August 2016


On Exhaling, or, On August in Paris

Posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I blinked, and it was August. 

The end of spring and the first half of summer were dedicated to meeting a nasty deadline hanging over my head: the day my master's thesis was due. Distracted only by a too-quick but wonderful visit from a college friend at the end of May, time passed too quickly. There was no relaxing after work, because it was time to do school work; weekends were over before I'd noticed they started. Towards the end of the last few weeks before the deadline, one day melted into another with no sleep in between, my diet devolved into whatever was quick and filling and, most of the time, unhealthy. I felt that I'd never get the cramps out of my hands from hours of typing - and backspacing - and typing. My back was aching from crouching in my barstool-height kitchen chairs, from too few hours of tense sleep, from the special brand of nervous energy that only comes from days on end shut in a tiny studio working on a seemingly never-ending dissertation.

But then one afternoon, an afternoon that came after a morning that came after an all-nighter, it was over.  I compressed the files, and e-mailed them, and uploaded, and then sat. And, unexpectedly, cried. I was exhausted, and needed a shower, and had been wearing the same nightdress for a very long time, and my apartment was a mess, and I was sure there were typos, but it was over, and one of my favorite humans in the whole world had just arrived in France and I could go and see her and there would be nothing dreadful hanging over my head. I called my mother, I let out the breath I'd been holding in for months, I showered, I hopped on the train, and I met my cousin and aunt and uncle at Disneyland.

Disneyland is part of my daily grind, as I spend my days translating ~the magic~ from French to English, but this time my train journey had something much more rewarding at the other end. Meron was waiting outside their hotel when I arrived, and she jumped up and down and into my arms and clasped her little hands around my neck and I very quickly felt the awful weight of the previous couple of weeks lift. Over a glass of wine in the hotel lounge, I chatted with my aunt and uncle and felt the particular comfort that only family can bring. Later that night, we stood in front of the château and watched the fireworks, and I held Meron on my hip as she danced to the music, her eyes as round as could be as she watched familiar characters appear and sang the wrong words to her favorite songs. The few days we spent at Disneyland, including one featuring a special appearance by my mother, were just the tonic I needed to the preceding months. We skipped around, wearing Minnie ears, dancing in the main square long after the parade had ended. We ate dinner together each night, and after eating I took Meron's hand and led her outside to run around and count Elsa dresses and giggle. The days passed too quickly, but it must be said that seeing Disneyland through the eyes of a three-and-a-half year old was really and truly a magical experience, and I'll carry the image of her wide eyes with me for a very long time.

They came to Paris for a few days, and I even got to have Meron to my little apartment for a one-night slumber party that began with a snotty meltdown in the taxi, but finished with Maltesers (BEFORE dinner) and Tangled, spaghetti bolognese and a 9 o'clock bedtime for both of us. The next morning she munched happily on a croissant in the métro and sat quietly on my lap taking it all in, cuter than any little parisienne I've ever seen!

When they'd gone I welcomed a friend from college who stopped by Paris during a business trip to Europe, and we spent long nights laughing and singing to music we'd forgotten about and dancing around my apartment after too much rosé.  Seeing two friends from Villanova in the space of a couple of months made my heart so glad and so sad simultaneously - the familiar struggle of completely wanting to be in two places at once. I hardly had time to feel sad, luckily, as the day that Lauren left, my sister arrived at Charles de Gaulle for a week.
I took the week off from work and we toasted our reunion, and Vélibed our way around the city's watering holes and restaurants, we drove out to Giverny and found a Haribo outlet and even welcomed our Dublin-resident sister for a couple of nights. If I hadn't fully recovered from the trauma of drowning in my master's degree before, being with my two sisters brought me back to the surface. We laughed until we couldn't breathe, we remembered old jokes and made new ones, we ate fromage and drank bubbly and picnicked and slept badly, side-by-side-by-side, in my two-person bed.

Being far away from those two can be really hard - even with the WhatsApp chats and video chats and Snapchats and phone chats. There is no technology in the world - and I don't think there ever will be - that can come close to the feeling of sitting around a table with my sisters, teasing each other or talking seriously or not talking at all. We went to a wedding dress shopping appointment for the bride-to-be, and even then it felt like we were six and nine and twelve, or twelve and fifteen and eighteen, even as we watched Sinéad looking at her reflection in the beautiful white dresses it felt as though no time had passed at all, that we were still at home with each other. I felt so lucky during their visit that we have made it all work, over the years. It's a whole lot of distance, three sisters in three countries, but no matter where we all find each other it's always just as great as the time before, as great as any of the times before.
As I waved goodbye to my big sister a few weeks ago, I'll admit that a couple of tears slid down my cheeks. Like all good things, having them here went by too quickly. Despite our lists and planning and trying to do it all, there's never enough time to spend with your favorite people. I walked back upstairs, and sat in my suddenly-quiet apartment, and slowly exhaled.

The month of August is notoriously quiet in Paris. I wasn't here last August, and I'd forgotten how dramatic the mass exodus really is. Storefronts are shuttered with hardly-apologetic notes mentioning distant return dates. The bakeries are dark, their cases empty. Very few apartments light up at night, their residents far away in the south drinking pastis or across the border eating tapas in Spain or exploring even farther away. The parks are quiet, the usual weekend revellers picnicking on greener grass. At night I don't hear as many cars zooming down the Avenue de Clichy, and the métro is so empty that it's... almost pleasant? Parisians are taking a break from Paris, and I'm right in the middle of their absence, enjoying the calm. With all the busyness of the past couple of months, the work and the visitors and the go-go-go, I don't mind. I like the sleepy streets, I like the quiet. I'm taking a break, too, even if I'm still here. I'm breathing and thinking and reading and writing, taking my own quiet survey of the state of things. It's the end of a really crazy year, a really busy time that I'm not sure I'd want to do again. I'm going to bed early, most of the time, and enjoying being on my own and doing things that I feel like doing - and getting a few things done that I really don't feel like doing, but must. I'm making lists for the year to come, and setting goals, and feeling really excited.
I know that in a short week or two, the sleepy streets will begin to wake up. The bakeries will fill their window displays with flaky pastries and crunchy baguettes, the florist downstairs will be back in business and I'll be able to buy my weekly stem of lilies. The parks will be full again, Parisians eager to catch the last of the good weather before the greyness sits in. And for me, too, things will take off again. As my fourth year in Paris draws to a close, the fifth will begin in a couple of weeks. It's difficult to believe it's been so long, in a lot of ways, but at the same time it feels like the most natural thing in the world. There are a lot of good things coming this year, I think, but let's leave that for another day.

For now I'm going to enjoy the quiet, the abandoned streets, the available seats at sunny sidewalk cafés. Here's to two more weeks of breathing in this empty city. xx