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.


On Right Now

Posted on Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The weather today in Paris was so temperamental. One minute it was sunny, with blue skies and wispy clouds and the sun warming the sidewalks. The next, the sky filled with clouds and heavy drops fell almost sideways, wetting the optimistic sidewalk sitters and sending dark umbrellas up at the métro exit.

I missed most of it, though. From my desk on the fourth floor of our office building, I watched the sky change back, and forth, and back and forth again, agreeing with my coworkers who commented on the weather - CE-n'est-PAS-pos-SIB-le, they'd mutter, looking at the stormy weather gathering outside where the sun had shone just a few minutes before. Speeding through the countryside this morning on the train that takes me to work, I let my book close, shifting its bookmark into place as I closed my eyes. For someone that's been in bed before ten p.m. every night before work, I'm sure getting my fair share of train naps in.

My new routine has been a big change, since it means being out the door at 7:45 a.m. and not 9:30 as before, spending at least an hour on the train, and then coming back into Paris right as the commuter crush reaches its unbearable peak at Saint-Lazare train station. Rather than fighting the masses trying to squeeze into the ever-putrid-smelling-and-hot-and-overcrowded line 13 for the last four stops of my commute, I get out and find a bike at the end of my old street, and ride up the hill to my new neighborhood.

It may not be central, but as I turn off the rue de Rome to ride through Les Batignolles, I couldn't love my new spot more. Far from the business of more central locations, my new neighborhood hums in a completely different way. Families fill the sidewalks, well-dressed children aptly zooming along on their little scooters, dodging dogs and runners on the tiny path. As I bike across, east, towards my street, I admire the storefronts and little resto-bars, which - for better, or for worse - don't look so far removed from many storefronts I saw near my sister's place in Brooklyn in August.

It feels like my own little pocket of Paris; a quartier that bustles with its own energy, where the residents patiently line up for their end-of-day baguette, and where I, now, happily join the queue. I had very few qualms about living alone, and luckily none of them have been realized. Baguette tucked under my arm (but only if it's Friday, or if I've had a particularly rotten day, or if I happen to catch a whiff of freshly-baked loaves coming from the oven...) I climb the turning stairwell to my fourth floor studio. Even when the weather is grey outside, the little apartment always seems cheerful. Since the last time we spoke, the place has really come along.

The Ikea bed was delivered upon my return from the States, only for me to discover it was missing an essential (and non-included, of course) part. After some quick Googling I headed off to an Ikea shuttle, a free service that would drop me at Ikea's front door (well, almost) and bring me back to Paris once I was finished. Determined not to fail, I bought a mini power drill for good measure, some white curtains, and the bed slats, and climbed back into the bus. Several hours later, plus some extremely sore fingers, some very bent-out-of-shape screws, a trip to the local hardware store where I was laughed at by the employee, and a well broken-in power drill... I had a bed. I can't tell you what a difference it makes to have an actual real big-girl bed to sleep in at night.

There have been a few other hiccups along my route to Domestic Bliss As A Wonderful And Independent 25 Year Old Woman. There was the night I closed the door behind me, leaving not just one but both sets of keys inside the apartment, and the next day when I cried in the stairwell as a good friend helped me pick the lock. Also the time an hour after that when the key stopped working altogether, thanks to my failed attempts to pick it with a nail file which had altered the interior of the lock. There was the time that the shower, unbeknownst to me, sprayed more water on the opposite wall than it did on me, leaving an inch-deep pool all along the bathroom floor. The time the hot water tank leaked all over the bathroom floor and needed to be replaced. The time the smoke alarm went off (that's a lot of times, because how are you supposed to cook anything delicious without setting off the smoke alarm??).

But then, there are the other times. There's the leek and potato soup that I made on Sunday night, and have been enjoying every night since. There's the little dustpan and brush tucked away in the bathroom, that I actually use and feel accomplished when I look back over the clean(er) parquet. There's the little pot of kitchen tools, always overflowing, every single one of them used, and the apron that I tie on because I firmly believe that aprons are the BEST. Best of all, there are the mornings. I wake up, the light coming through my new curtains, and I look around this space, and I feel so happy to call it my own.

It feels like an exciting time for me, and though I feel like I say that a lot, I mean it this time. Though it's new, I really do love my job so far. It's exactly what I want to do, and my coworkers are lovely. The hours between nine and five speed by, which is a welcome change from the dragging that I've experienced at other jobs. My apartment is the best. I fall asleep at night (at an absurdly early time) feeling happy and relaxed, excited to wake up and make myself coffee and oatmeal, content to be getting to know the ins and outs of this new space.

I've got lots of things I want to work on in the upcoming year. Personal things, professional things, all sorts of things. One of them, that I feel that I can share with you here, is trying to feel content with the right now. Maybe you've noticed from reading this blog, but I often find myself pulled between nostalgia and anticipation. Feeling sad or wistful or even happy thinking about the past, or else feeling excited or nervous or anxious about the future. What about the in between? Lots of things are in motion this year, but I think that maybe by staying still and letting myself enjoy Right Now, everything might just fall into place. I'll cross my fingers, at least. xx


On Home, and having to leave it.

Posted on Friday, July 24, 2015

Home is such a hard thing to pin down, don’t you think? It seems that the way we think about it changes, as we get older, as we travel. When we're little, Home is just... Home. But the more experiences we gather, the more people we meet and the more parts of ourselves we scatter around, the more attached we get to things beyond our childhood... It gets tricky to define Home.

For the past two years, Home was on the second floor of a Haussmannian building in the eighth arrondissement, in a big room with a Juliette balcony and heavy red curtains, a mantelpiece and a defunct fireplace, a gilded mirror and ceiling moldings. When I found the room on Craigslist (which is nowhere near as popular in France as it is in the States), I thought I must've hit the jackpot. For a good price, I had a beautiful bedroom, a salon with a balcony big enough for the table and chairs that took up half the space in my first Parisian home, a blue kitchen with a red tiled floor and a full-sized fridge, a bathroom with a bathtub and, inexplicably, a functioning disco-ball hanging over the toilet. (Yes, I regret not taking a photo. Yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.)

For 21 months, I loved that apartment. I loved almost everything about it. The musty smell of the red-carpeted stairwell, the quirky gardienne that loved to spray water all over the entryway and never be present when packages were delivered. I loved the velvet-upholstered chairs surrounding the grand table in the salon, I loved how strange it was to live in a place with furniture older than the United States of America. I loved my four-poster bed, which I'd never have picked out for myself but grew to adore nonetheless. I even loved cleaning my room, wiping down marble countertops that must have held such wonderful things for so many people, vacuuming the parquet and imagining all the characters that had walked those floors through the years.

In the winter, I woke up before the sun came up and through the cold dark night-morning ran to the Tuileries. I warmed my towels on creaky radiators and kept my heavy red drapes drawn tight, and at the end of the short days I cooked meals that steamed the windows of the little kitchen and then wrapped myself in blankets and thought, happily, how cosy it was to be there. In the summer, I woke to the sun beating on my balcony windows and flung them wide, letting the light stretch to the tippy-top of the molded ceiling. I shared cocktails with friends on the balcony, went across the street for one more beer because the security guard kept Hoegaarden in the fridge just for me, and then watched the street’s familiar inhabitants bustle about until after the sun went down well past ten o'clock.

Some of my favorite memories took place in that apartment. There were late nights spent doing homework at the heavy cherrywood table, cuppa after cuppa of Barry’s Tea carried carefully back from Dublin. There were naps on the world’s most uncomfortable couch, sleepless nights where the arguing neighbors kept me awake and gray mornings where the ever-present trash collection echoed into my bedroom. Coming home after my half-marathon and collapsing into bed, staying up all night talking and talking and talking and talking across pillows, having champagne and chocolate and costumes for my 25th birthday with some of the most wonderful friends, dancing until the sun rose over the city. There were hard mornings-after, picking cigarette butts from every crevice of the salon and wiping red wine from the walls (really...) while sizzling bacon from Marks and Spencer promised a second attempt at life. There were nights when I cried myself to sleep, nights when I laughed so hard it hurt, nights where I felt very alone and others when I woke up next to visitors that I love.

So much life happened in that space.

But life, as it often does, surprised me.

Unexpectedly, I found myself on the hunt for a new apartment at the beginning of June. I spent weeks visiting around Paris, peeking into dingy dark studios with exorbitant price tags, falling in love with beautiful possibilities only to be disappointed, meeting with potential roommates and making uncomfortable smalltalk, sending e-mails to strangers trying to convince them I was real and good and The One. Like in most major cities, I imagine, the Paris apartment hunt is an absolute nightmare. The market moves faster than you can send e-mails, apartments disappear before you've set foot inside them.

I packed my room into suitcases and bags, boxes and totes and anything that could hold anything, I peeled my photos from the walls, and I waited. And then, after weeks of searching, after many tears and lots of unsavory language and maybe even a prayer or two, I finally found it. On a sticky hot day earlier this month, I signed the lease on a bright little fourth-floor studio tucked into a corner of the seventeenth arrondissement. There is no balcony, there is no salon, and there is certainly no disco ball in the bathroom, but there are twenty-two square meters of my own space.

The light here comes in easily and all day long; it wakes me in the morning through gauzy curtains and welcomes me warmly when I come home from work. At the moment, there’s an uncomfortable air mattress and not much else for furniture, but this place already feels good. Tonight I bought a demie baguette from the bakery on the corner, gathered dinner ingredients at the local supermarket, unceremoniously pried open a bottle of Bordeaux with a pair of scissors, and have spent the evening getting to know my new apartment. The street noises are unfamiliar, but I’ll learn to recognize them, to know them. The street’s characters are still strangers, and the security guard at the supermarket doesn’t recognize me. I haven’t memorized the creaks in the floorboards and I haven’t quite worked out how the shower works without leaving water on the floor. But then, chaque chose dans son temps. I'll learn to know this place.

I’ll miss my old apartment and my old life there – I miss it already. Leaving Home, though something I’ve had a fair amount of practice at, doesn’t get easier. Leaving behind the familiar corners of a space, the places where your story was told, doesn’t get easier. It feels like leaving a  tiny piece of yourself behind.

And yet, I can already feel that this place will be Home, I can already tell that it promises good things. It’s in the familiar photos now plastered on the back of my front door, it’s in the feeling I get making myself dinner while I sing along to my favorite song. It’s in the excitement I feel about welcoming new friends here, a certainty that these four walls will hold so many important moments in the future. I can’t wait to see what they’ll be. xx


On New Places

Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015

For as long as I can remember, we've been a family of travelers. My parents left Dublin for Johannesburg when they were first married, and then traveled to England, back to Dublin, and ultimately to the States. Their itchy feet must have been genetic, because my sisters and I haven't stopped moving since we've been old enough to travel alone. My older sister, upon graduating from Villanova in 2009, packed up for KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, where she lived as an Augustinian volunteer for a year (you can still read the blog she kept back then and see some of her photos by clicking here). My family was pretty nonplussed when I, in turn, decided to pack up for France in 2012. My younger sister took off to India for six weeks last year, where she rode elephants and ate curry for breakfast, among other more academic things. Until recently, the most foreign and far-away place I'd seen was South Africa. Visiting Sinéad a few years ago, I found myself 8,000 miles away from home. Funnily, though, being so quantitatively far away from familiarity didn't feel unnerving. I was with my family, visiting my sister in the home she'd already lived in for a few months. Things didn't feel as completely foreign as you might have expected.

A few weeks ago, though, I took another trip. Though the flights weren't particularly long, twice during my weeklong trip I felt as though I'd fallen through the looking glass.

I've wanted to visit Dubai for a long time. Since seeing some photos on the Internet years ago, through StumbleUpon or some other time-wasting website, my imagination was captured by this strange and shiny city. I was taken by the idea of it, a city appearing in the desert essentially overnight and rising to a cosmopolitan world center faster than anyone might have expected. Luckily for me, my aunt and uncle have lived in Dubai for the past five years and so I was able to go and stay with them and their little ray of sunshine, my cousin Meron.

I landed in Dubai groggy after missing a night of sleep, but when I walked out of the arrivals gate and saw a little person tottering towards me with her arms stretched out shouting NIAMH NIAMH NIAMH NIAMH, I quickly forgot my tiredness. We rode home to my aunt's house through skyscrapers and sand dunes, cranes as far as the eye could see and the tops of buildings piercing the clouds on all sides. As we zoomed along the five-lane highway, we listened to the radio where the DJ spoke with an accent somewhere between British and American. The radio played more announcements for parties at Dubai's hottest clubs than songs, leaving no question about the listeners' priorities. In the car we passed familiar sights on both sides - a Subway sandwich shop, a Chilli's, Starbucks, Pier 1 Imports... Names that I've been familiar with for years on both sides of the Atlantic crowding the sides of this Dubai highway. Billboards bearing Sheikh Mohammed's image decorated the side of the highway. We drove past the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, and as I struggled to find the top from the passenger seat of the car, I remembered thinking to myself (not for the last time on my trip) what a strange place I'd found myself in.

My five days in Dubai were fantastic. Every morning, I'd hear Meron shouting my name long before I felt like getting out of bed... But when a two year old with a just-slept-on afro comes jumping in your bed, gleeful and bright-eyed and ready for another day together, you forget your tiredness and enjoy it. We had a pool day, where skyscrapers sprung up from the horizon line at the edge of the infinity pool, and where we ate a mezze platter as the temperature crept closer to forty degrees. We ate at Shake Shack (which they should have called Sheikh Shack, according to my mother) and I stuck my toes in the water of the Persian Gulf. Time after time, Meron would demand "RUN!" and I'd run a few paces ahead before turning around so she could run towards me and be caught and thrown into the air. At night time, we'd sit in the garden, as Meron rode her Minnie Mouse car in circles and we drank wine and ate barbecue and listened to the distant strains of the Call to Prayer drifting towards us over the desert.

At the Mall of Dubai, we watched musical fountains light up and shoot into the air while Celine Dion and Whitney Houston played... and though I initially thought it was pretty lame I changed my mind fast when I saw how big Meron's eyes lit up at the sight it. Cynicism is hard to stick to when you're holding a two year old who exclaims WOOOOOW!!! at every new color or new sound, and applauds her sticky hands enthusiastically at the end. We drove out to the palm frond of Dubai, the man-made island that is host to the Atlantis resort most notably, and I marveled inwardly that the ground we stood on was put there by humans - and wondered why.

On my last night, after a lovely day spent eating Singaporean crab and face-painting (for Meron) and beer (for me), my aunt and I went out to a bar near the Burj Al Arab, the "seven star" hotel shaped like a sail on the coast. We sipped fancy cocktails and took in the impressive view, and as the sun went down the lights of the Dubai skyline began to twinkle. Though I'm not sure that I could ever live in Dubai, or more importantly that I'd ever want to, looking out at the architecture and the beaches and the yachts docked in the harbor, I had to admit that it was a pretty dazzling place. It's somewhere that's really hard to describe, somewhere that I'm still trying to digest, somewhere that I haven't quite decided about yet. For all its wonder, for all the nights spent with our toes in the sand under big city lights, there's something so superficial about the whole thing that it's difficult to take it seriously - at least, this is my not-fully-formed opinion.

What I do know is that I feel extremely fortunate to have seen it, and to have spent time with my family there while I still can. It's a million worlds away, but luckily it's closer to me on this side of the world than it would have been from the east coast. I'm grateful to have spent time with Meron, too, as she's at the most delicious age and is a joy to spend time with. I can't wait til the next time I see her.

From Dubai, I traveled (after a four hour delay) to Istanbul. Istanbul, too, has long been on my list of places to visit, and it seemed the opportune time since it's halfway between Paris and Dubai. Landing over the city, my breath caught in my throat at its magnificence. A huge metropolis (15 million inhabitants!??!), it sprawls over an extraordinary area. From the plane I saw the minarets of its many mosques reaching skywards, a sight I'm completely unfamiliar with. The exoticism struck me, even from the air above the city.

I spent my four days in a lovely hostel tucked away on a quiet street near the main sights. I walked and walked and walked, attempting to get some sense of direction (...haha). I ate dinner alone at a restaurant on the Bosphorus, happy to enjoy my food but half-wishing I had someone to talk about it with too. The kind waiter gave me free baklava for dessert, though I'm not sure I was quite as pitiful as he thought! I certainly didn't feel it. Another day, I finally understood the hype around Turkish coffee, as I tasted my first cup in a café in the Bazaar's center. When the over-eager waiter whisked away my cup before I was finished, he apologetically returned with a fresh cup and four more pieces of Turkish Delight. Though I definitely did do a lot of eating, I managed to tear myself away from the table long enough to see the sights, too. Over the days I spent in Istanbul I saw the Hagia Sofia, the cathedral turned mosque dedicated in 360 by the Emperor Constantius. I went into a mosque for the first time, embracing the unfamiliarity of it while letting my jaw drop in awe of the beauty. Sandals in hand and from beneath a headscarf, I craned my neck upwards trying to take in every part of the beauty, trying to capture it in my mind to remember for years and years.

Istanbul is, without question, the best city that I've visited. I've had the good fortune to see many European capitals, small towns, villages, countrysides... But for me, Istanbul is top of the list. The place is dripping with history, every cobblestone feels soaked in stories that stretch back farther than I can fathom. Paris is old, too, and history feels present over here for sure - but having been in Istanbul, Paris feels significantly younger. I don't have the words to try to describe what it feels like over there, or rather what it felt like for me. The air itself felt colorful. As the call to prayer sounded five times daily over the city (about three hundred times louder than it did in Dubai, which probably says something though I'm not sure what...) I watched wide-eyed as men and women scrambled towards the nearest mosque. I saw men washing their feet, their hands, in fountains dedicated to these ablutions. The reverence that permeated these actions, the respect with which the people that I saw viewed each other and, presumably, their religion, was remarkable. One night I went to a whirling dervish ceremony (to learn more about this mystic sect of Islam, click here), and was thrilled by the foreignness of it all. In my conservative Gap t-shirts, I was often the most scantily-clad woman on the streets. It was a truly bizarre experience in many ways, but having spent so much time in countries where I am the majority, I found my differentness exhilarating.

One of the most noticeable things about my time in Istanbul was the friendliness of its people. On my short trip from the airplane to my hostel, which involved a metro ride, a tram ride, and a very short walk, I was helped by no fewer than five strangers. I asked no one for help, I didn't particularly want help, but at every turn when I looked a bit lost, a friendly Turk swept in and helped me  - sometimes, without a word of English. Standing on the tram, an announcement sounded in Turkish and everyone climbed out. A man that I hadn't noticed before touched my arm, and explained in (very) broken English that there was a problem with our tram, and that we had to change. I was awestruck that he had obviously noticed I was a tourist, assumed I had no idea what was going on, and kindly explained. My years of helping lost tourists find Notre Dame and the like have finally paid off, I guess. When I explored the twisting paths of the Grand Bazaar, admiring the luxurious carpets and the silk and cashmere and cotton, the hand-painted ceramics and blown glass, the vendors were undeterrable. I fast discovered, though, that the best method was to be friendly. I cast off my adopted Parisian attitude (read: rudeness), and returned their smiles and chatted with them when they were eager to practice their English. I talked with a man who had lived in Texas for three months, helping his uncle who ran a carpet shop in Houston. I was surprised to find that, contrary to what my assumptions were, they were for the most part perfectly friendly and were genuinely interested in my story.

Many people that I talked with over my few days were surprised I was traveling alone, not quite understanding the concept or maybe just not keen to give it a try. Walking through a busy square one day, a man fell in step beside me and struck up conversation. Though I felt vaguely uneasy, he explained he owned a small hotel around the corner and liked to stretch his legs during his lunch break. He walked with me for five minutes, wanting nothing but to chat about my travels. At the end of the square we were crossing he shook my hand and thanked me for my time, and headed back towards his hotel. I smiled to myself. Sometimes, it's nice to remember that people are just people.

One day I took a two-hour cruise down the Bosphorus Strait. As I sat, feeling nerdy but so happy with my 10 lira audio tour, we glided beneath a bridge connecting Asia and Europe. It was immense, and beautiful, and I felt a feeling of smallness that one only gets during moments of real wonder and awe. The following day, taking a ferry over to the Asian side, I thought for the thousandth time how incredible a place it was, really, and how grateful I was to be seeing it all first-hand. I knew on my last day that I'd be back, someday.

In short, because I'm trying not to ramble on too much (and maybe failing...), it was probably the best trip I've ever taken. From the splendor and flashiness of Dubai to the warm exoticism of Istanbul with its good-natured residents, it was a week that I know I'll treasure. To see places that are so extraordinarily different from Europe, from the United States, yet to find moments of familiarity among the difference, is something that I'm still mulling over. It takes a while to digest really good experiences, don't you think? To decide what to take away from it all?

For now, it's Saturday evening in Paris and I'm feeling excited about so many things this summer. One of my closest friends is back in the city for the next year, and she's on her way over to catch up over some bubbly. The schoolyear is essentially over, after I stop procrastinating and hand in my last few projects and sit some exams.
This summer's going to be a really good one, I think, and I'm excited to see what it will hold. If anyone is still reading - thank you! Now, go and book a ticket to Istanbul. I've got some bubbly to pour. xx


On Indecision and Decision

Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This past week, we've been having a little heat wave. Paris isn't always very hot during the summer; last summer in particular I remember feeling underwhelmed by the few sticky days that we did have. This week, though, has felt like beautiful July weather all week long. Not too hot, not too humid, a little breeze floating over the Seine and through our windows. This week has been wonderful, and not only because of the weather.
Let's go back many weeks, to January or maybe to February, when everything was dark and gray and cold. Cold outside, cold inside, gray and unexciting all over and utterly blah. Me, Paris, everything, everyone. A few months ago, in the time between this post and the last, things were really and truly Not Happening. Nothing was going on, nothing was evolving, moving, changing. I felt very stuck and very frustrated. I had ideas for big plans that moved in one direction, towards New York, I had ideas for big plans that centered around Paris, I had lots and lots of ideas for big plans in many places, yet the realization of these hinged on several things completely and hopelessly out of my control. And so, I floated. I watched too much Netflix. I stopped running as much as I used to. I didn't do my homework, because what if it didn't matter? I didn't see friends often, because I might not see them again after a certain date. I didn't cook anything exciting, because it didn't really excite me anymore. I existed for long stretches of weeks just waiting and waiting and waiting, waiting to see where I'd go and who I'd be with and what I'd do.

I pushed my frustrations aside and continued to wait during the day, remaining unfazed and collected when people asked about my future plans, all the while lying awake for hours at night for weeks at a time through the end of March. I thought about "What if...?" and followed it up quickly by "Yeah, except, what IF...". Sleepless in my Haussmanian-apartment-with-a-view-of-the-Arc-de-Triomphe, I imagined myself in a Brooklyn-apartment-surrounded-by-family-and-friends-and-bagels, and my heart ached with longing in both directions so hard I thought I'd never feel fully satisfied no matter what happened.

All of this, on repeat, until one day last week, when I was riding my bike home from school. It was a Tuesday, after five, and so my classmates and I had assumed that the long-awaited admissions decisions for the second year of our masters program would be delivered the following day, the last day of the deadline. I stopped at a red light, and glanced down at my phone, and I saw. I saw for a minute, before I burst into tears, and peals of laughter, and fat and happy tears. I'd been accepted, I'd gotten the OK, I was good enough. Pulling aside to the sidewalk, and alarming several tourists who were unsure what to make of the crying laughing sweating person that I'd become in a ten second period, I called my family and shared the news. After weeks of standing at a fork in the road, I finally knew which way to turn.

And so here I am, looking down the barrel of 18 more months in la ville lumière. If I said my decision came without twinges of almost-regret, I'd be lying. I'd been so convinced deep down that I wouldn't be accepted next year, that I'd really and truly begun to imagine the life I'd create once back at home this summer, and for that possibility to be gone so quickly was, in honesty, a bit hard to swallow. A tiny part of me somewhere near my heart was disappointed to be accepted, disappointed to be handed this wonderful opportunity, because it meant that it must be taken and that the Return Date is pushed ever further away.

Today, though, things that had been falling into place over the past week under blue sunny skies finally settled down for good. I'm finding my rhythm again; spending time running in the parks in the morning, trying new recipes in the evening, using my time productively in between (well, mostly...). This afternoon, I found myself with a couple of free hours (read: hours I had set aside to do homework but then it was 80º and sunny outside) and so I hopped on a bike and headed to the left bank. I wandered down the rue Cler, where the smell of the rôtisseries and the fromagers and the boulangeries mix together to create the most insanely mouth-watering combination of scents that you can imagine. I bought ice cream and ate it while I tried not to trip over the cobblestones. I re-directed some hopelessly lost Americans, before heading to the Eiffel Tower hoping to find a bench to people-watch in the sun.
Instead, I fell asleep on the lawn for a few minutes, among the tourists and the locals and the men selling beerchampagnebeerchampagne (note: it's not actually champagne), and woke up more freckled than before. On my way home, I bought warm baguette from a neighborhood bakery where all the other customers said "See you tomorrow!" to the baker behind the counter. I stopped into a fancier-than-expected cheese shop and bought some extortionately priced (but worth it) comté. As I rode home in the golden end-of-day light through the commuters and the picnickers, past bustling café terrasses and over the sparkling river, my heart felt so full. After so many months of trying so hard to feel nothing, of feeling uninspired by the place I was in and after so much "grass is always greener"-ing, I just felt so content with the few hours that I spent soaking up Paris. It felt like (cliché warning!) making up with an old friend after a months-long falling out. Stopped on my bike at a red light crossing the Champs-Elysées, I took this nerdy picture to remind myself of how good this afternoon felt - I hope that next time things feel empty and unsure and terrifying, then maybe I'll be able to remember this afternoon and remember how quickly things can feel better. Onwards and upwards from here! xx


on Broken Mugs, and on Drying Tears

Posted on Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Today has been one of those days, and it's only ten o'clock.

This morning, like every morning this week and last, I pulled myself out of bed early to study. In the midst of exams, and thanks to my inability to do work at nighttime, the mornings have been mine. Productive, quiet, in solitude but not feeling too alone. My morning doing work has been the same for years, since I first discovered I was a morning person years ago. I take my time waking up, but when I do I make tea or coffee and pour it into a mug, bringing it into the living room to start the day.

The mug is a great one; big enough to hold the whole contents of my Moka cafetière, big enough to keep the heat in for ages. Its sides are not too thin, not too thick. It's really the perfect mug. Or, rather, it was. Because this morning, after having finished my coffee and wanting a break from studying, I walked to the kitchen in my pink bathrobe (to tell the truth I also had a pink blanket wrapped around me like a beautiful maxi-skirt, for a bit of extra morning glamour). I turned on the light, crossed the doorway, and promptly let the sleeve of my robe get stuck on the handle, somehow jerking my empty mug from my hand and projecting it onto the hard tile floor. The rational response probably would have been to sop up the dregs of coffee that were now on the floor, carefully sweep the shards away, and continue with my studying. Instead, I burst into big fat tears, covering my eyes so that I wouldn't have to see my very favorite mug of all time, no more. Ugly tears, loud tears, echoing down the long hallway of the empty apartment.

I know, I know. It's so stupid. I felt stupid at the time, I feel stupid now, I will feel stupid later. But let me explain a bit more, maybe you'll judge me a tiny bit less.

My town got a Starbucks years ago. It replaced a family-run pharmacy which was a bit of a sore spot for a while, until we all forgot Hyatt's and happily let our caffeine-riddled brains take us to Starbucks. It became THE place to be, the weekend activity for the junior high crowd was "GOING TO STARBUCKS(!!!)". During the week, it was the place to covertly meet my high school boyfriend after we both got out of school. Both in our uniforms, we sat on the comfy velvety armchairs in the window and hoped our parents wouldn't drive by and spot our cars, as we'd both invented other places that we supposedly were. On weekends, it was a spot to meet friends to "do homework"; to ignore physics equations and skim the pages of Grendel over sugary lattes and, later, in moments of pre-prom cliché, skinny lattes. The smell of that place stayed on your clothes, it still does.

When I moved to Villanova, I bought a mug in that little Starbucks, a white mug with tall sides and a green logo on the front. I didn't know why, at the time. I don't particularly love the coffee at Starbucks. Something about that mug, though, appealed to me, and I suddenly felt frantic to have a memory of the little spot on the corner on Yardley's main street.

My first semester, I used it all the time. For microwaved tea, using teabags my family had brought back from Ireland. For instant coffee, for Vladimir vodka, for Brita-filtered water the next morning, for ramen noodles. Then, I broke it. It shattered on the floor of Stanford Hall, room 523, during the second semester of my freshman year. I felt a twinge in my heart, almost a tear in my eye, but quickly recovered and bought a new one.

The new mug was the same. Exactly the same. Same sides, same perfectly sized handle, same same same. I used it sophomore year in the quad, bringing it to the dining hall next door sometimes just because.  Junior year, I used it as I worked in the quiet mornings in our Moulden apartment, coffee from our very fancy Keurig-type machine or from the cafetière that later would explode and make a mess all over that little kitchen. I used it senior year, on the back porch of the Crack Spot on warm mornings, at the table in the weird in-between room doing homework, in my bedroom with tea stolen from the on-campus dining hall. It spilled on the carpet, it spilled on my desk, it spilled on the extremely discounted tablecloth covering our little round table. 

I brought it home after college and stocked it carefully in our kitchen cabinet, much to my parents' chagrin. My dad called it a "bucket", and it's true that it towered over our other little mugs; the Ireland world cup commemorative mug, my mum's always-reliable Hot Babe mug by Jamie Oliver, the slim faux porcelain mugs with cheesy pictures of Michelangelo's David that Dad bought in a dollar store somewhere and always insists on using, my big sister's Milkboy Bryn Mawr mug, and my little sister's inexplicable favorite: a garish Paris souvenir shop mug. When I moved to France at the end of that summer, I knew I'd be taking that mug with me. And so I did, carefully wrapping it in a scarf in my big red suitcase, the last item to go in and one of the first to come out.

Four years after buying it at the Yardley Starbucks, on a quiet street in the 7th arondissement of Paris, I unpacked my mug. My first apartment was tiny, only 105 square feet, and the mug was so out of place. In the cabinets were little espresso cups and small empty Nutella jars used as glasses, but I didn't care. If the mug was grossly "American" in comparison, that was okay with me. The first night alone in that tiny little apartment, in this country all by myself, I had a cup of Irish tea from the mug and felt a little comfort of the other homes I'd known, in my new one. When I moved, a year later, to my new and oh-so-improved apartment, I stuffed the mug in a big sock, throwing it in a box on top of some books and carefully loading it into the backseat of a friend's SmartCar, which would be driving me and all my possessions to my new chez moi.

Here, it fit into the cabinet among ash trays and tea bowls from Normandie with names printed on the front, ludicrously looming over every other item that my French roommate and her family had carefully stocked. She thought it was funny, had never seen a mug that looked just like a Starbucks cup. I'd kind of forgotten that that was its design, and thought for the first time that it was a bit of a weird thing to own, not being a fanatic of the café.

When I took up running last year, the mug became part of that ritual, too. I'd go out in the morning for my run, and come back to set my Moka on the stovetop while I hopped in the shower. Five minutes later, out of the too-short shower (anything for a longer lie-in!), I padded into the kitchen leaving watery footprints behind me. I poured the milk in first, then the coffee, then took the mug with me to my room as I got dressed. It would often sit on my desk, the last quarter of the coffee unfinished and cold, as I worked all day, staining the sides with rings that never quite came off. At night, I'd make chai tea from Marks and Spencer with soy milk and honey, glad that I was able to have an EXTRA big cup in my mug.

Which brings us to here, to today, to the last day in the last routine that my mug was part of. All throughout this new masters program, during moments of teary frustration or joyful victory, I've been sipping coffee from this mug. Until today.

Today, there are a lot of far more important and earth-shaking things to cry about. The mood here in France is so heavy, I'm frightened walking home alone in a way I've never felt before. Bags are checked at the entrance to every building at my university, and even in some shops. Police officers with AK-47s stand guard outside synagogues. Every siren fills my stomach with dread, and if a lone siren is followed by others, the dread multiplies each time. This is a feeling I can tell is shared, by the tense looks exchanged as the wailing grows louder.

The times are grim and the future feels extremely uncertain. Abroad, there are losses of life much larger than the Charlie Hebdo massacre seven days ago, without doubt. Somehow, though, this attack has left France feeling shaken in a way that I could never have predicted. Charlie Hebdo is just so French. It captures the heart of so much of French culture, of French life, of the French psychology. Perhaps that is why it feels so extremely personal, so hard to swallow, so senseless.

This morning, at half past six, before starting my work I slipped out into the dark street and headed to the end of it, to the newspaper kiosk to buy a copy or two of Charlie Hebdo. When I arrived, I heard the vendor telling the few people in front of me that it was sold out, that we shouldn't bother looking, it was sold out everywhere. "He must be mistaken," I thought. The newspaper printed fifty times its usual number, three million copies in France... Surely, before 7am on a sleepy Wednesday, I'd find a copy. I tried another kiosk, and was told the same thing. People everywhere were being turned away, being told they were too late, that the copies were long gone. It's staggering to think that hundreds of thousands of copies (not all three million were on sale today, they'll be distributed all week) were grabbed up before most people were awake. Maybe it's a sign of how desperately we're all looking for something to hold on to, some proof that things will be rebuilt, that Charlie Hebdo and freedom of the press will go on.

I know that France will rebuild; if this country knows how to do anything (and it knows how to do a lot of things), it certainly knows how to rebuild. It's a country that has defended its liberties throughout the ages, long before Charlie Hebdo was founded. I know that France will recover, but it will take a while for the darkness to lift. The shadow that has fallen over the country is a heavy one. What's certain, thankfully, is that the sun will shine again, over picnics and cold rosé and cigarette smoke rising over laughter from café terrasses.

Not today, though. Not for a while.

On a much smaller scale, too, there are other things that are weighing heavily on me at the minute. Coming back to Paris after being home is never an easy transition, but this year it feels especially tough for many reasons. It's no fun boarding a plane and leaving behind so much of my heart only to face a week of exams for which I feel entirely underprepared. 

The mug, though. The mug. With all the big things happening, my heart still sinks when I see its sad broken side. I still feel stupid, I still feel childish, but I am so sad that it's gone. That mug was one of my favorite things. It has been with me in so many places, geographically and otherwise. It's been a constant when things have been in flux, over and over. I'm not going to cry about it anymore, but I'm going to miss it very much. When I replace it, it won't be the same. I think, though, the best thing to do is to think about all the new places I'll bring its replacement, to imagine all the mornings to come and to wonder where I'll be.

Because all we can really do sometimes is dry our tears, or more importantly still, dry each other's tears, and try to move forward. There's no other place to go. xx