This morning I got out a box containing some reminders of where that decision took me. Although I've been searching for a particular item, it's fun seeing whatever turns up. Here, for instance, is the bill for the ten-dollar cappuccino I drank one morning in Venice at the Caffe Florian. And here's a program from a student production in Oxford of Much Ado About Nothing. Next comes a ticket to the Museum of Garden History in London, and the receipt for a pair of black silk pumps with four-inch heels, bought in Milan and worn once. The menu from a dinner enjoyed in the Umbrian town of Perugia follows, reminding me of how delicious the Veal Escalope with Red Chicory was that night.
Finally in a smaller box labeled PARIS, I find what I'm looking for: a postcard with a view of the city's loveliest bridge, Pont Alexandre III. Dated 9 May 1993, and sent from me to me, the postcard signals the beginning of an adventure:
Dear Alice,The postcard is signed: Love, Alice.
It is my first morning in Paris and I have walked from my hotel on TheLeft Bank to the Seine. The river is silver; above it, an early morningsun the color of dull nickel burns through a gray sky, its light glancingoff the ancient buildings that line the quai Voltaire. It is the Paris Ihave come to know from the photographs of Atget andCartier-Bresson: a city of subtle tonalities, of platinum and silver andgray, a city of incomparable beauty. Now, from this perfect place, I begin a journey.
It is the first of many such postcards that I would write and send home to myself as I traveled over the next several months. Or, as I affectionately came to call that interlude in my life, The Year of Living Dangerously.
Most of us, I suppose, have had at one time or another the impulse to leave behind our daily routines and responsibilities and seek out, temporarily a new life. Certainly it was a fantasy that more than once had taken hold of me. At such times I daydreamed about having the freedom to travel wherever chance or fancy took me, unencumbered by schedules and obligations and too many pre-planned destinations.
But the daydream always retreated in the face of reality I was, after all, a working, single mother and my life was shaped in large measure by responsibilities toward my two sons and my work as a newspaper reporter at The Baltimore Sun.
By 1993, however, I was entering a new phase of my life, one that caused me to rethink its direction. My sons had graduated from college and were entering new adult lives of their own. At work my life went on as before. I continued to interview interesting people as well as write a column. It was a challenging, sometimes next-to-impossible job and I was completely invested in it. My work was not only what I did but who I was.
Occasionally though, I found myself wondering: was I too invested in it? At times I felt my identity was narrowing down to one thing-being a reporter. What had happened, I wondered, to the woman who loved art and jazz and the feeling that an adventure always lurked just ahead, around some corner? I hadn't seen her in quite a while. Had she disappeared? Or had I just been too busy writing about other people's lives to pay attention to her?
There was nothing wrong with my life. I liked its order and familiarity and the idea of having a secure place in the world. Still, the image of that woman who had gone missing kept popping up. One day after reading about a photography course offered in Tuscany I thought, she would find a way to do that. I had the same reaction when I read an article offering room and board on a Scottish sheep farm that trained Border collies: I bet she'd be on the phone trying to work something out. I found myself wondering if there was some way to reconnect with this missing woman. I sort of admired her.
The answer, one that arrived in bits and pieces over the next few months, surprised me. What you need to do, a voice inside me said, is to step out and experience the world without recording it first in a reporter's notebook. After fifteen years of writing stories about other people, you need to get back into the narrative of your own life.
I arrived at the decision to take a leave of absence in January of 1993. I was elated. Then it hit me: I had no real plan for all the free time now available to me. Except for the first stop. In some unspoken way I'd known all along that I would begin my new life in Paris.