Sober Abroad

Finding friends in low places.

paris-picI did not plan to go to Paris alone for my 40th birthday. Two weeks before our vacation my friend called to cancel. I had been dreaming about this trip since I was a kid. I had paid a non-refundable deposit for one of the two hotels we reserved. I had a guidebook punctuated by miniature arrow-shaped sticky notes. Skipping this trip was out of the question. So I headed off to celebrate living long enough to be “middle-aged” in Paris— by myself. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is one of the promises.

Boarding the plane, I remembered how, at one year sober, I took my first business trip. I had never enjoyed going to meetings out of town. In fact, I resented it. When I went home for the holidays to see my family every year meetings were an escape. But this was different. This was work. I should be spending my free time seeing the sights. I was entitled. I made the mistake of sharing this before I left on my business trip. An old timer approached me after the meeting.

“We have friends all over the world we just haven’t met yet.” He handed me a scrap of paper with his scribble on it and said this girl would be expecting to hear from me.

I winced and told him I might give her a call. Instead, I spent the entire week in my hotel room in Northampton eating ice cream, watching pay-per-view, and feeling sorry for myself.

Not long after that, a friend’s sponsor took a trip to France. With 13 years of sobriety under her belt, she drank. She came back to L.A. and announced that she was not an alcoholic after all. In turn, I watched my friend question her own sobriety. If it was easier for her sponsor to forget what got her to the program since she had traveled alone to a country where nobody knew her—a country where everybody drank—what was I thinking going to the same country?

I was greeted in the City of Light by a throng of students protesting near my hotel. In my imagination a pouty young maiden waved the red white and blue (stripes not stars) flag over a barricade. Once inside, I opened my hotel windows and looked down. Two rather handsome men in dark blue police uniforms stood near their van observing the protesters. When they glanced up I waved. They waved back. Excellent. The French were not so snobby after all. I gobbled down a pain au chocolat I’d bought at the airport, stuffed my earplugs in, and passed out in my tiny room. When I woke it was 10pm on a Tuesday night. The Eiffel Tower was open till midnight and I’d already wasted half a day. I took a taxi over to the 7th arrondissement, took a selfie at the top of the tower, and on the way back made a mental note as I passed the American church, where I had heard there were English-speaking meetings.

Early the next day I took the Metro back to the 7th and then walked to the church. It was colder than I expected and I considered how much more comfortable I’d be in a cafe with a hot cup of tea. Then, I saw a woman walking up the brick stairs.

“Are you looking for the meeting?”

She must have seen the question in my eyes. I followed her to a little room downstairs. Inside were a few Frenchies, some other Americans, an Englishman or two. I enjoyed hearing the same old readings with a few new accents. Before I left I was invited to come back and speak that weekend. I had planned on just the one meeting. Now, I was obligated by virtue of my vanity, to come back.

When Saturday came, I spoke at the big meeting. Everyone laughed and nodded and I was amazed that even on the other side of the world, I could belong. There were a couple of girls from Orange County who invited me to join them at Brasserie Lipp afterwards. Over a plate of profiteroles the dark-haired one shared about her ex-boyfriend and her drinking and the sadness that stained her life. I thought about how friends are people who are there for you when you are at your lowest, not just to celebrate your success. Back in Northampton the program had not let me down, I had simply refused to be helped. This trip was different already, and all I had done was say yes. As our waiter cleared the table, the girls warned me about a con artist whom they had encountered. His game was to approach and hand his target a gold ring, as if the person had dropped it. While you stood there discussing the ring with him, his accomplice grabbed your purse and ran. Beware, they said. I will, I said. And we traded numbers, kissed cheeks, and parted ways.

I took the Metro back toward the river and considered the sticky notes still holding places in my guidebook. I walked by the Musee d’Orsay but the line to enter was unfathomably long. So I kept on going along the river. I wandered out on a bridge to look at the view of Notre Dame and Ile de la Cite. There was an accordion player sitting on a little stool busking for tips. I dropped a few coins in his case and took out my camera for another selfie.

“You must be waiting for your lover.”

When I looked up there was a man standing nearby, his head tilted to the side a bit, his moustache blowing in the wind.

“Not exactly…” He was not unattractive in that slightly dumpy, ugly-sexy, Harvey Keitel sort of way.

“Whenever I see a woman alone on dis bridge, she is waiting for her lover. “

I tilted my head back at him.

“Here, let me take your picture,” He motioned at the camera in my hand with his two fingers. It was a somewhat suggestive gesture.

I was a little worried as I handed him my camera. What was to stop him from running off with it?

“My name is Bruno, I’m a street photographer.” He snapped a couple pictures.

I could see he was not going anywhere.

“People think this is the most romantic bridge in the world. They come here and they put the locks on the bridge and they srow the key in the water,” he explained, as he handed the camera back to me and pointed to the chain-link railing on the Pont des Artes.

I hadn’t even noticed. I was taken up by the view. But I looked closer. All along this bridge there were locks of various colors and sizes.

“Oh my god!” I shouted, so completely and unashamedly American in this moment that even the accordion player had to laugh.

Just then it started to rain the way it had been all week. And I thought Paris in June would be sunny. Still, I thought, as I waved goodbye to Bruno and flung my scarf over my head, there’s something romantic about this moment. I may be sober and forty in Paris, but I am not alone. There was a whole room full of people who knew my story now. There was a place I could go even if I was feeling low. I had friends. And I didn’t have to wait for an invitation. It occurred to me that I had been waiting in a lot of ways. I had so many ideas about the way things were supposed to be and what I could and could not do. Thanks to what I first saw as a great inconvenience, I knew I didn’t have to wait anymore.

On my last day in Paris I went to the Louvre. I had been warned that to try to see it all in one day was ludicrous. But I’m an alcoholic. That is how I roll. As I strolled toward the entrance I heard a chiming at my feet. I looked down to see a gold ring rolling across my path.

“Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!” He pointed at the ring and ran up beside me.

I glanced at him and slowed my pace. He was cross-eyed and shaggy-haired. In general he had the look of someone who had been left out in a storm.

He picked up the ring and hurried after me, holding it out toward me.

I walked faster and held up my hand. “Nope. Not mine.”

But he persisted, as if he did not understand English.

We would see about that. “I was warned about you buddy.”

He stopped dead in his tracks. I kept right on going. And damned if I didn’t see most of the Louvre that day. Or at least enough of it to satisfy me. Read More “the fix”…

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