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:

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