Yesterday we arrived back in Paris, at the Gare de l’Est, and walked across the road to the big old restored convent, Les Récollets. Home. It’s strange, but it is just that – Home – both Paris and the big old looming white building. I don’t know why, but it just is.
Or perhaps I do know why.
Paris is particular for me. It goes way back to when I was 22 and hopped on a flying kangaroo. I wailed like a banshee as I looked out the window, waving at mum and dad standing so solemn in the Hungry Jacks. Dad’s wave was long and melancholy, back and forth, back and forth, arms high above his head. It made me cry more and the nice Chinese man next to me gave me a tissue. I later found out it wasn’t dad at all waving – they’d left as soon as I’d gone through the gates. But the thought of leaving them and all that was ‘Home’ tore a gaping hole in my chest so big it physically ached.
Why was I leaving? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had studied French forever and needed to see France for myself.
Now I think of it, ever since I was little I was yearning for exotic lands. Whether it was the next suburb up, or the City, or Sydney, or just places in my head, I always loved that feeling of being Other. To see new things. To feel the outlines of myself. Those edges; the sharp contrast of new colours and sounds and tastes.
But at 22 I hadn’t pushed it very far.
Until I arrived in Paris.
I loathed it. I got a crappy job as an au pair looking after two little nightmares who kicked me in the shins and told me I was ugly. I lived above their palatial apartment in a chambre de bonne with cockroaches crawling up the walls. I was miserable. Lonely. I spent long hours sprawled on their exquisite parquetry crying to mum. She was supportive, but never said ‘Just come home.’ She knew there was more to it.
I moped around Paris, watching couples in the park, families, friends, thinking – why would I subject myself to this? I don’t belong here. I missed my boyfriend, my people so bad it was like my skin peeling off.
And then one day something shifted. I went on a walk and was standing on a bridge looking over the Seine. I had a chocolate éclair in my hand. The sun was setting and the view such a magnificent stab in the chest I felt wounded. And I thought to myself,
“That is beautiful. But nobody is seeing it with me. So am I really seeing it?’
And then it happened.
I did see it. I had seen it. The view entered me. It was mine. I didn’t need anyone else. I had it, all on my own.
I spent a year in Paris and then went ‘Home’ to Australia. I stayed four years. It was right, but I missed Paris.
And then one day the whole world turned sepia and the very definition of Home in its most intimate, human sense, was torn from my grip. It was as though, once a balloon tied to the earth, my ribbon had been cut. I was floating in space.
And then, mysteriously, a grant to return to Paris and study at the most wonderful theatre school in the world came and met me in the sky. Thanks Sky.
And I was back.
There were acrobats practising a sequence on the lawn in front of the Récollets on the day I arrived. I thought Now This is Home. And I stepped into my own little apartment which looked out over a beautiful park and had big high windows with trees swishing in front of them. It was mine. My own little place.
And I never, ever, for one single second took a moment for granted the whole five years I lived here. Things always touched my eyes and my ears and my nose: I felt everything. I was alive, on fire - my mind was sharp – I could close my eyes and name every detail of my quartier. The pictures were clear, my eyes were open, my heart a thundering steam train.
There is so much to say about the above that I am writing a book about it, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
But suffice to say, Paris became Home. A spitfire of a Home, always pushing and thrilling and challenging and smashing me to pieces.
I almost died in Paris, literally, but I still returned. I wasn’t sure at first how I’d feel about her, but we were friends again immediately. She didn’t mean it. It was an accident. And anyway, I had learnt so much from that experience I wasn’t angry at her.
And lying here right now in the old, hard bed in the Old Récollets as the wind blows through the trees outside, I can feel the echo of that initial thrilling feeling of independence from that day on the bridge. That feeling of being truly alive.