Monday, January 28, 2008

The year I didn't go to Paris

The angels can be quite clever in the ways they support us--and if we don't get their messages right away, they'll keep sending them.

This morning, for instance, I received a string of messages--in a radio interview, three songs and an email.

We'll start with the radio interview: I tuned in to WFUV, a local NY station, just as singer/songwriter Tift Merrit was promoting her new album, "Another Country." She was telling the story of how, last year, she'd entered the words, "Paris Apartment Piano" into Google's search engine and had come up with a rental apartment where she'd written the new songs.

That's funny, I thought. It was about this time last year that I used the same word string (sans ""piano") while dreaming up my own trip to the city of lights.

I'd been to Paris before--thirty years and a lifetime ago--as a college junior. Now, perched on the edge of my soon-to-be-empty nest, my 50th birthday and menopause, I was feeling increasingly restless, and increasingly eager to return to explore the streets, cafes--and maybe, the self--I'd left behind.

At 21, I'd had very little travel experience--and none outside of the eastern US. So I was feeling quite lost. Yet somehow, I'd walked into the right place (Mother Earth's Cafe) at the right time--just as one of the editors of the Paris Herald Tribune was looking for an au pair. After a brief conversation, during which he bought me lunch, I ended up living in a huge, five bedroom apartment in the 5th arrondisement--rent free. In exchange, I was responsible for preparing breakfast and supper for his two teenaged children, washing and pressing his button-down shirts and picking up the bread each morning.

In addition, he, remarkable man that he was, drove me--and my two friends--all over town in his Citroen, introducing us to the lively jazz "caves": Night clubs literally dug under the streets of the city; where musicians and artists congregated to develop new ideas and drink lots and lots of wine.

There I met Memphis Slim, several American celebrities, and three seven-foot tall basketball players from a French farm team called (pardon my phonetic spelling) Ban-yo-lay.

Under his tutelage I discovered--and devoured--cous cous ladled with exotic spiced stew served from sterling silver steam carts and feasted daily on fresh croissants and creamy french cheeses. And, while waiting for that laundry to spin dry, I pored over the books in his vast English library.

I rode the Metro to the outskirts of the city where, at les Marches Aux Puces (endless flea markets that were like cities themselves), I purchased gorgeous linen nightshirts (hand woven as nun's garments) and oil-soaked newspaper-wrapped Frites doused with vinegar and salt.

In the Ville Juif (Jewish City), I learned about the resistance fighters who'd protected Jews during the Nazi occupation. In the Latin quarter, I huddled with other students crowded cafes, swirling with smoke and ideas. One night on Boul. St. Michel I was rescued from a street brawl--and romanced--by guitar-playing Argentinians.

With friends, I traipsed all over Europe, getting stranded for two nights in London, dancing 'til dawn under the clotheslines of Barcelona, swam in my clothes on the Costa Brava and got my first--and last--taste of octopus. I even helped sneak a family of political exiles into Barcelona!

By the time I returned to the US after nine months, my heart and soul had been cracked opened so wide it was impossible to shrink back to the girl I'd been. I moved to Manhattan and kept dancing, studying and becoming.

And thirty years later, on the verge of another personal renaissance, I wondered, as I googled Paris apartments, Could I ever recapture that spirit of adventure, that feeling of discovery... that "me" that I lost somewhere in the white noise of mothering, working and paying the bills?

My google search turned up a charming rental apartment in Le Marais with two bedrooms and a pullout sofa where my kids could camp out between excursions to other European countries (another part of my fantasy), windowboxes overflowing with red geraniums, and a private, cobble-stoned courtyard.

It was, according to the advertisement, “a short walk to the Bastille, the Picasso Museum” and several lovely cafes. And with fantasies of finally finishing the book I never seemed to have time to complete, I pressed the send button on my email, asking: Is the apartment still available?

It was. And, scribbling plans in my notebook, I could almost taste the café crème.
But then, just before I sent the deposit, a choice was placed before me: The trip or taking care of my parents.

At first, I read the decision this way: Give away my longed-for dream to take care of two people who should have been taking care of themselves. I felt trapped and angry and bewildered.

Then, my husband asked me: When it's all over, what do you have to do to feel good about what you've done? adding, Make the choice that is closest to who you really are.

And I knew there was no choice.

I stayed home to help my father transition into a nursing home and to help my mother pack up the house I grew up in, have a tag sale, and move. I did what I had to do, and most of the time, I did it gladly--with great love.

Of course, it wasn't perfect (I am no saint!) and there were times when I was so exhausted with balancing my parents' lives with my own that I sobbed with frustrated rage. (And blogged with a vengeance!)

But in those moments I was gifted with new supports to lean on--my sisters, who called and helped and listened and loved me through it. I also found, a new closeness with my parents, and access to a priceless new wisdom they'd developed in the years since I left home.

In myself, I found new skills and a new patience and clarity as I stepped into the role of family matriarch--and I liked it. As I negotiated the red tape, paperwork and nonsense that is Medicaid today and learned what it's like to be old in America, grateful my parents weren't alone.

Paris was tucked away, a precious sweet to savor "someday" and a full year passed as Dad bounced from hospital to nursing home and landed, finally, in the private room where he's really finally happy. Recently, Mom hosted the family for Christmas brunch, and began unpacking her art supplies.

No trip to Paris could ever have been as soul-satisfying, as heart-nourishing, as life-altering as the bittersweet experience that helping my parents has been. Oh, I would have enjoyed the trip, and perhaps I'd have sent that book off to my agent by now. But it would have been a very different book.

Not going to Paris grew me up. Where living in Paris had brought out my wildness and joy, not going tempered that wildness, rooting it to the earth and to family. And to my delight, not going brought to my life a grace so deep and so rich that I am just beginning to take it in.

I see now that when I prayed, "Help me to honor my 50th year, to fill my empty nest," my angels knew just what I needed and guided me toward it. And today, through Merritt's song, they were guiding me again

Today, Merritt's lyrics, "I want to go, I want to go too. I want to go with you," echoed my own longing. And the next song, from Ladysmith Black Mozambo, invited, "Pray to the Prince of Peace," entreating me to "Love God, but not in an emotional way."

Taken together, I heard: Go. Pray for help.
And from the third song, a bluesy, sexy jazz number that wove a spell over my heart, I heard: You can have what you want--and need--to be happy. Go.

A few minutes later, buzzing with angel guidance, I tucked into a café to sip hot tea and check my emails and that's when the final piece of this incredible message fell into place when I opened the message from my new friend (the one the angels had introduced me to just a month earlier) to find a link to her blog called: Getting Lost, with page after page about her travels through Europe.

I laughed, my way of giving in, giving up to the incredible love the angels had sent. I laughed, my way of opening to feel how willing they are to play, to send me delightful puzzles of music and memory, embroidered with meaning and light. I cried, tears of pure gratitude for the blessing of being loved so much and so well.

It's okay for me to go to Paris now.

Even though I am buying a new house and it may not be "practical" to go, even though I am only working part-time and I'm not sure where I'll find the money. Even though I missed my 50th birthday... the angels said: Go, celebrate your turning point. Ask us to help you. We will.

And I will pray, and I will go; this summer, as I turn 51, or the year after that. And whenever I arrive, I know there will be a cafe to sit in, to order a croissant and a cafe creme and finish a book. But, thanks to my angels, I know now that the girl I discovered all those years ago is deep within me. And though she's grown up now, she still knows how to make magic--wherever in the world I find myself.


squeekmouse said...

I just googled "mother earth cafe paris" on a whim, wondering if I'd find anything on that funky little cafe of my circa-1976 memories, and there was your blog. So glad to read your take on being there; we are apparently about the same age and experienced Paris in our youth. Wasn't the Mother Earth cafe run by a guy from Marin County? Thanks for the blog; made me smile.

Amy Oscar said...

How wonderful to find a fellow Mother Earth Cafe patron. I lived in Paris from 1977-8.

The cafe manager could well have been from Marin. He was certainly that California type. The two men I remember were Richie and Randy--they were bartenders there. (I think those were their names) One of them was small and compactly built. He had dark hair and outgoing, fun-loving energy. The other guy was taller, had a moustache and was more reserved--a little scary, as I recall. (But who knows what a 20 year old thinks is scary! He could have just been shy.)
Anyway, thanks for posting your comment. Do you have other Paris memories to trigger my own? A favorite corner of the city?