Sometimes I feel like no matter how much time passes I can't get over feeling embarrassed or ashamed about things that happened to me light years ago. Here is one example:
When I was eighteen years old my dad drove me to a train station near our home in central London, handed me an envelope with french francs in it, hugged me and drove away. I cannot express how terrified I was to move to a foreign country all by myself, to open a bank account, find an apartment and go to college in a place where I didn't speak the language and I knew no one. Not one person. I also cannot express the many ways in which this memory gives me heart palpitations now that I am a mother.
A few days before I left London, The American University of Paris sent me a letter confirming that a representative would meet my train at Gare du Nord and help me find my way to the new student orientation. And the worst part is that I believed them. Can you picture a nervous eighteen year old girl standing next to her luggage in Gare du Nord for over an hour, faithfully believing someone would show up? Eventually I dragged my suitcases to the taxi queue and timidly held up the address to one of the drivers. Since at that point I didn't yet have the hang of french francs I've always wondered how much I tipped the driver. Possibly enough to fill my car with gas...three or four times.
The weeks that followed were full of awkward exchanges and painfully embarrassing situations. I bought fabric softener instead of laundry soap and used it for weeks until a friend gently explained the difference. I also bought a bag of "rice" that turned out to be a type of whole grain dog food. I kid you not, I had steamed and eaten half the bag before another benevolent friend pointed out the miniature picture of a Collie in the bottom corner of the bag. Only a few days after I arrived I remember sitting in a bank manager's office as he rattled off a list of stipulations, were he to allow me to open a bank account. He was speaking french of course, and I remember thinking, "This guy hates me. He hates my guts. Even though I have no clue what he is saying I can tell he resents me walking into his bank without knowing a lick of french and trying to open a bank account." I cannot imagine how I left that day having succeeded in my mission. I also cannot imagine how I later managed to secure an apartment, a cell phone, and a train pass, not to mention groceries fit for human consumption.
Thinking back on those memories is a lot like wiggling an inflamed hangnail. I was so awkward and insecure, and every part of me felt lost. But I lived through it and I'm not sure who I would be without the profound terribleness of my time in France. I hardly know that teenage girl who did all those brave things and I don't think I could do it over again. And there is no way I would put my own daughters in that situation. But my dad grew up in a different world (he still lives in that world most of the time, I'm afraid) and I don't know that he fully understood how terrible it would be. He has always subscribed to the "parenting approach" of giving his children a long leash and in some ways I suppose that freedom grew into a positive thing.
I know we all have had times in life that created memories best kept in the basement. I pretty much feel conflicted about the entire decade between my twelfth and twenty-second birthdays, but so what? Some people have a shoe box of awkward years, others have several dump trucks full. The point is that we live through it and almost always we take something good with us. I met some amazing people while in France who I've kept in touch with over the years. I know some terrific places to eat in Paris. I know how the metro system works, the best time to visit the Louvre, and that it's impossible to find a loaf of french bread in the eighth arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris in August. Most importantly, by the time I was twenty years old I knew I was a survivor. If it's sink or swim I swim, and all of those scary, awkward experiences amazingly helped to teach me about myself. About the things I'm capable of doing and the situations I should probably avoid.
But even with all of the lessons learned these memories still bother me. Thinking about them still makes me cringe and I feel so sorry, so embarrassed for myself back then. Maybe it's raising my own daughters that has me reflecting on the battle wounds of my years as a headstrong teenager. I don't quite know what I will say to my girls when they get old enough to try jumping out of the nest without a parachute. Or maybe I do; it's probably going to hurt, but it'll make a good story in fifteen years.