Essay: I'll Always Have Paris

Aug 1, 2014

The Cupola of Galeries Lafayette decorated for Christmas
Credit flickr, spacejulien

I went to France for Christmas this year. My son and his petite amie (girlfriend in French) live in Normandy. I had been taking French lessons at L'Alliance Francaise of Milwaukee, but I was terrified to actually speak to a French person in France.

I was staying at a hotel where all the guests and most of the staff were gone for the holidays, but, clever me, I thought I'd bring along my computer and my i-phone and that way, if I got lonely, I could always text, call or e-mail my friends.I had one problem: None of my techno-communications worked in France. Probably there was a way to activate one or the other of them, but I couldn't ask or understand in French how to go about it.

Thus, whenever Josh and Flore would bring me back to the hotel, I was totally alone. As a "Woman of a Certain Age" who is divorced and has grown sons, I am often alone. But when I am alone at home, I have these technological ways of communicating with my friends. In France, with a bad case of jet-lag, I was truly alone with no one but me in that lovely quaint room. I had no recourse. All I could do was study my French, expecting it wouldn't make much of a difference in the brief eight days of my stay.

And the jet-lag was pretty tough to adjust to. When Josh and Flore woke me up at 11AM or 12PM, a perfectly reasonable, if not luxurious time to arise; it was 4 in the morning to my Milwaukee body  I didn't want to see the countryside; I wanted to go back to sleep.

One morning, maybe seven days in, I got up and felt peppy; finally awake. I fixed my beret on my head and walked down to the cafe and sat right at the bar-part, where the owner was. I began to speak French to the owner and his wife and soon the entire small cafe was talking and laughing (in French!). When my son walked in he said it looked like a scene from a French version of  "Cheers." And, as we left for our day in Paris, I straightened my beret and told them: "Aujourd'hui, nous allons, seulement Francais!" which means something pretty close to "Today, we speak only French!" And what a day it was! First the friendly people in the cafe who actually understood my French and then the rest of the day in Paris and with Flore's lovely family.

So all day I spoke French. And then I had this epiphany. "I survive life's tough moments--and every life has them--I just need to really be present for the good moments. It's a little like that Woody Allen quote: "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens." That day, I realized, that, in my case, "I'm not afraid of life. But oftentimes, I haven't really been there when it's been happening." 

More than the twinkle lights in the Eiffel Tower or the Gertrude and Leo Stein exhibition or even the beautiful classic French Christmas I was a part of at Flore's Famille Bisous (affectionate-family); I had this amazing revelation (which I'm sure you'll have to remind me of when I'm lonely--which I am from time to time.) I can be alone, be fully myself in the moment and have a wonderful time of it! No sparkling diamond ring or new computer gizmo can even come close to the gift I got this Christmas!