I have chosen a life which lives in two countries. France. New Zealand.
When we bought an apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris I was overcome by the fact that our building had been built over four hundred years before. It was this knowledge that made me dream of everything the walls of our Paris home had seen throughout history. Through my dreams I was regularly transported to another time in history.
Dreams by their nature know no chronology, and as a result found that my dreams were constantly mixing different periods into one. Going to sleep at night allowed me to spend memorable evenings with Henry IV (16th century) and Napoleon Bonaparte (19th century)! Even Jeanne d’Arc (15th century) would appear, while sitting on the banks of the Ile de la Cité with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Queen of France (12th century). The pleasure of discussing each other’s achievements whilst sitting with someone from Christchurch was an experience to be treasured! These are some of the “friends” I have met while in Paris, all in the landscape of time.
While in Paris, living in the oldest “quartier” has awoken my senses, and at times I almost feel burdened by the events and stories of history. As I walk past buildings, churches and ancient market places I feel the people and events around me. To walk the 200 metres to our local market square, Place Maubert, I can travel for 2000 years and more. In such a short distance I can imagine the Roman settlers heading to the thermal baths nearby and even visit their amphitheatre, and I can see the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims marching along our street to their pilgrimage site in Santiago de Campostella some 1000 years ago. I pass the church which has stood for 1400 years and has constantly given locals guidance and hope for their lives. I see Henry IV, again, some 500 years ago as he rides his white horse, soon to be assassinated at the hands of a paid-assassin. I walk through the square where only 200 years earlier a guillotine was permanently set up to dispense ultimate justice to petty thieves. I pass the school where hundreds of Jewish children were “deported” to their ultimate deaths 70 years ago. I pass the spot where teenage conscripts were shot by snipers in August 1944 as they attempted single-handedly to liberate their home town. I pass where barricades stood in 1968 and where cobbled streets were turned into weapons against government forces protecting the country’s motto of “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood”. I touch buildings while I walk feeling the stories of families through the ages, and of their struggles and joys experienced in different times.
Walking from my apartment to my market square at Place Maubert takes me on a journey of 80 generations.
A friend in New Zealand once questioned incredulously what my family could possibly do in Paris for a two week period. For me a journey of 200 metres can take merely three minutes in our holiday, but the pleasures and depth of local stories endure a life time. I have begun to realise that the more you learn, the more you realise how little you actually know. So spending a short two weeks in Paris can barely do justice to the tales of time.
How does this leave me feeling when living in New Zealand? Living in such a young country I feel that I have a freedom of spirit, where the lack of history and stories allows me to savour more our own place in the world. We have time to digest the gentle pace and rhythms of nature. But through this we suffer from isolation. Isolation in our own societies and isolation geographically. In our lives one can live entrapped by our 800 square metre fenced sections, where you can go for a week without meeting anyone. Whereas in Europe societies live on top of each other, where you never find yourself more than a few metres from another family – through a wall, beneath you, above you, beside you. In France you will find your bakery, or your butcher only a few minutes’ walk away, and it is these places that become the pulse, the listening post of a nation, the place for the gossip of the day!
I am fortunate because I feel that I live in two places. France is my parallel other existence. Part of me lives there while another self, continues to enjoy and live in the verdant serenity of New Zealand. Wherever I am at any one time, the other self is happily living in the other place. I am lucky.