Eva was born on a night so bright that one could have thought it to be midday. This radiance was due to the inordinate amount of stars, as if they had gathered that evening to protest against the cosmos. Eva’s parents could never forget that unprecedented luminosity. They had just given birth to a little girl and the entire world seemed to to be in tune with their harmonious happiness. In away, the night had spawned a star.

But the beauty of that magical event had a consequence: Eve developed a particular relationship with night. She wanted to live nocturnally, persuaded that life was more intense when the other humans were sleeping. Hardly two years old; she already had the rhythm of a feverish party animal. She fought for hours, often sinking into sleep in the early morning. Whoever came to the family abode witnessed fits of tears as soon as the day began fading. The little girl was taken to doctors, psychologists, hypnotists, anyone who had an opinion; but to no avail. She did not want to sleep at night. It was her nature, and it is quite difficult to fight against what we are. No one had made the link between the astral conditions at her birth and this nocturnal obsession.

As a teenager, she went to school, exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes. She was considered goth whereas it was a sweet twilight that ran through her veins. On the positive side, she read and worked during her sleepless nights. She was a strange paradox: first in her class but always seemed asleep during the classes. So, Eva never ceased having a life in a time lag and she remained a mystery in the eyes of others. Her particular personality aroused mad passion in the teen-aged high school boys, but this did not interest her. She wasn’t born a night of intense stellar activity to make sentimental commitments to the first guy who came along. She was waiting for a prince. Contrarily to Sleeping Beauty, she was looking for a man capable of putting her to sleep; she was the Wide-Awake Beauty. Until then, she preferred concentrating on her studies. She obtained her high school diploma with high honors but refused to enter preparatory classes for the highly ranked schools. She was of legal age and intended to lead her life as she chose. Which is to say sleeping all day long. She suffered from this situation, but could not do otherwise. She enrolled in a university as a psychology major, opting for correspondence courses. A paradox as she lived just next door. Living by night is like living on the other side of the earth.

She sometimes went out evenings. Those who didn’t know her past could think her to be frivolous and hysterical partying. Who could have known that she was a victim of her birth night? That starry night was simultaneously her splendor and her curse. Forbidden sleep, she danced the night away. But it always comes, a moment when one feels alone in the crowd. In the middle of the discotheque, Eva sometimes had the impression of being like a semi-colon in an eight-hundred-page novel. She was wrong: Adam saw only her. It was the DJ who played his records without even looking at his turntable, as his eyes were riveted on Eva. He felt he knew her already, as if love at first sight was not a discovery but a reunion with someone who already existed in us. That particular morning, at the end of his set, he went to speak to her. A few hours later, they embraced. A few weeks later, they moved in together. There are stories so obvious that they don’t need many words to tell them. To embellish a little more this coming together, they were told that they were the birth of humanity: Adam and Eva. Their romance seemed predestined or else there was an author behind all this.

Adam played Eva’s favorite tracks, put on songs intended for her, in forms of messages. At the risk of breaking the general rhythm, he loved flooding the dance floor with the long version of the Beatles’ “I Want You”. One evening, without notice, he played “Be My Wife” by David Bowie. Eva listened to the lyrics:

Please be mine

Share my life

Stay with me

Be my wife

She stopped dancing at once. She was the only one able to understand that the man putting on the music had created a silence in her heart, in asking her to marry him. Adam was to perform in a major Frankfort night club a few days later. He proposed to his future wife to join him. They could spend three days in a beautiful hotel, sheltered from the agitated nights. They loved each other and preferred not to visit the city. Their room would be their favourite museum. The motto of their love “do not disturb”. They did go out one evening, nevertheless, for dinner at an Italian restaurant, La Divina. It was a simple place, decorated with photos of Italian actors. Between “The Godfather” and “Palombella Rossa” (“Red Lob”) diners took a tour amongst the classic lines. Just before the dessert, Adam took a little package from his pocket. Eva opened it, her heart racing. It was a magnificent necklace with a double pendant which symbolized their two beings from now on linked to the same chain. It was an object of almost magical beauty. Eva remained hypnotized by the contemplation of the present. Adam was waiting for a reaction but his future wife could not speak. The intensity of her wonder prevented words from exiting her body. She felt like she was swimming in the warm colours of the two stones; one green, the other red. Colours so intense they seemed alive. One would have said a heart was beating inside. Eva ended up stammering that she was at the height of all imaginable happiness. But then the least expected event occurred. She began to feel tired. Was it due to this excess of emotion? It was barely eleven pm., this had never happened to her. Adam was worried:

“Are you okay?”

– Yes, I’ll just go splash some water on my face.”

On the verge of fainting, she went back to the room and fell asleep as soon as she lay on the bed, fully dressed. The next morning, she was totally panicked. She wondered if she had been the victim of food poisoning. But no, everything was fine. For the first time in her life she had fallen asleep at a decent hour. Looking back at the scene, she remembered that her eyelids had become heavy the moment she had put on the necklace. She tried to reproduce the experience and, as incredible as it may seem, she again fell asleep. It was a necklace with immense power. It may allow her, at last, to live at the same rhythm as everyone. She asked Adam:

“Where did you buy this? In Paris?

– No, here, in Frankfort. Yesterday while you were taking a long bath, I went out to smoke a cigarette. And there were covered stalls on the great square in front of the Opera House. That is

where I spotted the necklace.

Eva insisted that they return there. Luck would have it, the market was still there as it was held all week-end. Adam showed the place to his wife. She approached the table where the jewelry was displayed. She expressed herself in English:

“Hello, my companion bought a necklace here and it happens to put me to sleep.”

– Oh, yes, I see. It’s completely normal.

– What?

– I make only magic jewelry which grants your most secret wishes. You must have dreamed of

sleeping. That has to be it.

-You’re talking nonsense!

– Not at all. It’s well-known here in Frankfort. This is miracle jewelry. If you like, I also have a

ring that will make all your fantasies come true.

– Really?

– Yes, really.

– I want to believe you. I’ll take it.

Eva bought it and returned to the hotel with Adam. The woman who was selling the jewelry on the Opera market square began laughing at Eva’s disbelief. She explained to a friend: “ I could have made her buy all the rings, she wanted so badly to believe!” She went on talking a bit before explaining to her friend that the necklace Adam had purchased was a necklace made of Granite 32. It’s a volcanic rock that contains steam from the intense heat, and so that makes it a soporific material. It was common knowledge. Once back at the hotel, the lovers laid on the bed. The room seemed protected from the world. Everything seemed possible here. Eve slipped on the ring and started hoping that a miracle would occur.

“Well? What’s your wish? Is it working?” Adam asked.

– I can’t answer you. It’s a miracle that takes 9 months.

Adam smiled and switched off the light.

Thanks to the ring, they will soon be three.

In the beginning of the summer of 1928, during the shooting of a film, Marlene came to Vienna. She especially liked sitting in a Viennese café in order to observe people move; study their poses and postures to later copy them for film or theatre. It is the exact place where I myself go, the magical location of Sofitel, a true work of modern art dominating this city of eternal asterpieces.

 

At the time, Marlene was 28 years old and had decided to take a break from her husband. At home, she felt her spouse roaming the apartment like a phantom. She had also decided to accept the increasingly insistent invitations of her servile knight, the actor Willy Forst, her theatre partner. He had proposed some amusing escapades. Perhaps he wasn’t very deep, quite superficial, but he entertained her.

What would Vienna be without its cafés which I myself have learned to love? Marlene so enjoyed their atmosphere. She could spend the entire day there reading, writing or giving her romantic or professional appointments. Certain regulars even received their mail there. If there was no free table, the custom was to sit at one already occupied, provoking a chance encounter.

Like all travelers, Marlene and Willy had their preferred places.
They even had their favourite benches with a stunning view of the center of Vienna, a view which the hotel offers me at each stay.
The couple particularly loved the white building with a gold-leaf dome and rhapsodized before the transposition of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony by Klimt where “the hostile forces confront Love”.

They would then pass in front of the the two Otto Wagner buildings: one whose earthenware facade is strewn with poppies and the other covered with large lockets framing the golden profiles of young pre-Raphaelite girls.

Marlene often went shopping at the Naschmarkt. At this market with small stalls in green wood you find everything: from rustic delicatessen to smoked fish, forgotten vegetables and the rarest fruits or sun-toasted spices of all colours.

After having strolled in the flower market, Marlene and Willy enjoyed warming up with a glass of hot wine with cinnamon and orange zest, a local specialty. Willy asserted incessantly that old Europe was insufficient for her. “And what if we left for the United States? We would make a fortune there. Look at Greta Garbo, you are as good as that Swede… I know her. She has real talent.
And she left for Hollywood with two directors, Swedish like her.”

Marlene refused, assessing that it was better to wait and be recognized here. At dinner, Willy introduced her to an extremely witty Austrian journalist. He was barely twenty and knew thousands of anecdotes about the crowned heads of Europe to the Orient and their harems. His name was Billy Wilder and would later become, iin Hollywood, one of the best directors in the world with such celebrated films as Some Like it Hot.

Marlene also met a young author, Erich Maria Kramer. He spoke modestly about a novel he was completing, All Quiet on the Western Front…He would publish under the pen name of Erich Maria Remarque. He was very drawn to Marlene, finding her a thousand times more attractive than all those silver-screen stars of the roaring twenties. At this time, neither the young novelist nor the obscure vaudeville revue singer knew that they would become famous and even less that they would one day be madly in love.

The young Erich would have undoubtedly preferred to cherish Marlene immediately, leave with her that very evening. But Marlene already had a very full love life…

If Marlene loved traveling to Vienna, she always loved spreeing there as much. It must be said that the parties were often lavishly liquored, everyone drank too much. And when Willy drank, he made Marlene drink and they each found the other better-looking,
more desirable.

Soon Marlene would appreciate less and less the alcohol-scented kisses. Inebriated, Willy became repetitive and couldn’t help asking the same awkward and inappropriate questions about her intimate life with her husband. In creasingly wearied by the long days of shooting,
Marlene stopped going out. A car from the film production would take her home to her daughter and husband. One evening, as she was dining with two actors the eve of a dress rehearsal for theatre, Marlene heard talk about an important film soon to be shot, and for which her two colleagues were just hired.

The film would be entitled The Temptress or The Blue Angel. The young woman listened attentively. Could there be a role for her?

The director was Austrian, but his parents had emigrated to the United States when he was still a child. His films shot in Hollywood were great successes. He was called Joseph von Sternberg. He loved the Austrian capital and often returned there.
The movie, co-produced by the Americans and filmed in Germany benefited from an enormous budget. It would be the first German film with talking and singing with an international cast. And in addition, a trip to Vienna…

Marlene looked at them, sighing. Another missed opportunity…She would have loved so much to work with a good director. The conversation was quickly forgotten as, each evening, the performance was at its height. She went to bed late. In the afternoon, she devoted an hour or two to her daughter and kept doing her best to balance her emotional love life. Two weeks after the premiere , arriving at the theatre, she found everyone in a stir: the film maker Josef von Sternberg in person had reserved seats for himself, his wife and assistants to see the two actors he had hired on stage.

Marlene played neither better nor worse than the other evenings.
Why make the extra effort for a director who she had no hope of working with? In search of an actress for the leading role of his film, Sternberg had already been to Vienna. He had met just about everyone and had chosen no one. A photograph of Marlene had passed through his hands. He had asked his assistant who had replied:

“Ah, yes! She has nice legs, but you’re looking for a face, aren’t you?” And Marlene’s photo had joined the others in the forgotten pile.

Sternberg seemed to regain interest seeing the actress on stage.
Certainly, he found her badly dressed and poorly made-up but she had something. She had “it” as they say in Hollywood.

He leaned toward one of his assistants seated in front of him:
-Who is it?

The aide then feverishly consulted his program :

-Dietrich, Marlene Dietrich.
Sternberg repeated the name to remember it. What she was doing was hardly interesting but he took no heed, she was probably misdirected…

After the performance, he went backstage where champagne was awaiting them. They were meeting the actors, very flattered to be presented to the great Hollywood director. Marlene was not among them. Sternberg demanded that she be found but Marlene, who had quarreled with her husband that afternoon and was remorseful during the entire show, wanted to go home immediately to make peace. She quickly removed her make-up and ran off without further ado.
Disappointed, Sternberg shortened his visit under the pretext of urgent work to complete before sleeping. In the taxi taking them back to the hotel, he asked his wife what she thought of Miss Dietrich, she who had been leaning against a coat rack contemplating the others with an air of indifference. She had hardly noticed her…

A few days later, an urgent message addressed to to Miss Dietrich, and signed Josef von Sternberg, requested that Marlene appear at his office.

Is there a small role for me she wondered?

When she was face to face with the famous director, she was somewhat disconcerted: he had a dandy’s arrogance. Around him, Marlene recognized the celebrated actor Emile Jannings, insignificant and servile assistants and a man “more strait-laced than the others”: the producer.

Ultimately, only Sternberg smiled at her. He complimented her making it clear she had left a real impression on him. Even if she knew her own worth she wouldn’t have been less surprised.

“Could you sing me something?”

He had a very beautiful voice, soft, persuasive. She looked at Sternberg and found something feminine in this man that touched her immediately. Something stubborn, also, that frightened her.

She began singing one of the melodies from a Broadway musical.
Sternberg didn’t listen but he watched her…

He then asked an assistant to take her to the costume department where a “sexier” attire would be proposed, that her silk dress was too sensible. He had struck a cord for Marlene loved to dress up.

Between diverse second-hand clothes, she chose an ultra-short, sequined tunic. Legs shown off in fishnet stockings, the producer, more than doubtfully turned his back on her, grumbling. Sternberg, he, was all smiles. He indicated a piano straight in the corner of the huge room. She
opened it and played a few chords. Sternberg exclaimed, “and you can also play the piano?” Without reply, Marlene interpreted a short Bach prelude like in the old days in a Viennese restaurant.
And while the producer looked at his watch, Sternberg was shaken by the spectacle of this woman dressed like a bar girl concentrated on classical music.

Then Marlene sang one of her hits, a satirical tune from the revue It’s in the Air. Enthralled, Sternberg offered Marlene to do a test shoot. The next day he was impatiently waiting for her. When he saw her, seated at the back of the studio he asked himself if it would be difficult to extract all the emotions the role required from this shy girl. No, it was up to him to show he was equal to the task, in which case she would be a marvelous instrument.

The scene was shot and the film developed hastily. At the end of the afternoon, Sternberg and his entire staff viewed the two tests.
From the producer to the last of the assistants, all were firmly in favor of another actress, Lucie Mannheim.

They turned toward Sternberg seated in the last row of the tiny projection room. While putting on his jacket he declared placidly :
“Sirs, I have just chosen Miss Dietrich to interpret Lola-Lola in my film.”

All her life Marlene was persuaded that the artistic ambiance in the Austrian capital influenced thisdecisive choice. She called it…
“The magic of Vienna”!

The filming of The Blue Angel became fantastical for the team.
But Marlene, was the first to sense how much the result would be phenomenal if she gave herself entirely to Sternberg, to his genius.

Her very demanding director revealed himself to be conceited, meticulous not to say a maniac.

Marlene often complained about him when asked to tell what happened on the set. He made her rehearse infinitely the slightest gesture. But every time, the result on the screen was fantastic. All things considered, it was not to displease Marlene whose perfectionism livened her acting. And, if she didn’t like the part: a cabaret singer whose tantalizing body leads a man to decline, she would overlook it, blindly accepting to do what the filmmaker proposed or imposed.

Sternberg, proud, had greatly minimized the author of the scenario’s role : “Any other novel would have suited me. What I’m doing, is a film! Not literature! And don’t waste your time rereading the book. Your character will not exist with written psychology. It will exist with what I am doing with you, thanks to lighting and my orders.”

He often summoned her. She arrived at one in the afternoon, not yet wide awake. Why would he want so much to see her, if it were not to better keep her under his thumb, speak to her again about her character or more simply because he loved her and could not do without her? Though Marlene pretended not to notice, the director’s authority masked less and less the amorous storm that raged within him. But she had no desire to fall into the trite tale of an actress and filmmaker who sleep together during a film shoot.

In spite of the strong hold the master exerted, the situation remained unchanged until the end of the shooting. Marlene continued juggling all her activities (including interminable discussions with her lover, Willy, who had become jealous), Sternberg was, day by day, more in love.

She dreaded his confessions at each encounter. But the filmmaker forced himself to let nothing show so as not to compromise the finishing of the work on which he had to devote all his energy.

He knew the tension of this undeclared love came through in the film and Marlene…

Then the last day of shooting arrived. Worn out by Sternberg’s obstinacy, the technical crew was not unhappy to be done with it.
So the film editing began.

The director had done everything in his power so that Marlene would be extraordinary, and she was.

He recalled, infuriated, the condescending little remark made by the novelist Henrich Mann when visiting the set : “It will be thanks
to your actress’s bare thighs that the film will be a world-wide success.

From then on, for Sternberg as for Marlene, there was a before and an after The Blue Angel. A few days later, the premieres in Berlin and then Vienna were true triumphs. The entire theatre was on its feet giving Marlene a twenty-minute standing ovation.

So, in Vienna Steinberg suggested they meet for a last dinner with “his actress” during which he asked her if she was ready to follow him to Hollywood. He had made the effort to get her one of the best contracts possible there and promised to shoot a second film as soon as she wished. He added : “I hope you will forget my severity with you during the film shoot.”

“On the contrary, I am thankful. You taught me so much.”

Then, they went for a walk through the streets of Vienna to savor its distinctive ambiance that the Austrian capital holds the secret to. Both spoke a common trembling voice charged with emotion.

All of a sudden Marlene wondered fearfully if he was going to declare his love. She couldn’t see herself kissing him. Besides, was he a man to be satisfied with a commonplace “I love you”?

Hadn’t he just made the most beautiful declaration of love by asking her to go to Hollywood?

Linking her to his work , to his raison d’etre?

They looked into each other’s eyes at length in silence. ternberg’s face though marked by extreme exhaustion seemed more handsome than ever to her.

Marlene unfastened one of her earrings, took Sternberg’s hand and closed it around the jewel.

“My father gave these to my mother so that she would give them to me one day. I received them when my daughter was born.”

Then she turned, tears in her eyes and forced a smile.

Returning from Vienna, she announced to her husband her departure for Hollywood at the ed of the month. Willy, the spurned lover, accompanied her to the station. By way of a farewell he whispered : “In your heart, Hollywood will take the place of our happy days, our escapades…”

On the platform, arms filled with flowers, she kissed passionately he who symbolized everything she was leaving : Old Europe, Vienna, her family and her past.

In Hollywood, Sternberg demanded that his precious prodigy lose fifteen kilograms. At the end of six weeks thanks to the care of masseurs and make-up artists Marlene was unrecognizable and more beautiful than ever.

They shared several years of romantic and artistic complicity, then each went their own way never forgetting the sublime moments spent in Vienna. For this affair, unconsummated love was the strongest.

Many years later, in 1964, Marlene came to Moscow where she received an extraordinary welcome.
It was this day, from her lips, that I heard for the first time about “the magic of Vienna” when, on the Muscovite stage, she evoked her far away voyages.
At that time I was thirteen years old.

You have to start by experiencing what you want to express.
Vincent Van Gogh

When I told my mother that my editorial office was sending me to Rabat for five days for a conference on the environment, a gleam of joy spread across her face. We smiled at each other.
Was it chance? Destiny?
A year ago, after my grandfather’s death, my mother asked me to help her clear out his flat. He had lived there alone since my grandmother’s death ten years previously. My grandfather was a taciturn man who said little about himself and his childhood. I knew he was born in Morocco and that he had arrived in France during the Second World War, at the age of 20. He met and married my grandmother, and became wedded to his adopted country at the same time, and never left either France or his wife’s side again. We never knew exactly why he didn’t want to go back to his home country, but we imagined it had something to do with his difficult relationship with his father. My grandfather always evaded questions about his childhood, and time never healed his eticence. He had closed the door on his past for good. Now, my mother and I had only one thing on our minds: to reopen it. There was one question in particular that plagued us – did he still have
family in Morocco?
In my grandfather’s living room, several carefully framed photographs sat proudly on the chest of drawers. Black-and-white photos of my grandparents’ wedding, my parents’ wedding, my mother as a child, a teenager, a young woman, me as a baby … I was drawn to one photograph: a small portrait of my grandfather in uniform. He must have been about 20. He was good looking, with fine features and a gentle gaze. Under his right eye was a beauty spot, exactly the same as mine. The family trademark, he used to tell me jokingly.

 

In one of the chest’s drawers, among the tablecloths and silver cutlery, I found a little black leather box bound with several elastic bands. Thinking it was a trinket of no importance, I set it on the table and carried on sorting through the various administrative papers in front of me. Then at one point, possessed by an uncontrollable urge, I caught up the box, removed the elastic bands and opened it. Photographs, postcards from Morocco, a birth certificate, an old watch, letters, short notes and booklets in Arabic spilled onto the table.

 

I arrived in Rabat on a Monday. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The weather was beautiful. The air was a little more humid than in France, and it relaxed me. I was overcome by a feeling of wellbeing, and tears came to my eyes. I breathed deeply.

The man in charge of arranging my transfer to the hotel was in high spirits and seemed proud to be showing me his city. We crossed huge avenues lined with impeccably pruned trees. We passed by the majestic buildings of various embassies, consulates, ministries and, of course, the royal palace. A reminder that we were in the administrative capital of Morocco, it gave the city an impressive, imperial air. I hoped I would have time to visit all the sights my guide recommended, some of which looked very old.

 

In my grandfather’s flat, my mother and I were stunned by the discovery I had made. We sat down at the living room table and went over every document and item that had lain dormant in the little black leather box. My mother seemed to be discovering a treasure; a side of my grandfather’s life she had known nothing about. Why had he never told her of it? Why all the mystery? She picked up a black-and-white photo of a young couple posing in traditional dress, looking serious, concentrating hard. The woman was shapely, her hair worn in a scarf that made her eyes stand out. Under her right eye was a beauty mark. The boy of around 10, standing between his parents, had one in exactly the same place. The woman was carrying a baby wrapped in pale cloths in her arms, its face barely visible. The father had fine features, a certain elegance, and a very bright, almost hard gaze.
His son looked like him. He had the same fine face, but his eyes were different: they were soft as velvet. My mother couldn’t take her eyes off the photograph. For the first time, she was seeing the faces of her grandparents, the face of her father as a boy, and discovering the existence of her father’s little brother or sister.

 

The little black box also contained letters written in Arabic, my grandfather’s French naturalization papers, his birth certificate, which told us his parents’ first names, and a photocopy of the family record book, which told us the name of his younger sister.
My mother was shaking. Her suspicions had been confirmed: what she had always imagined and secretly hoped was spread out right there on the table in front of her. Her father surely still had family there – cousins, and her aunt, if she was still alive. She was overcome with a sudden joy mixed with anguish, an onlychild uncovering a piece of her past and the hope of finding part of her family. My grandfather’s birth certificate said he was born on 5 January 1920, in Rabat.

 

We passed the Bou Regreg river, which separates the cities of Rabat and Salé. In the distance was the sea. Giant palm trees cut into the sharp blue sky. There wasn’t a breath of wind. I opened the window wide and breathed deeply. I was in my grandfather’s land. This business trip had taken on a sacred quality.

 

The hotel was sumptuous. A real gem, set amongst a garden of luxuriant plants, where rose bushes and orange trees gave the air a subtle scent. The décor was contemporary and refined throughout. The conference was to take place in the hotel.
Various speakers and guests were starting to arrive from all over: France, the US, Italy, Algeria and, of course, Morocco.
Rabat had been declared a green city and saw itself as a model on environmental matters. I settled into my room, which was luxurious, blending oriental charm with modernity.

 

While I unpacked my case, I tasted the little almond cakes laid out on the table by way of welcome. Sweet and creamy, they tasted divine. I took out my laptop, files and everything I would need to take notes during the conference. At the bottom of my case was the black-and-white photograph of my great-grandparents.

 

My mother and I had completely cleared, emptied and cleaned my father’s flat before handing the keys back to the landlord. My mother took some of her parents’ furniture, trinkets and keepsakes, and stored them in her garage. She kept the black leather box on her bedside table. Every day she would open it and take out the documents, determined to start the process of tracing her aunt as quickly as possible. I took care of the Internet research while she took care of the administrative process at the consulate.

 

eople often ask me about my roots. Am I Algerian? Tunisian? Egyptian? Iranian? Lebanese, perhaps? I always said that my grandfather came from Morocco, but I’d never been there.

Finding myself here in Rabat was like a twist of fate, a blessing that life had dealt me: an invitation to discover part of my family’s roots and culture, and immerse myself in them. The sun rose over Rabat, flooding the city and the river with an ochre light that causes a tightening in my chest and gives the place an impression of serenity. Majestic Rabat was rising from her sleep, dressed in gold.

 

The air was sweet. I drank my coffee on the hotel patio, looking onto the beautiful garden and the pool, where a few brave souls were swimming despite the early hour. I went to fetch my things and set myself up in the conference room, which was filling slowly. Renewable energy, the preservation of natural resources, waste management, sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism were a few of the topics on the agenda. I’m passionate about environmentalism and my job as an editor, but I confess that I struggled to concentrate on the first speaker. I switched off. My body was there, glued to the chair; my hands were ready to take notes amid the audience of scientists and experts; but my soul was elsewhere: already in the city, exploring Rabat.

 

I roamed the city, losing myself in the maze of the market on rue des Consuls, breathing in the air, the spices, the tanned leather; feasting my eyes on a multitude of bright colours in the carpets, cloth, jewellery and fruit; immersing myself in the swarming atmosphere of the souk, soaking it up; tasting the sweet and savoury flavours, the honey and almond cakes; observing the people, talking to them, seeking a resemblance to my father in their features; looking for something to say to my mother when I came home – a scent, a clue, a bit of hope. I wanted to go back to Paris with hope.

 

My mother was told that the research could take some time, because her aunt would certainly have married and changed her surname. It would require a search through several years of marriage certificates, and not just from Rabat. She could have married anywhere in Morocco, or moved to another country – France, like her brother, or somewhere else. My Internet research hadn’t been fruitful. I had posted messages on several family history websites and not received any response, apart from a few messages of encouragement from people who had come across them.

 

Someone at the hotel talked to me about the Kasbah of the Udayas, one of Rabat’s top sights. I’d seen some photos of this 12th-century fortress on the Internet and was eager to visit. After the last speaker of the day had finished, I escaped and jumped into a taxi. The  unassailable citadel, surrounded by ramparts, was a beauty spot on the hillside, looking out onto the river Bou Regreg and the distant sea. The entire scene reminded me of Andalusia: the heavy doors of finely sculpted wood, the Moorish garden, the little white houses covered with blue lime in places. I lost myself in the narrow streets, discovering little architectural gems. Partly open doors here and there revealed hints of typical, intricate décor. In the heart of the citadel, I made a stop at Café aure and ordered a delicious mint tea and a gazelle horn. The
view of the river was beautiful and soothing; from here, the city seemed sleepy. I carried on exploring and went into a kind of art gallery to buy postcards. There were two women behind the desk.
The younger was engrossed in a phone conversation and barely raised her head. Her animation was in contrast to the calm of the elderly woman who sat next to her, who never took her eyes off me. Her skin was heavily wrinkled, her hands were calloused, and her black eyes reminded me of my grandfather’s. She could be his sister. When I held out the cards I’d chosen to her, she took my hand and said something in Arabic I didn’t understand. I wanted to ask questions but didn’t dare, so I settled for smiling at her. When I left the gallery, she made a long hand gesture at me through the window.

 

Back at the hotel, I lay down on the big bed in my room and closed my eyes, both exhausted and excited after my excursion.
My senses were awakened. I felt something like an urgency to soak up this city and bring as many memories and photos back for my mother as I could, so that she could taste the air, picture the colours and smell the scents of her father’s land. I had to see as much as possible before leaving, even if it meant escaping a little early from the conference over the following days.

 

I remember my grandfather: his gentleness, and taciturn nature that almost gave way to shyness. He spoke French with a slight accent, a reminder that he came from somewhere different: a warm, faraway, exotic country that people dream about. He was better than anyone at choosing fruit and vegetables at the market, and I was sure this came from his roots. Where he came from, ingredients had to have more taste and flavour, and he was never fooled. He taught my grandmother to make Moroccan couscous and other traditional dishes with sesame seeds and fennel. Although she was from Normandy and used to cooking with butter, she became an expert. He used to compliment her on her cooking talents and enjoyed the multi-spiced dishes with open relish. Even though we talked so little about Morocco, it was always present at the table. And every time we ate Moroccan food, we were filled with joy and curiosity at the feeling of discovering hidden treasure.

 

A five-minute car ride from the hotel was the necropolis of Chellah, built on the still-visible remains of a Roman city. Once I had passed hrough the heavy octagonal door, an ancient world opened up to me, where remains of the Roman Empire lay alongside those of the Marinid dynasty. I went down a paved path bordered by abundant, aromatic plants, and came across the minaret of an ancient mosque and Koranic school. In front of it were the near-intact tombs of Sultan Abu Al-Hasan and his wife, Morning Sun, a Christian who converted to Islam and who still inspires interest and fascination today. A little further down was a basin full of coins, where an enigmatic fish with golden scales and
eels said to restore women’s fertility are said to live hidden away.
A strange clacking of beaks made me raise my head, and I was amazed to see storks perched on the ancient ruins. Every piece of this land, every molecule of the air, was loaded with history and legend. It gave the place a unique atmosphere loaded with mystery and intensity.

 

I felt that everywhere I went in Rabat, my grandfather was with me, guiding my steps. I would so have loved to make this journey with him, so that he could show me the place where he was born, the area he lived in and the school he went to. I imagined that the modern city I was exploring must be very different to the one he had known. I tried to imagine the pain that had prevented him from returning to his home country. What had happened between him and his father to make him refuse to come back, to close the door on his country, his culture, his
language, and even lose his family, his sister? What had made him flee, robbing relatives of part of their heritage, and leaving them thirsty for the culture that was torn from them?

 

The sacred ritual of the hammam was part of this culture I was experiencing for the first time. I let the humid heat soak into me, relaxing me instantly. Enveloped in the muffled atmosphere, I lay down on the hot, brightly coloured tiles. I abandoned myself in the masseuse’s hands. She gave me a vigorous scrub that left my skin soft and scented, and a rhassoul clay shampoo that gave me silky, shiny hair. That evening, I couldn’t make sense of the notes I’d taken during the day. I fell asleep like a baby, lulled by the muezzin’s call and the sweetness of life that cloaked the city.

 

It was the last day of the conference. On the agenda: how do we manage waste in emerging economies? How is an “intelligent” city defined in the Mediterranean? What conditions are needed to optimize sustainable development initiatives in Morocco? There were further topics that showed potential. Rabat had signed a charter on the environment and sustainable development. It was becoming a real open-air laboratory, and this gave the city added appeal in my professional eyes.

 

I left the conference earlier than usual that evening. Before returning to Paris, I absolutely wanted to see the Hassan tower and the tomb of King Mohammed V up close. I never knew that Morocco’s most famous king was buried in Rabat and that anyone could make the pilgrimage to his tomb. Horse guards were posted at the entrance to the esplanade. To the left was the unfinished Hassan tower, 44 metres high, overhanging the city and the sea.
In front of it, you can still see the remains of the marble colonnades that were supposed to support what would have been the biggest mosque in Morocco. Directly opposite is the royal mausoleum, where the king and his two sons were laid to rest. I mixed with the crowd, eyeing the monarchs’ tombs with a certain fascination. I was astounded by the beauty and prestige of this place of rest, the intricacy and quality of the details and materials: gold leaves, white marble, mahogany and cedar.

 

I struggled to get to sleep that night. I had experienced a journey beyond time. In the space of a few days, I felt as if I had lost my habits and reference points; and, at the same time, that I had found part of my family’s.

 

I left Rabat on the Friday. As the plane took off from Rabat Salé airport, my chest tightened. Elegant Rabat, with its huge areas greenery, slowly disappeared from view. I regretted not staying for longer to explore the rest of the city, the beaches, the other gardens, museums, libraries, and other, secret places. I would take the city away with me to tell my mother about, and I promised myself I could come back with her very soon for a holiday.

 

When the plane landed in Paris, the temperature dropped 20 degrees in an instant. My mother had come to meet me at the airport. Her eyes were shining. As she embraced me, she told me she had some good news. She was very excited and couldn’t stop talking. In the chaos, with a certain amount of confusion, she told me she might have found her aunt and her family. She could have three cousins. They lived in Casablanca, 22 kilometres from Rabat. She had received their letter yesterday and had been eagerly awaiting my return so that she could surprise me. She added that we now had to organize a trip to see them – and since Rabat was so close, we could visit while we were there, given that I was an expert on the city now. Once we were in the car, she held out a short letter with an address on, and a photograph of
two women sitting on a sofa. The younger woman was very dark and quite pretty. She looked around my mother’s age. The older woman wore a coloured scarf around her head and was the spitting image of my grandfather. She seemed ageless. She was looking very intensely
at the camera. Her face was heavily wrinkled, her gaze gentle.
And under her right eye was a beauty spot.

Dear Amélie,

I’ve been meaning to write this letter for a while. Perhaps, by getting my words down on paper, I’ll be able to lift the veil on the mystery surrounding you. For so long, you have remained in the shade, even if you were often mentioned by my paternal grandmother, Natacha, the one who fled revolutionary Russia as a child, and to whom I owe my exotic first name. You fascinated her, and now, as I glean scraps of information concerning your life, I see why. I would have like to have known the shape of your face, if your eyes were light or dark, the shade of your hair. I’ve never seen a portrait of you. I would have liked to have heard your voice, admired the way you walked.

I first wished to know you better two years ago. In 2009, precisely, when you burst into my life in an unexpected way. It all started with a passport renewal. Mine had been out of date for a few weeks. I was told at the town hall that I now needed a French nationality certificate in order to renew my passport. Surprised, I answered that I was French, born in Neuilly sur Seine, that my parents were also French. The clerk pointed out that my father was born in Mauritius and my mother in Rome. This had never prevented me previously from obtaining passports and identity cards. At present, I was curtly informed, when two parents were born abroad, a “proof” of French nationality was now demanded.

Rendez-vous at the new “Pôle of French Nationality”, in the 13th arrondissement, provided with the birth and marriage certificates of my father, Joël, my grand-father, Gaëtan, and my great-grand-father, Eugène. They were all born in Mauritius. And so was Louis-Eugène, my great-great-grand-father, and his father, Gabriel. My aunt Zina, my father’s sister, who found herself in the same ludicrous situation as I, having to prove her French nationality, was asked the following question by the Pôle staff :
“Why did the de Rosnay family go to Mauritius ? ” She was baffled. How would we ever know ? The Pôle administration asked me for the name of the first de Rosnay born on French soil, before the departure for Mauritius. I looked him up on the Internet.
Alexis Fromet de Rosnay, born in 1742, in the Val de Loire.

I ended up obtaining my certificate, not with a certain amount of difficulty and a good deal of patience. The person who is writing this letter, Amélie, is indeed “truly French”. But this unfortunate episode allowed me to find out more about the origins of my father’s family. The little seed had been planted. Why indeed had the Rosnay’s chosen to live on a faraway island, lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles away from France ? My guess is that you are smiling now, Amélie. I did not yet know the truth. And indeed, I have only garnered a few elements of that truth.

The secret is held by you.

I thought of you most at Bel-Ombre, as I stood facing the white, frothing line of waves breaking at the coral barrier, and watched the filao trees fluttering in the wind, surrounded by the emerald green of the sugar canes, and that particular Mauritian blue of the sea. Yet, I knew you no doubt had not ventured down here often.
The south of the island has remained surprisingly wild, even two hundred years after you. At Bel-Ombre, the coast is nearly untouched, spared by the tourism industry which wreaked havoc up north, reducing Grand Baie to slabs of concrete. The beaches at Bel-Ombre where tiny, pearly crabs still scamper, are preserved, and resemble the beaches you must have known. Did you go to the shore much, Amélie ? I don’t believe sunbathing was a ladylike occupation, in your epoch.

I will not go back to Grand-Sable. I prefer to keep the memory of that peaceful lagoon and its golden shores intact. I never want to lay eyes on the hotels, pools, restaurants and terraces that have marred its beauty, pushing up like ungainly mushrooms. I would rather remember those childhood summers in the seventies, before Mauritius became a fashionable getaway. At Grand-Sable beach, Natacha, my grand-mother, her hair rolled up under a plastic, flowery bonnet, would dive from the springboard, anxiously watched by my grandfather Gaetan, not a good
swimmer and always worrying she might smash her head against the rocks. I remember sailing a Hobie-Cat with my friends Anne, Vanessa and Alexandra, crossing the transparent water over to their beach house on the other side of the bay. On Claude L.’s beautiful white sailboat, Anouchka, I remember being 9 years old and utterly convinced that the beauty all around us was ours, that the highest crest of Coin de Mire island had been upturned by a celestial finger, for our eyes only.

I try to gather the loose strings, the bits and pieces I’ve harvested concerning your life, Amélie. I know but little, only what is printed on official paperwork, letters, and dates, and what Natacha preciously hoarded and wrote about you. You were born Place des Vosges, in Paris, in 1777. You were married a first time, with Jules de Saint Mars. At 18, your first child was born, Eugène, and three more followed, Auguste, Athénaïs, Louise-Mathilde. You were not happy with your husband, your letters to your teacher proved this. Your husband was unfaithful to you and he humiliated you. You also had to face another difficult situation, the insanity of your unstable sister in law. It was when you were thirty, when you had just become a widow, with four children looked after by a nanny, that you became close to a friend of your parents. Alexis Fromet de Rosnay, a widower who was thirty-five years older than yourself.

I like to imagine that encounter. Your father, Monsieur Dubois de Courval, married a second wife, your mother, who was twenty-five years younger than him. Old age no doubt did not frighten you. Perhaps Alexis offered you what Jules never did and what you needed so badly : tenderness and respect ? With Alexis, you founded a new home. Four children were born of this new love, Gabriel, Felix, little Louise-Félicie who died at two, and Augusta, conceived when you were already forty. After twenty years of a serene existence with Alexis, in 1824, your life changed dramatically. Money problems loomed. Your husband was now an old man in his eighties. How would you ever finance your sons
educations ? Whoever suggested you should go abroad, that you could become a governess at the Réunion island, where you would teach drawing, singing and music ? It took three months to get to the Réunion by boat. Why did you finally make up your mind to go live so far away ? I wish I knew the truth. What I do know is that you left France in February 1824, with your youngest daughter, aged 7. I think about that departure and what it must have meant. Your Saint Mars children were fully grown, but you must have known you were never to see them again. Just like your husband, so elderly now. Was this your choice, Amélie ? Or was it an escape ? I can imagine you embarking on that ship, holding your daughter by the hand. Who came to bid you goodbye ? Who gave you that last kiss ? Who was standing on the quay as the boat drew away ? It must have been cold that day. I imagine you wrapped up in a dark coat, your face covered by a bonnet. Were you crying ? I wonder how the endless trip went, how your little girl managed. Was this departure painful one ? Or did you see it as a new chance, as a new life ?

Eighteen months later, in a letter to Alexis, you explained that “friends” had found you another position as a governess in nearby Mauritius. The money you were sending to France saved your family.

The first time you set foot on Mauritian soil was in 1827. Augusta, your daughter, was ten years old. You were fifty. I wonder if, like Natacha, your ship docked at Port Louis. My grand-mother often described her honeymoon in her husband, Gaëtan’s native island., in May 1934. They were 19 and 22. She never forgot the colorful crowds, the car trip through lush and startling vegetation, the faraway mountains cut out against blue, cloudy skies and the arrival at the peaceful Villebague. Did you ever visit the lovely pale house with its gray roofs ? It was built in 1740, so I imagine you could have. Did you ever walk up those creaking, ebony steps ? I like to imagine you enjoying a sip of vanilla tea, like my grandparents and I used to, on the first floor, in the shade of the veranda. Would you have noticed that beyond the sugar canes, a silver ribbon can be glimpsed ? The sea, at Grand Baie. At nightfall, as a little girl, I marveled at how swiftly the darkness came. Maybe you thought the same, during your first years in Mauritius ? Obscurity also arrived with its procession of insects, mosquitoes, cockroaches and the dreaded yellow wasp. You also must have slept beneath a mosquito net.

I made the mistake of going back to the Villebague. One should never return to childhood homes. The house is now an empty shell, devoid of its familiar smells. It seemed smaller, almost shrunken. The magnificent garden, my grandmother’s pride and joy, was now overgrown and neglected. Apparently, one can rent the Villebague for weddings and seminars. I searched for traces of Natacha and Gaëtan, in vain. The furniture is still there, the speckled mirrors, the cane chairs, the long table in the dining room, but the spirit of the house has gone for ever.

After the death of your husband Alexis in 1829, you decided not to come back to France. What was your life on this island, Amélie ?
Did you find love again ? If you did, was it a secret one ? Was your life spun of tears and regret, or joy ? I prefer to imagine happiness. Your sons, Gabriel and Felix de Rosnay, accompanied by their fiancées, the Chenaux sisters, Marie-Irma and Anne-Lise, came to Mauritius to join you, and to marry, in 1837 and 1838.
Augusta, your last daughter, married too. Did you often think of your first four children, the Saint Mars ? Did you feel you had failed as a mother ? You saw Louise-Mathilde, your second daughter, who had just had a child, just before you left for Mauritius. Surely, that must have troubled you. What did people whisper about you, at the time ? That you had abandoned your children? Is that why you asked for your de Rosnay children to come live with you on the island ? So that you could at least succeed as a mother, in their eyes ? So that you would not make the same mistake twice ? I wish I could have asked you those questions.

Gabriel and Marie-Irma had several children. You must have cuddled Louis-Eugène, born in 1842, when you were still alive.

Later, he married Marie-Amicie. You were no longer there, Amélie, you passed away in 1858. But the son born of their union in 1875 was named Eugène de Rosnay. When I visited the Bel-Ombre domain, now an elegant restaurant, I crossed paths with Eugène, in a way. You could not have known that colonial style house, built after you. In the wood-paneled drawing room on the ground floor, with a refined atmosphere that no doubt would have pleased you, hang several portraits. Serious gentlemen, with fine mustaches and slicked-back hair. James Wilson, Eugène de Rosnay, Edouard Rouillard and Emile Sauzier. I learned that they created the Bel Ombre sugar company in 1910. Which photograph is the one of my great-grand father ? I cannot identify him . I never knew him, he died in 1928, at 53. I do remember his
wife, the bony and severe Simone, and the caramels she used to give my sister and I in her lugubrious rue Spontini apartment. I don’t remember Simone having that singsong, joyful Mauritian accent that sometimes makes one want to smile, although she too, was born on the island.

You were buried at the Pamplemousses cemetery, near the extraordinary garden which attracts visitors from around the world, with its giant water lilies that change color depending on the sunlight. But when I think of you, Amélie, it is at Bel-Ombre that I like to imagine you, in the heart of the wild magnificence that has not changed with the passing of time and the advent of progress, the same beauty you must have admired when you first arrived here. Bel-Ombre to me is the Mauritius of my youth, vanished and yet still so alive in my mind, graced with the souvenir of solar grandparents, irreplaceable and beloved : a painter who hid his fragility behind an impish sense of humor, and a Russian exilée who never lost her accent and who passed on to me her fierce joie de vivre.

What did you come here for, Amélie ? And did you find it ? I long to light up the shadows of your life, to measure the palpable mystery that vibrates around you, two centuries later. In Bel-Ombre’s splendor, I dedicate these words to you and tell you how proud I am to be of the same flesh and blood as woman who took her destiny into her own hands. Who knows ? Perhaps one day, I shall write your story….

Your grand daughter,

Tatiana

I had only just turned 18 years old, but in two months I was going to be 50. This fact had left me feeling at once puzzled and disconcerted. Not to mention depressed. Because if I had indeed turned 18 only two or three blinks of an eye ago, I nonetheless had to admit the obvious (surrender to it, in a sense, with hands up and head down): I was no longer as handsome as a youth, that was clear, and I had my doubts as to whether I still had the strength of a man – I felt soft and pale inside, like mashed turnips, and I was already dipping into my energy reserves.

I had married the woman I loved, I still loved her, and we had a 13-year-old son who was gently pulling away from us (with, it seemed to me, the requisite weapons, cards and shields to set off on his own path), while I was floating along in the passing time (it’s interesting to note that we generally think “time passes,” although we are the ones who are supposed to be advancing – it’s as if while riding on a train we’d say that it was the landscape that was passing (this apparent linguistic twist reflects the fact that we most often do next to nothing, remaining immobile as we watch and listen to our surroundings)), letting myself be carried, bobbing up and down like a Champagne cork – a cork
from a forgotten bottle – waiting somewhere between birth and death for nothing in particular. Defeated and miserable and heading toward death, I decided that I had to do something.

 

So I went to spend a week holed up in a five-star hotel in the city of Luxembourg, in the country of Luxembourg. I could have gone there as well as anywhere… It was elsewhere, and unknown. But it was also near, and probably familiar. I had a bit of money from a prize awarded to my latest novel, and I thought that this city, which I had imagined to be away from “everything” (a uniform and protected enclave in a country that bore the same name), another planet, would be an ideal setting for my trip, a place at once strange and peaceful and thus perfectly suited for putting myself temporarily on hold, for stepping out of my life. The grand hotel, comfortable, elegant and undoubtedly quiet, would serve as a fortified setting for my reflections, which might or might not involve my confrontation with the question of life and death, a question that in fact was not even a question (the simple fact of asking it is presumptuous).

I couldn’t have dreamed of a better place. The hotel resembled an ocean liner, moored above the city on the Kirchberg plateau, in a sprawling district of businesses and European institutions entirely devoted to work, a zone almost extraterrestrial, calm and geometric, nothing but office towers in which thousands of employees, invisible behind tinted windows, worked to keep the world functioning. Two stunning structures stood among them as reminders of the beauty of life on earth: the Philharmonie, by Christian de Portzamparc, and the Museum of Modern Art, by I.M. Pei.

Inside the hotel, the feeling of being on an ocean liner was even more striking – clearly the architect’s intention. The building was a great oval, a sumptuous cruise ship whose extremities were almost pointed, with an immense atrium-like lobby in the middle that seemed to be open to the sky, with only a transparent roof for a ceiling. On either side of the five floors, rooms were lined like cabins along gangways served by two glass elevators. Even before I had gone as far as the reception desk, I knew that I would not leave this place for a week: Nothing could have been better suited to my state – an indolent, aimless lolling around that had become my existence – than this immobility imposed for no reason, this pampered solitude in which I would be freed from obligations to act, freed from outside impressions and responsibilities, embarked on a stationary cruise out of space and time at last.

I would eat in one or the other of the two restaurants, drink in one or the other of the two bars, perhaps read, listen and look around me, sleep in a big, soft bed. I would go outside only a few minutes each day, stepping onto the front steps as if onto a ship’s deck, to smoke.

But it turned out that I didn’t even have to do that. In the Havana Lounge, a bar decorated in dark red tones and wood, with dim lighting, old leather chairs, antique lamps, models of ships, books and display cases filled with cigars, smoking was permitted – but hotel employees were not allowed to enter, as stipulated by a law intended to protect their health, so patrons had to get their own drinks in the bar next door, which was just as luxurious and pleasant only brighter and healthier. It had an excellent selection of rare and mysterious whiskies. I therefore spent the whole week in the Havana Lounge, a glass of magic elixir in hand, surrounded by strangers who lowered their voices when speaking in the coppery half-light laced with the heady, melancholic scent of cigars.

On the first night, I realized that I was where I wanted to be, that I had left behind the known world: Seated on an olive-green leather
couch near the arm chair in which I had settled under a small lamp with a glass and an unopened book, two heavy-set, gray-haired men in well-cut suits (one wore a three-piece version with a vest) were drinking cognac or Armagnac while discussing Joan of Arc. In a soft voice marked by an accent that escaped identification (by me), the man with the vest was explaining to the other man that Joan had not in fact been burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Or at least, he said, she had been alive after her death (which had apparently not bothered many people at the time, given that everything was possible in those days, especially when it involved extraordinary beings). She had been seen in
1436 near Metz, where two of her brothers, Pierre and Jean, had formally identified her as being their sister – one of them had immediately delivered the news to Orléans, where the annual commemoration of her death was thus promptly canceled. Joan (who, strangely, was going by the name of Claude) had been presented to Elisabeth de Goerlitz, the duchess of Luxembourg, who also recognized her as being the so-called Maid of Orléans.
The duchess of Luxembourg, according to the dapper storyteller with the vest, was, after all, reputable as far as such witnesses go.
Unfortunately, my neighbors then stood up, having finished their cigars, and I was unable to hear the end of the story. When the Havana Lounge’s glass door closed softly behind them, the big graying fellow was telling of Joan’s reunion with the king of France, Charles VII.

 

I was left lost in thought. Here I was in Luxembourg intending to look into the matter of life and death, and the first thing that I overhear purely by chance is that Joan of Arc, heroine of an entire people, had come to Luxembourg after having been burned at the stake. It was unsettling.

 

Upon my arrival, I had vowed not to touch my laptop (which I had brought along so that I could do some writing if boredom overcame me). I didn’t want any contact with the outside world, which would feel like an escape from my airtight cocoon. But before going to dine at the hotel’s Italian restaurant, I couldn’t resist the nagging desire to return to my fifth-floor room and switch on my little black MacBook in order to find out what had happened to Joan’s ghost.

 

When, lying on my stomach on the cushy white bed, I had entered the words “Joan Ghost Luxembourg,’’ the first site that Google proposed referred to a “Luxembourg Garden ghost.” Wrong. So I added the words “of Arc,” which I had forgotten because of my emotional familiarity with the ghostly combatant. I quickly, and sadly, found what I was looking for. A certain Lady of Armoises, named Joan or Claude (who knows which), had indeed presented herself as being the glorious Maid of Orléans returned from the dead, motivated only by the trivial desire to make a buck (which is also what prompted Joan’s two brothers, the vile, conniving Jean and Pierre, to feign recognition, no one taking any interest in them since their sister had gone up in smoke and they had been left to vegetate penniless). Duchess Elisabeth de Goerlitz, meanwhile, must not have had her wits about her. In Luxembourg, Joan or Claude had married a certain Robert des Armoises, sire of Jaulny, had quickly bore him two children (the supposed Maid had thrown her chastity out the window) and had lived the high life (mostly in the local bistros) until she finally met up with Charles VII after four years of epistolary exchange. The impostor was immediately unmasked, but the miffed king pardoned her nonetheless and she lived the rest of her days in the shadows, at the Jaulny castle with her
husband. I would have been better off not turning on my computer.

For two or three days, I immersed myself in the subdued alcoholic tranquility of the Havana Lounge and the sweet warmth of the  cigars, discreetly observing my neighbors, who were living the good life. I was comfortably euphoric and thinking that even if the hosts did turn out to be nothing but crooks in disguise, even if death was indeed unavoidable and lying quietly in wait, it was all still more than worth it, even if it meant doing nothing, living adrift and motionless. I was content with the subtle yet intense pleasure of this trip. Apart from a few luxurious accessories, my stay nonetheless was almost exactly like my life the past few years in Paris – and I was complaining? (In the hotel brochure, the director had written: “Life in Luxembourg is magnificent.” I agreed with her).

I had hardly opened my mouth since arriving on Monday, even a slight movement of my arm seeming to consume all my available energy, and I felt as if I were being covered little by little with dark green moss. On the soft bed on Thursday afternoon, I switched on my computer again. I didn’t feel bad, though, because strictly speaking this was not opening a window onto the world from which I had withdrawn, but rather onto the margins of the world, the past. The ghost of the Luxembourg Garden had been on my mind, lingering more or less in the background, for three days. I had come here to the city of Luxembourg to reflect on life and death only to learn that a possible hitch (I’m optimistic) might in fact be found in the Luxembourg Garden, only a 10-minute Métro ride from my home in Paris. I again entered “Joan Ghost Luxembourg” in the search field.

Google, with good reason, lops men and women into the same basket, that of human being. Therefore, what came up in French was not a female Jeanne (which is Joan in English) but a male Jean (or John). He was a 24-year-old medical student, Jean Romier. (I recalled in passing that on Monday I had noted that Joan of Arc’s mother’s name was Romée, Isabelle Romée.) On Saturday, June 27, 1925, around 10 a.m., Jean Romier, a most stable and good-natured young man, was studying in the Luxembourg Garden, on an out-of-the-way bench in the shade of a tree in bloom. Seated nearby was a gaunt old man in an antiquated 19th-century overcoat who seemed to be dozing. After a few minutes Jean thought he heard a murmur.

“Excuse me?” Jean said.

“I said I like this place, it’s so calm. I’ve been coming here for a long time and nothing changes, even the trees don’t seem to grow.”

They struck up a conversation and the old man, having learned that Jean liked classical music, invited him to a chamber music concert at his apartment (a Mozart quartet would be featured) the following Friday at 9 p.m. His name was Alphonse Berruyer.

 

On the agreed evening, Jean Romier knocked on the door of the apartment on the left side of the third-floor landing in a well-appointed building (as a literary man might say) in the rue de Vaugirard. Monsieur Berruyer, eyes sparkling behind small round glasses, cheerfully greeted him and introduced him to his family – his wife, sister-in-law, grandchildren André and Marcel, nephew – and the concert began. It was a quartet with a flute. Afterwards, Jean stayed for a good hour chatting with them (Marcel was studying law, André was preparing to enter the naval academy, the nephew was heading to a seminary), sitting in a beautiful armchair in the library that doubled as a smoking room, sipping Madeira wine and nibbling on appetizers. He then bid farewell to is new friends, as he had classes early the next morning. But
once in the street he realized that he had left behind a fine-cut gold lighter that his parents had given him for his birthday. He climbed back up the three flights and knocked at the door. This time, no one answered. He knocked again, louder. He heard no sound coming from inside, although he had left the apartment only three minutes before. Incredulous, he knocked and knocked. Disturbed by the noise, an old man came out of the apartment next door. Jean explained that he had forgotten something at Monsieur Berruyer’s apartment. The old man
frowned.

“The last Berruyer who I knew died about 20 years ago,’’ he said, “and no one has lived in that apartment since.’’

Jean Romier was annoyed: He wasn’t crazy, he insisted, he had just spent the evening there with the whole family. The old man’s expression then changed and he shouted, “Thief! Thief!” The concierge came running up, other neighbors arrived. They surrounded the young man and called the police, who took Jean to the station. He identified himself, told his story, described every room in the apartment, the furniture, the knick-knacks, the smoking room. The officers didn’t believe him. But they were baffled nonetheless.

The next morning, the police organized a visit of the apartment in the presence of the owner, a certain Monsieur Mauger (who was the great-great-grandson of Alphonse Berruyer), and Jean Romier and his father, a doctor, who confirmed that his son had told him the night before that he was going to listen to chamber music at the home of an old man whom he had met in the Luxembourg Garden.

Inside the apartment, which clearly had been deserted for quite some time, a few dusty pieces of furniture were visible, along with old knick-knacks and spider webs, in the faint light filtering through dirty windows. The police officer noted, however, that Jean Romier’s descriptions corresponded very precisely to the reality. Suddenly, the student froze before a faded portrait hanging in the living room:

“That’s Monsieur Berruyer’s nephew! And there, next to him, is his grandson, Marcel, who is studying law!’’

The owner went pale (and was trembling, no doubt) and acquiesced: That’s right, he said, the former is buried in Africa, where he was a missionary, and the latter, Marcel, his great-uncle, was a lawyer. He recalled that his other great-uncle, André, was an admiral when he died. All of these details, and what followed, are contained in a report that is to this day on file in the Paris police department archives. When the policemen, the owner, Jean Romier and his father entered the library, there on an old end table they saw the fine-cut gold lighter covered with dust.

This “anecdote’’ became famous (there is talk even today of a “Luxembourg ghost,” who gradually through the years lost the identity of Alphonse Berruyer and became simply a ghost). When the story was told to Albert Einstein, he took it seriously and was not even really surprised: “This young man stumbled in time,’’ he said, “like other people miss a step on the stairs.”

I don’t know if I believe it or not. Probably not. But believing it or not is not what’s important. What’s important is that the story exists. It marks your mind.

The last day of my stay, unable to stroll back through time, I decided to go out after all – I felt that the comfort, the calm, dim light, the whisky and cigarettes smoked in peace, and, especially, the immobility had all in one way or another helped me find what I had been seeking. I asked a young blonde woman in the office behind the reception desk for tourism tips. Her name, which made me smile, was Jeanne.

I started in the city center, which was primarily a pedestrian shopping zone. I don’t usually like that sort of place, but now, perhaps because I hadn’t seen any passers-by or shops for six days, I felt good there. I walked without any particular expectation, observing people and statues, such as the one of Grand Duchess Charlotte, which looked gracious, human, fleshy – almost soft.
Near the Place Guillaume II, I approached a big hole that had been dug, roughly three meters by three and two or three meters deep. Two men in white coveralls stood talking next to it. They didn’t say anything when I leaned over to look into it.
On the bottom, I swear on the head, ears and kneecaps of my son, there was a skeleton.

I went down to the Ville Basse, the Grund (it was a long descent via old stone steps rather than via the elevator – which is nonetheless practical), and I walked for two hours under the ruins of the ramparts, along one river, the Alzette, and then another, the Pétrusse, which empties into it. I passed almost no one else. I advanced through the calm silence, accompanied only by the sound of the water, the same as in the days when Count Siegfried built his castle on the Bock promontory above the valley, towering over the villagers, and me, in 936.

When I returned to the Ville Haute, this time riding the elevator (a walk has its limits), I passed the excavation site again. The skeleton hole had been covered with a large blue tarp and was surrounded by metal barriers.

 

In the little sanctuary of the Havana Lounge on my final night, I witnessed an incident that was to become my favorite of the week, leaving me with a light-hearted memory from my time in seclusion. An attractive blonde woman in her 60s, holding a sizable cigar in one hand and a glass of amber-colored liquid in the other, was conversing with a silver-haired man who was a bit older than her and whose features were still firm despite showing signs of age. They were discussing the future of the world. The man, speaking with a Spanish accent, predicted that someday people would no longer even meet each other, everyone would stay closed up in his own electronic universe, even couples would
live their love from a distance, via screens or holograms. But he added that, fortunately, when that time came he would be long dead. Without hesitation, the woman casually half smiled and, before languorously taking a drag on her cigar, said: “You, dead?
Now that would surprise me.”

Night was looking to take over the city but Dubai, the insomniac, was defying the incipient obscurity. Far up on the 32nd floor, leaning his elbows on the railing of the immense terrace, he inhaled the sea air. As at every stopover, he was staying at the Sofitel Jumeirah Beach. He appreciated the staff’s friendliness and loved lingering in the impressive imperial suite which was systematically reserved for him. At each of his passings, he set down his dreams and his baggage there. He never derogated from the rule. He liked being recognized and in this fast-paced life that destiny imposed on him, he was trying to reestablish a few reassuring habits so as not to lose all his landmarks.

 

His existence was an uninterrupted succession of business trips, cold- hearted contract negotiations, anonymous professional encounters, romantic adventures with no tomorrow. He didn’t complain but age was catching up with him. The wrinkles were more heavily marked on his hairless face. Unlike his kin, he refused to follow the fashion of thick beards and flatteringly large mustaches. His Anglo-Saxon studies must have rubbed off on his hair growth. He smiled half-heartedly at this joke his brothers repeated at will.

No, he regretted nothing in his life. He had become a powerful man, respected and envied. The notoriety of the Waled AL. B. Corporation, the firm he himself created and which was named after him had spread well beyond its home country. Everywhere he went he was greeted with deference. His financial ease played in his favor.  He was not fooled but his wealth was not his only asset. His presence, his sharp eye, the mastery with which he maneuvered in the most complex situations inspired esteem. And yet, was he vain? He had always been lucid about himself and his circle. Perhaps he had become an old wise man like his father. It was hard for him to imagine. They were so different, their destinies so opposed.

What did they have in common? Belonging to the same line, to a tribe that claimed its Bedouin origins, to this desert people, proud and independent from which his family issued.

****2****

“Abou, Abou, please let me keep it.   I will look after it, I promise. It is so small, so skinny, the vultures themselves wouldn’t want it…”

The child stared at his father defiantly. The father crouched near his son and with a rough hand, the skin like parchment glimmering copper

 

reflections, stroked the fragile gazelle. The victim’s body trembled sporadically. It whimpered quietly, its head turned toward the sky. Doubtlessly surmising its inevitable sacrifice. The suffocating atmosphere irradiated a blinding clarity. The wind began to rise and the sand slapped the father and son’s faces, their keffiyehs flying in the air like long white birds.

“Waled, you are my eldest, I have absolute confidence in you but how could I exhaust your wish? Your mother, your brothers and sisters have hardly anything to eat.”

With a compulsive gesture the child enfolded the dying beast at his feet. His father raised his hand. The son believed that he would be struck and he recoiled.

“My son, do you really think I would harm you? This hand was not given to me to punish you but to help you grow. If I must stand against you it is for your own good. Don’t force me to be severe with you. The little meat we can get from this animal will still be a small comfort to your people.

For weeks we have had to be satisfied with camel milk and roots. Think of them.”

The young boy lowered his head, ashamed of his childish tears. His father was right, he should behave like a man. At only seven years of age, he understood the scope of the words; the desert was not for the weak. He knew it. The climate was too harsh, existence too demanding for self-pity. These last months were particularly hostile. The violence of the sandstorms, the oppressive heat which had persisted for months had exhausted the elders’ strength.  Food and water were lacking.                                                                                           The wadis were dried up and the oases overcrowded in these times of drought.

Without tribal unity they would have survived with great difficulty. The Rub-al-Khali crossing was a hardship the more vunerable did not withstand. The babies and young children suffered from dehydration, their mothers’ milk could no longer relieve them. Little Waled had witnessed this slow descent into hell. Hidden behind a tent, he had caught a few snatches of conversation from the elders’ council. His father had participated, he was proud of it. Admittedly, he didn’t have the stature of a sheik and even less of a sovereign but he was a descendant of the long line of the Beni Yas tribe and for that he was respected by all.

In spite of his young age, the boy sensed the anxious tone of this spur-of- the-moment meeting. The British protectorate brought them but scarce support. The unimpressive annuities and the fishing taxes paid to the most privileged then scattered among clan members were not enough to

 

straighten the dangerous slope they were relentlessly sliding down. What would become of them? Challenge the nomad way of life that had been theirs for centuries? Abandon the Bedouin tradition that had forged their identity and that they enjoyed boasting of?

They belonged to that category of free men that only the desert can make. They traveled unrestrainedly to the heart of the Arabic peninsula; pitched their tents where they desired; breathed in the air saturated with adventure. The sedentary life seemed dismal and insignificant to them. Indeed, they benefited from the essential commodities that local peasants sold in their souks. They didn’t frown upon using the commercial zones to sell their handcrafts and exchange them for some indispensable daily needs. But from there to imprison oneself in a fixed habitat, never!

Since their distant origin, no limit impeded their will:  they had the full horizon before them, the wide desert sprawls were their territory. The firmament served as a roof, the dunes as makeshift beds, the dromedaries as faithful companions. The beauty of the flamboyant sunsets and the incandescent days offered a natural panorama that far surpassed all the marble palaces. With liberty as a banner, they feared no one. Only the wrath of God held them in deference. That day, in that restricted council, for the first time and in spite of their courage, they had the impression that heaven had abandoned them.

****3****

A muffled and repetitive sound jolted him awake. It was just the ring of a telephone but the deep sleep into which Waled had fallen and the torments that agitated it had the effect of a blast on him. He irritatedly took the call and asked in a savage voice what the caller wanted. A feminine voice, rather intimidated, reminded him that he had an appointment with an American delegation of architects who had come to meet him. The fatigue and the nostalgic thoughts that had occupied his dreams left him with a bitter taste, he regretfully dragged himself out of his deck chair and suddenly felt terribly tired. How long the road traveled since his blessed childhood! What successes and regrets, too. Unenthusiastically, he readjusted his attire and went into the large sitting room. Plates garnished with fruits and savory appetizers already crowned the coffee table.

A decanter filled with an emerald liquid, a lemon and kiwi mix, cooled in an ice bucket. Glasses, flatware,and napkins were elegantly arranged on the buffet. Everything was perfect. The discreet and attentive hotel staff had foreseen the necessary. They know his tastes, anticipated his needs. Such fine and considerate service was a luxury he never grew weary of.

 

His guests arrived, cheerfully boisterous. His British education imposed more reserve but he appreciated the Americans’ spontaneity and their no- nonsense way of getting straight to the point. He shook their hands warmly, had them sit and the discussions commenced. The subject was worthy of his ambition. He had the wish to construct an artificial island with a prestigious building scheme. While speaking, he reviewed the wonders that Dubai had produced since the seventies. Who would have imagined that from this arid sandy soil would arise the tallest skyscrapers in the world of which the Burj Khalifa was the most dazzling symbol?

The city had a unique charm. Modern, attractive, enticing, extravagant but traditional as well. Such as a vibrantly sensuous dancer, it sweeps away its visitors in a whirl of pleasures and discoveries : the marina with restaurants and boutiques one after the other ; Palm Island with its three archipelagos born of human will ; the gigantic shopping malls among which the  Dubai Mall was the most impressive with its vast surfaces never reached, its thousands of shops, its over sized aquarium and its dancing fountains.  He began to smile.  His city was made for superlatives., always bigger, always more beautiful. No one thought that this sin of pride deserved even one day of punishment. Those oracles of bad omens were inspired by jealousy. For Waled, the dynamism of this tiny emirate was linked to the prescience of his sovereign, Mohammed ben Al Maktoum.       From the beginning of the 2000’s, the emir had understood that beyond the oil annuities, he had to build a strong state, economically diversified , open to tourism and modernity.

 

Thanks to the engaged reforms, his country was simmering thousands of projects. His would be no less magnificent than those of his fellow citizens, nor less ambitious. A wise business man, he hadn’t put all his pawns on the same chessboard. He lived in London, had property in the United States, investments he made flourish in several European countries, but his fulfillment, his heart lived here, in Dubai where a part of his family still resided, where the desert, so close, echoed in his memory like a call to more authenticity.

****4****

The meeting came to an end. The blueprints unrolled on the long dining room table at the back of the room were refolded. The computers were put away in a disorganized cacophony. The evenining had been fruitful dispite some differences in opinion. Finally, after a few heated debates, they came to an agreement. The project would see light at the beginning of the year.

 

This promise was enough for him. Worn out, he saw his guests to the door of his suite and collapsed on the familiar plum-colored comfortable couch. He wedged the thick silk velvet cushions under the nape of his neck. His hands idly crossed on his chest, he stretched his legs and let his mind wander. The dreams that had assaulted him during his brief nap returned to haunt him.

His youth had flown away a long time ago. The first signs of a declining maturity had appeared surreptitiously. His hectic pace had concealed this reality to him. And yet, how to deny it? The need of eyeglasses, the thinning hair, the stubborn portliness despite the daily gym sessions all carried him to the bank of old age. The denial he was settled in seemed laughable to him. It was time to take stock. Was his life a success? Hard to say but in the eyes of others it was obvious. In his eyes also if it wasn’t for…

His eyelids became heavy. The child he was re-emerged from the fog of his memories. He relived the never-ending dunes that floated like waves toward the Hajar mountain range. He felt the torment of bare feet plunged in burning sand. He remembered with emotion the colored caravans and the women’s dark veils, the dromedaries’ haughty step, the light diffused on the parched ground that the sun at its height transformed into molten lava.

Then, other images came to him like a flash. His father had surprised him at the edge of the tent where the council was gathered. His look severe, his voice dry, then the words that would forge his destiny :

“My son, the tribe is crossing a difficult passage but the sheik’s great goodness will come to us in aid. Among the generous offers, he wants to send one of our sons to receive an education worthy of our blood. I hardly know how to read and write but you, you will become learned. You will obtain the diplomas that will put you on equal footing with the foreigners that occupy our land. Tomorrow, you and your peers will free us from all administrative control. Don’t disappoint us.”

Paralyzed by this announcement that engraved forever his future, Waled knelt before his father and kissed his hand. A few weeks later, laying aside gandourah and keffieh , he had to mold himself into the rigidity of a British academy uniform. He would never talk about the pain of separation, the humiliations inflicted by his classmates who derided his accent. To deceive them he anticipated the taunts, accentuating the wobbly gait of a young teenager little accustomed to western shoes. His feet lamed by blisters bore badly the torture of the ankle-gripping boots.

 

Such souvenirs were disagreeable to him. He quickly chased them away to go back to more positive impressions. His scholastic success, his athletic agility, his horsemanship talents that he benefited from still today, passionately, thanks to a stable in his name, his poetic gifts, his natural curiosity, allowed him to rapidly climb the social ladder. By the time he reached twenty, nothing remained of the frightened little Bedouin.

Brilliant student, benefiting through his family, of the generosity of an emir whose fortune had increased tenfold since the exploitations of oil deposits, he had become an accomplished man. His father could be proud of him, he had abode by the oath that tied him to the tribe. His accomplishments brought honor to his lineage.

****5****

 

In analyzing his path , he overrode his successes. He suspected that his personal qualities would not have sufficed to reach the summits he moved on as of now. This success, he owed to his region.  To those small emirates which knew to reunite and share the god sent hydrocarbons. He felt a passionate admiration for the Sheik Zayed ben Sultan Al Nahyane, whose wisdom and political intelligence in the seventies had obtained the federation of these confetti states to create one nation that counts on the global chessboard.

Yes, his evolution was that of his people. Hunger, thirst, lack of hygiene and education, those terrible miseries of his childhood had disappeared. From then on, the emirate citizens were free from want. If the size of the fortunes varied in function of the social class and each person’s goodwill, everyone enjoyed a protected existence. Too much, perhaps?

Citizen of the world, Waled was not unaware of the precariousness of certain situations , the fragility of wealth acquired too quickly. Oil was not eternal, hence Dubai’s successful diversification. But beyond that?  How do you not lose your soul when money is flowing freely and free reign weakens the body? He thought again of his father who had always refused to take part in the contemporary way of life. Comfort didn’t interest him.

Under family pressure, he had to buy a property on which a house was built for his wife and children. As for him, he slept under a tent, near his animals, and ate, as usual, the strict diet of his ancestors.

At the time, young financial wolf, it bothered Waled to see his father in that unworthy habitat. With age, he realized the importance of Bedouin traditions which were those of his origin. Frugality, respect for elders, tribal solidarity, respect for the faith, so many profound values that were

 

disintegrating under the battering of an excess of modernity. If it were impossible to recreate the past, if the advantages of money were incontestably superior to the misery of the ancient times, the contribution of that people, proud and free, who were part of him, must not be repudiated. His father had bade him farewell on the Abra dock in Khor Dubai, at the foot of the frail watercraft that was to lead him to unknown shores. Six decades had gone by and the last paternal words pursued him forever. “Remember the desert”.

He got up, undid his tie, got out of his western garments. While slipping into a long white gandourah , he opened the wide bay window overlooking the sea. That very evening in the intoxicating heart of Dubai, in the select district of Jumeirah Beach, in spite of the magnificent imperial suite that he appreciated between all, he decided to return to his old lands. Not to settle there but to breath in the scent he missed so much ; to put his bare feet back in the warmth of the sand ;  to sleep under the stars as before wrapped in a wool burnoose ; to awaken at dawn and admire the immensity of these desert lands whose beauty would fill his soul for eternity.

« At this time of the afternoon, the landscape is washed of colour, water and sky melting into one and the same dazzle. .. »

 

I close the book and hold it out the the journalist. You should read this book, I say. « The Same Sky« . The answers you are looking for are in it. We never pay enough attention to our surroundings. We think it’s just scenery. We are wrong.

He sets the book on the glazed tile table, next to his mint tea. He doesn’t care. Nevertheless, he has his eye on the bathing beauty in the flowered bikini, her long legs folded on the glossy band.

Checks that his dictaphone was still running. Swats at a mosquito with his hand.

How did it happen ? He repeats.

Really, you should read it, I insist. This woman has understood everything. Exactly as if she were inside my head. Hasn’t it ever happened to you, to stumble upon a book that speaks for you, as if the writer were your double, your sister soul ?

It’s still hot, under the foliage of the Café Hafa, even if a few lights twinkled far off, in the greyish mist that was descending on the ocean.

We think we master the course of our lives, whereas we decide as much as a feather in the wind, I answer him as one throws a bone to a dog, and he snatches it up all the same, thrilled, he even takes out his pen so as not to lose a crumb.

With time, I learned to understand journalists, what they like. And I also know that you cannot tell them everything.

Do you realize that Jimi Hendrix was perhaps seated at this very table, under this same sky ? I add to create a diversion.

He can insist as much as he wants , I will give nothing away. How could he understand , anyway ? Certain truths can’t be told, they must be lived.

That year, I was still in my former life, and even if it shone less than before, if the wail of my guitar didn’t bring me to my knees as soon as the third song, if the girls no longer screamed Leniiiiii ripping off their lace panties, but just LE-NY-LE-NY clapping their hands in rhythm, their sparkling pupils like so many stars under the stage, a carpet of dark stars and flying hair, my loyal groupies, even if my nights no longer had the same scent of madness, of gin and patchouli, it was still my life.

It was all going quite badly, to tell the truth. You need a hit and fast, repeated Tampico,my manager. One can tell it’s not you who writes them, I would growl. Dead leaves piled up in the pool, the bills accumulated on the other side of the window with a strange mimicry, and Mia had left me at the end of the summer, but that, that wasn’t necessarily the worst news.

Early in that month of November, I had just given a concert in Cadiz, in a half-empty theatre. I avoided admitting it to myself, but I was performing in more and more unlikely cities – where Tampico didn’t even deign to accompany me anymore -, in concert halls getting smaller and smaller, in front of fans getting older and older. Tearing off my shirt no longer seemed indispensable and as for smashing my guitar, I didn’t even dream of it anymore. I had obviously lost something on the way : faith, rage or simply the energy of youth, but I didn’t admit that to myself, either.

A slightly plump Andalusian wearing a large skirt with a watermelon-slice print was waiting for me at the stage door. She had soft, very white skin, her mouth smelled like strawberry, and I hung out with her all night, before taking the coach for the next leg of my tour, Tarifa, in the southern- most part of Spain.

Standing in front of the Strait of Gibraltar, this vague memory of Geography class whose reality suddenly became concrete, even troubling, a tongue of sea sliding between two continents, so thin that one could swim across it – moreover some have tried it, with varying luck – , I thought of the novel by Marguerite Duras; find a rich and desperate woman who would take me on her yacht and carry me far from here.

What happened next, I am incapable of really explaining. Was it because this city resembled Morocco as I had always imagined it: with its white-washed facades, its narrow little streets, its

 

exhalations of warm earth, cannabis and jasmine, or was it this demented wind, the surfers, their splashy youth, the kites in the salty sky, a contagious liberty, I couldn’t say, but when I saw that immaculate boat, then the scarlet letters as if drawn with lipstick on its gleaming broadsides, Tangier-Tarifa 35’, I bought a ticket and I took to the sea.

“Take to the sea as one takes a wife”, the refrain of my last success began playing in my head, and I spent the crossing scribbling, as if possessed, obsessed by the soul of Tangier even before setting foot there. I was going to write a new hit, for sure, I would, at last, rise from my ashes.

Tangier. Danger. It is there that Keith Richards stole Anita Pallenberg from Brian Jones, in the Spring of 1967. They were barely twenty-five years old, they wheeled around in a Bentley and wore silk ruffled shirts and ostrich-feather boas, sheep-skin vests and huge hats. Spellbound by Sufi spirituality and the Jebalan music, Brian sought inspiration and trance in Jajouka, a village lost in the Rif mountains where all men are musicians, while Keith and Anita hung out at the Café Baba or at the turquoise mosaic poolsides.

Danger. Tangier. Tangerine. The smell of squished tangerines, their rotten rinds that stick to sandals. Tangier. Temptress. The gazelle horn pastries, the dates, the baklava, candied rose buds in the velvety tagines. Tangier. Tilt. Tango.

The taxi stopped so abruptly that my forehead struck the glass. It was probably then when it all started. Not because of the shock, no, but the colour. A Klein blue cube, or royal blue or Majorelle, a cube of a blue the bluest one can imagine, rose in the even bluer background, adorned with seven significant letters that I could find anywhere in the world : SOFITEL.

“A seaside hotel”, I had asked the driver, who had nodded his head before tearing away. Discovering at that moment the number on the meter, I understood – but a little late – that a) I had fallen asleep and b) I was probably quite far from Tangier.

– Welcome to Tamuda Bay, a man in valet uniform said.

Tamuda Bay, very well. No matter.  Tampico started blinking on my mobile phone screen, which I switched off straight away, and I went through the giant wooden lattice screens leading to the lobby as if tumbling to the bottom of the white rabbit’s hole. I was, however, out of reach, on the other side of the strait.

My room was not a cube but a rectangle. A rectangle encased in white wood, set at sand level. The gracious creature who had accompanied me babbled behind my back: air conditioned, safe, jacuzzi, for the reception desk press 9, kettle, coffee machine, if you need more coffee capsules all you need to do is ask, and when I opened the bay window the idea of 74 television channels made me laugh.

When you exit the room, you enter the sea. I’m hardly exaggerating.

The Mediterranean laid at my feet, immense and available just for me, so close it seemed not flat but high, a swath of colour mounting toward the sky, a mystery, a bit like water standing straight up without a glass around it.

But the most amazing thing was without doubt to find here, so far, the sea of my childhood; that with the swan-headed rubber ring and my mother’s arms, exactly the same one, but not green and capricious as I had always known it, no, a new version of it, still and blue.

It was the same sea, yes, and yet so different, strangely calm, distant, unconcerned by the beach, running right to left, just passing by. Was this due to the narrowness of the strait? An absence of currents? This sea seemed contained in a bowl of sand, so suddenly dark, silent, without crashing waves licking the driftwood, or so few, unrolling slantwise its pleated fabric, its shades of blue, without wasting a single drop on the shore.

Very quickly, it took up all the room.

The vicinity around my room was spiked with little banana trees, baby agaves, new palm trees that would one day tickle the stars, but that for now clung to the red soil, intimidated by the marine wind, near the spry yuccas, spreading their pointed fingers in the pure air. All the moving charm of a fledgling garden.

The gardeners, women in traditional north Moroccan dress hoed the red earth all day long; silent under their hats rimmed in pompoms, invisible and bent like the exotic plants.

 

Everything was there, in front of me. An enormous striped painting. Grass-green, sandy beige, ultramarine blue, turquoise blue, with an occasional streak of pearl grey, the aligned seagulls. The painters hadn’t invented anything.

Everything was there, and I needed nothing else.

In the morning I went out before dawn; on the obscure beach still tasting of November, and I waited for the sunrise on the sea. In that of my childhood, the sun dipped at dusk, and never had I thought that it could be otherwise. So, every morning I was on the lookout for that breathtaking and incongruous pink, those clouds of grenadine syrup exploding behind the Negro Cabo hill.

A wonder as intense as brief, for in the next minute it all became an innocent grey again, as if nothing had ever occurred, as if one had been dreaming or eating forbidden mushrooms, and even imagining that pink suddenly became impossible.

I dawdled along the beach crunchy with shattered split shells, not destroyed but transformed into something else: bronze fans, milky pebbles, pearly nails that I stuffed in my pockets wondering where the violence of this water, mild as a marsh, was hidden.

All these gifts from the sea filled me with a simple pleasure. I could have picked them up by handfuls, without sorting, this abundance made the child in me crazy – especially the caramel shells, perfectly striated, with which we make Venus’ bras – and to calm him I concentrated on the tiny squares of broken glass escaped from unknown bathrooms and pools, the Turkish baths that I will never know though a fragment of them rested in the palm of my hand.

From what city, by what chance did they end up in the sea, then this beach, after days, months, years of surf, bits of softened glass, opaque, polished, in all sorts of blue hues and sea-greens: aquamarine, lagoon, jade, iceberg, I searched for the exact names while arranging my treasures on the round marble table in the room, where during entire afternoons, like in mediation, I drew a strange, soothing reassurance from these ephemeral mosaics.

Even more bizarre, I sometimes surprised myself stretching while looking at the sea, like happy people do. Some mornings, the delirious color of the panorama, a pageant of blues where no one comes out a winner, a higher bid at every instant, nearly made me forget breakfast. Yet I wouldn’t have missed the delicious Moroccan crepes for anything in the world – the baghrir with the spongy morel texture, the Imsemen plump and round, and my favorites, the rghifa, moist and crispy at the same time – coated with a divine mixture of honey, almond and Argan oil named amlou.

Very soon, I no longer knew what I was doing there, nor what I could do elsewhere, I had no desire to write anymore, no need; looking at the landscape could be enough to fill a life, I discovered, the marbling of the sea, so variable that it is a painting renewed every hour.

In Tamuda Bay anyone could become a painter, if you are not careful: give up everything, sell your soul, lose your mind and the rest, I had reflected on that from the first day.

The days passed by like the wind, at once so empty and so full. I had stopped counting. Nothing was urgent. I watched the sea and went out only very late, for dinner on the restaurant’s velvet saffron cushions, always alone, before going back by the beach under the inverted moon of Oriental nights.

One evening, while returning from one of these solitary dinners, I perceived something unusual.

It was all there since that morning so it only half-surprised me.

To start with, there was no pink dawn at six in the morning. I stayed for a long moment on the beach, stunned, wandering in the company of the cormorants on the cool shell carpet, hoping the show had just been delayed, but there was nothing.

A little later, toward eight o’clock, when I went out on the terrace wrapped in my bathrobe, the sea had disappeared. Erased. Evaporated. Engulfed by the sky. Or the opposite. The painting had but two streaks: a thin band of beige, then a diluted blue-grey as far as you could see.

All day, I floated in and out of that same foggy state, as if I had mysteriously become the surroundings. And so, coming back from dinner under an abnormally mammoth moon – for days the newspapers had spoken only of it, the supermoon of the century which illuminated the night like a giant projector – I spotted a light seeping from the partially opened door of my room. I first thought of a thief, but what could one take from me? Maybe it was Zohra, come to serve the

 

evening fare at an absurd hour, or that elusive butler who sometimes fills the jacuzzi with bath foam and rose petals, setting a steaming teapot next to the bath towels?

Drawing closer, I observed that the glimmer did not come from my door but from another, just next to it, that I had never noticed before. You could hear voices, music, it seemed lively and joyous and I was about to dare discretely glancing in when someone grabbed me saying but really now, don’t stay there, come in, make yourself at home, what can I get you?

At that moment, I couldn’t see much. The air was saturated with smoke, a moving fog that made the flesh-pink Murano glass flower-lamps held out by naked black metal goddesses even more blinding, in an odd odor of velvet and dust.

I ordered a Tom Collins and sunk into a couch studded with cigarette burns, a little dizzy from the brouhaha of the conversations and undoubtedly the cocktails previously sipped at the Koudiaz Bar.

-Jack is my oldest friend and I won’t have you giving him any pain.

-Pain needs no one to give it, you know that very well.

A woman burnt like old toast in cowboy boots and hat asked me for a light. She was a New- Yorker, ex-photographer at Club Med and could have called herself Bonanza Jellybean. She was drinking chocolate in a glass decorated with a winged lion.

I think that teen-agers say fewer idiocies than adults, or at least the idiocies are more charming.

A muted soprano voice could be heard, laughter behind high seat backs, the tinkling of glasses and still the place had something church-like, this thing that tightens your throat, a thick atmosphere which spoke of the condensed past, of so many centuries and people sandwiched on the same sofas, trading kisses, tears and prayers.

I was telling myself I had had too much to drink and that I had better crawl back to the neighboring door, when he arrived.

Have you observed the blue walls, just before three o’clock?

I had observed them, of course. I even remained, petrified, as before a painting into which I was invited to enter. At this time of the afternoon, the sun projected the shadows of the yuccas, agaves and birds of paradise with singular precision. Matisse’s cut-outs, I had thought.

Exactly, he approved, a mischievous look behind his round glasses. It all stems from there.

Nothing was ever the same after that first trip in 1912, you know? The orange on the blue, that’s from the birds of paradise. The Fauvism cocktail. And this proximity of the Mediterranean to the mountains, a bit like in Nice, it’s troubling, isn’t it?

He was eating a huge slice of cake, regularly ridding his thighs of pistachio slivers and powdered sugar. I remember him explaining that this new area, in full development, is called the Moroccan Riviera. And then nothing more. I was on the beach, the sun had just risen and at the edge of the garden, the sparrows were already perched on the tips of the yuccas like Christmas tree bulbs.

How can you come out unmarked from all that blue? He had said that, too, I remember. When I asked the question, Zohra maitained that there had never been a door next to mine.

Where could it lead to, this door? she had chuckled, positioning herself on the other side of the partition. You would have entered your closet, Sir.

She was right, of course. But as the day went by, the words of my new friend came back to me. “Joy is in the sky, the trees, the flowers, never forget that” he had told me, just before his friend Paul – a sort of dandy who would have pleased Mia, a tall guy with a lock of hair in his eyes – interrupted us. This Paul wanted to explain to me that it is in Tangier that his life took a swing.

He had given up music for writing and had never again gone back.

-You’re a musician, aren’t you? Watch out for the wide turn, if it’s not already too late.

-Rightly so, I feel like a derailed train, I replied, and I was the first to be surprised. It was the exact definition of my state, even if I had never formulated it yet.

It’s always like that when it starts. A story of rails.

I was trying to understand, but the surrounding noise didn’t help, nor did the Tom Collins drinks and before I could ask him for specifics, the strange Paul flew away on the arm of a voluptuous red- head in a green silk kimono.

So Zohra could tell me all she wanted to about nonexistent doors, I hadn’t dreamt it, all the same.

 

At the beginning of my stay, it often comes back to me, it is a fisherman who explained to me where I was. In M’diq. The King lives here, he added, gesturing with his arm to the other side of the beach where, I had discovered, uniformed men kept guard.

M’diq, it means narrow pass, he had continued.

I had thought of the strait, naturally. But what if it pertained to something else?

-Okay, but how did you become a painter? Repeated the journalist.

I had forgotten him, this guy, he seems to be one tough cookie. You must never underestimate your opponent. Have you ever seen the sea at M’diq? I queried.

No, seriously, our readers want to know, he insisted. How can a rock star become a painter overnight, without ever having learned to draw or master colors, and with this talent, this magic that brings you to be compared to the greatest, from Matisse to…

You can’t explain everything to journalists. Well, that’s my opinion. For a second I considered it, but frankly, how to explain that after that bizarre night, in the closet of my room, behind that inexistent door, I had found a pair of glasses; light, round glasses finely rimmed in silver that have become my lucky charm, a mascot that I could not do without when painting.

Alongside, on the parquet floor, I also found a morsel of cake trimmed with pistachios which I offered to the cormorants in the limpid landscape of that January morning, water and sky melting into one and the same dazzle.

It was around 4 a.m. Which is no time to be disturbed, especially in a hotel like the Metropole, where even in the middle of the day the staff hardly makes a sound. But I was not dreaming: There was a scratching at my door.
I was in Hanoi for a series of scientific conferences and because the hotel was a sponsor of the event, I was being treated like a VIP. In the suite that I had been given, there was a large sitting room and a bedroom. I was lying now in the enormous bed, under a blue and yellow canopy. My wife had left for Haiphong earlier in the day and I was to meet her in three days for a visit to Halong Bay. Which meant that I had the bed to myself for the moment.
Ordinarily this would have delighted me: I could stretch out, make myself at home, sleep sideways. But the Metropole’s bed was so vast, so soft, with such an abundant variety of pillows (including a little sack filled with beans that I had selected from the array of samples) that the solitude was unsettling and prevented me from enjoying a deep sleep.
The initial scratches woke me. I thought at first that it was a bad dream, but then when the noise persisted, there remained no doubt: Someone was at my door. I flipped on the light, slipped into my robe, and went to the living room. I put my ear to the door and listened. There was the sound again.
“Who’s there? What do you want?” I whispered somewhat meekly.
“Hmmmmm! Please…”
The voice coming through the thick wood was deep and husky.
Probably a drunk American who can’t find his room, I thought. Or whose wife had thrown him out. The latter worried me more.
I opened the door carefully.
The paneled hallway was illuminated by a series of large porcelain lamps. I saw before me a tall man, but I couldn’t make out his features. He was wearing a long trench coat, tightly belted.
“Please,” he implored.

He turned and shot a glance down the corridor, as if to see whether anyone had heard him.
“This is the ‘Graham Greene Suite,’ isn’t it?” he asked, indicating the brass plaque next to the door with his chin.
“So it is.”
“O.K., then let me in. I’ll explain.”

 

The long, quiet corridor was an oddly reassuring sight. It reminded me that I was in a palace, the most famous hotel in Indochina, and that more than 600 people were employed here; at the slightest cry, a battalion of guards would surely come running. I was in no danger. I opened the door and let the man in.
He looked exhausted, flopping onto the sofa with a sigh of relief.
The living room had a table at which eight people could have comfortably been seated for dinner. Each evening, a delivery of assorted macarons and appetizers was placed there, with a card that explained the ingredients of each. I noticed that the man was eyeing the platter, so I offered it to him.
“Have some. Can I make you some tea?”
“With pleasure,” he replied as he bent over the delicacies.
He put one in his mouth and then stood up, groaning with pleasure.
“God, these people know how to live!”

 

I observed him: He looked to be in his 80s, with an emaciated face and a few strands of hair combed back on his head. He was extremely pale and there were purple bags under his eyes. He spoke good French, with a thick English accent. He reminded me of someone. But who?
“Are you going to explain to me now…?”

I had turned off the air conditioning for the night. Hanoi’s damp heat had thus seeped little by little into my room. I was sweating, but my visitor’s skin remained dry.
“Graham Greene,” he said.
Grimacing, he took a sip of tea.
“Yes,” I said, “this is indeed the Graham Greene suite. On the floor above, there’s the Somerset Maugham suite, and I think there’s a Charlie Chaplin suite somewhere, too.”
The man shrugged.
“Ridiculous,” he mumbled. “In any case, I’m Graham Greene.”

 

Finally, at that moment, as he fixed me with his pale eyes, I understood. I got up and went to get the photograph hanging on the wall near the bedroom door. It showed a man in his 40s, staring straight at the camera, not smiling. Below the photo it said:
Graham Greene, 1904-1991. Sitting down, I put the portrait on my knees and looked at the man. The eyes were the same and the face was basically the same, although time had carved wrinkles that rendered it virtually unrecognizable.
“1991…” I murmured.
“Yes,” my guest sighed, loosening the belt of his trench coat. “I’ve been dead for 21 years. Is that what you mean?”
How could I respond to such a question? And anyway, was it a question? He came to my aid.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to refuse your tea, but I don’t really care for this beverage. Would you happen to have a good whisky?” Because I hesitated, he added:
“Or a bad one, for that matter.”

 

I looked everywhere, coming up with some fruit juice and red wine, but no whisky. Seeing that he was set on it, I called room service. In less than three minutes, even at that late hour, a waiter arrived with a bottle of single malt whisky. As soon as the employee had left, my visitor opened the door of the bathroom where he had been hiding. He was doubly happy: first because of the whisky and also because our complicity was now complete. I had hidden him once; now I would have to continue…

 

He had removed his trench coat, revealing a suit with a double-breasted jacket. A club tie was loosely knotted around the
pointed collar of his white shirt, which was badly discolored.
“Pardon me for asking, but… what have you been doing since 1991?’’
He turned his pale eyes toward me. The whisky had reignited a faint flame in them.
“That’s a good question. What do dead people do? I’ve often asked myself that. Before… I suppose you think of the great beyond as some sort of endless retirement home. ‘Eternal rest’…”
He gave a terrible little laugh, his mouth half open. I had the impression that he was empty inside, as if there was nothing but an envelope before me. But he was gulping down his whisky with zeal and I had to give him a refill in no time.

 

“Unfortunately,’’ he began, “I must disappoint you. It’s not like you think. It’s not harmony, happiness and bliss. To put it bluntly: It’s
seriously boring.’’
“So is retirement, I hear.”
“It’s not at all the same. Retired people are free. They can move, mix with others, travel.”
He leaned forward and I caught a whiff of his icy breath.
“And they can still commit sins,” he added with delight.

He then sat back up, looking glum again.
“As strange as it might seem given the life that I lived, they sent me to heaven. Because of ‘The Power and the Glory.’ That’s not the only misunderstanding that book gave rise to.”
He sighed.
“The result, in any case, is that I’m surrounded by admirable people,” he exclaimed with a touch of humor, “veritable saints.
Can you imagine: Most of them deserve to be there. All their lives, they were nice, polite, generous, temperate, devoted. They never said a bad thing about anyone. Can you imagine what it’s like to spend all your time with people like that? Especially me, who was always horrified by innocent people!”
I could see that he was looking for something to calm himself. He was eyeing a little package of chocolates that the staff had placed on the table just like every night.
“May I?”
Before I could answer, he had opened the package and slipped two pieces into his mouth.

 

“I can’t tell you much more about what goes on up there,” he then said soberly.
He’s keeping that information for the MI6, I thought, meanly. Even dead, an Englishman remains an Englishman.
“After all,” he sighed, “they are decent people. The organizers, I mean. They do what they can to keep us happy, despite it all.
They realize that I’m unhappy, but unfortunately they don’t have what I’m missing. Such things are too… terrestrial.”

 

Day was beginning to break on the other side of the blinds.
Despite the double-glazing, we could hear the faint sound of car horns.
“So they decided to give me a leave. Every 20 years. I know, 1991, it should have been last year. But you know how bureaucracy is…”
“Did you choose to come here?”
“Yes, and, believe me, it wasn’t easy to decide. I knew so many countries in my life. Black Africa, Latin America, the Arab world, the whole Europe… I had time to recall them all in detail. And finally I came to the conclusion that none of those places, despite their qualities and charm, were indispensable for me. Or, I might say, essential.”
“Except Vietnam.”
“Exactly! When I really thought about it, as I sat there amid all those bridge players, those matronly patrons and altruistic pastors, I decided that for me, the true heaven was the Far East.”
“And why here in particular?”
“It was a difficult choice. But there is something different about Vietnam. It’s a country that has everything: refinement and cruelty, intelligence and resignation, excrement and perfume, perversity and naïveté, rabid determination, like Ho Chi Minh, for example, and total passivity, like the rickshaw drivers.”
“There aren’t any more rickshaw drivers, except for the ones who chauffeur the tourists.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed dreamily. “That’s possible. I wouldn’t know. I came straight here.”
“And why did you choose Hanoi? You had spent more time in Saigon.”
“I lived in Saigon by default: because of the war, in ’51, Tonkin was the soldiers’ playground. The press was brought safely in under guard. And you know that I was viewed as a spy.”
“Imagine that!”
The irony seemed to escape him.
“The truth is that I prefer the people in the north of this country.
They’re more profound, more willful, more endearing, if it’s possible to make such generalities. And the women are as hard as rocks but so smooth to the touch…”

He seemed moved by his memories and, perhaps to mask his discomfort, he rose and went to the window. Through the slits of the shutters, he studied the square below with its stone fountain.
“It’s unbelievable how the French spread their provinces everywhere. We could be in Marmande…”
Suddenly, he threw open the windows and was about to unlatch the shutters. I hurried over.
“It’s better if you don’t show yourself. Or maybe we should just go straight to the reception desk and announce that you’re here.”
“Don’t even think of it! They would never believe you. And if by some miracle you managed to convince them who I am, they would line up a grueling program of conferences, signatures and official meetings. I don’t want them to ruin my stay.”

He sat back down. He was bathed in morning light, but it seemed to pass almost right through him. I had the impression that he was
virtually transparent.
“My intention is clear: When I decided upon my destination, Hanoi, I told myself that I wanted to spend all the time I had been allotted here, at the Hotel Metropole.”
He sighed, looking longingly at the decoration of the suite that bore his name, with its mahogany furniture shining in the new sunlight, its ceiling fans, the white orchids in blue porcelain pots.
“There you have it, sir. Now you know the dreams of the dead.
Especially if they are not completely dead… when they are alive.
When they lived, that is.”

*

After that confession, I didn’t have the heart to refuse this poor man whatever pleasure he desired. We arranged for him not to attract too much attention. I lent him some clothes of a tourist: a Hawaiian shirt, khaki pants and sandals. In one of the hotel boutiques, I managed to buy him a baseball cap with a long visor and big sunglasses that covered half of his face. While we got ready, I kept the cleaning women at bay thanks to the “Do not disturb” sign.

When his metamorphosis into an almost normal client had been completed, we attempted the first test: entering the corridor. It worked marvelously. The employees whom we passed greeted us cordially. We went down the great staircase so as not to risk the promiscuity of an elevator. Even drenched in cologne, my companion still seemed to reek of the cellar. On the stairs, he was overcome with amazement. The Metropole’s landings are open in the middle, where an enormous chandelier hangs from the fourth floor all the way to the lobby.
“It wasn’t at all like this before. You see those railings with little columns all around the middle? When there were parties, which there were almost every night, the French officers leaned over them with their Vietnamese girlfriends. On the first floor, there was a piano playing dance hall tunes and everyone on the three floors would sing around this great, empty middle, like in a Western.

Every once in awhile some drunk fellow would jump over the railing and end up in the lobby with a broken leg. Everyone would clap and raise their glasses. It was very gay and absolutely disgraceful. Usually I would flee, drinking in a bar down the street where there were no soldiers.”

He was talking quite loudly and I was afraid that he would attract the attention of the bellboys in the lobby. I tugged his sleeve and we continued our descent. He marveled at everything in the hotel, discovering once again the ambiance of his era, the late-19 th century charm of the building, the dark wood, the porcelain, the red fabrics.

 

“At the same time,” he exclaimed, “everything is so clean, so new…”
This contrast pleased him. He didn’t miss the filth or clutter of the past. We went outside, and there, across the street, stood the resident general’s old palace. I suggested that we take a ride in the hotel’s rickshaws, for old time’s sake. He got in one of the rickety vehicles and I rode behind in another. I watched him relax, taking in the monuments and boutiques.

We went around the Petit Lac, first on its “French” side, home to the Metropole and most of the colonial-era buildings, and then on
the “local” side, with its alleys and unimaginably disordered organization of artisans’ shops. When the visit was over, I asked the driver to drop us off near the Pagoda so that we could have a coffee beside the lake. Not surprisingly, my companion preferred a Ricard with little more than a dash of water.

“Did you see those French people in the street? In the colonial times, there weren’t so many.”
“Yes, but in those days, they were the masters. Today, they’re tourists.”
“Still, it’s weird. They waged war to get them out and now they watch as 10 times more arrive.”

 

I understood that he liked to point out this kind of paradox, like some sort of mind-game, because he found it so hard to believe himself. It was the fuel that he needed to start up the slow motor of reflection.

“It’s strange all this, colonialism, the European empires… In the end, the English and the French fell into the trap. They wanted to bring civilization to backward people and, at the same time, get a good deal by stealing their resources. But they’re the ones who ended up losing. Everything comes from Asia now: cars, capital, even priests… In terms of civilization, the Vietnamese proved their worth long ago: They let foreigners come, whether it be the Chinese or the Europeans, they take from them what they want and then they throw them out.”

“It wasn’t really as easy as that. You’re forgetting the Vietnamese who died in the two world wars, the suffering of the people, the cruelty of the struggle for independence.”
“I’m not saying that it was all fun and games. But in the end, they won.”
Just then a group of French tourists passed, following a guide with a red umbrella.

 

“You can’t imagine what it’s like to see the military patrols of the past replaced by these squadrons of tourists. And do you know what the main difference is?”
“The weapons, I suppose?”
“Not really. It’s their ages. The soldiers were young men in good health. The tourists are generally senior citizens, a bit flabby, not in great shape. Now youth is on this side.”

He continued his dissertation on the subject for some time, and, I admit, after awhile I didn’t listen anymore.

 

In late afternoon we returned to the hotel. As night was falling, it was less risky to stroll in the garden, which was lit by muted lamps. We had dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants, the one that offered Vietnamese cuisine. Madame Nguyen Kim Nhung, who manages the place, came to present the specialties in person. We washed down the food with magnificent French wines. Graham was so happy that I had to ask him several times to keep it down.

 

I slept like a log. My roommate, however, spent the night in the living room, watching all the channels on the television.

The next day, we expanded our field of action: I rented a taxi for the day and the driver took us along the river banks, to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, to the citadel, etc. The classic tour.

 

Graham’s nose was stuck to the window. He glumly contemplated the city. From time to time, his observations revealed that he was comparing what he was seeing with his memories.

“I thought they would never give up their bicycles.”

Scooters had replaced bikes for the most part. At intersections, we were sometimes stuck in immense traffic jams, hemmed in by nothing but scooters. Soon, my visitor’s reflections were concentrated on what was to become the theme of the day.

“Frankly, would you say that they lost the war?”
“Who?”
“The Americans.”

We were traveling along a wide commercial street lined with enormous colored signs over stores filled with home appliances, clothing, video equipment.

“They were fighting communism, or did I misunderstand?” he asked with a wicked smirk.

“The communist structures are still in place,” I noted.

He shrugged.

“This is the contemporary form of authoritarian power. In this country, there has often been an authoritarian power, and I think many people think it’s necessary. It’s the price to pay… for freedom.”

 

I decided it was not a good idea to engage in a discussion on this topic. He seemed to be a bit touchy about it.

“It’s strange how these stupid Americans always win,” he added a bit later. “If they are victorious, like in Europe, they spread their influence. But if they are defeated, like here, it’s the same thing:
The victors end up imitating them and adopting their culture. It only happens to them. Imagine if after the First World War the French and English had started wearing pointed helmets and eating Wienerschnitzel!”

When we got back to the hotel, I found a message from the director. I feared the worst, but in fact he was inviting me to a private visit of the hotel’s bunker. It had been walled shut after the war, but the director had now had it reopened. It was an historic place: Joan Baez and Jane Fonda had both taken refuge there during American bombing raids…

I invited Graham to join me. He declined the offer.

“Thanks, but I’ve had enough. I was already buried once.”

I ordered him a Martini at the bar and went off to visit the bunker by myself. When I returned, I told him that it was indeed nothing special. Blasé, he raised his eyebrows. He was grouchy for the rest of the day, caustically bemoaning American naïveté from time to time.

“The guy up there piloting his bomber was as convinced as Mother Fonda in her bunker that he was defending a just cause.
All of them are gullible, altruistic, blind, innocents who behave like cynics. And they always end up being right.”

I left him to gripe alone and went for a sauna in the superb spa above the swimming pool. My guest was becoming a nuisance. At first, I had found him amusing, but now I had to admit that he wasn’t really funny at all. I wanted to be rid of him. When I emerged from the sauna, fresh and relaxed, I came upon my buddy striding up and down the hallway.

“You’re here!” he exclaimed upon seeing me. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I have to talk to you.”

I brought him to the VIP lounge on the top floor of the new building, sitting him down next to a shelf full of beautiful books about Asia. He didn’t even glance at them. He sat on the edge of his chair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his eyes beaming.

“So,” he said breathlessly, “I met a woman.”

I had been expecting this. Given this fellow’s reputation when he had been alive, I knew there was a good chance he would bring up women or opium. Concerning opium, I had already prepared my response: no. It was out of the question to play around with it in a country with such tight surveillance. Women were a lesser evil.

“And who is she, if I may ask?”

He launched into a lengthy description of the beauty, grace, elegance and sensuality of the person in question. He had passed her in the hall and they had spoken briefly. A waiter now appeared before us. I ordered double Scotches.

“Tell me a bit more. What does she look like?”

He provided a detailed description of the princess charming. As he did so, I grew more and more pale. There was no doubt in my mind that the woman was the hotel’s head of public relations.

“Mademoiselle Thieu!” I cried.
“Oh!” he sighed, clearly enamoured. “Her name is Thieu…”
“Listen, Graham: Forget the whole thing right now. If you want a woman, I suppose I could arrange it, although I don’t really want to be pimping. But Mademoiselle Thieu is an honorable woman who has an important position here. Leave her alone.”

He looked down.

“Anyway,” I continued, hoping to put an end to the discussion, “she has a fiancé. An Argentinian who is working in city. The Argentinians are very jealous”.

“So what? You think he might kill me?”
I didn’t appreciate his humor, and he saw that I was growing angry.

“It’s not like that,” he added genially. “What are you thinking? Before I leave, I just want to have a night in the city with Thieu on my arm, take her to a restaurant or a show and look at her, only look at her.”

“Even so! Find someone else.”

He looked desperate now, and he tried relentlessly for the next hour or so to convince me of the innocence of his project. Finally, he put his boney hand on my sleeve and said with disarming gentleness:
“It’s the last favor I will ask of you. After that, I’ll leave.
“The argument was strong. ”
“Oh all right,” I said at last, capitulating. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I have no idea how I did it. It was miraculous. I spoke to Mademoiselle Thi, standing in the corridor, as she looked at me fixedly with her beautiful face, in which it was impossible to detect the slightest expression. I was thrown off when she blinked her eyes without saying a word. Finally, I stopped talking. She paused for a moment, then said:

“There’s a recital at the opera tonight. Your friend can accompany me.”

Now I was the one who could have kissed her.

At 8 o’clock, Graham was at last ready. He was wearing one of my shirts, had combed his four strands of hair and, following my advice, doused himself in cologne. He gave me a little wave as he left.

I killed the time watching television until midnight. I was dozing off when the door opened. Graham came in, took off his trench coat and sat down in the armchair, staring ahead.

“Are you O.K.?”
There was no response.
“Did something happen? I hope you didn’t make a scene.”
He finally seemed to become aware of my presence.
“It was…” he began slowly, “it was… the most beautiful day of my death.”
“Very funny. But what happened?”
“That woman is marvelous. We crossed the streets holding hands.
Did you know the opera house is just next door? It was all lit up.
Like a little Palais Garnier! She was dressed simply but so elegantly. Her lips were shining under the chandeliers…”
“And the performance?”
“Wonderfully talented Vietnamese singers. They performed the bell solo from ‘The Magic Flute’ with such delicacy! If I was not so dried up inside, I would have cried.”

“And then you brought her back to the hotel as promised?”
“First we went to have ice cream in a restaurant, with a lovely view over the lake. She was fine with that.”
“She didn’t… recognize you, I hope.”
“She’s a discreet woman. Even if she suspected something, she didn’t let on.”
He stretched out his legs and, his hands behind his neck, added, “I’m fulfilled.”
“Good.”

“You know, that woman is… is… she is this country. I don’t know if you understand what I mean. There is the surface of things, events, wars, Americans who replace the French, capitalism and communism, all these frothy waves, and then, underneath, there’s the ocean, the mass of water, a people and its eternal truth. For me this woman is what remains unchanged, the essential. Did you read ‘The Quiet American’? You remember Phuong?

“The young Vietnamese woman whom the narrator wants to keep at all costs, even through betrayal and lies?”
“ ‘The narrator’! I don’t need those literary pretensions anymore; now I can say ‘I’… You know what I’m willing to do to keep her. Or to find her. She’s why I came back. It doesn’t matter that Mademoiselle Thieu and Phuong are two different people. For me, it’s the same soul, you see?”

 

He pinched the bridge of his nose, exhausted. So I let him sleep, or dream.

 

In the middle of the night, I opened my eyes and found him standing next to my bed, his trench coat belted tight.
“What do you want?” I asked, sitting up.
“I want to thank you.”
“At this hour?”
“Unfortunately, I have to go. They’re waiting for me.”
“Well, good-bye. Have a good time… in heaven.”
“Perhaps we’ll meet there someday. Although I wouldn’t wish it for you. If I were you, I’d keep on sinning…”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“By the way… don’t tell anyone about my visit. No one would believe you.”
He smiled and winked, then left the room. I heard the click of the door to the hallway closing.
And then I went back to sleep.

Lisbon was packed. Thanks to a volcano in Iceland that was preventing planes from coming and going, and no one knew when flights would resume.

Many of the stranded travelers, impatient to return home, had camped out at the airport. But a number of others refused to be held hostage by a volcano. And since they hadn’t yet had their fill of the Portuguese spring, they ventured back to the city, heading straight to the Praça do Comércio’s café terraces, where they lounged in south-facing chairs. Some opted instead for a few more rides on the rickety trams making their roller-coaster runs between Graça and Alfama. Still others went off to see sites that they hadn’t managed to visit before. In any case, all of them joined the hordes of tourists who had already flooded the streets of Lisbon before the airport had closed and who were now also
stuck. A great many of them were French.

My situation was different. I had treated myself to a brief weekend alone, but I almost as soon as I arrived I had begun to feel feverish and thus had remained holed up in my hotel room, knocked out by migraines and medicine, for two days. I only learned of the disrupted air traffic as I was beginning to emerge from my illness, on television. I called the travel agency at once.
“There’s nothing we can do,” they said. “Extend your hotel reservation. We’ll let you know about your flight.” I received the news like a gift: I was feeling better, I was hungry, my headache was gone, I could stand on my own two feet and I would now be able to take full advantage of Lisbon.

It was noon, a beautiful day, I remember. The thought of it reminds me of the delicious paradox of my condition that day: I was still a bit weak yet I was ferociously hungry for life.

Or perhaps I was just hungry. I quickly got ready and headed for the hotel restaurant. The first thing I did was order a glass of port:
Quinta do Noval Colheita 2000. I definitely had my wits about me.

I can still taste the port, full and noble. Each sip brought me a bit more back to life. I savored it, not wanting to lose a drop of this swig-by-swig resurrection.

Then I ordered lunch. To tide me over while waiting, the waiter, having seen that I was famished, brought me octopus salad and a platter of codfish fritters. I dug right in.

This did not escape the notice of my neighbor at the next table.
She, too, was French. And, like me, she was alone. She was no doubt longing for conversation, so, pointing at my two plates, she said, “The hotel’s pesticos are wonderful.”

Surprised, I looked up from the octopus with which I was busying myself.

“Tapas, if you prefer,” she said.

Then, indicating the waiter, she sighed: “Even here they say tapas. Globalization — there’s nothing to be done. And the Portuguese language is so rich! What a disaster…”

She was waxing nostalgic. I wondered about her age, studying her face.

A facelift, unfortunately, had rendered her ageless. Her elegance was perfectly modern, though. Her posture was good, very straight. I thought she must have once been a model.

Five minutes later, we were sitting at the same table. It was strange how the volcano brought people together at that time. The interruption of air traffic had given rise to an unbearable emptiness, prompting strangers to confide in the first person they met. I was the first person Christine Garnier met.

*

“I come to Lisbon twice a year. A long time ago, when I was a journalist, I managed to get an interview with Salazar. Even though he never gave interviews. Imagine the hubbub that made, my interview, the buzz as you say nowadays. Especially because I was new to the profession. I had started as a model. I worked for the best, Dior, Balenciaga, Jacques Heim. A friend said to me, ‘You can’t do this forever.’ I was charming and afraid of nothing, so I just jumped right in. I was good. And so one day, Salazar, as I told you… I sold the story all over the world and then turned it into a book. Salazar was delighted, he invited me back again and again, I learned Portuguese, visited the country, I grew attached to it and came back dozens of times. So this morning, when I was at the airport and everything was grounded, I said to myself: ‘I’m going back to Lisbon. After all, in a way, I’m at home there.’ I called the hotel and everything was set in no time. I come here twice a year, they always give me the same room. By the way, Salazar… Do you know who he is?’’

I knew. But old lady Garnier (I say “old” because, as her story advanced, she seemed to emerge from a more and more distant past) didn’t give me a chance to let her know.

“People say Salazar was a dictator. But I knew him well… What devotion to his country! Have you been to Portugal before?”

“No, I’ve only just arrived.”

“Walk around in Lisbon for an hour, you’ll see. The city is in ruins.”

“I like fading beauties.”

“And the people? What about them? The life they must lead?”

I didn’t know what to say. But she didn’t care. She was already back to Salazar:

“What a handsome man he was… The first time I met him at the Palace… When he appeared, dressed entirely in black and white, I nearly fell over. Later, he invited me to his country house… Imagine that: No one had been there. A worldwide scoop!”

She was starting to repeat herself, so I interrupted:

“When was that?”

She giggled, and then said dramatically:
“We wash our bodies. We must also thus wash our destiny. Change lives like we change our clothes.”

“That’s a nice image.”

“Oh don’t be silly! C’mon — these aren’t my words! They’re Pessoa’s. The glory of Lisbon! But have you even heard of Pessoa?”

“Yes, ‘The Book of Disquiet,’ ‘The Mariner’… And… I… I can’t remember…”

My lunch was turning into an oral exam. I was stammering.

Once again, she couldn’t have cared less, blindly pursuing her own train of thought:

“Pessoa didn’t believe in the real world. He only trusted his feelings. They led him to believe that life was in fact a thousand lives. He was convinced that we lead parallel lives. Ghostly lives.”

“I’ve never heard that.”

“People don’t know anything anymore.”

She paused again, nostalgic. Then she continued:
“If Pessoa had not believed in parallel lives he would never have invented so many heteronyms.”

The port had made me sluggish and I was having trouble following her. She noticed.

“What? You didn’t know that? And you said you know Pessoa?”

I had caught on to her system and so preferred to just wait for whatever came next. I was right, and it didn’t take long:

“Pessoa didn’t stop inventing identities. So much so that we still haven’t found them all. Another quote from him, which I offer you as a gift: “We are who we are not, life is brief and sad.’ ”

I had come upon a Pessoa fan. But I didn’t know enough to keep up with her. It was time for a ruse: “Do you like sadness?” I asked.

“It’s Portuguese,” she replied. “Like fado music. Fado, saudade – does that mean anything to you?”

To show off her mastery of the language, she pronounced the words Lusitanian-style.

“Those melancholy love songs so dear to the Portuguese, right?” I ventured.

Old lady Garnier stubbornly ignored my answers. Her gaze had already drifted to the window, as if to catch in mid-flight a stray memory that might be floating along the avenue. She then continued, solemnly:

“Fado is a type of music, but the word really means fate. That’s what threw me into Salazar’s path, for example. And saudade… There’s no translation. A desire for the past, perhaps. Wanting to return to the past with the same intensity that you want to sleep with a man. And not being able to satisfy that desire.”

A look of profound melancholy came over her face. I deduced that she had slept with Salazar, and I would love to have known more.
But she had already reverted to her literary preoccupations: “Like Pessoa, I believe that we move through life like ghosts. And that we are in fact ghosts. Me, for example: I’m a journalistic ghost who is returning to the scene of her crimes.”

“And me?”

There was a long silence. The time it took for her to improvise, I assumed.

“You,’’ she then said, “you’re a ghost who is impatient to leave this table so you can visit Lisbon.”

Madame Garnier was a nasty one. And nothing escaped her.

She had read my mind but now softened her tone: “Don’t imitate the tourists, you’re better than that.”

“This is the first time I’ve been to Lisbon. I have to see what there is to see. And I don’t have much time. Unless I hire you as my guide!”

“Not likely.”

She gestured toward a cane leaning against her seat.

“You didn’t noticed? Osteoarthritis in the hip.”

I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t know what to say. But once again, she softened: “I’m going to give you a key that will allow you to see Lisbon like it should be seen. Even in the places infested with tourists.”

She looked like a witch now. I don’t know why, but I said the exact opposite: “You’re a fairy godmother!”

“O.K. Because we like each other so much, we can meet back here tonight to see how your visits went, if you’d like. In the bar, here, at 8?”

I was aware that she was finagling me into spending the evening with her. But I wanted the key to Lisbon, so I accepted.

I must admit that she was good about it: “Perhaps you won’t come back tonight. But I promised you the key, so I’ll give it to you.
Lisbon is a city of ghosts. You will keep meeting them.”

“What do you mean by ghosts?”

“Ghosts from your own life. In Lisbon, more than anywhere else, fate is lying in wait on every corner.”

“What would you recommend as a bullet-proof vest for protection then?”

“A line from Pessoa: ‘Who I was is somebody who I love. Yet only in a dream…’ ”

I wanted her to explain. And to tell me more about her story with Salazar. But she had closed up. She didn’t say another word, except to ask the waiter for the check, raising an imperious finger with a painted nail. And then she announced, royally: “I’m treating you!”

She signed the bill as soon as it arrived. Next to her signature, which was illegible, she wrote her room number: 230, I remember well. She then got up, took her cane, bid me a somewhat theatrical, “Until tonight!” and left. She wore her osteoarthritis like an evening dress.

*

Within minutes I had set out to discover Lisbon. Having neither guide nor map, I was determined to let the streets take me where they would.

They were steep, and I sensed that they were leading me to the wharfs, to the Tagus laced with the odor of algae and salt. In less than half an hour, I found myself on the vast esplanade of the Praça do Comérico. I was suddenly overcome by fatigue – most likely an aftereffect of the flu. I entered the first café that I saw.

It was the right one: No sooner had I taken my place at the bar than a figure from my past appeared, just as Garnier had predicted. Alas, there was nothing romantic about it. The man had been the principal of a high school where I once taught early in my career.

He spotted me first. And he seemed not the least bit surprised to find me here: “So, you’re doing the circuit?”

“What circuit?”

“The Pessoa circuit. Café Martinho is a must! The time he spent here… Look there in the backroom. He had his own table. His picture’s hanging above it.”

Then, just as when I had worked for him, he put on his superior airs: “You’re not going to tell me that you didn’t know!”

I lied, shamelessly: “Of course I know.”

“I’m at the end of the circuit,’’ he said. “”It looks like you’re just starting it? Of course, it’s possible to do it either way, backwards
or forwards.”

I agreed. Sighing contentedly, he began sipping his coffee again.
He then launched into a lengthy spiel about the decline of the teaching profession, the joys of retirement and how teenagers today aren’t what they used to be. Given the choice, I would have preferred Garnier’s Salazaristic nostalgia – it was more attractive.

Luckily, he was one of those Stakhanovite tourists. He cut to the chase: “We’re chatting away here, but I haven’t done everything on my itinerary yet. I have to get going.” And off he went.

Now I was alone at the bar. And, to be honest, of two minds.

On the one hand, I was proud that I had managed purely by instinct to find this place that had been so dear to Pessoa. And I was delighted to have had my first “ghostly encounter,” as the old hag at the hotel would have said. “At least tonight I’ll have something to tell her,” I thought.

But at the same time, this had not been a particularly enchanting encounter. “I always hated that moron,’’ I thought. “If that’s all that
Lisbon has to dig up from the depths of my past…”

I left the Café Martinho without even looking at Pessoa’s table or photo. Outside, on the corner under the arcades, a shop was selling French travel guides. I bought one. And I decided that I would change my method. I opened the book at random, and, with eyes closed, pointed to a line on the page. So, leaving my fate to chance, it was thus determined that my next stop would be the fish cannery, which sold traditional cod, octopus, sardine and mackerel specialties.

According to the map, the cannery was only three streets from the Praça do Comérico. So I walked. But when I came to the cannery – which was actually a store – I wanted to turn right back around:
A long line stretched down the street. A long line of tourists, that is, all armed with cameras and wearing the regulation uniform of jeans or shorts, t-shirts, panama hats.

The spirit of Lisbon, or of Pessoa, still seemed to be with me, though, because I heard a woman calling to me: “Do you recognize me? What are you doing here?”

She was a friend from college. Like everyone else, she had read the travel guides and was now calmly waiting in line for her turn to duly purchase the cannery’s products, which, as the high school principal would have said, are obligatory.

It took me awhile to remember her. Overexposure to the sun had ravaged the voluptuously ravishing features of youth. Diets had done the rest, leaving her looking hollow, dry and wrinkled. In a voice made hoarse by cigarettes, she was insistent:

“C’mon, you can get in line with me. You can’t miss this store – it has the best sardines in Portugal!

Were you stranded by the volcano, too? Unbelievable! At the airport this morning…”

She launched into a story about low-cost plane tickets that I didn’t understand. I spinelessly chose to imitate my old principal:

“Yes, I have the same problem,’’ I said, “so I really have to get going. I’m meeting someone…”

I vaguely indicated the other end of the street. She believed me.
After giving her my email address, which she had requested, I was free from this new ghost.

*

I headed into the labyrinth of streets. It was 3:30. I figured I had time for two or three more sites before returning to meet Christine Garnier at the hotel bar.

I opened the guidebook and decreed: “I’ll make a 180 degree turn.
Instead of going along blindly, I’ll meticulously follow the book’s instructions.”

In gushing prose, the book advised starting in the Alfama quarter:
“It’s the soul of Lisbon. It’s the capital’s oldest, most famous neighborhood, emblematic of eternal Lisbon. You see it arising between the Tagus and the Sea of Straw, gleaming among the peeling facades and Baroque churches, as blue as the azulejos lining your way along the steep, narrow streets, haunted by memories of the fishermen of yesteryear and the conquest of India…”

I hailed a cab. Climbing into the back seat, I noticed in the rearview mirror the face of a man who looked remarkably like the caretaker of a building where I had lived for a short time in the ‘90s. “Antonio. Antonio Figueiredo. I’m sure it’s him,” I thought.
*
He was also studying me in the mirror. I looked away. So did he.
But I couldn’t resist, and looked again. So did he.
We went on exchanging these furtive glances for 10 minutes or so. Around us, tramways posed a constant danger to the cars at every corner. And the past was doing the same thing, endlessly challenging me: “You can see it’s Antonio, so speak to him! He was nice, Antonio, he spoke excellent French, he liked you! You can’t act like you don’t recognize him…”

I struggled: “No… Those big warts, there, around his mouth… and the old scar across his cheek. Antonio never had a scar…”

It was no use; I was more and more convinced that it was indeed him. I rolled down the window. Outside, Alfama was a perfect reproduction of everything the book had described: steep streets, hairpin turns, dilapidated facades, the scent of olives and grilled octopus, bougainvillea, walled up alleys, long azulejo frescos emerging beneath porches, wrought-iron balconies overlooking the Tagus. The impeccable resemblance was reassuring. I was still in the real world.

The taxi arrived at my destination, the Miradouro da Santa Lucia.

Again, everything was just as the guide had promised: a splendid panorama of the river and old Lisbon that should have been soothing. Unfortunately, at that very moment a cloud passed before the sun. Until then white and dazzling, the city was suddenly drowned under a leaden sky. It was depressing, and for some reason I was reminded of the dismal months that I had spent in the building where Antonio was caretaker. And finally I couldn’t help it: “Do you remember me? Paris, 58 rue Botzaris…?’’ I asked. “Antonio, your name is Antonio, right?’’

The man turned around, bewildered, and then, after a long pause, told me that he didn’t speak French. In English, on the other hand,
he did quite well. He said he had never set foot in Paris. He said he would have liked to, though; it would have been a welcome change from the war in Angola. He almost died there. The scar was from a machete. “I could tell you were looking at it,’’ he said, “but I don’t pay any attention anymore; I’m used to it.” I gave him a big tip and turned away from the river.

But it didn’t matter. Barely 45 minutes later, just when I thought I was safely hidden away in a maze of deserted little streets, marveling at a shark painted bizarrely on the base of a Roman column, I came face to face with the banker who had lent me the money to buy my apartment. A real shark, as it were. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I ignored him. And moved on without a word.

*

I returned to the hotel long before 8. Although I was exhausted, I wanted to report back to Garnier. I had it all planned out in my head, word for word. She was not going to intimidate me this time:
“Your ghost story, what a load of bunk! Yes, I did run into people who I knew. But they were in no way ghosts. Pessoa was talking about something else. He meant people who had mattered in our lives. People we loved, who had touched us, affected our destiny.
The people I ran into this afternoon didn’t change my life in any way.

They had no impact on my life, they were of no significance. The banker who lent me money, sure, maybe. Or maybe not… If he hadn’t given me a loan, someone else would have. So, Madame Garnier, my meetings can be easily explained. In April, Lisbon is an affordable tourist destination. It’s two hours from Paris, the lights and hotels are cheap. Sunshine and a change of scenery are guaranteed, the Portuguese are Francophiles. A French invasion is logical. And then the volcano erupts. The arriving tourists are added to those stuck at the airport. Which means a greater probability of running into familiar people. I repeat: For Pessoa, the word ‘ghost’ is just an image. It’s a melancholy
figure, a metaphor for nostalgia… saudade…”

It was 8 o’clock. My brilliant little speech was ready. I went down to the bar. But it wasn’t long before I had forgotten my plan: At 8:30, Madame Garnier was still not there. I went to the front desk.

*

The hotel employees were generally cordial. Yet when I came to the desk and asked, “Can you please call Madame Garnier in her room?’’, the attendant’s reply was curt: “There is no Madame Garnier here.” And when I insisted, “Madame Christine Garnier…” she responded haughtily, “I’m absolutely certain, madame.”

I didn’t give up: “I think her room number was 230…”

“I don’t think so.”

“I had lunch with her today. I saw her sign the bill.”

Her face darkened. She had agreed to look it up in the computer, but her fingers then stopped short on the keyboard and she mumbled: “Yes, it’s 230. You had lunch with Madame Micheline Desprées.”

Micheline Desprées, Christine Garnier: No phonetic confusion was possible. Why had she lied to me?

“Can you please call her?’’ I asked.

She looked up, distraught, and her colleague, who until now had been leafing through a stack of bills, came to her rescue:

“Madame Desprées fainted this afternoon. She was taken to the hospital.”

“Where? Which hospital?”

“She’s no longer of this world, madame.”

His colleague then added, sniffling: “She was a regular here. 70 years old… That’s so young to pass away in our day and age…”

*

A lie and a death, and, finally, a genuine ghost. It may have been mentally satisfying, but it was difficult emotionally. I returned to the bar and ordered the same port I had had at lunchtime when recovering from the flu.

In addition to its considerable gustatory qualities, the Quinta do Noval Colheita 2000 was endowed with highly restorative properties. Halfway through my glass, I had recovered my senses, pulled my smartphone from my pocket, launched the search engine and typed in the name Christine Garnier.

I swallowed the remaining port in one gulp: She really existed.
Or, more precisely, she had existed. She had been a model, like my late old friend. And a famous reporter. She had indeed interviewed Salazar and written a book about him, which had caused a commotion upon publication. But she had died in 1987.

The search engine also turned up a few photos of Christine Garnier. Even taking into consideration a facelift and age, she bore no resemblance to the woman I had met. Nothing fit anyway: She was born in 1915, and, if my calculations were right, Micheline Desprées was born in 1932. They shared only two things: their style and their taste for pseudonyms. Christine Garnier’s real name was Raymonde Cagin.

I then recalled what her double had told me over lunch: that Pessoa had been passionate about multiple identities. But he invented them, whereas Micheline Desprées had usurped someone else’s name. Which was itself a pseudonym. The lies were dizzying.

And now, having just entered my life, Micheline Desprées was already gone, leaving me with no hope of learning more. I said to myself: “I have to talk to the front desk clerks.” But I dropped the idea immediately. I had done enough roving along the unstable border between the real and the imaginary. I went to bed.

I slept straight through the night. And I would have slept for another hour had I not been woken up by a phone call from the travel agent. In far-off Iceland, the winds had shifted. The ash clouds from the volcano had moved toward the North Pole, clearing the way for air traffic to resume.

That night, I was back to real life in Paris. I had no desire to know who Micheline Desprées really was. No doubt she had become fascinated with Christine Garnier as a young girl, then started to emulate her. The rest of the scenario was easy to imagine: One day, she had traveled to Lisbon. She, too, then became Salazar’s mistress. He liked women, after all, and maybe he was also chasing ghosts: My smartphone had informed me that he had had difficulty getting over Christine Garnier after they split up. With age and its incumbent solitude, Micheline Desprées had mixed herself up with her idol. Intensive reading of Pessoa – “Who I was is somebody who I love, yet only in a dream” – had messed with her mind.

An incurable romantic, she had imagined that she really was her ghostly double, even dying at the scene of her parallel life.

Pessoa would have loved it. I vowed to return to Lisbon. Writers have a soft spot for ghosts.

I know nothing about Luxembourg except that its capital awaits me. At the train station, I come upon a poster announcing the concert tomorrow at the Philharmonie, a hall that in the past five years has become one of Europe’s finest. My name, Jean Kervenec, appears on the poster just below that of the great Michäel Sterner. Of course, my name is in small letters and his is all in capitals, but wouldn’t many of the world’s most illustrious musicians dream of being there in my place? This concert is my prize for winning the Great Amateurs competition, a victory that came just before I turned 20 years old. I read and reread the poster, but I’m not really sure what I’m feeling. There is a disturbing mix of disbelief, pride and trepidation. All that work, anxiety, hope and disappointment for the right to play 30 short minutes as the opener for a celebrity! A man and a woman dressed in brown interrupt my thoughts. She warmly welcomes me, he takes my bags. In the black limousine, the young woman explains that receiving such virtuosos is the pride of her hotel, Le Grand Ducal. She says that the grand duchess will attend the concert tomorrow and notes that the suite I’ve been given at the hotel is next to that of the maestro. The car stops in front of a large building with blue windows. In the hotel’s stylishly designed lobby, I am met with smiles. I do nothing; everything is taken care of. The hostess leads me to the sixth floor, opening the door to what appears to be a small apartment. There is a panoramic view of the city. I am told that to the left is the upper town, to the right is the lower town, the two parts of the city split by the “falaise.” With its slate-roofed houses, perched gardens surrounded by ramparts and the serpentine river, this Eastern city has a Breton air and seems almost familiar to me. I am impressed by the luxury of my surroundings. They are just like the maestro’s!

After nightfall, I’m feeling disoriented and not the least bit hungry. I lie down to watch 15 programs at once on the large-screen television, but this only makes me drowsy. Then, as I begin to unpack, I realize that the unthinkable, the unbelievable, the absurd has happened: Of the two scores that I have brought with me, one is not the right one. How could I have confused Schumann and Schubert? I panic. Who, at this hour, can help me? I call my musician friends, one after the other. To no avail. They are out or are too far away to be of any help. Only my old professor reassures me, reminding me that I know the piece by heart. I hang up, pacing back and forth in an effort to calm myself. It’s true that I have played this piece of music so many times that even my fingers know it by heart, but I feel like an actor who needs to reassure himself by reading his text up until the last second. Convinced that only alcohol can help me relax, I go up to the eighth-floor bar. It’s empty. The city by night is dark and anonymous. I sit at the phosphorescent-blue bar and order a drink, a strong one. The cocktail has immediate effects. It occurs to me how strange life is: We are constantly dreaming of something exceptional, of a momentous occasion, and when such a day arrives, nothing happens as expected, there seems to be as much anxiety as pleasure. It had taken me three years to convince the jury. Three years of hard work, and I owe my success to Schumann. For the first time, I had dared to play the first two movements of his Sonata Opus 11 in public. I had kept the piece secret for so long because of its association with a most painful part of my life. How nervous I was the day of the competition! It nearly ruined me. Playing the final notes, I was sure that I had failed. Yet turning toward the jury, I realized that I was mistaken.
It seemed odd that I had won, especially since the previous years I had played brilliantly. Too brilliant, perhaps. I had first tried to seduce my masters by choosing a little-known Szymanowski sonata. Its difficult melody, less rewarding than Chopin or Schubert, has harsh, disconcerting phrases and a number of octaves that require swift movements. Perhaps I had hoped to lose the jury, given that the complex harmony makes detecting an error possible only for those who have mastered the piece to perfection. My examiners were not fooled. Instead of surprising them, I had annoyed them. I thought I had marvelously translated the composer’s intent, but the jury was unforgiving: the rhythm was too fast, too jerky, my playing was too technical, it lacked feeling. Play with more humility, one woman added tersely. I had been the best, I deserved to be the winner; they awarded me second place. I had had to wait two more years for my victory, and now, because of a careless mistake, I risk wasting the good fortune that is mine at last. I must find a solution before tomorrow night or else …

I am startled from my dreams by a woman’s voice: “Good evening, Monsieur Kervenec. Is everything all right?” Surprised, I turn to see a young woman with short, dark hair, a round face, and a warm smile. Where did this stranger dressed in black come from, in this bar where I had thought I was alone? And how did she know my name? She puts me at ease by explaining that she is finishing a three-month internship in the hotel’s client relations department. She asks why I seem so worried. Is it pre-performance jitters? For a moment I have the strange impression that I have seen her before. But where? At another concert? Maybe she’s a musician? No, she says that she has never played an instrument but that she loves classical music. I hesitate before then telling her of my foolish error, as stupid as it is unforgivable.
She thinks for a moment. While I order another drink, she moves away, takes out her cell phone, talks at length with someone and then returns. “You will have your score tomorrow,” she says. “I’ll bring it to you myself.” She explains that her sister is a musician. I don’t know why, but I don’t believe her. As a token of thanks, I offer to buy her a drink. She declines. Hoping to keep her here, I suddenly have an idea. I have two free tickets to the concert. In the second row of the orchestra. My family? No, they won’t be coming. I insist, and finally she accepts. Naively, I ask for her room number so that I can drop off the ticket. With a mischievous smile, she replies: “I don’t live in the hotel. Go to sleep, you need your rest for the concert tomorrow night.” She shakes my hand and walks away. I hesitate, wanting to follow her, although I should not hesitate, for she is faster than my thoughts and disappears as mysteriously as she had appeared. I return to my room feeling less worried but more alone, adrift somewhere between calm and regret. Will I really see her again? The next morning, coming down to the lobby, I see her, a black silhouette in a white chair. She is waiting for me, smiling, and holds out the piece of music for me. The score is new, it has never been opened. Where did she find it? I thank her and, as she is preparing to leave, I quickly say: “Come with me to the radio station. I have to give an interview and I’m really nervous. In return, I’ll take you to lunch. You can chose the restaurant since you know the city.” In the taxi, I ask what her name is. She hesitates: Laure. “That’s a lovely name, if it’s really yours,” I say. Again, she smiles.

We leave the center of the city and enter a zone full of modern architecture. Outside the glass façade of the Luxembourg radio and television building, a man is waiting for us. He explains that the interview will be conducted in German and that the concert will be broadcast throughout Europe. My father, if he doesn’t come, will thus be able to listen to it. For half an hour, the usual questions come one after another: Why Ravel, why Schumann? Then they become more probing: Who introduced me to music? What does my father do? What happened to my mother? Who from my family will be present at the concert tonight? I am evasive, saying only that my mother died five years ago, when I was 15. She played a formative role in my career. The journalist is surprised that no one from my family will be attending tonight. For my father, I invent health problems, keeping to myself a secret wish that he will arrive at the last minute. I finish the interview annoyed at having had my private pains revived. Outside, Laure says nothing, respecting my discomfort and silence. She hails a taxi and tells the driver to take us to the Grund, the old quarter of the lower town. We walk silently in the narrow streets lined with old houses, crossing what resembles a village in the middle of the city. The inn that she has chosen is on the banks of the Alzette, a gentle river that it seems could sweep all my cares away. We are sitting face to face in the sun. We gaze at one another in silence. I don’t know why, but I then begin talking, I talk more and more, holding nothing back, as if to ease my anxiety. Everything that I could not say in the interview comes out freely now: my family, my two sisters, my brother. Especially my mother, gravely ill when I was 11. Her death after four years of struggle. Four years of anguish and secret complicity. Everyday I would come home from school afraid that I had arrived too late. Every week I noted new signs of decline. Her disappearance ruined everything. My father had been courageous until the end, but then …
I stop there, I don’t mention his sadness and descent into alcohol. Unlike me, he didn’t have the means to save himself. I didn’t choose music; it chose me. Very early on. When I was a boy, I sensed how demanding music could be, even sometimes tyrannical, but thanks to music I was able to overcome many hardships. My mother taught piano. She had taught me. My father is not really an artist … But why am I telling you this? She smiles, shrugs as if to say that she wasn’t expecting me to say anything, that she is just here to listen. And you? I know nothing about you, I say. She doesn’t answer, suggests that I finish eating because I’m expected soon at the Philharmonie. I will have two hours to practice. After that, the maestro will occupy the hall.

In the taxi that takes us back to the Kirchberg neighborhood, I admit that I’m nervous. Terribly nervous about the concert tonight. Those 30 minutes will determine my professional future. And I have never played the entire Schumann sonata in public. Laure reassures me, advises me: Tonight, ignore the crowd, she says. Ignore everything around you, think of only one person. Only one. Play for her, and everything will be fine. Our conversation is interrupted by the taxi’s arrival at the Philharmonie. I want her to come to my practice, but she declines the invitation, saying she must return to the hotel. She promises that she will be at the concert tonight, though, in the second row, as planned. Before I leave the taxi, I tell her that I will play my first piece tonight, Ravel’s Ondine, with her in mind. Only her. She smiles, wishes me good luck and is gone. I’m left alone in front of the vast white building. All around, as far as I can see, the modern buildings of the new Luxembourg rise. The Philharmonie is by far the best of them, smooth, light, elegant. It resembles a temple
surrounded by thin columns or a strange musical instrument with 1,000 strings, abandoned there on the esplanade. A young man greets me, pointing out the high ceilings, the beauty of the space. He opens the doors to the three concert halls. The imposing main hall is elegantly intimate, with orange and blue lighting. Behind the stage, the organ adds to the solemnity. I spot the black grand piano on the stage, a monster awaiting its hour. I approach it. A Steinway, of course. I caress the wood like I might a beast that I must confront. Every concert is a meeting with a new instrument. Each piano has its particularities that must be mastered. If the keys are a bit tight or a bit loose, the chords will be modified. An imperceptible difference, perhaps, but one that if overlooked can be destabilizing and may even lead to mistakes. The public, I know, will not be indulgent with me. I am nothing but an intruder in this evening devoted to Michäel Sterner.

From the first notes, I feel the piano’s complicity. The keys are docile, the sound is excellent and the acoustics of the hall are nearly perfect. I endlessly play and play again my two pieces. Without mistake, without anxiety, but also without spectators. Tonight everything will be different. I finish the second movement of the sonata when I am kindly asked to leave the hall for the maestro. Without meeting him, I take refuge in my dressing room. The room is quiet, secure, with a deep armchair for relaxation and an upright piano for calming any lingering doubts. Drinks and sandwiches are brought, but I’m not hungry. I prefer to rest, hoping this will help me endure the long wait. I doze off. When the director of the Philharmonie arrives to greet me, I know that the moment is near. I put on my new shirt, slip on my rented morning coat, check in the mirror that my white bow tie is straight. Now I only have to wait. My two scores are on the table. I read them one more time. I wipe my hands. They are sweatier than on the day of the competition. Supposedly, before a parachute jump the real fear comes only the second time around. The first time, you’re afraid of what you don’t know (falling into the void); the second time, you’re afraid of what you know (falling into the void).
I try to reassure myself by minimizing my role in the concert. The crowd is expecting nothing from me; they aren’t here for me. I’m just an appetizer. At best, they will be indifferent, at worst full of pity. And yet, if I could somehow touch them … From then on, everything goes very quickly. Someone comes for me. He says the hall is full, wishes me good luck and sends me onto the stage to polite applause. Greeting the crowd, I glance at the second row, to the right. She’s there. Next to her, my father’s seat is empty. I take my seat at the piano and suddenly all is silent. Not a sound, not a whisper or a cough. I need to quickly play the first notes in order to fill this void. I wipe my sweaty palms. The spotlight is blinding, but I must forget about it. Everything around me must disappear. As she said: Isolate yourself, concentrate, think of only one person. I start Ondine with her in mind. My fingers stroke the keys, summoning the rippling water. I have never played this difficult piece with such fluidity. And when the last notes sound, when I lift my hands slowly from the keys, I raise my head and imagine my stranger leaning on the piano. She is smiling. So? What do you think? Listen to the applause. You surprised them. Keep going, and you will move them, but be careful: Schumann is not Ravel, he requires more than virtuosity, he requires heart.
The crowd is silent, she disappears. This is the moment of truth. The silence is black and heavy. Solitude fills me. The stage is no longer present, I’m in the dining room. The room next door is dark from morning to night. My mother wants the shutters closed, as if she has decided that from now on she will have no more light. On the other side of the door, she is waiting for me to play — for her, just like every night. After school, I would kiss her emaciated cheeks without really looking, trying not to see the signs of decay on her face. I know that she has spent the day alone, in the empty house, stuck in bed, fighting the illness that is ravaging her. Since morning she has been awaiting this moment. I have nothing to offer her but my music and Schumann’s Sonata Opus 11, her favorite piece. Before, I could only play the introduzione . Tonight, for the first time, I will offer her the entire sonata, including the magnificent allegro un poco maestoso . The door is open, I’m thinking only of her.

But my dreams distract me, my hands are getting ahead of me. My god, they’re playing too fast, accelerating as if to be done with it. I must slow them down, they must listen to me. Fortunately, they know the way and have so far not made a mistake. So I use the allegro vivace to regain control, to impose my rhythm, the rhythm that we had always used to calm her pain. It is a harmonious mix of softness, poetry and introspection. Little by little, I feel the music working its magic. The melody slows her breathing. More than words, more than gestures, more than drugs, Schumann eases suffering.
When my fingers play the last notes of the final allegro, I feel as if I have been lost in a mysterious silence. I am exhausted, drained, depleted. I hear a sudden crackling. The hall is lit up, and the crowd is applauding. As if in thanks. I realize that they were there, behind me, in the dining room, that for a moment they shared my disarray. I stand, I bow, I even hear some bravos. I head off the stage and the maestro is coming toward me, clapping his hands.
He congratulates me, whispers to me, “You moved us.” As I walk off, Michäel Sterner sits before the piano and takes over the spotlight.
Backstage, I am congratulated and seated in the technical booth behind a window overlooking the stage. From there, I can follow the maestro’s skillful performance, but I’m not listening. I’m reliving in slow motion these moments that have changed my life. Slowly, I realize. I think of my mother, of how it had pleased her to listen to me play. Without our terrible afternoons of silent complicity, would I have played Schumann so truly? From my perch, I search in the darkness for the woman who had advised me. I’m sitting too far to the side to see her. I wish the concert would end. I feel more than gratitude toward her. The maestro bows amid a frenzy of applause. I am brought to a reception room, where admirers are crowding around the maestro. A horde of journalists is questioning him, and as there is not room for them all, some of them turn their attention to me. Who am I, where do I live, what are my plans? I am suddenly indifferent to this media attention about which I had long fantasized. I answer dispassionately. I’m thinking of the stranger.

She’s the one I’m looking for among the admirers. I would so like to take her far from this crowd. The room empties, there are handshakes, goodbyes and more bravos. I am brought back to the hotel, and still I have not seen her. Her absence deflates my joy. In my luxurious suite, I feel tired, disoriented, and alone. Early the next morning, I hope to find someone who knows her at the front desk. I ask them all. No one remembers her. I describe her to the hotel’s director of client relations, but she says there has never been a young woman with short, dark named Laure on her staff. She even says that she has never had an intern working for her. At 10, I take the train back to Paris, taking my strange memory with me.
Since then, at every concert I instinctively glance at the second row, looking for a woman dressed in black. And when solitude engulfs me, I turn to Ravel. Only he fulfills me: I need only play Ondine, the first part of Gaspard de la nuit , to see her again, leaning on my piano, smiling exactly like that September day when, in Luxembourg, luck brought me a muse.