The Intrigue of Just Passing Through

By Jena Strong ’95

Illustration by Federica Del Proposto

Spring break in Paris, my senior year. A friend of a friend of a friend had offered to put me up for the week, and I found a cheap ticket through the Student Travel Agency. I knew one person in the whole city, a friend who was busy with her studies at Reid Hall. But I also had an assignment that felt more like a secret mission: To deliver the draft of a book by one of my Russian studies professors, about the Soviet dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky, to Sinyavsky himself, who lived on the outskirts of the city.

I spent the first few days dutifully climbing the steps of Montmartre, drinking espresso, sitting on park benches with a journal, longing for love, and eating fresh peaches and pears straight from bins at outdoor markets. I loved the singsong of each shopkeeper’s bonjour and au revoir every time I entered and exited a store. Fittingly, the Lonely Planet was my guide, as I was constantly lonely in a city that seemed to demand romance.

Midway through the week, I went to the Turkish baths, where I relished knowing that nobody in the whole world knew where I was. It was like getting lost on purpose, a feeling marvelous and unsettling. As if I could disappear into the steam never to be named again, I was surrounded by large women and small women, women old and young, women whose skin shocked me with its folds and creases, women whose company was both distant and comforting. 

I was tiny then, and naked in so many ways, not at home in my body yet, and yet at home, somehow, in the world as a traveler, with its freedom from having to be anyone, explain anything, or even understand anything beyond the senses, beyond color and smell and taste and my own two wandering feet.

On my last morning there, unable to delay my errand any longer, I set out for the suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses to find Sinyavsky’s home. As the train moved away from the city center, I clutched the book and looked out the window as each small station whizzed past: women with grocery carts, an old man smoking on a bench, a little girl tugging on her mother’s skirt. When I got off the train, I dug out my directions, feeling improbable and a bit shy, as I walked up into a neighborhood that reminded me of my grandparents’ in Queens. Locating the house, I circled around the block a few times, wondering what to say when someone came to the door, whether my Russian would hold up, whether he’d remember I was coming.

His wife answered the bell, a hefty and ageless babushka. I explained that I’d been sent by my professor to give a book to Mr. Sinyavsky. She addressed me using the more formal Вы (vu-iy). I accepted her offer of tea, and we chatted a little.

She bustled around the living room, where every table, shelf, and surface was completely covered with papers and books, until eventually Sinyavsky appeared. I handed him the book. I wish I could tell you what he said, what we discussed—all I can recall is that he looked older than his 69 years, and I felt younger than my 21. Then, as if I dreamed the whole trip, I was back in my borrowed room in Paris, and then back in an Upper West Side dorm room, no closer to love or dissidence than I’d been before, yet somehow changed, having glimpsed the home of a writer who once said, “[Literature is] a sort of doubled-edged game or adventure that in itself embodies the intrigue of a fascinating novel.”

The intrigue of those few days stayed with me, as did my brief encounter with Sinyavsky. Professor Catharine Nepomnyashchy’s book got published. I graduated right on schedule, released into the world to find my way. In the years that have followed, when the daily grind threatens to blur my sense of adventure, I return in my mind to riding the train into the Parisian suburbs. I play a little game, as I’m driving to work, or walking to town, or making the lunches, or sinking into a hot bath. I squint my eyes and imagine that I’m in a foreign country. Every single time, without fail, the world instantly sharpens, once again fascinating and new.

And I remember: I’m still traveling. I’m just passing through.