Gare de Lyon, Paris – late Thursday afternoon, 19 October 2006
I am on my way to Annonay. I am going home by an orange train, the TGV, the national rail system which is the pride of French civil engineering. TGV is short for train grande vitesse – train of grandly quickness, as I always tried to transliterate when I was little.
I am at a café in the train station, the Gare de Lyon. I feel the necessity of situating myself geographically – and what better place to do that than in a train station?
It is a station which is named for the south-western geographical region of France it is destined to serve. Trains rocket out of the Parisian station to their own particular southern towns, their tracks like mercury traveling up and down the heat of France.
I love this train station for its glamorous shabbiness. It is illuminated by enormous white clocks, their faces hanging as huge as moons. The ceilings are made of glass and wrought iron. This particular mixture lends a sense of clarity and weight to the moment of departure, the architectural acknowledgment that the act of travel should never be regarded casually. The café is strategically placed underneath the highly hung, automated announcement board, its little letters flipped over like heavenly Scrabble tiles. Its destinations are laid out like promises – I could go to Antwerp, Bruges, Barcelona, Milan... These trains are leaving in just a few moments. I already have my European passport and a bag full of stuff. The only thing that I am missing is guts…
I am on my way to Annonay for the first time since I have arrived in Paris from Bloomington, Indiana for my teaching fellowship at the University of Paris a few weeks ago. It is two hours south by train, and then one more hour by bus. I say home, although it is more my Mom’s hometown than it ever was for me. Annonay is a place that is well rehearsed in our family mythology as a place only to be escaped, to be given only the pitying backward glance as you flee like the proverbial bat. Well, pity made more sour by guilt (an especially-deadening cocktail whose alchemy is hard to resist).
My mom left Annonay when she was 18 to go to England, she wanted to be any place other than there. Annonay is a very small town in the department of Ardèche, minuscule even, in Midwestern France. With a population of under 17,000 Annonéens, its train station was eventually closed after the last war. It does still proudly celebrate, though, its status as the birthplace of the Montgolfier Brothers and Marc Seguin. The Montgolfier Brothers were the inventors of the hot air balloon. They proudly sent a duck, a sheep and a rooster into the air in a basket suspended underneath a taffeta balloon in front of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Before this very glamorous show, though, the two brothers worked valiantly on prototypes. There is still a low-lying balcony that is pointed out during the infrequent town tour which they would take turns jumping out of, tightly gripping a silk umbrella.
The other famous Annonèen, Marc Seguin, thought of the wire-cable suspension bridge and the tubular steam-engine. For the relevant anniversaries of these initial vauntings of gravity and stasis, there are elaborate recreations in full-period costumes, many of which my sister and I would take part.(San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge takes Seguin's models for its blueprint). Maybe being born in such a place – a cradle for so many movement-producing machines – could have been the only appropriate birth place for as restless a citizen as my mom.
But contrasting such a dynamic history, Annonay today is shrinking to a narrowness of darkened walls and empty shop windows. Its shutters close at early, unfriendly hours. The Annonéens mutter darkly, in ugly ways, of how their Saturday morning market is being envahie, invaded, by Turks and Algerians. Complaining about immigration takes the place of conversation and logical thought.
But it is in large part for Annonay that I have come back to France, continue to come back, deciding to take this fellowship in Paris knowing that Annonay would only be two hours away.
I have come back to where, for herself, Mom could not have left quickly enough. What am I trying to find here? A continual questing led Mom to Spain through England to the United States and eventually to my own birthplace in the Middle East, in Lebanon. Do I want to return here to see if there is a germinal explanation – to see if the place itself is reason for her flight? Or are there clues in the people that she left behind? She has often said that if she had stayed in Annonay, she would have died. She is still unable, or unwilling, to articulate exactly what it is about Annonay that still fills her with the zealous flight impulse of a pilgrim. She says to have stayed in Annonay would have been a martyr's death. When she would say this to me (with an amazing and enviable lack of self-censorship) when I was a little girl, I always wondered if she imagined this tower, the Tower of the Martyrs which clings to one of the seven hills that surround the town, as the only other available option to her flight.
As i return here in this strange palindrome of geography, i find myself shuttling between imagined shadow states and cities. As I spoke to Mom on the phone before I left Paris for Annonay, she said, too casually as if only just remembering, “Oh yes, this is the weekend you go.” She told me later how strange it was for her that her daughter would be returning to Annonay alone, without her, for the first time. Was she wondering the same things? That I would find out something? In our family, chronologies and timelines are seemingly always obscured by a defensive shrouding. I have done my best to maintain that proud family tradition. Sudden departures and unexplained absences are the best way to understand my mode of travel (yes, the erotics of absence is something that I am going to look in to).
But I feel that my return to Annonay is the beginning of a much-delayed dialogue, the start of finding answers to questions that before I could only ask parenthetically. I suppose that this is what I am doing by trying to write about my journey there, writing as process of translating (myself) outwards. It is not so much the arrival in Annonay which will provide the epiphany (the sudden, intuitive leap of understanding) as the process of getting there.