Remember my Paris lives? I crossed one of them the other day.
As one of my many, many jobs, I teach math to a young Canadian girl who lives in the 7th. I finish at 7pm; my sister finishes her last class at 8 just two blocks away. (You know you’re a New Yorker when you measure distances in blocks.)
While she usually goes out with her friends after, that day she had nothing to do, and seeing as we had been having unseasonably nice weather (this was before Paris stormageddon, aka a normal Tuesday in January in Massachusetts), I decided to wait for her for an hour and work in the lobby of my former univeristy, and then we would walk home together.
As I sat in this building, a building that for a year and half was a permanent fixture of my life, waves of the past washed over me. A sign said No Smoking – Ne Pas Fumer. It seems inocuous enough, except that I know that when my mother attended the school, this was not the case. I imagined what it would have been like then, mentally erased the computers in the corner from the picture, listened to people starting to drink for a Tuesday night out — let’s not pretend to be surprised — and wondered if the same loud music, laughing and screeching was there when my mother was 19, cigarette smoke curling out from under the door of the lounge and creeping up the plaster molded walls.
And then, I remembered. I steeped in the memory of what it was like, being one of these obvious Americans, one of these people whose identity is so defined by the fact that they live in the bubble that is the American University. I watched as two students sitting side-by-side in front of the row of computers tried fruitlessly to confirm concert tickets over the phone, failing miserably to communicate their e-mail address to the French person on the other end. I almost volunteered my help, when another girl sitting next to them, someone they didn’t know, did it for me. She spoke well but was obviously an American; I wonder if that is how I would have seen myself, had I been able to sit in that very same chair and watch one of a myriad of times that I lived that same situation, translating for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn the language that surrounded us.
I find, more and more, that people are surprised by the fact that I live here upon meeting me. Perhaps it’s because it’s no longer undergrad, a time when you’re allowed to do strange things like move to another country before moving back to the real world. Perhaps it’s because when people ask me, hardly interested, how long I’ve been here, I say six years and watch as they digest it. Six years.
Perhaps it’s because it still takes people time — my rock climbing instructor waited at least ten minutes, until I mis-counted by twos and skipped six — to ask me if I am or am not French; it takes them time to notice, time to realize why I’m different. It’s a completely different situation than the flagrant Americanness in which I existed in my first Paris life.
When I was a part of that world, I looked down upon it. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to exist in such a bubble, why anyone would want to so undeniably shirk the culture that surrounded them. Now, I realize two things: firstly, when I thought that I was integrating, I wasn’t. And secondly, I sometimes miss that bubble.
Of course I have versions of it now, with my expat friends, but there was something about that comfort, that familiarity, that unity… I’m glad I’m on the outside looking in, now, as much as I ever can be, but sometimes I wish I could look in on my past instead of their present, see for a moment what it was once like to be so blind to how hard some days of living my dream would be.
Because, of course, knowing how hard your dream is only makes it more worth it. I suppose that’s the nostalgia I feel today; nostalgia for a past when I had no idea how much I would love my present.
What better way to delve into such feelings of nostalgia than with a nostalgic dish. I’ve made these beans before, during one of my other Paris lives, when the 7th was still home. Now I mix in diced mozzarella cheese and bake them in mini cocottes. They’re still delicious.
2 tsp. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbsp. tomato paste
1 15-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
1 28-oz. can white beans (cannellini or white navy)
2 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried rosemary
salt and black pepper
2 ounces mozzarella cheese, diced
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook until soft and translucent, about five minutes. Add the peppers and garlic and stir until fragrant, 1-2 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and stir to combine. Allow to cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes and herbs. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use an immersion blender to blend the tomato sauce to your desired consistency. Add the beans.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes. Taste for seasonings.
Stir in the diced mozzarella. Ladle servings into individual cocottes or a larger baking dish. Broil until the cheese has melted, about 5 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before serving.