Sunday, September 30, 2012

Le Départ

Did we have trepidations about leaving our children, jettisoning everything and moving to Europe for a year without a home, car or jobs? Without a doubt. Were we fearful about living out of a couple of suitcases, being blissfully unaware of some of the difficulties we would encounter and making up our itinerary as we went along? Absolutely. It was perhaps the most terrifying thing we’d ever done, but we knew it felt right and that if we’d given in to fears, backed down and decided not to go, we would have regretted it for the rest of our lives.

There was no grand strategy for our year, no fleshed out, burnished in gold blueprint. We had decided to let the year unfold organically on its own without too much definition. We wanted enough flexibility to be able to take advantage of possibilities and to change our plans according to how we were feeling. There was a skeletal framework, a tentative list of countries, a few ground rules and the fact that we knew where we would start and where we would end: Paris.

We kept in mind as the weeks ticked by Lawrence Durrell’s quote that I included early on in this writing:

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will -- whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures – and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection...

And thus we left plenty of room for the spontaneity, flights of fancy and reflection our spirits would require.

Life on the road was not always glamorous. Traveling does indeed have its difficulties; there were days of skinned knees, both literal and figurative, on the cobbled streets of Europe. But was our journey the answer to our long-standing dream of living in Europe and absorbing it deep in our souls? The answer is yes, it was all we had dreamed and more.

Drama is life with the boring bits left out." Such was Alfred Hitchcock’s observation and the same might be said of the glorification of long-term travel. Viewed from the sidelines, it appears to be kaleidoscopic, sophisticated and always in Technicolor, every minute of every day. But the reality is that much of an extended journey is just life, after all, filled with daily habits and the ordinary tasks of living. There are ups and downs, excitement and ennui and yes indeed, there are those tedious boring bits.

The unveiling of the aftermath of our Gap Year, of our reassimilation into what would be the rest of our life, was about to begin. The day of our departure from the escapades of the Old World for the possibilities of the New had arrived. We had done what we could to make our time in Europe last as long as possible – at least in terms of appreciating every minute and creating vivid memories, but the inexorable flow of time is impossible to stanch. It seemed like forever and yet only yesterday that we had landed in France 12 months earlier.

For the final time in what had become my travel day ritual, I slipped on my uniform of comfort (my boyfriend jeans, black tee and hiking sandals) and we whispered goodbye to our Paris studio and took to the road. Bags dragging behind us, we walked past Parisians performing the early morning rituals of brasserie sweeping and bistro set up, shop window polishing, plat du jour posting and unstacking and hosing down the plastic-webbed chairs of sidewalk cafes. We walked by our favorite little neighborhood boulangerie and despite the urge to pause, resisted the buttery, yeasty smell of fresh croissants and baguettes wafting into the street. Breakfast at the airport was going to have to do.

As we rolled up the final escalator to the Motte-Picquet metro platform, serenaded by a busker on an accordion down below, it hit me like an arrow from a tightly strung bow: we were leaving Paris, saying goodbye to France and our adventure had come to a close. It was a fitting morning elegy for the end of our Gap Year, filled with lament as I overflowed with emotion.  

We’d cross-examined ourselves daily over the previous 12 months about whether taking a Gap Year was testament to our madness, a tribute to our pluck or just a step in our lives that seemed so right for the time? The answer is likely an amalgam of all three. But whatever the answer, what we could attest to was feeling lucky. Lucky to have had our dream come true. Lucky to have been able to take a year off from regular life. And fortunate to have had calm waters at home such that we were able to take a sabbatical without interruption. We ran almost maniacally from the logic characteristic of some self-satisfied individuals of privilege that because they’ve been blessed, they believe they deserve it. We simply felt lucky, fortunate and happy that our madness and our pluck had brought us there.

I recalled the newly married Filipino couple we’d met in Turkey who innocently sought our advice. “Is two weeks,” they asked, “enough time to see Europe?” “Oh my, we replied, “We’ll be here for a year and we still won’t see it all. We’ll barely have scratched the surface.” After 353 days, 21 countries, 11 capital cities and countless trains, planes, busses, shuttles, rental cars, cable cars, gondolas, ships and ferries, there was still so much more to see.

As our plane lifted off from Orly and soared upward, the individual sights of Paris and its suburbs quickly blended into the mosaic of rural France below. It was a gentle palette of perfectly outlined shapes of color – the soft greens, tans and browns of the countryside. And as sometimes miraculously happens when flying to the US on a clear day from Europe, the shoreline of coastal France and then the outline of Spain and Portugal appeared far below as we headed out over the Atlantic. We were finally heading home.

Will there be another Gap Year of travel in our future? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Pictures of our adventures:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

On Returning Home

The fantasy had been with me for almost as long as I could remember. I lived and relived our European experience in my mind’s eye for over 30 years. The vision first took shape when I was a young adult returning from studying abroad, clarified somewhat and merited its very own file folder as it remained in my heart as I became a young mother, career ladder climber and dual college tuition payer and then blossomed into an actual, concrete plan accompanied by spreadsheets, maps and piles of references as I matured into a middle-aged empty nester. My idée fixe of a Gap Year in Europe with Joe sustained me through many a professional trial, boring weekend, humid Washington summer and fleeting vacation.

But now I find myself asking, what will get me through those hurdles now that the vision has been realized? What escapist imaginings will consume my idle hours? Will life be hard on us, now members of the “those whose dreams have actually come true” club? I was overcome with difficult-to-articulate feelings as we prepared to go home.

As a child I watched a Hayley mills movie, The Moon Spinners, in which she and her friends get into mischievous escapades on Greek hillsides dotted with windmills and the seed for seeing the world was sown. I read Rebecca, The Sun also Rises, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Sheltering Sky and The Drifters. They filled me with longing for adventure in other countries and the reverie of some day living abroad.

At every opportunity – when pinching pennies, the family budget and work schedules allowed – Joe and I took off for Europe, visiting my beloved France, but also venturing to England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Greece. We visited my sister Peggy who lived in London with her husband for several years. We took the kids backpacking through Italy and Greece, starting in Rome and heading all the way south to Crete. We traveled with each other for international business conferences and made special anniversary trips for our 15th, 20th and 25th celebrations. But as lovely and exciting as these voyages were, they were short-lived and temporary. But we were determined not to relegate living in Europe to the outer reefs of “someday isle” along with all those other resolutions: someday I’ll lose weight, start exercising, change jobs, visit friends more often, read Anna Karenina, take dancing lessons.

I vividly recall Joe holding my hand, leaning over to me as our jet took off in 2001 for our 20th anniversary trip to France and saying, “Just imagine that those are one-way tickets in our backpacks and we’re leaving to live for a full year abroad – how exciting will that be?”

So there we were in Paris, after our long-awaited year abroad, poised for a ceremonial burning of clothes: Joe’s black sport coat worn to the point of translucence, my limp, green hiking pants devoid of any life they’d once had and white t-shirts stained, gray and ragged from too many ineffective washings in the sink. Perhaps it was time to go home, time to allow a bit more routine back into our lives, time to find a place to nest.

We would soon be back to the daily grind, in the clutches of the Washington Beltway bourgeoisie, subject to the incessant drumbeat of our modern world. I could see the stresses lurking just beyond the horizon back in the States, ready to pounce the moment we arrived. Anything related to finding new employment and heading back to the frenzied reality of daily life made me anxious and prone to procrastination. We were resolute, however, about doing our best to resist the pressures and remain dispassionate about the day-to-day exigencies of life in the nation’s capital.

Thirty-one years after initially setting up housekeeping together, I thought about what a gift we’d been handed: to once again start our lives anew. World-weary travelers, I knew we would delight in settling down, being rooted in the comfortable and mundane and anxious to loose ourselves in new routines, untested and pregnant with possibility. Yes, we would get to begin again with no idea of where we would work or where we would live. We would have the ability to reinvent ourselves and our lives and play a whole new hand of cards. Life doesn’t get much luckier than that.

I’m going to miss being surrounded by languages other than our own every day, and French most of all – at the Monoprix grocery store, listening to the news on la télé, on the metro and on the bus. I’ll have to suffer through withdrawal, like an addict going cold turkey, as I distance myself from the pleasure that is France, the pleasure that is Europe, the pleasure that is traveling.

Will we experience a bit of reverse culture shock on returning to the US? Will the frenetic pace of American life surprise us?” Will we ask: “Why are these people walking so fast?” “How is it that we understand everything that’s being said and don’t have to frantically search for words to make ourselves clear?” “Why do toilets flush with handles on the side and not buttons on the top?” And last, but hardly least, “Why are these portions so huge?”

After being foreigners for so long, we’re certain to feel somewhat foreign ourselves despite being back in our own country. We’ll have to get used to reading signs in English and adjust to the daily visual parade of the morbidly obese, chronically loud and badly tattooed. And while I do love my country and our life in America, I do fear that in an acclimating fit of pique I may one day scream at my fellow citizens, ”Why can’t you be more like Europeans?”

Is there a new person who has emerged from her exploits across Europe, wiping off the dust of magical places discovered? Perhaps I won’t know the answer until we’re back in the melee and I see how I deal with the everyday. But I experienced some revelations while we were away and chief among them is the reinforcement of the virtues of simplicity and kindness. There were times while traveling when we had an acute need for a kind gesture -- just a little one. And when it materialized in the form of a clerk’s smile or a pedestrian who helped direct us, it made all the difference in the world.

I want my days to be filled with kind gestures – both those I offer and those I receive. At this time in my life, I’m not interested in being with people I don’t care for, who aren’t kind and I’m embarrassed to be at a table with in a restaurant because of how they treat the staff. The most important thing in human life is to be kind and I find I now have no tolerance for anyone who cannot be so.

One the eve of our departure, if someone had knocked on our apartment door and told us we were required to stay for another few months, smiles would have overwritten our leave-taking frowns. A few more months among the wonders of Europe would have suited us just fine.

But knowing we would be back on US turf and seeing our children, friends and family soon was not a bad thing either. Going home is hard when you love where you've been but being in the same country as our kids will make our hard landing a bit softer. It was hard on Chris and Caroline at times to have us so far away and while we’re used to living apart, the wide Atlantic Ocean between us was a very real gulf that made the separation more acute.

It’s difficult to admit, but after 12 months of being on the road, my contentment pendulum had swung to the side of longing for a comfortable home base and the desire to settle down. Moving into a place we can call our own, where we can unpack knowing that in a few days we will not have to repack yet again and where we can become reacquainted with those favorite things we left behind (our bed, my coffee mug, the C&O Canal and morning TV).

But I know myself well and the cozy complaisance of life in the familiar will only last for so long. My craving for novelty will once again wrestle with my very real desire for security. On some undetermined evening in the not-too-distant future over a glass wine in the corner of an evocative bistro, my always persistent wanderlust will poke through the fabric of our daily lives, and I will declare my need for some adventure, some movement, some discovery. And the determined planning for more travel will begin yet again.

Pictures of our adventures

Monday, September 24, 2012

Paris: The Last Hot Hurrah

The studio we’d rented for our first month in Paris became home for our final eight days. Perhaps because of its location on the always-shaded inner courtyard of the 150-year old building, it was somewhat protected from most of the outdoor heat and was a relatively cool sanctuary. We reluctantly went about unpacking our bags for the final time on our Gap Year. When it came time to stuff everything back in, our year in Europe would be over and we would be filling our duffels for the flight back home.

We listened to the familiar sounds in the apartment building: the couple making breakfast next door, the cougher upstairs and the opening and closing of the heavy front door. After our peripatetic year, we’d circled back to Paris. When we’d arrived 12 months earlier, the weather had been cool and rainy with fall in the air and in contrast, it was now the sticky, hot summer. Indeed, we’d come full circle in returning to Paris and had run through the seasons of Europe.

Paris was a ghost town. It was our first time in the city in the second half of the summer and although I'd heard how deserted the place is in August, actually witnessing it so empty was a little eerie. All was quiet along the banks of the Seine. I half-expected to see tumbleweeds rolling down the Boulevard Saint Germain past Les Deux Magots. Ordinarily, I find that there’s a surface sparkle of color set against the never-ending French vanilla cream of Parisian buildings, but even the local color seemed muted in August’s indolence.

We arrived in Paris on a Thursday afternoon and the calm was palpable. Are we sure it’s not a Sunday, we thought. But then the next day dawned and even at the height of what should have been the morning rush hour, Paris remained asleep and it was Sunday once again. There were so few people on the streets and any we passed were not speaking French. The locals had abandoned Paris for the mountains and the shore and left their fair city in the hands of the tourists. Life in Paris is slow in August and mirrored the tempo the waning days of our year had taken. We were in sore need of some unscheduled down time to mentally and emotionally prepare for returning to the States. And thus our time in Paris was dictated by our internal rhythms without haste or schedules. We awoke each day with no agenda and eschewed temporal exactitude for serendipity -- a luxury we were keenly aware would too quickly disappear once we set foot back in the real world. It was our last gasp of spontaneity for a while.

The temperatures exacerbated Paris’ summer pace. Everything and everyone was in slow motion because of the heat -- over 100 degrees with a healthy dose of humidity in a city where air conditioning is hardly de rigueur. The weather was such that even with no movement at all while we sat quietly in the shade on a bench near the Eiffel Tower, we were bathed in sweat. Perspiration puddled on our upper lips, dripped down our temples and dropped onto our thighs. We considered joining those young and old who resorted to jumping into gushing fountains for relief but in the end decided to head to an awninged cafe for cold drinks.

It was soon pillbox countdown time. Every Monday morning I mark the new week by replenishing my vitamin pillbox. I felt so profoundly the inevitable passage of time as I dropped the tablets into their daily slots for the final time in Europe. So few pills remained and so few days to go. Our flight would leave Friday and here it was Monday. The final week’s countdown had started.

There was some final, gentle exploring of neighborhoods unknown we’d decided to embark upon and found ourselves in northeast Paris along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin. There’s an energy along the canal, much like that found in quartiers all over the world where young people flock together, play their instruments outdoors and enjoy endless conversation. Quirky boutiques and trendy cafes line both sides of the canal and iron footbridges cross now and then from side to side. We stopped for an early dinner in an industrial space turned funky bistro serving up Indian fare looking out on the canal. I’m sure the other patrons – young, hip and international -- wondered about the 56-year old interlopers in their midst.

With just two more days and a wake-up left to our Gap Year and desperate for the relief of some serious air conditioning, we decided to indulge in a capstone lunch at a fine restaurant. But finding such a venue was no easy task since almost all were closed for the entire month of August: Lasserre, Taillevant, Le Pré Catelan and others. I envisioned all the finest chefs of Paris in starched toques sipping umbrella cocktails at tiki bars along the Côte d’Azur.

And then Joe suggested Le Jules Verne on the Eiffel Tower. All associations with the doomed engagement of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes aside, our meal was magnifique. We had no expectations other than a beautiful view but not only was the panorama priceless, the food, the service and the wine at this Alain Ducasse restaurant made for a wonderful memory. As I sipped my Sancerre in a long-stemmed wineglass, I reflected on all those times over the months when we’d lacked goblets of fine crystal or even a simple glass and settled for white wine in plastic cups. And here we were dining on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. We had certainly mastered the art of turning on a dime from budget traveler basics to the finest Europe had to offer.

On our return home, we’ll surely be asked to play parlour games about our favorite countries and cities and I will be reluctant. Picking favorites is inherently reductive and divisive by definition, whereas the reality is so much more complex. To select one or two is to eliminate the others and this is a relegation that just doesn’t seem fair. So many factors went into making almost all the places we visited special.

But in the end, we are human and we do indeed have our preferences. The most frequently asked question will likely be: which was our favorite city? And the answer to that one will be easy. It is Paris hands down, no question, without a doubt. We haven’t yet visited all the world’s grand cities, but I suspect that had we, the City of Light would remain our most beloved metropolis both in Europe and on the planet.

As we prepared to leave Paris, I thought about the thousands of couples who had made the city their own since we’d left the previous fall. And with the spirit and conviction that only true love can deliver, I knew deep in my heart that no one else’s attachment to Paris was quite like ours and never would be. Paris is paradise for me and for Joe and we were already making plans to return again and again.

Pictures of our adventures:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Final Approach to Paris

We spent our final itinerant days before returning to Paris wandering country roads through Burgundy and then into Lorraine and Picardy, through one little French town after another. Every one has grown up around its very own Hotel de Ville. Each town hall is proudly adorned in civic pride and window boxes trailing summer flowers. Bold red, white and blue “RF” shields for “République Française” are prominently displayed and on either side fly the French tricolor and the local flag.

As the center of much community activity, the Hotel de Ville is generally a vibrant bustling hub. Couples go to there to get married in a legally binding civil ceremony before heading to the church. It hosts a variety of cultural events, the infamous red tape and applications for myriad permits required for daily French life generally start there and in some villages residents can even drop by to pay their utility bills.

Also fixtures in each town center, no matter how small the village, are two memorials inscribed with the names of all its men who died in the First and Second World Wars. It’s always a shock to see so many names listed, especially for World War I, in hamlets whose entire populations couldn’t be more than a couple dozen. On previous trips to France, we’d visited the WWII beaches in Normandy and the heartbreaking American Cemetery overlooking the English Channel in Colleville-sur-Mer. On this visit we would pay our respects to those who died in World War I.  

We passed through Époisses, famous for its eponymous cheese (one of our favorites) on our way out of Burgundy, rolled over the gentle, fertile hills of Chablis under a fleeting sunny sky and made our way towards the city of Verdun.

Our trip has been a time of intense togetherness, as travel as a couple should be, and we’ve learned to read even more accurately than ever, each other’s needs and moods. In the waning days of our year, both of us subdued and pensive with no need to converse, we were content in the close-companioned silence that feels comfortable only in the most familiar relationships. The clear light of Chablis on its golden wheat fields and green vineyards soon gave way to overcast skies, reflecting not only our introspection but the somber scenes of war ahead of us.

Joe and I are both eldest children (he of three and I of eleven) and as I’ve so often found without knowing why, first-borns, like only children, generally have fierce needs for quiet and being alone. In my case, eighteen years in tight quarters with a family of 13 left me with a ravenous hunger for solitude. I savor my alone time and always have ever since I can remember. As an adolescent, I frequently retreated to the treasured tranquility of the bedroom I shared with my sister and where I developed the ability to lose myself in a Nancy Drew mystery or Rosamond du Jardin novel to tune out the beehive of noise and activity that was home. Joe has shared similar anecdotes. We’re natural introverts that silence restores and solitude refreshes much the way others muster vitality by being in the middle of the fray. We go inside for sustenance, to recharge our batteries, gird our loins and gather the energy we need to be social. I have to admit that I’ve often disappeared from business functions and family reunions for some short-term, restorative calm.

While there was nothing more lonely than living in New York City, surrounded by millions and not knowing a single soul, being swallowed by the great cities of Europe with Joe at my side was heaven. It was the two of us both against the world and embracing the world, like the heroes in a picaresque novel with no real need to be social other than with each other, each of us unambiguously appreciating the periodic need to be quiet. Such were my thoughts as we arrived in Lorraine and the evocative World War I killing fields.

Visiting the sites of war is not my favorite pastime. It is of great interest to Joe, however, and it is hard to resist anticipating all he teaches me in the course of our battlefield pilgrimages. We followed the N35 Route Nationale, dubbed “LaVoie Sacrée” (The Sacred Way) by the French and still carrying this nickname today into Verdun. During the almost yearlong battle for the city, this vital route provided the only access into the beleaguered center and to the front, all other roads cut off by German firepower. Endless monuments, graveyards and war sites line the route and after stopping at many, we eventually made our way to Fort Douaumont in the hills just northeast of the city.

Easily captured by the Germans in the early days of the Battle of Verdun, it remains a dangerous place. Signs along the pathways read: “Dear Friends and Pilgrims, For your own safety and out of respect for those who fought and died in Verdun, please keep to the footpaths and do not enter the fortifications. Take care of your children: the weapons of war can still kill!” A short drive from the fort and the apparently still live minefields, the Douaumont Ossuary sits high on a hill, overlooks a French military cemetery and houses the remains of over 130,000 unidentified soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield.

World War I was characterized by especially brutal human slaughter and the scale of destruction of the war that was intended to end all wars, was unprecedented. While the trenches and mine craters have been softened by time and the greening forces of nature have managed to reclaim much of the landscape, the scars remain nonetheless. We continued traveling west in warm drizzle down narrow country roads behind plodding farm vehicles while huge white dairy cows grazed on age-old farms whose mossy stone buildings appeared to have been there since the middle ages. While there was no direct fighting on these farmlands, I could only imagine the devastation experienced by those who had lived there. So many millions of lives were lost in the First World War and for what?

As we approached Paris in wistful silence, our introversion continued. It had been a sobering gray and dreary road trip with the sun remaining hidden and there was a humidity we hadn’t sensed since we’d left the US. We’d better get used to it, I thought. We’re eight days away from heading home to the closing weeks of a Washington summer where mugginess will be impossible to avoid. Yes, there will be the mid-Atlantic heat, haze and humidity to endure -- there will be the obvious weather adjustment but oh so many more. The lights and bustle of Paris were on the horizon and we counted on them to pull us out of our shells and lift our subdued spirits.

Pictures of our adventures: