Saturday, November 3, 2007

"Another grey Paris day"

This is what my mother and I often used to say here. London has the reputation, but Paris too has the rain. It feels refreshing after the drought of the Southeastern U.S., and the autumn leaves were a golden yellow as we drove in from Roissy. Roissy is the town in which Charles De Gaulle airport is situated, to the North of Paris. The airlines call it Charles de Gaulle Airport but the locals just say ¨Roissy.¨ It's quicker, and it's not the only place named for a politician whose full and exact name nobody uses. The Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou, which is the Paris equivalent of New York's MOMA and which Estadoünidenses probably call the Pompidou Museum, is on or near a street named Beaubourg and in a neighborhood named Beaubourg, and that's the name Parisians use: they just say "Beaubourg." I'm not sure it's a dislike of politicians' names (though it may well be that too) so much as a love of short nicknames (we do that too by saying "MOMA" and "the Met" and "the MFA") and an attachment to place.

I see they now just call it Centre Pompidou on the official website, so the formal usage has shortened too. For English-language website, go directly here. Online catalogue and works of art here. Please note the copyright rules.

So yes, I am in Paris. There is now WiFi in this formerly not too tech-y household and we are having a slow day. I may or may not have time to write during the rest of the trip; we shall see.

The layover in Atlanta:

- The middle of the international terminal has turned into a piano bar. Right there in central hub there is a pianist (a woman) and nearby a tall bar. People were already sitting there drinking before 4 p.m. Adjacent is a noisy food court, which has the usual unhealthy fast food, plus one attempt at something healthy and a fast-but not-too-awful Mexican place. I went for the cheese quesadilla.

- Everywhere there are young men in Army fatigues; not hordes of them, but one here and one there, coming or going. One man was older, by which I mean fortyish. The others were boys. (Didn't see any military women this time.) They are so young. I think about their youth and about their parents, every time I fly. They are thin, muscular, with short haircuts and the new, lighter fabric and pattern of fatigues and lighter boots than the military had before this particular season of war. They are far from home and soft of cheek and I keep thinking "Some mother's son." One was with his wife and child at one of the gates. Another, a young white man, stopped to read a historical exhibit panel about Martin Luther King, Jr. in one of the airport walkways.

- Cell phones, computers, plugged-in people. Me too. After several insane days this week including the last two when there as so much school work and trip prep that I got a grand total of three hours of sleep a night for two days running and could not finish a long overdue piece of writing (a scholarly essay due at my kind and patient editor's in England for weeks now) I am checking my mail and writing my editor in the food court after the quesadilla, apologizing again, trying to figure out how to finish this piece when my job eats my time (while requiring that I somehow do scholarly work as well) -- and feeling terrible about the whole thing and about this land of overwork and double-rush in which we live. Even those of us who are also in religious leadership. Sometimes especially we who are in these positions. Not good. Very unhealthy. And the trade-offs, the trade-offs. That part is not new. My mother ruefully quips "You never get somethin' for nothing," and that one precedes the digital age. But the age of cyberspace has made the action/contemplation balancing act difficult in sixty new ways.

In one of the many extra student appointments I had this week (advisees needing their pre-registration appointments, students in to see me because of having gotten behind on assignments, in many cases due to genuine suffering, or illness or circumstances having little to do with school or their capacity to do the work -- only one goof-off in the lot) we talked about this explicitly because the student, who was in getting some clarification about one of the class projects and a little research check-in, has been falling asleep in class. In the front row. I know it's not me -- I tend to walk arond and gesticulate when I teach so it's not likely to encourage sleepiness among the students, especially since we are participatory at Guilford and rarely have straight lectures. And it's not the student, in the sense that he is paying plenty of attention to the material and is an intelligent and conscientious young man. He's just falling asleep. And he's not alone -- I had another one earlier in the semester doing the same thing. I decided to wait till after fall break to take this up with him, not being sure whether it was exhaustion from midterms or part of some kind of of chronic medical condition. When I brought up the fact that he had been falling asleep in class, I asked whether he had been getting enough leep. The answer was no.

This is no way to live. It's not a good way to teach and it's not a good way to learn. I suppose we are all at fault in assigning a lot of work for classes, but apparently I am not (to my surprise, since I am personally a softie but academically a hard-ass) the main culprit. The student said he thought our collective rush and press and overload was partly the digital age. (You know that students e-mail and phone faculty these days, expecting quick responses. This has drastically affected faculty life; there are days when I spend two hours answering student e-mail, and I am a fast reader and letter-writer.) What good is this educational experience when both faculty and students are walking around in a state of exhaustion?

- We board the plane. Two seats to my left is a middle-aged man, an American, who asks me how to say "thank you very much" in French. I tell him and we start to chat as people continue to board and put away their bags and get settled in this enormous Boeing. Are you going to Paris, I ask. Just through, he says, I'm going to Baghdad. Are you in the service, I reply, using the common language for the military. I just retired, he answers. I'm a contractor, he adds, not looking entirely comfortable. I tell him I have friends now working at the Embassy in Baghdad. He says he'll be working security one neighborhood over. When he hears that my friends are career senior Foreign Service officers and chose to go just a few months ago, leaving choice diplomatic posts in Europe, he marvels and says"They must really have gotten the call." I am about to ask him about this contractor business, as tactfully and politely as I can (surely he knows how contractors are portrayed even in news reports these days), when the man in the seat next to mine comes and settles in and thus steps in between us. He is a geek from Germany or Austria who will spend the flight in a combination of playing video games, watching movies, and sleeping with his cap pulled over his eyes and his earphones on; early in the flight he reads a journal, but moves on fast to the action on the small screen.

A few minutes later the contractor, who had been in the next seat over, has disappeared. I look around. I can't see him anywhere. I will not see him again for the rest of the flight.

On the flight I cannot sleep a wink despite my exhaustion. On the contrary, on the flight from Greensboro to Atlanta a few hours before, I sleep almost immediately, smoothly, in the small cramped seat.

There is a selection of movies at the small screens in front of our seats. I watch three chick flicks and skip Harry Potter, "A Mighty Heart," and something else.

More if I can tomorrow or the next day about the three movies and their protagonists and a little more about the plane, about Paris, and perhaps about the most important part, a kind of return to the self that happens when one travels, especially abroad. At least it happens to me.

I started weeping right before we landed, while watching the electronic map some airlines now have on the little screen in front of each seat and which show the flight approaching its destination on a map. Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France, names of French cities and towns, land and water on this side of the Atlantic, not the other. I had changed sides for the first time in five and a half years. (With one exception, a three day trip to a family wedding three years or so ago.) Familiar names and maps, in French, and we in the plane moving toward Paris. I know you can't go home again, I know France has its political and cultural crises as the U.S. has its own, I know this is no paradise. I know people don't leave either their troubles or their demons behind when they travel. Still, I could not stop crying (silently) as we made our descent. Relief. Home.

1 comment:

Jane R said...

Mimi, thanks for your comment on this post. (You put it in the comments section of the post below, so I just wanted to leave you a little note hear in case you checked back.)