Paris in January is not anyone’s dream vacation: skies are permanently gray and you have to carry an umbrella. It seems particularly ill timed unless you are there for les soldes, the fabulous sales (which I managed to miss). So why did I go to Paris right after New Year’s? As I embarked on the penultimate revision of the memoir, I wanted to see whether I could still feel what it was about the city that made me live there for six years when I was young—and then, with the passage of time, write about it. Did the place still resonate with me? Or had I made it all up?
I decided to make a pilgrimage to Le Foyer International des Etudiantes at 93 Boulevard St-Michel, where I lived during my first year in Paris. The Foyer was my belated introduction to dormitory life since I had lived (miserably) at home during my college years. Despite the fact that we had a 1 a.m. curfew, which meant you’d be locked out for the night if you missed it, the Foyer turned out to be a scene of freedom.
I was assigned a roommate, whom I call Monique in the memoir, and with whom I maintained a transatlantic friendship over the years. I often stayed in her apartment when I traveled back and forth to Paris after I had become a mere tourist and not a dug-in expat.
This January, I also stayed in the apartment, on a bed made up in the studio where she had written several books of art history. But it was not a reunion. My friend died of pancreatic cancer last year, and I slept in the room surrounded by her library, whose shelves were dotted with family photographs. The two rooms—our dorm room and her study—fused in my mind, as past filtered the present. Oddly, despite the decades that had passed, I felt reconnected to what we always called “l’année du foyer,” the year we lived together on Boulevard St-Michel, room 203, and never imagined being old.