Two years ago, I was poking around in an antique shop in Lenoir, North Carolina, a little furniture factory town in the mountains on the western side of the state, and I came across this book of postcards.
Flipping through the soft, faded images, I felt like the universe was whispering to me. As I leaned forward, absorbed by the images of black-and-white Paris, the words became more clear. The whisper sounded distinctly like “get off your butt and buy some plane tickets.”
I had been thinking for years that I wanted to take my kids to Paris. Thinking and Doing are not the same things. I went home and propped my five dollar post-card booklet up on my dresser where it seemed to arch an eyebrow at me and ask, “today?”
I waited. Excuses are easy to come by. Time. Money. Later. Time can feel expansive and rubbery, like there will always be enough of it. Until one day you make a list of the things you want to do with it and – amazingly – there isn’t enough!
I booked tickets.
I looked for a place to stay. A friend mentioned that she had a friend who rented out her apartment in the summers. Done. We were booked, lodged, and off to Paris for three weeks.
I was doing the final suitcase inventory – cash – passports – shoes – map – when my gaze landed on the dresser top. The postcards, which had quieted their whispering since I set things into motion, practically shouted “and us?” I grabbed a ziploc bag and tossed them into the suitcase. A scavenger hunt was born.
When I was fifteen years old, I got to live in France for a year, thanks to the Rotary youth exchange program. I’d taken three years of high school french, so no big deal, right?
No internet. No international phone calls and Skype. Just me, my two suitcases, and airmail stationary. I’m grateful my mother saved all my letters from that year, crammed full of the mundane details of living with other families in foreign places.
It took me about three months to figure out what everyone was saying, another three to emerge from my understanding-yet-mute phase, and then, voila, I could speak, read, and dream in french.
I wanted to share this part of my life with my kids. I also wanted them to understand that the world is a bigger place than our small town. And that there’s more to their mom than work, car-rides, and dinner.
They took up the scavenger hunt with enthusiasm, and we spent time with the city map spread out on the solid wooden surface of “our” fifth-floor dining room table, red clay rooftops and chimney pipes carving the Parisian skyline outside the tall, open windows. We marked out the postcard locations, connected them with places we were going to visit, and the days rolled by.
Most of the images were easy to recover – the Place de la Concorde was still in the same place, even if the traffic lights, cars, trees, and fences are different. My daughter was a careful photographer, matching up angles and elements of the shots. My son was the motivator, insisting that we could march on a few more blocks, even after full days of museums and sight-seeing.
The Rue des Capucines was the hardest to nail down. There was no particular address on the postcard, just the street name, and it’s a long street. We were debating whether the building in front of us was possibly the right one, “It’s close…” my daughter said, doubt watering down her words.
“That’s not it,” my son insisted. Another block and we knew he was right.
After we got the last photograph, La Porte Saint-Denis, which was next to nothing on our itinerary and required a special trip, we collapsed into cafe chairs and ordered what had become our favorite cafe drinks.
We sat there in the shade. Tired. Knowing we’d have a metro ride, five flights of steps to climb with groceries, and dinner to make. It felt like…..home.
And that was what I really wanted. Not the whirlwind tour, not the cram-it-all-in visit nobody will remember later, but the normal stuff. The grocery store. The little shops on Rue Monge. The trip to the pharmacy, the metro tickets, the breezy dinners, the sweaty search for water.
We visited the museums and sights, but I wanted the experience to stretch out beyond the excitement of a new place, to bleed into the realness of our normal lives.
When we got home, I made a photo album of the postcards, old and new, next to each other. My city-planner self examined the details and my story-telling self thought about change. Paris has changed. There are more cars, more people, more…of it all. We found the publisher’s sign over their door, but they’ve been sold to someone else. The photographer, Marcel Bovis, was famous and judging by the buildings and cars, I’d guess the photos were pre-world war II, but I don’t really know.
I still have the postcards on my desk, as a reminder that Paris changes, we change, and when the universe whispers, it’s time to lean in and listen.
(Originally posted April 23, 2016)