A while ago I met a young girl who reminded me of myself 30 years earlier. This little story is a fictional version of our meeting. We all have to make big decisions in life, and now and again a door opens that allows us to change everything, forever. It takes a brave person to walk through that door, as I’m sure many of you know.
Claire hurried along the narrow street in the seventeenth arrondissement in Paris. She had just finished one meeting and was eager to grab a quick lunch before her last meeting of the day at 3pm. Summer was well advanced but the sky was grey and menacing, and just as she was trying to remember where she had seen a sweet little café, the skies opened and it started to tip down with rain.
She gasped as the rain drops splashed against her bare legs, she covered her head with her bag and cursed herself for having left her umbrella at home. In front of her a door opened onto a noisy bistrot and without a moment’s hesitation she hopped through the doorway and into the dry.
A young waiter in white shirt and long black apron tied low on his hips came up to her “Dejeuner Madame?”, “oui, s’il vous plait, je suis seule… yes please, just for one”.
He led her through the noisy bustling bistro to a small table along the back wall, “Voila, vous serez bien ici, je vous amène la carte”. She took off her coat and folded it across the back of the chair facing the wall, then eased her way carefully onto the other chair, the one with its back to the wall.
It was one of those very Parisian bistros whose tables are packed side by side; optimising space and making the service quick and efficient. She looked around the restaurant and smiled to herself; just the sort of place she liked best. Busy, packed full of smart professionals and from the look of the plates she could see, serving great food. The perfect choice for a discreet solo lunch, nobody would pay any attention to a 50 ish woman having a quick lunch alone, she could people watch to her hearts content and enjoy her meal alone with her own thoughts.
As she started to look at the menu, the waiter appeared again followed by a young woman. With the same quick gesture, he pulled out a chair, signalled to the girl that this would be her place and immediately darted back towards the kitchens again promising to return to take her order.
The girl smiled at Claire, and took off her coat ‘Il pleut beaucoup”, she said. From her accent Heidi knew immediately that the girl was American “yes, she replied, I got in just in time”. As the girl settled down, they found themselves sitting side by side. They were the only people in the little bistro not eating with someone else, and after a while they struck up conversation.
The girl was called Heidi, she told Claire she was 23 years old, and had been in Paris for a year and a half. She asked Claire a few questions, in particular about how old she was when she first arrived in France. Once she understood that Claire had arrived in Paris over 30 years earlier as a student, and had married a Frenchman and lived here every since, she became more earnest.
“So you arrived here at the same age as me today?”, “Well yes, I suppose so, ” replied Claire, “Give or take a year or two”
Heidi, paused and smiled, she looked suddenly timid. “May I ask you a personal question?” . She left no time for Claire to reply, but continued “Do you ever regret having left your home country?” she hurried on to another question, obviously caught up in her own thoughts; “I mean do you ever think it would have been easier to have stayed at home and married the boy next door?”
Claire smiled, “sounds like you have a lot on your mind right now”, “Yeah, replied Heidi, kind of.”
” I met this boy, he’s called Jules …. he’s really cute, and fun and well, you know we get on really well …. I hadn’t planned to stay here forever, but now meeting him makes it feel possible, and I just don’t know what to do.”
Claire took a deep breath and paused. A hundred thoughts were rushing through her mind, this was after all a subject she had often thought about. What should she tell this young woman?
She looked at Heidi, who apparently was holding her breath waiting for an answer. Claire smiled, “You know what Heidi, I can’t really help you make this decision because it is your life, and I know nothing about you, and I certainly don’t have any call to influence you one way or the other” Heidi’s face fell, visibly disappointed by the non-committal reply.
There was a pause, while Heidi pondered and Claire gathered her thoughts; “What I can tell you though is that today, and after thirty years living in this country, I still enjoy the Frenchness. I can still see the beauty in the architecture and the countryside; I still love the French attitude to food and to eating well; I enjoy the way we can take our time on the small things that make such a difference and I admire the French savoir faire more now than I did as a young girl all those years ago.”
“My husband is French, and I love that our children are bilingual and bicultural. Having this mixed marriage has kept things interesting, and so I suppose I wouldn’t change a thing”
Heidi smiled gratefully, “Ok thanks, this is great, that makes everything easier” she looked at Claire, then noticed the look in her eyes, “What?, is there something else I should know?”
“Yes said Claire slowly, “you asked me if I regretted having left home, and I suppose that I don’t, but you should still know some of the downsides” Heidi took a deep breath.
“You will miss your family and if you stay here for ever then that will be worse as your parents grow older and you’ll worry for them…. All the hard work you have put in trying to build up your career will come to little because you are leaving behind all those references that make you who you are today: your neighbours, your family, your high school teachers; your first employers … You will find it frustrating not being able to communicate perfectly until you’ve been here long enough to be totally bilingual… and at times you will long to be among your own, with people who share your culture and upbringing and your sense of humour”, poor Heidi looked devastated, with a hint of a tear in her eye.
Claire squeezed Heidi’s shoulder, “But you know what Heidi, life will never be simple no matter where or with whom you choose to live it. Whichever choice you make will be a brave decision, and it is up to you to make it the right decision and move forward without looking over your shoulder. Right now, you just have to choose whether you want to walk through that open door, and discover a new life on the other side, or whether you prefer to stick to what you know best and avoid the risk and uncertainty.”
There was a long silence as both women took in what had just been said. Claire worrying she had been too outspoken, and Heidi just grateful that her options had been made so clear.
“Heidi? Claire made the young girl jump! “This is not a moment to feel worried, it’s a wonderful point in your life where everything is still to come. Let’s celebrate, let us drink to your future, wherever you choose to make it” Without waiting for Heidi to reply, Claire caught the waiter’s attention ” Champagne s’il vous plait, une coupe pour moi et une pour mademoiselle qui va bientôt accomplir de grandes choses!, CHampagne please, a glass for me and one for this gorgeous young lady who will soon accomplish great things!”
That lunch lasted for several hours, as the two women, two versions of the same situation 30 years apart, chatted and laughed together. They never met again after that day, and Claire never knew which decision Heidi made, but that didn’t matter. Their meeting was a pause in everyday life, where their parallel paths touched and ran together for just a few thought provoking hours.