Leave-taking is often better done quickly, though you can’t help it sometimes, even if you don’t want to remain in anticipation of farewell. I wasn’t saying goodbye, however, to friends at a station, but to being abroad in France. And so I tried to hold onto those final moments, before my tedious trip to the airport and the long flight back to New York. And the life I’d left but not abandoned.
I was ready but not eager. My bags were packed. I had cleaned and dusted. I had watered the sad palm tree on the tired terrace. I had closed all the shutters. My eyes had begun to adjust to the midday darkness.
I was seated in the characterless living room, on the rickety chair at the wobbly table on which I’d placed months earlier a pine-green rectangular glass vase I’d bought at a store around the corner during my first week in Paris, to help make the despairing place a little homier. It wasn’t much, but a few flowers had added a dash of passing joy to the apartment that the couple with whom I’d exchanged residences didn’t think essential. (I hadn’t known that Silvia and Pavel had stashed in their basement storage space whatever they’d considered truly valuable. Now, why hadn’t I thought to make my home less welcoming for them?)
I’d already sent that little vase home. I’d wrapped it in some extra-large linen shirts I’d bought on sale at Monoprix and that just about fit me (French sizing was on the small side, or so I told myself), then nestled it in a box with the French novels I’d planned to read in New York. I still lived in hope of betterment and recollection.
Had I really done this? I had. I was in Paris for just a little while longer and on the point of being somewhere else, and reflecting on the enormity of something that so many others had done before me, searching for the kind of enrichment that only elsewhere can force you to accept. But I had done it, moving there. It wasn’t as if I’d gone to war or faced unspeakable dangers, but I didn’t live for combat or heroism. I was just me, a middle-aged man who was seeking a little more in life. We all want to change, I know, or we say we do, but we all want to stay the same while we do it. I might have left it at that or worse had I not known better, or had I not become aware that doing nothing is the doorway to regret. I couldn’t not.
So I had made myself vulnerable. I had made myself open. I had willed myself into accepting what I didn’t know, into befriending people I couldn’t quite fathom, into admiring a culture that wasn’t at all mine. I had been thrilled and also sometimes disappointed by those I met or by what I found, but more than that I had been given a chance to be another me. And even if that other me were in another place, after Paris, I wouldn’t be the same.
This new phase of my life was unlike others, where I’d started over from necessity. This had been more of a semi-articulated choice with an element of randomness. I hadn’t expected to change as much as I believed I had – it wasn’t the change from blindness into sight, but from acknowledgement into wonder. It might not have been much, in fact, but the realignment of perspective, that as alone as I might have felt on any given day, I was at least alive and lucky to be where I was, and that itself is more than most of us are capable of admitting.
Although on that afternoon, on that final day, I was confronted with the kind of aggravating reality that any visitor to or resident of France confronts – a strike (this one involving air-traffic controllers) that necessitated a lot of scrambling to get where I needed to go – I feared less the inconvenience of travel than the possibility of not having done enough before going home.
This was perhaps a bit much to ask of myself after such a relatively short time in Paris, considering that in three-and-a-half months or so I’d made great headway in French, had acquired more than a few new friends who had helped me to see the world and even myself differently, had begun to grasp something essential about a foreign nation I would never have known as more than a cinematic locale had I stayed where I was. But I also knew that I hadn’t really asked enough of myself before. I didn’t want to stop asking.
I was 55 years old. I had never done anything of note according to what the wider world would deem remarkable, but I had watched and witnessed life as much as anyone who prefers the bliss of private marvels to the adulation of crowds. And thanks to my living in France even for so relatively brief a stay, I had forged, or maybe started to craft, a life that held more possibility for me because I knew I didn’t know what it would bring. I welcomed that because my curiosity about the world outweighed my shame at how much I had yet to learn.
Sitting there in the afternoon gloom, I wondered if I could hold onto this new perspective, one I’d acquired by forcing myself to become uncomfortable, one where I lived in gratitude rather than in fear, despite the strangeness of surroundings and the ambiguity of whatever I had counted as success. In that dreary Parisian flat on that undistinguished street that I’d come to love, I sat with my head in my hands for endless minutes, unwilling to leave but needing to depart.
It was time to go. I felt a rush of emotion, having recognized that what I had allowed myself to attempt had actually come to pass, having realized that I had perhaps done more than I thought I could, even having sensed as well that I feared returning to a life that might turn small. Not that I believed it ever could. Not after that. Not after this. But it didn’t really matter. It was done.
“Thank you,” I whispered to the shadows in the room. And before I could move to grab my bags and lock the door and leave, I sat back down another while, and cried.