leaving a city: reims and places of passage

words & images katy wilson

Reims is arguably not a beautiful city, and it’s the locals who will argue this. Pronounced rahnce, it is also arguably one of the hardest words in French, and many nationals do not understand where I live until I spell it out for them. It is a city unsure of its place between an idyllic champagne countryside and busy regional capital, featuring a collection of post-war apartment buildings, a canal that was once home to bustling trade, and the famous coronation cathedral in the center—the only site, I’m told, worth visiting. In the spring, tourists begin to trickle in off the Eurostar connection, and then arrive en masse for summer. After the September harvest, however, all that remains are two unfinished Gothic towers yawning into a blank sky.

I moved to France two years ago to gain teaching experience, and the state assigned me to the region of Champagne-Ardenne. I didn't like life here at first. It didn’t fulfill any dreams a tourist moving to France might have—the cramped-in-excitement of Parisian streets or the sunlit lavender meadows of the southeast. Instead, Reims spat out fields of boulder-like sugar beets and craggy champagne vines that hunch grey and grapeless from October to May. Within the region itself, I preferred my prior placement in Troyes, a smaller neighboring city whose center offered medieval wooden storefronts and quirky bars filled with the sounds of a local, shoeless reggae band. Where in Troyes invited me in for a nightcap, both the climate and people of Reims greeted me like thunder waiting to crack: W-I-L-S-O-N, I spelled my last name out for the hundredth time, followed by the look of understanding and the expected, Ah, VILSON! Mais bien sûr. In Troyes, my differences were a novelty. In Reims, they became a daily impediment, and for a while I longed for past cities that had warmed to me from the start.

Part of my character, perhaps just a passing part, is the part that keeps leaving. I’ve lived in seven cities over the past six years. It started in Bordeaux, in the southwest of France, where I lived for one month. I remember a honey shop, and an old man whose features I can’t place. I remember the sweetness of his honey; the chuckle in his voice as he taught me French expressions; his blue-and-white striped apron.

I remember a Spanish art dealer who let me wander through his archives. I remember saying good-bye to my host family as though we would never meet again. I memorized their faces, not wanting to forget my two teenage brothers: Pablo, round and blonde; Emilio, tall, gangly and full of self-indulgent wit. I have since returned to Bordeaux to see that they have changed entirely. Emilio has been sobered by law school entrance exams. Pablo has met his first love. The art dealer has returned to Spain, I am told by his sister. The honey shop remains, but without a trace of my phantom teacher. When I close my eyes, I still feel the crowds of Rue St. Catherine upon me. I feel the heat of summer, and then suddenly the humidity of a summer storm.

After two years of teaching in France, I had always planned to continue my studies. It was set before I arrived in Reims, and my plans did not alter as I grew into the city—not even when I learned to pronounce my name correctly, not even when I met a man and heard myself pronounce the word love.

Though I felt immediately at home in some of the other places I have lived, Reims made me work for my welcome. In opening itself to me, it also asked for a part of me in return. Reims was always a place of passing for me, and because I never prepared to say good-bye, I now find myself suddenly grasping to keep it. I imagine a past and future life where I can walk into any shop without a slightly deficient vocabulary, and I feel a lack of adventure. My suitcases sit empty in a corner, for the first time, not wanting to be packed. My boyfriend’s parting words echo through the small, bare studio that was once filled with him, “I don’t see how a distance of 6,000 miles could work.” The transient part of me wants to flee, but it’s not easy, knowing that what I leave behind will not last. I see myself walking away from the rolling sound of the baker’s accent at the vegan pâtisserie, passing a child kicking a soccer ball through an improvised goal in the medieval Porte de Mars, and then backing slowly from a kiss on Rue Chanzy. Then I see these very things disappear entirely, retreating as any city does from an airplane window. 

Returning to a place you’ve let go is what I imagine meeting an old love feels like. I picture, ten years from now, sitting at the only teashop in Reims, glancing up from a book or a journal, and seeing him walk by. He’d have his headphones on. He’d trip a little on the pavement and look in by chance. His coat would still be black, if a little nicer. His eyes would peer tentatively from behind glasses just as before, surprised to find me looking. We’d visit his favorite restaurant, a tiny place with five tables, for profiteroles. We’d stumble through the public library, laughing at failed literary translations. Silently, we’d each remark at the other’s intonations—the constant need to correct his posture, my usual unpronounceable words, his nervously twitching smile. It would be more nostalgic than anything, like a trip to the honey shop in Bordeaux, where everything looks the same, almost. All things last, and don’t last, with time.

Reims is unimpressive at first sight, but impenetrable in its depth, as complex as its champagne from season to season. Before leaving this city, sit in the Parc de Champagne next to the ugly wooden gazebos. Imagine the famous caves below, before the globalization of champagne, during the war. Watch as your feet shake loose earth upon the families living underground, holding on to each other in front of makeshift chimneys. Squint, and see the cathedral with its roof blown off. Then open your eyes to its image in the distance, visible from all corners of the city, freshly whitewashed for the anniversary. Watch the kids playing freely in the park. It could be any decade. Wait for the sun to hit noon, and look up. Look up at the sky that makes this place—all places—beautiful on a clear day. Feel the loneliness, and the closeness, of the world.

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