Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, Porteurs de farine. Scène parisienne, 1885.
Before I traveled to France this week, I made myself go back and read my diaries from the time I’d lived there, years ago. I had avoided rereading them ever since, and I was relieved to find, in my actual words, very little of the sadness I knew lurked between the lines. I’d said plenty about all the different jobs I did, about the people I taught and the children I nannied and the soup kitchen at the local church. There were details about deals I’d gotten late in the day from the vegetable vendors and stuff I’d found discarded by the side of the street. Well, I was never very good at being young.
But most striking was my apparent obsession with two recurring characters. I’d remembered them, of course, but I hadn’t realized how large they loomed in my daily routine. “Had to pass horrible guy,” I wrote one day. “He cursed at me and said something under his breath I couldn’t understand.” A few days later, “Insulted again. Don’t know what is best to do. Also had to deal with insinuating guy and he made me v. uncomfortable.”
In case it’s not clear, “horrible guy” and “insinuating guy” were two separate people. The latter was a young man who sold slices of pizza and sandwiches outside a nearby bakery. He would address me familiarly and sometimes stroke my hand, and it made me deeply ashamed.
The other guy was a panhandler outside the supermarket. He had swastika tattoos and looked like a skinhead, but I’m not sure if this had anything to do with the insults he leveled at me; later, when my French was better, I could understand him, but I only remember his hissing disgusting sexual things at me, and calling me a bitch and worse.
I don’t know if everyone was on the receiving end of this sort of thing. I doubt now that it was personal. But at the time, it so charged and informed my days that I’d add an hour to my route to avoid him. Back then he came to symbolize my general failure: at authority and adulthood and living free of fear. Now, the intensity of the obsession strikes me as, at the very least, unhealthy, and the failure much more complicated.
“Should I give him money?” I asked myself in one day’s entry. “Should I memorize French insults?” As best as I remember, I stuck with my general plan of looking scared and miserable and sometimes bursting into tears. No, that’s not completely true: once, I asked my friend Dan to make the walk with me and hold my hand as if he were my boyfriend.
Now that I’m back in France, my husband asked if there’s anything I wanted to revisit. I didn’t want to revisit the person I was then, but when I found myself in my old neighborhood, I decided to walk by the bakery and the supermarket, just to see what it felt like now that I wasn’t unhappy and lonely. My heartbeat quickened as I approached the two storefronts—they were very near one another—and I thought of all the things I would say, my disdain, my triumph.
But of course, neither of my old nemeses was there; they had their own stories to live. Instead, a young woman outside the bakery asked if she could help madame. And I realized that was me.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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