(This post was originally published on my personal blog, Of Postcards & Ink, between 2015-2016.)
Trois cent trente-neuf jours. Three hundred and thirty-nine days.
Some spent walking on clouds with a happy and full heart. Others spent wandering in the gloomy depths of a sad and homesick soul. All of them spent cradled in the hands of a loving Father who is working all things for my good.
The last forty of them have seen me officially finish two semesters worth of classes at Sciences Po, sit my final exam on a sunny Saturday afternoon, celebrate my church’s first baptism service, watch Australia almost win Eurovision while sitting in a room full of Europeans (note: I feel as though I gained a greater insight into the European psyche in that one evening than in two semesters at Sciences Po – just kidding…kind of), spend a week exploring England, joyfully see God growing my friendships with people in Paris in leaps and bounds over everything from board games, cheese and drinks to coffees and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, spend my last Tuesday evening babysitting Marie and Tristan, spend an evening enjoying a ballet at the beautiful Palais Garnier (thanks Jessie!), wander through Monet’s gardens, and welcome my mum to the city of lights…just to name a few things!
A few days after my final exam in mid-May, I headed across the Channel and arrived in London with Miri, filled with a sense of childlike excitement to visit a city that I almost felt I had vicariously lived in myself through books, films and blogs and an eagerness to explore a place so rich in culture and heritage without ever having to cast my mind to French verb conjugations and subjunctive tenses (it’s the little things). Despite my excitement to be back in an anglophone country for the first time since I left Australia, however, our first two hours in London were still spent accidentally letting “pardon” slip out of our mouths as reflex reactions to bumping into people on the Tube followed by sheepish laughs and knowing looks, haha. The experience of being in London was lovely but strange, wandering the streets of a country that reminded me so strikingly of home and yet was tinged with a necessary sense of unfamiliarity, rooted in a history that’s left its colonial fingerprints on a country that I call home on the other side of the world.
There was an undeniable and perpetual buzz about London. She was immense, grand, and a city that so, so many people have come to call home – whether for a few months or a lifetime. And she seemed to be the perfect host, going above and beyond to entertain and impress, with museums, beautiful, stately architecture and a constant stream of pop-up/seasonal initiatives, new eateries and fun things to do. Spending a rainy morning and afternoon wandering through the overwhelming and painstakingly curated relics and pieces of history lining the walls of the British Museum was an immense treat, but I’d have to say that my favourite moments in London were found in her colourful, abundant and lively markets and theatres, where I felt that the city’s ability to story-tell and create came alive. Doing things as simple as sampling baklava, brownies and Indian street food at Borough Market and eyeing vintage cameras, maps and tea cups at Portobello Market gave me unique glimpses into the generations that have left footprints on the culture of this city and the diversity that has come to characterise her today. I was also fortunate enough to watch The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at Gielgud Theatre and Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre (the Speech & Drama graduate and teacher in me was very pleased) on two different nights and they were beautiful reminders of what I love about theatre – the innovative, empathetic and deeply moving treatment of stories that weave the threads of our humanity together. The former play left me in a particular state of awe, with its perfectly sensitive and mindblowingly creative adaption of its novel-form counterpart, which I love. The production’s use of the stage, innovative set design, frequently wry breaking of the fourth wall and carefully cultivated balance between humour and the heart-wrenching innocence of its protagonist had me laughing and crying, and refreshed by the God-given gift of art-making and story-telling that makes us feel the weight of the joys, fears and vulnerability we often keep carefully hidden away from others and even from ourselves.
My time in London was sweetened even further by precious hours spent with dear friends. Whether chatting over 22-inch pizzas with Miri and later hovering over the Thames in the London Eye while celebrating God’s provision of a place for her to live next semester, or enjoying an authentic Afghani meal on a richly ornamented and silk-covered floor with Maddie, memories of London are also tied to a profound sense of thankfulness for friendships that transcend distance and that are rooted in eternity.
From London, I took the opportunity to visit the cities of Oxford and Brighton on different days. While in Oxford, I went to C.S. Lewis’ house and it was even more wonderful than I expected. His way of perceiving the world and capturing biblical truths in profound and stunning prose has always fascinated me and drawn me towards his writing. As I walked through the hallways and rooms of his home (which have been restored to mimic what they would have looked like towards the end of Lewis’ life and which now lodge many a pensive scholar), I heard stories about his life that I had never heard before and was able to sit at his desk and wander the paths in the forests just behind his garden that inspired the likes of the beautiful world of Narnia. It was an afternoon of marvelling and of being inspired, ultimately rekindling in me my desire to discover even more of his writings and grow in love for the eternal God that we both praise and worship.
My final afternoon in England was then spent in windy, sunny and blustery Brighton. There was a childlike sense of carefree lightness that filled the air in this lovely seaside city. Gazing upwards at the colourful bunting that lined her buzzing, boutique-lined laneways and strolling along the famous pier and pebbled seashore made for a wonderfully relaxing adventure, with a stop at Bluebird Tea Co. and The Creperie tying it all together in a happy harmony.
Since returning from my time in England, the last few weeks have been spent soaking up as much of Paris as possible. The days and nights have been tinted with a strange and bittersweet sense of the inevitable. As the “last” markers have come and gone – last commute to uni, last GBU Interfac, last Saturday brunch with Miri, last church bible study, last church service, last grocery shop – you name it, it feels as though my departure date (which seemed profoundly untouchable and distant for so long) has suddenly started hurtling towards me like a speeding train. The last two weeks have been particularly hard on an emotional level, as I’ve found myself perpetually oscillating between an urge to cry when I think about the prospect of leaving a year of emotional and relational roots behind and a tingling sense of excitement about all that’s waiting for me on the other side of the world. Random points in banal conversations and the small everyday moments that ring so fully of Paris can trigger a heart-wrenching burning sensation behind my eyes, while receiving spontaneous messages from friends and family on the home front expressing their excitement about my imminent return date fill me with a longing to wake up in Sydney. Either way, I’m acutely aware of a sense of rupture, a loss. And I’m learning to see the beauty in that – a loss that means that I’ve left part of my heart here. That though it’s been ever so hard to do at times, I’ve been vulnerable and truly lived life with the incredibly kind and brilliant people I’ve crossed paths with in this city and tried to soak in the centuries of stories cradled in Paris’ nooks and crannies.
Amidst these waves that have marked the rhythm of my thoughts and reflections over the last few weeks though, the thread that weaves them all together into a beautifully imperfect patchwork blanket is thankfulness. Thankfulness for wonderfully kind and generous people, who have shared their lives and their hearts with me, and for this city that has welcomed me and given me a place to lay my head and be stretched, changed and grown. The last few weeks have held some of the most precious moments with dear friends, made particularly wonderful by the depth and warmth of conversation, laughter and sharing that pervaded them all. There have been late nights spent chatting away about everything from French abbreviations to Calvinist theology over cheese, chacuterie and wine, afternoons spent enjoying a homecooked meal and ice cream in an apartment high over the banlieues, brunch and acai bowls in Le Marais, evenings spent playing board games at bars, evenings spent chatting over homemade pizzas and fresh peonies, and nights spent laughing and googling family coat of arms at farewell drinks. There was a time in my exchange when I wondered whether leaving would actually be that hard. Particularly during stretches of time where I felt perpetually stuck in the vicious cycle of small talk while trying to keep a catalogue of a ridiculous number of French names in my head, I asked myself how saying goodbye to friends whom I had only met months or at most a year beforehand (with language and culture adding even more bridges to cross) could possibly compare to the sadness I experienced in leaving friends whom I had known and lived life with for years behind in Sydney. But despite meeting as strangers not all that long ago, God’s kindness and the generosity of others in giving of themselves and also receiving me – in my strengths and my flaws – have gifted me with friendships that run so very deep and in a way that I could never have imagined. My cup runneth over.
About a week ago, I moved out of my apartment, said goodbye to my ever-delightful gardien d’immeuble (essentially a mix between a concierge and a building manager) and also had my last Sunday at Eglise Connexion, which was spent with my mum by my side. To have seen this church plant more than double in size since I first walked through her doors in September last year has been such a joy and it was incredibly special to sing praises to God, hear from His word and spend time with fellowship with this family for the last time this year. To be prayed for by them at the end of the service and share hugs, conversations filled with thanksgiving and final bises in the short hours afterwards was a precious blessing beyond words. As I’ve watched so many aspects of my life wrap up here in Paris, I’ve also been so very thankful for the presence of my mum over the last week. Amidst the craziness of days filled with countless goodbyes, packed suitcases, administrative shenanigans and a whole lot of emotions, her endless love, prayers and wisdom have been a song to soothe the soul.
And so, here I am. Four days away from boarding a plane that will take me all the way back to Sydney. There’s an ache in my heart but also a deeper joy and contentment that I pray God might hold me steadfast in.
After all, “to love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides”(David Viscott). What a humbling and beautiful privilege it is to be walking in sunshine.
On arrive presque à la fin, mes amis. I’m writing this while on a plane somewhere 11,600 metres in the air between Oslo and Paris, driven more intensely by a sense of desperate necessity than one of calm and collected reflection, given that I have one more post that I’d really like to write and publish before I arrive back in Sydney on Saturday (!). So thank you for bearing with the sporadic nature of my posts recently and today’s less-than-eloquent paragraphs here and there. But most of all, thank you for following me on this adventure. In reading along and committing me to prayer, you’ve invested time, love and care into this season of my life and for that, I can’t thank you enough.
This will probably be the last set of prayer points that I write here in relation to my exchange. And as I reflect on what to write here, I’m so thankful for the LORD’s strength that He has so faithfully given each day, and for how every time I’ve come to Him in all my weakness, weariness and home sickness, I received mercy, grace, love and strength. This has really been a journey of learning to let God take me wherever He wills to strengthen my faith and sanctify me by His Word through His Spirit, that I might know that He is good and worthy of all praise – all the time.
As I prepare to head back to Sydney, please pray for my process of re-integration in every circle of life – whether at home, at church, at uni, at work, and particularly in my friendships and ministries. Please pray that in the inevitable weariness that comes from banal things like jetlag and having to unpack 3 huge suitcases of stuff and in the dry stretches where I feel an acute sense of missing life in Paris, that God might give me the grace and patience to love those around me and to know how to sensitively, humbly and graciously respond as I eagerly hear about all that God has been doing in the lives of so many of my friends over the past year. Please pray that as I respond to countless questions of “how was exchange?” and all of its variations that I might have wisdom to communicate how it really has been with clarity and honesty, that the testimony of my time on exchange might be an encouragement to others and a testament to our great God.
“You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
And so, “may these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
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