Everyone kept saying I was brave. That was after I decided, somewhat rashly, to travel to Paris and Berlin three months after my husband died.
I didn’t feel brave. I felt stupid suddenly, desperate, the dull heaviness of grief turning my decision-making process into mush. The synapses weren’t snapping. My brain was a viscous porridge of sadness making me slow, forgetful. What was I thinking when I decided to buy the Paris ticket? I guess it was what I told others: if I’m going to be sad, I may as well be sad in Paris. And wouldn’t being in Paris make me happier? Nostalgic, even, for the trip we took to Paris, me in my 20s, he in his 30s, when we saw the city as the young do, romantic, secret, lurid, the possibilities for reinvention endless.
You actually have to work quite hard not to mention that your husband just died. It comes up naturally in so many conversations. I do try hard not to bring it up because it really throws a wet blanket on routine discourse. Sad looks and words are recited, people slowly back away. The dead have a way of bringing a lot of noise into a room, no chain rattling required. This subsequently chases the living away. It became obvious: I could be lonely in my empty house, talking to the walls and crying into pillows, or I could be lonely in the Musee D’Orsay with those who appreciate art jostling six people deep to get a clear view of a pointillist master’s greatest work.
My favorite response to-date was the French waiter at the Belle Époque style restaurant in Saint Germain near my hotel who said, “J’ai desole,” when I told him Mon mari est mort en Juin. His French version of “I’m sorry to hear that,” had a deeper feeling to it, authentic empathy from the sadness he must have seen in my eyes. To me it said, I see you’re disconsolate. It was a word hug.
The waiter helped me do a Pete & Tilly staging, my comic mice characters. His name was Beno and he had owned a restaurant in the Democratic Republic of Congo called something like La Gorilla. He showed me a picture of himself standing in front of the restaurant, in Goma I think he said, with his Congolese wife. It became too dangerous to stay eventually, Goma being one of those surreal places in the world, an Apocalypse Now feel to it. At any moment something might kill you: man, beast, rushing water, parasites, the jungle. Every moment has that feeling of imminent danger in all its nausea and adrenaline-fueled intensity.
Beno fist bumped Pete and I took a picture. I said I would return, but I didn’t.
So I did it, two weeks solo in Europe with one carryon suitcase and my trusty theft resistant purse. I’ve traveled alone lots, but I always went home to The Husband. When I called him from the road, my tummy always tingled as we connected. So rating this first foray as The Widow, I can’t honestly say it was fun, but it was important, informative, emotional. Besides many hours sitting in cafes drinking cappuccinos or mojitos, writing and people watching, I visited the French Resistance and Liberation Museum in Paris, and the German Resistance Museum in Berlin. I learned more about those who paid with either their lives or with nightmares in the decades that followed, to stop the Nazis from ultimately prevailing. Unlike the Musee D’Orsay, which was so crowded as to be impossible to see or ponder the art, the Resistance museums were almost empty. Rather than beautiful artworks to absorb and enjoy, the Resistance museums made me work, reading about those who refused to play along, refused to collaborate, the stories printed on displays next to these fighters’ faces, their hopes and destinies shining from clear eyes. I had the privilege of hearing their voices or those of their colleagues or children years later during historical interviews which played on little screens in cubicles with 1930s wallpaper and simple chairs, made hard on purpose.
My grief paled in comparison to the resisters. Their stories made me limp with a different type of grief for their suffering, and rage that the evil of humans so easily transformed entire countries into torturers and killers worse than the violence meted out in the Crusades and killing fields of the ancients. I had heard and studied these horror stories since my youth, but being in the places where it all happened — the occupied City of Light, Romance and Art; and the brain of the Nazi rampage and once creative core of performance art, film and classical music — Paris and Berlin took on a depth of humanity and history that sunk deep into my bones, and my heart.
Now home again, the cafes and street smokers and art and architecture now half a world away, the smell of boulangerie baguettes and Konditorei pastries, are sweet memories that bring a smile. I lick my lips, realizing it’s time for a stiff upper lip. On my porch is a little driftwood sign my brother gave me after my husband died. It says, You got this. Guess it’s time to get it.
From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast.