A sentimental journey by Jennabeth Taliaferro.
As my feet dangled below me, 25 feet above the Seine River, I peeked over my knees at the murky surface. Across the river, a guitar player strummed an American song that I had heard before, but I couldn’t remember the name or the lyrics. His audience was a group of 20 people on the steps that climbed to the top of the quai to Rue Saint Jacques. Hovering above us, the bells of Notre Dame struck the late hour and reminded me of my limited time left in the City of Light.
“Please don’t Bogart that wine, Jennabeth,” Andrew called out in his Australian accent. Relinquishing the bottle of Rosé, I tore off another piece of bread and smothered it with the almost-foul smelling Camembert cheese. I chewed the warm bread and thought of an early autumn night years before in Abilene, the air still hot from summer’s lingering breath, when I picnicked on Chick-Fil-A and iced tea in the parking lot of Shotwell Stadium before Friday night’s game. Texas’ obsession with high school football is practiced with the same vigor with which French people practice their cuisine and people watching.
I had been in Paris for a month-long writing workshop with the Paris American Academy, a school I found through none other than Google. I had come to the decision to spend the summer in Paris when, after quitting my job of almost three years, I began to look for an adventurous interlude. Paris seemed like a perfect place to explore while avoiding real life responsibilities and my hometown, which I felt had become increasingly dull over the past year. After reading reviews of the program online, I was convinced that this was the adventure I was looking for, that I would make friends, and that my suitcase was (hopefully) big enough. I set off on a hot afternoon in July to discover what France’s capital city had to offer.
I have always been an adventurous sort. I don’t mean that I go skydiving or cliff jumping or go into war zones or eat exotic foods. I call it “chronic location restlessness,” and it started in high school. I felt unsatisfied being just another high school student in Abilene, number 431 out of 560. I attended three high schools in the same number of years, moving up and down the Eastern Seaboard like a guitar capo, trying to find my own path and position.
A few summers later, after three years at Southern Methodist University, I returned to Abilene to relax. I swam in the cool neighborhood pool, where the lifeguard was always a neighborhood kid, honed my golfing skills and had a summer fling. But as the months wore on, I felt like a dog chained up in the yard. The prospect of going back to SMU latched around my neck, and I had no indication of when I would be set free.
Ever since I read “Pride and Prejudice” in high school, I had dreamed of going to England. I approached my parents about this prospect over dinner at El Fenix Restaurant in the quaint Burro Alley in Abilene. At the very same table months before, I listened to my father’s advice for “sticking it out” for one last year at SMU. But that night, over chips, green salsa and a Dos Equis, I proposed a trip that I hoped would bring the change I so longed for. Hesitant but ever-supportive, my parents gave the green light on a fall semester in London, and I began to have visions of wandering the graffiti-filled streets of Notting Hill and the green fields of Hyde Park.
My abroad experience began with strangers: four roommates from California, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Connecticut. On our first meeting, the Pennsylvania girl, Jennifer, asked why I was in London. Still jet-lagged and getting my bearings with these four new girls in my flat and in my life, I responded with the first thing my sluggish brain could conjure: “to have an adventure.”
Smiling, Jennifer raised her dark eyebrows and said, “me too!”
When we weren’t in class or at our internships, Jennifer and I explored the city: bookstores in Soho, food markets near London Bridge, five-pound stores in Notting Hill, and a hole-in-the-wall breakfast place with a “hangover smoothie” that made us want to dance. The metro (“tube”) was my buddy, reliable and kind, reminding me to “mind the gap” and “alight here for St. James’ Square.”
At Thanksgiving that semester, we feasted on a makeshift dinner our school hosted near Gloucester Square that could have only been improved by my grandmother’s creamed corn. I thought of my family at home around our dining room table and felt a small pang of homesickness, something I hadn’t felt since I arrived. It quickly faded, however, after a walk down to Trafalgar Square.
In the following weeks, London lit up for the Christmas season, and even though each day became grayer and wetter, I relished the cold air on my chapped lips and red cheeks. One day, while walking home from class, I admired the giant topiary reindeer at Covent Garden. Twinkle lights covered the reindeer’s leaves, and I wondered if my parents had put up our Christmas lights yet.
I returned home a few weeks later, and after another semester at SMU, graduated college with little pomp. Relieved to finally be out in the real world, I moved to Washington, D.C., found a job, and was ready to settle down. Little did I know, that small stitch of homesickness would soon appear again, only this time, it would change me indefinitely.
After two years in Washington, I tired of the political scene and was ready to be back in Texas. Living at home with my parents seemed like a logical, albeit uninteresting, place to start. I tried to acclimatize to a 20-something’s life in my hometown, where I hadn’t lived full-time in almost nine years. The middle school I attended was shut down, and my favorite pork sandwich place, Harold’s BBQ, had closed, but little else had changed. One of my best friends lived just on the other side of town and there were smatterings of fun events here and there, but I remained pessimistic that Abilene could be my permanent residence. Some days, I would drive east on South 1st St, then back west on the parallel North 1st St, listening to Eddie Money and Mumford and Sons as a way to get away from my house, where childhood memories bounded off the wall like ricocheted bullets. I thought Abilene would be the answer to my restlessness, but it still felt like a question. I was ready for a new adventure, another travel fix, and Europe seemed like a good place to start.
I had been to Paris twice before: once when I was 12 with my family, and then for a few days in 2011 with some friends. The city was like an acquaintance that I was excited to see again but still a bit unsure of our relationship. Hopeful that Paris and I would get along, I packed, said goodbye to friends and family, and once again headed for the airport.
My first day of class in Paris was in an ornately decorated classroom in the Latin Quarter, an area famous for writers and artists like Hemingway and Picasso since the 1920s. I looked up at the room’s chandelier and breathed deeply, smelling the hydrangeas outside and feeling the cool breeze come in through the open windows. The other students sat stoically, eyes forward. I wondered about the lives of those around me, and with whom I would be friends. Clutching my pen and a 99-cent notebook I had bought three days before, I listened to the professors’ introductions and procedures for the program.
After the first-day-of-class façade was broached, I found that most of my classmates were just like me: a little nervous, passionate about books and writing, and in desperate want of crepes and café au lait. About 20 of us had come to Paris, ages ranging from late teens to early sixties. I met schoolteachers, college students, waitresses, a New York theatre assistant director, a law firm assistant, a yoga instructor and a brand manager from Australia. We dished about our lives back home, how this writing workshop fit into the overall life plan, and whether or not such a thing even existed. Being surrounded by the other students was soothing; I had a place, albeit a small one, in this strange, new world of writers.
Echoing my London experience, Paris gave me a feeling of complete autonomy. I relied comfortably on the metro to get me to places around the city. I sat in the Luxembourg Gardens and wrote stories about doctors and World War II soldiers and made great friends with people from all over the world. I visited Sacre Coeur with these new friends, my Paris family, and felt overwhelmed by the cathedral’s sprawling views of the city. I ate macaroons and drank wine on the banks of the Seine. I read my own work aloud and began to process the loss of a loved one. From beneath an outdoor café’s canopy, my friend Amanda and I watched the rain pour after three weeks of dry heat.
On Bastille Day, July 14th, the French mark their Independence Day with a parade during the day and fireworks over the Eiffel Tower at night. Jets fly over the city as part of the celebration, causing people of all ages to tilt their heads to the sky and gaze in wonder at the man-made birds.
When I heard the roar overhead, however, I didn’t feel amazement or curiosity; instead, I was comforted. Parisian buildings and boulevards surrounded me, but I was suddenly back in Abilene. The planes in the sky were not fighter jets, they were B-1s and C-130s going to and from Dyess Air Force Base, ten miles outside of town. I saw the oak trees in my front yard and felt the freshly cut grass between my toes. In class the next day, professors and students alike asked if we had heard the planes. I frowned and sipped my coffee, realizing for the first time that it wasn’t so normal to hear jets in the sky.
This got me thinking: there are interminable differences between Paris and Abilene, to be sure, most of which can be gleaned from guidebooks. Paris’ language and culture has developed over millennia to become what it is today. In comparison, Abilene is an infant town of only 132 years. Paris is a hub for fashion, cuisine, history, art, scholarly pursuits and architecture. Abilene, God love it, has a fraction of these things. Abilenians are known for being friendly. Parisians…are not known for that.
The differences held little interest for me, however. As the days passed, I began to note the subtle similarities between the sights and sounds of Abilene and the thriving metropolis of Paris. One night, we visited the Eiffel Tower, and as it loomed above me, I thought of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Abilene, both landmarks representing its city’s own unique history and culture. Parisian cafes are as ubiquitous as our churches and college students from three universities. The curves and crannies of the Seine River cut through the middle of Paris like our train tracks cut through Abilene. At a karaoke bar in Pigalle, I cheered on my friend who sang Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love,” just as I had cheered months before when an Abilene friend got in the middle of a dance circle at Guitars and Cadillacs, the bar on the Southside of Abilene that attracts an eclectic mix of locals. Every night, on opposite sides of the world, both cities glow softly, the twilight beckoning us to slow down and savor the simple joys. The similarities were not vast, but they were recognizable. And all of a sudden, I missed Abilene.
As I sat by the river on my last night, I knew I would miss my new friends and professors. I would miss the community of writers that I had been a part of, the pressurized pleasure of having a deadline. I would miss the joy of saying “I have to go work on my piece,” and people knowing what I meant. I would miss Paris, but I knew the homesickness I felt would be quelled the second I stepped onto Texas turf.
On our last night in Paris, I reluctantly hugged my friends goodbye and promised to keep in touch. Separating from them for the last time, I inhaled the Paris night air and admired the Notre Dame for another few seconds. I thought of the view from my parents’ backyard and the sunsets that cover Abilene in colors that only God could create. I wondered what adventures awaited me at home, and whether I could be a traveler in my own city the way I could while traveling. I promised myself I would try.
As I walked back to my apartment on Rue de la Huchette, the half-empty wine bottle heavy in my purse, I anticipated my trip home the next day. I realized then that I could see every corner of the earth, meet people from New York and Nueva Leon, but I only had one hometown. Smiling at the thought of seeing my family and friends, I unlocked the door to my Paris apartment one last time.
When I returned to Abilene, I began to search for jobs and think about my future in Texas. I had coffee with a friend in Monk’s Coffee Shop on Cypress Street and thought nothing of the wine-stained floors of Parisian cafés. I didn’t miss the French waiters and shopkeepers who wanted to practice their English, or the hurried bustle of tourists trying to find the next must-see item in their Rick Steve’s Guidebook. I often thought of that last night by the river with fondness, but not longing.
I had begun to contemplate Abilene in a new way, not as someone who took her first steps in the brown grass in front of a small house on Elmwood Drive, or who visited the long-gone donut shop, Taste Delight, every Sunday morning before church. I met the Amandas, Andrews, and Jennifers with Texan accents, had picnics with new friends in Rose Park, and found a quiet spot where I could drink coffee and write in a journal.
Over drinks one night, a friend asked me what my plans were, now that I was back in town. “Are you going anywhere exciting?” she said.
I laughed and stirred my drink. “I’m already here.”
It’s early in the morning a few days after my return, and I’m still on Paris time. I head east on South 14th and enjoy a pink and orange sunrise splay across the sky. As I drive, I see my objective—Starbucks—in the distance, three stoplights away. Wondering what to do today, I roll down my windows and turn on a radio station playing a new song I’ve never heard. Maybe I’ll visit the new exhibit at the Grace Museum or some of the new shops downtown. I stop at one of the stoplights and breathe slowly; I’m in no hurry to decide. As the sky brightens in front of me, I turn up the music. For now, the only adventure I’m interested in is finding a cup of coffee and a song that I can sing to at the beginning of this new day.