I sit on a train bound for northwest France. La Bretagne. Ville de Quimper—home of pottery, cider, crepes, song thrush, and a family dear to my heart. I was in Quimper only three years ago, but it feels like longer. So much has changed since then. I have changed since then.
When last I rested my head on a pillow and slept through the night in this small, ancient city, I held a stuffed flying squirrel close to my chest. Inside the plush puppet was a note from my husband telling me how much he loved me. Afraid to let go, I held onto that animal. I held it close, and I held it tight.
Three months later, I began to let go.
Now, three years later and after a morning of closed metro lines, a taxi across Paris, and rushing through the train station, I am once again bound for Quimper. On this trip, another man sits across the table from me. With furrowed brow, he sits reading. The green countryside is nearly within our grasp. Trees and hedges pass by in a blur close to the window. Quiet fields with red flowers I have never seen are clear and beautiful in the distance.
I have never been to Europe in the summer.
The closest to summer in Paris were spring visits during the month of May. The city is beautiful and clear in the spring. It is full of promise.
The sights and sounds of summer are different. Swifts dart across the sky above. They sweep down low over and between old buildings. At the Jardin du Luxembourg, they come right down to the water, skirt between the children’s sailboats, pick up tiny insects from the surface, and zoom back up to their blue domain. I hold my camera still, hoping for a photograph. But their fast-moving, tiny bodies, reminiscent of dark cigars with wings, fly far too quickly for my slow fingers. They are there and back before I can click on my point and shoot.
The red flowers in the fields remind me of the watercolor illustrated film rendition of The man who planted trees, where a young man encounters a shepherd who has taken it upon himself to reforest an entire region of France. With the trees, flowers, birds, and water follow. Life begins anew.
In four years, my own life has begun anew.
I have recreated my self, my identity, and my way of interacting with the world and its inhabitants.
When I used to travel to Paris, I was afraid to walk into shops and boutiques. I was worried I would be judged or given nasty looks. On this trip, I walk in and converse with shop keepers. I befriend waiters and speak easily.
I feel alive and inspired. It is as if a part of my self that has been quiet has been awakened.
My inner gypsy.
I have wondered for many years if there were members of my family from long ago who traveled from Spain to Eastern Europe. My sister is taken for a local wherever she travels in the Mediterranean. I can certainly see a nomadic tendency in my own life, as if I am constantly searching for something and never quite finding it. After a year or more in any one place, I grow restless.
I spent years in the Pacific Northwest. Yet even during that time when I was seemingly rooted in place, I did not stay still for long. I worked multiple jobs over the course of each year. I worked in France for a school year and then moved close to the border with British Columbia to attend graduate school.
What have I been searching for? A purpose? A sense of belonging?
With the completion of my dissertation, I have entered an unknown phase. I am searching for what will happen next. In my heart, I imagine finally letting go of one professional realm for another. Perhaps, in letting go I am also taking hold. I am letting go of security and the known and taking a leap of faith in the calling I sense from my heart. This calling is strong. I feel it like a flame deep within. It is a desire to write songs from spoken stories and to share those songs with as many people as possible.
I spent the afternoon and early evening yesterday with a dear friend I met during my time in Quimper. She is one of a few women with whom I have maintained fairly regular contact. She is a kindred spirit.
On this visit, I met her husband and beautiful daughter for the first time. It was like being reunited with family, as if not a moment had passed since we last spoke. We could have had lunch the day before. We picked up right where we left off.
On the train ride to her home in Chantilly, it occurred to me that she might be willing to share a story from which I could create a song.
Ellie was born in Botswana and has lived in countries around the world. I wondered about her life and if she felt at home in France.
For me, France is a novelty. I dream of escaping from the United States and living abroad. I wonder what my life would be like now had I stayed so many years ago. I have no regrets, I simply wonder.
Ellie has a big heart and smile. Her laugh is wonderful and real. I was drawn to her instantly. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.
Yet on this visit, I sensed a sadness in her I had not noticed so many years earlier.
Uncertain of a story to tell, I asked if she would talk to me about her life of traveling.
“That is something I can do,” she said. And she began with the beginning and ended with the present.
She spoke of being treated like an outsider in communities where she looked and spoke differently than the natives. I pictured her as a child, sitting crying on the steps of her school after being bullied by the children. I watched her mother come and embrace her, trying to protect her.
By the time she reached the age of 16, Ellie was protecting herself. Enough, she told her parents. She was done moving around. She moved to England to finish high school in one place.
Sitting in a chair beside her, listening to her words and typing them on the computer, I felt full. This was what I wanted to be doing. This felt important. It was an honor to witness this song beginning to reveal itself through another person. I asked questions to learn more and to coax the deeper meanings from the story. I could already tell that there was a song in Ellie’s words and emotion that many people could relate to—the feeling of being lost in a world of strangers; the desire for sanctuary; and the need for home.
It is so easy to be swept up in the beauty and intrigue of a foreign land. I have to remind myself that I can travel far and wide and still feel lost and alone. The darkness is never far behind.
In this moment, as I write, I am not afraid of the darkness. I feel calm. I am excited for another reunion with a friend who is like family.
With cows resting peacefully in green fields, a fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat in a grocery bag nearby, there is more light than dark.