Friday, January 27, 2012

Memory Hangnails

Royalty-free Image: old road sign Paris
photo credit

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.  


  1. So many things about this ring true to me, having lived in Europe growing up, and moving every three years. I spent a lot of time outside my comfort zone, and even though it was painful for sure, I wouldn't trade what it taught me.

  2. I feel awkward not only thinking about your memories but mine as well. Some of them just so happened to occur in Europe too. Those are the days where we think let's stay inside... in a closet... and never come out. But we do keep going, and I believe we become stonger. Thank you for sharing your inner feelings. I guess I'm not the only one.

  3. So maybe it's not's Europe!


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