Marching On

None of us crave moving on. There's comfort in the familiar, a natural inclination to plod along with the status quo. We've all found ourselves in that situation, the anxiety we felt when we plunged into a new reality. The embellished memories of the past we created with our rosy-tinted glasses. The longing to go back to what once was, even when we knew full well that it would never quite be as we remember it.

After finishing my one-year MBA in Paris, I moved to Abu Dhabi to begin work as a strategic consultant. I caught myself daydreaming constantly about my time in the City of Lights, replaying memorable occasions over and over in my head. I would log on to Facebook and Skype to strike up conversations with old classmates and peers. I even spent hours poring over job listings in Paris, hoping to find an impossible fit for a heavy-tongued French speaker and foreigner like myself.

I tried to envision myself back in Paris, when I had actually been a resident, and suddenly a surge of conflicting emotions overcame me. I started to remember how nasty I had found the weather, how crude and caustic people's manners were, how the cadence of life was unrelentingly fast. I recalled hating how everything save movie theaters closed on Sundays, that the air everywhere reeked of cigarette smoke, how you had to vigilantly avoid dog doo on every sidewalk as if you were braving an obstacle course. Life wasn't practical or convenient: I had lived in a tiny 10 sq. meter chambre de bonne, a modest student's room in the eaves of a stately building on Rue Saint Dominique in the 7th arrondissement. There was no elevator access to my room, so I had to mount 120 steep stairs in a winding stairwell supported only by a rusty metal banister. The window in my room was the small swiveling type: I could barely peek through to see the steeple of the nearby Sainte Clotilde cathedral. My bed was a couch-turned-cot, my shower a tight glass compartment that prohibited even bending over to scrub my legs with a loofah--I had to lift them up one at a time. My clothes I either folded and arranged on the bookshelves or hung on a dinky nightstand. Luckily, I had a small washing machine and mini-fridge housed under the kitchen sink, a microwave and later a toaster oven bolted to the wall right above my desk. It was bizarre how space-efficient my dungeon was, but there was certainly no room for storage.

Many nights, I'd lay stiffly in bed, the metal rungs piercing my back through the flimsy mattress, and curse my move to the so-called Cité d'Amour--we never understood that moniker, because Paris proved to be everything but romantic. People were always short of breath, rarely smiled, and rushed past each other on the metro escalators as if they were racing to a finish line. Those who didn't don the impeccable Parisian accent were dismissed as second-class humans. We often joked that God had created the ideal landscape in France, from the beautiful Mediterranean seaside to the dense forests, lush wine valleys, and ski-perfect Alps. But to balance it all out, he populated it with an inexplicably unpleasant people.

So why was I reminiscing my adventures in Paris when I'd ached to move on? Why had Paris become the paradise I dreamt of and to whose traffic-plagued streets I longed to return? With newness comes discomfort: we grow distraught with the idea of starting again from scratch. A new identity, a new foundation, the need to prove ourselves capable and successful once more. The burden of new responsibility invariably pushes us to recall our past with fondness and nostalgia, even if it were a veritable inferno. We mislead ourselves into believing we had everything figured out and squared away (but even if we had, we were secretly anticipating a new adventure). Once we shrug off the awkward shrouds of the new and plant our feet firmly in the ground, our confidence blossoms and we can move forward. We can live in the here and now and begin to command the present. If however, we choose to dwell in the past, if we go on living a forgone reality, we condemn ourselves to a compromised existence, and our mind and body suffer from disconnected habitation.

I visited Paris several months after I'd left it for good, and lo and behold, the dressed up memories I'd been entertaining dissolved. Paris was still Paris: cold, harsh, and inconvenient. While it was wonderful to reunite with old friends and colleagues, to retrace my steps on Rue Mouffetard in the Quartier Latin, to enjoy a galette complète with a cidre brut on Rue Montparnasse, I knew I could never again have what had already passed. I smiled with the comfort of closure. I could finally move on.


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