November 2015


On This Year's Thanks

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2015

As many of us do this time of year, I've been spending the past few days feeling thankful.

On Saturday night, after much deliberation and many back-and-forths, I threw the housewarming party that I'd planned to host before terrorist attacks rocked our city. Though many parts of me felt conflicted about merry making in the face of tragedy, many other parts of me feel it's important to continue living, and loving, and laughing. I did my shopping on Friday and Saturday, and as the rain intensified on Saturday evening I started worrying that no one would show - Parisians, and Parisian expats, are real babies when it comes to rain.
But show up they did, with bottles and baguettes, chips and cheese, even a house plant and some serving dishes for my new space.  As these four walls filled with familiar faces, and as the wine flowed and the conversations got louder and wilder, I felt - for the first time since Friday the 13th - normal. I was surrounded by people that trudged through the rain to spend the evening together, people enjoying themselves in my new home, making memories that we'd laugh about the days after. I felt so glad, just then, that I didn't cancel. I'd spent the week quietly, spent time with myself making sense of the new world I found myself in, spent too much time in bed and shed too many tears. As our cheeks flushed and our laughter rang out, though, on Saturday night, I felt like I could breathe again, for a little while.
Things aren't back to normal, they won't ever be back to normal, but I feel that people are finding their new footing, shifting into their new lives, seeing the city in its darker light and accepting it. There are moments of small panic: last week when I had a drink with a friend on a sidewalk café terrasse, a shrill car alarm ran out and silenced the lively street instantly. We panic, we tense up, we look at each other, we laugh nervously. We sip our wine, we light our cigarettes, we ask for the menu, we relax. But still, first, we panic.
Tomorrow is the fourth Thanksgiving that I've been away from home, the fourth Thursday where I'll wake up missing the smell of turkey and the afternoon cocktails en famille, the after-dinner movie and the happy turkey-belly sleep. You get used to it, the distance, but it still feels a little bit hard at times like this. This year I'm not the only Cloughley girl far from home, though, as my little sister is studying at Trinity College (smartypants!) and so will spend her day tomorrow turkeyless too.
Reading my post from last year, I feel so different in so many ways. The post might read as upbeat, happy-go-lucky, confident, but I remember things differently. This time last year I felt so unsure, wanting to move home but wanting to stay here. Torn in a thousand directions but not even knowing which way I wanted to move. Starting out my master's degree but unsure where it would lead; wanting to arrive before I knew where I wanted to go. Now, this year, I feel more in control, and that's a really nice way to feel and I'm grateful to feel like I'm finally, and actually!, figuring things (aka "my life") out.
This year, just like last year, and the year before that, and before that, I've got so many things to be thankful for, big and small. I'm thankful for the Happy Thanksgiving card from my mother that I fished out of my mailbox when I stepped in out of the rain this evening; for the smoked gouda and sea-salted butter I'm eating on baguette as I type this; for a landlord that called me out of nowhere last week to announce he's replacing my windows so my apartment will be warmer and quieter; for a job that I'm proud to own and to have finally found (or gotten much closer to finding...) what I really want to do; for a family that, spread across three continents and seven thousand miles, manages to feel as close as ever; for friends that continue to remain close. I'm thankful for long bike rides along the Seine that numb my hands and make my nose drip; for how many things I continue to learn in school and elsewhere; for the trips I've taken this year; for the people I've loved and still love and will always love; for the things I've read that made me think long and hard.
I'm so happy that I have all these things in my life, and I'm so glad that I get to be grateful for them. More than all these things, though, more than all the wonderful people that brighten my life, all the things I've read and the places I've seen and the foods I've enjoyed and the memories I've made, on this cold and rainy Wednesday night I am just thankful to be alive. I am so, so, thankful to be alive. Nothing more, nothing less.

After class today, I rode my bike from school across the city, from the edge of the thirteenth to the Eiffel Tower in the seventh. It was rainy and cold, and true to form my nose ran and my eyes stung and my hands chapped, while inside my coat the temperature surpassed 1000 degrees (Celsius and Fahrenheit added together). Passing the Tuileries Gardens I saw the Ferris Wheel that's up for Christmas, usually white and shimmering but this year in bleu blanc rouge, like the French flag. Riding by the Assemblé Nationale, I saw its façade lit up in the same three colors, its French flags whipping in the wet wind.
I came to the Eiffel Tower, and felt, suddenly, a whole lot of emotion well up from some hidden place deep down. It was impressive, certainly; patriotic, inspirational, but some part of it felt so profoundly sad. It's lit up in blue white and red, too, another testament to the French spirit and to Parisian resilience, an image that's been projected all over the world and shared on thousands of screens - and I think it's a touching memorial. It's light and bright, it makes me think of watching fireworks on the 14th of July and of the Marseillaise and of so many things that I love about France. But, yet, there's something so terribly dark. I can't help but wish that it didn't even exist, that it didn't NEED to exist. As beautiful as it is, as patriotic or inspiring, it's still a memorial to all the people that should have been in Paris tonight, but aren't. It's a memorial to the people that would have been celebrating the end of the year with their loved ones soon, but won't be.

So, with all those people in mind, carrying them with me somewhere in my heart, this year I'm just thankful to be alive. I'm thankful that I get to have the good and the bad, the love and the anger, the pleasure and the pain of being alive. I'm thankful that I get continue to watch Paris rebuild itself, that I'll be part of the love that we'll need to go on. Even if tomorrow night I'll be at home by myself, nary a gravy boat in sight, at least I'll be here.

Squeeze your loved ones a little closer this year, my friends, and let's be very thankful that we all get to be here, together. xx


On Paris, Today

Posted on Monday, November 16, 2015

On Friday morning, I arrived at school on time feeling very proud of myself. I'd left my apartment spotless: swept the floors, watered the plants, wiped the bathtub, made the bed. I had bought a single branch of lilies last week whose scent I'd been enjoying all week, and I changed their water. They're kept in an empty wine botle, a bottle of bubbly from the Loire Valley, and I remember turning the bottle just so, so that the label faced outward before I closed the door behind me on Friday morning.
Suitcase in hand, I stepped into the car of the métro train, getting very intimate very quickly with the passengers already aboard. I closed my eyes and repeated "only four stops, only four stops, only four stops" as the sweat trickled down my neck and my feet got stepped on.
Arriving at school, I made a coffee in the stained Starbucks mug I keep in our classroom, and sat down for class. When it was over, I rushed to the train station, jumped on two trains, a plane, and a bus, and arrived in my aunt's town just outside of Dublin at around seven thirty that night.
I walked into the bar where my family was having a before-dinner drink, and they shrieked. They thought I was arriving at midnight, and here I was much earlier. My cousin Meron, the one I'd really come to see, in town from Dubai for a few days only, threw her arms around my legs and grinned up at me, leaving spitty kisses on my knees.
I had a pint of Guinness, marveled at how cool and smooth it tasted, held Meron on my knee and thought my heart would burst. I was so happy to see them, my three aunts, my two uncles, my two cousins, my sister.
We went home, we had more wine, we had snacks, we had more wine, we sat to the table. I don't remember where I saw it first.
I started getting messages that I couldn't understand, people asking me if I was alright. "Never been better!", I thought to myself, having another sip of wine. What was happening?
One of my closest friends, my neighbor growing up, messaged me. I read quickly, I saw "explosion" and "shooting" and "crazy" and I left the room, my sister seeing my face and following me. I sat on my aunt's stairs, tried to search the news. Six dead, it said. Six dead.
I got a message, "the shooting was in our restaurant," it said. A close girlfriend and I had gone to dinner at Le Petit Cambodge several months ago, sitting on the metal stools and burning our mouths on spring rolls and spicy broth. I remember that night so well, sitting in the glass-fronted restaurant, trendy lightbulbs hanging over our heads in the new très Brooklyn style. Gunmen, AK-47s, a bloodbath. Where I'd sat.
I went back to my aunt's table and ate with my family, replied to messages that I was fine, turned on the news, realized how bad it was. Six dead, around twenty, more than fifty, over one hundred dead. The Bataclan, so close to my weekend haunts. Streets I've walked down so many times, laughing and drinking, kissing, holding hands. Sidewalk terrasses where I've lingered with friends, crosswalks I've crossed a hundred times, people I've seen in the street, people who are like me, people my age.
As it all began to sank in, I began making phonecalls, replying to texts, sending texts. I "checked in" as alive on Facebook: the wonders of technology.
The next morning, the figures came out, the images appeared, the smartphone-shot videos. A man limping down the street, stepping over bodies. 
I turned off the news.
Saturday and Sunday were a blur, trying to make the most of our time together, dodging "how do you feel?" questions, trying to hold a squirming three-year-old as close as she'd let me. I knew I needed to be with my family, to let them love me, to push the images from my mind and focus on my own right-now reality, otherwise I'd fall apart. And so I did. I laughed, I gave piggy-backs, I drank champagne, I went for walks, I chatted. I tried to fill myself with positive things and good moments, to fight the horrors.
Last night I climbed into the AerLingus plane, heading back to Paris. As we landed, I cried. I watched the lights below, and felt my heart break again and again and again.
Everything is so quiet, here. The streets are quiet, people are quiet. My commute this morning took twice as long, because of an abandoned bag at a métro station. In the bus and in the train, people looked at each other, but everyone's eyes seem a little emptier. The heaviness is palpable.
I work at Disneyland. Our motto is "Faire rêver, c'est un métier!", making dreams come true is our job. Today and tomorrow, the park is closed. I can see Sleeping Beauty's castle from the meeting room, but I know it's deserted. Usually, I spend my days translating light-hearted articles about goings-on at the Park, about employees that have gone beyond their call of duty, about new princess events and chances for children to meet Mickey Mouse. Today, I typed "Horrific attacks... Senseless violence... National mourning...". 
The coworker who sits across from me usually flirts all day, wastes no opportunity to crack a joke because he loves to see us smile, he says. He's a broad-shouldered guy whose ringtone is Muse and who calls his wife several times a day. This morning, he hasn't smiled once. We had a minute of silence at noon, we gathered quietly in the meeting room. While the VP acknowledged that several people had lost close friends or families, we all studied the ground. During the minute of silence, I prayed I wouldn't cry - I cried afterwards, in the bathroom, instead.
As much as solidarity abounds today, and will in the days to come, grief is so personal. We stand together, but at the end of the day we go home, and reality hits. Last night I tossed and turned, my dreams woke me, I lay in cold sweats jumping at every sound from the street below.
For me, living in Paris is a lifelong dream. I remember when I began falling in love with the city, as a teenager, with its sights and smells, its people and its culture. Now, in my fourth year as a resident in this city, the dreams of my younger years are shifting. We can't afford to be romantic all the time, these days. The strangers in the street aren't all flâneurs and bohemians. Today, everything is tinged with fear.
The murderers that infiltrated the city of my dreams on Friday night were attacking our joy, our love, our youth. They went to areas where young people mill around, smoking cigarettes on street corners outside bars, meeting outside métro stations and greeting each other with kisses. Deranged men with machine guns went into the Bataclan, shooting blindly into a crowd of people brought together by the love of music. They killed so many people, letting their blood seep into the ground that had seen wonderful memories.
I'm scared, today. I was scared last night falling asleep, alone. When my neighbors moved in the stairwell I felt myself tense, wondering if it really was my neighbors. What's stopping someone from sneaking into my building? What's stopping someone from opening fire in the train I take every day? What's stopping someone bringing a bomb to the place that I work? People always say that letting yourself feel fear is letting the terrorists win, but I can't help it.
How can we reconcile these thoughts, these terrors, with the fact that everyday life must go on? I don't know the answer. I don't know how to remember the reality of last week, the happy coworkers and the wide-eyed crowds visiting Paris, in light of today's silent office and empty streets. The greyness of the Parisian winter is setting in, but this year it's heavier than ever. We thought we were scared in January, when Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were murdered in cold blood. I don't think I knew what fear was back then, though. Today, the attack is broader. The attack is on the ideals that this country is founded on, on freedom and equality and brotherhood. I don't know how to sort out these senseless murders. I don't know how to keep going on like nothing has happened.
I moved to Paris because I loved the way life is lived over here. Paris is my city, the place I feel most alive. My heart swells when I walk its streets, ride its buses, run in its parks. I don't have the words to describe how much I love this place - all my attempts are here on this blog, years' worth of entries all trying to find the right way to write my love letter to this city. My relationship with Paris is so personal, so intimate. I have learned so much about myself over the years I've spent here, I've fallen in love and healed broken hearts, I've made new friends and welcomed old ones. Today, though, all I can feel is the city's grief, as real as though it were a close friend's. I can see around every corner, in the face of every passer-by, I can see that I'm not the only one mourning the loss of something.
When I left my apartment on Friday morning, the world was in order. I was happy and free, looking forward to my carefree weekend. Over one hundred people were looking forward to their weekends, too. They didn't get to see the end of theirs.
When I came home last night, everything had shifted. I opened the door, smelled the lilies, but saw they had drooped over the weekend. My belongings hadn't moved, nothing concrete had happened to me personally, my friends are all safe, but something had shifted. I think the only thing to do now is try to get my feet back on the shifted ground. Try to love, and to laugh, try to live. I just don't think it's going to be very easy, for a long time. I'm thankful to have wonderful people in my life, but this is my own mourning. This is my own grief, that I have to carry myself. I have to work through what this attack has meant to me, and I have to see how I can begin to rebuild the tiny corner of my universe that has crumbled. I am so happy to be alive, I feel so lucky that I will see my friends again, I'll fall in love again, I'll live to see another Friday night. I can't forget how many people won't, though.

I'm sure that one day, things will seem normal again. Today, though, is not that day.   xx

/ edit: I picked up some roses on my way home and stopped by the Place de la République to pay my respects. The mood was heavy but the candles and flowers and pictures were beautiful. The crowd started singing the national anthem at one point... a song that's usually so triumphant and joyful, this rendition sounded so disheartened and downtrodden. Click here for video.