That Paris Year
How can I convey to you what this is like?
How it is to pass down this quiet Claremont street, through the iron college gate again (“Eager, Thoughtful, and Reverent” it still announces) and feel that old hint of breeze from the desert, hot, yet virginal, against my cheek.
Now it’s 1972, and they probably don’t have virgins anymore. Surely these girls I’m about to address will find what I have to say about our struggles, our desires, quaint. (God, how Jocelyn would laugh!)
It’s been only ten years, but it seems a hundred since I walked this shaded street, passing the open grassy quad, the somnolent ivied walls, the buildings and bell tower beyond, where California Spanish makes an impressionist’s blur of whitewash splashed with red tile, orange cannas, deep pink geraniums. The palm trees still scrape the eastern horizon before the rise of Old Baldy and fan the memory of heat—its breeze still scented with orange blossoms. But today it is the sycamores lining this street, the sycamores with their puzzling bark and their offer of shade, that I seek. Perhaps because I now know their cousins, the plane trees of Paris.
The sun gathers itself imperially, dictating heat from that high desert throne already hidden in ghastly haze. If I glance behind myself, perhaps the smog has settled so low I can’t really see the outline of Old Baldy, the palm fronds against the horizon, the tangle of rooftops and flowers. Perhaps even the scent of orange groves is only a figment of memory. No matter. Memory, I see now, is the vital organ of reality; our best, if fragile, link to the immortal. Otherwise, how could I be here?
I would not now be turning down the little street with the old, cracked pavement to follow it to the end where it wanders into the wash. Would not be walking toward la Maison, its unkempt shingles and chipping porch paint, dingy living room with the puckered, dusty rose chairs, the persistent, if neglected, ivy on the mantle hung with a cheap and too fleshy Renoir. The room, the overstuffed furniture, and dark floors where I danced once dressed like a French whore and Gracie grasped love as a principle of physics. It is, all of it, you see, etched on the lids of my inner eyes.
Author: Joanna Biggar
Bio: Joanna Biggar is a writer, journalist, and teacher who has published fiction, poetry, personal and travel essays and hundreds of feature articles for newspapers and magazines. She has traveled solo in the most remote corners of China, chaired a school boarding Ghana, worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, and taught school kids in Oakland, California, where she lives. A member of the Society of Women Geographers, the author’s special places of the heart remain France and the California coast.