Parisian Puzzle

Parisian Puzzle

It’s been a busy two weeks here in Paris! This is actually my first time alone in a big city. Yes, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, but I don’t know it the way someone who lives here or has spent large amounts of time on their own knows a city. My Paris is a snapshot of memories from ages five to nineteen, loosely strung together and in which I am always in tow with someone who knows the city by heart. I don’t know Paris on my own. My first memory of Paris is from when I was five years old. It was Christmas of 1997 and I vaguely remember riding the train into the city with my mom, dad, brother, and grandpa. According to family legend, I asked if the bad kids who “wrote on the walls” were going to get in trouble, referring to the abundance of graffiti. We met my aunt at the Eiffel Tower and climbed it. All I remember is it was bitterly cold and I got to eat chocolate cake at a nearby cafe afterwards.

Because a lot of my mom’s family lives in the regions surrounding Paris, the city has always been easily accessible and the years are filled with these kinds of memories. There’s the time I stayed with my aunt, who was living in Paris at the time, when I was seven and she lived on the top floor of an old apartment building that I thought was the coolest thing ever. She took me to le Jardin des Plantes where we saw a puppet show based on the famous French character, Guignol. It started pouring rain and I remember holding her hand as we ran for the metro. Next, I’m nine, the stage where I wore my hair in two braids everyday and had glasses as round as Harry Potter’s, spending the day in Paris with Mom and my aunt. We walked around this square in the eighteenth district where there are lots of artists trying to draw you and souvenir stands everywhere. And then we made our way up to le Sacre Coeur, the church that sits on a hill and looks over all of Paris. We rode on the carousel that sits at the foot of the hill below the church and ate Nutella crepes. There’s the trip to the Louvre with my grandma to see the Mona Lisa, whose miniature size, in my eleven year-old opinion, failed to live up to its monumental reputation. There’s the picnic with my mom and cousins in le Bois de Bologne when I was twelve, where we spent the day boating and playing badminton on the grass. A year later, another picnic in le Jardin des Plantes with my grandparents where my grandmother insisted I eat a tomato like an apple with mayonnaise and I decided that if that was part of being truly French, I would stick with my American tendencies. At fifteen, going to see plays with my aunt and walking around l’Ile Saint-Louis around sunset near the Seine while eating les glaces de Berthillon. And in the later years of adolescence, hanging out with my cousins in the sixteenth district near Place Charles-de-Gaulle and l’Arc de Triomphe, window shopping along les Champs-Elysées, and ice skating in front of l’Hotel de Ville during Christmastime.

Returning to le Sacre Coeur, one of my favorites since I was a kid.
Returning to le Sacre Coeur, one of my favorites since I was a kid.

Because I am someone who attaches a significance to the passage of time and the connectivity to place, it has been fun and exhilarating to piece together these moments of evolution in Paris into a more cohesive image. The morning of my very first day in Paris on my own, my aunt handed me a map of the city and a map of the metro system. She explained to me the basics of how to use public transit and which train to take home. I couldn’t contain my excitement as the train pulled into la Gare St-Lazare and I confessed to my aunt that just a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I could have done this as confidently as I felt at this moment. She smiled and said “That’s just like your mom, she was so determined and had such a desire to travel on her own that she wasn’t scared.” And that is exactly how I feel about being in Paris on my own now: I have wanted to be in this place for so long that I no longer focus on the fear of getting lost or being mugged or any other big city worries. My mom knew what she wanted earlier than I did but now I feel like I can walk confidently and know that I am competent and able to figure things out on my own. Of course, moments of panic sometimes arise, such as “Is that person following me?!” or “I will surely get lung cancer from all this second-hand smoke.” But for every imagined possibility of abduction or flustered scramble for my metro ticket in a crowd of impatient Parisians lies a lesson in self-reliance. I no longer need someone to hold my hand and pull me along with them through the city. And that has been a very satisfying discovery.

As I’ve made my way through the city throughout the past two weeks, revisiting these places that left such an impression on me as a kid, I’ve come to appreciate the city on my own terms. The commute into the city, walking briskly along with the crowd through the metro while trying to refer to my map as little as possible in an effort to blend in with everyone else and pretend like I’ve been doing this for years. Although a rough blueprint of the city already exists in my head, I am forging my own identity with this city. I have my own favorite neighborhoods now, my preferred metro route, and my own adventure planned each day. I’ve learned to appreciate the quieter areas far away from the stereotypical pzazz of Paris, where I can find a much cheaper and better cup of coffee and a peak into the life of the average Parisian. More than anything, though, a feeling of comfort has settled in as I make my way through new and familiar streets. Being a part of this buzzing city no longer feels as overwhelming as it once was. As different as the lifestyle is from home, I feel like I belong. I feel connected to this city where both of my parents once lived. They didn’t know each other and wouldn’t meet for another twenty years in a small college town in Chapel Hill. What are the chances of that? Now I am also here, walking the same streets in the same neighborhoods that they once walked. Perhaps it is being overly sentimental, but that moves me. Last week, I unintentionally stumbled upon my mom’s university where she did her undergraduate studies before moving to the States. I was walking around the neighborhood and suddenly I recognized the name on the map. I hurried along le Quai de Tournelle and found myself in front of possibly the ugliest building in Paris. But nonetheless, this was were my mom spent two to three years of her life, mastering the science that would become her career. Part of the person I knew as Mom started here. I feel as if being here in my early twenties, the same time in life when my parents were also here, and experiencing a kind of life they once lived has changed how I understand and relate to them as people and not just as parents. My father always describes his time in Paris as a time when he grew up a lot and learned a lot about himself, and I know my mom also had to make some pretty big life decisions after her time in Paris. So if that’s my right of passage into adulthood, passed down from my parents, I’ll take it.

A must for anyone who, like me, has a love affair with books.
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Great Expectations

Great Expectations

On the outside, nothing has changed. The same little French town with its narrow streets nestled in the countryside outside of Paris, the same apartment building, the same photos of all the children and grandchildren on the walls, and the same routine as summers past. I’ve even been sleeping in the same twin bed that I grew up sleeping in while spending summer vacation with my grandparents from the time I was six until going to college. In the past ten days, I have slipped back into the simple routine of my childhood summers, a peaceful yet nostalgic endeavor that on one hand feels very natural and on the other, seems out of place.

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For the first couple of mornings, my grandmother left the hot chocolate powder out on the breakfast table, along with my favorite mug as a kid. It wasn’t until I had kissed her good morning in traditional French fashion and went for the coffee maker that she realized her mistake, the effect of over a two year absence. “Oh but of course, why would you want hot chocolate, you’re 21 now,” she exclaimed. By contrast, my love for freshly made croissants has not changed!

Apart from the new-and-improved breakfast routine, much of the day looks the same. Going to the market, picking out fresh produce, daily walks in the park of the local Château de Chantilly (when in Europe, you’re never far from a castle!), and watching my grandmother’s favorite soap opera. I still run into the same neighbors on my runs and the same kids splash away in the pool across the street, just a few years older. My grandmother and I still pass hours together talking on the couch, myself listening to stories of her childhood and family legends that I’ve heard many times but still love to hear.

But looks can be deceiving; that’s one of the first things you have to learn about grief. For as much as things appear to have remained the same on the outside, everything has changed. The lives associated with this apartment look nothing like they did four years ago. In 2010, our last summer together as an entire family, none of us could have imagined how different things would be. And sometimes it’s hard to know where your place is or what role you should assume in an environment that, down to its very roots, has been profoundly changed from the place you were so familiar with before. We are all changed. Certain topics of conversation are avoided; there are boundaries that are not crossed. The emptiness of my grandfather’s chair is ignored but ever present in my periphery vision. The candle burning in front of Mom’s picture day and night seems less obtrusive and more of an accepted reality than it did during my first visit after her death. Sleepless nights are common and no one needs to explain why. In the face of all these changes, it seems odd that life here should continue as it did before all those summers ago as if nothing is different at all. It almost feels dishonest.

Maybe my anticipation of this trip has made this intense feeling of deja-vu mixed with discomfort and a pinch of fascination harder to understand. After two and half years since my last visit and four years since visiting under happy circumstances, I guess I expected either a jubilant homecoming or a complete deviation from what I had known before. In other words, I prepared myself for the extreme ends of the spectrum and wasn’t prepared to find things the same … yet so different. When I arrived, I quickly found my grandmother in the crowd and after hugs and kisses, it was as if no time had passed at all since the last time we had seen each other. The drive home from the airport was just as I remember it as a kid, lots of fields and passing through little towns. And although the surroundings flashing by my window were all familiar, I just couldn’t quite connect myself to that them. I have such happy memories of this place, full of family and laughter, but they feel so far away, so different from the present. How do I reconcile those memories with how our lives are now, moving forward but always looking back?

I am so grateful to be able to come back to this special place, to spend time with these people who mean so much to me. But it will never be the same. There will always be a hole, a piece of the puzzle missing. Life has moved on here just as it did at home but we still hold on to the past, perhaps as a way of reminding ourselves of what we’ve lost. It’s painful to weigh the present against the past but sometimes it’s important to go back to a place where you may fear the sadness will overtake you and plant new roots, new memories to look back on. And if you’re lucky, the people who understand what has been lost will be waiting for you, arms wide open and ready to pick up where you left off.

One-way Ticket

One-way Ticket

Girl graduates from college. Girl has no idea what to do with her life. Girl decides to travel the world. Girl finds herself in the process. We’ve all heard this story before, right? Throughout history and literature, people, young and old, have been making their own quests to discover their higher purpose in life. At a point in time when taking a gap year from reality, essentially, is pretty common, you’d think someone would have turned this into a twelve-step program by now. But here I am, embarking on my own *hopefully not as cliche* journey across the world to not only learn a little something about myself, but also about my mom. 

As some may know, I had plans to spend the year in Guatemala working with a non-profit. And while I’m sure it would have been an incredible experience, something didn’t feel right. It had nothing to do with the circumstances of the trip or the organization, but rather something else that was pulling me in the opposite direction. As part of a graduation present, I knew I would be traveling to France at the end of the summer to visit my family for the first time in almost two-and-a-half years. But as the summer progressed, I realized that I wanted to spend more than just two weeks over there. My mom spent the first half of her life there and remained connected to her French identity throughout her life. I wanted to be able to spend time with people in my family with whom I haven’t seen in years and be in a country that holds a piece of history for each member of my family. Not only that, but I wanted to discover a connection to my mom in a different way. I don’t know how to explain it, but after graduating from college a few months ago, I have found that I have so many unanswered questions about the person she was during this time of her life and before I came into her life. I want to know what this time of life was like for her, why she made the decisions she made, why she pursued some paths and not others. Conversations that in a perfect world I would still be able to have with her. 

So, in the span of a month, a different adventure was born. Plane tickets purchased, emails sent to family and friends, goodbyes said, and bags packed. Tomorrow I will get on a plane with a one-way ticket to Paris with no idea of when I’ll be coming back. I want to collect as many stories as I can about her life growing up and beyond so that I’ll always have them and my children will one day know about their grandmother. To this end, I have contacted my aunts and uncles, her cousins, childhood friends, anyone who is willing to talk to me about their relationship with her. I know it will be difficult and painful at times to talk about the past but so far everyone has responded very positively, signaling to me that maybe we all need to talk about her a little.

This project might sound silly but I need to connect with people who knew her, who have a similar hole in their life without her that can’t be filled. I want to understand what their grief is like. Because maybe if I can connect with all these people who knew and loved her and learn about the Claire they knew, it will be like having a new piece of her with me today. I don’t quite know where this project will take me or in what kind of format I’ll be sharing it, but stay tuned as I travel around Europe trying to piece together memories of my mom.

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