……….Paris at twenty was a dusky sweep of January streetlights, of bridge painters, of long afternoon hours spent in cafes with glasses of wine and journal pages. I had arrived there among other students, but knew no one. It was a change—being so solo—and I stepped along back streets with sensitive feet, savoring each eager and bumbling exchange I traded with shopkeepers in my best French, a language I knew only by the vocabulary post-it notes I had used to wallpaper my dorm room. I sat in the Luxembourg Gardens on mornings crisp enough to reveal one’s breath, and I dipped a baguette into jam and watched the birds brave my presence for the crumbs. I read Gertrude Stein and Eliot and Lowell and Hem. I thought, I know what it is to be me now, in this new place, with no one claiming me, no one with preconceived notions, no one to rush me toward some kind of end. I can be as much and as little as I want. And I was. I did. I danced close with strangers in jazz clubs, tossed coins into the Seine at 4 a.m., felt my blood racing down and up and out and back and pounding pounding alive alive alive. I had a boyfriend at home, but I didn’t want to go back. I had parents who missed me, but I didn’t want to go back. I had my life planned, but I wanted to scrap it. Run off. Be the girl without limits, who lived in the intoxicating haze of no accountability except for the page you write with your breath. Paris: It felt like the answer.
……….London at thirty was less romantic, more flocked by alarm clocks and puddles and sliced white bread, but also the twitters of teenage girls and the antics of teenage boys—students of mine, this time—and the thoughts of one accountable for all of them. Ten years prior, this would have been a weight. But I led them to the The Globe, and after years of guiding both the eager and the reluctant child through Julius Caesar, I was delighted at their pleasure. I took them to the Tube, and after witnessing their initial overwhelm, I handed out high fives when they returned having mastered that web. And while walking with them about St. Paul’s Cathedral, their stories of the unfamiliar streets and its smells and its colors bouncing out of their bodies, I felt content, absent of desire to be anything other than me, thirty, in a baggy red rain coat with frizzy hair and a body full of all the roads I had traveled. I thought, I know what it is to be me now, in this new place, with my loved ones thousands of miles away, with them a thousand miles the stuff of my veins, with them being my here everywhere. Oceans and borders fade, don’t they? I marveled at the tomb of Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey, I wandered past the Oxus Treasure and massive busts of ancient pharos in the British Museum, and I coasted through Hyde Park on a smooth rented bike that reminded me of two white ones rented in southern Minnesota, and I felt my heart squeeze, my heart squeeze, my love running out and in and up and away and down and far flung, and I was so grateful that I had a husband who I wanted to go back to, a family who I held with such tenderness, a life that I did not foresee, in that it had turned out so differently than I’d imagined it on the edge of the Seine, French wind in my hair, poems on my tongue. In London, those poems were still there. Are still here, tonight. But now, despite the beauty and wonder of the elsewheres, they are full of the nouns of home.
Emily Brisse‘s essays have recently appeared in publications including The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Lumina, and december. Her work has been shortlisted for the Curt Johnson Prose Award, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and awarded a Minnesota Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She teaches high school English in Minneapolis. Her Instagram is @emilybrisse