Twenty years ago, I spent Christmas in Paris. It was the first time I had ever been away from home for the holidays. I’d like to say that I spent it well and giddily as any 20-year-old should, but unfortunately I was too caught up in my own homesickness to enjoy it properly. Despite my unhappiness, there were some enchanting moments: Browsing for used books to give as gifts in the stalls on the Left Bank as fat snowflakes drifted onto my head; a group of uniformed school children singing uproariously while I admired the amazing confection of lights and window displays of the Galeries Lafayette department store; and perhaps most memorably, enjoying a festive meal (complete with champagne and the traditional bûche de Noël for dessert) in an apartment overlooking the Champ de Mars with the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the dark December night outside the window. But these scattered moments of joy only served to highlight how miserable I was, how unable to find comfort in a sea of strangers in a city that suddenly seemed nothing but foreign to me even though I had been there for several months.
I remember particularly Christmas dinner in the foyer where I lived that year. This was an international dorm run by a sophisticated group of nuns who smoked and wore jewelry and didn’t seem to mind that they were surrounded by young women in miniskirts who were infinitely more interested in watching Madame est servie (the French name for Who’s the Boss?) than attending daily chapel. There were women from 80 different countries living there, including a sometimes uneasy mix of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian residents.
That Christmas afternoon, heartsick and about to become desperately physically ill with the flu, I picked at the food that the kind sœurs had prepared for those of us with nowhere to go for the holiday and tried to smile as the Japanese woman sitting next to me talked in broken French about how strange we Westerners were to drink milk and eat cheese. She blamed this for the body odor that (she haltingly said) made it difficult to eat in the same room with us. Murmuring excuses to her and the others, I fled the brightly lit dining room and the city altogether, catching an overnight train to Venice. This bold but disastrous solo trip would end in few days as I burned with fever for hours in the train station and all the way back to my small room in the 14th Arrondissement where I shivered and sweated as I listened to the city around me welcome in 1991. I didn’t leave for days, my only company a battered copy of Dr. Zhivago that I picked up goodness knows where.
I’m not sure I had the good sense at the time to recognize a squandered opportunity. In fact, I’m convinced that with the hubris of youth I assumed I would one day return to Paris to enjoy a proper Christmas (Oh the belief that one always gets a do-over!).
And of course now, a lifetime later, I’m still waiting for a Parisian Christmas to happen. What holiday magic would my boys and I devise were we to climb on a plane tomorrow? Riding the Ferris wheel in the Jardin de Tuileries perhaps. A puppet show in the Jardin de Luxembourg. Shop windows, pastries, cups of hot chocolate in Angelina’s mirrored dining room. Strolling through Montmartre in a snow storm. And always the lights of the Eiffel Tower, a beacon in the deep darkness that comes so early at this time of year.
I’m dreaming today this return and also of the 20-year-old child that I was. I know that girl would be with us as we explored, wondering how she could ever be unhappy in Paris, at Christmas.
What are your Monday dreams? Please feel free to share them below.
All photos except the obvious one via Flickr. Galeries Lafayette courtesy of josephowen. Notre Dame courtesy of Panoramas. Ferris wheel courtesy of CharlesFred. Eiffel Tower courtesy of realityfanclub
And while we’re talking dreams – Passports With Purpose has exceeded its goal of $50,000 to build a village in India. But they are still collecting donations (they’ll surely be put to good purpose!) – and you can still enter to win one of the many magnificent prizes until 11:59 PST on Monday, December 13.