Making peace with Paris

What’s it like to visit a place where you’re haunted by painful memories? ‘I was afraid that a visit to the world’s capital of romance would rekindle my own heartbreak,’ writes Ana Santos.

CITY OF LIGHT. Paris moves at the speed of light, life goes on. Photo by Etienne Laurent/EPA

CITY OF LIGHT. Paris moves at the speed of light, life goes on. Photo by Etienne Laurent/EPA

I was maybe 22 when I first started what I called “My Paris Fund.” I put in every peso, every centavo I could save into a bank account so I could have enough for a trip to Paris someday.

When the amounts in the bank account became a little more significant, I invested it little by little into the stock market.

Then the 1997 regional market came crashed. My stocks were worth just a little more than toilet paper and my dream of going to the City of Light was dashed.

Later, an opportunity came again to visit Paris, my honeymoon. I honeymooned in Paris. The use of the words “my” and “I” rather than “we” or “us” is deliberate and appropriate. Somewhere between Manila and Charles de Gaulle, it became clear to me that the union wasn’t going to work. And a little more than a year later, the marriage ended. It would have probably been a lot sooner if I didn’t have a baby in between and was temporarily restricted and immobilized during the pregnancy.

A baby that I learned, when I backtracked, was conceived in a small, quaint Italian village called Assisi.

Being a first-time mother, a newly separated wife, and a working woman was daunting and overwhelming. I did not have a back-up plan and I did not have a safety net—unless you count my steely determination to stand by my decision as a safety net.

The only way I knew how to deal with my new normal was to forget. It was the only way I knew to move on; it was the only way I knew I could somehow function.

I called it my oblivion – this non-selective way of erasing memories that were so painful that they were debilitating. And in my oblivion, I forgot Paris. Except for seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, the Mona Lisa and the friendly French waiter who played charades with me and enacted everything on the menu to make sure I did not order something too exotic, Paris became just a place I had once been to and once visited.

For many years, I looked at Paris from the eyes of a distant admirer and enjoyed it at arm’s length, from photos posted by friends. I lived vicariously through vacation photos posted by friends, content to see others enjoy the city, which was nothing more than a vague memory.

Again

Last May, 13 years after my first visit I went back to Paris again. I was alone this time, a journalist on assignment rather than a tourist.

I was thankful for the distraction of managing respondent schedules, navigating my way out of Paris to the suburbs to meet them at their homes. It took my mind off my own ambivalence. I was afraid to sit in a place and have memories that had long been erased come back at me. I was afraid that wandering through the city would make me face my old failures.

I was afraid that a visit to the world’s capital of romance would rekindle my own heartbreak.

In a way, I was also hopeful. I was hopeful that the years that had gone by would allow me to face those memories and finally acknowledge them for what they really were – memories of another time, another life, another person who had very little resemblance to the person I am now.

SACRE COEUR. The basilica is a popular tourist spot in Paris. Photo by Ian Langsdon/EPA

SACRE COEUR. The basilica is a popular tourist spot in Paris. Photo by Ian Langsdon/EPA

On my last day in Paris, an interview with my last respondent ended early and I had just enough time to visit Sacrè Coeur before going to the airport. I did not get to go there on my first and last visit and thought it would be fitting that my last stop would be the highest point of with city.

I climbed up the 90-something steps to reach the foot of the basilica and looked at the city sprawled out in front of me, and thought back to the days that had gone by.

It had rained almost every day that I was there, but it did nothing to take away from the beauty of the city. I met, interviewed and got to know fellow Filipinos working in Paris as domestic workers or garde d’enfants,or babysitters/nannies. The city’s historic landmarks and dazzling lights did nothing to assuage their homesickness and their longing to be with the families back home.

As for me, I was thankful for the chance to see the city again and make new memories. If there is one thing that I learned, it’s when life gives you bad memories, you make new ones – better ones.

After my own vain but humorous attempts at a selfie, I gave up. I looked at Paris one last time and began my descent down the hill to catch the metro.

And then I saw it.

FINDING MYSELF. Finding 'Ana' in Paris. Photo by Ana Santos

FINDING MYSELF. Finding 'Ana' in Paris. Photo by Ana Santos

A name plate souvenir, like so many sold all over the world. Only this time, for the first time, my named was spelled correctly. “ANA” with one N. I forked over my 5 euros and bought my mini-street sign with my name underneath the word “Paris.”

I brought it out of the bag while in the metro and looked at it more intently. All this time, I thought I needed to make peace with Paris, when really, what I needed was to make peace with myself.

This was re-posted from Rappler.

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