It was a sleepy March morning in my third-grade class. We dragged ourselves to school in the dark in our bulky winter coats. Classes began at 8.05 – no exceptions, including on Saturdays. Russian school is known for a hardcore curriculum – Dostoyevsky is read by 14-year-olds; excerpts from classical literature at an even earlier age. We were yawning uncontrollably when our teacher, Lyudmila Ivanovna – barely keeping awake herself – requested that we open our literature books. Always the start of an adventure into another time and culture: a glimpse of immortality through the eyes of children, fresh from the realm of immortality itself. Those literary ‘excursions’ taught us to be mortal and of the endless tribulations humanity had undergone. We didn’t merely learn to read but to be human.
That morning, after a ten-minute read, the entire class was sobbing and our strict teacher was wiping her glasses. We instantly awoke from the electifiying passage narrating the death of Gavroche on Parisian barricades. I demanded to purchase “Les Misérables” on the way home from school. To my father’s relief, we didn’t have to plow through mounds of snow to the bookstore: we already had Victor Hugo’s masterpiece in our home library. I started reading immediately, understanding little of the grief of Fantine, the sighs of Marius and sacrifices of Valjean, but foreknowing I would return to this book on many occasions when I grow older, finding equilibrium to the tempests of my soul and my social indignations flaming with the thirst for change.
I had a private French tutor torture me with repetitions of French folk songs and conjugations of the verbs. My older brother, Boris, was studying German, seeming tougher by the lesson when he recited German out-loud “Ein, zwei, drei!” – the Prussian roots from my mother’s side asserting themselves with metallic vigor. I couldn’t be outdone. German being taken, I wished to know what Boris didn’t, and make shameless fun of him in the exquisite, foreign language. Our neighbor and common best friend, Denis, was a linguistic prodigy, already fluent in German and French. By the age of 17 – when it was time for him to apply to university – he could have taught languages at a top institution himself. He introduced me to a number of French cartoons, and helped me gain unfailing A’s on my French homework.
France has always enjoyed a unique relationship with Russia. Peter the Great wished for his younger daughter, Elizabeth, to marry Louis XV, then dauphin of France. The proposal was declined, but upon ascending the throne as Empress Elizabeth Petrovna the jolly monarch introduced French fashions and music to court. The 18th century was an apotheosis of French influence and culture in Russia; many nobles learning French prior speaking native Russian (as illustrated by Tolstoy in “War and Peace”, where some characters, like Julie Karagin, hire Russian tutors even at an adult age). Following the 1812 invasion of France into Russia, the popularization of Byron and English Romanticism in the 1820s, English influence replaced the French. The interest in France, however, hadn’t waned in Imperial Russia nor in the USSR.
The Russian musical mini-series based on Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” was a hit in the USSR. The songs from the film played from open windows in summer. The fairytales of Charles Pierrot were the most prominent and intricately illustrated in my collection of “Fairytales around the World” edition.
Songs of Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Mireille Mathieu and Joe Dassin were broadcast from the radio and during New Years’ TV programs, spellbinding the imagination.
“Pardonne-Moi ce Caprice D’Enfant” of Mireille Mathieu became a hymn of mine when I would do something wrong, giving me a frequent reason to practice my French. The true meaning of that song – of a woman in love – never quite occurred to me. I was in love with being a child, chattering in a new language. Skipping over mud puddles, I would imagine myself surrounded by lights, doves plucking baguettes and explosions of flowers in Le Jardin du Luxembourg.
I told Denis resolutely, “I will be a French revolutionary one day. When I die for a great cause, you must write about me in all the languages you know.”
Denis nodded sympathetically, having evidently burned with such fantasies before and sensibly outgrown them.
I absorbed French novels one after the other, a light of ideas igniting within me, a foretaste of passions which youth promised to fulfill.
In the spring of 1999, a local store in Ekaterinburg imported Roquefort and Emmental cheeses. Both were marketed as French, although Emmental is Swiss (one of the dirtiest lies of my childhood), and the children of the neighborhood flocked to the window display, fantasizing of the taste. For my 9th birthday my parents purchased both. I cried. It was one of the rare times I had cried for real in my childhood.
Coming to bilingual Canada, I was a top student in French. My first and only kiss at school was with a boy from the French immersion class whom many girls were swooning over. Not me. It was a spin-the-bottle game disaster. The kiss was decidedly French, sloppy, and horrible – haunting me for days and having me pledge celibacy to the Greek Goddess Artemis, protector of virgins (mythology has been another recurring love of mine). I was later thankful, however. It showed me the contrast of a kiss of random chance and a kiss of love. I never went for the former again.
My brother, Boris, paid for my first trip to France. Along with London, Paris was our first vacation since our move to Canada. We travelled by La Manche from the misty Albion, and I recited “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Byron in my mind: namely, the cantos I remembered both in Russian and English. Byron had never travelled to France on his Grand Tour of Europe (the trip made by young nobles for educational, or sooner – recreational – purposes at the turn of the 18th century) as the Napoleonic Wars were in tumultuous progress. Still, the lines of Byron’s poem – reciting the young man’s farewell with his native shore –resonated with me deeply. Each country I journeyed to would become a home for me on a fundamental level. I imagined myself on a Grand Tour. As much as I regretted leaving England, I was impatient to meet France. My brother and mother accompanied me. We were greeted at Gare du Nord by a group of protestors to whom I joyfully waved and shouted, “Bonne Chance!” A few of them waved back, recognizing a fraternal spark of rebellion in me. Arriving at the hotel, I promptly grabbed a map and circled over 20 places of interest – the majority of which we would have no time to visit. I knew the routes and metro stations to each. Walking from the Eiffel Tower to the fountains of La Place de Concorde, and down the luminous path of Les Champs Elysees, I was drunk with happiness: everything appeared to glow in a mist of exultation. I had role-played strolling down Les Champs Elysees more often than the girls in my childhood dreamed about gliding down the aisle toward their perfect husbands. In my dream, I was confidently headed toward the Perfect Me: no obstacles to my ambition, no intellectual constraints, and a symphony of love resounding through me to the stars and to the infinite beyond.
My mother beamed with pride when I spoke French to the natives, especially to an old Russian woman from an expatriate noble family. I wondered how different my life – or sooner parallel reality – would have been had my ancestors from St. Petersburg fled to Paris instead of the Urals in 1917…
“Let’s elope to Spain,” the waiter at a pizza place near the Gare du Nord whispered to me. It was a joke to which I shrugged – not knowing how to explain in French or any language that I wasn’t a girl of sixteen anymore but the quintessence of world history, and couldn’t be easily taken away. The next day, I asked Voltaire in the Pantheon if he understood my newly found state of indissoluble connection. The great man replied with silence – timeless and immutable – confirming that he did.
The trip of 6 days concluded with my purchasing over 10 books in French (Voltaire, Montesquieu, Montaigne, Rousseau, Condorcet, and of course Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”), and my catching the chickenpox at Versailles which sent me from the airport straight to the walk-in-clinic in Toronto. I was surprised to find the doctor a split image of Napoleon. I was reluctant to let go of the perfection of the trip I had planned since third grade – when my class mourned the fearless child who died with a challenge and a song on the Parisian barricades.
Planning to return to France and continue my studies, I was no less determined to live. After several years on homeschooling, a struggle with anemia bordering on blood-transfusion, and an uncompromising streak of personal rebellions on how and where to find my fate (Toronto inducing nothing but a sense of gloom and recurring isolation), I followed the example of Childe Harold, bidding adieu to Canada and journeying off on my next European Grand Tour. First, an exploration of Italy – the treasury of all I found dear – and a return to France. My lodgings were a block away from Rue du Dragon, where Victor Hugo rented at the age of 20. I had read “Les Misérables” in three languages by then, calling it the ECG of humanity tracking the social arrhythmia. No work of fiction had spoken to me so directly or so lucidly defined the inclinations of my nature – my deepest passions and concerns. I had spent over 2 years in thorough study of French revolutions alone. My Grade 12 history teacher, receiving a 30-page homework on the topic (when no more than a few were required), wondered whether I had travelled back in time. The details I included in that little tractate were chilling in precision: from Saint-Just’s teenage escapades to Robespierre’s fondness of oranges and wearing green glasses. My father used to joke that he learned more about Danton than he knew about his mother-in-law. I was keenly interested in all Declarations of Human Rights, planning to work for the UN and be a diplomat one day. I was determined to attend the Sorbonne and ace French – useful for a prospective diplomatic career. Reading 18th century philosophers on the balcony, overlooking a tranquil courtyard in Saint-Germain des Prés, and taking strolls under the chestnuts at Jardin du Luxembourg were my favorite pastimes.
Soon, I realized that writers are diplomats unbound by frontiers of land and time. Politics stained with corruption, the demagogy of diplomacy both seemed limiting to me. I chose to become a writer. Overflowing with resolve, I felt more alive – and more physically present – than in the long and numbing years of struggling with anemia. In Canada, I was a shadow. In France, I gained the body of a flourishing young person. In France, I learnt independence. Even when my roommate – working in the fashion industry – brought home garcon après garcon, I was glad that the mirror in my bedroom reflected only me at night. I would eat insane amounts of Roquefort and Swiss Emmental, being unaware at the time that calcium reduces iron level – the main cause of anemia.
The vintage elevators were a special love of mine – second only to the Museé Carnavalet, a block away from Hugo’s house at Place des Vosges. I was entranced by displays of personal items of great Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, feeling the energy of each like a lingering confession, a whisper from heaven, a prayer from hell – and in many cases both. Then, I went back to Hugo’s house and stood with my hands over the quills, once belonging to the likes of Flaubert, Balzac, George Sand, and Émile Zola. Indulging in onion soup at the Procope – the oldest café in Paris – I chose the seats under the portraits of extraordinary authors. I would look around, searching for free space on the walls, imagining my portrait in a golden frame – had I been French. I was quite fine with staying predominantly Russian. My portraits would yet find their walls.
I recalled the challenge which Eugéne de Rastignac threw to Paris and the world in Balzac’s “Le Pére Goriot” – “ À nous deux, maintenant!” (“It’s between you and me now!”)
I had to decide on staying in France or returning to Canada. I was reluctant to go back, remembering Voltaire’s quote from about Canada being “quelques arpents de neige” – a few acres of snow. Apart from my family, there was nothing that drew me back. My grandmother was in a frail condition. I felt responsible for her and my parents. France taught me how intensely the heart longs to reunite with a loved one far away.
After a party at a club near the Notre-Dame, I took a taxi with some friends. The moon hung in between the spires like a glorious white pearl. I reached out to grasp it – so smooth and polished by the clouds and Paris’s unending dreams – when the taxi turned into side-street and the moon rolled off my fingers into the black waves of the Sienne. My friends and I had no destination, our good humor navigating the way. We chose to promenade on the Montmartre. The streets were alight with bohemian rapture; with poets looking for a rhyme at the bottom of a glass; with geniuses from the gutter; with twenty-somethings with no aim other than to change the world. We strolled by the Pére Lachaise cemetery, an aureole of memory encircling the tombs. There were no living and no dead – the division of worlds diffused in the starlight. Everything glowed: the edges of houses and the ornaments of street-lamps transfusing into sparks of sensuality, which some managed to withstand, but which none failed to admire. We revelled in divinity veiled by the transience of forms. In a perfume of boundless youth, acknowledging no earthly limits. Somehow, the dead in Paris seemed more alive than the living in Canada: a hasty and unjust conclusion as I later admitted – but which struck me at the time. “Midnight in Paris” came out same year in echo of my dreams and mindset which began a sudden shift after a party at Place de Clichy, a few steps from Moulin Rouge.
A large group of bonvivants – aged 16 to 42 – were boisterously socializing to a background of French pop; a dazzling outburst of mayhem, a ping-pong of energies extending for some to the bedroom. I don’t drink, but my glass kept getting replenished (my being Russian and non-drinking never fails to amaze and is generally disbelieved). Not wishing to offend the hosts – who have so generously let us trash their apartment – I would slip to the bathroom to pour the booze into the sink. Under no condition could I lose control. I did not need intoxication to sing “La Marseillaise”, “Belle”, “Vive Henri IV” and Stromae’s “Alors On Danse” from the balcony with a group of instant friends – with no names exchanged. We were not only Russian and French. There was a woman from Norway, who loved sailing in the fiords; there was a girl from Vienna – the city of composers – who bragged to have never played a piano before; a boy from Venezuela who spoke the language we could not understand, but whom we understood perfectly; a man from Yellowknife, Canada, who had never travelled before and now felt himself a part of one mentally unhinged, international family. We were one essence – names were fleeting.
One man introduced himself as Boris – a namesake of my brother, who was half the world away. We stayed on the balcony talking throughout the night and watching smoke escape the chimneys to a brightening horizon. Boris asked me questions about Canada, the country where he hoped to move, and where he saw the most potential. I learnt that dozens of French people were moving to Quebec and Montreal: Boris narrated the trials of contemporary France, dissatisfaction of the youth, and an upsetting list of reasons which, in his opinion, made Canada more appealing than France both in the short and in the long-run. “The grass is greener on the other side” was the cliché which came to mind.
I left the party at sunrise and watched Paris awake from the heights of Montmartre: artists mottling the streets with a kaleidoscope of paintings. I asked for my portrait to be done. It looked nothing like me. Now, I debated if staying in France I could be my true self.
“Had a great time with Boris,” I later texted my friend, when she asked how my night had ended, or sooner how my night had continued.
“Did you make out?”
I left the question unanswered. In fact, no – I just had one of the best conversations to date. I hadn’t once made out in France, remembering my spin-the-bottle from Grade 8. In France, I was in love only with France. Could I abandon what I loved?
I can’t forget my trip to Fontainebleau. I had a sleepless night before. However, I was full of energy. My friends were astonished by my ability to forgo rest. On a train, I noticed a man in his forties. He watched me intensely and I grew vigilant. My four years of Ushu practice left me confident in skill and presumptuously fearless. The man followed me to my coupe and addressed me in Russian. He had overheard my phone call to my mother while I was waiting for the train.
The man was from the Chechen Republic in Russia. During the ride, the man recounted his life-story with the casual sincerity I had only encountered in Europe. Where my discourses in cafés were often light philosophy, the story of this man was dark. He had lost his wife, a two-year old child and his parents in a bomb-attack. Then, his brother died in military service. According to the bloody rules of a feudal tradition, the man had to avenge his brother, although he had already started a promising career in Moscow. His life turned upside-down: the bloodshed seemed imminent. Death would not take him. He had to move on. The man was able to escape to France. Now, he was living in a small apartment, a station away from Fontainebleau. I told him a little about myself, focusing on my dilemma: Toronto vs. France. The man with no family noted that there is no greater joy than seeing your loved ones even in the most predictable and bleak of settings.
“If boredom is your problem, you have no problems at all,” he observed, lighting a cigarette and offering me one.
I declined – never a smoker– and explained, “I don’t fear boredom, but lack of freedom to be myself. The thing I hate most…”
“Hate is too strong a feeling. Never hate. It will only destroy you, especially a firebrand like you. You are a soldier too, aren’t you? Don’t ever fight against yourself,” he interrupted with a smile – having myriad reasons to hate the world. His fortitude and absolution broke a cycle of revenge, or sooner graciously dissolved it.
I would never see the man again. Nor would I forget the lesson he taught me.
My long walk in Fontainebleau was full of contemplation in the shadows of the woods and in the shadows of the halls, with their authentic royal furniture and legendary stench of dogs, which neither the French Revolution nor Napoleonic conquests could subdue.
The following day, I went to speak to Victor Hugo at the Pantheon wondering what I must do. Just then, a schoolteacher led a group of children into the crypt. “Move!” she ordered the children, and seeing me in her way automatically said, “Move!’ as well. She then apologized for her brashness.
“No, you’re probably right,” I thought to myself.
That day, I learned that the Sorbonne was closed for Easter. I took it as a sign and decided not to apply.
I was leaving Paris for Canada on a bright April morning of my 21st birthday. Canada appeared to me a solitary emptiness, devoid of purpose and enthusiasm. My blood was turning to water again, my physicality eroding. On the plane, I was making speeches in my mind, convincing myself that I was returning with prospects: “I am not leaving France. Nor did I leave Russia a decade earlier. I am world history in motion. So is every person conscious of interconnection – beyond countries, beyond time, and illusions of division.”
Suddenly, I was convinced that a transfusion of cultures from around the world was what Canada needs. To stop being anemic. The Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario may not be on par with the Louvre or the Hermitage, and Canadian places of interest are not as well-known, but the more reason for them to be discovered, put on the map, and for Canadians to remember that an entire world culture is theirs – as of the most multicultural country on Earth.