Clueless in Paris, London or New York

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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.

Post visit stress disorder

One thing my family does quite well is emigrate but the experience has changed fundamentally through the generations. When my grandmother’s siblings emigrated to the US in the 1920s and 1930s, they knew they would only cross the Atlantic once. Visits home were unheard of for most long-distance emigrants of that era. When my uncles emigrated to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the trip back to Ireland was still expensive and they mostly came back once a year – until they found English wives and then less often. Even my older cousins who emigrated to the US and London in the 1980s baulked at the price of phone calls and visits were infrequent.

I can only imagine to what degree they suffered homesickness and loneliness in their new homes. Ultimately they were forced to let go. For better or for worse they built new lives for themselves.

Mine has been a very different type of emigration. Ten years ago I left Ireland to come and live in Switzerland and now new family ties keep me here. The trouble is I haven’t left Ireland behind, I can’t and I don’t want to. All the time that I’m forging a new life here for myself, I’m carrying around an ailing version of my old one. Through email, phone calls, skype and texts and regular visits I try to keep up contact – but it is an imperfect and fractured kind of contact. I try to stay close but people are having crises I know nothing about and I am having a crisis I never get to explain.

The truth is I come back from visits to Ireland like a bag of cats, suffering from a kind of post visit stress disorder. Instead of being happy that I got to see one aunt, a friend who lost his mother at Christmas, my niece and nephews, my mother and sisters, and a college friend back from England (all in three days!), I am tormented by guilt and regret over the other people I didn’t get to see or speak to, some of whom I didn’t even tell I was coming (more guilt). The long visits are even worse because we all have the mistaken impression two weeks is a long time. Arrangements add up and people say “sure we’ll see you again before you go” and next thing I know I’m squeezing in appointments like a greedy doctor and I’m using my mother’s house like a hotel with free babysitting.

I like to imagine that one day, when my working life is through and my children are established in their own lives, I will end up in an old folks’ home with my sisters, close cousins and friends. We will hang out on the porch, enjoying warm Irish summer evenings (it is a fantasy) and we will talk, talk talk. We will finally get to catch up on all those missing years and belatedly support each other through every past triumph and disaster and all the humdrum days in between. If I find myself feeling nostalgic about post visit stress disorder – not impossible, I can develop nostalgia for almost anything – all I’ll have to do is book a flight back to Switzerland.