I pick up two pains au chocolat and two croissants at 8h30 at the Place Charles Michel boulangerie, this frigid Paris morning with my breath escaping in clouds, and then I’m clicking back to my apartment in my high heeled boots. In my mind, I’m Parisian.
At home, I set the table: jam, coffee, sugar, paper towel napkins, and eat with Beth, a friend visiting from Ireland. My host mother wishes us “bonne journée” on her way out the door. I wash the dishes, we head out to the elevator then to the metro, and I say goodbye to her at La Motte-Piquet as I hop on the line 8. I read the direct matin; the car twists through the underground. There’s a French man singing and playing guitar at République, a baby in a stroller on the line 11, then I am coming out at the Christmas-decorated Jourdain station in front of the cathedral, passing the marchés and gyro stands to Rue de Rigoles. This is my commute.
I make coffee, sit down to work on a violence report, listen to a women I interviewed last week on the phone speak to the lawyer in the office next door. This time, she’s not crying. I take a break; it’s nearly lunch. The morning is quiet, just three new interns watching a movie on the women’s rights movement in France and the phone ringing every so often.
It’s the way things end. I watch it all slow down around me the moment before it fades. I try to inhale the last moment when every step is a last step. For though I know I can come back, I only get to live the experience here, like I am now, one time. Next month, next year, in ten years, I won’t return in the same shoes. I will have stepped somewhere that has changed me; I will know things I don’t know now. Much like the shoes I am wearing back to UNC next semester, they will be new.
There’s a discomfort knowing this: the end, the change. I’ve thrived for a semester when I didn’t know I was capable of thriving. I’ve been nourished where I was starved. I’ve been happy; my mother tells me she can hear it in my voice. To know what it’s like to feel right and have to leave — the feeling churns in me. So maybe I’ll pack my bags when it’s dark, fold my scrapbook into the lining of tears and cling to journal entries on the plane ride, to pictures of Italy and the Eiffel Tower.
Then I will be where I was. A campus in North Carolina, aching for the messy living room in Strasbourg, the waterfall on the Arno. Instead, there will be 18 hours of classes, the two majors and a minor, two jobs I left I behind, the sorority events, the women’s rights group activism, the unfinished documentary, the mission trip fundraising for Spring Break in Jamaica, health advocates, meetings, libraries, a social calendar. I want to say, Paris taught me what it’s like to live and, mon dieu, now I’m gonna live. I want to finish learning how to play guitar, buy a canvas and paint, complete the novel I started, drink coffee after sleeping in, write articles. Do what I love.
Give me a language and I would love to learn it, give me a book and I would love to write it. But give me that American university, those bricks and that stress, and I will shudder under the weight.