I sat at a café in Montparnasse (where, like all Parisian cafés, all the chairs face out to the street, so you talk side-by-side watching the little posh dogs trot by rather than face-to-face (a setup making philosophical musings less likely)) and watched people coming and going – girls smoking and reading French papers, men having animated, hand-flailing discussions, darkly-dressed High School boys greeting each other with quiet, earnest expressions – and it wasn’t just the language barrier that made all of this frustratingly impenetrable. It was their mysterious lifestyle: their meeting friends at this café, strolling here from tiny unknown streets in their dark clothes and their assured, two-kiss mindset.
It was their childhood.
Earlier in the day we had walked through Parc Monceau and there was a group of school kids in navy blue uniforms jostling and scuffing their feet on the dusty white gravel and taunting each other in tiny French voices. It was just regular kid stuff, but as we walked out of the gold-rimmed gates and onto a boulevard leading to the Arc de Triomphe, I saw how the places people do their ‘regular kid stuff’ in can turn them into multilingual, darkly dressed, earnest discussion-havers, or confused, sunny Australians who can only say ‘I think we’re out of milk again’ in one language (and yes, these are the only alternatives. You’re either a French philosopher or an Australian in need of a quick trip to Coles…). Australian kids play Bullrush in grassless playgrounds off of the Northern Road. French kids play pétanque in a park off the Champs-Élysées. We went on excursions to Warragamba Dam or Questacon in Canberra. They go on excursions to the Loire Valley or the palace of Versailles.
Now, before all of my Australian friends get the wrong idea and call me an unappreciative cretin, I should say that I loved growing up in Australia. When Mum would stop off at Tony’s fruit and veg shop on the way home from school to buy us a Bubble-o-Bill, I really felt that life couldn’t get much better. But it is impossible not to compare, and to wonder about impossibilities.
Marc, for example, grew up in Basel: a region of Switzerland that borders France and Germany. Apart from the ability to say ‘we used to pop over to France for our lemons and to Germany for our baba ghanoush (incongruous as that may seem…), if you add to this happy location an Italian grandmother, English mother and Swiss father, you end up with someone who can speak about 16 languages fluently and who can walk down tiny but familiar streets to cafés where the girls are reading about politics, the hand-flailing men are discussing Russian history, and the darkly-dressed High School boys greet each other with quiet, earnest expressions because that is the way it is done.
Slightly different to a Bubble-o-Bill on the way home...