by Bethany Ball
While walking across the Mont Blanc Bridge in Geneva this spring, I saw a beautiful, chic young girl saunter by. The bridge, dividing the two centers of Geneva, is the perfect place for people watching. It's long and the walkway is narrow. The foot traffic is swift. Audis and BMWs and buses buzzed by, carrying bankers and watch executives from the old city to the new, or maybe to the Alps to rest and relax.
When I saw this girl walking past me, I had my usual response. Appreciation mixed with a little envy and curiosity: where did she get that gorgeous scarf and where could I find one just like it? Would I achieve the same affect if I wore the same clothes as she did? My son and my husband were tagging along behind, my husband trying to console my son who was crying. He was jet lagged and wanted to go back to the hotel where a magnificent box of Legos, bought as a gift by his grandfather, was waiting.
At the moment that I saw the beautiful girl, I was furious with my son. But the sight of her had buoyed up my sagging, jet lagged spirits and brought something else into focus: beauty and beautiful objects and youth. Perhaps it was because I was there with my son, now six years old. There was no pretending anymore that I could ever be as young and carefree as that girl. Or that any outfit I put on would transform me into youth. That world belonged to her now, not to me. My world was just behind me, dissolving in sniffles. I reached my hand out to my son and he ran and grabbed it gratefully. He was six years of my new reality, condensed in the form of an intelligent and sensitive young boy.
Carefree and young in a European capital had only happened to me one time, since I do not count my honeymoon--racked with expectations and the subsequent tensions and expectations--as carefree. It happened when I left for Paris on the same day that I met my husband in a cafe on the Lower East Side in New York City. We had talked for four hours straight with hardly a breath and I had missed the yoga class I thought I would be able to squeeze in. When I left the cafe to run home and grab my suitcase, take a cab to JFK and board my flight, I knew that I was deeply in love. In love with the man I was leaving behind for the ten days I would be in Paris. It was my first time in Europe. It was supposed to be my second or third even. But the first time I was set to go, at sixteen, my grandmother had given me a Christmas gift of a check for a passport, along with a card promising a trip to Paris. I'd been terribly excited. I'd wanted to go to Paris ever since I was seven years old and my mother returned home from a European trip with a French phrase book, which I'd all but memorized. When my grandmother begged out in order to take a three week cruise to the Greek islands, I was devestated. The second time, my boyfriend (the one I'd thought I'd marry) went to Bath to visit his parents after his Ford executive father had been transferred there. But I wasn't invited to join him.
As it was, it had not been easy to get that ticket to Paris. I started planning the trip eight months before when I found out my friend Barrett, an entomologist and artist was going to Paris for a conference on insects and art. I'd just started my first job making decent money and tickets to Paris were shockingly cheap. I found a ticket that stopped in Iceland for under four hundred dollars round trip. I put down four hundred dollars towards a secured credit card, booked a bed and breakfast on the Right Bank near the Seine and the Louvre and off I went.
The absolute thrill of seeing ordinary Paris, near the airport, has never left me. Seeing billboards in French, translating the litres to gallons in an ordinary gas station and converting francs to dollar excited me beyond measure.
In Paris, Barrett and I and his friend Sarah ran up and down Paris. I carried with me my little Longchamps backpack and a secret: I was in love. It was such a secret, I didn't tell the handsome biologist who asked me out on the steps of the Musee D'Orsay. I couldn't have even had I wanted to. I didn't have the vocabulary and he spoke no english at all. Still, he was a good dinner partner, even if conversation consisted of fits and starts and passing around a French/English dictionary. And I didn't tell Barrett or Sarah either, once I'd caught up with them back in our room.
No, I wasn't so beautiful, and certainly not chic in Paris walking through ancient, fabled, storied streets. But I had been young there once, and seeing that beautiful girl in Geneva reminded me of that single unalterable fact: what once was, is no longer. It brought me home, to my child, to my family and to my real self, unalterable by age or beauty or time. My real self, where I belonged, in Geneva, though so far from home.
Bethany Ball lives in Nyack, New York with her family. She looks forward to moving to the side of Hook Mountain and the completion of her first novel.