Small Steps

Have you ever had a dream that seemed so crazy and unattainable that you couldn’t even say it out loud? Have you then woken up one morning to discover that suddenly, you are living in that dream, standing at the beginning of the path that might lead you there, and surely will lead you somewhere new and different? This is what waking up in New York City every morning has been like for me, Manhattan’s skyline greeting me every morning from the living room window. For the first few days, I couldn’t stop staring at this jigsaw of skyscrapers, watching how the light illuminates its industrial palette of shiny glass, steel and stone as the sun shifts across it, how even when the outline of buildings disappears into the night sky, Manhattan retains its mythical shape as windows light up and towers glow.

I am here. How did that happen? I keep asking myself. I went from knowing a city like the back of my hand, navigating life there with ease, to relying on a map and my sense of direction in order to get anywhere, and accepting that I’ll have to get lost several times before it all falls into place under my feet. From having different groups of friends in different places, communities where I felt I belonged, to knowing a total of eight people in a city of 8.5 million people. From having family just a thirty-minute train ride away to the closest family being five hundred miles away. From soaking in familiar wonder and beauty to swiveling my head around in a hundred directions every time I leave the apartment, constantly enthralled with the newness, the Americanness, and the vastness of my new home. I had a life in Paris – a good life – one where I was comfortable and finally feeling at peace. In the weeks leading up to the move, I would sit on my bed at the end of each day, my apartment reflecting less and less of my life and becoming more and more like the white slate it was when I first moved in, and wonder why I was doing this at all. Everything’s great now, I could stay here longer. Why do I need to uproot my life?! I asked myself this question a lot, as well as the hundreds of other questions that accompany the unknown.

And then the day arrived. After many goodbye dinners, cups of coffee in my favorite places, wines and desserts, hugs and tears, it had finally sunk in that I was leaving. It was time to momentarily say goodbye to France, this land and culture that will forever make up half of me.

“So this is it. You’re leaving for good,” my grandmother said rather stiffly at lunch that day, hours before my flight, just barely masking the sad despair of uncertainty that comes with every goodbye. She would not look me in the eye. And in her gruffness, I suddenly remembered all the other goodbyes, at the end of every summer as a child when the two months with my grandparents would come to an end and I’d have to leave one place that felt so much like home to go to another place that was home. The bittersweet relief of sending rambunctious grandchildren home mixed with the sadness of a ten-month absence until the next year always hung in the air on those car rides to the airport.

“It’s never for good. We’ve done this before, remember? We’re good at this, we know how to do this,” I reminded her gently. “I’ve always come back; I always will.” I hoped this truth would be as comforting to her as it is to me.

As I boarded the plane, I understood that I was leaving but the fact that I’d soon be living in New York still remained hazy. Aside from the address of my friends’ apartment I had saved in my phone, I had no bearings to latch onto. I would guess that almost everyone who moves to New York City to chase their dreams imagines that their entrance will be magical. We think THIS is what’s important, imagining the bright lights splaying out beneath us to make way for our arrival. I wanted to walk off the plane glowing with confidence and excitement as I greeted the first moments of my new life here.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this is NOT how I marched off the plane. I was tired, hungry, and grumpy after seven hours spent sitting in the middle seat of the middle aisle between two men snoring in my face. We descended into a cloud of fog and rain that completely obscured any clear view of the city lit up at night. As I stepped off the plane and made my way through the airport, the only thing I felt besides the cramp in my leg was fear. Businessmen sailed past me, large-print ads in English (English!), grabbed my eyes at every turn, and people cheerfully rushed into the arms of those waiting to be reunited with them. America – it was much to take in and I was being swept into it all at once. Panic squeezed my chest and my eyes began to well. This was a mistake.

The good thing about being young with no money and transatlantic travel is that it makes it pretty impractical to just turn right around and fly back to Paris. Lucky me! The only thing to really do was to keep going. Outside the airport, New York loomed as this big scary intimidating question mark. But I was here, now, and couldn’t hide in the airport forever. New York had to be broken down into small, manageable steps. Rent a trolley, collect my luggage, borrow someone’s phone to call my friends, find a taxi stand, wait in line until it was my turn, and not worry too much about whether I was doing it the right or wrong way. I’d figure it out!

There is something to be said for showing up somewhere you’re unfamiliar with and having to trust other people to help you find your way. It really forces you to let go of any need to control and simply rely on your instincts and put your faith in good people. I’ve experienced this over and over again while traveling alone, but have found that I always have to re-learn it. By the time I got a taxi, it was 9pm and any bearings I may have had from my previous brief stay in New York were totally erased by the darkness and the prevalence of Jersey license plates. Was this taxi driver taking me to Jersey?!?! That is not where I am going! my panicked, jet lagged inner voice was shouting, as though I would have a better idea of how to get to Queens than this man. I had to remind myself to breathe and resist the urge to remind him of where I wanted to go.

Again, the universe (or whatever you believe in) intervened to distract me from my fear. Only Americans (of which I am half, I do acknowledge) would see fit to install a TV screen barely a foot away from your face in the back of a taxi. Which means that maybe in fifty years, the French will decide to do the same thing. You know, so you can get all caught up on your local news and the weather report right when you probably have a million other things on your mind. I did not fully appreciate the beauty of American inventiveness until an infomercial on how to make lasagna in a bundt cake mold graced my screen. The part of me that is French watched in horror and disgust as something resembling a dense dumpling-colored jello was served up like slices of cake. But my rustier American side watched in fascination, applauding the ingenuity and not bothering to wonder how this improved the dish at all. Yes, this was my first re-encounter with all that makes America great.

As you can probably guess, the taxi driver did not kidnap me or take me to Jersey. I arrived at my friends’ apartment with little trouble other than hauling an enormous suitcase up a fourth floor walk-up. I’ve spent the past two weeks adjusting to the rhythms of New York, re-connecting with friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and tackling the long list of things that have to be done in order to start a life in a new place. Everything is new, exciting, and a little bit scary, but at night I’m able to fall asleep appreciating the fact that I am here. That a year ago, this all felt so impossible and out of reach. That three months ago, I literally trembled as I clicked the button to buy my plane ticket. All the small choices have added up to the big ones, have helped me embrace the uncertainty and trust that whatever lies behind it will lead me somewhere. I am seeking out my purpose but allowing life to unfold. Even if it leads me to making bundt cake lasagna.