My most vivid memory of Paris is running.
I woke by my watch’s beeping at 4:45 am for a 6:40 flight to London, the city I where would end my European summer. In a blurry, anxious haze I gathered my bags and squeezed my luggage down narrow hotel stairs that creaked with antiquity then said a thank-you-goodbye to the receptionist in the head-nod body language that defies barrier.
My walk to the Metro was a long, quiet one in the cool emptiness of early-morning summer. My watch showed 5:10, 20 minutes early for the last train that would land me in the airport on time. I pulled a few coins from my pocket and triple-checked my math against the sign above the tellers’ desk: two euros short. Repeated swipes of my American debit card in the station’s cash dispenser brought up an error notice. The clerks graciously informed me in rough “Frenglish” they couldn’t spot me any change, didn’t know where the nearest ATM was, and couldn’t, per regulation, watch my luggage.
Shouldering my grossly overstuffed canvas suitcase and bulging laptop bag, I ran wildly through the quaint streets of a city tourists visit to browse with slow, savory steps. I huffed along several blocks one direction, shifting my suitcase (roughly the size, shape, and weight of a human child) from shoulder to shoulder, then doubled back until I found an ATM that could read my card and then pounded 10 or so blocks back in enough time to hear train brakes crescendo in the tunnel as I breathlessly handed over cash for my ticket.
Aside from flight, I remember little else of my summer abroad other than unremarkable minutiae. The Eiffel Tower is a vague image; I can’t even say what metallic shade of gray it was (was it gray? brass? charcoal?). I can’t name a single painting from Musée d’Orsay, recall a stained-glass portrait adorning Notre Dame, or confirm that Notre Dame even has stained glass windows. More elegant than La Ville-Lumière at night was running through it in a surprise afternoon shower. Richer than its coffee was smoking a cheap cigar watching street dancers. More enriching than its art was the unpacked carnival I perused outside the Louvre.
Before that summer, I believed that to tour a foreign place is to observe firsthand the quintessential features that define it, as if to prove that a crêpe tastes a certain way in Paris vs. Boston, that Europeans do fart in public without so much as an Entschuldigen Sie mich, that Big Ben is indeed rather large.
Those are the types of experiences I set out to prove in Paris and elsewhere, but in the years since, thinking back on my time there, what come to mind are the distinct feelings of just being present in strange places, feelings I could never replicate anywhere else. It’s a sensation that’s both denotatively nostalgic (“pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past”) and anti-nostalgic (“the state of being homesick”).
There’s a French word I think describes this feeling more accurately: dépaysement, or “the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.” It’s an emotion only describable as its more-familiar inverse, one that can be both alienating and, for some, comforting for it.
I think in every tourist there’s a kind of quaint ignorance we’re constantly searching to remedy yet always cultivating because it provokes pursuit of remedy. This is what now draws me to leave what I know in my home and become a tourist in someone else’s, to thread myself into it as if I lived there and exist as I’ve always existed but somehow as a separate person who can only exist in that specific place, to seek out the opportunity posed by feeling lost in a temporary home beyond my own and be whoever that person is, there.
About the Author
Bryce is a freelance writer and MFA student at NC State. His work can be found in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Normal School, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Your Impossible Voice, etc., and he serves on staff for Raleigh Review and BULL: Men’s Fiction..
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