New York Herald Tribune

I already know you can’t recreate the past. We studied The Great Gatsby in school when I was 16 and I learned that lesson so clearly from that book. Intellectually, I know it. But in my heart, I never give up.

I have this habit of loping up 50 years later and expecting everything to be the same. Wanting to pick up the pieces of moments that were lived before I was born.

And so we found ourselves standing in the doorway of the Cinema Normandie and it was all wrong. The Champs Elysées was all wrong. They’ve ruined the Champs Elysées. They’ve ruined it because it doesn’t look the same. And because it looked much better in 1959. Less traffic, less people, no tacky signs. It had started out as an intoxicating spring day in Paris. I was high on what felt like a stolen moment – waking up on a midweek morning and finding myself not in London, but Paris. One special day in Paris, one day to say I love you and goodbye. One day in which to wear a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt and walk down the  Champs Elysées as if I was Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle. If I could, I would happily climb through the screen and live inside A Bout de Souffle – build my own life there according to the rules of this not-always naturalistic film. Recreating it on a stolen Parisian day was the best way I could think of to say goodbye.

But it’s all gone. 1959 is all gone. The Champs Elysées buildings featured in the film all still stand but none of them look the same. And it was at the Cinema Normandie that my dreams did come crashing down. We stood in the very same spot as Jean-Paul Belmondo did when he looked at a cinema poster for Humphrey Bogart and made his character’s self-defining gesture: rubbing his thumb back and forth over his lips, and I was ready to cry. In 1959 the Lido de Paris, a showgirl revue, may still have shared the building, but its neon lights did not take over the foyer. I may have liked the Lido de Paris in 1959. In 2009 it’s neon-tacky. Belmondo’s subtle and yet highly charged moment is immortalised on film, but its real life equivalent is lost forever, buried under all the years that have passed by and the attendant changes those years have brought.

I do realise that I was looking for a 1959 Champs Elysées theme park and that there would be something wrong if I found it. I do think that it’s a much less attractive street now, but life shouldn’t stand still. But it felt so unlucky to not be able to find any traces of what once was. Especially in a city like Paris where so much is preserved. I felt desolate. And silly. Silly for trying to recreate a fiction, silly for being upset by not being able to. Desolate because, real or fictional, every moment slips through our fingers. We can never go back, we can only go forward, and however much I know that as a fact, there’s still something about it that I don’t understand.

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