I’m a little late with this one (Bastille Day is on July 14th), but I was kind of busy getting laid off on the day I had planned this post, so cut me some slack. Please and thank you.
I have been thinking a lot about Bastille Day in the past few weeks. Yeah, I know I’m an American, so why am I thinking about the day of French Independence? Well, mostly because every year around this time I start reminiscing about the June and July I spent in France. This was the year I celebrated Bastille Day instead of the Fourth of July; the year France almost won the World Cup but then lost to Italy in the heart-wrenching final moments; the year I spent my entire savings, certain I would earn it back within months.
To describe this trip as life changing would be not only a terrible cliché, but also a gross understatement. I swore I would go back within five years.
It was seven years ago this Bastille Day. Have I been back yet? No.
The truth of the matter is, when I made that unthinking promise to myself, I had little understanding of how expensive it is merely to live in the day-to-day, and how ill-inclined most employers are to let you take off more than a long weekend now and again. I also had no experience with layoffs at this point, and was still four months away from moving out of my parents’ house and paying for grown-up things like rent and off-brand laundry detergent. So at the time it was very easy to make such unrealistic resolutions.
At twenty-three, I still thought I would live abroad for a few years, studying language and literature and perhaps writing. At twenty-three, the recession was still unthinkable. The idea that a college graduate with an advanced degree would ever struggle to find sustained employment did not even seem remotely possible. At twenty-three, I had fallen in love and had gotten my heart-broken by the same man I’d marry five years later. At twenty-three, my life was a blank page just waiting for me to scribble all over it.
Oh yeah, I was also never going to be one of those people who owned a dog or complained about lower back pain…
So this promise to myself, while understandable – even forgivable – still looms heavy on my heart. I have done none of the international travel I’d planned, which used to depress me greatly. Well, that’s an understatement; it would throw me into a dark cavern for years at a time (I think of these as my “Zoloft-free” years).
Today, I remember that magical evening sitting alone on the dock at St. Malo, watching the luminescent jellyfish no larger than my big toenail in the fading twilight, and feel nothing but gratefulness for the privilege of that experience. I had splurged that night on delicious Breton cuisine and a small carafe of Chenin blanc, both of which I can still taste: slightly sweet wine, slightly tangy cheese (this was light-years before alcoholism destroyed my passionate relationship with wine). Later, I watched a decadent fireworks display set to techno music – of all things – over the medieval maritime fort that had to be rebuilt, stone by ancient stone, after WWII.
I treasure these memories all the more for their rarity. They frequent the pages of my journal; they are the subject of many a short story; they comfort me when I feel stuck in Los Angeles, a city in which I was born trying to escape. For such an abbreviated period of my life, in a way it defines me like no other experience.
Maybe I wasn’t meant to fulfill that silly promise to myself, I don’t know. But I still remember that Bastille Day in St. Malo, the way the tide came in so fast, over a hundred yards within three minutes…
I met a young lady the other day who just got back to the U.S. after having lived in France during college. For a few minutes I clung to her like film wrap, asking questions and naming locales in my terrible accent, trying to recover these fading memories that it takes longer and longer to retrieve with each passing year.
After this exchange, I set about writing down another memory about my time in France, crystallizing yet another story. The more I put down these stories to paper, the more peaceful I am about my life today, unfulfilled promises and all.