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.
+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!
+These Burberry rainboots!!! Love the shape/height/etc.
+This $35 sweater!!!
+Classic tartan dress for a little one (under $30).