Part 1: Pairs, France: The Maiden Voyage, or…What I learned About Self Reliance
Recently, my dear friend Elyse and her man Michael embarked on a three week jaunt overseas—it’s their first time traveling to Europe. I’ve watched with joy as their adventure has unfolded through video and photographs she’s posted on Facebook and Instagram.
One photograph in particular caught my attention; a picture she took of her love sitting on the steps of the Basilica de Sacre Couer (sacred heart, in English) in the district of Montmartre, Paris.
Seeing it immediately sent me into a time travel vortex. I lived in the 16th arrondissement, a neighborhood in Paris, for a year when I was 22 years old. What brought me there was my art student boyfriend.
We were miserable being apart, so I saved my money, dropped out of college, quit my part-time job and left everything that was safe, comfortable and familiar, all in the name of love. It was my first experience traveling to another country.
I was moved by Elyse’s image. I left a comment on the post that read: “My all time favorite spot in Paris. When I lived there, that was the place I’d go whenever I needed to reset. Beautiful.”
My Paris Story
My boyfriend spent his weekdays at school, and I, with no other friends, relations or studying of my own to do, had plenty of time on my hands. I’d wander the lovely avenues and alleyways of this unfathomably enchanting city, exploring each arrondissement with curiosity and wonder. It was as if the entire universe had opened it’s arms wide and invited me in for a warm embrace. I gladly accepted, and reciprocated in kind, embracing back wholeheartedly.
All this went down in the late 80s. Social media and cell phones, for anyone other than the super rich and technologically advanced, didn’t exist. The World Wide Web launched two years after we returned home, so no email either. One would write letters by hand and send them through the post, eagerly awaiting response from loved ones that were written and sent in the same manner. It took what seemed like forever to send and receive messages. Money was tight and the time difference was 12 hours, so phone calls home were few and far between.
There was many an occasion where I found myself alone. A girl armed with only two years of high school french, a metro map, a few francs and an acute longing for adventure. Often, especially in the early days of my residency, I’d fall into the deep, dark well of homesickness and loneliness, drowning in a state of solitary despair.
Always, without fail, when I was overtaken with these shadowy bouts of melancholy, I would return to the one place that felt like home—Sacre Couer de Montmartre.
Here, I found comfort in counting the steps that led to her grand entrance, solace in the graceful curves of her basilica domes, sanctuary in the golden light shining forth from her noble altar, protection beneath the intricately tiled mosaic ceiling where Jesus floated with arms outstretched, receiving me like a father welcoming his only daughter home after a long absence. I came to rest my mind and heart in her perfectly time-worn pews.
In the square just outside the basilica entrance, I found my smile again in the laughter of children riding the colorful old merry-go-round, inspiration in artists seated behind their easels, articulating all this impossible beauty with oil paints and precise brush strokes.
Dumbfounded, I discovered just how small my world previously had been up until this moment, standing in awe of the grandeur of an absolutely epic view of arguably, the most picturesque and gorgeous city on the face of the planet.
I learned a lot about life that year, beginning with being rudely awakened to the fact that a great and enduring effort must be made in order to assimilate into another country’s cultural framework. I got schooled on how to become independent and unafraid of what was incredibly unfamiliar and at times, highly uncomfortable.
Happily and much to my surprise, I found that the French people weren’t rude, arrogant and elitist like most Americans wrongly accused them of being. To the contrary, they were very warm, kind and friendly towards me. And thus began a lifelong practice of throwing expectations and preconceived notions out the proverbial window.
I became well-versed in communicating with my eyes, with a gesture of my hand, with a smile. I discovered a great deal about the pleasures of life and found that I enjoyed seeking pleasure frequently, in many forms. I majored in drinking red wine and minored in debauchery. I grew adept at leaning out our kitchen window just enough to get my nightly fix of the Eiffel Tower, aglow in the distance, without falling to my death on the sidewalk six floors below.
It was here that I learned for the first time to find my way home wherever I was and to source strength from within when I felt empty and sad. I realized how very little I knew about the world around me and figured out quickly, that I needed to do a lot more traveling if I were truly interested in becoming whole. And that was it- I haven’t stopped traveling since.
Shortly after returning home from our stint in Paris, my boyfriend became my husband. I watched with agony, as my mother slowly and painfully lost her battle with cancer at age 46.
I was 24 years old.
I gave birth to my first baby and then my second baby three years later. I slowed down to raise a family for awhile. I got divorced.
Time passed, and as life moved forward with all its twists and turns, I didn’t look back on those days to reflect much until Elyse posted a photograph on my Facebook wall this afternoon.
The caption read “This is for you Kim:)—at Sacre Couer de Montmartre, Paris.”
Immediately, tears welled up and came rolling down my face—I wrote back in the comments box:
“Looking at this really takes me back, brings up so many emotions. I was just a girl when I lived there. Reflecting on it from a woman’s perspective and having traveled to many places around the world since then, I realize how many lives I’ve lived within this lifetime. I am so glad you decided to take this journey, my beautiful little sister. And one day, when you look back you’ll smile knowing that the experience forever changed you and helped you to grow. Thank you so much for sharing the gift of this photograph with me, it holds sacred value and space in my heart.”
That image, reminded me once again, of the fact that travel is absolutely essential to the soul’s evolution and one’s personal growth. To experience life through the lens of foreign lands, their cultures, customs and people truly makes one feel and appreciate deeply, the inextricable link of interconnectedness all living beings share.
It takes us outside of our comfort zones, where the potential for great growth occurs. It forces us to look at parts of ourselves that we never realized existed and prompts us to take care of the business of becoming integrated. It shows us who we are and what we are capable of achieving. And hopefully, it inspires us to continue journeying our way home, wherever we may roam.
To follow Elyse on her journey through Europe, connect with her on Instagram.
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Assistant Editor: Dana Gornall/Bryonie Wise
Photo credits: elephant archives; photos of Paris provided by author