woman walking in paris with flowers

Lost and Found.

My high school girlfriend Amelia* visited me briefly when I was studying abroad in Lyon, France, and we together endeavored to take a day trip to the alpine town of Annecy, France, where the order of the Visitation — the nuns who had established our high school in 1799, making it the oldest Catholic girls school in the original thirteen colonies — had been founded in 1610 by Saint Frances de Sales and Saint Jane de Chantal. We went out of some vague sense of obligation: “we’re so close, we might as well–“, as if our parents or our former school headmaster might scold us for not visiting given our proximity, and because we both understood one another to be practicing Catholics, and because I was at that time desperate for the familiar. I had attended Sunday Mass at Sainte Croix de Lyon every Sunday since arriving in Lyon, and the Church was at that time too poor to afford heating, and it was a particularly cold winter. So I would stand in that Gothic cavern dotted with the sparsest of churchgoers, the hum of the priest’s voice echoing against its eaves, shivering in a full-length wool coat. If I am honest, half of the time, I would leave feeling more adrift than ever, the language a barrier to my participation and the barren pews a reminder of my solitude. I could not comprehend the Church’s desertion (wasn’t France a Catholic nation?) and I would wince at its unseemly positioning alongside a fitness store and across from a seedy-looking restaurant, wedged in among the stone edifices of the street, as though unremarkable. I strained against the narratives these details spoke, longing for something else. There were some Sundays where the sun would shine through the stained glass, and I would remember my youth and myself in the rhythms of the liturgy: after all, I still knew when to stand and when to sit; how to receive Communion; how to say Amen.

This journey, then, with Amelia, was a hopeful excursion. We chatted gleefully about everything, sharing brioche sucree on the train, and I was relieved by the constancy of her sense of self, the shared parcel of memories we could mine together (besides attending Visitation for four years and spending countless weekends together, she had come on several trips with my family to a timeshare my parents then had in Hot Springs, Virginia), and her familiar, sharp inquisitiveness. She was much smarter and better-read than I was, and I found her company thrilling though humbling–a good thing for me at the time, cocky as I was about my own intelligence. In high school, she would ask earnestly for my opinion on esoteric books by Walker Percy and the copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain that she had leant me and I had not been able to wade through, and I was always flattered and embarrassed by her searching eyes as I’d stumble through my reactions to them. We were young and hungry. I recall floating a juvenile literary theory about narrators and readerly affections at which she first gamely nodded her head and then — upon my second airing of it — simply said: “Yes, you’ve said that before.” So it was a meaningful trip, this one to Annecy, in that I was in search of reassurance of both the intellectual and spiritual ilk.

On our way there, we stood huddled in one of the train cars. I can’t remember why we were standing — it must have been either a too-crowded car or perhaps a local train with a standing section for commuters — but at some point, we both observed a mother piercing her daughter’s ear with a needle across the narrow galley. We made eyes at one another, at this bizarre happening, and struggled through a conversation that continually elapsed into distracted silences.

“And so…” she would say, after twenty or thirty seconds of quiet had pooled between us, “What…how are your parents?”

When we finally disembarked in Annecy, we burst into nervous laughter.

“What was that?!”

“Of all the odd places to pierce your daughter’s ear…”

“I can’t imagine that needle was particularly sterile–“

We meandered through the rest of the day, visiting the Basilica of The Visitation and lingering in the vestibule until we found a habit-wearing nun who we stopped and to whom we shyly explained our pilgrimage. She was warm, placing her hand over her heart, thanking us for the visit, blessing us. Her response felt like a bridge back to all I knew to be good and right in the circumscribed world in which I lived.

We then strolled through a small museum connected to the basilica and at some point, I said:

“This day has felt so unreal because of that mother piercing her daughter’s ear.” She nodded, and then she said: “I know. I keep waiting for the day when I can be like a grown woman about these things. Like, Elaine would be able to move on.”

She was referring to my mother, and I knew exactly what she meant: the nodding sense of perspective that age affords, the ability to see strange things and not be entirely flustered by them, the leathery toughness of knowing yourself and returning to that truth no matter how wild the winds.

We walked on in companionable silence, digesting the day.

I think of that surreal train ride often, of the way I was drifting through my life at that point, self-alienated from everything I had grown up with, and it feels like an elaborate parable. I was moving while seeking stasis, and the endpoint was a Basilica in the remote Southeast of France and the sharp awareness of just how far I was from my mother.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy. I love you, “Amelia!”, even and especially for taking me down a peg for my crudely-shaped narrator theory.

Post-Scripts.

+More memories from this intense period of self-formation while studying abroad here and here.

+When Mr. Magpie came to Lyon

+THIS COAT. So fun! Looks like Brock collection. Honestly in love with everything from their new clothing collection, especially this “house dress.”

+This $30 dress in the checked fabric is adorable.

+Have heard great things about these bath blocks for little ones — filed away as a potential gift.

+The sweetest grandmillennial chic gifts/home accents at the newly-launched Bows & Blue store!

+Had been eyeing this pricey (and now sold-out) tweed situation for mini and then found this $13 set on Amazon. Quality is dubious — will report back.

+These Burberry rainboots!!! Love the shape/height/etc.

+This $35 sweater!!!

+Dresses for formal occasions this winter.

+Classic tartan dress for a little one (under $30).

+Female friendships and the things that matter.

10 Comments

  1. Loved this post! You captured your experiences so vividly. I often think about how happy I am that I studied abroad before iPhones. While I would have LOVED being able to FaceTime and stay in touch w loved ones (and navigate foreign cities!), I am so grateful for the experience of writing letters and reading maps that I didn’t understand and just having to figure it all out. Xoxo

    1. Oh Katie — YES! And it would have also been a safety net for me. I can imagine myself burrowing into my iPhone instead of looking around, dialing in on those around me, etc. There was something almost primal about the experience. I remember once traveling from Berlin back to Lyon by myself (my traveling companion and I had parted ways in Berlin — she was continuing on to London and I was returning to Lyon), and the number of legs of travel and amount of sleuthing, mapwork, rough translation and gesticulation involved was staggering. I’m still frankly proud of myself for doing it, sans iphone, sans instruction, just the piecemeal way you work through things and rely on the kindness of strangers and a half-formed understanding of direction. Definitely built up my confidence in myself as an independent traveler.

      Anyway, such a good point. Thank you!

      xx

  2. Annecy! Your study abroad posts bring back so many memories (I think I mentioned I studied in Grenoble). This summer while at my mom’s, she left me a letter (a written letter!) and a postcard I had sent her during my time studying there. It was amazing to read them and all the detailed descriptions that writing a letter by hand forces you to provide.

    1. Oh I love that! It must have been so fun to relive the expressions and observations of your youth. xx

  3. My year abroad was similiar, except I was at The University of London, where everyone spoke English. Amen, because I was so alone and adrift too. It’s actually the ONLY time I was homesick in all my travels. (Interesting). I think being in a different country where nothing is “your normal” makes everything so unusual.

    I am in LOVE with the LR house dress! Can you maybe find something similar for less? Hate spending $250 on a house dress. But I may have to!

    1. Oops – and meant to say that it is so interesting how so many of us have similar experiences with study abroad. Ultimately, fantastic opportunities for growth and maturity, but very emotional at the time!

      xx

  4. I love your pieces about studying abroad! Although I had quite a different experience in some respects, there are always parallels to be found — namely, being in France and feeling adrift. This weekend I have been sorting photos and writings and AIM conversations (!) from this time in my life and so I’ve spent a lot of time “in my feelings” — and this post will have me reflecting further. Love that. Thank you for mining this formative experience and sharing snippets of it with us!

    xx

    1. Truly – this entire time was fertile ground for self-exploration. Sounds like you felt the same way! xx

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