Relay: On Returning Home

We were standing on the royal axis, the line of monuments that are all oriented at 26 degrees, forming a straight line from the Louvre all the way to the Chateau de Versailles

You wouldn’t think there was anything about the peaceful, shaded streets of Springs that calls to mind the architecture of Paris’s grand boulevards and bourgeois dwellings. And at first glance, there isn’t.

In Paris, the buildings (aside from those in Montmartre and the Marais, districts that survived the urban planning of the 1850s) for the most part all look the same. The walls are cream-colored stone and the roofs are slate blue; the balconies, always on the second and fifth floors, have black iron railings, and windows are in top floor dormers.

The lines formed by this uniform architecture are straight, so straight that when I stood beneath the Arc de Tri­omphe and looked to the east, I could see all the way down the Champs-Elysées to the Place de la Concord, the Tuileries gardens, and the Louvre Pyramid. I eagerly pointed this out to my boyfriend (now an ex), who, like me, was lucky enough to be studying abroad and had come to visit me from Milan, that we were standing on the royal axis, the line of monuments that are all oriented at 26 degrees, forming a straight line from the Louvre all the way to the Chateau de Versailles. This meticulous city planning felt like the eighth wonder of the world to me, but he did not seem so impressed.

The lines in Springs are not nearly so straight, nor are they so finely executed. I live in Springs on what is perhaps the least straight of these lines, the notorious and aptly, sadly named Dead Man’s curve. But just as the slate blue roofs in Paris never let you forget where you are, there are many things in Springs that are just as grounding. There is, of course, the bay, an ever present, nearly noiseless backdrop. The trees are as constant as the palatial presence of the Louvre in Paris, their cyclical change through the seasons as unwavering as the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa.

And the houses that line the streets of East Hampton, especially in the village, are similar to one another. Just like the buildings in Paris cannot be built higher than 30 meters, the buildings in the village’s historic district must conform to code. The true colonials have spawned a thousand imitations, so most of the houses in the village and many in Springs have brown shingles and white-framed windows. There are houses as similar to one another in East Hampton as the bourgeois apartments in Paris are to each other.

When I returned to East Hampton I felt like an alien, and in some ways I still do. The feeling is similar to how college students feel when coming home: slightly out of place, but content to be there, like a blurry photograph that you know would be beautiful if you could find a way to focus it. For months I had identified my surroundings by squarely cut trees, the smell of freshly baked viennoiserie wafting from the bakeries (this cliché is very, very true), and the ever present monuments of the royal axis. Back home, I was jolted by the permeating greenness of the landscape and the otherness of the ocean; I had forgotten how much I loved both. I had to relearn, and am still relearning, how to live in a natural setting with ferocious beauty that is starkly different from the uniform perfection of Paris.

While studying in Paris I was constantly reminded of the artists and writers who had made it their home: Picasso, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, Ezra Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the list in endless. They all knew one another, personally and professionally. I thought that my hometown was and is just like that. Paris had the Impressionists and East Hampton, and more specifically Springs, had Abstract Expressionists. In Paris I lived 20 minutes from the Louvre (by metro), the most visited art museum in the world, and 20 from Montmartre, the district that Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Van Gogh called home. But at home, I live 1.5 minutes, driving, from Jackson Pollock’s house and studio. In Paris, I paid homage to Oscar Wilde buried in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, but at home I tip an invisible hat to the poet Frank O’Hara every time, which is almost every day, I drive by Green River Cemetery.

There are no fewer than 15 royal palaces in Paris despite the demise of the monarchy so many years ago, and there are parts of the city that still look as they did in the Middle Ages. When I drove home from East Hampton Village for the first time since returning to America, it struck me that nothing had changed in my absence. The village green was where it had been for some 300 years, the intersection at North Main was as annoying as ever, the harbor still glistened like polished glass in the early morning, and the Springs General Store still had the cheeky sign on the front door that reminds customers to pay for their groceries.

I thought about President Mitterand’s modern art installations in the 1980s and how angry some Parisians were that he dared to put what they considered a glass monstrosity in the courtyard of the Louvre. What would the Sun King (fresh in the minds of the French if not in his grave) think? I thought about how strange a glass and steel construction would look in front of the Mulford Farm. I thought about how truly disgusted I would be by a strip mall in Springs. And every time a new health food joint popped up, I rolled my eyes and kept going to Goldberg’s.

Whereas the French attitude is more along the lines of “this is how we do it because this is Paris and this is How It Has Always Been Done,” the East End mentality is more “this is how we do it, because why would we want to do it any other way.” As I stood in my backyard on my first sunny day back in America, surrounded by a natural, ethereal haze, which wrapped itself around Springs in a changing, never ceasing, cadmium green wash, the air smelling slightly salty, I felt hard pressed to disagree.

Lucia Akard is an intern at The Star this summer.