I like to pretend that I can remember the place where I began.
A quarter past midnight, curtains fluttered in the breeze. The air flowed through open iron windowpanes, which lined the walls of a small hospital room where my mother lay. On a tiny wheeled bed, she was surrounded by washed-out wallpaper and frantic French chatter. My father sat at her side.
I was born in the Clinique du Belvédère in the midst of a late-July night about nineteen years ago. From there, my two American expatriate parents took me home to an apartment above a petite chocolate shop on Rue du Longchamp in Paris, where I lived for my first two years.
Not much remains from my time there. I was never a French citizen, nor have I any memories from that young age. While I learned to speak a curious mix of my parents’ English and my caretaker’s French, the latter quickly faded from my vocabulary when we moved back to the States.
I returned to Paris this summer to reclaim that lost language, but also to rediscover a part of me that I feel I’ve never had the chance to truly know.
My Paris years seem almost imaginary to me, like listening to a story I’ve heard but never actually experienced. I’ve concocted artificial memories of what they must have been like – how it might have felt to be introduced to the world through what now seems like such a foreign lens. It bothers me not to be able to truly recall.
I understand that it’s normal not to remember the first few years of life. But sometimes that bothers me. I’ve always considered myself a product of the people and places closest to me. My taste in music, the way I dress, the tinted lenses through which I view the world – everything that makes up “me” bears the stamp of some influence that I’ve encountered and interacted with over time, even those I can’t remember.
So I have to imagine that, surely, this was still true in my first months in Paris. Although I was just an infant, although I wasn’t up and about, sitting in side-street cafés or attending school, and although I can’t remember it, I was there – in my most authentic form, breathing French air, riding in the stroller down narrow streets, taking it all in.
Indeed, those moments – at birth and following – shape us more fundamentally than any of periods that come after. They imprint themselves onto the purest, untouched version of our identities; they are the “Big Bangs” of our personal universes, and the first notes that tune our life-long songs. Surely then, there’s a part of me in Paris.
When I returned to the city last May, I expected to find it – whatever “it” was. In addition to the French I had lost since leaving this capital of cigarettes, baguettes, and street songs, I thought I might discover something that would awaken a latent characteristic, some part of me that could trace its way back to this special place. Part of me would come alive when complemented by its my original backdrop – like a painting that pops when bordered by its original frame.
But it was clear to me on my first morning there, as I stepped foot on the Metro line packed with silent, stiff-suited Frenchmen and lanky teens, that any such self-discovery would not come instantly. Instead of sinking back into the place I first called home, I felt like I stood out. The environment repelled me; I wore different clothes, had trouble communicating, and was disoriented in almost every sense.
The train car pulled forward from the station. I wondered — sitting smushed in the cologne-filled cabin — whether I would feel any closer to this place at the end of my five weeks than I felt then. I started to doubt it. And soon, as the mornings passed, I even started to forget that I anticipated any revelation. Rather than feeling at home, I felt deeply homesick.
I did try to connect with Paris, and in many ways I succeeded. I had coffee with my old caretaker, who described to me how we spent the days we shared together. I bought chocolates at the shop below my old apartment and spoke to the owner about how the street had changed. I shopped for groceries at the market that my mom and dad used to peruse with me on their shoulders. It was refreshing to see and hear and interact with the subjects of so many family stories, an exciting tour through the monuments of my personal history. By the time it was over, I surely knew my city better than I had before.
But the question of “me” still remained, and it grew more puzzling. Instead of parting the city more secure in my past, I left more confused. More than ever before, I wondered: Which parts of me – if any at all – were true remnants of my Paris past? If there was nothing, was it because my perception of place’s importance in shaping people was inaccurate? Or was it simply that my time here was too far back – too early in life – to resurge now in any recognizable way? The only truth I stumbled upon seemed to be the impossibility of resolving mysteries of early youth.
There’s no honest answer, just as there’s no true way for us to revisit ourselves in the past. Our authentic selves are protected by an impassible void of memory. And while, of course, it can be hard to wrap our minds around such uncertainty, I learned that we have no choice other than to embrace the unknown inside ourselves — and leave the rest up to wonder.