Wednesday, August 3, 2016

land that I love

I’m sitting in the beautiful screened-in porch at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, comfortably stretched out on a cushy green lounge chair with my laptop, brand new Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and a recently purchased North Carolina mug from Starbucks filled with my favorite flavor of Green Mountain Coffee…Island Coconut. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried this coffee. I can hear the thunder rolling in the distance on this partly gray, but very hot day. 84 degrees according to my phone. Even so, it’s hard to believe what I’m seeing and feeling. I can’t believe I’m here after all this time. I can’t believe I’m holding the new phone I’ve been wanting after carrying an old, unreliable, and quickly dying phone all around Paris for the past year. Or that I’m sipping coffee filled with liquid creamer. Or that I’m moved into my new, albeit temporary, home complete with a closet and my own bathroom. Did this past year really happen? Did I dream it? Did I really live those days where I was chilled to the bone, walking here and there in the cold rain, and then coming back to a house in the outskirts of one of the most beautiful cities in the world? Was that real?

That may sound silly, but I kid you not, since I’ve been home, there hasn’t been a moment when I’ve felt like I have been away for as long as I was. It has all felt so familiar to the point where I could have sworn I had just been there and seen the same faces the day before. But before I venture too far down the road of how life has been since my return, let me first go back and fill in the space between my last post and the day I came home….

My last week in Paris was beautiful weather. Hot, sunny, and very few clouds most days. The day of my last post was July 1st. I remember this day because after I published my latest blog, the day turned into one of the most horrendous days I’ve had overseas. It was one of those days where there wasn’t one huge thing that happened, but rather so many little things that added up to create the perfect storm of a sucky day. Problems with my storage unit in Lynchburg, problems with my house I’m renting out, forgetting important things, unintentionally wasting precious money, and the cherry on top of it all, trains not running as they should be running in Paris and having to Uber home. Having to hire an Uber when trains were down became more frequent the closer I got to home. So frustrating. Thankfully, the following two days, Saturday and Sunday, were wonderful. So my crappy day was quickly forgotten.

I had no intentions of wasting a minute of my last weekends in Paris. When I first arrived in France, I made a very extensive list of places I wanted to go. This list contained around 60 items, and I am so happy to say that I completed all but 3 of those items. Those items were the more expensive things that I will have to do when I come back one day. So I set out that day with about 8 things on my list, and I thought I’d just go with the flow and do as many as I could. My first stop was Sainte-Chapelle, which was a royal chapel back in medieval times. It is located on the Ile de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the Seine where Notre Dame is also located. I had several people tell me to go here, and from the moment I went upstairs, I understood why. The chapel is wall to wall stained glass, the most beautiful stained glass I had ever seen. Starting from the left, from bottom to top, the stained glass tells the story of creation all the way through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It was incredible. My pictures don’t even do it justice.
Next to Sainte-Chapelle is the Conciergerie, which is a former prison and the last place where Marie Antoinette was held before she was executed. I love the history of the French monarchy, particularly Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, so to stand in the place where her prison cell once stood was a really cool experience for me. Once I saw her chambers, I walked around and looked through the old cells and what they would have looked like back in her time. I have to say…I’m happy I never had to live in those conditions.
After I left the Conciergerie, I walked North toward the Right Bank of Paris. As I crossed the Seine, the police had a small barricade set up across the sidewalk and I couldn’t figure out why. They checked my purse and let me carry on, and then I walked right into a massive LGBT festival that stretched from the Ile de la Cité west toward the Louvre. I realized then why the police had checked my bag. For a while I walked along the packed street, seeing people from all walks of life holding and wearing rainbow flags. After a while, as I started to get toward the densest part of the crowd where the central location of the festivities seemed to be happening, I started to feel like I should probably distance myself. Keep in mind, the Orlando attacks had just happened about 3 weeks prior to this day, and if you watch the news carefully, ISIS is in no way finished its attacks on France (the Nice attacks had not yet happened at this point). All I kept thinking was here are thousands of people standing close together out in the open in Paris promoting ideals that ISIS has vowed to attack. I can’t really say I was scared, because scared implies that I was afraid for my safety at that particular moment. But I was feeling cautious, so I took the stairs down to the river bank and walked along the river as the parade carried on above me.
Looking back, this is just one example of the ways I feel like my mindset has shifted in terms of being cautious in this current world we live in, where ISIS had threatened pretty much every group that is not ISIS itself. I hate that I felt the need to steer clear of crowds of people I don’t necessarily agree with, or crowds of people in general, to be honest. But that’s where my head was, and still is. I tell people now that I felt a little like I was living in a war zone or an occupied city. You have to carry on with life as if everything is ok, but you always have your eyes peeled. You’re always feeling out a crowd or separating yourself from one or just being cautious on the metro or wherever. Maybe not everyone living in Paris felt that way, but as someone who watches the news daily, I definitely was constantly paying attention. Perhaps in that moment, I wouldn’t have thought twice if the Orlando attacks, which targeted this specific group, had not just happened. I don’t know. But even now, I would still mention to those in airports or cities or Paris itself to be careful and to pay attention. Part of me thinks it’s crazy that I’m that paranoid. But then again, am I paranoid or am I realistic? I guess the Nice attacks that happened just a couple weeks later would point to me being realistic. This is the world we are living in, folks, and if living in Europe for the past year has influenced my thinking at all, then this would have to be the most significant way.

I found my way to a Starbucks near the Louvre off of the Rue de Rivoli, a really beautiful area. After I arrived and sat here reading for a bit, my friend Hannah, the LUO alum, texted me and said she and her friend who was visiting were about to head to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise and later to the Moulin Rouge. So I met up with them for the rest of the day. When we got there, I could see why it is the world’s most visited cemetery. It was absolutely beautiful. There was a beautiful view from the top of the hill, and the tombs alone were lovely. Such a quiet beauty in this place. So many were centuries old, but there were a few new plots as well. The likes of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Frédéric Chopin are buried here. I could have wandered around here for hours, and meant to go back before I left but I ran out of time. The most significant grave I saw was not one of a famous musician or author or composer, but rather a small plot covered in flowers and photos. There was a single visitor about my age, maybe younger, sitting on the edge of the curb, smoking a cigarette and dabbing her eyes with a tissue, just staring at the photo of a young, beautiful girl. I walked past her a couple of times on my way to find Jim Morrison’s grave, but it wasn’t until I walked past her the last time that I read the plaque propped up on the grave. This grave belonged to a girl who died at the Bataclan on November 13, 2015. ISIS took this girl’s life. That was the moment when everything came full circle for me. Most people have moved on with their lives after the heinous acts of that night, but this visitor lost a friend or family member and is still there mourning that loss. It’s so unfair, but that’s the world we unfortunately live in. After we left the cemetery, we headed to the Moulin Rouge. We got a few photos in front of it, and after that it started to pour and we hopped in an Uber and had it take us up the hill in Montmarte to a quaint little Italian restaurant. It was sooo good and a fun and relaxing night out with friends.
Later that week, I had to say goodbye to a lot of friends. The hardest goodbye that week was to my friend Amanda who has been my right hand in pretty much everything since we both arrived in September. She and her family are in Paris for about 3 years, but they were heading back to the States for a 3 week vacation, so that Tuesday, we had our last hang out at her house over tea, croissants, pain au chocolat, and country music. My last weekend in July was wonderful. We had great weather, and I filled my days with lots of relaxing things. I visited the Army Museum which was really awesome, and I saw Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb. I also visited some of my favorite places and just strolled around some of the most beautiful parts of Paris. On my last Sunday in the city, I was invited by my friend Julian to a picnic near the Louvre. We sat there for 4 hours, which sounds like a lot but I’m telling ya…this is normal life for a lot of people living in Paris. Grab food and drinks, and go have a picnic. No place to be, just hanging out and relaxing, and letting the hours roll by without any concern for the time. Definitely not something you find very often, if ever, in America. And there are so many beautiful places in Paris just to sit and people watch. I do remember sitting there regretting not having more beautiful days where I could have done that more often. But as many French people said to me, I was really unlucky with the year I chose to come, in terms of the weather. Yeah, thanks, I’m aware. After our picnic, I went with our little group to watch the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal. There was a lot of hype leading up to this event, and it was a lot of fun watching from the street outside a little pub because it was too packed to stand inside. However, France lost. I saw some beers thrown and heard lots of cursing over this haha. But it was still fun to witness.
My last work week was a short one. After my final day of taking care of G, and that moment of realization that I had no more responsibilities and could just go and do what I wanted, I think that’s when it hit me that my time was over. I went out into the city and saw as much of my friends as I could. On Bastille Day, I walked around by myself the majority of the day. I started at Place de la Concorde and walked all the way up the Champs-Élysées to the Arc du Triomphe, then made my way back down again. I stopped when I heard a really great performer standing in the middle of the Champs singing some popular English songs, so I sat down and enjoyed a free mini concert for the next hour and a half. After that, I wandered around then ended up in Jardin des Tuileries for a couple hours, just people watching and eating Amorino gelato. MmmmMMMM so good.

After that, my friend Isabelle joined me and we made our way toward the Eiffel Tower to watch the fireworks. It was PACKED. I mean, I expected this, but holy crap. I’ve never been to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but from what I’ve seen on TV, it was exactly the same. People squeezed together like sardines. Oy vey. In order to get to the Champs de Mars, the long green field in front of the Eiffel Tower, there were two checkpoints where they checked bags. I mean, you read what I wrote above about crowds and being cautious, so you can imagine this would also be a prime occasion for some type of attack. After we passed the checkpoints, we literally couldn’t find a spot that we could clearly see the tower, so we walked as far back as we could go, away from the tower, to the very end of the Champs de Mars. From here, we had a decent view of the tower from the second floor up. The fireworks started at 11 PM, because it literally isn’t dark enough for fireworks until that late. I love how light it stays outside until that far into the evening. I miss that.

So as the show is getting started, there is a concert or song we can hear from a stage we can’t see playing the national anthem and some other songs. That’s when something strange happened, that actually sparked real fear into me for the first time. From where we were standing, we saw across a distance of a couple hundred feet smoke rising in the middle of a crowd. We didn’t hear any loud bangs or shouting, but the people near this smoke started scattering in all directions. Like dominos, people started running, without knowing why, they just turned and ran because they saw others turning and running. Me and Isabelle did the same thing. As we are watching this unfold, the people in front of us turned around and started running toward us, so we grabbed each other’s hand and ran for it. We didn’t run far, until we turned and tried to see what happened, because again, we didn’t hear anything. There was no explosion or crazy screaming happening. We turned around and didn’t see anything. I still don’t know, but I assume someone had a smoke bomb or something of that nature and whether intentionally or unintentionally, freaked out a lot of people. I have to admit, my hands were shaking for a good 10 minutes after this. But we walked back to our spot, and the show started. Seriously…the best firework show I have ever seen, and am convinced, ever will see. It was incredible. I still haven’t had time to post my videos from that night.
After the show, it was about 11:40, and we made our way along with thousands of other people toward the metros to go home. It was so packed, and neither of us felt like standing on a packed metro platform, so we decided to hang out at one of the restaurants near us for a while until things cleared. There, we met up with my friends Alicia and Rachel, who we had tried to find before the show, but couldn’t. we sat there and had a drink, and that’s when Isabelle got a text and told us all about what happened in Nice. I pulled out my phone, and looked up the news articles myself about some maniac driving through a crowd in Nice as they watched Bastille Day fireworks. My heart was sad, but still, I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t. I’m not longer surprised by these attacks. Every day I open the news, I half expect to see another attack as the main headline. I’m no longer shocked, though my outrage is still growing. When is this going to end? I don’t know. By that point, I had people who only saw the words “attack,” “France,” and “Bastille Day,” messaging me asking if I was ok. I assured everyone that I was since Nice is in the south of France and Paris is in the north. But still, I appreciated those who reached out because they cared. But thankfully, I had one day left and I would be leaving France. I know that nowhere is really “safe” from these attacks, as we have seen our own country fall victim to ISIS related incidents. But still, being away in a country that has seen so many, and even after coming home the attack on the priest that happened an hour and a half from my home in Paris, I was thankful to be back on US soil.

My last day in Paris was emotional. I teared up on more than one occasion. I went to Holybelly for the last time, got the savory stack of pancakes, walked around the city that I had grown to love, even though I was ready to be home, and enjoyed the last steps I’d take during this adventure. My last item to do was to see the Tour Eiffel for the last time. So I took the metro to Trocadéro, took some photos, and just stared and reflected on this past year. “I did it.” I thought. “I did it and I finished strong. I didn’t give up.”
I made my way back to the house to finish packing and to spend the rest of the evening with my host family. I miss my little buddy G. It was hard to say goodbye, and it was obvious he was bummed I was leaving too. As the hours ticked away, I was so excited I could barely sleep that night. After about 3 or 4 hours, I woke up, packed up the last bits of my things, and called an Uber to take me to the airport. I remember every moment of that ride. Pulling away from the house and looking back at it for the last time; leaving Houilles for good; pulling up to the airport and checking my giant suitcases; sitting in the waiting area and fidgeting while watching the clock when I could finally step on that plane home. I took Icelandair home, and had purchased a middle class ticket. Long story short, when I had chosen my seat online, I ended up getting a first class chair, even though my service was still middle class. This. was. AWESOME. I mean who cares about first class service, when all people really want is the bigger, cushier seats. I was quite comfortable the entire way home. We stopped over in Iceland, and I had about an hour until my next flight. I got some of Iceland’s yummy chocolate and finally, FINALLY boarded the flight that would take me back to America.

Once we landed, the minutes seemed to crawl by as I went through immigration and security and waiting for my bags. But finally, this moment that I had daydreamed about for months, was about to come true…I walked through the doors and saw my family waiting for me (color coordinated, by the way). That was one of the best feelings and best hugs ever. I couldn’t stop smiling. My sister had a bottle of Cheerwine waiting for me in the car and my first meal in America was Chick-fil-a. Ahhhh that sweet tea tasted like heaven. Over the next week and a half, I was home with my family, enjoying relaxing days on the lake, my favorite American foods, and seeing my family and my best friend Sarah. But it felt like I was on vacation, and it wasn’t until I actually drove down to Lynchburg last Wednesday that it started to feel real. I came home at Christmas, but I hadn’t been to Lynchburg since last September. What felt weird was that it felt like I had just been there. It didn’t feel like it had been nearly a year since I had driven those roads or seen the faces of my friends. I stopped by my old office and saw some familiar faces, and it just felt so comfortable. I had a great day in Lynchburg, and was able to go by my storage unit and see the contents of my house piled into a 10x20 box. I’m still living the nomad life since I don’t have my own place yet, but it was still nice to see my furniture, as strange as that sounds.

On Thursday, I drove down to Chapel Hill, where I will be temporarily living with my Aunt and Uncle until I find a job and can save money for my own place. To be honest, I don’t think life will feel normal or like I’m “at home” again until I have a job and can finally get all my stuff out of storage and into my own place. Hopefully that will be soon. Friday, I made my way to Asheville for the weekend for my Grandma’s 75th birthday. We had a girls weekend and visited the Biltmore Estate, and it was such a fun time with my mom, sister, grandma, aunt, and cousin. We had tons of fun. But Sunday night, finally, I made my way back to Chapel Hill and unpacked my bags. I have been living out of suitcases since I was in Paris, and that’s not really fun at all. Now I at least have a closest and a dresser and my own bathroom, and it’s starting to feel homey. But it has only been a few days. I’ve had fun hanging out with my cousin here before she goes back to school in a couple weeks. We went to Raleigh yesterday, my first time in the city, and had fun exploring together.

As I sit here, I don’t think it has fully hit me yet that I’m back. Or that I left to begin with. I feel like I have changed in so many ways, and yet after waiting and waiting and longing to be back, it’s so odd to actually be back. Like it felt like I was waiting for something that would never happen, but then it does happen. I definitely miss Paris, but I don’t miss living there full time. There are things and people I miss very much. I mean it’s a gorgeous city with so much to see and do, and I miss how beautiful the buildings and scenery were, and I can vividly remember how grateful I felt to be standing in the middle of the city having been able to live in Paris for this past year. I’m so thankful. So so so thankful. It was wonderful. But the day to day living, the having to rely on trains and walking, the weather, and so many other things, those are the things that are hard to explain to those who just could not understand why I was ready to come home. I missed the day to day living, the lifestyle, the driving, the culture of America. This is where I want to live full time. I hope to visit Paris every year or at least every other year from now until I die. I love it that much. But I just want to visit. I have now been to 9 countries. I have seen 9 different cultures and ways of life. I have seen and interacted with so many fascinating and kind people, and have appreciated the opportunity to experience so much. But after traveling the world and loving every minute of it, after diving feet first into other ways of life, after craving adventure and still wanting to see more of this world, there’s only one place that is home for me.

The United States of America….yes, this is where my roots belong. This is the land I love above all others. This is where I want to live and die. This is where my heart lies. I’ve always been a patriotic person, but after living abroad, my appreciation and patriotism has reached new peaks. I love my country more than ever before. I love our values and our way of life. I love what we stand for and what we believe in. And I have never been more proud to be born and raised as an American.
Thank you to every single person who supported my journey and followed my year through my blog posts and Instagram photos. You all are the ones that kept me going, encouraged me, kept me focused, and reminded me that what I was doing was so unique and special. Thank you so much for motivating me to get out and to write about what I saw and did. You all will never know what it meant to me.

This is Chelsea the Au Pair officially signing off. Next time I go on an adventure, I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Bisous!