The restaurant is small, easy to miss, tucked down a side street in the Latin Quarter. It has been decades since we were last in the city of lovers and Paris wears the silk sheen of spring rain. It is our last night and we’ve had more than enough time to fall in love with this place again. We are no longer 23 and we certainly aren’t backpacking this time. We have a room with slim French doors opening on a partial view of the Pantheon in a stylish little place within walking distance of the Sorbonne.
This Thursday night it’s late, even for Paris. My husband has been conferencing with his office in Boulder, Colorado and it is morning for them. Now, as we settle our damp selves into a small table in a back corner of the almost empty restaurant we wonder aloud if we will be dining alone. I make a mental note that the world seems to be going to bed earlier. All this time I had thought it was a life style peculiar to our little mountain town but here we are in this sophisticated city of cities and where is everyone?
The place serves Middle Eastern food and our being there is mildly embarrassing for us — a compromise. Here, in Paris, awash with cassoulet, what are we doing eating shish kebab and hummus? Blame the office for that. Blame the office and the relentless nature of it’s needs and long fingered demands reaching us even here on the other side of the globe.
We are eating with our fingers. Some other people have joined us to plump out the place and stop the ochre walls from echoing. Eating with your fingers is sensual enough to forget cassoulet. We still can’t understand anyone — Turkish menus in French written in exotic, illegible font.
We are talking about this and that easing into play and out of work. Everyone around us speaks different languages. We are an inconsiderable island of English in a pool of light at the window. Outside the night gleams.
The conversation sashays sultrily off in the direction of opium dens and famous talents we know that have languished there.
“I can see the attraction.” My husband says, “lying back, eyes closed, inhaling something that carries you away from everything.”
Oblivion. Ah. To forget and to be forgotten. What the romantic poets called transcendence. Who doesn’t feel the need for this these hundreds of years later?
Sophisticated foreign murmuring around us. We lick our fingers and allow ourselves to be carried away by thoughts of oblivion — the opposite of engagement in this world. For a rare moment we are away from the phone, the internet, our cell phones don’t work here. A blessing. Our senses are having a field day. Our eyes cosseted in the carefully orchestrated golden glow, our finger tips moist with flavour our palates awash with good Turkish wine — it is safe to contemplate the nature of oblivion — “the world is too much with us”.
I look across the table at my husband. He is the same man I backpacked around Europe with, now more distinguished, dark hair flecked with grey. He is tired but in a way that makes him soft, receptive. For a moment I see the shadow of oblivion settle on him like a mantle.
When we were in Paris last we ate hurriedly in streets outside delis or sitting cross-legged on the bare wooden table in our room, pale blue paint cracked windows thrown open, looking out across the rooftops. French bread, Brie and creamy fresh milk that was better than the wine we could afford. That was before everything, before work, before children, before education loans and mortgages. Way back when we had energy and less work to do — revving on the starter blocks.
Paris was kind enough to wait for us to come out the other side, a family later, to see another side of this glorious city; to sit in restaurants with posh people and pretend that the Euro is worth less and the dollar more.
Across the table my husband has worked hard to support his family, hard in an old fashioned Protestant way, like a weary bottom on a hard wooden bench. I reach across and touch his hand. I wish him a little oblivion, even just on weekends, evenings too. He’s built a business with contacts around the world. Now work is awake at all hours. No time is sacred except this.
My beautiful man who has not slouched once on this journey I wish for you an oblivion that is not final and is not death just a touch of forgetting in a world that for a moment forgets you — more moments just like this one. Of wondering and simply being. How fortunate we are to be here and to touch this place once more.
Art: Gustav Caillebotte | Art Institute of Chicago