“D’epaysement……Why You Simply Need To do it!” (Travelogue Series 2007)
Posted by intellisg on April 4, 2007
There is a French word which I really like to share with you! It’s a word that doesn’t lend itself easily to the English translation, “d’epaysement,” a few years ago. I chanced on an article written by the Paris Bureau chief for the New York Times, his translation of the word felt just right so for ease of reference, I am going to quote him.
“The feeling of not being assaulted by the familiarity of things, a change in surroundings where there is no immediate point of reference.”
He went on to quote a French journalist who once said that
“Most people don’t make it a point to “d’epayses,” only to end up craving a home they once knew in a place away from home.”
This is unfortunate as it is true. Although one may even spend years working, living and playing in a country, their unwillingness to d’epayses ensures they never really left home. In many sense the word simply means to (de)countrify or (re)seeing.
The British and Americans are the worst, go to any country in the world and you would most likely find either a sliver of Dorset complete with immaculate cricket lawns or an American club that serves super sized whoppers next to a giant screen blaring out the live images baseball games. As for overseas Singaporeans, we don’t endeavor so hard to create fiefdoms in foreign lands, but we more than make up for our lack of verve by insisting on speaking in Singlish. Nonetheless after exhausting the run of the mill dialogue as to which school, university, unit we more than make up for our lack of fetishness – when the conversation invariably turns to the very serious issue of bartering or begging for Maggi instant noodles. Trust me you know you’ve being away for too long, when you’re willing to trade your hippest CD’s for a packet of Maggi instant noodles.
It never fails to amaze me even today how our entire historical sense of being revolves around the humble instant noodles. What I usually find unfortunate is whenever I ask whether they joined the locals at the café for a morning croissant or an evening aperitif, shopped at the outdoor marche, went to the local fete, or people-watched in the place, the answer is invariably, “dowan lah.” They may have had an amazing boat ride on the Seine, but they don’t know the real Paris – one has to make it a point like I mentioned to be depayses – step off the boat and walk around for that sort of knowledge – even perhaps try to get lost – and if a boat ride experience alone is what they were seeking, they certainly didn’t need to fly all the way to France: there are plenty of beautiful places to see the sights by boat in Singapore and Malaysia.
Until you have really wasted time in a city, you cannot pretend to know it well. The soul of a city like a heart of a woman is not be grasped easily; her heart has many chambers, but as every Parisian will tell you, just as one begins to acquaint oneself with a building by first stepping into the lobby – the first chamber is to understand why she is often called, Ville Lumiere or City of Lights. Though it is constantly used in reference to Paris, it has become a sobriquet a term of endearment.
Say Ville Lumiere and some will conjure images of well lighted sparkling pools doting the length of the Seine – the Champs-Elysees and Eiffel ablaze. Or perhaps the Pantheon, Sacre Coeur, Trocedero – all bathed in a yellow hallo.
Personally I’ve often imagined the expression has more to do with the soul of the city. Apart from the illicit thrill of Paris – they also have real shops, colorful, family owned café’s, full of evocative smells and all of them seem to disregard the local bye law by spilling out quite openly into the streets, where minds meet and tongues wag into the night. To me café’s are just not places, they’re like transit points very much like airports, train stations and space stations where people gather around only in Parisian café’s they do something most of these places don’t do outside Paris – they talk and talk and talk…..
I am reminded so much starts with conversations. The kind in which you start with a willingness to become a slightly different person, these are conversations that open the possibility of changing your mind. Perhaps that why so many new experimental hubs in the world insist on using the word “café” as a metaphor to describe their quest for vibrancy, verve and variety –certainly, for centuries, many in the world have been drawn to Paris like the proverbial moth to the flame precisely because it offers the opportunity for life changing conversations.
In a sense the appellation ville Lumiere isn’t about physical light at all. Half a dozen other cities probably have more and brighter lights than Paris these days. Rather it’s a reference to the light of intellectualism that attracts the verve to ignite, political, spiritual, cultural and intellectual change.
The glow emitted by these café’s which dot Paris is not simply climatic to what many refer to as “la atmosphere”, it’s a spiritual force that also shapes one’s character, opinions and judgments. It’s a powerful astringent – coffee, cigarettes and conversations – the 3C’s which defines the City of Lights.
There’s another intangible reason. Something about the quality of life, the outlook of the people, daring and provocative but never dull, the city of lights is often seen as the enfant terrible of the international community simply because they, the French don’t see the virtue of embracing globalization or the monologue of American foreign policy, where the mantra is either you are with or against us – they have their own will and they will do as they please – in these café’s a man learns at least three things, how to roll cigarettes from the outside in, listen to three conversations simultaneously and write his history, where the latter usually involves deconstructing established structures and reassemble them again like Lego bricks, nothing ever remains the same, man observes….he realizes…. he sees possibilities… makes a choice…..takes a position, one where he knows if he doesn’t someone else will just come along and write his history, only to end up being told where to go, stop there, turn left etc.
I guess the reason why I see these café’s as embodying the light of the city is because they’re also about escaping the cacophony of modern life by truing oneself through a rigorous process of discourse – by this, I mean you can teach a man to draw a straight line; or how to string a sentence or even pronounce a word, with admirable speed and precision; but if you ask him to consider the deeper meaning of why he writes, he stops, his execution becomes scraggy; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he slips up and doesn’t quite manage to convey what’s really in his head on paper – that’s what happens when sometime mechanical is rendered a thinking being, till then he was simply a monkey trained to pick coconuts, a machine, an animated tool, that to me is what these café’s actually are miniature production houses that keeps churning out critical thinkers. So even if it sounds cliché to the uninitiated, countless others, this is where the light burns brightest in the City of Lights.
That realization occurred to me one muggy evening, many years ago when I found myself mulling over Thoreau’s dictum the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I found myself suddenly a stranger in a sea of many and soon that familiar depressing sense of estrangement from the mainstream fogged it – deepening the abyss – but how ridiculous it is the self-pity of the loner as he leans over the bridge pulling on a cigarette seeking answers from the Seine – that night in the language of rivers, she said, Yes? She said yes, so I asked again, and she said yes again. In the rush I didn’t notice the city lights being turned off for the night, or when the sparse crowd dispersed. As I looked out along the quay at the many yellow lights of the café’s still opened, I remembered the moments and the waters I had crossed in my life – above all I realized, it was a long time since I last went into one of those café’s in the City of Lights, a place so bright that I will simply have to go on using that cliché Ville Lumiere as long as those café’s remain through the night.
(By Darkness / The Travelogue Series / Paris – EP 99878 – 2007 Revised from 2005 series – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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