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 The Left Bank to the Seine. The river is silver; above it, an early morning sun the color of dull nickel burns through a gray sky, its light glancing off the ancient buildings that line the quai Voltaire. It is the Paris I have come to know from the photographs of Atget and Cartier-Bresson: a city of subtle tonalities, of platinum and silver and gray, 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.
Of course, on the day I arrived in Paris to begin my leave, I knew nothing of what lay ahead, good or bad. All I knew was a feeling of utter astonishment at finding myself in a small hotel on the Left Bank of the world's most beautiful city.
It was from this hotel, at the end of my first week, that I wrote the simple truth of what I had been seeking: Last night on the way home from a concert at Sainte-Capelle, I stopped on the Pont Royal to watch the moon struggle through a cloudy night sky. From the bridge my eyes followed the lights of a tourist boat as it moved like a glowworm across the water Here in Paris, I have no agenda; here I can fall into step with whatever rhythm presents itself. I had forgotten bow wonderful it is to stand on a bridge and catch the scent of rain in the air I had forgotten how much I need to be a part of water, wind, sky.
From Milan and Siena, from tiny villages along the Amalfi Coast and small towns in the Cotswolds, from London and Oxford, the postcards were waiting for me when I returned, each one recounting like a spontaneous child the impressions of a day spent exploring the world.
It was not a new habit, writing postcards to myself. It had begun about fifteen years ago, while traveling alone to Bornholm, a remote island in the Baltic Sea. It was homesickness that prompted me to write that first time; the postcard served as a companion, someone with whom I could share my feelings.
Over the years, the postcards took on another role: they became a form of travel memoir, preserving and recapturing the feelings of certain moments during a trip. When I see such a postcard, the handwriting oddly familiar, it startles me and, like Proust's madeleine, has the power to plunge me back into the past.
Until recently I was convinced--quite smugly so--that I'd invented this form of travel writing. But about four months ago, while going through a box of papers collected from my mother's apartment after her death, I came across a postcard she'd written to herself from Dublin. The picture is a charming view of O'Connell Street and the Gresham Hotel. She writes:
"We stayed here for eight days. A lovely, comfortable hotel, with Irish poetry readings in the evenings. The food was very good. And Dublin has the loveliest zoo in all of Europe."
Tears sprang to my eyes as I read these simple words in a handwriting as familiar as my own. It is the handwriting that signed my grade-school report cards; the handwriting that scribbled out the lists I carried to the corner grocery store; the handwriting that, over the years, in countless letters, supported and encouraged me in good times and bad.
Holding the postcard in my hands, I thought of my sons and of the future. Would they someday read my postcards, I wondered, and think of me, as I do now of my mother?
If so, I hope they see me soaring like a bright kite into a big blue sky; happy and adventurous, going wherever the wind takes me.