Paris When it Fizzles – Jackie Wallenmeyer
When I went to Paris last December, I had the wanderlust, two suitcases bound to burst, and a hilarious plan. Something along the lines of: show up in Paris, find a grad school, become a professor, and stay for years.
At least, I have no doubt that God was laughing. But whether what turned out to be six weeks in Paris was His plan or mine, He used the time well. I have never had so many life lessons poured over my head at once.
I went intending to learn more of the French language, some Parisian fitness secrets, and exactly what illuminated the City of Light. I expected a life super-cultural—a synergy of language, style, architecture, and gastronomy that would create this ‘crème’ of living worth aspiring to; I thought it would greet me right off the plane.
So I went out and looked for it.
Every night I was sure to be back for 7:30 dinner with my host family—an event that involved six adorable kids lined up at the table, and then in the last seat, with a jump in height and a decline in French-speaking ability, me. I would not have missed that for the world.
But, every morning, they went to school, so I threw on my combat boots and set out. I took no purse, and no money beyond that for an occasional bus ticket. With the Eiffel Tower as my centerpoint, I walked in all directions. Up to Montmartre, down the high fashion avenues, into the designer boutiques, out where the music played in the streets, all through the Louvre, and back and forth across the Seine. Over a month passed, and I almost felt like asking the street vendors—“have you seen this life everyone talks about?” Nothing.
By the time I reached Saint-Germain-des-Prés—the famous ‘Left Bank,’ home to the universities, edgy but gentrifying—I was no longer intimidated, enamored, or overwhelmed. I was frustrated. I was unfulfilled. I was unsatisfied in the city that was supposed to have satisfaction wrapped around its finger. And it surprised me.
What do you do when true satisfaction eludes you? Perhaps you cultivate the art of pretending to find it entirely in fashion, in art, in food—or whatever secular culture has at hand. Perhaps that was why, though I found pockets of life saturated with ‘language, style, architecture, and gastronomy,’ and even the magical places where it all combined, I still hadn’t found ‘it.’
Late in January I sat on the top step of the Church of La Madeleine, a stunning Greco-Roman inspired cathedral in the heart of the glitz of the Right Bank. I pulled out a tiny notebook I had bought and looked at it. There’s a hesitancy to begin writing in a blank notebook just like there’s a hesitancy to begin living into God’s will. I didn’t want to go any farther in Paris or in life without trying to figure out what God was trying to say.
If we dare to listen, God loves to talk. Open a notebook to Him and the pages never stay blank for long. So I started writing:
1) God is everywhere. Bidden or unbidden. He does not slip into the spaces we allocate for Him. In a culture of atheism as in a believing culture, He is everywhere and does as He pleases in all places.
2) No one’s opinion matters but His. Psalm 146:3-4 is terrifying, freeing, and true. And He likes it that way.
3) Youth across the world are hungry for God. They hate hypocrisy, question the authority of those who haven’t walked their talk, and look for a different way when what’s been offered to them isn’t working. In ‘atheist’ France as in the Bible belt of the US, this looks like rebellion. But usually, it’s starvation.
What does this mean?
4) That the Great Commission is more important than ever. We have in our hands the truth that everyone is looking for. With deference to His will, in general the parable of the sower still stands: if the Word isn’t sticking, perhaps it’s because it hasn’t been fully grasped. When truth is understood, and love casts out fear, big things happen. All over the world. Because the bottom line is that Christ-following is the only type of rebellion that works.
I looked down the cathedral steps and imagined what it would take to explain the basics of a truth that surpasses human comprehension to all of those people—and to understand it myself. Each person with different attitudes, different perspectives, different pasts, different packs of baggage and burdens—and many operating in a foreign language.
Suddenly a realization hit me hard. Something that put many longings to rest and focused my desire like a laser.
I wasn’t supposed to be here any longer. Not for now.
I realized this knowing full well that I loved France. I loved the language, the culture, the land—and the people. One evening a few weeks before, I had been on the bus en route to home and it was snowing. It never snows in Paris. But that night it was accumulating, so much so that the bus driver pulled over to a large station and announced that this was the end of the line for tonight—we could not go any farther. There was a rush of chatter, the doors opened, and we all spilled out, a bit bewildered. The natives started to scatter—they knew where they were going. I had no clue which direction to even start in. A man and a woman, holding hands, caught the look in my eyes and paused. An hour later they had led me through ten blocks of driving snow to my host family’s street.
I loved France. I still do. And yet suddenly it was time to leave. I didn’t want to go home—I wanted to get to work. In an instant I had no more desire to travel for the sake of traveling. There was nothing there—nothing anywhere except right in the heart of God’s will for me—that was ever going to fully satisfy me. God had proved everything weaker than His call.
Hence the final line on that page of my notebook:
5) There is no place sufficiently beautiful—even Paris at Christmas—no people so wonderful—even a divine host family of six children that I still deeply miss—no self-devised profession so exciting that it can even light a candle to the plan God has. There is no place—not, ‘like home,’ but ‘like where God wants you.’
For those six weeks, I had not been in the wrong place, I am sure of that. But had I stayed any longer, I would have been.
The flight back to DC was empty and the skies were clear. I did not come home. I arrived in the place where I am supposed to be for such a time as this.