurant, where all my favorite things were still on the menu; we spent a few hours in my favorite park, where children were still pushing small sailboats around a pond with wooden sticks. We visited some museums and walked miles through the city. It was uncomfortably hot—air-conditioning is still hard to come by—but the cafes, shops, streets, sights, and atmosphere were the same as ever. My favorite used bookstore turned out to be right around the corner from our hotel: “I think it was down this way,” I said, and then, suddenly, there it was.
This time, I felt braver trying to speak French, even successfully explaining to a newspaper vendor the kind of phone card I wanted to buy, and requesting a different type than the one he offered. It was such a small, inconsequential victory. But I felt capable, part of the place—as much as it’s possible for an American tourist in Paris to feel. And on Sunday, when we took a taxi home from the Barcelona airport, I gave the driver directions in Spanish, all of which I’ve learned over the past two weeks. Another small, very small, victory. But in another way, not small: I can get places, ask for things, make myself understood (even if my sentences are incomplete and my pronunciation chronically imperfect). It’s a nice thing to feel and to know.