by Madari Pendás

On March 12, 2020, the President of France, Emanuel Macron, announced that due to the spread of COVID-19, he would be closing all borders on March 17th at noon. I watched the speech on France24, trying to translate from French to English as quickly as I could in my host family’s living room. “Fermé,” he repeated. “Closed.” He listed a litany of places and their names were followed by “Fermé,” as if the word had become a new, and permanent, suffix. The electric fireplace thrummed, and when I looked over at my host parents, Sandrine and Gregoire, I knew I would have to leave the country as soon as possible. My host family’s demeanor had changed. Perhaps they realized that this exchange teacher, who was supposed to leave in the fall, was now a liability. She was someone who couldn’t legally work in the country; someone who needed to leave the Schengen Area before her visa expired; someone who could get their family sick. Sandrine asked me after dinner that night if I had money saved. Maybe the intention was lost in translation. She could have meant “will you be able to buy another plane ticket home?” or “will you be okay without a job.” But given the situation and the myriad of questions they asked about repatriation, I took her question to mean “if you stay, will you be able to contribute?”  

Paris, originally a Roman city, was named Lutetia, meaning a place near a swamp. I try to imagine the city of lights as the city of gadflies and marshes. Empty and devoid of human life, the Seine is a muddy river, more nuisance than beauty. I grew up in South Florida. I knew swamps and their primordial auras, the way the landscape can make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, or perhaps time is irrelevant in these places. The gators and snakes lay wherever they please, unaware or uncaring of any city folk. You get the solemn impression that the swamps were here before people and will likely outlast people.   

A city erected from a swamp. I could see the edifices—the Bastille, Notre Dame, the multiple statues of liberties, crowning through the mud womb, brown slushes avalanching down their surfaces pushing towards the sky.   

I had moved to Paris a few months prior. After working as a journalist, I was burned out and felt a calling to return to the city. I was also looking for home. My connection to my family’s home country, Cuba, had been severed and the exile a permanent reality. Unlike classmates who visited their family’s home in the summers, we couldn’t, and I longed for a connection to another place. If my home was denied me, I wanted to manufacture another. Paris was the place where every time I visited I felt inspired, connected, and moved in a profound way. When I was there, I never wanted to leave; when I was not there, I thought of the city like a haunting specter.    

When I first visited, I knew I would live here. My knowing was instinctive, deep in my bones. I could walk for hours down Avenue Montaigne and Rue de Rivoli and L’Esplanades des Invalides. Cities are like people; you can love and fall out of love with them, return in a summer, leave again, and be haunted by the ways they make you feel.   

I lived in a small village, Fontaine-le-Porte, in the north of France, forty-minutes from Fontainebleau and an hour from Gare-de-Lyon, the central Paris metro station. It was a quiet commuting suburb with large sprawling fields and acreage for growing families. When I arrived in Roissy-en-France the city was a frenetic, burning constellation—what I imagined the early universe looked like. The lights of the city from above looked like the gold dusting in a Gustav Klimt painting. The streets were flushed with denizens huddled in their parkas crossing the Seine, romantics taking long leisurely walks down the Champs-Élysées, bikers arguing with drivers, the sweet smell of pain au chocolate filling the street when someone exited a café. Even when things were at their worst with COVID-19, I still marveled that many boulangeries resisted closing.   

“We need our pain,” Gregoire said.   

He meant we needed our bread, but I thought it was a very French philosophy on the meanings of suffering. Jean Paul Sartre wrote, “life begins on the other side of despair.” The necessity of pain in life, its absence an equal loss to our lives. La douleur, I pondered, was needed to measure joy. The accents of strife remind us of the happiness we took as ubiquitous. As the pandemic slowly changed the world, this was a belief that I clung to. I wanted this pain to make sense.   

Gregoire worked as a board game designer. One night after I had put the two children to sleep and had drunk far too much pastis, we played a game designed by one of his friends. Before the game commenced, I noticed Gregoire and Sandrine each rolling up a sleeve.   

“Whoever has the biggest scar goes first,” Gregoire explained, revealing a two-inch scar on his left palm from falling off his bike as a child and landing near pieces of exposed rebar. We need our pain. I’m not sure if this is a French game tradition or patently obvious knowledge to any expert board game player, but it was the first time that my scar, one on my forearm from a childhood bully, could be of any use. As we played, I thought of the wounds and scars of the pandemic and wondered if there’d be a day when we’d all huddle together, roll up our sleeves, and share about this collective trauma.    

There are twenty arrondissements, or boroughs, in Paris. They spiral counterclockwise around the city like a snail or escargot. The first is in the center and on the outer edges of the tail are the larger numbers. The arrangement reminds me of a whirlpool, spiraling outwards, controlled by a center vortex, pulling in whatever comes close to its vortices. Paris’s charm and enchantment felt like an eddy, like an external pull on your body.    

I had quit my job, left my country, left my partner, and now I needed to return. I learned new words during this period of quick emergency fleeing, like repatriate and attestations, permissions that allowed citizens to be outside without penalty. The city I had fallen in love with once before, the city that I gave up my life in Miami for, was closing quickly. There were fewer crowds in the streets, museums and galleries were announcing immediate closures, and masks started to enter ubiquity. It seemed like the city was collapsing in on itself, like the whirlpool was dissipating and all that would remain would be a light wake dribbling over the sea’s surface. I missed the city that now only lived in my memories of Paris.   

The Latin Quarter was virtually empty. A few restaurant owners stood outside—perhaps they too missed the people, the warmth they gave their shops, and the melodies of their voices as they filled every corner and space. There were no street vendors frying hazelnuts on makeshift metal slabs either. I walked north towards 59 Rivoli, a small art district in the third arrondissement, and a few galleries were still open. A few places were still holding out, hoping it would all pass. If I have learned anything living in France, it is that the people are defiant to the very end.   

Others  found this place, one of the few open spots left, and we congregated in the multi-floor gallery. It seemed like a collection of those who did not want to give up the Paris of their dreams, the Paris that glowed so intently you had the brief impression it may have been alive or just as easily on fire. It was raining the last day I remember Paris still grasping for normalcy, and it still looked beautiful—the wet asphalt reflected in the golden lights of the streetlamps, stretching their yellow lights, almost pure energy crossing streets like a ribbon, like the city was wrapping itself.   

I thought the city was telling us to wait; it would return like it had so many times from the brink of destruction.   

During World War II air raids, museum workers smuggled out pieces of art in numbered crates. The stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle were taken down, curators at the Louvre cataloged and packed major works, even the statue, Winged Victory of Samothrace. The artwork was evacuated towards the outskirts of France, sometimes to the south, in convoys with the headlights off. The art fled the city like the people. I imagine these clandestine convoys, sulking through the night with artwork stacked, crated, hidden, risking their lives to save their cultural heritage. If the art were destroyed, the work would only live in the memories of those last desperate curators.   

I walked around the area of the city that surrounded the Eiffel Tower. It still glowed, but something was missing, besides the long line for admittance and the vendors laying out their towels with trinkets and miniature simulacrums of the tower. The site was missing admirers. Something so extraordinary, a symbol of endurance and patriotism, needed the camaraderie of our gazes, our fawning, and the immense pleasure of knowing we shared our breaths with the same air that circulated the behemoth structure. At the top, you got the passing impression that you were nearing heaven.    

That is something I still miss entirely, fawning over things. I miss craning my neck so often that it is sore by the end of the evening. I am estranged from surprising beauty, perhaps one of the best types of beauties that arrests you when you are caught off-guard—the awe of happening upon an edifice that is stunning or a church that regularly felt quotidian and then you spot the place under moonlight and it feels phantasmagoric, something beyond its parts, something whose beauty you are participating in by observing.   

I miss my students.   

I had worked as an English teacher at the local school which sat atop a hill and across from a modest church. Due to the village’s size, the grades were mixed. The school had three floors, and at the very top floor there was a nursery. The room looked out into the playground, and the small, mobile beds were lined perfectly, like an infantry, all parallel. It must have been a home first, I imagined, as I explored in between classes.   

I also miss the possibilities that cities engendered deep within you. Perhaps this is due to its size, or its complex histories, or, if I am being philosophical and speculative, there’s the proximity to greatness that it imbues to you, like a daily gift. A city is hope. In some arrondissement, in some area of Paris, there were things that could sustain me forever. There is enough room for your dreams to come true, somewhere, because even the city itself feels like a dream.   

There are three statues of liberty replicas in France. The most famous sits on an artificial island, Île aux Cygnes, on the river Reine in Paris. She faces her more famous sister in New York. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wonder what she asks her sibling; do they panic together as their cities are changed? Do they inspire one another? Are they just as afraid as we are of what is to come?  

In March I was fired. The schools were going to close due to the pandemic and the city was retracting into itself. I had one final day before they permanently closed and I traced the building, the neighborhood, and walked the few blocks where the Seine ran through the village trying to memorize all its details: the Gothic and Rayonnant architecture, the particular coldness of the wind, the pine and spruce trees, and the street layout. If I returned, I wanted to still know my way around.   

I did not know I could miss something before it was gone. It was a walking mourning. I saw the city curl into itself, changed, and empty; each day there was something new to miss. You’d hardly be over one thing (a certain museum closure, a change in metro services, etc.) before there’d be something else that had been taken.   

I left on March 17th, three hours before France was slated to close all borders. The airport was packed in a long, winding line that almost filled the American Airlines terminal. Many of the passengers were students whose study abroad programs were interrupted; others were travelers who had been expelled by their hotels that needed to close, and some were businessmen who got wide-eyes glares if they sneezed or coughed too hard. There was in that airport a collective missing. People who missed opportunities; missing people, whose families called to see when they would repatriate; people who missed the city and what it could have been, missing all its frenzied, bustling energy. That hustle of life had finally idled.   

Victor Hugo wrote, “he who does not weep does not see.”  

When I return, and when the city returns, I imagine it will be like that board game with my host family. Each of us will have new scars, things lost from the pandemic, things gleaned from months in quarantine, and we will roll up our sleeves, share and compare. I’ve tried to find the most apt definition of a city, one that goes beyond architectural organization and city planning. The word itself comes from Old French cite, from Latin civitas, from civis “citizen.” A city is the composition of its people; its strength is the borrowed grit of the citizens that survive. A city is its citizens.    

I can still see the glittering Eiffel Tower, flickering against the black sky, its glow reflecting off the Seine to create a glowing universe. A city is undiminished hope, its lights call us and direct us back, the way a lighthouse helps ships return to port. That light is not gone; its gossamer aura is still on the horizon, and I know there will be a moment when its light will be on my skin and flood me and pull me once more into the spiraling eddy. I will return to Paris.   

Charles de Gaulle’s memoir, Mémoires de Guerre, opens with “toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France/All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” I, too, came to France with certain ideas, hopes, and expectations which I have now come to believe where not taken away eternally by the COVID-19 pandemic, but paused, because I will return, life will return, rising with an indefatigable vigor from the marshes.   

Selfie of Madari Pendás

Madari Pendás is a writer, painter, and poet. She was a college 2021 Academy of American Poets Prize winner. Her work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Pank Magazine, Lambda Literary, Jai-Alai Books, Sinister Wisdom, and more. Her latest book, Crossing the Hyphen, will debut in February 2022 with Tolsun Books. 

SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 7 · October 2021

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