Ceci n’est pas un souvenir

Mo Isu
5 min readMar 4, 2023

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This essay was in its first form, a letter to a friend

In the summer of 2021, I travelled to France for 12 days with a group of amazing people doing great work in XR. I hoped the trip would allow me the opportunity to spend time with people I knew in France. Unfortunately, my friend who lived in Paris was away in the countryside, and I was only around briefly. We missed each other. I sent this letter to her when we finally found time to speak about it.

This letter is about a memory that came back to me recently; a memory from the first of two nights I was in Paris. That is what this letter is about, but before I talk about that night, I will take a step back and talk about the past and after I talk about that night, I will take a step sideways and talk about some new musings and fears. Let’s start with greetings.

Hello Marine.

How are you doing?

I seldom start letters with salutations. When I do have salutations, they come somewhere in the middle — like this. I find that people treat salutations in letters like wrapping paper over a gift. No one pays close attention to it, they get past it to get to the meat of the letter. But perhaps when the salutation is in the middle, you can sit in it a little longer. And think a little deeper about the question

How are you doing?

My letter starts with this picture

Perhaps you know it. Rene Magritte’s treachery of images. The idea that the image of a thing is not quite the thing itself. The picture of a pipe is not a pipe. I first encountered it many years ago in the book ‘The Fault in our stars.’ I later encountered it again, in the movie adaptation of the same book. I must have encountered it a few times since then but not in the past five years. The book, the fault in our stars was one I read maybe 3 or 4 times the year it first came out. I watched the movie many more times, at least a dozen. I very much enjoyed that story and I very much enjoyed the image. But then I moved on and experienced many other things and I forgot all about both things until the first night I spent in Paris.

It was 1 am, I was with two friends from South Africa that I had met days earlier and we were sitting with a couple of Parisians (who I was meeting for the first time but were already friends of one of my companions.) We all sat at a bar. I don’t know if it is important to mention but bars aren’t places I generally go to. I am not much of a drinker (which is to say I am no drinker at all) but I had decided to let myself indulge. “When in France, do french things.” So this was the scene. Drinking beers with new friends, smiling over half said stories, some in English and some in French, and taking in the scenery. And right there, as I looked around, I looked up and saw this:

The writing on the wall is a little unclear so here’s another image of it.

Ceci n’est pas une ordonnace.

Next to it, a hospital.

I remember looking up and seeing the wall and just knowing. Knowing the way you know these things. Knowing that this was a moment I would remember. It was a good moment to pause and take in the surrounding. The unlikely friends, the smiles, the cross-legged men, the stories told, the beers, the hushed french, the drunk man and this, the sign inspired by the image of a thing that is not the thing itself. Not long after noticing it (or maybe before noticing), I caught a couple dancing in front of that wall. Just by themself, dancing to the music of their love.

I have told the story of my two Parisian nights a few times but I had not told the story of this exact moment. My brain had just simply skimmed through it. I am aware now that telling you and referring to two Parisian nights with such romanticisation, must seem weird. People speaking romantically of Lagos would seem weird to me. I think Lagos is very ordinary when it is not unbearably difficult. But at the same time, I have written multiple romantic essays about Lagos.

So this memory, this memory came to me recently. I think it was triggered by something I saw in a movie. Ironically it was a french movie and I think they might have made a very fleeting reference to the treachery of images. And as the memory came, I was filled with the sweetness of the moment but quickly also with a realisation I made recently.

I have been consuming a lot of media and research around memory (not intentionally.) I recently found out that unlike what people imagine, memories aren't stored somewhere in the mind to be retrieved. Memories are recreated every time we remember them. Every single instance of a memory is a new one created. And every time we recreate a memory, we change it a little. The most loyal memories are the ones we remember only once or never at all. So as I remembered this memory, I thought of all of this and I thought of the sadness of knowing that the memory was now altered and that it would be altered every time I remembered it.

What I remembered that day and what I remember now would not be what happened the way it actually happened. As much as I want to sit in that memory and relive that moment, I can’t. That moment will always be gone and that memory would always be slightly different and I would not know. This is the way with all moments and all memories.

I can’t help but think about the treachery of memories. A memory of a moment is not a moment itself.

Ceci nést pas un souvenir.

Best Wishes

Isu

P.S I google translated memory and it gave me souvenir. Is this actually how it would be used in conversation? I have come to think of souvenir as its acquired English meaning.

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Mo Isu

Writing what I can| Being Vulnerable and confused| Making podcasts