Some thoughts from Andre Aciman on the global nomad’s wish for past places not to have changed. Here he reflects on a return to Paris:
When I returned twenty years later, with my wife, the city had hardly changed. I still remembered the station names; the café on Avenue Victor Hugo was the same; and the shop on the Faubourg Saint Honoré where my grandmother had bought me a tie was still there, except much bigger and filled with Japanese tourists. The Victor Hugo movie theater had disappeared. In the old cafe around the corner, we ordered 2 café creme and a ham sandwich each.
Avenue Georges Mandel was quiet in the early evening. As we neared the corner where Aunt Elsa had lived, her building suddenly came into view.
I pointed upstairs and showed my wife the window from which Aunt Elsa had thrown her husband’s pipe on New Year’s Eve to make a wish. I showed her the building nearby where Maria Callas had lived. They had spoken in Greek to her, corrected her Greek once.
We took pictures. Of the building. Of me standing in front of the building. Of her taking pictures of me standing in front of the building. She asked again which floor they had lived on. The fifth, I said. We looked up. The windows of Aunt Elsa’s studio were unlit and the shutters drawn. Of course they’re unlit, no one’s home, I thought to myself. They’ve been dead for twenty years! But then, the apartment couldn’t have stayed empty for so many years; surely it belonged to someone else. I seemed to recall that Vili himself had sold it. Still, what if it had never changed hands in all these years, if nothing had changed, if no one had even picked up the fork or touched the cardigan Aunt Elsa let fall before being rushed to the hospital on the night she died? What if her furniture and her china and her clothes and everything she hoarded throughout her life kept vigil for her and remained forever and only hers by dint of the life she had spun around them?
And for a moment I thought that this might also be true of the apartment on Rue Thebes, that after sixty years with us it could never belong to anyone else and would be forever ours. I wanted to think that it, too, remained exactly the way we left it, that no one cried or quarreled there, that dust collected in the corners, that children were never allowed to scream as they sprinted past the junk room where Flora loved, Vili wept, and Latifa died.
Out of Egypt: A Memoir
Originally posted Wednesday, June 5th, 2013