Montmartre, Paris at nightfall.
A young American woman sits alone at a café, studying Sartre’s L’âge de raison in its original French.
In front of her sidewalk table the glorious Basilique du Sacré-Coeur glows like an angel that finally got his wings. It’s spring, but the air is still cold. The waiter, more homme than garçon, helps a middle-aged woman with the zipper of her fur coat.
Totally engrossed in existential philosophy, the young woman looks up only once and briefly, to acknowledge receipt of her café au lait and croissant aux amandes, and to ponder the meaning of life.
That is an excerpt from Me in Paris, a screenplay I wrote nearly two years ago before my family’s one-week vacation to France. Nevermind the impossibility of that fantasy – it was fall, I’m nowhere near that proficient in French, and coffee makes me jittery – even if it had come true, it would have represented just a few hours of one evening, not the entire trip. Honestly, I probably would have spent the rest of the time worrying that the almond croissant would transform itself into a muffin top.
Daydreaming with wild abandon is as integral a part of any pre-overseas ritual as getting vaccinated and renewing your passport. If I remember correctly, my visions for Argentina involved dulce de leche and tango dancers, while those for New Zealand featured bungy jumping and one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords.
Sadly, those snapshots tend to spontaneously combust upon arrival, when you realize that neither you nor your destination at all resembles the picture in your head. You then construct a new image of yourself from the rubble, only to have it destroyed again. This creation-destruction cycle continues until finally your idea of who you are in a given place matches reality. In my case, I started out a peacock and arose from the ashes a hummingbird.
Faced with the promise of Australia, my imagination began painting the walls of my mind as if it were a hyperactive child with finger paints and an innate appreciation of the works of Jackson Pollock. Prominent subjects of the fantastically colorful mural were surfing, koalas, and the stage of the Sydney Opera House.
However, at some point imagination gave way to realism. In a flash of lucidity, I prophesized myself living in a backpacker’s hostel and temping at a telecommunications company, friendless, penniless, and with too much stuff.
Not two months ago, I was camping on the beach in New Zealand with my boyfriend. Today, I am sitting on the couch of a close friend in Buenos Aires. The idea that I traded all that for the opportunity to be lonely, frustrated, and uncomfortable in Australia made me queasy. Of all the things I’m good at, bargaining is not one of them.
On two separate occasions, I have moved abroad alone, with no job or contacts, and minimal savings and language skills. I did this for a reason – to free myself of familial, societal, and peer pressure, and to find out who I was when there was no one there to tell me who I was supposed to be.
The last five years were phenomenal, propitious, and absolutely necessary for my personal development; but now that I have a clear idea of who I am, what I want to do, and how I want to live my life, I can’t justify subjecting myself yet again to the solitude, insecurity and anxiety inherent in going overseas on your own. It’s not that I no longer want to be abroad; it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of starting over from scratch a third time.
As with all good nervous breakdowns, this one turned out to be a revelation: after so many years of ego-tourism, I am done with journeys of self-discovery, for now. The next time I travel, it will be with one backpack and a budget, I will leave from and return to the same place, and I will not worry about working, making friends, or paying rent. Unfortunately, I am broke and burnt out, and in desperate need of a break before I can manage such a trip.
When I called my parents from Buenos Aires to ask if I could stay with them for a few months (instead of through mid-May as originally planned) they were both shockingly sympathetic, supportive, and delighted. I’m uneasy about the prospect of returning to Michigan, but excited to have two summers in a row.
Postponing my trip to Australia was not an insignificant, easy, or expected decision. But of all the lessons I’ve learned from my time abroad, perhaps the most important are: trust your instincts, drop your pride, and all itineraries are subject to change without prior notice.