looking back: paris

March 14, 2014

SONY DSCAfter my longest hiatus yet from the blog, a post.

Don’t be fooled: reverse culture shock has quite possibly been a greater transition/difficulty for me than moving to Moscow. Though I’m finally coming out of it, understanding holistically why moving back was so difficult (and not just pinpointing elements of a larger difficulty) is still foggy, not yet something I’m ready to write about.

Words to describe the last six months: transition. growth. stagnancy. mourning. joy. thankfulness.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Reflection comes naturally for me, and I’m often painfully aware of time and its passing. Every day for the last six months, I’ve asked myself “Where was I last year at this time?” The answers are: The opera. An expat Thanksgiving feast. The outdoor swimming pool. My parents’ basement Christmas night, terrified of my January return. My school, surrounded by Russian English teachers. A cafe with Sveta. The metro with Sveta. Everywhere with Sveta. Moscow. Russia. SONY DSC

Not here.

I think about what the weather is like, what it smells like outside of my apartment building, how to get to my metro station. I think about what we ate for lunch, what kind of tea Sveta and I finally decided on, paths through the forest, my favorite type of cheese, what the people wore on the metro. I try to remember faces places sounds. Sometimes, I can’t. I search my email inbox, hoping I wrote someone the details.

SONY DSCI’ve dreaded the end of February and first half of March all winter, because when I ask “Where was I last year at this time?” the answer is, in short, “low.” Or better yet, “the lowest.”

One year ago, I suspected that something was wrong because everything was hard. I blamed Moscow. I drank coffee and took Vitamin D. I surrounded myself with people, both in real life and over Skype. I both feared and coveted time alone. Then I went to Paris–my first trip to Europe–and confirmed what I feared.

I didn’t enjoy Paris. This not only made me feel ungrateful, but it freaked me out.For the first time in my life, I couldn’t pull myself out of it; changing location and busying myself didn’t change anything. SONY DSC

Of course, I liked it: I stood in awe, took photos and savored the food. I saw everything. In fact, I saw more things than I saw in any of the other places I visited, likely an attempt to distract myself, to keep moving. I was, however, incredibly aware of being unhappy and of being there alone. I appear in few photos, but now, I avoid looking at the ones I do because it’s clear that I’m trying to like it.

I became enamored with Notre Dame, visiting every day of my weekend trip, usually at night, ignoring the crowds because it felt like mine. I didn’t feel happy there, but comfortable, calm. I took photos from every angle. On my last night, I chose a cafe across the street from it, requested a window booth, and ate creme brulee facing it.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

There were other good things. A friend from my school in Moscow set me up in an apartment with her friends. I slept on a couch in the playroom and each morning, I was awakened by three kids playing dress up in French. After I showered, the oldest would bring me a croissant and orange juice on a tray, smile because we couldn’t talk, and then exit shyly.

My friend also put me in contact with her friend’s mother, a woman in her sixties named Christine. Christine wore her blonde hair in a high bun, a white coat with fur around the collar, boots with heels, and make up. Christine was beautiful, mostly because she smiled constantly, so content that she bounced when she walked. She smiled sometimes because she couldn’t understand me, sometimes so the parking garage attendants would let her park her small black car in a spot it barely fit, but normally, it seemed like it was because she was happy and thankful. SONY DSC

I don’t remember what Christine did for work. I don’t remember what we talked about. But I do remember that I felt able to talk to her in a way I couldn’t others. I remember that she took me to the spot with the most beautiful view I saw in all of Paris. And that there, we had a hot chocolate unlike anything I’ve had before.

SONY DSC

 And so I’ve dreaded February/March,  worrying that those feelings would return. That whatever it was in Moscow, whatever it was about the middle of winter, would become a yearly thing, would become a statement I’d make when talking to strangers at parties with no explanation: “I just can’t do February/March.”

But it didn’t. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s nothing like last year. Instead, the opposite: an inexplicable, overwhelming sense of thankfulness and joy. Not thankfulness that I’m not in Moscow anymore, as that experience is the best decision I’ve ever made (at this point in my life anyway). Not that winter is over. But that I made it through that part of Moscow. And that Moscow got so much better. And that eventually, this transition back to the US will also be “a year ago.” And coupled with that, an overwhelming sense of awe that my perspective has changed so drastically in one year. I can only imagine the place I was a year ago because I’ve been there, not because I’m there anymore.

There is one Paris photo where I’m not faking it. Christine took it from her car when she drove me to the Arc de Triomphe and instructed me to run out into the center of the crosswalk to take the best photo. She showed it to me before dropping me off at the Louvre.”I love photos in motion,” she said. “And look at you in Paris. You look perfect.”

IMG_1885