(This post was originally published on my personal blog, Of Postcards & Ink, between 2015-2016.)
It’s a crisp Monday morning and I’m walking briskly back home from the supermarket, hands filled with bags carrying fruits, vegetables and the mundanities of everyday life alongside the books that I needed for my class at uni earlier that morning. Mindfully watching for any rapidly approaching bicycles in my periphery and trying to angle my head such that my hair and scarf aren’t blown wildly across my face by the wind, I walk past the timeless red doors and glistening white stone walls of Eglise Saint-Paul Saint-Louis and turn onto another street towards my apartment building. The concierge greets me with a cheerful “bonjour!” and “bon appetit!” in the courtyard as he nods towards my freshly bought groceries and we chat briefly before I continue across the cobblestones and manoeuvre my way through the door to my building without any spare hands and up two flights of stairs to my apartment.
Since leaving Sydney eight months ago, there have been so many routines, habits and friendships – both significant and banal in nature – that have come together to create a new norm; a life that has been built on a different side of the world and a life that has had to become familiar, though initially so far from everything and everyone that I recognised as familiar. Throughout it all, I’ve felt like I’ve been subconsciously suspended in a permanent state of waiting. Waiting for what? Not quite Godot, though perhaps something equally as elusive and difficult to identify and assess. Even I don’t think I knew exactly what it was. But the week before last, I think something clicked. At the heart of my dissatisfied wait was a desire for perfection – for the moment where life in Paris would suddenly become easy, completely comfortable and a picture of seamless effortlessness.
Ezra Taft Benson once wrote that “some of the greatest battles will be fought within the silent chambers of your own soul” and as I reflect on how much inner turmoil and discontentment with my own abilities I’ve wrestled with over the past eight months, I’m filled with an overwhelming urge to laugh and cry at the truth of that statement. Here’s a little lifelong observation from me to you: perfection is a cruel master. Throughout exchange, perfection reared its head in so many different forms (Dickson and Iris, I feel like you guys have witnessed this first hand many, many times…thank you for loving me so well, particularly in these moments). Even thoughts as small as “I had to ask a French friend at church/uni/GBU to repeat various things quite a few times during our conversation today…I wish I didn’t have to do that/I’m sure that it’s less enjoyable for them too/I wish I had more to offer people” and “I wish I contributed more in Bible study today” could swirl around in my mind for hours and as you can imagine, the experience of being thrown out of my comfort zone in so many ways during my time in Paris likewise blew my wrestle with and desire for perfection up beyond belief, bringing me to a place where I had so much further to fall. As I’ve come to recognise this battle for what it is, the words of Jesus in Matthew 11 come to mind and are a gentle but firm rebuke: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (v. 28-30). This labour and heavy burden of mine is one ultimately rooted in a sinful desire to find my worth in the way that I perceive myself and the way that others perceive me. And yet, I know and follow Christ as my Lord and Saviour, who has redeemed me from slavery to the approval of others and given me a worth and value that is already perfect – a status that comes not from my own ability to earn it, but from His tried, tested and eternal ability to attain it on my behalf. And there’s so much freedom in that! I already have everything and my burden is lifted from my shoulders, freeing me from fixating on the way that I’m perceived by my peers to see myself the way that God does – aware of my shortcomings and my imperfection, yet equally and humbly convinced of all that has been won for me in Christ and the glory that I was created to reflect. To know this and to know that it’s enough is a truth and a reality that’s still in the process of making its way from my head to my heart, and a lesson I’m sure I’ll keep on learning in all sorts of forms and contexts. I hope and pray that God might give me the grace and the humility to find beauty in all of these growing pains as they come.
Anyway, onto some of the more concrete things that I’ve been up to since I last caught up with you!
From a spontaneous dinner (with an excessive DIY dessert of chocolate fondue included) with Perrine and Miri and an early morning coffee catch-up with Laetitia, Miri and Ross, to my fortnightly Saturday afternoon meetings with a few girls from church (Laetitia, Pascale and Rebecca) and monthly dinners/brunches with upwards of 10-15 other women from church, the last couple of weeks have been dotted with lovely and encouraging moments spent in fellowship with church friends in ways that haven’t been limited to Sundays. I say this all the time, but I’m so thankful for my church.
Two Tuesdays ago, I also had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Alex before she flew back to Sydney. It seemed like a very fitting way for her to end her time on exchange, given that we had also had the opportunity to catch up when she had first arrived in Paris last year before continuing onto Bordeaux. We indulged in some of Le Marais’ famous falafel and then headed back to my place for a cup of tea, all the while chatting about what the last few months have held for both of us and sharing about what the coming weeks and months might look like too. The last month or so has been an interesting one, insofar as having the opportunity to chat to quite a few friends who have come to the end of their exchange in various parts of Europe and who have wrestled with what it means to go back home to Sydney and re-integrate into a corner of the world that is, at once, the same but also very different to what they remembered. Whether the process of coming home is seamless or filled with growing pains, the common thread is undeniably God’s hand in using every stage of exchange to grow His children and to equip them to better serve Him and those around us wherever we end up in the world. Speaking of going back to Sydney, I booked my flights home this week #ahhhhhhhhhhh #idontknowhowifeel. I’m excited but also anxious about the prospect of experiencing that reintegration process for myself!
Last Saturday evening, I also had the opportunity to go and watch a piece of musical theatre (not quite a full-blown musical in the sense that we might normally understand it) called Enigma: L’Ecume des Jours at Théâtre du Châtelet. It’s a theatrical/musical performance based on the novel L’Ecume des Jours written by Boris Vian, that’s been adapted to incorporate a script that’s been adapted to the stage, as well as a musical score composed by Jean-François Zygel. All in all, it was a really enjoyable and unique show. The storyline itself was very whimsical and the use of a very minimalist set and costume design allowed you to focus on the characters’ ever-intentionally-placed words and actions, while also encouraging the audience to bring their own imagination to the performance. At its heart, it was a play about love and friendship, as seen through the lens of three eccentric characters – a husband, wife and friend – one of whom suffers from an illness that requires that she be constantly surrounded by flowers. There was a band constantly situated on stage left and would interact every now and then with the three principal actors. At the same time, there were various other secondary roles in the play and it was interesting to see how they used the same three actors to play all of them. Something I love about Paris is how they go out of their way to make cultural activities like the theatre, ballet and opera more accessible to students and younger Parisians through various things like flash sales (where you can score €5 or €10 tickets to world-class performances) or even monthly nights where you can score free seats for various shows if you’re willing to stand in a queue for 1-2 hours. I’ve done the latter a couple of times now and there’s definitely something that’s strangely enjoyable about the sense of solidarity and suspense that pervades the line of under-28s as everyone stands there in the cold – some with pastries in hand and others with books – hoping that there’ll be enough tickets available to reach your section of the line. That’s definitely something I’ll miss when I get back to Sydney!
As I mentioned in my last post, the French family that I babysit for really kindly invited me to stay for dinner and we finally got around to making it happen on Tuesday last week. I could tell you all about the the details of things we discussed over dinner (everything from French politics to kangeroos) and the specifics of the wine we drank and the main course and dessert we enjoyed, but even more than that, what I think will always stay with me is the memory of the warmth, hospitality and genuine care that they showed and continue to show me. It’s said that the French can appear quite cold to those they don’t know very well as a result of their disinterest in pursuing superficial relationships, but it’s true that the relationships that they do decide to pursue are so much richer and visibly authentic for it. Despite the number of to-do lists and deadlines that swirling around in the back of my mind last week, I’m so thankful for the time I was able to spend with the Prudhommes. Given that the time I spend at their place is with the kids before their parents get home from work, it was so lovely to have an opportunity to get to know the parents better for them to do the same with me. I feel very blessed to work with the family that I do!
For the most part, last week was an incredibly busy one at uni, with a couple of French tests on Monday, a presentation/exposé (in French about the refugee crisis in Europe #funtimes) on Wednesday and an International Law essay and 8am discussion seminar on Friday thrown into the mix. Thursday night saw me staying at the Sciences Po library until closing time (11pm) so that I could finish and print my essay for the following morning and much to my amusement, at 10:45pm, the library staff took it upon themselves to play the RER (overground train system) announcement tone over the loudspeakers, followed by something along the lines of “The RER of the Library is now approaching its terminal stop. Please gather your things and prepare to disembark.” So great! It was such a relief to get through last week and make it to the mid-sem break with the knowledge that I’d already ticked off a fair number of my assessments for the semester. After hauling myself over the finish line at uni early on Friday morning, the rest of the day was spent in a mellow state of giddy relief. I met up with a group of friends from uni for an afternoon of homemade scones and tea (#happydays), caught up briefly with Miri over a couple of chocolate eclairs and then ended the night with a few hours of additional baby-sitting before arriving back home and everything but collapsing into bed. The last couple of weeks have been really full but also really great and productive, to say the least.
This week, I’ll be heading to the south of France (Nice, Marseille and Montpellier) with Miri for our mid-sem break and I’m pretty excited about the prospect of (a) sun (it’s around 10 degrees warmer down there!) and (b) opportunities to take photos in places that aren’t perpetually suspended in a state of winter grey-ness! Looking forward to being able to share those adventures with you soon :)
“In friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another…the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting – any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.“ (C.S. Lewis)
Miri and I often reflect on how clearly we can see God’s fingerprints on our friendship – from the circumstances of our first meeting to the way that it’s grown and developed so profoundly and beautifully since then. Praise God for the wisdom and goodness of His design of friendships, particularly between Christians, and for how I’ve been able to appreciate it in a new and even more marvellous light in the context of my year abroad. Please pray that this week that we spend together while travelling might be one of rest, encouragement, refreshment and joy for us both, that God might guide us and keep us safe, and that He might be glorified through us.
Thanks for your prayers as always, friends! Sending you all my love (and encouragement to those of you who have just started your first week of the uni semester, haha) and would love to hear about how you’re going too. Take care x