by Dan Laskin
The oddest discovery, during my first days of dislocation in Paris, was that I live up the street from the Statue of Liberty.
Yes, I did say Paris. I've come to the old world for four months, the lucky husband of a French professor. While she labors, I explore-the streets, the markets, the monuments. The Seine and its quais and bridges. The language, with its gymnastic syllables and sensuous melodies. The dying winter sunlight in Monet's Effet de neige, soleil couchant. The glimmer of alpine pasture in a wedge of the cheese called abondance.
The first days were filled with a disturbing strangeness. The briefest errand gave me the sensation of being lost. Faces, storefronts, and snatches of conversation tumbled past like flotsam in a rapids. Deprived of familiarity, I found every mundane encounter opaque. I noticed everything; I was reduced to nothing but noticing. The very air seemed a curiosity.
The tourist, carrying his guidebook and return ticket, knows exactly who he is. The native simply belongs. It's the temporary resident who wrestles with identity. I live here, I throw myself into a kind of daily life. But context comes slowly, that network of relations and routines and places that fit like an old sweater, defining you, fashioning a sense of belonging, your existential terrain.
I would soon find "my" boulangerie, where the young bakers recognize me and know that I want a baguette in the style they call tradition. I would soon find the friendliest cashier in the supermarket around the corner. Jane and I would soon join a weekend exercise group and chat with new acquaintances walking to and from the park. Soon my feet would take me automatically to the Passy metro station, past the Maison Balzac, past the office of the Fédération Française de Scrabble, past the Square Raynouard, where we like to imagine that, amid the grand undulating stone facades of a quieter century, we will find our fantasy apartment.
I would soon, in other words, feel sort of at home. But until then, I remained something of a stranger to myself. And the strangest landmark of all, in my existential terrain, was the Statue of Liberty.
It's actually a small-scale replica of New York's great lady, which of course was a gift from France to America, sent over to commemorate the centennial of our revolution. This lesser lady, in turn, was given to Paris by the American community here on the occasion of the Universal Exposition of 1889, celebrating their revolution's hundredth-an exposition that featured, more prominently, the inauguration of France's "Iron Lady," the Eiffel Tower. Gustave Eiffel, who designed the tower, also supervised some of the work on Lady Liberty-ours, that is.
Our lady and theirs, their gift and ours, our towering statue and their statuesque tower, two symbols par excellence of two countries whose periodic bickering only accentuates the persistence of mutual fascination. I walk down to the Seine and cross the busy Pont de Grenelle, with its spectacular upstream view of the Tour Eiffel, then glance to my right and find myself gazing at the back of la petite liberté, who stands right here, at the head of a narrow island that the bridge traverses, lifting her own torch and looking down the river toward the Atlantic and her colossal cousin.
It's a weird moment. Here is the most familiar of American landmarks in a setting so distinctively French-the mopeds whining on the bridge, the Parisians ambling with their dogs or stepping briskly with their cell phones, the narrow island of the lovely name, Allée des Cygnes (Path of the Swans), with its double row of trees and its quiet benches overlooking the barges and houseboats lining the quais: evoking this language, this history, these habits and associations. Theirs, and sort-of mine.
In such a scene, I can feel my Americanness as a perplexing question. "Liberty" seems to embrace so many images, both the lady in the harbor, welcoming immigrants, and the cadences of political rhetoric, where the word is thrust forward with a kind of defensive belligerence. I think of the various American heroes, George Washington and John Muir, Davy Crockett and Jonas Salk, Rosa Parks and Thomas Edison. Which would I claim as most my own?
Gazing from the bridge up toward the Eiffel Tower, I wonder whether this is anything like what my grandparents felt, immigrants in a new land. Fascinated. Unsure. Hopeful. Alien. Then I chide myself, remembering that I've got a wallet full of credit cards and, yes, a return ticket, even if I won't use it for months. Turning to look westward with the lady, I sense how much I'll miss Paris. And I can feel, already, how I am beginning to miss the exhilarating strangeness of coming here.