Clueless in Paris, London or New York


I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.

12 thoughts on “Clueless in Paris, London or New York

    1. Thanks Niall. My visits to the cinema are few and far between. I keep reading your reviews and thinking I’d love to see whatever it is (45 Years for example) but I don’t manage it. You must look out for the new Swiss Heidi film by the way.

      1. i don’t get to go to the cinema as often as I’d like, either, and although I do love watching special features on DVDs, watching a DVD just isn’t the same as sitting in a decent cinema with good sound. Thank you, though, for your lovely comment. Upcoming reviews will be of Creed and Anomalisa, both of which should be available in Switzerland ‘for home viewing’ as they say … and next week I’m watching Inside Out (on DVD) because I never saw it in the cinema

  1. As soon as I started reading this post I thought of Brooklyn, which I haven’t seen yet. I did read the book some time ago and, although it was quiet and focussed, it left an imprint on me. I was also immediately drawn to my own past memories of leaving Ireland for the first time to survive on my own. Little did I know how many new beginnings I’d experience in the future. Now I might actually have found something inspiring to write about in my next blog post.

  2. My grandmother was one of those daring young Irish women who boarded a ship bound for the United States. When she arrived, she found a job as a maid. Later she married my grandfather, an immigrant from Scotland.

    My parents allowed my sister and me a lot of freedom to go our own way. Striking out on my own after college, I spent a summer in Mexico working with a volunteer group. Then, in what was a rather rebellious act, given that my parents weren’t church-goers, I joined the Maryknoll Sisters for a year.

    I don’t think I was a helicopter parent. I didn’t help my kids with their homework after first grade, and I usually let them make their own decisions. I always had the feeling they were smarter than I was. Now I’m sure they are.

    1. Thanks for your contribution Nicki. I think the further back you go, the braver people had to be. Crossing the Atlantic in your grandmother’s day was a very daunting prospect. No way back. With the level of communication technology we have now, it’s hard to get away in a real sense any more. People bring their loved ones with them everywhere, through skype etc. But that is ultimately unsatisfying and creates its own problems of interfering with the ties the emigrant could/should be forming with their new home.

  3. You’ve hit on something quite profound here Clare. The way we solve our children’s problems for them and talk through all their quandaries is hugely impactful on their own ability to do so. The culture is so different from when we were young. As you said we had total disconnection from our parents as teenagers and that certainly wasn’t ideal either. However it allowed us to face life’s curve balls and manage them ourselves. I think it provided us with valuable lessons on how to overcome failure. Failure is taboo in modern living…

  4. Thank you Jennifer. I’m only speculating of course, haven’t been through it myself yet. But I do believe some kind of separation of worlds is necessary between the generations to allow the young person to break away, try, fail, try again. Harder for this to happen if parents are too damn involved. Probably also a reflection of people having fewer children.

  5. Your extract above resonated with me, except I was 22 and had a full time job with a wine merchant. Hardly any money though, dodgy place to live and no French. Can’t see my children being so adventurous. It’s not that they’re protected or pampered, they just can’t be bothered.

  6. It would be good to swap stories one day! Your children are probably too smart to go into a situation like that. Anyway, no need for them to have the same wishes and dreams that we had. My eldest wants to be an undercover police officer so that would be quite a departure 🙂

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