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A Moveable Feast

Virginia Gates

Eiffel Tower Virginia Gates Photography

There is this maddening force of disgruntlement that seeps into parenthood and marriage some days against our best intentions. I know you know the one I’m talking about. Rolled eyes. No patience. Overworked. Physically drained. Whose turn is it even to take out the trash? Why can’t the kids just sleep through the night regularly?? Throw on top of that the schedules of 4 separate socially involved people and when is there even time to reconnect? Eleven at night after the kids crash, the house is picked up, laundry done, and small business needs have been attended to? I guess if you don’t like sleep, then sure. Add to that a hugely stress inducing natural disaster (looking at you Hurricane Flo) with months of fleeing, displacement, and home rehabilitation with hits that just seemed to keep on coming and sometimes life feels more like a buoy bobbing in the intracoastal, your eyes barely over the waterline. I don’t think we’re meant to stay disgruntled with our life, though. We’re not meant to stay in any place that doesn’t feel peaceful, like home. The last year, especially the last half of it, showed me the real difference between feeling fully at peace and navigating a crisis, and how important it is to me to choose peace. Sometimes my anxiety makes day to day life feel like a crisis. How messed up is that? My mind just up and decides to revolt and show me all the evolutionary reasons why life is full of mortal danger. Like hey there friend, no one asked for that, it’s just Trader Joe’s with a toddler not the apocalypse, calm down. It comes in waves and the best way I’ve found to defeat my anxiety is to rush headlong into things that scare the living crap out of me and then look back haughtily to remind myself that I’m capable of overcoming my worst fears. Ha, in your face anxiety, I am capable! I always think of that saying, “ships are safe in the harbor, but it’s not what they were built for.” So that is where Andy and I found ourselves on the cusp of our seventh wedding anniversary, tired, stressed, and missing each other even though we spend every free minute together. Needing an escape from the daily grind to reconnect, an adventure to celebrate surviving the last year, and for me another deposit into my “fears I’ve overcome bank.”

Andy and I have been together since we were 17 and sometimes I still get those butterflies of fearless teen wanderlust that gave us all those sunrises through the Smokies and starlit nights beside the Nantahala River. At least sometimes I get a glimpse of that fearless girl who was so ready to conquer the world before she dove headfirst into motherhood and all the anxiety and depression that came along with it. I had been given a $600 flight voucher last year when a flight from AL needed my seat (thanks American Airlines!) which was set to expire in June and we had grandparents in the wings waiting to babysit, so we decided to go. Just go. Anywhere. Anxiety be damned, and trust me there was tons. Why did Disney raise us on the idea that every princess’s parents met their untimely demise whilst traveling together abroad? Not cool. By the way, nothing sets off an extremely romantic vacation like arguing with your partner over writing your will. But, I digress.

Originally we decided to travel someplace inexpensive and relaxing like the Bahamas or Punta Cana where we could get the most of our flight voucher. Unfortunately (well in retrospect maybe not) we didn’t jump on those tickets fast enough and by the time we had picked out dates and arranged childcare it cost just about the same to travel anywhere. My husband is really good with money and his frugality has served us well our entire marriage (like that time he built our boat or renovated our home himself). The kids call him a “fixer” because he has a solution for every problem and most of the time that solution is to roll up your sleeves and put in the work yourself, which is one of the many things I have always loved and admired about him. So, when I started to get upset and my anxiety made it feel like this trip wasn’t getting planned and it wasn’t going to happen, he pulled out the big gesture and just said “You only live once, let’s go to Paris.” I’m literally doing the heart eyes emoji as I type this in case you can’t tell. If you’ve ever wanted to knock me off my feet, this is a pretty good way to do it I suppose. We don’t really take fancy vacations. We mostly travel by car each year to visit our family so our kids get to grow up knowing their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. Life has been about surviving raising two little humans without a ton of frills. We mostly just enjoy a cold beer on the island at sunset and feel extremely grateful to have that privilege. When we do travel, it is also no frills. This trip we stayed in Airbnb’s that were convenient to public transit or within a few miles walking distance to the sights. We ate street food or popped into small cafes as we walked. We split meals and drank well. We brought back a lot of memories and only a few souvenirs mostly for the kids. I photographed it all. With the exception of the river boat dinner cruise down the Seine Andy surprised me with our first night in Paris as an anniversary present, we did a great job staying in budget. Even that dinner was about as much as a nice dinner out in Wilmington. When in Paris, you have to eat one really nice meal, it’s a requirement.

Tower of London Bridge Virginia Gates Photography

It was cheapest for us to fly into London and seeing London as well was a real treat. We spent one day and a half in London before taking the train to Paris. Did you know the train goes under the ocean? Mind blown. Paddington Station and Kings Cross were so beautiful and like their own universes. The architecture in London was gorgeous and the traffic was unreal. We quickly found out that taking Uber was expensive and cost so much time. It was much faster to use the tube and walk. Luckily our Airbnb was close to the tube, lots of restaurants, and a theater where we saw the Lion King. Even though we were dead on our feet by the time we got there, the show was stunning. The costumes were so other worldly and the talent was mind-blowing. I wish I could have taken photos of the show to share. We did a small tour of the pubs around our rental which I feel like gave us a good taste of the local vibe.

We also walked around the London Bridge and the Tower of London bridge which I definitely had confused for each other. It was pretty busy but I didn’t feel packed by other tourists. We had some great fish and chips and I learned that every loo in London is in a practical dungeon 3 flights beneath the restaurant, hah. This may not seem relevant but it gets to be a bit tricky after an unofficial pub hop. I was surprised with the weather, it was chillier than I thought it would be. Around 55-60 during the day and low 40s at night. I could have used a bigger jacket for sure. Luckily though, the travel gods were on our side and rain missed us every day. We did breakfast on the fly and mostly ate pastries and cafe Americano every morning. I so wish we could do that everyday here. In London before the train to Paris we had a sausage pastry and a orange marmalade roll and my mouth is actually watering just remembering it. I don’t have photos because they were shoved into our gullets too quickly to capture.

We crashed that night after being up for nearly 36 hours. We both had the hardest time sleeping on the flight so once we landed in the Airbnb we were out. We also regularly only get 4 hours of sleep at night due to children that wake frequently to snuggle so I’m going to adjust that number to 6 years. We have been up for nearly 6 years. All was well until we woke up and realized we overslept our checkout by a half an hour. Our host came to the house and we were freaked out hearing him bang on the door and demand to be let in. Turns out someone had stolen his lockbox that he kept the keys in and luckily we overslept because that meant we still had the keys. They were wrought iron and very old and super expensive to replace, so he was fine with it! Only slightly jarring for us. Alls well.

The train to Paris was comfortable and a couple hours long. I was in heaven having free time to myself to reread my Harry Potter and watch movies, a luxury I rarely get but am determined to make more time for. The train had wifi and charging stations. How I wish the US had something similar on the East coast so that we could just hop on a train with the kids to see family instead of driving ourselves ragged. When we arrived, it was cloudy having just rained, Paris was so much taller than I had envisioned. The buildings were so exquisitely designed and wrapped the city until they cradled the sky. They felt mountainous and at once comforting. I’m not a big city person and I started to get anxious hearing all the stories and warnings people gave me about Paris. “The pick pockets!” “The riots!” “The crime!” “It’s not safe!” I didn’t feel that way at all. Paris was just as enchanting and alive as Hemingway promised it would be. I couldn’t stop smiling the minute we walked off the train and that lasted the entirety of our trip. We kept our wits about us but never felt unsafe. Everywhere my eye rested was intricately beautiful, purposeful, and intriguing. I had always built Paris up in my mind as the Mecca of artistic creation. You get lost, need inspiration, you find yourself on the streets of Paris. She did not disappoint. I had worked myself up about not speaking the language but most everyone we met spoke English as well or tried to be helpful as we exchanged mangled fragments of each other’s language.

We quickly changed clothes at our adorable little rental and headed off for the bus to take us to the river for dinner just in time for the sun to peek through. I was really taken aback at Andy’s thoughtfulness to plan this romantic riverboat cruise down the Seine. It was such a unique experience and really special. We obviously love being near water, but the gentle waves, elaborate dishes, and soft French being spoken around us was really something special and I highly recommend it if you plan a visit to Paris. We passed the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower lit up in all her sparkling evening glory. We also saw the little Statue of Liberty. The food was delicious. We had brie, steak, pheasant, salmon, creme brûlée. We drank champagne until everything made us giggle. We relearned how to have small talk that didn’t solely revolve around the kids, though we missed them terribly.

The next day in Paris was a busy one. I feel like we managed to fit a weeks worth of sight seeing into 24 hours. We began at 5am with the train to Versailles. We were so lucky to have pre-bought tickets based on the advice online forums and got in early before the lines. It quickly became a madhouse just an hour or so later. I feel like what most documentaries and movies can’t really get across about Versailles is just how truly large it is and how extravagant. It has to be experienced and honestly devoured. The amount of gold and oil paintings and marble and sheer expanse of the gardens and castles. It took my breath away. I found myself nearly unfazed by the beauty of it by the end, though. Like I had somehow reached my intake limit for grandeur. One more statue. One more golden fountain. One more 20 foot oil painting. I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing this being made looked like to the people of France.

After Versailles we took the train back to Paris to visit the Louvre. That was such a highlight for me. I feel confident in saying I wish I could go back and spend a week seeing all the galleries. We tried to focus on a few favorite areas which for me were Ancient Egyptian and sculpture. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Ancient Egypt since I was a child, in fact I always dreamed of being an archeologist. Art has always been a hugely inspiring force in my life, in all its varied forms. Highlights included seeing busts of Hatshepsut, the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo.

After the Louvre we walked to grab some lunch and coffee. I finally got my escargot! I’ve been eating it since I was a child. It was a special treat when I went to dinner with my Grammy and Papa at their favorite Italian restaurant, Mike’s. Always with butter garlic and in a mushroom cap. In Paris, it was in shell and pesto. I ate it with an obscene amount of bread and I have no regrets.

After lunch we hopped on an electric scooter together, me holding on to Andy’s back as he ducked in and out of traffic and pedestrians laughing madly. In my mind, this was how we were gonna meet our untimely demise. Luckily though Andy is an expert navigator and scooter driver. I’m still shocked he got me on it as it went about 30 or 40 mph but it is one of the parts of our trip I look back with and smile over now that I’m home. We went and toured the Catacombs after that which I was so excited about…until I got down the dizzying circular 134 steps. I felt claustrophobic and stressed. Also I don’t know what I was expecting but it all of the sudden was way too macabre for me. I kept my camera in my hands as we listened to the audio tour but I couldn’t bring myself to take any photos. All around me strangers posed for Instagram in their kitschy insincere way with human remains. It felt disrespectful and wrong to me. I don’t ever look at a pile of bones and not see people that lived lives and had stories. I bolted through the last of it and up the stairs to fresh air. I was glad to have done it but it’s not something I would do again or put at the top of my list. After the catacombs we raced to the Eiffel Tower to tour it at sunset.

I’m pretty scared of heights (notice anything yet? I have A LOT of fears, but I’m working on them) but I promised my daughter that I would go up the Eiffel Tower. I was scared, don’t get me wrong, but I felt safe up there. Andy went all the way, I stayed on the second level. I probably could have gone up once I realized that you went by elevator and not climbing stairs but I was still proud I got up to the second level. The view was spectacular and I appreciated Andy’s nudge to do it. Another deposit into my “things I never thought I’d do but am somehow capable of” vault. The way he believes in me and what I am capable of is one of the number one reasons I am successful today as a photographer. Sometimes you need someone to tell you how deserving you are in order to believe it. I also took a few images of that older man because I swear to you I thought it was Bernie Sanders, that may have been the wine talking though. I was a little obsessed with all the sellers of souvenirs around the Tower. They all sold the exact same goods at the exact same price in the exact same locations. We unfortunately bought some Eiffel Tower keychains for the kids from a man outside of Versailles at 3 for 1 euro low and behold these are the most expensive keychains in France because they were 10 for 1 euro at the Eiffel Tower, ha! After this whirlwind day we crashed hard at the Airbnb only to wake up at 4:3o the next morning for my favorite shoot of all: sunrise photos at the Trocadero.

I’ve been planning this shoot in my head for months. I did some research before we left asking fellow photographers local and abroad where the best spot was to make this vision happen. They without a doubt said sunrise at the Trocadero. I even bought these outfits especially for this session (I know my Ireland girls are proud of me for this, haha!) Practically zero tourists and only a handful of other photographers were there. There was room enough for us all. So I set up my trusty tripod and used my remote with my Sony a7. Andy assisted in a few as well. What we didn’t plan for was a 35 degree morning but much to Andy’s surprise this entire session was done in only 15 minutes. Running through the metro station in that dress and beret I purchased from a street vendor will stick out in my mind for some time. It felt so freeing and silly and unnecessary but I felt so alive. Alive and just ridiculously happy. There at dawn with him in the chilly air being reminded how much this man loves me to put on a happy face in spite of our exhaustion just so I could live this dream. It was magic. We ran to the Arc de Triomphe and snapped a few photos before racing off for sustenance (read: coffee) and catching our train back to London. I can honestly tell you that I could take photos of Paris streets until I die and die happily.

We spent our last day in London wandering around for souvenirs and walking past Buckingham Palace, there was an event for children happening so we couldn’t tour it. We arrived at our last Airbnb in the afternoon in a little suburb area called Ham. It was directly on the Thames and we spent the evening at a wonderful restaurant on the water sharing a burger and planning our next adventure and missing our babies. I was too tired to even pull out my camera. It was that blissful state of exhaustion that is at once all consuming, demanding, and welcoming. I was full. Full to brim of all the good things my soul thrives on: art, adventure, coffee, pastries, nothing at all domestic needing done, the smell of roses, and the taste of espresso.

I know that it is incredibly daunting to leave your children and travel over oceans alone with your partner. Fear pounds your skull with all the worst case things that could happen leaving your children orphans. For years I spent my life too scared to actually let myself live. But there is every good thing your life craves and that you deserve on the other side of fear. I’m learning what that means for my life. It’s important to give my children a happy and fulfilled mama who deeply adores their dad, who is not at all restless and disgruntled and constantly worried struggling to swim in the monotonous ocean of domestic life. Or at least, maybe, a mama who has a solution when the laundry piles and the dishes are daunting and she can’t see the magic around her: she will create it. More importantly, she will come back home and share it.