Exactly one week ago, I came back from an extended teaching assignment. One month, creative nonfiction, three colleagues and 26 students. In Paris. Which is in France. This was my third year, and you would think I’d have learned that re-entry can be bumpy. Unfortunately, this July was the best ever, which made coming home the worst.
Over the course of four weeks away, my Vélib account indicates that I took out a bike at least 65 times, and my continuing ability to type indicates that I sustained no brain injuries as a result. I used the city rental bikes to commute to school, to bring home treasures from the puces, and to spend entire afternoons wandering, planless. Blame it on the mono-directional bike lanes or the rosé consumed at dinner, but one night it took me an hour and a half to make what should have been a 24-minute trip home, and I somehow rode past half of the city’s major train stations (none of which I lived near). The payoff was to finally find myself unlost when I came upon the Seine, its ambered lights signaling me toward familiar roads. I don’t even own a bike here in Philadelphia, but in Paris, the cankled and basketed three-speeders with their brrring-brrrring bells and wardrobe-neutral taupe frames are the perfect way to take in the city — cheap, flexible, plentiful, and mostly in good working order. There’s even a kind of hobo lingo among users, in which we turn seats backwards on bikes that are out of order.
And while the more popular bike stations incite stiff competition for pick-ups and drop-offs, when one man scooped up the last open dock a half second before I could get to it, he came after me with his smartphone to show me two stations nearby.
This year, I ate great food, taught great students, spoke more French than ever, and saw things I’ve been meaning to see. I ventured into the tile-lined Mosque of Paris courtyard, where a full dinner menu was on offer despite it being Ramadhan (but the timing of which might explain the surliness of the waiter, who mimicked my English-speaking companion by saying “Blah blah blah” to her). I lucked into a weekend in Brittany, complete with dogs, gracious hosts, and just-caught langoustines. I saw the Natural History Museum’s parade of random taxidermy, and one level above, a lone and shaggy stuffed burro who made my donkey-loving heart skip a beat.
Thanks to Paris’s perimeter tramway, with each stop announced by both male and female voices as well as site-specific music, I traveled the thin line between the city’s shoulder-to-shoulder Haussmanns and its Brutalist postcolonial banlieues, the passenger in-flow showing an increasing wave of melanin, which is the inverse of what I knew as a schoolchild, riding back into the center of my city each day on the public bus alongside Better Chance schoolkids and cleaning ladies.
My husband flew in for the last week. While I taught workshops he wandered through museums, and then together we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary and my birthday with all manner of charcuterie and nouvelle cuisine, some of it schlepped to picnics in the Roman Arènes de Lutèce and the Jardin du Luxembourg, the latter so completely taken over by commoners that Marie de’ Medici would barely recognize her Florentine homage.
Then I came home.
Jet-lag aside, I have spent most of this first week wondering why the hell I own so much crap. I also wonder why the hell I live in such an old house, with so many broken and crumbling parts and twice as many rooms as we need, even given our steady regimen of weekend family guests. I love that my sister kept my garden weeded and watered and pruned for me, the fiery red cannas just now coming into bloom, but I feel little desire to pick up where she left off.
I don’t mind that work has piled up; it’s good work, honest work, and I’m ready for a break from gallivanting. But oh, how nice it was to taste a sparer life. My tiny apartment in the 5th arrondissement was too noisy and the bathroom smelled like cabbage and to my way of seeing things, “one bedroom” should mean there’s a separate room for the bed and not just a couch that folds down. Still, I didn’t dirty pots because there was no oven to put them in; I bought one delicious wheel of raw milk butter that lasted the whole trip; and I made do (with minor adjustments from flea markets and summer soldes) with the clothes I’d packed.
In post-return reaction (and also as fallout from the euro-to-dollar exchange rate), I’ve vowed to have a month of no shopping. Rien. Nada. Nothing but food, gas, and a lawnmower (to replace the one that conked out while I was gone). I’ll purge my closets, de-tchotchke the shelves, and scour the pantry for those near-empty bags of puy lentils and forbidden rice that aren’t even enough for one serving. Because I’ve spent the last seven days complaining so bitterly about the broken-down this and unfinished that in every room, my husband has mapped out a plan of attack that rivals the invasion of Normandy. But which includes plumbers and carpenters.
This was my third year of teaching in Paris (which is in France), so I should have seen it coming. And truth be told, my month of living burdenlessly wasn’t a real life. If I didn’t have my anchor here at home, it would have felt less like freedom and more like drift. Lesson to be learned? Nothing, really, except perhaps that I’ve got it good wherever I go, and wherever I go, I can look at the sky.