Lieux de mémoire

I’m sitting in one of my favorite Midtown East cafes drinking a cappuccino and munching like a dainty fiend on pain au chocolat, with my book-of-the-month Paris: The Biography of a City sprawled out on the reclaimed wood tabletop. Etienne, the French owner, is buzzing about somewhere in the background. Every time he sees me, he makes a point to come over, shake my hand, and ask me how I’m doing. He’s about the closest to Europe I’ve been since I’d bid adieu back in the summer of 2012. I haven’t been to Paris since Summer 2010, but how many people can count going abroad once in their lifetime, let alone multiple times over the short course of four years in college like I have? My nostalgia and hollow longing is such an embarrassment of privilege that it sickens me, but I can’t help it.

I have a friend here in my new town, the magnificent and grandiose New York City, who finds it intolerable that I love Europe (and, consequently, Europeans) as much as I do. “Uh-mehr-ih-ca!” He squishes my cheeks in his hands and yells the syllables into my face. Mind you, there’s nothing particularly xenophobic about him—he’s a well-traveled and fiercely intelligent man—but he doesn’t understand my feeling of displacement…after two years.

So, I haven’t written on this blog in ages for a number of poor excuses: December 2013, after months of exile and dejection in employment limbo—hacky-sacked between Portland, Maine, D.C., and California, I landed a job in New York and moved (back) across the country in a single weekend. After two weeks of not knowing what the hell I was doing in my new job and being weary of whether or not this was all actually real, I went home for Christmas, snuggled with my nephews, and then came back on New Year’s Day. February 1st, I signed my first New York lease and moved into my new BedStuy, Brooklyn apartment, and for a third of the month, I fought some eight rounds with my landlord over trivial things like, I don’t know, lack of plumbing. I’ve been rooting myself—slowly but surely—into the Empire earth and letting my new life soak into my skin. 7am call-time, and 6pm punch-out. I also write for a company called Imperative, perhaps the first humancentered career development platform, in my free time. So, when I’m not in my Midtown East art-deco tower juggling finance giants, I’m chasing stories of people who’ve realized their purpose and successfully engineered their happiness around it. I document my mentors.

I love New York. I love how it spoils me with diversity and richness. I love Ess-A-Bagel and Dough donuts and keeping my window open at night to fall asleep to the sweet serenade of Usher’s Confessions album, blasted from the apartment two floors below. I have to pinch myself to believe that, after so long waiting for the universe to give meaning to my life with the blessed gift of a ‘real’ job, I actually did it. I made it. To New York.

I took the same friend out to dinner at our local watering hole last night (a British, Tottenham Hotspur-supporting pub), and he echoed the same epiphany: “Can you believe that we’re adults and this is our life?” Nope. Not in the least, Dan.

Yet, all the way in the back of my mind, among the cobwebbed filing cabinets and dusty broom closets of my memory, I wonder. I wonder when I’ll go back.

Since officially opening shop in New York City, I’ve averaged a book a month on my subway commute. My February book was The Book Thief, in all its heartbreaking beauty. The book that means everything to me. Now, my March pick (and the inspiration behind this post) is the aforementioned history of Paris. In the Introduction, author Colin Jones sites historian Pierre Nora’s term ‘lieu de mémoire’ (‘site of memory’), “an institution or location on which the historical consciousness of the French people has focused and which over time has received incremental incrustations of collective memory.” To amend this definition to how it pertains to myself and this post, I digest the term as a place that exists so vividly in my memory that it is absorbed into my history of self, regardless of whether or not what I remember reflects reality. For example, how Europe exists for me is only fragments of my memory of it, and its history is only confined to my recollection, what I personally experienced. And it’s not spread out to a collective mass of people; it’s just me, spread out over a handful of places across the continent. And I’ll expand the term further in that it’s not just where I’ve physically been but also the places I’ve only ever dreamt about going to: Greece, for example. Jones makes a point that Paris is a city such that people don’t have to visit it to experience it, for it has existed for so long in their dreams from mass-produced photos and movies and stories; the cultural expectation feeds the imagination and builds the city for them before they ever visit it themselves, if they ever do.

So many places are like that for me: places I’ve already been and places I have yet to go. Part of the lingering dregs of displacement I feel, even here, in a capital of the world, is that, like Etienne buzzing around in the background of the cafe, in the back of my mind, I’m still feeding the memory of those places. I feed their insatiable hunger until I can go back and glut myself on those places in person. Again, an embarrassment of privilege. I should count myself lucky that travel is even a viable goal for me.

So, an update on the Expat Californian trying to satisfy her first-world “needs”: I’m going to the Women’s Travel Fest this weekend, with one Samantha Brown of the Travel Channel (my career idol for as long as I can recall) as one of the decorated speakers. I also signed up for the workshop to learn how to make my work digital and travel, or better yet, to travel for a living. New notes and updates to follow post-weekend…

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