Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time]

Don't be put off by the title, folks. If you know anything about French literature--or if you're a fan of Monty Python's Flying Circus--you likely have heard of this book by French author Marcel Proust. 

If you haven't, here's a little tidbit of information that may interest you: At more than 3,200 pages, this is the longest novel in world literature. It contains more than 1.5 million words. Yeah, you read that right. Those of you doing National Novel Writing Month--and I'll admit here that I'm totally screwed this time and won't even come close--might think that 50K words is a lot. Proust's novel is in 7 volumes, and is considered a classic in France. 

Speaking personally, I've read the first part of volume one; some of Proust's sentences are so long you forget what has happened earlier in it if you're not careful. The other problem is that I had to read it with a dictionary, and as much as a staple of French literature as this book is, I put it in the same category as Victor Hugo: It's not reading for pleasure; it's reading to challenge you linguistically.

[By the way, the book was entitled "Remembrance of Times Past" in earlier translations, but this latest version from 1992 conveys the meaning much more clearly.]

At any rate, why in the world would I title one of my blogs "In Search of Lost Time" anyway? Well, I'm getting to that. One of the reasons that the book is so revered is its discussion of memory, and how outside stimuli--smells, tastes, sounds, etc.--can trigger involuntary memories in us. 

Think about it: The scent of an old girlfriend's perfume, or an old boyfriend's cologne. The song that was playing at a prom or another important dance, or one you loved growing up. These are just a few. If you've said "That brings me back!" when you hear, taste, smell, see, or feel something, then you're probably experiencing what Proust was talking about.

The reason for my title in this blog is because for the first time in 21 years, I am returning to Nantes. I left there in May 1992. I've talked about my study abroad in Nantes, France, before in my blog (refer to other blogs, like "F is for France"), and it truly was an important, formative period in my life for many reasons. Less than two weeks from now I'll be back in country.

Six weeks ago I never would have considered such a thing. But my beloved wife has been hearing me talk about wanting to go back to Nantes for a few years now. I had hoped to go back with her for my 20th anniversary of my departure, but the French have a saying: "Either you have the time or the money, but never both at the same time." Thanks to a friend who works for United, I'm getting a "buddy pass" to Paris--a space available ticket that only costs the taxes--so it became affordable, but only for one of us. As my wife put it, "You REALLY want to go back to Nantes, and I'd just slow you down and cost us more because I would want to eat at nice French restaurants. You'll grab bread and cheese and keep going. So go and have a great time!" That is advice I can't possibly ignore, so off I go. 

If you're asking where Nantes (pronounced NONT) is, find Paris on a map and move your finger left (west) toward the ocean along the Loire River. It's France's sixth largest city with 580K people; it was actually the seventh largest city when I left. 

Most Americans won't give Nantes a second look and the vast majority will never see it or hear of it. It's not a tourist hub like Paris is. The reason I chose it back in the day is exactly because it's NOT a hub; there are almost no Anglophones in the city, at least there were very few when I left there. It's a true "immersion experience". I heard the occasional English announcement at the train station, but otherwise I think I met maybe 5 other English speakers during my stay that weren't from my school, the Institute of European Studies. 

[As an aside, my close friend and I--they called us "Siskel and Ebert" back then because we were always together and he was taller and I was, well, more rotund--did meet a few Canadian students one day at the university cafeteria, and they asked us to join them. As I recall, Siskel gave them a hard time about the free trade agreement (NAFTA) and told them that Celine Dion and Roch Voisine did not make up a whole industry. They didn't seem to want to eat with us again after that, which we probably deserved for being assholes. At least our French was a lot better than theirs, and they came from a "French-speaking country". But I digress.]

A hell of a lot has changed since I left. I used to be a transit expert in the Nantes tram/bus system (TAN); Siskel used to call me "Mr. Tan" when we were there and would often say "On Y Va!" ["Let's Go!"], the motto of the system. Since 1992, TAN went and added two new tram lines (light rail), a dedicated "busway" line, and generally have made the whole system more robust. I especially like the addition of weekend night buses that actually run until 7:00am. That would have been very useful back in the day!

 The reason I know all this information about current-day Nantes is because of another large development since my departure from the city: The Internet. 

I wrote more than 350 letters by hand from Nantes; consequently, I spent a lot of my money on postage. (Anyone want to guess how many of them went to my beloved?) During my year over there, I also wrote all my papers by hand; if you've seen my "serial killer" handwriting, you know how much my professors suffered. No computers were around or available. If you're younger than 25, try writing a letter by hand and see how you do. 

Now I go online and "walk" around the city with Google Maps, make reservations at the hotel, check out train schedules, and even buy TAN tickets electronically for my iPad. It makes life so much easier.

Metaphysically, my interest in both tarot and astrology really peaked in Nantes. I started doing readings for friends in both languages--reading cards is a challenge in your native language, so imagine it with a few years of French under your belt--and I checked out the astrological profile of the students at my Institute on my own. I talked about both as often as I could. I remember I correctly guessed the sign of a classmate I had met less than an hour before on the train from Paris to Nantes.

If I say I'm excited, well...that's a serious understatement. "Totally elated" is a better term. I just can't wait. And I have to wonder what "involuntary memories" wait for me in Nantes. I have un emploi du temps très chargé [a very busy schedule] for my stay over there. I'll be in Nantes for five days, and then return to Paris to visit with a French friend I met in Nantes 21 years ago. He used to have a Tom and Jerry notebook to write down all of my English statements--many of which were rather colorful-- and asked me to help him translate them into French. I'll spend a day with him, and then my final day in France will be at Paris Disneyland, which, appropriately enough, opened while I was living in Nantes in 1992 but I never got there. 

[I remember my mom calling to tell me that there was a whole horde of protesters at the opening with signs that said, "Mickey Mouse est un rat!" I don't think I have to translate that one for you. :)]

I'm definitely a little nervous, too. I studied or worked in French for 25 years, and I'll never "forget" it, but I've been taking some time to re-integrate French into my daily life (French radio and video, etc.) to minimize culture shock, or as the French would say
pour me remettre dans le bain [to get back in the swing of things, literally "to get back in the bathtub"].

Wish me luck with the whole bathtub thing. I promise you that I will take TONS of pix, and I plan to hit some astrology/metaphysical shops over there as well. I'd love to get some French astrology and tarot books. 

I promise to take tons of pix and detail my adventures, likely when I return, but I won't rule out an entry or two during my stay.

For me, this is like a sacred pilgrimage. Of course, it's happening during Sagittarius, the sign that rules "seeking the truth" and long-distance or overseas travel. Couldn't have planned that one better if I had tried. :)

 I've also added below a link to the Monty Python sketch about Proust's masterwork, just for fun. Enjoy.


  1. How unbelievably awesome is that!!!! How frigging unbelievably awesome is Jen! (though I digress)
    Thank you for a snapshot into an amazing adventure I wish I'd had the nerve to try. Yes, please, lots of pictures!!! Mercy buckets and shit!
    (Love you!!!!!)

  2. You got it, Evil Twin! Love you too! :)