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.

‘Hold on, I just have to answer this’

Gr8 to hear from you
Gr8 to hear from you

It’s taken a fortnight of messages back and forth to arrange an afternoon meeting with my busy friend. Finally she’s pouring me a cup of tea in her over-decorated sitting room and we have each other’s undivided attention until the nanny returns with the children from the park in an hour.

Time is short so I skip the opening chit chat about plans for the summer holidays. I’ve always trusted her judgment and I have something important to tell her. It’s about Charles, I begin. I really don’t know what I’m going to do …

There’s a knock at the door and I close my mouth mid-sentence while she deals with the interruption. I take small sips of my tea feigning patience while she opens the envelope she has just been handed. Could she not have waited until I was gone?

Then with a little guilty look, the letter fluttering in her beautifully manicured hand, she jumps up. “Hold on,” she says, “I just have to answer this,” and before I can say a word she is scribbling a note at her writing desk by the window.

Sound familiar? That little scene I wrote for fun is set in London in the 1890s. Believe or not there were between six and 12 postal deliveries per day in the city at that time (depending on the area) which meant correspondents could exchange multiple letters within a single day.

What did they write about? The same things we do, I suppose. With such a high frequency of communication, the residents of Victorian London probably also wrote their fair share of banal messages along the lines of: “what are you wearing tonight?” or “can you pick up cough syrup on your way home?”

As a new smartphone user I am getting used to constant interruptions with SMS, email and social media notifications. I’m not sure I like the dependency that’s creeping in. When I’m out of earshot of my phone I automatically check the screen when I come back to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

If I hear the little chime from my bag when I’m with someone, I can’t let many minutes go by without checking the message. I try to resist the temptation to respond immediately but can’t say for sure that I haven’t occasionally asked a friend to hold on while I answered a message.

The expectation is there that we will respond to each other rapidly. Unanswered texts, direct messages and mails buzz around in the back of my mind like restless wasps. I’m afraid if I don’t answer promptly I might break communication law by forgetting to answer at all!

The Victorians loved their books of etiquette. Maybe it’s time someone wrote a survival guide for the smartphone era. Any takers?