I found myself at a salsa bar last night, surrounded by people I love and whom I haven’t seen in months, getting free shots from the bartender and cheers-ing something really incredible that’s recently happened in my life. If you took a picture of it, it would probably be remembered as one of the ‘best’ moments of my youth, a time when everyone was together again and the horizon was clear, at least for now.
And then one of the girls asked me, “You’re moving back to America soon?”
Soon is a relative term, early next year is a conservative estimate.
"Yeah," I said.
"Are you going to miss Paris?"
And I didn’t know what to say.
For so long here, I was so incredibly lonely. Though I came with a small network of friends already in place, relying on the same group of 5-ish people to provide you with all of your social activities is unrealistic at best, draining at worst. I had a hard time making new friends, I was occupied with school and being an au pair, and I felt locked away in this small corner at the very far east of Paris, where no one ever goes under the age of 60.
And then, bit by bit, I started building my career. I started writing, and then writing regularly, and then getting paid to write, and then being a full-time writer. I shed the constraints and repetition of school and caring for children, and stepped into what felt like adulthood. The simultaneous monotony and uncertainty of my life sort of melted away, and I was able to construct my life the way I wanted to live it: working from various cafés, staying inside all day when it rained, taking on projects that I loved. And recently, with a few new developments, the workload has gotten to the point where I feel challenged, motivated, and excited daily. My professional life is where I want it to be.
But that didn’t change the fact that I still had a very limited group of friends here, friends with whom I don’t share the long, powerful history that I do with my group back in the States. So much falls through the cracks when there isn’t a shared cultural experience, references, and a kind of friend-shorthand that becomes the way you communicate. I felt, for lack of a better word, totally alone. And yes, Marc is the most wonderful person I’ve ever encountered and my time with him is beyond precious — but he cannot play every role in my life, and it would be unfair to ask him.
Recently, though, I’ve started making new friends — and strengthening old ones. A new girlfriend of mine has quickly become one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and old connections that once lay dormant have been revitalized and fresh. I’ve met more Americans, people who share my love of travel and the French, but who share a foundation and history that I can relate to, that I inherently understand.
And every day, as these friends become better and my life becomes more solid, I get more nervous about going back. As I was talking about with a friend last night (a friend who speaks Mandarin and has spent much of her time the past few years in and out of China) we are different people in the different countries we live in. These cultures, these people, hell, the food — it all brings something out of us that we don’t have back home. I love how curious, how proud, how rooted in tradition the French are. I love the way they make fun of themselves, the way they take such sensual pleasure in every meal they eat and trip they take. I love that they know the best bakery for bread (which is four metro stops away from the best one for croissants). I love the passion for life I feel buzzing around me here, and I don’t want to leave it. I love the person I am when bathed in it, when days and days go by without speaking English.
I don’t recognize myself in many ways, I think I’ve calmed down and become sure of myself in ways that I never was in America. I was painfully, cripplingly insecure back home, and for so many reasons. I felt ugly, I felt unsure of my future, I felt poor, I felt like everyone was talking behind my back — and hell, they might have been. I was irresponsible and petulant and short-sighted. I made so many mistakes. I lied.
And I’m afraid that if I leave here, if I leave these people and this bread and these pre-war apartments with the wainscoting and the enormous windows, I’ll fall apart again. I’ll cease to progress and turn back into the achingly self-hating girl I was before. Coming to France and coming out of this shell was a long, painful process. I knew I needed to leave, that escape was necessary to ever progress past this stunted human being who was just articulate enough to avoid abject failure, and I did. I got out by the skin of my teeth and with a few bucks in my pocket to get me through the first few weeks. And yes, it was lonely at first, but every step I’ve made has been utterly me, has been something I can look back on and say I earned.
My friends here love me for me. I am good at my job. I can buy things without remorse. I keep my apartment clean, and make nice dinners for myself from scratch. I keep a pot of flowers by my big windows, even if I frequently kill them. I am able to absorb and appreciate the little pleasures of life with a clear conscience. And I’m eager to return to the States to love my friends and family with the open heart that I feel I understand now. I am ready to be a better friend, a better daughter, a better listener. I feel I’ve become that person, and I want to pick up where I left off with the people I love.
But I have now created a life here that it will hurt to leave. My friends here — and I can’t even imagine how I will feel next year — are so important to me. Not only do they love me, not only did they take me under their wing and share their country with me, but they were here for me as I became something new. They will always be representative of this part of my life where I grew up, where I learned, where I was able to love who I am. I don’t want to give them up, I don’t want to miss the hours-long conversations over wine and coffee, or the days at the beach talking about travel and what we leave behind. I don’t want to let this part of me die. I don’t want it to slip into a coma and be forgotten.
I want to take them all with me — my friends, my butcher, my old host family, my florist, the well-dressed old ladies who gossip outside cafés. I want them all.
And I guess that now my life will be forever divided in two. Chronologically, yes, much changed between the day I got on the plane for Charles De Gaulle and now, but it’s so much more profound than that. There will always be a me that exists here, now. There will always be certain things I can’t bring back. There will always be things I have to come back and visit. I owe so much to this city, and I’m glad I don’t have to think about leaving it just yet.
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