An evening in Paris, alone, a weeknight in the 12th just north of le Parc de Bercy. I'd just taken the route 27 out there, having developed as much an affinity for Paris' world-class bus system as their world-class metro. I preferred the buses because you could look outside. They linked the city in ways the subways couldn't.
Was this days before the infamous 2015 attacks, or right after? I'm surprised I no longer know. Paris has always been a city pregnant with possibility, whose silences contain the multitudes of history, a city where the present moment is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the density of its past. The bombings and shootings of that week overwhelm my understanding not just of the empty days afterward, but also the lost innocence just prior.
Enough time had elapsed since any urban catastrophe that we went about life with careless ease, the beautiful ease of heedless youth; we seem to alternate throughout life, oscillating between 1) periods of perspective better described as youthful abandon, regardless of our age, and 2) a certain sober melancholy. Large cities behave the same, and the transitions are instigated by moments of seismic comedy or tragedy.
Melancholy, Hugo wrote,* is the happiness of being sad. It is impossible for me to recall the days leading up to the attacks in any other light. They may have been days of careless ease and youthful abandon; I'm sure they were. But I will never remember them that way, unless it is to remember the frailty of happiness before the fall, before it knows how hard it needs to work to stay alive.
The Cinémathèque française was doing a comprehensive retrospective on Martin Scorsese, showing all of his work at their vaunted theatre, and most of it projected on film (it's from a screening of a pristine 35mm print of Bringing Out the Dead** that I became that film's one adoring fan!). Naturally I was there almost every night.
This evening I was nearby at a Chinese restaurant just north of the Cinematheque. I've been to China, but the best Chinese food I've had has actually been in Paris. They have some killer spots there. This wasn't one of them. It was the Parisian equivalent of Nasai Teriyaki, if there can be such a thing, but I didn't care.
Doesn't getting dinner before a movie carry a sense of urgency? You're alone, in love with cinema, about to see a classic film you'll never see in a theatre again, and you want to be fully awake for it, fully present. You need food. You got there too late for a decent meal because you're cheap and you took the bus, and you don't care what food it is as long as it isn't McDonald's. This Chinese hole in the wall was just the ticket.
I ordered in clumsy French. You have to speak French in France. It doesn't matter if you're terrible at it; you respect them more by trying their language then by continuing a mastery of your own. Contrary to the stereotype, no person in Paris was rude to tourist me, and I'm convinced it was because I always tried. I ordered to go because I wanted to eat outside. I asked them which meal could be made the fastest, and the middle-aged woman at the counter was accommodating as I embarrassed myself linguistically.
Only one other party was in the place: two thirty- or forty-something men seated near the door, close to me. As much as Parisians can be, they were unglamorous, genuine in their plain attire and unshowy character. I couldn't divine their relationship. Friends perhaps, or lovers, or colleagues; in any event definitely long acquainted, comfortable with sharing silence. You only go to cheap Chinese with someone you know well.
When my meal came, I asked in my clumsy French if she had chopsticks. My family is Korean: who am I to eat noodles with a fork? It'd just be wrong. I had to ask. She obliged.
They could hear me, the two men. They heard my terrible French when I came in, they listened as I'd blundered through ordering, and now they ate silently as I mangled my request for chopsticks. Avez-vous des baguettes?
Then the one fellow said quietly, amiably, to his partner:
They'll never know they made my night. I smiled to myself. They didn't care about my language abilities at all. They saw me rather for what I did. I needed to eat with chopsticks, and that struck them for some reason. The last thing I felt in there was elegant. They made me feel better.
Was it before the attacks, or after? Years later this is the question I get stuck on. They say what you lose first of memory are timelines. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps melancholy encapsulates the whole of existence. Whether those two men were enjoying each other's company on a night before the fall, or in the tough days of after, there is something endearing to me about their unsophisticated and quiet affection for a simple night out. Unpretentious food, together, shared and enjoyed. There's not enough time to make fun of people; only to appreciate them.
Life is not easy. They were both old enough to know.
You do the best you can.
*"La mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste." From his 1866 Les Travailleurs de la Mer, translated into English as Toilers of the Sea in 1888.
**This 1999 Martin Scorsese picture the only film I've seen that truly understands what it means to be a bus driver– especially a bus driver at night. You have to be crazy to do it, first of all. You have to care in a way that still protects your soul. That involves a certain amount of insanity. And you can't be God, fixing everything; at some point you have to recognize that your role is to simply bear witness. To simply be there. That is enough, and it can mean a lot to people.