Paris: City of Lights, Love, and Vulnerability

Have you ever had one of those seasons of life where you hear the same word or phrase so many times from so many different directions that you start to think it’s not an accident and maybe you’re supposed to pay attention?

To my great consternation, the word in my life that currently fits that description is vulnerability. If you haven’t seen Dr. Brené Brown’s brilliant Ted Talk about vulnerability and shame, I urge you to watch it.

Here’s her position in a nutshell.

  1. I have to be willing to be embrace vulnerability in order to really live.
  2. Vulnerability means showing up and being seen for who I am regardless of what anyone (including myself) expects me to be. 
  3. That coin has two sides. One side of that coin is living authentically with my shame; not trying to make everything look perfect, or to numb myself to the reality that it isn’t perfect… 
  4. …and the other side of that coin is giving myself, and those around me, permission to believe that I am / they are worthy of love and belonging in spite of my / their shame, and indeed because of my / their vulnerability. 

I think I do pretty well at living authentically with my shame and being honest about it. But I have never been comfortable asserting my own worthiness of love and belonging, and as a result, I’ve spent a lot of time contradicting people who have tried to assert it for me—and worrying that anyone who doesn’t try to assert it for me doesn’t believe I have it.

I went to Europe in November 2013 to see C. S. Lewis memorialized in Westminster Abbey, and after all the Lewis events ended, I went to Paris. I went to Paris because I had already been to London and Oxford, where the Lewis events were, and while I love London and I adore Oxford, it seemed a shame to cross an ocean and a continent and not go anywhere new. So I went to Paris.

I’ve said before that I take preparation very seriously. I prepared for Paris, in part, by acquiring and using a language learning CD. Here’s a real French sentence I learned from this program:

Voulez-vous boire du vin avec moi chez moi?

Translation: Hey, big boy! Wanna come back to my place for a drink?

I will admit that I have exaggerated the flirtatiousness of the sentence slightly, but only slightly, and the whole program was like that. Lots and lots of sentences you might use if you’re trying to pick somebody up in a foreign country, but no help whatsoever with things like “restroom” or “museum”… or with transport words like “taxi,” “train,” or “subway.” Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Without question the most useful French phrase I learned from this CD was:

Pardon, je ne comprends / parle pas très bien le français.

Or: Excuse me; I don’t understand / speak French very well.

I used this phrase constantly. I opened nearly every conversation with it once I was there. I was told countless times before I went that Parisians tend to be slightly more accommodating to Ugly American Tourists who at least attempt to speak French before diving in with English. So I held this one phrase up in front of me like a shield, and prayed that whoever I was speaking to would immediately switch to English once I said it, and many of them did, but by no means all.

I started feeling vulnerable as soon as I got off the train at Gare du Nord. Mercifully, almost right away, the signage offered me the following very welcome cognate: Taxi. And I thought, Merci, mon Dieu, and began practicing what I thought might be a good pronunciation of “Pardon me, where are the taxis?”…in case the answer wasn't obvious when I got to the end of the signs. Whether the phrase I had worked up was right or not I’ll never know, because I lost my nerve when I actually came face-to-face with the official-looking guy directing pedestrian traffic, and what actually came out of my mouth was, “Er… taxi?” in as close as I had to a French accent in that moment’s state of mental acuity. He immediately gave me very precise directions in English and I said, merci, monsieur and did what he said.

When I actually got into the cab and gave the driver the address of my hotel (I may or may not have muttered vingt-neuf Rue Cler under my breath for the entire duration of the taxi queue) he had never heard of the street in question. He punched “29 Rue Cl” into his GPS and then asked me how to spell the rest of the word, and I froze, because yet another thing my language learning CD had failed to teach me was even a single letter of the French alphabet. I could order wine or coffee or something to eat; I could offer wine, coffee, or something to eat to a handsome stranger; I could invite that handsome stranger back to my place after the wine, coffee, or something to eat had been consumed, but I couldn't say, “…e, r.” After a couple seconds of embarrassed silence, I said it in English; he punched the letters in and off we went.

I have never in my adult life been so happy to see a tiny hotel room with serviceable dead-bolt, and I threw it as soon as I was inside and collapsed onto the bed.

The four-point-five days I spent in Paris were an unending exercise in vulnerability. I was alone. I was stripped of verbal communication and knew not one soul in a city whose reputation can be summed up as follows: 

1.   Paris: City of Love.

2.   Paris: City of Lights.

3.   Paris: City Where You Really Need to Watch Your Bags, Especially on the Metro.

Not surprisingly then, one of my most vulnerable moments came on the night I took the Metro to the Opera. Alone. After dark. I couldn’t even find the Metro station at first. But a kind stranger showed me where to go and I did make my way onto the right train (where one hand white-knuckled it on my purse strap and the other on the vertical pole that was the only reason I didn’t sprawl into the dozens of potential muggers all around me) and eventually made my way to the Palais Garnier. My ticket was for the opening night of La Clemenza di Tito, a lesser-known Mozart opera—lesser known possibly because it somehow managed to get around the seemingly universal stipulation that opera must be tragic.

Here’s the plot in as few words as possible: Sesto is in love with Vitellia who wants to kill the emperor Titus, so she convinces Sesto to do it for her. Sesto—described by Wikipedia as Titus’s “vacillating friend”—reluctantly agrees and attempts to kill the emperor. He fails, is caught, arrested, tried, and sentenced to death (pending the emperor’s decision to sign his death sentence.) Titus signs it, but changes his mind and tears it up, choosing instead to show clemency (hence the title, which translated from the Italian is The Clemency of Titus.)

There’s more to it than that, and if you care about the more that there is, you can read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

I had read about La Clemenza before travelling, but I had failed to take in that a couple of the male roles, including that of Sesto, were to be played by women. I found this to be both distracting and fascinating, and it contributed to the fact that ultimately, Sesto was the character I most identified with (indecision; unrequited love; crippling feelings of agonizing guilt… what’s not to identify with?) But I didn’t recognize this until Act II. I might have made the connection more during Act I except that:

1.   I was sitting in a seat that was approximately the width of a knitting needle.

2.   The space between my seat and the seat in front of me was little more than the length of an average knitting needle.

3.   When I sat down, the man already seated on my right gave me a dirty look and began speaking rapidly (presumably in French) to the people on his right in a tone that clearly bespoke, “Can you believe this fat Ugly American Tourist sitting next to me with her giant bag full of Paris Opera House swag? UGH.”

So there I was feeling enormous and unwanted; my hips were aching from being pressed against the sides of my seat; my legs were pressed so hard into the back of the seat in front of me (which came to about the level of my shins) that I was seriously concerned about knocking the person in front of me in the back of the head, and my feet were taking turns falling asleep.

I felt sad to have come so far and been disappointed—and then I felt guilty for feeling disappointed because I was in the Paris Opera House for God’s sake; lots of people go their whole lives without seeing such a spectacular place and all I could think about was the fact that my feet were asleep?! Who does that?!

Then, two things happened.

1.   An angel of mercy disguised as a member of staff saw me massaging life back into my shins during intermission and moved me to an empty seat in the back of someone’s private box. I’m sure that an ordinary chair has felt that miraculous to me at other times in my life, but I can’t remember what times those might have been.

2.   The art started speaking to me.

In Act II, there’s a scene where Titus is alone with Sesto after the failed assassination attempt, and Sesto is basically pushing a pen and his own death warrant into Titus’s hands because he feels so guilty for trying to kill him that death has become preferable to life. He basically talks Titus into sealing his fate—against the emperor’s initial inclination. The emperor is standing there offering him mercy, but Sesto would literally rather die than accept it.

I would say that this is insane, except that I do the same thing all the time.

I mean, okay, I haven’t killed anybody (yet) so the parallel isn’t exact. But per my admission a couple thousand words ago, I have a tendency not only to deny my own worthiness of love and belonging, but to refuse love and belonging when they are offered. Vulnerability happens. Sometimes it’s that someone sees more of my real self than I intended to show. Sometimes I hurt or anger someone by my words or actions. Sometimes I try something new and find that I’m not immediately good at it. Sometimes I just… fail. There are lots of ways vulnerability happens. And when it does, I’ve seen myself over and over again push the pen into peoples’ hands, asking them—if not explicitly then certainly by my behavior—to write me off. Not because I want to die, as Sesto did; nor because I want be estranged from people (I don't) but because it’s a way to retain control. More often than I’d like to admit I live in fear that others will write me off. So I push them to it. Like Sesto, I deny that I'm worth keeping around and I refuse to let anyone else contradict me because if at some point someone decides that in fact I'm not worth keeping around, I will feel as though I have some measure of control of the situation if I intentionally did something to instigate the loss.

At least, that’s how it works in my head.  

Except that really it doesn’t work. It’s no way to live. It means playing into the hands of the people who don't want me around—and treating those who do want me around as if their opinions are worthless. Quite apart from being no way to treat the people who really matter to me, this approach makes no sense

It turns out that the price of invulnerability, at least for me, is a life of self-perpetuating misery: I feel alone; feeling alone makes me feel worthless; feeling worthless makes it almost impossible for me to accept that anyone else thinks I have any worth; if I spend enough time insisting that I have no worth people will either start believing it or stop wanting me around because let’s face it: if I don’t want me around, why would anyone else want me around? And then I feel alone, and the whole thing starts all over again.

But vulnerability changes things.

In order to enjoy Act II of La Clemenza, I had to admit my shame (admit that my seat was indeed too small for me) and then assert my worthiness of love and belonging (let somebody help me find a different one) in spite of it. And when I did, the story opened up for me in ways it hadn’t before.

In order to experience Paris at all, I had to embrace vulnerability (accept the pain and fear of being alone and without words.)

On a certain level, you could say I never did this while I was there because I basically walked around broadcasting that I can’t speak well instead of just trying to say what needed to be said and letting the chips fall where they would.  

But life imitates art (thank you Oscar Wilde), and sometimes Titus just shows up out of nowhere and gives you your life back. I know this because I did experience Paris. I did see Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the Seine; I did drink superb coffee and eat croissants and really excellent cheese and the best apples I’ve had anywhere. I did all those things. And when I wasn’t holding my lack of language ability up in front of me like a shield, I also had some fun and interesting conversations.

Could I have done more of that if I’d been willing to be vulnerable? If I’d been willing to let the Parisians see for themselves that I didn’t speak their language well and draw their own conclusions about whether or not I was an Ugly American Tourist? Probably. It wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect. I was pretty neurotic, actually. But even so, je suis digne d'amour et d'appartenance. I am worthy of love and belonging.

And so are you.

When has vulnerability paid off for you? When has it been painful? What has it cost you to resist it?