In Media Res, Part I.

When I was studying abroad in Lyon, France, an outbreak of feline AIDS left the city overrun by mice. I could hear them in the walls of my ground-floor apartment, especially at night, in their midnight mecca, when my lofted bed left me separated from their footfall by a slender panel of drywall and a couple inches of air. Before bed, my roommate and I — both of us under 5’2 — would drag my desk chair to the center of the room, alight, and hang our groceries in bags from the improbably-placed chandelier in the middle of our ceiling. Otherwise, we’d wake to find ourselves burgled by vermin.

I’d broached the topic with my landlady, a brusque, portly woman who lived in a lavishly appointed apartment overlooking Place Bellecour.

Alors,” I’d said, tremulously, radiating with discomfort as I took in the floor-to-ceiling drapes drawn at the French windows, “Il y a un probleme avec des souris dans notre appartement.” At twenty years of age, I’d been cloistered from such tenant dealings for the duration of my life, and I was by nature retiring in the face of confrontation besides. I’d stopped by with a rent check or some other formality only the French would require to be completed in-person — back in Charlottesville, we dropped rent into an impersonal box at the leasing company’s office — and she stared at me blankly.

“Bienvenue a France,” she’d replied, shruggingly. And that was that. Welcome to France: deal with the mice.

The upside to the infestation was that it drove me to spend nearly every weekend out of town, and I will never have the opportunity or inclination for such footloose, hastily-planned travel again in my life. Intra-European tourism was blessedly easy and cheap at the time — especially for me, as the Lyon St. Exupery airport was sufficiently big that it offered direct flights all over Europe on Ryan Air and EasyJet for as little as 29 Euros each way. (No, really — 29 Euros! Even as college students traveling on a shoestring, we were skeptical of the prices.) I also had many friends from high school and college completing their own semesters abroad and therefore had convenient excuses — and occasionally free accommodations — to encourage me to make my way all over Europe. I visited Venice, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Oxford, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Geneva by plane. I was also a stone’s throw from Gare de Lyon Perrache, and I took the train for local travel within France: to Paris, Dijon, Annecy, Chamonix, Avignon, Nice, Cannes, and Amiens.

In spite of my opulent travel programme, I was desperately homesick and heartsick; I had not spent more than a couple of weeks away from home in my entire life, was terribly close to my mother and father, and had recently fallen seriously in love for the first and, as it would turn out, last time in my life. I had cried on Mr. Magpie’s shoulder the night before I had left, and then again, intermittently, on the long flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, and finally, uninterruptedly, in the small hotel room at which I had been stationed the night I arrived in Lyon, just after calling my father from the phone in the narrow lobby of the hotel to let him know I had made it. “They lost my suitcase,” I said, barely evading the sobs I longed to release. “It’ll be fine, Jennifer,” he replied, and I knew he wasn’t only talking about the suitcase, and this made things worse.

My weekend travel itinerary around Europe was a privileged distraction from my melancholy. I nearly always traveled with a classmate or friend, but I had made clear with all of them that I was unbothered by the notion that we might pass our mornings or afternoons in individual pursuits. I specifically preferred to visit art museums on my own, untrammeled by the patience or impatience of a companion, and nearly always in and out within an hour: art at my pace. I liked to linger in front of paintings that spoke to me and cruise by entire sections that did not. And, as is the way with a twenty-year-old girl deep in love for the first time in her life, I treasured the opportunity to brood.

At the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice, I stood in front of an Edward Hopper painting for what must have been forty-five minutes. It was a self-aware kind of immobility: I longed for someone to interrupt and ask whether I was OK, to ask what that Hopper meant to me, to acknowledge my heart swell. No one came. I was a faceless dot standing in a highly-trafficked museum on the shore of an ancient Italian city slowly submerging itself in water, hundreds of thousands of miles from the man I loved, staring at a painting that was all sharp angles and shadows: the chiaroscuro of isolation. I felt a vague sense of vertigo contemplating it all.

I ached for the comfort of home and the reassurance of my boyfriend’s arms around me. I was traveling with a girl I didn’t know particularly well, and in the twenty-four hours we’d spent together, I had discovered that our notions of travel did not get along particularly well either. After a protracted and overly polite exchange on the subject, I’d been relieved that she’d agreed to a private hostel room. As we’d dropped our bags in the shabby room up a narrow flight of stairs not far from St. Mark’s Square the afternoon we’d arrived, I’d walked over to the far wall and looked back at her in disbelief: “There’s an actual hole in the wall here,” I said, eyes wide, awaiting for a commensurate show of dismay on her face. It did not materialize. I placed my hand through the hole for dramatic effect: my entire arm could fit through the opening out into the clammy Venetian air.

“Oh well,” she’d shrugged.

I was, again, a retiring sort of girl at the time, and I bit my tongue, rallying and silencing arguments for finding alternative accommodation. I slept fitfully that night, clutching my wallet and a couple of personal affects to my chest. I knew, logically, that it was unlikely that someone could rob us through such a narrow aperture, but I felt exposed. And the prospect of mice (or worse) finding their way into our quarters felt like an irony I could not abide: I’d left the mice of Lyon for the mice of Venice.

The following morning, I had parted ways with my companion rather stiffly: she went off to visit some of the beautiful cathedrals and I found my way to the Guggenheim. And so I stood there with that Edward Hopper painting, stock-still–whether transfixed or paralyzed I could not tell.

It was difficult to call Mr. Magpie when I was traveling owing to the time difference and the fact that my cell phone at the time was limited to SMS on a European plan of some kind. I usually had to buy a phone card and call him from a shady Internet cafe or hotel lobby, and then the lack of privacy precluded meaningful conversation. But I called him from Venice nonetheless, as I would call him from Athens, and Berlin, and London, and Prague, and I spent a small fortune telling him that I loved him and missed him and belonged to him separated only from strangers a few feet and the throbbing self-absorption of a twenty year old marooned by an ocean from the love of her life.

I was caught between my girlhood self — the one who winced in the face of unimportant and largely unvoiced disputes over lodging and mice — and my adult self — the one walking alone across the Venetian canals and living amongst the dislocations and delights it afforded — and both versions felt so obscured by the self-alienating and lonely circumstances of being abroad without the person I loved most that I felt stuck in media res.

To be continued tomorrow…

Post-Scripts.

+If you want to fast-forward to my heart-palpitating reunion with Mr. Magpie

+And if you want to fast-forward to Mr. Magpie’s stay in Lyon with me.

+I must have this dress for fall ($125 and reads like Jil Sander or something). I dream of pairing with shadow-letter-monogrammed Mansure Gavriel flats.

+A $40 toile shower curtain!

+This $45 dress is absolutely adorable.

+A super pretty (and less dramatic) take on the exaggerated collar trend. For $20!

+I recently wore a sleeveless white poplin shirtdress from DVF (several seasons old) with my new Danielle Fichera belt on Instastory and had a couple of questions about the dress! It’s sold out, but here are a few similar picks. I love white shirtdresses. Timeless, ageless, easy to dress up or dress down.

+Still loving these running shoes — like walking on air. I sadly haven’t jogged in weeks despite my earlier determination to get back into the habit; maybe early fall coolness will prove more fruitful.

+Transparent frames are trendy right now — these are super fun!

+Such a pretty top for around $100.

+How unbelievably chic are these belt bags?! They’re sold out in most colors but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for future re-releases.

+Still dead over this blouse.

+A few cute finds for children:

MINI HAD THIS $20 DRESS IN A DIFFERENT COLORWAY AND WORE IT ALL THE TIME! LOVE IT IN THE SAGE GREEN

THESE PERSONALIZABLE STRIPED SHIRTS!!!

ADORABLE LEATHER SNEAKERS FOR A LITTLE BOY

ADORE THIS MUSTARD BLOUSE FOR A LITTLE LASS

THIS $10 FLORAL ONE-PIECE FOR A LITTLE ONE!!!

+The incongruous emotions of motherhood.

+My favorite sunglasses are on sale for $62.

+A cute $10 belt to pair with an LWD.

+Love RR’s just-released “disco” colorway in their classic heart pajamas! Mini needs these.

+LOVE this chic textured sweater with the matching skirt and top. Gives me major Katie-Holmes-wearing-the-Khaite-cashmere-bra vibes.

10 Comments

  1. Hello!
    Enjoy reading your posts as a Catholic mom of three young boys, and an English major once upon a time. Loved this post, but lament the fact that you left out Poland in terms of your travels! A beautiful country with significant history. Maybe next time….

    1. Oh I know – I wish I had gone, especially as my mother-in-law is Polish! I also wish I had visited Spain, which was only left out of my itinerary because it was strangely expensive to get to by plane (and too difficult to get to by train from Lyon) despite its proximity to France.

      xx

  2. Study abroad can be such formative time- the combo of being halfway to adulthood and immersing in a new way of life at the same time is so potent. My memories of that era are permanently burned into my brain, I think. I had a very different experience than you, studying abroad in Nairobi and never leaving the country during the time I was there. Nairobi was just an absolute firehose of a city- there was so much to absorb and experience. To be in a place that was so rapidly developing…I didn’t want to miss a single moment. Any by the time I left, I had far more questions about it than I did when I arrived. I could go on, but I won’t!

    1. I think you’re spot on, Anna, about it being ultra-formative not only because of the life stage (leaving home, becoming an adult) but also because it jostled me out of my culture, way of life, etc, and forced me for the first time to live OUTSIDE of the culture and world in which I grew up. So much cognitive dissonance, so much room to stop and reflect. For sure one of the most important experiences of my life!!!

  3. YES THE CARTE DE SEJOUR!!! How did you remember that?!! I also recall as a part of that entire process that I needed to get a headshot of myself for the identity card and even figuring out how to do that/where to do that was a challenge.

    xx

  4. OMG, this piece! I found myself nodding along at so many details which reminded me of my junior year abroad in Paris — especially the in-person rent check dropoffs (which, for me, would turn into [sometimes literal] hours spent having coffee with my eccentric landlord and not being able to escape too quickly for fear of seeming rude!) Such a small detail but so resonant.

    I was also in the same boat in regards to disbelief at the cheap, cheap airfare prices! I battled a similar homesickness while abroad and spent many a long weekend traveling. My only slight regret is that I ended up visiting London five times (!) over the course of 10 months as my aunt & uncle live there and it abated my homesickness a bit. I would have liked to have visited even more places with friends, but alas.

    And yes, is there anything broodier than a 20-year-old girl?! My journal entries from that time certainly prove this … 🙂

    xx

    1. That is AMAZING that you had so many of the same experiences, right down to the in-person rent check drop off. There was something so charming about all of the in-person, hand-written, done-on-paper interactions France requires — but they were also highly inconvenient. I specifically remember having to procure some sort of identity card as a student (why, I do not know — I was never ever asked for it) that required a signature from a department head and then a literal inked stamp from some obscure back office that was only open for like 15 minutes every fourth Tuesday. It was INSANE. It took me a full few months to get it done because of all of the logistical barriers. That felt so quintessentially French.

      I feel like we have led such parallel lives!!!

      xx

    2. Yes, I think the in-person aspect of formalities is very much a French thing! Also: I think you are speaking of the carte de séjour! I remember that vividly. I woke up 20 minutes prior to the physical examination I had to have as part of that process, and RACED to get across town to the doctor’s office because I knew I might never get the carte de séjour if I were to miss my appointment. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much adrenaline pumping through my body. So much bureaucracy!! But that’s part of the charm of France 🙂

      xx

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