In Which She Meets Many Strangers, and Magic

Trip Start Jun 14, 2008
Trip End Aug 2009

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Friday, August 15, 2008

We came home for just one day, to do laundry and repack for Part II of our vacation, before waking up at 7am Friday to eat, dress, gather our bags, close up all the windows and shutters, and catch a taxi to the train station to meet A--'s brother and his two daughters for the 8,10 TGV train to Paris.

It took 6 hours to get from Torino to Paris by rail. During the journey the way I wrote a long letter to Christa; started Chaim Potok's "The Chosen," a travel gift from Alberto; napped for half an hour or so, as I can't help but do in a train's rhythmic cradling; listened to my iPod and gazed out the window. Somewhere in the middle one of the children asked, "Dove siamo? Where are we?," and when I heard someone reply, "Siamo arrivati a Francia. We've arrived in France," I raised the windowshade to find an entirely difference sky hovering over the landscape. The first thing I noticed about France was the clouds: they seemed whiter, fluffier, more voluminous, appearing in several layers - some nearer and heavier, some farther away and more like long pulls of cotton, still others even higher and wispier - so that, as our carrozze (train car) sped along at its famed hyperspeed, the varying distances of le nuvole created a staggering three-dimensional effect rivaled only in my experience by a view of the multi-hued ocean floor from an airplane. It was incredible.

And that was only the beginning.

From the very moment we surfaced from the tangled Metro (a long, whiny ordeal, as our bags were heavy, everyone was hungry, and our line was conveniently closed for the weekend of our arrival), I was dazzled. The infamous city of romance and magic managed not only to meet but surpass all of the expectations I hadn't wanted to admit I had built up since I started to learn to speak French, in the very first class of the very first day of high school, and left me breathless and dazzled by something new every hour of my five days. The family had an ambitious itinerary of museums and monuments, but informed me at the start that I was not required to do anything with them, as I was on vacation and thus free to roam around as I liked. I knew that I wouldn't be able to see everything, and contented myself to see one or two big things each day and spend the rest of it wandering side streets, taking the Metro as little as possible, listening and talking to all sorts of foreigners (as all the Parisians are gone!, for we arrived in the very middle of high tourist season). It's difficult for me to write about everything, as I feel like I learned so much in such a short time about me and my life and the possible directions my life might take, but I'll hit some highlights.

Jardin de Luxembourg: Our hotel was located right across the street from Luxembourg Gardens, the rambling spring green lawns and sand-colored promenades of which were frequented on sunny days by thousands of runners, readers, tourists, and locals alike, each with enough space to move about without feeling crowded. On overcast mornings and one grey afternoon, however, I found myself almost alone in the sprawling park with my baguette and English newspaper, made somewhat uneasy by way the avocado green garden chairs scattered about the edges of the forbidden grass had been left facing whichever direction the last sitter gazed and thus echoing the presences of so many strangers. The constables blew little silver whistles to warn people to stay off the grass, or to get down from this or that statue.

Free Hugs in Paris: I first took advantage of my vacation liberty by joining the throngs of tourists to mill about the grand cathedral of Notre Dame on Saturday morning. After lighting a candle in memory of Grandma Aczon, my role model (deceased January 2006), I knelt in an empty pew to shed a few tears, and felt my initial elation of being young and fancy-free in this beautiful French city turn into a deep, deep loneliness. I felt far away from home, isolated. I hurried out of the church and into daylight to lose my feelings in the crowded sidewalks, and as I walked I looked at the faces of people going the opposite direction. Among the strange faces I saw young blonde man holding a sign that said "Free Hugs" smile at me, a momentary connection, but I was so distracted by my feelings of self-pity that I continued on my way. A few seconds later I stopped in the middle of the of the sidewalk (much to the annoyance of the people behind me, I'm sure) to consider this rare opportunity to directly contradict my isolation distress* with a big, unconditional hug.

*Forgive the RC (Re-Evaluation Counseling) lingo for those of you who aren't familiar with it, but this is an interjection for my friends who DO know about RC and the significant role it plays in my life. Loneliness is one of my personal struggles, a big recording for me: that I deserve, that I have chosen, to be lonely. Somewhere along the way to adulthood I learned - wrongly - that loneliness is something that inherently comes with personal qualities like self-sufficiency and independence, and not something to complain about as its simply an effect of being who I am. Quite on the contrary, seeking time for myself does not mean that I don't need or enjoy the company of other people. One of the frustrating facets of modern American society/culture is the way it continues to oppress women with their own liberation by perpetuating the myth that a strong, successful woman is cold and unfeeling; that she relies on her shrewd mind to climb the ranks without the added help of a support network or place to discharge. In my own life I found that being smart in the classroom and seeking leadership roles among my peers, in combination with my natural desire for personal space and time, led to some confusion about loneliness: is it, in fact, a consequence of being independent and capable of taking care of myself? Is it my own fault that I have CHOSEN to isolate myself? (End of RC train of thought.)

After a moment's deliberation I turned around to find the Free Hugs guy. I creepily followed him for nearly two blocks before I caught up to him in the middle of hugging a heavy-set Englishwoman who gleefully exclaimed, "Isn't this lovely! A free hug!" I waited my turn. Then he turned to me with open arms and we embraced. Neither of us seemed in a hurry, so I put my head on his shoulder and seriously felt his hug say, "You are not alone, Lauren. Though you are half a world away from home and doing something new and difficult, I am here with you right now, and I think you are wonderful." It was one of the best contradictions to my isolation that I could have wished for, and when he finally pulled away I had tears in my eyes. (The Englishwoman had also misted up, and after he'd gone she and I hugged each other, too! Just because!) The simplicity of it, of having someone hold you for no other reason than that you are another human being who needs holding, was immense. I managed to say, "Merci, merci Beaucoup. Thank you, thank you so much," to which he replied, "Rien. It was nothing," and walked away radiating love.

*One more: The truth is that everyone needs and deserves loving human contact. This can be hard to remember, especially outside of RC community (my closest chance at regular contact lies in Milan, a train ride away), but for me, taking a big risk to physically contradict my distress recording -- that loneliness is an inevitable result of my choice to be an independent, assertive woman -- was better than seeing the Mona Lisa, ascending the Eiffel Tower or gazing down at Paris from the church steps at Montmartre. It was a moment of profound emergence from an old, chronic recording.

According to the official website, the Free Hugs Campaign (est. 2001) operates under this credo: "What an amazing world it would be if we were known as people who have a smile and a kind word for everyone. No matter what our jobs are, perhaps the most important work we can do is to help and encourage others, especially by our actions. With constant threats targeted towards our morale and human spirit, kind and encouraging actions are needed to get us through our everyday situations, no matter how big or small they may be." Somewhere in Paris walks a tan, gentle-eyed youth who agrees with this idea. If you see him, hug him.

Dinner atop Le Pompidou: disastrous
Louvre: gigantic
Party of Ten in "The Swamp": Berkeley
Montmartre: San Francisco
Shopping at La Fayette: frivolous
Menu Fisse near L'Arc de Triomphe: like dining on the Titanic
The Freedom Pub: fortuitous
Aaron from OR and Mario from OH: also fortuitous
An Afternoon with René Miller: brown
Musee de Rodin: evocative
Le Tour Eiffel: electric blue

I'm pretty sure that while I was crossing a street near Arc de Triomphe, right after I took the photo of myself looking backwards at it, I became 22. Like... how can I explain it? All the bits of years that I had been missing, all those bits adding up to enough childhood and adolescence to keep me from feeling completely my real age, came rushing up to the surface as though they'd held their collective breath too long underwater and had to push up toward daylight with every ounce of strength they had. I almost made a noise from the force of it, of realising I was 22 years OLD. So this is what "coming of age" feels like. It hurts a little, and it's related in part to the purchase of my first serious lipstick (BeneFit's "dessert first"), and it has everything to do with being a stranger who is forced to carry home in her heart.
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