Time can go fast. That is one thing I learned this year.
Eleven months ago, I stood on the glossy wood floor of a Parisian family’s apartment building for the first time. Glowing white walls and new faces loomed around me. The girls said hello and did la bise, craning to kiss my cheeks while I went in for a hug for an awkward second. There was a roast in the oven. It was hot outside, and it would be hot in the school courtyard where I would go an hour later to drop off the youngest girl with her parents. That first walk down the uneven sidewalk bordered by old brown buildings, the girl skipping in her blue school blouse, the oddly rectangular backpack her dad carried — it all seemed unreal.
Day one, two, three — all clear, all long; all completely new. Days four and five too. Each of them different and treasured. Then followed a whole lot of other days that just somehow happened.
Two Tuesdays ago, that same entryway that had been so full of sunlight and people on that first day stood empty, except for me. The white dining room walls had been painted blue and the curtains were drawn. It was dark and silent as I set my way-too-heavy keys on the table and stepped through the door. I felt like stepping backward, as if unraveling every step I had made in Paris, but instead I left head-first.
It was over, and I was heading back into the world.
I already told you what I learned from living and working in Paris as an au pair. The things I learned knocked down the city’s beautiful façade and made it a real place. They made it less likable, but they also helped separate it from everything I thought I knew about it.
After learning what I did not know, there are many things I will miss. Like Parc Monceau. That dreamlike place full of green lawns and statues; a pyramid where kids climb and act like queens. The rough walkways scraping against scooters as people cross from Avenue Hoche to Boulevard Malesherbes; the smooth, dusty gravel that forgives feet on a jog. And the statues. Chopin playing a frozen piano and staring tenderly at a veiled woman, listening. Another lady in a long frilly gown that the little girl would go up to and playfully refer to as “maman.”
Cross the park, pass its stone gazebo and descend some stairs. The underground always smells different than the street. Sometimes it smells like urine and sweat and burnt rubber, but it always means you are going somewhere. This year, the metro meant freedom. Running off to Pigalle after a night of babysitting; getting off at La Fourche for Super U groceries; riding all the way down line 9 to eat Portuguese food and then ride back with a full belly … I will miss everything that the sweaty and packed train led to.
The metro also meant late nights, tired treks home from French classes I did not want to go to, and frantic moments with two kids in tow trying to get off before the doors closed. The first time I stepped on the metro, I took it the wrong way. Since then, it got better.
I will also miss the courtyard. The quiet place that waited after all of those late nights with its beautiful yellow-lit windows against the starry sky. It even had a corner where the ledge was just big enough to sit and lean against the wall and a pipe, which was warm. It was the place where I paused and looked at the moon, willing myself to stay awake and take a few deep breaths to clear my mind. After the metro had been ridden and I had taken that walk past the old brown buildings on deserted streets, the courtyard turned from the family’s space into mine. As I leave this mini world that these people have let me so far into, I forfeit that corner and that grasp on the life I lived there.
I once wrote about the things from home that I missed while living in Paris. Now, everything has switched. This will be the place I miss. But I think that beyond the place and the things I will miss, there is also a layer of time. I am going to miss being here now, in 2016, this year. Even if I return, I will miss Paris as I know it now.
So, why not stay? Why not be an au pair again? Because even repeating it will not bring this year back.
Another thing I learned this year: Time can go slow.
Like every moment I had to play with the little girl, wondering how seconds can go so slowly as I waited for her to choose a book. Or counting down the minutes until we could stop playing pet shop and go have lunch. Or standing on a lurching metro with two full bags of groceries, dreading the walk across the beautiful park. Or, after reaching the courtyard in the dead of night, climbing the 130 stairs between it and my bed.
That bed’s been made, the stairs climbed, and the park crossed. The toys are far behind me and I am relieved. Eleven months, and suddenly, calm.
But those 11 months reached the core of who I am and will never leave me. They were endless moments and all-too-brief encounters. I will always remember them, yet I will start to forget them way too soon.
So before I forget, let me say this: Merci, Paris.