Four years ago, we spent three months in Paris while Bill worked at the Pasteur Institute. Our time there exceeded even my greatest expectations and I hold those memories very dear to my heart. At the time Amelia was nearly 5 and Aidan was 3. I spent my days taking them all over Paris, usually to one of the many parks. I even braved a few museums with them, including the Picasso where Aidan came dangerously close to touching a painting while the guard yelled, “Madame!”
Every Wednesday we went to story time at the American Library, which is just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Aidan, future engineer and admirer of symmetry that he is, had to visit the Eiffel Tower weekly. So, after story time, we grabbed fixins for a picnic lunch on the Champs des Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Aidan walked along the streets of the 7th arrondisement carrying a baguette as long as he was tall, gnawing at it along the way. Amelia and I always waited until we reached the “pelouse au repose” [As opposed to pelouse interdit, which means “Don’t even think about walking, sitting, reclining or otherwise disturbing the lawn.”]
Someone once told me the French invented childhood and my time there with the children lends credibility to this theory. We shared an incredibly happy three months together there, even though Aidan was in his terrible threes and I made things worse by refusing to by an overpriced French stroller. Our life in Paris remains one of the leading contenders for the happiest periods of my life.
Aidan does not remember our time in France, but Amelia remembers it surprisingly well. Since our return she has told us repeatedly that she intends to study French and spend her year abroad in Paris. As a special treat, she and I planned to go to Paris last spring to visit and travel with my friend Courtney and her daughter. Unfortunately, my worsening illness forced us to cancel the trip. Amelia was disappointed but amazingly mature about it. At the time we viewed it as a postponement, but I now suspect that the trip will never take place, at least not with me as her travel companion.
A few weeks ago I rented “Paris, Je t’aime” from Netflix. I watched it on a Sunday when I was not feeling very well. I was having a hard time dealing with the fluid increase that occurred when they increased by daily calories in the TPN. So I had swelling in my feet and arms as well as symptoms of pulmonary edema, which made it hard to breathe.
The movie is a compilation of 18 5-minute films, each by different directors and set in one of the 20 Parisian arrondisements. Watching the compilation was bittersweet for me, in part because many of the films have some degree of sadness. But most of my sadness lay in the realization that I will likely never again visit that lovely place. “But you spent three months there,” I reminded myself, “Just be grateful for that.”
Two of the films touched me especially. I am going to give them both away so if you don’t want to know about them, stop reading here.
In one of the films a young women wakes early and carries her bundled baby, via public transport, to a barren daycare where dozens of cribs are lined in rows. Her boy starts to cry as she leaves and she sings the following lullaby to him with love and sadness in her eyes.
Qué linda manito que tengo yo,
(What pretty little hands have I)
qué linda y blanquita que Dios me dio
(How pretty and white that God gave me)
Qué lindos ojitos que tengo yo,
(What pretty eyes have I)
qué lindos y negritos que Dios me dio
(How pretty and dark that God gave me)
Qué linda boquita que tengo yo,
(What a pretty little mouth have I)
qué linda y rojita que Dios me dio
(How pretty and red that God gave me)
Qué lindas patitas que tengo yo,
(What pretty little feet have I)
qué lindas y gorditas que Dios me dio
(How pretty and chubby that God gave to me)
The mother leaves her baby and travels a long distance via metro and bus to her employer’s home. Her employer tells her she will be home late that evening, “You don’t mind, right?” Of course she minds but what is she to say? Then a baby cries and the women goes to the infant and sings the same song, this time with affection but not love. And I ached for her and all the women who leave their children not of their own volition but of necessity. That lullaby played in my head for days, breaking my heart every time.
In the final film the main character, a postal worker from Denver, walks through Paris while she narrates via voice-over in her American accented French about her Parisian vacation. Throughout the film she seems like such a lonely soul, missing her pets at home, eating alone, walking alone. In the final scene she pensively sits on a park bench eating “un sandwich” and observes the scene around her. In her narration she talks about how in that moment she experienced something that she had never felt before in her life: joy and sadness at the same time, but only a little sadness. She felt, “vivant.” [alive]
One thing that struck me about the few French people that I got to know during our time there was that they seemed much more willing to admit to specific losses in their lives and sadness in general. I think we Americans are much more closeted about our emotional pain perhaps that is why we are such a violent culture, the feelings have to erupt somehow. Over the past several months, as I have admitted to my own struggles with my illness and the accompanying emotional consequences, many people have opened up to me about their own emotional struggles. I was astounded to learn how many people I knew struggled with depression and grief for, literally, years without saying much about it to anyone. Now the phrase “walking wounded” seems much for accurate to me. I realize now that we all have hearts that are at least a little broken. Perhaps that is the human condition. What is truly amazing is that we march on, broken hearts and all, though our lives. We continue to live and love and laugh with our fragile little hearts, running the risk of further pain on a constant quest for joy.