We went today to Chinatown, walking one kilometer to Les Gobelins métro station and taking the train from there to Porte d’Ivry. The air was cold and fresh, the sky blue. As we made our way east on Boulevard Arago — broad, smoothly paved, and lined with trees like so many Parisian boulevards — I felt an unexpected echo of my college days, walking between similarly cream-toned buildings in the equally sparsely populated clearness of a Berkeley morning. Erik didn’t feel it, and after a moment I no longer did either. I often get these little overlaps of sensory memory as we travel: a corner of London suddenly recalling Hong Kong, a whiff of ground coffee making our Paris fridge smell like the Toronto kitchen cupboards. Frequently the resemblance between the two places is apparent to no one but myself, being a similarity of feeling, not fact — and elusive, ephemeral feeling at that. Maybe it’s not even the places I remember, but particular combinations of sensation and emotion, and it’s the random recurrence of these combinations that carries me back to other times and other locations.
We took seats on the métro opposite a petite woman in a trim belted black-and-white tweed coat and neat black microfiber gloves trimmed with perforated leather. The seats were quite close, but she fixed alert eyes just beyond us, this polite averted gaze generating as much comfortable distance as if she’d pulled her chair farther back. Thus protected from awkward intimacy, I studied her instead. She wasn’t young, but had a gamine quality nonetheless, large lined dark eyes framed by a fringe the color of wet slate and topped with an impeccable pale-oatmeal beret. When she left the métro just steps in front of us, I noticed the surface of her coat was fuzzed with wear. I had been going to murmur to Erik, “She’s very well dressed,” before I realized she wasn’t particularly. But she had an air. I think I’d know her if I saw her again.
It was as we were exiting Porte d’Ivry station that I realized what makes Paris so easeful for me, and why I was always so tired in Istanbul. In the uncrowded métro station, on the spacious sidewalks, and everywhere we have gone so far in the city, there have been moments when I could forget my foreignness, when I could imagine slipping unnoticed into the flow of Parisian life. I never felt that in Istanbul; even when I got comfortable, I was always aware of being alien. It was wearying, like walking upstream, even when the current is gentle. I don’t know if it is just the language barrier. I don’t think so.
The Chinatown in Paris’s 13th arrondissement is, as far as I can tell, more Vietnamese than Chinese, which makes perfect sense. We saw some sidewalk vendors selling cakes made with pandan, and for lunch we had phở and bánh xèo. Euros make everything expensive. But the food was good.
It comforts me to eat in Asian restaurants abroad. After all, phở is still phở even if the rest of my ordering has to be done in French; the same went for pad see ew in Iceland, and katsudon in Istanbul!
After we ate, we visited a supermarket and bought sesame oil, cilantro, fresh ginger, noodles, and jasmine rice. I have plans to steam a fish later in the week (probably on Thursday, after I visit the fishmongers at the local marché).
We walked home after that, passing by a park with ping-pong tables, Place d’Italie, and the Manufacture des Gobelins. Along the way I stopped at every hair salon to check prices — I badly need a trim, though it will be an interesting adventure to communicate my needs en Français! We also popped into one of the numerous boulangerie-pâtisseries for a loaf of bread and a bun.
At home I called my dad to wish him happy birthday, and did some email catch-up and some more travel planning. I think we are going to Kyoto in March… which will, I am sure, be even more of a linguistic challenge than getting a haircut in Paris. In the evening Erik had a phone meeting, and then we reheated leftovers for dinner: smoked sausage and some lentils I cooked yesterday, and the bread from the boulangerie.
Not a very remarkable day, perhaps, but given the setting, exciting enough. Our six months’ experience with foreignness still hasn’t entirely erased my nervousness about interactions in other countries, so successfully accomplishing our small daily tasks — navigating the métro, ordering food, reading signs and labels and websites, speaking to the boulanger — always feels like a triumph.