When I told my mom I’d decided to leave Paris and by extension the Louvre, the Canal St. Martin, the Marais, the amazing Chinese place with one-euro appetizers (carmelized lotus root! spicy green beans!) and move back to damp Normandy, she was not convinced.
“Why would you want to leave Paris?” she asked, as though she wasn’t quite sure I really understood what ‘Paris’ meant. (And in her defense, to my mom Paris means some pretty amazing things—hot espresso and cold rosé, picnics, lunch on the balcony, wandering streets at night looking at apartment ceilings, wondering what the people inside are like, what they’re eating and how they wound up living with a fresco).
Paris means a lot of things to a lot of people. To put it into a cliché (which is about the only thing that can hold it), Paris is an enigma. Paris is so much larger than yourself it feels like a spaceship on which you’ve happened to catch a ride. You’re headed where it’s headed, wherever that is. You have become part of the intergalactic breezeway that is a large city.
Paris is so big that you 100% believe you are not master of your own destiny. When you walk onto a street that’s been renamed forty-five times over the past, ah, thousand years and ninety-five people have died by knifing next to that restaurant dumpster and ten people walk past you in fifteen seconds, each of them on their way to something completely unrelated to what you’re doing and yet cosmically linked because now you’ve noticed them and now they’re part of the something that you’re doing, which is standing on a street corner looking at them—yeah, sure, you know absolutely that none of us is master of their own destiny.
I don’t know about you, but all my friends are itchy. That is, the ones who aren’t busy taking over the world are itchy. They’re moving, they’re thinking about moving, they’re getting into that period where the job they went to university for has wound up being their private idea of soft-core hell and their relationship has sidled from the back burner to the serving dish…they’re itchy. No dramatic decisions, of course. Nothing that has to be dealt with right now, this second.
And there’s nothing worse than being itchy, either. Being itchy isn’t uncomfortable enough to complain about. Even mentioning it makes you feel repulsively self-indulgent. Yesterday, I found out that a farmer I met last weekend got run over by his tractor and died. Itchy is nothing, itchy is just a sweater with too much wool.
But, say you get itchy enough to leave a town that is supposed to be the center of everything (for someone your age, for people who think this or that, for that guy over there, for people who care about yada-yah, for people who aren’t mostly-dead like the rest of them, for you). And you find yourself sitting in a little town in Normandy, listening to the church bells on the hour, watching your new neighbor and her dog (who also looks like he would rather eat a book than read it), filling out unemployment paperwork, having lunch with the cobbler who works downstairs (your hallway smells like superglue), making dinner with lots of butter because that’s what Normans have always done, always will do…
And you look back on the itch. You wave hello as you watch it slide around other people. You watch them wiggle. You wonder what they’ll do about it. Maybe the itch is a bigger deal than you thought. Maybe there’s no bigger. Maybe it’s bigger than death because death only stops you, it doesn’t move you. Maybe the itch is what grows when irony has demolished everything else (one can’t live on irony alone).
It’s hard to leave behind, this irony thing—isn’t it? Because what would happen? What comes after the itch?