Today marks a year to the day that I first arrived in Paris. I was to spend a year there as an au pair for a lovely family of four, a mom and dad and two little girls, Eugenie and Heloise. I spent the first week terribly homesick and literally sick with a throat infection. There was also a bed bug incident that took most of that time to remedy, during which I had to carry all of my belongings down seven flights of stairs and walk them to a laundromat two blocks away over the course of four days (brutal). I almost cried in the grocery store because it was so, literally, foreign to me and I was sick and I missed my mom and my home and my language and not having bed bugs be an issue in my life. I drank a bottle of wine during the day walking the Seine with the pervious au pair to the family and my friend, Hailey, talking about her time in Paris, what the city had given her and what it would give to me. We ate baguettes at her favorite spot near the apartment I’d be staying in after spending the day in the park with the girls. We picked them up from school, and we all held hands on the way home. We played games and ate snacks and watched Peppa Pig. We drew them a bath and read them bedtime stories and tucked them in. They fought and laughed and played. The mom asked me if I was homesick. I smiled and said a little. She didn’t know I sobbed that morning, but maybe she could tell. She probably could.
I also had this overwhelming feeling of it all being wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it. And it could have just been a culmination of everything that happened, but there was something else. And then that something happened. A week into being in Paris, I got the news that my mom’s cancer had taken a turn for the worse. Two months, she told me. It’s so morbidly funny, I can still picture her face as she told me over Facetime, holding the camera all wrong, below her chin. The worst and most profound moment of my life. The next week was filled with sorrow and strangeness. I booked a flight back a week from that day, the earliest I could get without paying an arm and a leg. After I told the family, I figured I would just stay in the apartment and lay in bed for the week. It seemed wrong to enjoy the city, and I didn’t feel like I had the energy, or more so the right, to experience it. But I did end up trying, if not just to be moving. I went to the Louvre in a daze. I ate and drank and ate and drank. I went to a Julien Baker show, in which she unknowingly gave me a piece of home that I’ll cherish forever. Of course, it was sad content, so I left 2/3 of the way through, took the subway home, and ran to my apartment because I had to pee INCREDIBLY bad from the two 24 ounce beers I had.
I walked a lot. I watched American Vandal. Again, I drank a lot of red wine. I can’t stress that enough. Ate a lot of spaghetti. Spent a lot of time looking at the Eiffel Tower from my window. It all hurts.
I’ve recently learned something I didn’t know before and still grapple with – feeling selfish when grieving is common. I didn’t know this, but it feels validating that it is. I struggle with it often, because I feel I’ve taken my mother’s sickness and death and made it something all about me. I know that it is partly about me, just as it is partly about every person in my family. But it’s also completely not. I guess both can be true. I still don’t know where I land with that.
On my last day there, I had to drop off my key to the family’s apartment before I left. I opened the door and heard the shower running, so I figured I would just leave it on the table. I go into the kitchen and see Eugenie there, cleaning up after breakfast. We greet each other and I make sure she knows to give the key to her mother. She says that she knows I have to leave because my mother is sick. And I say I wish I didn’t have to leave her but yes, it’s true my mother is sick and so I have to go home. And she asks me if she’s going to die, and I say yes. She says she’s sorry and we hug. She’s says “bisou” and I kiss her on the cheek, and leave.
Paris is beautiful and dirty and cultured and snobby and timeless and, like any city, doesn’t care about you unless you make it. I want to transform the memory I have of it into something I can cherish – in fact, that was the point of me writing this – but in turns out, as I’m still learning, it’s not black and white. It both nurtured and ignored me as I wandered its streets like a lonely satellite – grieving, breathing its air; enchanted, in despair.
I’ll leave this with what my mom texted me when I told her I was nervous about putting my two weeks in at the job I had prior to Paris. This is who she was.
“If you really think about it, you’re in control of your own life, not her or anyone else. It’s up to you what you want to do with your life. While you’re very appreciative of the time you’ve had there, the Paris decision is what’s best for you at this point in time. So don’t waste this precious time we have on Earth being nervous. I know it’s hard but they should appreciate the time that they had you there.”
Also, for what it’s worth, my favorite text from her that I’ve ever received is:
“Pour me a glass of wine I just left Taco Bell. I’ve been in freaking spanks since 5:30 this morning.”
Maybe I’ll go to Paris again some day and make some new memories there, as a sort of metaphorical bandaid. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s no point in any of that. After all I know either way, it won’t be waiting for me.